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6 May 2009

Conversations at Sandy Creek

Graeme Skinner chats with Gordon Kerry, author of New Classical Music: Composing Australia

Gordon Kerry: New Classical Music (detail of book cover) Image: Gordon Kerry: New Classical Music (detail of book cover)  

Outside the pages of Resonate, the argument that our best classical composers deserve a place at 'the creative heart of the nation' is carried on, at best, sotto voce. Yet it’s this argument that Gordon Kerry has taken on at full volume in his just released book New Classical Music: Composing Australia (UNSW Press 2009).
Fellow composers will, of course, be extremely interested to read what Gordon has said – and what he hasn’t! But it’s worth remembering that composers will not be his primary readership. He writes simply and directly for a non-specialist readership. Obviously, secondary and tertiary music students will read the book, and some seasoned enthusiasts. And, we can only hope, so too might practitioners and consumers in other art forms, whose awareness of their musical opposite numbers of late seems to have been sadly cursory.
As a non-composer myself, it struck me how very generously Gordon puts the case for a diverse selection of works by an equally diverse selection of his distinguished mid-generation and senior composing colleagues. Having overheard some of the terrible things composers say about each other behind their backs, it seems doubly generous of Gordon not to indulge in venting his opinions of work that he thinks falls short of the mark. Instead – characteristically, I think – he chooses to talk about (as he says) 'music I genuinely love'.

Graeme Skinner: Gordon, you’re a composer, yourself, and most readers would expect you to be included in such a book, had it been written by anyone else. Yet, I guess understandably, you had to pass up the opportunity to talk about your own music. But you’re far from being a passive narrator. I got an exciting sense that this is a story that you are very much part of.

Gordon Kerry: It was inevitable – if not a conscious decision on my part – that the thematic streams I identified in the book would reflect many of my concerns as an artist. So, I could have discussed myself in several places. I’ve written "I was pleasantly nonplussed when the publishers approached me because they wanted 'a journalist rather than an academic'!"music about certain types of Australian landscapes, including the one in which I actually live in, here at Sandy Creek in rural north-eastern Victoria. I’ve worked with Indigenous music and musicians, composed pieces with 'spiritual' content both for concert and ritual use. And I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to compose music for virtuoso soloists, my first opera, Medea, on a mythic subject and so on.

GS: You describe some of your colleagues’ music as being at the 'pointy (modernist) end' of new music, in contrast to the softer, blunter (anti-modernist) end. But you don’t seem to me to belong, or ever have belonged, to either of these extremes.

GK: No, I don’t regard myself as 'belonging' to a school or group. But I can count composers of very different styles and musics as friends and colleagues. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a hard line on anything stylistic … which is probably why I was genuinely able to be enthusiastic about such a diverse range of music that I discussed.

GS: No one not deeply immersed in the contemporary music scene for many years could have experienced such a wide cross-section of music as you write about. Your contents page singles out, by my count, 24 composers, either by name or by work, and at least as many more are discussed in detail in the text itself. Very few of the people you included come as a surprise to me (indeed, several other possible writers of such a book that I can think of would have produced much the same list). But the real focus of the book is not 'composers', but 'compositions'. So how did you go about choosing the music to discuss?

GK: The pieces I chose as 'case studies' (in those sections of the book where I focus on one composer’s work in some detail) were in most cases works I had heard in live performances (often premieres), or broadcasts, and had been excited by what I heard. Apart from some historical background, the book concentrates on music written since 1979, partly to fill a gap in the literature.

GS: Yes. Historically, it must be the first attempt at a general critical overview of Australian concert music towards the end of the twentieth century, a much needed continuation of the coverage of the 1960s and 1970s in Roger Covell’s Australia’s Music (1967), James Murdoch’s Australia’s Contemporary Composers (1972), and Frank Callaway and David Tunley’s somewhat premature Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (1978).

GK: I began at 1979 also – now I come to think of it – because "...contrary to the view of the marketing people in some organisations, Australian audiences, too, are now much more open to new work by Australian composers."it was the year I started at Melbourne University, when I had access to music and composers that I hadn’t so much before. Barry Conyngham, Brian Howard and Peter Tahourdin taught at Melbourne; nearby LaTrobe still had a music department headed by Keith Humble; I had friends at the VCA …

GS: In the introduction, you take care to stipulate that this is a book about 'notated western art music for acoustic instruments', what your title calls 'New Classical Music'.

GK: Yes. The book was commissioned as part of a series of three on contemporary music in Australia, published by the University of NSW Press with support from the Australia Council. The other two are John Shand’s Jazz: the Australian accent, and a symposium edited by Gail Priest, Experimental music: audio explorations in Australia. So I didn’t feel that I needed to wade into those areas. I was pleasantly nonplussed when the publishers approached me because they wanted 'a journalist rather than an academic'!

GS: A timely reminder that not all our musical intellectuals are on the university payroll, any more so than our composers! But why was this book thought to be necessary now?

GK: The documentation of Australian composition during the 1960s and 1970s is reasonably good. But, probably because the whole profession grew so quickly from that point on, there came to be less general writing about the music. There were a number of specialist books, by Brenton Broadstock and John Jenkins, for instance. There are several important books, but they tend to be more tightly focused on style or genre than mine, and some on occasion preach to the choir.

GS: But until recently, perhaps, it was only the choir who read such books! When I was at school and Melbourne University in the 1970s and 80s, at the same time as you, probably only composers, or would-be composers, read books on Australian music. Now it’s a general subject at secondary and tertiary levels.

GK: That’s right – and contrary to the view of the marketing people in some organisations, Australian audiences, too, are now much more open to new work by "It’s not the Last Word. But it is intended to be a serious contribution to an ongoing conversation."Australian composers. I hope the book might make even more people interested in exploring what’s out there.

GS: And you mentioned that, around 1979 when your book starts, the sheer amount of composition taking place in Australia seemed to explode.

GK: Half a dozen, or so, composers came to maturity in the 1960s, and most of those proved to be inspiring teachers. So you have an exponentially larger number in the 1970s educated by that generation, augmented by the immigration or return of other important figures, they then teach/mentor and so on.

GS: It’s fashionable for some musicologists – especially those interested in rehabilitating our earlier composers – to want to play down the importance of the 1960s to the present healthy state of Australian composition. But in her autobiography, Miriam Hyde remembered the 1950s, for instance, as a decade when composers had to get by on the off-chance of winning a tiny cash prize in the occasional competition. But things really did start to get better in the 1960s, and it wasn’t just all thanks to composers was it?

GK: No. Organisations like the ABC and Musica Viva started to take commissioning seriously in the 1960s. The idea of state subsidy for music gained ground in the late 1960s under Prime Ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton. There was the publication of the government-funded Andrew McCredie Survey of Musical Compositionin Australia in 1969. And then with the Whitlam election in 1972 there was the move to establish the Australia Council in its present form. And the AMC was established soon after, and so on. So by 1979, the climate was very different from what it had been in 1960.

GS: And there was also a sort of stylistic sea change in the music of several of leading composers around this time.

GK: Yes – I think the most surprising conversion was that of Richard Meale who – at the time – seemed to be turning his back on the European-style modernism of Nocturnes and Clouds now and then in favour of diatonic harmony and melody in pieces like the Second String Quartet and Viridian. He wasn’t alone – Colin Brumby’s reappraisal of tonality dates from around then. There’s a new 'tone' in Sculthorpe’s 1979 piece Mangrove. And younger composers, like Carl Vine, were shifting stylistic ground as well.

GS: All of which was followed up in the early 1980s by key 'events' like the appearance of Graeme Koehne’s Rain Forest on the one hand, and the emergence of the Brophy, Smetanin and Formosa 'school' on the other.

GK: Indeed. Koehne staked his claim to be an anti-modernist with Rain Forest, and has held to that position resolutely ever since. And that group of composers taught by Richard Toop at the Sydney Conservatorium round the same time cultivated a high modernist aesthetic. Not that it had ever gone away. Brian Howard was writing orchestral scores in an 'advanced' idiom in the late 1970s, and rightly winning international recognition.

GS: I remember reading Murdoch’s book on the bus on the way to school in 1977, and thinking how exciting it was that Australia could produce the 33 composers he profiled. The book still strikes me as an inspired, even seminal, piece of publicity for the cause. Does your book fit into the same category? You certainly argue positively on behalf of the composers and music you write about.

GK: I wouldn’t like to think I’m writing marketing copy for particular composers. But having a pretty tight word limit, I resolved not to waste time and words on music that I don’t care for. It might have been tempting to give an Olympian view of what’s good and bad in Australian music, but I chose to look at what is interesting, enjoyable, stimulating, and try to give a sense via the written word of how some of this music sounds, and why you might want to seek it out. It’s not definitive or encyclopedic – there are several composers and works that I’d like to have included, but didn’t. It’s not the Last Word. But it is intended to be a serious contribution to an ongoing conversation.

GS: Your subtitle, 'composing Australia' is especially telling … a sort of reminder, even an exhortation to composers that they are not working in a vacuum. Roger Covell’s book was the first real attempt at a social history of Australian composition up to the mid 1960s. Do you try to fill in some of the broader Australian story since then?

GK: There’s some social history in my book. I needed to provide some background to readers who weren’t brought up on Covell, Murdoch and the like. And I needed to deal with issues like, for instance, the changing ways in which non-indigenous composers have related to Indigenous culture: Margaret Sutherland’s The Young Kabbarli is no less well-meaning, but very different in its understanding of Aboriginal music from Liza Lim’s The Compass.

GS: Sometimes I get a sense of you trying to bring about, almost, some sort of reconciliation. Certainly, you suggest themes whereby some strange bedfellows are shown to have something in common – Peter Sculthorpe and David Lumsdaine, for instance. And, on top of what you have to say about individuals, you also give, at times a quite candid, analysis of the expanding composer community itself.

GK: We’ve talked about the geometrical progression in numbers of composers but there was also a proliferation of styles. What I try to demonstrate is that there is no one way of writing Australian music about landscape, or Asia, or spirituality. And, also assisting in that expansion, to those structural changes we discussed I might add the foundation of tertiary music schools in the 1970s …

GS: Which not only trained student composers, but employed established composers in relatively high-paying permanent positions.

GK: And then there was the coming of FM radio stations, a much more "What I try to demonstrate is that there is no one way of writing Australian music about landscape, or Asia, or spirituality."proactive ABC, and the general feeling that we’d achieved a critical mass of composing activity that would be self-sustaining. It’s also fair to say the composer community reflects the way that the makeup of Australian society has changed over that time, and the way it looks at itself.

GS: Women composers seemed to have been, if anything, over-represented in Australia before the 1960s, but probably for a wrong reason, namely that composing classical music was not the sort of thing that your average Australian male would want to be caught doing in the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, in the 1960s and 1970s, the men took over.

GK: Yes, but even though there isn’t yet parity, I think it says good things about this country again that it is no longer remarkable that some of our most important composers are women. And that some of our composers are of non-English speaking background, like Julian Yu, Liza Lim, Elena Kats-Chernin and Constantine Koukias. We can all just get on with it.

GS: And, as you seem to be saying, to co-exist. Still, composers have to deal with their baggage. And, as you say at one point in the book, regarding relations within the composer community, 'It all got pretty ugly around 1990'.

GK: Put simply, in the early 1990s there was a debate about the relative merits of modernism as against 'traditional' musical language. At first the debate raged, if that’s the word I want, in the pages of Sounds Australian (forerunner of Resonate) and, for my money, created a simplistic opposition which was then, on occasions, cast in nasty, personal terms. It spilled over into a campaign against the policies of the then management of ABC Concerts – by people who held up the Australia Council as a model of propriety, and then predictably went on to attack the Australia Council.

GS: You also mention Larry Sitsky’s famous dialectical division of the Australian scene between 'composers' and 'anti-composers'. Larry’s 'composers' are the one who battle away, usually unacknowledged and unappreciated producing the difficult music that needs to be written, rather than what audiences think they want to hear.

GK: Yes, and 'anti-composers' write short, simple pieces, and get their pictures in the papers. But, ultimately, I don’t know that the style wars achieved anything much, except to show up the dangers – as if we needed the lesson – of absolutism and monoculture.

GS: But do you think anyone really wanted a monoculture?

GK: I think there probably are – or were – composers who hold to the line of people like Adorno, that art in late capitalist society has a moral duty to reflect the alienation of the subject and espouse a general pessimism. There are also people in the 'tonal' camp who regard much modernist music as meaningless. I think that modernism has largely jettisoned its political program, and, as Auden said: poetry makes nothing happen! It’s hard to argue that any particular style has inherent moral superiority. I saw Henry James quoted recently saying that all a novel had to do was to 'be interesting'. Which is not to say that it can’t be 'life-changing'; but not to expect it to be 'world-changing'.

GS: Boulez famously objected to musical relativism producing a supermarket culture, a rather mean view, from one of the grumpy old men of the now very much rear guard. But even those of us pleased, on the whole, that there’s lots on the shelves, want to know whether the product is worth buying? Buying recordings and going to concerts is expensive, and listening to new music, properly, demands a significant expenditure of time, compared with the 3-minute grabs of pop culture.

GK: That conversation between Boulez, and Foucault by the way, gets trotted out a lot, recently in David Bennett’s new book on Australian music, Sounding Postmodernism. I guess someone who’s routinely conducted Wagner at Bayreuth has never had to step inside a supermarket, but to me it sounds like no one so much as the Holy Father railing against the 'evils of Relativism'. Still, I’d like to think that my book is slightly more upmarket than a Coles catalogue. But if it encourages people to try new music, I don’t really care.

GS: Which I think it does, very convincingly. Still, we should come back to the question of selection. The Australian Music Centre has about 500 composers on its books. Probably at least 400 of them are alive and kicking. So how many are in your book?

GK: I couldn’t say for sure, but with a word limit of about 50,000 it’s certainly not in the hundreds. I admit it – I’m an elitist, and so I wanted to choose a representative sample of well made works that I consider worth hearing, and, let me stress this, that I enjoy.

GS: Roger Covell’s book is criticised by some who’d, retrospectively, like it to be more the sort of history of Australian composition that could be written today. That’s a little unfair I think, not to say unrealistic. But by the same token, maybe we wouldn’t apply the same evaluative criteria today. Some figures, especially in the pre-1960s generation of composers – and I think of people like Miriam Hyde and Roy Agnew – seem mentioned by Covell only to be written out of his main argument. 'Originality' was what seemed most important to many in the 1960s. But your mention of 'well-made works' suggests that 'quality' might now be more important.

GK: I’ve heard the argument that 'the idea of quality is a nineteenth-century construct' and I simply don’t agree. This is where I start to sound like the Holy Father railing against the 'evils of Relativism', I know. But I do believe there is much to be said for a well-developed compositional craft. I have publicly criticised works for not being well crafted, and in turn I have been accused of sexism, or whatever. But I don’t have much time for special pleading. And people are free to disagree with my choices and conclusions, as I’m sure they will.

GS: Your remit was to concentrate on traditional concert hall and opera composers, leaving out jazz and experimental music. Still, was there any area that you’d like to have given more space?

GK: Certainly, if I had more room, I’d have written about theatre, dance and film music, too, because that’s where several major talents are working principally. I’ve talked about concert-hall composers who have worked outside that square, but there are people like Iain Grandage, Alan John, Lisa Gerrard doing interesting work that I wasn’t able to cover.

GS: Despite your generally positive take, you hint occasionally that things could be better for composers right now.

GK: We have an abundance of talented composers, but this is not necessarily matched by an interest from the major performing organisations. Some of the state orchestras, partly a result of the devolution from the ABC, partly the economic climate, and partly due to personnel, have dropped the ball on new work, even though the audience-building strategies in some cities have been successful over previous years. I caricature a certain kind of new music concert in the first page of my introduction, but I’ve also been at premieres of new works (some of them mine) in major concert halls, with full houses, which received rapturous responses. Let’s not forget that it’s the people who don’t like something (new music, food, politics, other composers) who are inclined to get vocal. I think listening to them too much is causing an artificial climate of fear.

GS: For almost its entire existence ABC Classic FM has come in for particular criticism from composers for not adequately supporting Australian music. Of course, 'Australian Music Presented' is a welcome development. But it seems to coexist with a constant stream of 'top 100' audience surveys which only seem to confirm statistically that its listeners don’t want to hear Australian music.

GK: I’m not sure that Classic FM has the mix right as far as Australian music goes. As you say, in 2001 in its Classics 100 there wasn’t a single Australian composition. But, as you also say, 'Australian Music Presented' is a great web-based initiative. With any luck, narrowcasting will reach a new and differently constituted audience to the Schubert set. At the same time, the statistical thing can be confusing: if an audience is fed a constant diet of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven then, of course, that’s what they’ll want to hear.

GS: And there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence circulating that certain less experienced orchestra managements have used such statistics to limit their live programming.

GK: But in my experience, even 'conservative' audiences can be engaged with, to the point that they appreciate what living composers are trying to do.

GS: In your last chapter, you mentioned a history of music that your mother had as a girl, written right at the start of the twentieth century, that gave only a single mention of Brahms, who’d then already been dead several years. Could there be a sleeping Australian Brahms still out there?

GK: People who might have been ignored in the more distant past, like Margaret Sutherland and Roy Agnew, may well stage a full and welcome comeback. But, as we saw in the baroque music revival a few years ago, posterity does often get it right. And given the nature of technology in the last 20 years, it seems less likely that anyone, these days, can be completely ignored. Just about anyone can put themselves out there, and do, and increasingly it’s going to be easier.

GS: Harder, though, for a composer’s music to strike anybody else, as you say, as 'life-changing'. Still, it seems to me that the composers you talk about do have as good a chance of making a difference, especially to your younger readers, who will use your book in the senior years of secondary school as part of the curriculum. Thinking back to your own years as a student, was there any Australian who inspired you to persevere with becoming a composer?

GK: I started composing in the relative isolation of secondary school years, long before composition became integral to the curriculum. But I was aware of Sculthorpe, Butterley, Dreyfus, Boyd, Gifford and Williamson, either through going to concerts, listening to the ABC – which had some great programs on new music then – or occasionally performing their work at school.

GS: Australian composers don’t seem to have made much of an impact on the Western music generally so far. To take just a handful of recent examples, Percy Grainger is the only Australian who got a mention in Richard Taruskin’s massive 6-volume Oxford History of Western Music. Grainger, Sculthorpe and Meale are mentioned in Nicholas Cook’s Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Music. And in his recent review for the Sydney Morning Herald, the literary critic and well-known music lover, Andrew Reimer, sounded to me quite disappointed that only Grainger and Sculthorpe, again, got even honorary mentions in Alex Ross’s otherwise splendid book, The Rest is Noise. Do you think that will change in the twenty-first century?

GK: I think it is changing. It’s now routine that Brett Dean, Gerard Brophy, Elena Kats-Chernin, and Liza Lim have works performed around the world with no special pleading required. For the best composers, the world is now their oyster, and their Australian-ness is no longer going to hamper them. I’d like to think that that the Taruskin and Ross oversights merely prove that documentation can lag behind reality.

GS: Still, Gerry Brophy recently told me that he overheard some English orchestra players, during rehearsals for one of his pieces in there, complaining about having to play Australian rubbish, with the emphasis on the Australian.

GK: In a couple of bad reviews I’ve had in Europe, the critic can’t resist a dig at my nationality. In Berlin’s Tagespiegel (that’s Daily Mirror in German!) my opera Medea (based on an ancient Western myth) was dismissed as being of 'ethnomusicological interest'. In London, John Amis reviewed my piano piece, Figured in the drift of stars and said it sounded like a 'meander to the nearest billabong'.

Now, if he hadn’t known I was Australian, he might well have said it was boring, or had insufficient structural interest – which may well be true. But he had to make what would amount to a racist jab, had I been Israeli (a meander to the nearest hilltop village) or Chinese (a meander to the nearest rice paddy). I’m sure that attitude to Australian music will change though.

If Australian music has not yet made the impact we wanted, it may be largely for external reasons. Composers from the Baltic 'captive nations' enjoyed a vogue after the fall of communism. But apart from trading on aboriginality or our geographical position it’s hard to see how Australian music can exploit our history as marketing. Perhaps, for many of us, it’s better we don’t, and succeed on our own terms.

GS: Getting back to the distinction between the composers at the pointy end of music, and the softer more user-friendly ones: we’ve had a few maximalists, though most of them seem to have drifted slowly toward the middle market, and a few minimalists, though none of them so minimal as the New Yorkers. Why do you think this is? Could it be a reflection of Australia?

GK: I hope that the book makes clear that such distinctions are relatively superficial compared to the common purpose we all have in writing music. But, in an interview in Resonate with Mark Coughlan, Roger Smalley pointed out that coming from London to Perth he found that instead of being in a community of special interests – like the specialist early music or contemporary music audiences he was used to in London – the Perth audience goes to everything.

I think we can say the same of Australia, generally. We have a different sort of audience, a more generalist audience, and that inevitably shapes the way we compose. If we lived in Berlin, New York or London, any of us might have developed differently. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily. I like writing for Sydney Symphony’s 'Meet the Music' concerts and knowing that there will be 2000 school kids listening to my piece, or having pieces commissioned by Wigmore Hall, or doing things for local musicians in country Victoria and NSW.

GS: We don’t say much about the commercial side of things. But getting your picture in the paper is important for composers. And so, still, is commercial publishing. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, though maybe not, that the London publisher Boosey & Hawkes had the money to take on Benjamin Britten largely thanks to the profits it made from Australian popular song composer May Brahe’s Bless this House. Britten later left Boosey’s for Faber Music, started with funds supplied by T. S. Eliot specifically to print Britten’s music. And the fact that Peter Sculthorpe, and more recently Carl Vine and Matthew Hindson should also become house composers at Faber (which has made its money, more recently, out of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats ) is maybe a sort of indirect repayment of Britten’s debt to Brahe! Do you have any good commercial advice for a young composer reading your book, just starting out?

GK: I’m almost tempted to say, on strictly economic grounds: Don’t do it!! But seriously, I do believe that you’re more likely to do well if you know your craft. So, listen as widely as you can, write as much as you can to develop technique. Learn what performers can and can’t be expected to do ... It’s more about the quality of your work, than who you are.

GS: And as we said before, in your book we learn less about the composers’ biographies, though a great deal about their concerns and their music. If you had been forced to write yourself into the book, what would you say about yourself, and what pieces would you recommend for listening?

GK: As a full-time artist I have what many other people would consider a very uneventful life, so there’s not much to say there. As to my concerns … well, I hope the book says something about them. And, as to my music: I’m quite fond of the orchestral piece I wrote in 1999 about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commissioned by Symphony Australia for the Sydney Symphony, and dedicated to Markus Stenz, called Such sweet thunder.

GS: Which is, reading your program note to the piece, a line about the amazing sound of barking of hounds on a hunt, that seemed to take over all their surroundings, so that:
The skies, the fountains, every region near
Seemed all one mutual cry. I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder …

GK: Which goes to show, as I also said in my note, as Theseus puts it elsewhere in the play, 'The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them'.

GS: It sounds to me like a warning for those lucky enough to be included in your book, as well as some consolation for those who are not.

GK: Yes, and the idea of 'such sweet thunder' being 'our mutual cry' seemed to me to point up the idea of convergence with other composers. Of course, Shakespeare’s play is also the starting point for works by Henze (the Eighth Symphony) and Britten (the eponymous opera), and Mendelssohn, whose scurrying string writing …

GS: Much beloved of the ABC Classic FM demographic … !

GK: Yes … but which I also imitate at one point! So it seemed an appropriate title.

GS: And a reminder, just as in your book, that we’re all in this together.

GK: Yes, indeed, a reminder of that.


Gordon Kerry: New Classical Music: Composing Australia
Graeme Skinner: Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer

Subjects discussed by this article:

Graeme Skinner is a Sydney-based musicologist and writer. Gordon Kerry’s New Classical Music: Composing Australia and Graeme Skinner’s Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer are both published by the University of NSW Press.


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