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11 December 2007

Listening to History: Some Proposals for Reclaiming the Practice of Music

Excerpt from the 2007 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address

Jon Rose at Newcastle Conservatorium Concert on 3 March 2007 Image: Jon Rose at Newcastle Conservatorium Concert on 3 March 2007  

Last week violinist Jon Rose suggested – during his delivery of the 2007 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address – that only when we start to investigate and value our own extraordinary musical culture, will the cultural cringe that currently pervades Australia stop defining what constitutes our nation’s music. His address looked to positive models, forgotten notions, and unorthodox praxis that have entertained and given meaning to the lives of Australians over the last 200 years but which have never entered, or been allowed to enter, the canon of imported mainstream music making. What follows is a short excerpt from Rose’s address; the full transcript is available on the New Music Network’s website.

Last year at a Sydney university, a musicologist observed, ‘Everybody knows that music in Australia didn't really get going until the mid-1960s’. Significantly, this gem was spoken at a seminar that featured a film about the Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies’ Choir from Hermannsburg, Central Australia. The denial of a vibrant and significant musical history in white as well as Indigenous culture has done this country a great disservice.

It may well be the prime reason why none of the twentieth century's great musical forms ever originated in Australia. Bebop, western swing, cajun, tango, and samba (to name but a few) originated in lands also saddled with a colonial history. A tiny country like Jamaica has given birth to no less than calypso, ska, and reggae.

To many, living in our current cut-and-paste paradise, this probably seems irrelevant and an irritation – why bother with the detailed sonic interconnectivity of the past when you can avoid both past and present by logging into, say, ‘Second Life’ on the Internet? I didn’t add ‘future’ to the list of avoidance because you can guarantee that the future will be mostly a rehash of the past. It’s what we already have in Australia – everything from faithful copies of powdered wig Baroque, to yet more hip-hop, to concerts where almost any plink or plonk from the 20th century is attributed to John Cage.

Unless we investigate and value our own extraordinary musical culture, the dreaded cultural cringe will continue to define what constitutes the practice of music on this continent.

If you think that the cringe is a fast-vanishing behavioural trait, then you haven’t been observing the promotion from our national institutions or listening to ABC radio over recent years. This lecture is not about my long list of favourite cringe moments. I’m sure you have your own. My intention is otherwise. I want to describe a story of music, sometimes positive, often wayward, always interesting, which could point to a productive future.

So first to History.

It didn’t start off so badly.

As Inga Clen-dinnen recalls in her book Dancing with Strangers, the first-hand account of Lieutenant William Bradley states that ‘the people mixed with ours and all hands danced together’. Musical gestures of friendship also took place. ‘The British started to sing’. The Aboriginal women in their bark canoes ‘either sung one of their songs, or imitated the sailors, in which they succeeded beyond expectation’. Some tunes whistled or sung by the British became favourite items with the expanding Indigenous repertoire of borrowed songs. Right there at the start we have a cultural give-and-take from both sides.

In the late 18th century, dancing and music (and you couldn’t really have one without the other) offered significant levels of communication between Indigenous people and the invaders.

Aboriginal mimicry (and general piss-taking) of the soldiers – parading, bowing, and bellowing at each other – was a method of comprehension, a way of accepting strange behaviour. Dance and music were the live commentary, the literal embodiment of the story. Records recall that Aboriginal peoples were, up to the destruction of their traditional way of life, the masters of 1. tactile learning and 2. the oral transmission of all cultural knowledge.

This early window of cultural opportunity vanished, of course, when Australia stopped being perceived as a jail and became instead a place of plunder. Yet this didn’t mean that music as a prime tool of communication became redundant. On the contrary: just about all aspects of colonial life are embedded in the musical record if you care to look. It’s not easy as, until very recently, few historians ever took the place seriously. From the Indigenous point of view, we’ll never know what songs were dreamed about the invaders. While they initially tried to ignore the crazed strangers, you may be sure that such a catastrophe quickly became part of the musical record (read Allan Marett’s Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts (The Wangga of North Australia) if you doubt me). Contemporary events are still subject matter for the comparatively few traditional song dreamers that are left.

Translations of Central Australian Aboriginal songs were undertaken by Ted Strehlow in the 1930s, but he had his own Lutheran agenda and concentrated on ceremonial songs, not personal everyday songs. He also wasn’t interested in how the songs actually sounded, the sonic structures, the grain of the music. Strehlow sadly let both himself and the Arrernte down by flogging photos of secret objects to the flashy & trashy Stern magazine in Germany.

There is a unique recording made in 1899 of Tasmanian Aboriginal Fanny Cochrane singing into an Edison phonograph machine. The photo is stunning too, but that is all there is until Elkin’s first recording in 1949 (as far as I can ascertain). Audio recordings thereafter document almost exclusively the music practice in Arnhem Land.

Along with hundreds of languages, we have rubbed out thousands – if not tens of thousands – of ancient ceremonial and everyday practical songs without a trace.

The recording of Fanny Cochrane is arguably one of the most important 19th century musical artefacts from anywhere in the world – certainly more important than the recording of Brahms playing his piano in the same year. With Johannes we still have the notation; without Fanny’s voice there would be nothing. And maybe that’s what we have wanted: ‘nothing’ to connect us to the horrors of Tasmanian history.

‘An impossible past superimposed on an unlikely present suggesting an improbable future’. Here Wayne Grady, in his book The Bone Museum, is describing the nature of the palaeontologic record, but he could be describing the culture of the modern Australian state. I find it a useful key. Let’s unlock some other musical history that has been documented.

We know that the first piano arrived onboard the Sirius with the first fleet. It was owned by the surgeon George Wogan. What happened to it is not known, but we do know that the import of pianos by the beginning of the 20th century had grown from a nervous trickle to a surging flood. The famous statement by Oscar Commetent that Australians had already imported 700,000 pianos by 1888 may be unsubstantiated, but the notion of one piano for every three or four Australians by the beginning of the 20th century could well be close to the mark. Here’s some statistics just from the Port of Melbourne for that year – 1888:

3,173 upright pianos and 1,247 organs were imported.

By 1909, Australia-wide: 10,432 imported pianos.

1910 - 13,912 imported pianos.

1911 - 19,508 imported pianos.

1912 - 20,856 imported pianos.

That’s 64,708 imported pianos in just four years.

(These figures are from the Musical Opinion and Musical Trade Review November 1914. I’m grateful to Alison Rabinovici for these statistics).

With regard to piano-making within Australia, Beale and Company of Sydney may have started out producing sewing machines, but between 1879 (when they started) and 1920, they had already cranked out 60,000 pianos.

Whichever way you estimate, there were hundreds of thousands of ‘Joannas’ in Australia by the 1920s.

These pianos didn’t just stay in the capital cities. Dragged by bullock dray, lumped on the back of camels, these instruments ended up all over the country.

Let’s look at how and what was played on all these pianos. Some quotations:

Mr. Isaac Nathan will preside at the pianoforte and will in the course of the evening give extemporaneous performances on that instrument (Melbourne concert program notes, 1841).

For my own part, as a keyboard player, I had to learn quickly how to fake introductions, endings, modulations; spontaneously interpolate or leave out a section of music; transpose on sight or by ear; spontaneously ‘fill-out’ or otherwise modify a given arrangement…embellishing or otherwise varying each repetition of my solo. (John Caws, Goldfield pianist, 1860s, Victoria).

This empirical methodology would sound familiar to any professional musician who worked in the social and RSL clubs of Australia 100 years later, and we’ll return to the practical side of the piano further on in this talk.

A read through John Whiteoak’s groundbreaking book Playing Ad Lib (from which those quotes were taken) presents a strong tradition of orality; and through observations of colonial Vaudeville, the music hall, the silent cinema, circus, and theatrical events, he exposes a lexicon of unorthodox music-making more akin to the 1960s avant-garde and beyond, than repressed Victorian society. If you like: the colonial 19th century was a period of fecund instrumental technique – music-making without the instruction manual.

Here is a description of a concert in 1918: it’s Belle Sylvia and the first Australian jazz band, complete with Stroh (that’s a violin with a horn attachment for mechanical amplification). It’s already in the Australian tradition of mimicry, send-up, and pastiche. ‘The performance included farmyard and jungle effects, the playing of two cornets at the same time, thunder, pistol shots, frenetic drumming with kitchen utensils and grotesque vocals’.

Sounds more exciting than what you get at The Basement these days, eh...?

Descriptive pieces often combined familiar musical segments, innovative textures and individual sound effects to represent a particular event in sound. Some notable examples were performed in the early 1860s by the violin/cello duo Poussard and Douay. The duo interpolated variations (sometimes improvisations) on popular tunes and an array of unorthodox instrumental techniques to create complex and lengthy musical ‘descriptions’ of events such as The Burke and Wills expedition. (That’s also from Whiteoak’s book).

So, the evidence indicates that colonial music often pointed to the many characteristics of Indigenous music practice; and, through mimicry, Aboriginal peoples rendered and made a place for the invaders’ music in their own repertoires. It was a Gebrauchsmusik – a functional music embedded with common narrative and common frames of reference, a shared sense of purpose. Music that was practical, local – in which mimicry and improvisation were the prime vehicles of expression.

Unfortunately, from the gold rush onwards, the common purpose of the colonisers became clear. Even the most enlightened were engaged in the wholesale destruction of Aboriginal culture, a political-economic agenda formulated by the powerful and still entering the law books via the mining industry to this day.

Even where Christianity worked a more moralistic trail of destruction compared to the pastoralists, the practice of music was both the medium of conquest and the medium of survival. Whatever your view of history, when the Hermannsburg Aboriginal Women’s Choir sing the Chorales of J.S. Bach in their own Arrernte language, with their own articulation, gliding portamento and timbre, it is an extraordinary and unique music that is being made. Started by Lutheran Pastors Kemp and Schwartz in 1887, the choir’s music is full of colonial cultural contradiction, but that music has also nurtured the Indigenous population through times of persecution and extreme physical hardship. The choir has gone from a 40-plus membership in its heyday of the 1930s to the current situation where it is difficult to muster eight singers – on our way to record the choir two years ago, two of the choir’s ladies had died in that week. This music could vanish in five years…

This is a short excerpt from Jon Rose’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address. Read the full transcription on the New Music Network website: www.newmusicnetwork.com.au

Further Links

Subjects discussed by this article:

In recent months Jon Rose has given a two-day seminar to the Kronos String Quartet on how to play the fence; performed a completely new and improvised solo part for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; created a major radiophonic work for the BBC on the history of the piano in nineteenth century Australia; toured in Europe with his improvisation group 'Futch'; premiered his interactive Ball project at The Melbourne Festival; and been apprehended by the Israeli Defence Forces at the Separation Fence near Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.


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