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Australian Music in the 1990s

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 1990s.The first looks at Australian notated music during this period and the second discusses Australian experimental music.

Australian Composition in the 1990s

Despite some unedifying brawls between modernists and traditionalists in print and in public in the early 1990s, a state of détente soon established itself between artists of very different compositional and aesthetic orientation. The early 1990s saw dedicated new music concerts and series added to the programs of major orchestras; composer residencies became more common; festivals such as the Sydney Spring introduced new works from overseas as well as Australia. The Keating Federal Government initiated the devolution of the state orchestras from centralised ABC management in 1994; the ramifications of that for composers are still being felt. The Howard Government (1996-2007) tended to make the support of major organisations its priority in arts funding.

The proliferation of composers and styles nonetheless continued unabated, and Australian music – regardless of its aesthetic or ideological program – grew ever more competent in craft and confident in manner, and increasingly enjoyed performances on its own merits on the international stage.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
Piano sonata no. 1 (1990) by Carl Vinea vintage example of this composer’s individualistic diatonic palette and dancing rhythmic vitality.
Diptych (1991) by Roger Smalleyshows masterly orchestral skill in responding to WA artist Brian Blanchflower’s intriguing littoral installation.
Omaggio alla Pietà (1993) by Mary Finsterera disturbing portrait of the Virgin’s grief at the foot of the cross, composed for Sydney’s The Song Company
Digital sheet music sample Colour red... your mouth... heart (1994) by Gerard Brophydisplays this composer’s move from a febrile modernism to a more frankly sensual style often overlaid with Latin American elements.
Digital sheet music sample shiru l'adonai shir Hadash (1994) by Adam Yeea complex late-modernist piece for clarinet, violin, flute and amplified guitar, based on Psalm 96 ‘Sing to the Lord a new song!’
Elevator music (1997) by Graeme Koehneis part of series of orchestral works cultivating an energetic and populist manner.


Australian Experimental music in the 1990s

By Peter Blamey

While some established experimental composers, musicians and practices found broader success on the contemporary music stage during the 1990s, new ideas were emerging that would continue to challenge mainstream assertions as to the nature of music, and extend the programme of diversification implicit within any notion of musical experimentalism.

Where support for experimental or electronic music practices within tertiary music departments had begun to stagnate (with perhaps the exception of electroacoustic and computer music), the increasing acceptance of installation, media art and time-based art within fine art colleges, along with the emerging academic focus on sound within both cultural studies and sound studies, positioned experimental music within a broader context of sound arts. Also, in 1995 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney hosted 'Sound In Space: Adventures in Australian Sound Art' curated by Rebecca Coyle. With the demise of NMA publications in 1992 important writing on experimental audio practices was published by the Contemporary Sound Arts group in their three issues of Essays in Sound between 1992 and 1997, along with their online journal Soundsite. (The influential contemporary arts journal Art & Text also published numerous articles on Australian sound art and music in this period.)

Another revitalising factor was the cross-fertilisation between experimental music and those artists inspired by the nascent experimentalism within the punk and post-punk ‘unpopular music’ underground of the 1980s. One prime example of this was the What is Music? festival, established in 1994 by Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi, which provided an important opportunity for this meeting to take place, embracing free improvisation (Jon Rose, Chris Abrahams, Greg Kingston, Michael Sheridan), tape manipulations and electronics (Rik Rue, The Loop Orchestra), larger established exploratory ensembles (Machine for Making Sense, austraLYSIS), noise music (Lucas Abela), industrial music (John Murphy), and all points in between, such as sound poet Amanda Stewart and extreme vocalist Nick Kamvissis. What is Music gradually extended beyond its Sydney roots to become a travelling festival, along the way setting the benchmark for future experimental music festivals.

The ubiquity of the personal computer established a stream of computer and digital music outside of the academy, aligned with more popular forms of electronic music as often as with the experimental scene. Artists such as Julian Knowles and Pimmon (Paul Gough) pursued live, real-time computer based performance that crossed genre lines and presaged much laptop-based music of the following decade.

Significant Works

  Work Notes
 The Next Room (CD) by AustraLYSIShttp://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/product/the-next-room
 Talk Is Cheap (CD) by Machine for Making Sensehttp://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/product/talk-is-cheap
 Perks (CD) by Jon Rosehttp://www.rermegacorp.com
 I/T (CD + book) by Amanda Stewarthttp://www.splitrec.com/
 Insulation (CD) by Oren Ambarchihttp://www.touchmusic.org.uk/catalogue/t3316_oren_ambarchi_insulation.html
 Digital Jamming (CD) by Michael Sheridanhttp://www.cdonline.com.au/?event=search.viewProduct&cataloguenumber=HOLE018_1§ion=music
 Night Passage (CD) by Alan Lambhttps://www.discogs.com/Alan-Lamb-Original-Masters-Night-Passage/release/176430