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Australian Music in the 1980s

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 1980s.The first looks at Australian experimental music and the second discusses Australian notated music during this period.

Australian Experimental music in the 1980s

By Warren Burt

In the 1980s, experimental music established itself in all the capital cities of Australia, and in some country centres, as a major strand of contemporary music. Performers travelled between cities, radio recognised the importance of the music (and indeed began developing the idea of radiophonic work as a thing in its own right), and there was considerable documentation of activities.

In Melbourne, Rainer Linz, with his NMA Publications, emerged as a major voice in the documentation of Australian experimental music. Over the 1980s, NMA produced 10 issues of NMA magazine, and many works were recorded and released on cassette and later, CD. In 1988, NMA published John Jenkins's 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, which is still one of the standard texts documenting music from this period (available online here).

Many organizations presented events throughout the country, such as Martin Wesley-Smith's and Ian Fredericks' WATT, and Jon Rose's Relative Band in Sydney, EVOS Music, led by Tos Mahoney in Perth, and a number of organisations in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Canberra. Some of the more interesting events were the 1981 International Music and Technology Conference in Melbourne, which featured international and local composers and performers, as well as a large sound sculpture component; Greg Schiemer's 1983 Concert on Bicycles, performed in Canberra in collaboration with radio station 2XX; Chris Mann's Quadrophonic Cocktail, a radio work for 4 channels presented simultaneously on all ABC Radio channels; Sky Song, a music/dance collaboration between composers Sarah Hopkins and Alan Lamb, and choreographers Beth Shelton and Ian Ferguson; Sensus, an  interactive installation at Expo 88 by Warren Burt, which had an audience of over 6 million visitors in 6 months; and the many performances and installations of David Worrall's Dome Project, a portable environment for presentation of sound and light events.

Radio emerged as a major venue for experimental activities. New works were commissioned by individual community stations (such as the work of Alessio Cavallaro and Rik Rue on 2SER and 2MBS), the Public Broadcasting Association of Australia, and the ABC. ABC producers such as Andrew McLennan and others did much to establish radio as a legitimate venue for music and sound experimentation.

Australian experimental music also received international recognition, and was a focus at several European festivals, such as the 1983 Paris Autumn Festival (performances by Ron Nagorcka, Chris Mann, David Chesworth, Ros Bandt, Sarah Hopkins, Jon Rose, Leigh Hobba, Martin Wesley-Smith, Warren Burt and Philip Brophy) and the 1989 Ars Electronica (performances by Rik Rue, Jim Denley, Amanda Stewart, Joan Brassil, Chris Mann, David Chesworth, Les Gilbert, Alan Lamb, Ross Bolleter, and Warren Burt). By the decade's end, a number of experimental composers / performers / improvisers had established themselves as major forces in both the Australian and international scenes.

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

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Tango by Jon Rosecollaboration with Martin Wesley-Smith
Sky song by Alan Lamb and Sarah Hopkinscollaboration with Alan Lamb
Dah dit dah dah (1983) by Martin Wesley-Smithexample of the 1980s work of the multimedia collective WATT
Stargazer by Ros Bandtmusic created in a hollow concrete cylinder in a carpark
 Crossed Purposes by Rainer Linzhttp://www.rainerlinz.net/NMA/TwoPieces.html
 Music for ruined pianos by Ross Bolleterhttp://www.warpsmusic.com/
 Music Machines by Ernie Althoffhttp://www.shamefilemusic.com/nma.html
 Social Interiors by Rik Rue & Shane Faheyhttps://www.discogs.com/artist/113281-Social-Interiors


Australian Composition in the 1980s

Musical languages became increasingly polarised in the 1980s. Former modernists shocked their constituents by cultivating traditional diatonicism for its allegedly simple clarity of expression, and a younger generation enthusiastically followed their lead, contributing to a renewed, vibrant interest in the symphony and other large-scale forms. Another ‘school’ formed in Sydney around musicologist and Stockhausen associate Richard Toop whose students explored advanced European idioms. The result was a large body of work which compared favourably with the music of the international avant-garde.

Generally, the quality of teaching of composition and musicology had increased dramatically as students of the '60s generation came into their own as teachers, and composers from overseas came as visitors or residents in increasing numbers.

Other ensembles were founded, including the Australia Ensemble – a mixed band which includes new alongside standard repertoire, and dedicated new-music groups like Elision. Pioneering music-theatre company, ChamberMade, was also founded at this time. Composer residency programs were introduced by ABC Concerts for the state symphony orchestras and by Musica Viva Australia. Celebrations of the Bicentenary of white settlement in 1988 led to a spike in commissioning new works for public events and commissions from major organisations, including the then Australian Opera.


Significant Works

  Work Notes
Snark-hunting (1984) by Martin Wesley-Smithshows an ongoing interest in Lewis Carroll, musical technology and anagrammatic games.
Omphalo centric lecture (1984) by Nigel Westlakeis, quite simply, a percussion classic.
Dedica (1982) by Riccardo Formosaa miniature masterpiece by a former Toop-Donatoni student.
Digital sheet music sample Tuba concerto (1985) by Brenton Broadstockexploits the hidden lyricism of the solo instrument in an iridescently beautiful orchestral score.
Digital sheet music sample Pacifica (1986) by Vincent Plusha large-scale work that colourfully celebrates and mourns aspects of Pacific culture.
Digital sheet music sample Songs of the sibyls (1989) by Graham Hairan intricately beautiful fusion of ancient text and late modernist music.