1 March 2008
Australian Music as a Catalyst for Change
Growing up in the late ‘70s and ‘80s in Sydney, I had no real concept of ‘Australian’ music. Sure, there were the iconic folksongs we had to learn at primary school, collections of a more obscure kind that lay unobtrusively on the family piano, the music of local pop and country stars, which, through the collusion of supermarkets and the playground, eventually made some vague impression on a young mind. But none of this seemed to be given any real social weight, particularly when compared with the pressure to adopt, say, this or that local sports team. Even home-grown musicians, some of them household names, were made to look like sad replicas of imported fare through their appropriated genres and genealogies.
Music of any kind was allowed to play very little part in how we constructed ourselves as a community. Music of any kind was allowed to play very little part in how we constructed ourselves as a community. True, there was in the public arena ready acknowledgment of the societal trend this reflected, the phenomenon of cultural cringe (a term which has now fallen ominously out of use). No comprehensive plan to address the situation, however, was ever forthcoming; it was as if the body politic believed itself unworthy of treatment, despite the serious and diagnosable nature of its condition. As youngsters, I think we consciously or unconsciously picked up on this, either bearing this communal affliction with mild disinterest or ignoring it entirely. Interested in art, literature, theatre or music? Feel free to explore the global marketplace for whatever tickles your fancy. If not, hey, no worries. Australian music was thus an ornament for an ornament, a curiosity buried more often than not under the cultural treasures of an increasingly diverse and permeable society.
In the early ‘90s, however, the lie of the land changed profoundly, at least for me, if not for the rest of the country. Not that there were any glorious moments of cinematic clarity; indeed, I hardly realised what was going on at the time, epiphany being the familiar herald for such things in earlier years. For instance, I have a vivid memory of when I was about 9 or 10, coming across a recording of a particularly cheap and overplayed piano concerto and thinking it the most exciting incendiary cultural experience of my short life. The burgeoning snobbery of my pre-teen years latched thereafter onto the Western classical canon as a vehicle for self-articulation and self-affirmation as well as artistic fulfilment. This led to all sorts of minor revelations: Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives and, later, Witold Lutosławski, to name a few. But as wondrous and fruitful as these discoveries turned out to be, they were merely an expression of that communal malaise known as cultural cringe. I was merely making one of the two acceptable choices, active interest in ‘real’, imported artistry, as opposed to the only viable alternative, complete indifference.
What challenged this black-and-white mindset, of all things, was the Australian portion of my high school music syllabus. Now of course, Australian stuff, or at least stuff produced by Australians, was a mandatory part of discourse for most subjects, and a very good thing that was too. Truth be told though, it tended to be fairly lightweight, or perhaps more accurately, we were broadly conditioned to think of it as lightweight. Either way, Australian content was marginalised as a necessary evil, a frivolous diversion which could be omitted when the eyes of political correctness were turned elsewhere. And naturally, at some level, we all bought into this.
So how then did music alone transcend this laissez-faire attitude, entrenched as it was throughout secondary school curricula? Well, for the most part, it did not. As was the case with many homegrown novels, histories and plays we were required to ingest, a good deal of Australian music didn't really speak to me. Perhaps I was just incapable of understanding what was being articulated, or maybe nothing substantial was being said in the first place. But in any case, there was in our whirlwind tour of Australiana a handful of pieces, predominantly from the ‘60s, which did leave their mark. At first, I don't know that I really liked what I heard; there was something discomforting, even grating about their bare, brittle aesthetic. To be fair though, I wasn't supposed to enjoy the experience, just endure it. And so endure it I did; no point in getting agitated over something so transitory anyway. But this music did not fade into the ether as the accepted narrative assured me it would. Instead, it hung around the ruminating parts of my brain, making snide comments about all the composers I had hitherto embraced as champions of my musical identity. And what's more, it appeared to be saying something important, something that, despite my fear and resentment, I needed to hear.
Where cultural cringe caused a kind of paralysis stemming from feelings of inadequacy, accusations of elitism have given both perpetrators and victims carte blanche to lie inertly in their own mediocrity. The question then was: what was this fractious music trying to communicate? On the surface, Australian new music of the ‘60s and early ‘70s would seem to conform quite well to the tenets of the cultural cringe credo. For one, the liberal appropriation of material from other cultures and traditions was clearly a mainstay, even if I didn't then have the knowledge to pinpoint exactly where it was all coming from. Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Musics I-IV (‘65, ‘69, ‘67, ‘67), for example, make use of Webern-like pointillism, Balinese melodies and textures, and the non-pitched arsenal of Europe's avant-garde. Or take Very High Kings (‘68) by Richard Meale, which owes much to a kind of softened modernism indigenous to the UK and typified by Peter Maxwell Davies’s work of that period. How, therefore, was this style of music any different from the usual Australian offerings? How did these composers escape the longstanding heritage of verbatim appropriation, if at all? Their approach was not to avoid the bricks and mortar of cultural cringe but rather to come at it from a fresh, alternative perspective. Compositional focus thus shifted away from the found objects themselves, with all the undigested allusions they brought with them, onto their reshaping, reforming and reinterpreting. However much the original context of borrowed material may have contributed to the appeal of these works, they nevertheless expressed something new, relevant, idiosyncratic, and, yes, maybe even tacitly critical of contemporaneous Australia.
The Sun Musics epitomise this particular ideal in a number of striking ways, largely centred around Sculthorpe’s use of moderate to extreme stylistic and/or kinetic contrasts within a single context. The ‘60s were characterised by a marked division between a newly energised avant-garde and those who overtly continued the Western tradition either as modernists or conservative reactionaries. With few exceptions, composers did not have feet in multiple camps. In these pieces, however, Sculthorpe shows his simultaneous affinity with the new non-pitched sound world of Continental experimentalists, the rhetoric of the Second Viennese School and certain Anglophonic nationalist movements, and various traditional Asian musics. And, more significantly, he uses these disparate influences both to colour local events and to delineate middle- and back-ground structure in bold, audibly meaningful ways. This is most apparent in Sun Music III, where sections of dissonant and non-pitched textures alternate with a sometimes quirky, sometimes melancholic modality inspired by Balinese gamelan music and periodically punctuated by bird sounds and trombone question marks. To a lesser degree, there is also a contrast in rhythmic character: mostly moderately slow and regular for the latter material, and either static or fast and regular for the former. This particular quality is used more extensively in II, where the pitch language, being largely unspecified or suspended throughout, makes no obvious formal contribution. Clear, ostentatiously metric percussion music with more or less traditional syntax takes turns with thick, static string textures whose only method of release is pseudo-Romantic climaxes. I and IV, in contrast, play down broad differences in tempo and rhythmic character, relying more on the novelty and starkness of their structural demarcations. Along with familiar swells and fades, discrete vignette-like units – loosely based on Webern’s formal pointillism and clearly related to Stockhausen’s moment form – are employed to create a kind of middleground grammar around which more plastic local events are molded. To this end, the use of silence in IV is particularly striking.
Sculthorpe's methodology in these pieces was unique, intertwining cultural plurality with consistently bold gesture and form. Rather than falling into the trap of pastiche or hegemony-worship, he kept his eclecticism free from the clutches of cultural cringe, forging instead a music that reflected his own reality. This was dominated in large part by his notion of what it was to be Australian, a preoccupation with which he was more overtly associated than any of his peers. Nevertheless, several Australian composers active in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s – Richard Meale, Nigel Butterley, David Lumsdaine, for example – were essentially treading the same path, albeit with their own personal colourations and self-realisations.
As a novice composer in my teens, I was puzzled as to the source of this fraternal independence. Was it the ‘60s? Australia in the ‘60s? The individuals themselves? Who knew? What I was certain of, however, was that despite, or perhaps because of the nonchalance with which their music was couched, their example was quietly terrifying. Where did it come from, this confidence to shirk off colonial chains, to shed the comfortable shackles of suburbia? I could ignore these confronting questions initially by assuring myself that the value system on which my musical judgments were based was itself predicated on real, concrete markers of quality. But of course it became patently clear by the time I entered university that these aesthetic cornerstones were stale, decaying and, more pertinently, mine only through inheritance. Furthermore, I realised nearly all the composers I admired from ages long past, and indeed the ones closest to my heart, had played out similar acts of defiance, just within contexts for which I had nothing more than a passing affinity. The music of these Australians, on the other hand, was too close to home, too relevant, reality’s first glimmer in the dark, cosy fantasy world of childhood. Today I feel liberated by their legacy; the casual way in which pre-existing hierarchies and boundaries are sidestepped or discarded; the easy tendency towards clarity without reduction; the gentle balance of light and shade, seriousness and levity, tradition and innovation. But then it was for me a first and keenly unsoughtafter shove onto the road towards maturity, not just as a composer but as a human being as well.
The significance of this music is not merely limited, however, to an objectivist construct of newness or Romantic ideal of self-growth. Just as this music challenged me to question the make-up of my adolescent identity, it rattled similarly the cloistered middle class of ‘60s and ‘70s Australia, obliging it to acknowledge Asia and the world at large in addition to its Eurocentric heritage. The Sun Musics alone must have introduced several regional cultures that, if not entirely unknown, were at the very least not well understood. It could even be argued that appropriating from these sources, however much that might have smacked of old colonial practices, was actually a great show of respect. Not that it would be construed as such in the present political climate, of course, but at the time, such gestures were a remarkable display of openness and liberalism. Either way, the nature of these new cultural experiences, the manner in which they were dissected and reforged, and the very fact they were introduced to the Australian population in the first place stimulated the kind of pluralist outlook we take for granted today.
But this is not to imply that concerns regarding the situation of creative endeavour in Australian society are now somehow redundant. It’s true that in more recent years, the Herculean efforts of certain institutions – MLC School (NSW) and the Australian Music Centre spring most readily to mind – have addressed the issue of relevance in quite a dramatic and unprecedented way, at least as far as non-commercial musical genres are concerned. But the price of this success is a continued and perhaps even blinder devotion to certain aspects of cultural cringe. Greatly reduced is the notion that we need look beyond ourselves for artistic sustenance, that what is produced here and by us has little or no validity. What remains, however, is the insidious root of that thinking, the idea that cultural pursuits are inherently wasteful, trivial, and ornamental. The fact that more local material is being produced and disseminated than ever before effectively masks this unaltered and unquestioned raison d’être. What's more, advances in technology have exacerbated things through the so-called ‘democratisation’ of culture. While the opportunity for anyone to express themselves openly and at great length to a virtual audience of millions may be an admirable democratic end, an individual’s ability to pop out a perfectly convincing, if utterly impersonal piece of artistic product by pressing a couple of buttons on a prefabricated module is fraught with aesthetic and even ethical difficulties. With the training, the hard work, indeed the mystery now gone from the creative process, what real value can be placed on the final product? And, if the result is valueless, why treat art as anything beyond an amusing and largely onanistic pastime?
Of course, I realise this kind of rhetoric leaves me open to charges of ‘elitism’. This quaint little construct has in more recent times come to replace cultural cringe as the in-vogue social preoccupation of popular discourse. Yet, it is strange that a conservative ideology perpetrated by the economic and political elite would be so averse to seeing their principles realised aesthetically, though I guess no more so than a progressive one worrying about cultural inferiority… In any case, the two concepts are as dangerous and incapacitating as each other. Where cultural cringe caused a kind of paralysis stemming from feelings of inadequacy, accusations of elitism have given both perpetrators and victims carte blanche to lie inertly in their own mediocrity. And with such similar effect, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest they are manifestations of the same social phenomenon, that of calculated cultural indifference.
Many reasons have been given for Australia’s active disinterest in the arts: population size, socioeconomic stability, the weather. In my mind, however, this state of affairs finds its origins squarely in a mid-19th century mercantile class, which, having established itself as Australia’s elite, became the foundation of our modern nation. These people, who, unsure of the validity of their newly acquired wealth and status, gripped to the tactile virtues of manufacturing and merchandising, are the selfsame people who denounced the poet Matthew Arnold, with his assertion that art should be a criticism of life, as a dilettante and a flâneur; are the selfsame people who on arrival in Australia petrified – as immigrant groups are wont to do – remaining in a state of self-enforced communal adolescence long after their British counterparts had done away with analogous insecurities; are the selfsame people who today would rather use that monument to Australia’s short-lived ambition in the early ‘70s, the Sydney Opera House, as a backdrop for celebrity weddings than a catalyst for lasting cultural achievement; are the selfsame people against whom prominent Australian composers of the ‘60s and ‘70s had to define themselves; and are the selfsame people with whom emerging voices of the present must also contend. Small wonder then, with the purse strings held in such hands, that Australia has such a dearth of creative vigour.
But lack of sophistication aside, is the status quo really all that bad? Isn’t it worth putting up with a certain amount of aesthetic pubescence for our current material advantages? Perhaps. There are certainly occasions, however – and I would argue now is one of them – where artistic adulthood is urgently needed as a salve for political wounds. Australia’s mainstream, with its over-developed sense of entitlement, has been running rampant for what seems like an age. Sure, no one is denying its right to protect what it perceives to be its own identity, even if that entails rather ironic finger-pointing at so-called elitists who dare to criticise its inherent power. And of course it is entitled to forego a rich, textured cultural heritage for the eternal gifts of empty self-congratulation and blanket hedonism. But when it seeks to quash dissent entirely, to iron out eccentricity and difference with shopping and ‘common sense’, to make that most valuable and longstanding tenet of modern Australia, egalitarianism, into a meaningless, misapplied platitude, then it really is vital we revisit the iconoclastic music of our past and finally realise its aspirations for societal maturation, before our growth as a nation is forever stunted. Let us hope, in this new political era, we do.
Nicholas Vines (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=28462)
© Australian Music Centre (2008) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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The compositions of Nicholas Vines have been performed by interpreters throughout the world. He has received commissions from numerous ensembles and institutions, such as Faber Music, Callithumpian Consort, and the Sydney Symphony. Recognition of Vines's work includes an Honorable Mention for Dolmen for New Albion in the 2006 Salvatore Martirano Memorial International Composition Competition, and, most recently, a 2007 Helpmann Award (Opera categories) for Chambermade's production of The Hive. Currently, he is working on projects for the Sydney Symphony Sinfonia, Halcyon and the Boston-based new music groups, Prana Duo and Firebird Ensemble.
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