14 November 2019
Infrastructure for New Music, Serial Technique and Don Banks’s String Quartet
- extract from Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975
© AMC Photo Archives
Michael Hooper's book Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975 has just been released by Bloomsbury (available as eBook and hardback) - the following extract from Chapter 2 is published on Resonate by permission. Read also Michael's article about some central themes discussed in the book (Resonate).
The relationship between composers based within Australia and those based without changed dramatically with the 1972 election of the Whitlam Labor government. The changes brought new funding for composition, new opportunities for performance, direct support for the publication of scores, a greater sense of two-way movement between Australia and Britain and new fora for composers and performers to discuss music, all of which had a direct impact on the music that was being composed. At the centre of the structural changes was Don Banks, one of the composers who returned to Australia in the early 1970s after a long period of absence.
Banks's surviving correspondence is extensive, and it provides a detailed insight into the opportunities and challenges of this time. His 1975 String Quartet demonstrates the musical significance of the organisations that he founded as chairman of the Music Board of the Australia Council, since the composition connects the musical work he was undertaking in the 1970s with his experience in London in the years before his return, and with his time as a student of Luigi Dallapiccola in the 1950s. It also provides a musical basis for considering the importance of technique in Australia in the early 1970s.
Since 1949 Australia had been led by a series of conservative governments under Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Gorton and William McMahon. The swing to Labor in the 1969 election (an election that it lost, but which set up its win in 1972) brought an increase in 'confidence, optimism and energy'1 for the Labor Party under Whitlam's leadership. 'Confidence, optimism and energy' reflected wider attitudes at the time, including those held by Australia's musicians, and it is in terms of 'confidence' that Covell characterised Australian Music in the late 1960s:
composers have not been content merely to imitate the latest musical fashions from overseas; they - or rather a few of them - have shown great confidence in attempting to find a synthesis of styles true to themselves and the society (local and international) for which they are writing.2
In the years after Covell wrote this in 1967 the opportunities for concerts for new music within Australia grew rapidly. Confidence comes with age, or with the 'coming of age', as James Murdoch has it, here writing in 1972:
Australia's music came of age in the 1960s: the life force and influence of our music world gathered momentum until it exploded onto the international stage.3
Peter Maxwell Davies's foreword to Murdoch's book also recounts his encounter with Australia in the 1960s in terms of confidence. In this case, Australia's lack of confidence is seen as a positive force compared with European complacency:
The climate among young composers was quite unlike that in Europe, where there is an awareness (even if a rejection) of 'tradition', with a real tradition of performances, into which the composer fits (perhaps most uncomfortably), which generates (at the risk of a too general generalization!) a certain confidence, a taking of a situation for granted.4
'[T]radition' (whether rejected or not) and 'the modern' are formed relationally through 'confidence', and so confidence becomes a key to arguments about tradition and modernity. These arguments are also bound up with arguments about the relationships between Australia and Europe (or Australia and 'elsewhere', or 'local and international'). Meale, Butterley and Sculthorpe all talk about their experience of the 1960s and early 1970s in terms of their growing personal confidence, and there has been an easy slip between 'the personal' and 'the national', with earlier Australian music cast as having been written naïvely by composers who lacked the confidence of speaking with an original, individual voice - with the voice of modern Australia.
Part of what restricted that slippage in Britain was the diverse practical support for composers. In 1960s Australia, however, there was very little by way of infrastructure at either a city, or state or national scale that supported newly written music, beyond the activities run by lone composers.5 The main support came from a small handful of places: the Adelaide Festival, the Festival of Perth, Musica Viva and academic music departments in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, though even with this list only a handful of people were highly influential, and many of the opportunities that they afforded had been newly established.
The only significant national support came from the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and their orchestras. Until the 1972 election and the increased funding for the arts that it brought, there was very little by way of organisational support for professional music-making. When organisations were established they solidified the idea of the 'Australian Composer', and with that concept arose a newly 'personal' nationalism, centred on individual composers rather than a broad movement. Voicing the difficulty of matching national and personal identity, Lumsdaine, who had lived away from Australia since 1953, wrote to Banks:
Perhaps you and I have made a great mistake in continuing to think of ourselves as Australians. We know the intrinsic value of Australian music in Australia and it should be no great disappointment to form no part of that scene. Except that it is! But the disappointment is not a musical one. It's probably a much more personal grief and as such, something to be overcome. Peter's [Porter] probably had the right attitude all along. Everybody remains a stranger in that country, any country[,] and the only home we have a right to is within ourselves.6
For Murdoch and for Covell (and, indeed, most of those writing about composers based in Australia), the concept of 'Australian Music' is by the mid-1970s to be taken for granted. For individual musicians the concept is less clear-cut, and it varies significantly from composer to composer. For Banks the matter is never decisive, and although he was crucial for the organisations that were being formed, his priority was always that composers receive the funding that they needed to write music. In 1972, there was the potential for the consolidation of the movement of modernist composers in Australia, and for this to happen it needed central funding that was not concerned with promoting a distinctive form of music. Banks's attitude was open in this regard, and he did not favour a particular school of composition.
Having left Australia in 1950, in 1969 Banks wrote to Frank Callaway in Perth from his home in London about a possible return:
Regardless of my active life here I have felt more and more the pressure of being an Australian composer away from my country. How long can I go on considering myself an Australian? I expect what has stopped me short in my tracks is the realization that next year it will be twenty years since I left home, and that if I don't make the attempt to return very soon, then perhaps I never will.7
Callaway invited Banks to lead a composers' workshop as part of the 1970 Perth Festival, an invitation that Banks accepted.8 In 1972 he again visited Australia, for a longer stay as a Creative Arts Fellow in Canberra, only to find the position poorly paid and under-resourced,9 and he was 'very glad [to have] return tickets'.10
In 1972 Banks wrote a statement in which composition was compared to sport, and it reveals Banks's desire for a well-funded national organisation for composers:
It comes down to a matter of the status and stature of the composer, and this is something which will not be reconciled until he is considered as important as a professional tennis player.
I say this as an admirer of the talents of Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, as here are people who have worked for years and years to perfect their craft. They know the percentages to play, the dedication which is required to attain the status of a 'professional' and justly reap their rewards.
When will this happen to the composer? We have spent years as well to perfect our technique. We are concerned about the 'state of play' but are being denied the opportunity to protest to the referee and the linesmen when we are being misrepresented. And who are they? The organisations provide us with the platform for us to be heard, or the court to play on if you prefer.
As tennis has grown into a situation of the 'professionals' versus the rest, then I'm afraid that for the Australian composers it's a matter of accept your 5 dollar fee (and a glass of red wine if you're lucky) and don't try to act like one of the big boys. But I must protest - as an ex-aptaite [sic]11 I play in the big leagues.12
1 Jenny Hocking, Gough Whitlam: A Moment in History (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2008), 343.
2 Covell, Australia's Music: Themes of a New Society (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1967), 269. Covell's 'new society' is an international one with 'a truly universal language' (290).
3 Murdoch, Australia's Contemporary Composers (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1972), cover note.
4 Davies, 'Foreword' to ibid., ix.
5 One may compare Banks and Humble here. The former returned to Australia less than a decade later than the latter; both returned with significant expertise in new music and formed centres for new music, Banks in London and Humble in Paris. Where the former was in a position to establish much essential Australian infrastructure, the latter was largely limited to a small sphere of colleagues and students around the Grainger Museum in Melbourne. This ought to suggest something of the cultural change that had occurred in those years, rather than any particular differences between the two composers in terms of organisational ability. For a short and enlightening introduction to Humble's work in terms of what he sought to establish, see John Whiteoak, 'Interview with Keith Humble', NMA, 7 (1989): 21-6 www.rainerlinz.net/NMA/repr/Humble_interview.html accessed 4 October 2014. For an introduction to Humble the modernist, see Graham Hair, 'Keith Humble's Modernism: From Homogenous Motivic-Thematic Organicism to Heterogenous Gestural Constructivism' www.n-ism.org/Papers/graham_Humble.pdf accessed 4 October 2014.
6 Lumsdaine to Banks, 1972, Papers of Don Banks, MS6830, National Library of Australia, Box 35.
7 No date, Papers of Don Banks, Box 6.
8 21 March 1969, Papers of Don Banks, Box 28.
9 Undated document, Papers of Don Banks, Box 36.
10 Banks to Murdoch, 13 July 1972, Papers of Don Banks, Box 36; see also Banks to Ahern, 20 June 1972, ibid., Box 4.
11 Written quickly, Banks's pun on the Association of Tennis Professionals ran into further letter jumbling.
12 Undated document, '1972 Quotes by Don Banks', Papers of Don Banks, Box 36.
© Australian Music Centre (2019) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Michael Hooper is Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of New South Wales.
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