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Australian Music in the 1960s

There are countless ways to start exploring our extensive website. This brief overview presents two different perspectives on some significant works and people in the Australian music scene in the 1960s.The first looks at Australian experimental music and the second discusses Australian notated music during this period.

Australian Experimental music in the 1960s

By Clinton Green

The 1960s saw increasing interest in how electronic music could solve both compositional and more practical problems. Composers were also absorbing ideas from overseas, such as indeterminacy and electro-acoustic music, and interpreting them in an Australian context to mixed responses from local audiences.

Early in the decade, Bruce Clarke began toying with the new Moog synthesiser. A musicians' strike led him to create a completely electronic soundtrack for a cigarette commercial in 1963. Innovative film makers, like Arthur Cantrill and Dušan Marek, employed tape manipulation, turntables and extended instrument techniques to create soundtracks for their short films. Avowed amateur and Melbourne physician, Val Stephen, became the first Australian to have electronic music released internationally.

After working amongst the musical avant-garde in Paris, Keith Humble’s return to Australia helped to encourage educational institutions to take electronic music seriously. Humble’s most notably experimental work was his Nunique series. These vast multimedia events featured simultaneous performances by rock bands, string quartets and theatre ensembles, all according to precise flowcharts.

Humble initiated the Melbourne-based Society for the Private Performance of New Music in 1966, providing a supportive performance space for young innovators both in and outside the academy. Among these were the McKimm/Rooney/Clayton trio, who, since the 1964, had been incorporating graphic scores and aspects of serialism into jazz improvisation. Jazz was radicalising at the fringes: John Sangster explored free jazz concepts and Charlie Munro incorporated Eastern musical elements. Syd Clayton would leave jazz behind in pursuit of a new form of experimental music theatre that incorporated chance operations along with sports and games as musical structures.

Young composers, like David Ahern, emerged, initially inspired by ideas of the European avant-garde, and applying them to Australian icons, such as Captain Cook and Ned Kelly. Ahern would travel to Europe later in the 1960s, where he encountered Stockhausen and Cardew, before returning home with further more radical ideas that questioned the very premises of composer and music itself.

Venues like Sydney's El Rocco, started to build a dedicated following of audiences for for modern and experimental jazz. The El Rocco was the centrepiece for the documentary 'Beyond El Rocco', which tells the story of the Australian modern jazz movement since the 1950s, with music from the film featured on the CD, Beyond El Rocco: the ultimate Australian jazz soundtrack.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
 Duo 3 (1965) by McKimm/Rooney/Claytonone of the first Australian examples of graphic scores
 Yehudi (1965) by Syd Claytonexperimental music theatre where the ‘musicians become actors’
 Fireworks (1967) by Val Stephenthe first piece of electronic music released internationally by an Australian composer
 Of Spiralling Why (1966) by Bruce Clarkea completely electronic piece commissioned for the Adelaide Arts Festival
 Nunique IV (1969) by Keith Humblea multimedia event including simultaneous performances by rock bands, string quartets, lectures and more
 Soundtrack for ‘Eikon’ (1969) by Arthur Cantrillsoundtrack for a short film made with tape loops and violin
 Journal (1969) by David Aherncommissioned by the ABC to commemorate the anniversary of Captain Cook's landing in Australia and especially written for the medium of radio (available in its entirety on ABC Classic FM's classic/amp website)


Australian Composition in the 1960s

The 1960s saw a new confidence in composition such as had swept through other arts a decade or so earlier. The ABC increased its commissioning of music for the orchestras and for broadcast; organisations like Musica Viva Australia followed suit. New tertiary music schools were founded across the country, governments began directly to support new work, the as yet unfinished Opera House loomed as a symbol of the future. As a generation of native-born and post-war émigré composers came to full maturity, a critical mass of activity was symbolised by the Composers’ Conference held in Hobart in 1963. There was also a new awareness of music in the community, and an emerging culture of critical commentary and discussion.

Music increasingly reflected the cultural and geographical realities of Australia, including settler society’s relations with the Indigenous population and a new sense of Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region. Composers explored the sound-worlds of Japan, Bali and other neighbours, and re-examined their relationship to European music. The influences of late romanticism and English pastoral remained strong in the work of some older composers; in others’ these were replaced by an engagement with practices of the post-war avant-garde such as post-Webernian serialism, aleatoricism and radiophony.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Irkanda IV (1961) by Peter Sculthorpebrings together personal grief and the loneliness of outback landscapes.
Digital sheet music sample String quartet no. 6 (1962) by Felix Werderintroduces a new, pugnacious, Bartókian flavour to Australian music.
Digital sheet music sample Laudes (1963) by Nigel Butterleyuses a new musical language to evoke ancient places of spiritual awe.
Sinfonietta (1965) by Malcolm Williamsona work of Brittenish energy from a long expatriate, but always Australian-identified composer.
Digital sheet music sample Images (Nagauta) (1966) by Richard Mealefuses the composer’s interest in the European avant-garde and classical Japanese culture.
Digital sheet music sample Fern Hill (1969) by Raymond Hansonis a beautiful late flowering of Anglo-Australian pastoralism.