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11 October 2007

Don Banks: Revisited and Revitalised

Don Banks Image: Don Banks  

For Richard Toop, a recent release of ‘Third Stream’ music by Don Banks brings back fond memories. It also raises 'out of sight, out of mind' issues that apply to some living Australian composers too.

Up front, I’ll admit to a personal interest here. In the couple of (his final) years that Don Banks spent at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he was one of the best incentives for me to go into work every day. I admired his work, I loved his company, and I still treasure memories of many long, fairly boozy (‘journalistic’) lunches in a long-since vanished pub in the AMP building, located just opposite the rather seedy Treasury Building where we worked – subsequently transformed into a 5-star Intercontinental Hotel, where, for better or worse, even President Bush can be momentarily sequestered. Wow, how things change…

I won’t try to sketch the topics we covered, both serious and scurrilous, but his enduring passion for jazz (at heart, he was a Bill Evans man), his visits to Ronnie Scott’s club in London and his friendship with the Dankworths often came up. So when I was at the AMC recently, browsing through new CD releases, I was both delighted to see the ABC’s Nexus recording of four of Don’s ‘Third Stream’ pieces (ABC 476 5923) and ashamed to acknowledge that I had no idea it existed (in my defence, it only seems to have been issued this year, but still, why didn’t I know?).

Three of the pieces – Meeting Place, and Equations I and II – are, I think, first recordings, though I remember Graham Hair being an eloquent advocate for the Equation pieces many years ago. Naturally, this isn’t the first recording of the much better-known Nexus. Apart from the old ABC LP recording with the ‘original cast’ including Don Burrows and Judy Bailey, which really should be reissued, along with so many other precious archival recordings from the 1970s, there was also a Vox Australis CD (VAST 006-2), with many of the same players. But this one brings a completely new generation of (VCA-based) players into the picture, and they do a super job.

For me, there are two issues that come out of all this. The first is that Don Banks’s work is scandalously neglected in this country, but he’s scarcely alone in that respect: ‘out of sight, out of mind’ seems to be the prevailing rule (even for the living). More positively, it’s so good to hear fresh takes on any substantial Australian piece, new or old. We can shrug our shoulders at the zillionth recording of popular pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or whoever, but when it comes to our own stuff, it would be so nice to be able to talk about favourite interpretations, instead of just being relieved that we can hear a piece at all.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Richard Toop is Reader in Musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium (University of Sydney).


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Fish Fine a good indicator

Richard, as someone who currently works in CD retail I agree with your last point. I've counted about nine or ten new Handel aria releases in 2007, and they all sell extremely well by classical standards. But most of the recordings on ABC and Tall Poppies languish on the shelves. The only CD of Australian music I've been specifically asked for more than once or twice this year (if you don't include the tourists who request didgeridoo techno) has been Elena Kats-Chernin's Wild Swans in recent weeks.

re: Don Banks: Revisited and Revitalised

Richard raises some enduring and vexed issues in the Australian recording arena.

That he had not been aware that the new recording of the Don Banks Third Stream works had been released on ABC is not so surprising. Like Tall Poppies, the ABC has limited advertising resources. Advertising is a very expensive prospect these days, especially in the light of the miniscule returns one can expect from sales of Australian-composed repertoire. I'm sure the ABC has to push its commercial titles to stay afloat. And in terms of print advertising, you have to admit that the range of home-grown music journals available in Australia is hardly encouraging, ranging from Limelight to Limelight, which isn't a music journal anyway. I don't count the AMC journal and Music Forum as they are sent only to subscribers, and are not available on the newsstands.

Richard raises two points on which I would like to comment:

1. That Don Banks's music is "scandalously neglected". This is very true. You never hear his music in concert these days. There are so very few Australian musicians who take the time to explore, let alone program, the works of their composer colleagues. I would say, in general, that the music of most Australian composers is scandalously ignored in concerts across the board, with significant exceptions (such as ABC Classics' TSO series of Australian orchestral works). And this context adds to my dismay that we have now lost one of our long-standing ensembles that was formed to promote Australian music, the Seymour Group.

For the record, so far Tall Poppies has released six recordings of the music of Don Banks, including two performances of the cello Sequenza.

Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two (TP002)

Commentary (TP040)

Sequence for solo cello (TP075)

Horn Trio (TP114)

Three Studies for Violoncello and Piano (TP129)

Sequence for solo cello (TP129)

While this list is pathetic in terms of what should be recorded, it is pretty good in terms of one little company with limited resources. Tall Poppies pays serious attention to our "dead" composers as part of its charter. See CDs of the music of Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Kitty Parker and Arthur Benjamin, plus numerous single tracks scattered over the catalogue.

2. Richard, most composers are simply delighted to have one version of any work available on the market. Considering how much Australian music remains unrecorded it is amazing that any works manage two different performances. One of the few I can think of is Richard Meale's Incredible Floridas, which has two performances on disc. I think we're still at the stage of "fledgling" in the world of recording. We simply don't have the range of musicians interested in Australian repertoire in order to generate interesting comparative performances. I am delighted to allocate part of the responsibility for that at the feet of the music education institutions in Australia, where, to my knowledge, Australian music gets short shrift from most of the teaching staff. I recall disturbing moments at the Sydney Conservatorium, where I once talked annually to third year students as part of a course about the Music Business, and my first question to the students was invariably asking them to nam e the Australian composers they had heard of. Depressingly, they mostly knew no names apart from Sculthorpe, not even the names of the staff composers! There seems to be neither the interest nor the will to explore our own music, and for that I do blame, with occasional exceptions, the teachers and the courses!

Music Education

Belinda's story about the conservatorium is both scary and telling.

I am currently studying at the conservatorium and am unhappy to report that the Australian music topic which was a mandatory part of a composition degree, is no longer offered because of funding problems. If the composers aren't being taught about Australian music (presumably people with a vested and above average interest in the topic) I can't even imagine how anyone else will engage with it, or how we can expect this legacy to flourish.

Perhaps there will be changes to the funding of education in Australia after recent developments, but I suppose the important thing is to make sure it goes where it is needed.

re: don banks: revisited and revitalised

I was chatting to Richard Toop, Damien Ricketson and Chris Williams at the Peggy Glanville Hicks Address the other night about emerging performers interested in contemporary music.

Richard raised a really interesting point. He spoke about the necessity of role models for emerging performers. Role models not only provide inspiration, but they also help to establish a body of solo repertoire for a particular instrument. He gave the example of recorder player Genevieve Lacey: There is a growing body of contemporary solo recorder repertoire in Australia; many composers have written works for Genevieve. This means that solo repertoire then exists for students to try and sink their teeth into.

Aristea: From your perspective (as a composition student at the con), what would be a good solution to the problems you've raised? I seem to remember there being a composer/performer workshop class when I was studying at the con. Does it still exist? How could this be expanded to get more engagement between performance and composition majors (and perhaps the musicologists!)?




It was indeed the tip of a very big iceberg.

I've certainly been thinking about the issues raised, and Aristea is right. It may be just cynical thinking but I'm not sure I can see things changing in the future either. I don't know what reasonable reason, economic or otherwise, there would be for cutting Australian music courses. It seems so integral to our education but also the society into which we are (supposedly) going to have to be a apart of.

Aristea raised the issue of student ensembles playing student works and it seems to me that this should be a vital relationship and is an opportunity being missed. While I may have a biased opinion as a composer wanting more works performed, it also seems that if student players want to become professional players and have music written for them, helping shape the skills and technique of young composers is a reasonable investment in their own future.

There is a composer performer workshop offered, but only in later years so I can't really comment on its relative use beyond saying it is something I am really looking forward to.

Iceberg in the room

Of course, there is an iceberg in the room:

Being really really interested in Australian classical music composition is a bit like being really really interested in netball.

Thats great, but don't expect an audience to get it.

As a keen netballer myself, its taken 30 years to realise it ain't ever gonna draw a crowd.

The caravan moves on folks, get over it.

Melting Iceberg

Let's take that caravan back in time and ask ourselves why classical music attracted huge audiences in, say, the Vienna of the 1850's but doesn't when 'difficult' modern pieces take up the largest % of concert programs.

Some clues can be found in New Scientist magazine of 23rd Feb, 2008.

Vienna Revisited

I’m glad to see that the Viennese theme has been picked up in contemporary terms. I was tempted to point out earlier (re “Melting Iceberg”) that Viennese audience of the 1820s actually preferred Lanner to Beethoven and Schubert, and half a century later preferred Johann Strauss to Brahms, but this seemed unhelpfully ‘academic’. Still, at the start of the 20th century Karl Kraus wrote “At the grave of Viennese culture there stands a Merry Widow”. It has always been a conservative culture, but over the years many Viennese composers (not just the group around Schoenberg) have refused to capitulate.

Coming up to date, the Austrian situation seemed particularly dire around 2000, and leading ‘bad-girl’ composer Olga Neuwirth launched a blistering public attack on the cultural philistinism of neo-fascist Freedom Party leader Jörg Heider (“I Won’t be Yodelled out of Existence”). Alas, I don’t remember comparable contra-Howard protests here. As for the current new music scene in Vienna, I only know it through CDs and broadband. There’s no shortage of the former: adventurous composers like Furrer, Haas and Neuwirth all have substantial discographies, and they also have a significant international profile, not just a local one. As for broadcasts. Austrian Radio (ORF) has a daily Monday-Friday programme (Zeit-Ton) primarily focussed on contemporary art music, with an Austrian emphasis, but much else besides. And this from a land-locked parochial culture… Perhaps we can learn some lessons from this.

Richard Toop

Re: Vienna Revisited

You're entirely right, Richard. Those were much of my thoughts when I wrote my comment about the Viennese scene.

Through the help of most of the german-speaking continent, Haas, Furrer and Neuwirth have all secured their place in the international scene. It is quite easy to skip across the border and do a concert in Köln when there are no takers for your concert in conservative Vienna.

But bad girl Neuwirth has been quiet of late, Haas has moved to Basel, and Furrer is by-and-large in Frankfurt. And still there are many others to take their place: I think also of the DJ experiments with (electric/normal) bass and orchestra of Jorge Sanchez-Chiong, or the electronic composer Wolfgang Mitterer that rocked the wien modern some years ago.

Yes, we can learn a thing or two from this landlocked land, but this is primarily their export strategy: the government actively keeps the culture ticking in Austria and the tourists flock to it on reputation of its old traditions, and some of its newer ventures. In essence the Austrians offerings are limited, other than the wonderful alps for skiing and hiking.

Like everything, you have to work on your strengths. What are Australia's strengths? Beach babes and the outback? Untouched paradise? Or have I misjudged our view of ourselves overseas?

Daniel Salecich.