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Australian Music in the 1970s

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 1970s.The first looks at Australian notated music during this period and the second discusses Australian experimental music.

Australian Composition in the 1970s

Some composers who had emerged in the 1960s now became influential teachers and critics, and the serious discussion of music, initiated by the likes of Roger Covell, was taken up by writers and musicologists such as James Murdoch, Frank Callaway and others. The 1970s saw the establishment of the Australia Council, the foundation of the Australian Music Centre, the completion of several metropolitan concert halls, and the arrival of FM broadcasting, all of which had profound effects on the cultivation of Australian music. The Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Seymour Group and the ensemble Flederman were founded, the Victoria State Opera commissioned new work, while the Bicentenary of James Cook’s ‘discovery’ of the continent (1970) and the opening of the Sydney Opera House generated several new scores.

The themes which arose in the 1960s – engagement with European modernist, classical Asian and Indigenous musics  – further enriched the work of the '60s generation and their disciples; later in the decade came a renewed interest in diatonicism. Important expatriates came home; important foreign composers visited, like Peter Maxwell Davies, and some even stayed on.


Significant Works

  Work Notes
Ice carving (1970) by Barry Conynghamdepicts the ice sculptures in the Imperial Garden in Tokyo, where Conyngham had travelled to study with Tōru Takemitsu.
Nexus (1971) by Don Banksthis work for symphony orchestra and jazz quintet (1971) reconciles the seemingly opposite worlds of improvised jazz and high modernist determinism
Phoenix and the turtle (1974) by Colin Brumbyleads the charge back to diatonicism.
As I crossed a bridge of dreams (1975) by Anne Boydis a striking choral dreamscape.
The temple of the golden pavilion (1978) by Brian Howardbrings European high modernism together with Yukio Mishima’s exploration of psychopathology.
Twelve mystical preludes (1973) by Larry Sitskydemonstrates this composer’s fascination with esoterica, contemporary musical language and brilliant pianism.


Australian Experimental music in the 1970s

By Warren Burt

The 1970s were the first decade in which experimental ideas spread rapidly and developed substantial followings of composers and listeners in Australia. In most of the capital cities, but especially in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, groups of experimental musicians began presenting concerts, installations, and exhibitions.

In Sydney, the work of David Ahern's A-Z Music continued. Founded in 1968-69, A-Z members included many who later became central figures in the Sydney new music scene, such as Robert Irving, Greg Schiemer, Peter Evans, Roger Frampton, Geoffrey Barnard, and others. Coming out of A-Z was a smaller improvisation group Teletopa, which represented Australia in several overseas festivals.

By the mid-1970s, American expatriate Bill Fontana had arrived in Sydney, and, in a series of concerts and installations, solidified the concept of sound sculpture in composers' and audiences' consciousness. Paul McGillick's Central Street Gallery hosted a number of experimental performances (including one by John Cage), and the 1977 Ashes of Sydney Festival (a day long new music concert on a ferry), organised by Greg Schiemer, established the idea of new music performance as an outdoor, mobile event. Environmental performance as an idea was also represented ably by Martin Wesley-Smith and Ian Fredericks, who directed the WATT ensemble, which presented events at venues such as Wottamolla Bay in the Royal National Park. Electronic music studios were established at the Sydney Conservatorium (by Wesley-Smith) and the University of Sydney (by Fredericks).

Jon Rose and his Relative Band project began presenting improvisation events on a regular basis. In the 1980s, groups like WATT and the Relative Band would assume greater importance in the Sydney scene. In Sydney, beginning with the pronounced opposition A-Z Music received from both the musical establishment and the press, there seemed to develop a sense that experimental music was under attack, and that establishment support for its activities would not be forthcoming, or at least, would not be easily available.

In Melbourne, the New Music Centre (1972-74) had the country's first (short-lived) public access electronic music studio. Founded by composers/improvisers such as Chris Mann, Peter Mumme, Dan Robinson, Ron Nagorcka and others, it featured regular new music performances of composed and improvised new music. With the founding of the La Trobe University Music Department in 1975 (headed by Keith Humble), and the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre by Ron Nagorcka, John Campbell and Warren Burt in 1976, experimental music activities took off in Melbourne. Electronic music studios were established at La Trobe University, Melbourne University, the Victorian College of the Arts, and Melbourne State College. Activities around this time also included improvised music events at La Mama Theatre in Carlton (featuring, among others, David Tolley and friends), the New and Experimental Music radio show on 3CR community radio (presented by John Campbell, John Crawford and Warren Burt), the ABC New Music Workshops, organized by Felix Werder and Keith Humble, the publication of the New Music Newspaper in 1977-78 (edited by Les Gilbert and Warren Burt), and New Music in 1978-1980 (edited by Philip Brophy and David Chesworth), sound installations by Bill Fontana at the National Gallery of Victoria, and by Ros Bandt at Clifton Hill Community Music Centre and a number of other venues.

As opposed to what happened in Sydney, in Melbourne experimental music established its own venues, its own publications, and developed its own audience. The resistance that so marked the Sydney scene was, to a large extent, missing in Melbourne, largely because experimental music was not seen as being in competition with other kinds of 'new music' for audiences, spaces, media exposure, or funding.

In Adelaide, a new music scene was beginning to establish itself with performance-art oriented activities by composer/performers such as Vineta Lagzdina and Leigh Hobba, Tristram Cary's activities at the University of Adelaide Electronic Music Studio, events presented at the Experimental Art Foundation, and interactive sound sculpture installations by the intermedia artist Stan Ostoja-Kotkowska.

Read also: Some Musical and Sociological Aspects of Australian Experimental Music by Warren Burt

Significant Works

  Work Notes
50 synthesizer greats (1979) by David Chesworth
Ocean bells (1982) by Ros BandtBandt's musical practice known as 'soft and fragile music' had its beginnings in the 1970s, when Bandt was exploring the sound qualities derived from glass and ceramics
Atom bomb (1977) by Ron Nagorcka
Soft walls (1980) by Tristram Cary
 Teletopa Tokyo Improvisation No 2 by David Ahern / Teletopahttp://www.abc.net.au/classic/australianmusic/stories/s2493421.htm
 Lo Cholesterol Amateur by Greg Schiemer
 Kirribilli Wharf by Bill Fontana
 The Tempest by Felix Werderhttp://www.pogus.com/21044.html