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8 November 2019

Australian Music, the 1960s and early 1970s - history, nationalism, and celebration

Australian Music, the 1960s and early 1970s - history, nationalism, and celebration

Michael Hooper writes about some key themes discussed in his newly released book Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975 (Bloomsbury - available as eBook and hardback). Read also an extract, just published on Resonate.

In the early 1990s some of the most heated debates about 'Australian music' took place in the pages of Sounds Australian. Questions of national identity, distinctiveness, and whether these questions mattered, were openly debated. Partly those debates were a reverberation of a new sense of nationalism that arose in the late 1980s, formed around the celebrations of the bicentenary of Australian colonisation. Of course, the events of 1988 also included protests against the celebration of invasion, but such politics are more visible now than they were at the time, and a carefree notion of celebration is present throughout the discussions of Australian music. There was broad agreement that someone, or something, should be celebrated.

There is therefore, especially in the years around 1988, a crucial dislocation of the politics of nationalism from the arguments around Australian music, with the politics of the latter hardly touching the politics of the former. So whilst the meaning of 'Australian music' continued to be debated, those debates no longer reflected the wider concerns about nationalism proper. This separation is, however, never an entirely clean one, though few would read the following, written as part of an advertisement for a recent series of concerts in London (October 2019), as overly political:

Australia's music is as diverse and as vast as the geographically remote Pacific continent itself. Its composers are a rare species much like the exotic flora and fauna and the Aboriginal people who have flourished on its shores over thousands of years. Celebrating Australian music pays tribute to its composers both past and present whether native-born or emigré, many of whom I have known or still know personally. By performing this music we celebrate their individuality and their integrity and proudly claim them as a prize jewel in Australia's growing sense of cultural heritage.1

Most of the ideas here have been part of Australian music for several decades, though few of them were present in the 1960s. The newly positive attention to Australia's flora and fauna, for example, came about in the 1980s, in such music as Ross Edwards' Flower Songs (1986-87); and the musical rethinking of the sounds of Aboriginal Australia began (at least in the form that the quote uses) with Peter Sculthorpe's music after the mid-to-late 1970s. My interest is less in these topics, significant as they are, as in 'celebration' itself, though it is important to underline how much changed in the 1970s, that there is not a singular historical progression in the idea of Australian music over the past 50 years, and that the history of Australian music - the history of the idea of 'Australian music' - is a topic worthy of much more attention.

Celebration is simply not part of how Australian music was discussed in the 1960s, and when it enters the discussions in the 1980s it marks a new form of Australian music2. With celebration front and centre, the individual composer is emphasised, and so, in the above example, 'Celebrating Australian music pays tribute to its composers both past and present[…]'. This begs the question: what exactly is the place of nationalism in such celebrations of 'Australian music'?

My argument here is that the idea of celebration is common enough that we hardly notice it; indeed, it has come to be a core part of how Australian music operates. My hunch is that few readers seeing publicity such as 'Liza Lim is one of Australia's most celebrated contemporary classical composers'3 pause to consider what that celebration does, or why it is needed. No doubt fewer still pause to consider the implications of such claims for the history of arguments about Australian music, though a decade earlier and the accolade 'Australia's most celebrated composer' would have referred incontrovertibly to Sculthorpe, as the New York Times did in his obituary.4 Richard Meale's obituary, published in the Fairfax papers, on the other hand began: 'Australia has lost one of its finest composers[.]'5

Richard Meale photographed circa 1968.
© AMC Photo Archives

The distinction between 'celebrated' and 'finest' raises the question of craft, which was a far more important topic in the 1960s and 1970s, not least for those who sought out Meale as a teacher, in particular after his appointment to the University of Adelaide in 1969. Those who have seen Peter Weir's short film Incredible Floridas, from 1972, will recall the footage of him teaching the compositional technique of chord multiplication to a group of undergraduate students. The film as a whole has nothing to do with celebrating Meale, nor especially with publicising his music, though it does both admirably, and it is hard to imagine a film about any current Australian composer similarly emphasising their teaching of compositional technique.

Although technique, and in particular Boulezian technique, was one of Meale's hallmarks, the degree to which predetermined technique informs the music that he wrote has been exaggerated, just as his early aversion to tonality was exaggerated (listen, for example, to the first chord of Very High Kings, or the fourth movement of Incredible Floridas). It is really only now that his archive, and the archive of so many of the significant composers from the period, is in the National Library of Australia (NLA) that a reappraisal of the music they were writing can be made.

The history of the time has been neglected precisely because it always had the sense of being unnecessarily privileged. Although that period was regarded (including at the time) as the birth of Australian music, by the 1980s it seemed as though the historical focus had become too narrow, and the significance of the 1960s overdetermined, to the exclusion of those composers who were of a younger generation, as well as neglecting those composers who were writing before 1960.

By the 1990s that sense of a generation passing had become an orthodox position, strengthened by a sense of crisis that characterised accounts of the late 1970s (it was a crisis for a few, though many continued composing without interruption), and the subsequent repudiation (as it was often cast) of the 1960s and early 1970s as a time when composers tended to disregard audiences, and especially audience enjoyment. Much effort, in the 1990s and 2000s, was devoted to those Australian composers who were writing before 1960; new scholarship looked to Percy Grainger, and the music of colonial Australia assumed greater attention. Similarly, with new interest in the new music that was being composed - especially by those who had studied with the likes of Meale, Sculthorpe, Humble, and Banks, for example - and a greater interest in the longer history of music in Australia, the specific form of Australian music that characterised the 1960s and early 1970s fell out of use. What was left were its clichés - music and landscape, exploration, uncompromising atonality - which have continued to be overly emphasised, often with little regard to their proper history.

The archives at the NLA are invaluable for writing that history. The extensive papers of Sculthorpe, Meale, Butterley, Banks, Lumsdaine, Humble, and James Murdoch together provide a vivid picture of the time. So, whilst the 1990s and 2000s were characterised by a reliance on interviews and first-hand accounts of the earlier period, it is now possible to gain an overview that no single participant in the events can provide. Of course every archive is partial, and they include few recordings (those that exist urgently await funding for their digitisation), though significant insights can be gained.

The sketches for many of the key works of the period are there, and so too is much correspondence. The most significant source for the latter is the archive of Don Banks. He was a prolific letter writer and in correspondence with most other Australian composers. His letters fill in many of the gaps in other archives, and they often include accounts of the most important events taking place. Even more usefully, he tended to write candidly, and many of his letters explain what was going on in direct and open terms. This is quite unlike the archives of Sculthorpe, for example, whose letters tend to be much more business-like, or Butterley, whose correspondence is mostly either personal or perfunctory.

Butterley's piano concerto Explorations - first page of the score.
Larger view - see also work details in the AMC Library.

There are essentially no references to 'celebration' in any of that earlier correspondence, nor in the biographical materials that have been retained, nor the program notes. Given that celebration became such a significant part of the discourse from the late 1980s, Butterley's piano concerto from 1970 makes an interesting case study to assess the different priorities held by composers writing in the 1960s and early 1970s. The piece was commissioned by the Captain Cook Bicentenary Celebrations Citizens Committee, and performed in 1970 in the Sydney Town Hall with Queen Elizabeth II in the audience. Butterley's archive includes correspondence with John Hopkins (the details of the commission were negotiated through the ABC), with Butterley seeking reassurance that it would be appropriate for him to write the best piece that he could, rather than a piece that fitted the anniversary. Of more significance than celebration was Australian music itself: 'From the terms of the commission it's clear that the committee hopes for not just a routine occasional piece, but a vital and important contribution to Australian music.' Note that Butterley was committed to 'Australian music,' and that in this case neither Australian music, nor his piece, had anything to do with either Cook's landing or the marking of that anniversary.6

The concerto is remarkably austere, and after a brief static introduction the piano enters with 114 evenly spaced, slow chords that, for all intents and purposes, are the same, and all have the highest pitch. The title Explorations sounds as though it belongs to the 'music and landscape' topic, but the association extends no further than the title. The correspondence between Butterley and Banks, the former asking the latter to write a program note, makes this clear. In the program note Banks mediates between Butterley's purely musical interest and the prestigious occasion, writing that: 'There is no programmatic element here, for the composer is concerned with the exploration and exploitation of his musical material.'7 Elliott Gyger, picking up Banks's idea of the composer as explorer, writes that: 'The romanticised image of the explorer as visionary is deeply embedded in Australian culture, but Butterley here evoked the more prosaic (although no less impressive) drudgery involved in charting an unknown continent.'8

The danger here is that we understand the concerto through later forms of Australian music, and in particular forms of Australian music that revolve around 'music and landscape.' These terms make good sense for Sculthorpe's music, though for the music of few others. A better association for Butterley's concerto is with the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who visited Australia in early 1970. Stockhausen's composition Klavierstück IX, which Ian Farr included in a recital later in the year (Farr being the pianist for whom Butterley wrote Explorations), begins with 229 repetitions of its opening chord, and the dynamic profile is also similar. In other words, the 'important contribution to Australian music' that the concerto makes is to avoid Australian nationalism, and to participate, as an Australian, in music's international practices. It is in such music that we can see Australian music and modernism working together.

Associations with music from other places (Europe included) emerge as highly significant throughout the archives of the composers around whom the idea of Australian music formed. The 1960s has long been considered a time when Australian composers rejected European music, and when Australia no longer looked to Britain, though it is hard to detect such a move. Certainly more performances were taking place in Australia's biggest capital cities, and composers began to travel more widely - and especially to Southeast Asia - but all the composers who achieved prominence at the time did so through the connections with Europe and especially Britain. The Wigmore Hall or the Queen Elizabeth Hall are both important places in Australian music's history (as the sites of the premieres of Sculthorpe's String Quartet Music [later known as String Quartet No. 8] and Meale's Coruscations), which is not to downplay the significance of venues such as the Sydney Opera House, or places such as Bali, so much as to restore a perspective of Australian music that has often been downplayed: Australian music of the 1960s and early 1970s sought to be better connected and more internationally minded. Questions about Australian nationalism complicated, rather than resolved, the music that composers of the time wrote. There was no clear contradiction between participating in musical modernism as a transnational movement, and being Australian. Forms of Australian music such as took hold in the 1980s and 1990s - about music that was distinctively Australian - largely sidestepped the kinds of complications that drove much of the earlier music.

Although celebration does not figure, 'confidence' is an early and recurring theme. It is there in Covell's 1967 book Australia's Music, and it is emphasised in Peter Maxwell Davies's preface to Murdoch's Australia's Contemporary Composers from 1972. Murdoch himself describes Australian music as a 'precarious internationalism.'9 That precarity is my interest, principally because it captures a sense of the complexity of the time, though it was not Murcoch's: 'My point of interest is not that Australian music has now ended a journey towards internationalism and has come of age musically, but that it has now begun to form a body of work uniquely its own and[,] to my mind, with a potential for development not present in the creative work of other countries.'10 This is an early example of the 'distinctively Australian' argument, and it is remarkable how quickly that argument dominated conversations. Murdoch is a central proponent, in part through his book, in part through his work for the Australia Council, and, from 1975, through his leadership of the AMC.

The work of the AMC and the Australia Council brings us to Don Banks, who, at least as far as funding is concerned, was the most influential figure in the early 1970s. He had been brought back to Australia by Frank Callaway for the 1970 Perth Festival, and then again to Canberra as a Creative Arts Fellow in 1972, and he stayed after being invited (much to his surprise) to chair the newly established Music Board, which was responsible for disseminating a vast increase in funds for new music. His early plans included an Australian Music Centre, and his archive contains a draft structure.

Australia Music Centre, as it was then called, in 1975.
© AMC Photo Archives

The AMC did not come into existence until 1975, but the draft is dated only two weeks after his appointment as chair. The thrust of the plans were to form an organisation that was part library and part publisher, a kind of hybrid of the organisations with which Banks had worked in the UK, including the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music), the BMIC (British Music Information Centre), Schott, and Universal Edition. Many of the new organisations that he helped to establish in Australia were designed to complement those organisations he had known in the UK, and the intention was to facilitate the dissemination of scores and the sharing of musical ideas.

It is ironic that many of these organisations, from the Australia Council to the AMC, were later central to forming the arguments about Australian music as distinctive, something about which Banks himself was ambivalent: in response to Murdoch's query about 'an Australian idiom', Banks replied: 'I doubt whether there is one, and whether there should be one.'11 At the same time, his correspondence makes abundantly clear how committed he was to improving the Australian situation, especially for younger composers. One of the areas in which he saw the need for most improvement was the training of composers, and especially what he often referred to as 'serious disciplined craftsmanship' (often by way of a sporting analogy with the era's tennis greats).12

Parenthetically, the idea of Australian music has often been tied to academic institutions, and the expansion in universities in the late 1960s, which continued well into the 1970s, prefigured the new funding that came through the Australia Council in 1973 after the election of the Whitlam government. Frank Callaway and Donald Peart, as heads of music departments on either side of the country, made significant improvements to the infrastructure for music-making in Australia, and they, together with David Tunley and Andrew McCredie, for example, supported the growth of the study of music. Australian music, as an idea, was not possible without the support that they provided, including the foundation of Musicology Australia, Adelaide Studies in Musicology, Studies in Music in particular, as well as the short-lived Music Now - and these publications took place alongside the professionalisation of music pedagogy that was facilitated by Australian Journal of Music Education.

We live in an era of declining funding for the arts, and so it is worth underlining that senior academic figures served on funding boards, and universities made available funds for new music, all coexisting with a new emphasis on serious academic publishing, of which the foundation of so many journals is evidence. The expansion of the music departments brought many composers into the academy, and the foundations of Australia's musicological history align closely with these new compositional positions. John Exton - who, like Banks, studied with Mátyás Seiber and Luigi Dallapiccola - put forward an argument for composition as research in the first issue of Studies in Music in 1967: 'music can only be studied creatively,'13 he argued.

What, then, will a new history of Australian music offer now? Firstly, it consolidates knowledge about the time. Secondly, it offers new insights into the technical preoccupations of some of Australia's best-known composers. Thirdly, it brings new nuance to discussions of modernist music in Australia, in addition to better understandings of Australian music and modernism, confirming music's critical and political capacities. Fourthly, in explaining a time when Australian music had a complicated relationship with nationalism, the study of the 1960s and early 1970s provides new perspectives on current forms of nationalism; both then, and now, are times when the meanings of nationalism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, localism, etc., are rapidly changing. Fifthly, a new history offers richer accounts of how musicians musically negotiate their broader social context, including the refusal of existing forms of nationalism, and the value of adopting a sceptical attitude towards populism.


1 Wendy Hiscocks, 'A word about Australia's Music,' Celebrating Australian music, accessed 16 October 2019, https://celebratingaustralianmusic.com

2 I explain this change at greater length in 'Introduction: Australian Music Now,' Australian music and Modernism: 1960-1975 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

3 The phrase is widely used, such as in the publicity for her work Atlas of the Sky: 'Atlas of the Sky,' Melbourne Recital Centre, accessed 16 October 2019, https://www.melbournerecital.com.au/events/2018/atlas-of-the-sky/. Similar formulations occur elsewhere in discussions of her music, such as in the introduction to Stephen Adams's overview of her work published in 2017: 'Getting to know Liza Lim', ABC Classic, 28 November 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/classic/features/getting-to-know-liza-lim/9259362. To be clear, my argument is not about whether or not Lim, or any other composer, deserves such laudation; my argument is that such celebration itself characterises a particular phase of Australian music.

4 See, for example: Vivien Schweitzer, 'Peter Sculthorpe, Composer Steeped in Australia's Sounds, Dies at 85,' The New York Times, 7 September 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08/arts/international/peter-sculthorpe-composer-steeped-in-australias-sounds-dies-at-85.html

5 Joyce Morgan and Bryce Hallett, 'Richard Meale, composer who bridged East and West,' The Age, 24 November 2009, https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/richard-meale-composer-who-bridged-east-and-west-20091124-ge878e.html

6 For a fuller consideration of this piece, and its place in Butterley's output at the time, see chapter 4, 'Nigel Butterley: Australian music and Britain,' Australian music and Modernism: 1960-1975 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

7 Don Banks, quoted in David Jones, 'The Music of Nigel Butterley,' PhD diss. (University of Newcastle, 2005), 455.

8 Elliott Gyger, The Music of Nigel Butterley (Kingsgove: Wildbird Music, 2015), 103-4.

9 James Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1972), xi.

10 Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers, xii.

11 Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers, 17.

12 For a full discussion of Banks, technique, and the formation of the AMC, see Chapter 2, 'Infrastructure for New Music, Serial Technique, and Don Banks's String Quartet (1975), Australian music and Modernism: 1960-1975 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

13 John Exton, 'Forward to First Principles - an Article of Faith,' Studies in Music 1, no. 1 (1967): 90.

Michael Hooper is Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of New South Wales.


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No women composers mentioned

It seems strange that Dr Hooper did not mention, in the article above, the bold attempts that were made by women composers from the 1960s onwards - attempts to create a strongly personal idiom, regardless of 'Australianity'.  I'm thinking of Ann Carr-Boyd, whose music breaks all sorts of 'classical boundaries without trying to and is full of LIFE!;  Anne Boyd, whose gentle, intensely expressive music gently reflects on the spirit of Japanese music without borrowing any of its material;  Elena Katz-Chernin, who music breaks firmly away from the imagined 'Australian' characteristics and embraces much broader idiomatic horizons;  Mary Finsterer, likewise;  Alison Bauld, whose music is gently introvert and contemplative in HER way - oh gosh, I could go on for pages!  What has always struck me about Australian contemporary music is the lack of 'gender bias'.

Others may disagree, but this is my perception.

Tony Gilbert 

Reply to Anthony Gilbert

There's no doubt about the vital role that women have played in the musical life of Australia. I agree with Prof. Gilbert’s comment about the (successful!) 'attempts to create a strongly personal idiom, regardless of 'Australianity.' My interest is, however, in the ideas that were circulating about ‘Australianity,’ and specifically in the 1960s and early 1970s. The argument that I make in the book is about a specific notion of 'Australian Music' (not to be confused with music in Australia, or music that happens to have been written by an Australian, or later versions of Australian Music, etc etc); there is a specific notion of Australian Music that arose in the 1960s and it was important for many of the changes that took place in the early 1970s. It was also something that some composers rejected at the time, of course (David Lumsdaine wasn’t much impressed). By the 1980s we are dealing with a different phenomenon (as we are before the 1960s, and as we are for many composers who happened to be working in Australia, or who happened to be Australian, etc, throughout the 1960s and 1970s – Keith Humble is a terrific composer but we don’t get much from discussing his work in term of nationalism).

There are many composers about whom we ought to know more. You mention some, and for good reasons. For many women their time came a little later (their time within wider discussions about ‘Australian Music’). Elena Kats-Chernin arrived in Australia in 1975. There are a few pieces by Jennifer Fowler from the late 1960s, though her music hardly seems to have contributed to broader discussions about Australian Music (which is not to say that her music isn’t important in other ways). Anne Boyd would, of course, be an instrumental figure in any account of what Australian Music means from the late 1970s onwards; the same period would matter for an account that was centred on Alison Bauld. I tend to think of Mary Finsterer’s rise to prominence in the 1990s, by which time we would earnestly be discussing Liza Lim.

The point is that existing discussions of Australian Music have tended to neglect some important distinctions that my work tries to explain. Australian Music is a particular idea (really, a set of ideas) and it has a history. As your comment suggests, Australian Music is not all Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale. Though we need to be careful about those moments when Australian Music really is an idea about a handful (or even one) composer, and to pay better attention to what we gain and what we lose when that’s the case. To pay better attention we need better accounts of what musicians were doing, who was arguing about what, and how ideas came to prominence – these are the areas to which my book makes its contribution. I hope it spurs others to write other books!