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AN INTERLUDE: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

SYDNEY MUSIC DIARY, JUNE 1989

 

Dear Sir,

The claims made by Mr. Derek Strahan about left-wing domination of the Australia Council (May edition) and their refusal to fund new music containing "deeply-felt personal emotion", I find rather preposterous and irresponsible.

They are preposterous because I can discover no hard supporting evidence whatsoever. Instead he cites a Tim Burstall article "circa 1980", expressing doubts whether, the film "Mad Max" would have been funded by a government body because it was a "right-wing vengeance fantasy". Perhaps this ties in neatly with "quasi-political/covert/hidden agendas" not to mention "underlying repressions" and "contemporary puritanism". How exactly it relates to arts funding, I am less certain.

We later learn that the bias against funding new Australian music of a popular, "deeply-felt" nature extends even to the author's contribution to Art. With the greatest respect to Mr Strahan, had I been the funding assessor handed the plot of his film musical in which a computer operator falls in love with the boss's daughter, perhaps I too may have been more keen to feed the shredder than further the cause of New Australian Music. Such "evidence" aside, Mr Strahan's claims simply do not stand up to the reality. Over the past several months I have attended concerts featuring works by Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale and Richard Mills - all of whom have received considerable funding by the Performing Arts Board. Does Mr Strahan seriously accuse these gentlemen of "an absence of music of direct expression of emotion achieved by the use of those two vital ingredients of popular music ... melody ... and rhythm", as he describes the type of music the P.A.B. prefer?

I also suggest that Derek Strahan is being irresponsible. I say this because he uses a quasi-academic, objective style of journalism to describe purely personal opinions -- something I find personally irritating. His writing is not in the least objective nor academic because it lacks any sort of documentation or solid supporting evidence, and resorts to sweeping generalisations. For instance, "practitioners of concert music regard. pop music as 'market-driven rubbish' ". I believe a great many people would disagree -- assuming we understand (which I don't) how he defines "concert music" and "pop .music". I trust Mr Strahan will do better than this in his remaining features.

Peter Farmer.

 

 

SYDNEY MUSIC DIARY, JULY 1989

 

Dear Sir,

I am pleased that my articles in Sydney Music Diary have stimulated debate on topics of import to the future of Australian music. I refer to Mr. Peter Farmer's letter in the June issue, in which he takes strong exception to a basic premise of my argument on the grounds that I have not supported it with sufficient evidence. The premise is that ideological bias in funding policies has militated against the composition of music of a predominantly melodic and rhythmic nature over the past three decades, because music employing these features tends to be music of "direct expression of emotion" and, as such, is regarded as morally suspect by those whose left-wing sympathies cause them to favour, in art, expressions of public rather than private sentiment.

I pointed out that such bias is very rarely articulated directly by the music establishment, and, for this reason, I drew upon analogous examples of bias in funding of another art form, film, where ideological content is more openly displayed, it being an integral part of the story content of film. Mr. Farmer reveals some bias of his own when he recommends consigning a film musical project of mine to the shredder! Many plots for opera and musical involve a disagreement between father and daughter over her choice of mate (which is all that could be deduced from the two-line plot summary I provided); however, perhaps Mr. Farmer deems a personal conflict of this nature to be an unsuitable topic for music theatre. If so, he reveals himself to be a typical proponent of the kind of prejudice to which I draw attention. In any case, the point of my example was that the objection raised by an AFC assessor of the project) was to the political credo of the right-wing father.

As regards existing concert music which contra-indicates my thesis, Mr. Farmer cites without specific examples) the work of Peter Sculthorpe, Richard Meale and Richard Mills. The reverse is the case if one understands "direct expression of emotion" as referring to emotion derived from and relating to a personal situation such as being in love (as distinct from the zeal derived from a public attitude such as espousing a quasi-political cause. There is much intensity of feeling in Sculthorpe's music, but the programmatic content of his work tends avowedly to be of a public nature - that is to say, he writes in support of social and environmental causes having to do, especially, with the relationship of the Australian continent to its aboriginal past. Meale's music, programatically, has revealed a personal mythology having to do with Spain, with colours, and, latterly, in Voss, with a love relationship pertaining more to symbolism than personal contact. The music of Richard Mills does, it is true, draw on melodic and rhythmic devices, but, such devices are employed in the service of "public square" utterances, pieces reminiscent (intentionally?) of the last movements of some of the symphonies of Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was always sardonic in his use of musical bombast. To be fair to Mr. Mills, he has, In recent music works, shown some concern for vegetation. (POSTSCRIPT 1998: This was an oblique reference to Mills' ballet music for Edna May Gibbs' stories about the Gum Nut children, "Snugglepot and Cuddlepie")

It is true that recently, some Australian composers have begun to compose in a style known as minimalism, in which melody and rhythm are important. However, this represents a very belated recognition of a movement which began 20 years ago and may now be seen to be a spent force. In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald last December, composer Andrew Ford commented: "It should be added that, for many listeners, the result (of minimalism in music) can be irritating or just plain boring''. Obviously, when I am referring to "deeply felt" music, I do not refer to music which is boring! "Pop music" is certainly minimalist, but it does not induce tedium, it induces excitement, and I maintain that concert music could use an injection of populist excitement.

Mr. Farmer claims that he suffers from an inability to "understand" the difference between "concert music" and "pop music". Such archness ill-behoves one who accuses me of pretension in using a "quasi-academic style of journalism to describe purely personal opinions." Any child could enlighten Mr. Farmer by explaining to him that "concert music" is performed by "classical" musicians In a concert hall, whereas "pop music' is performed by "pop Stars" who compete to be heard on the Top Ten.

I repeat my view that what has been missing in the repertoire of new Australian music over the past three decades has been music in which both emotion and intellect are employed in works of significant melodic and rhythmic content which specifically reflect the vitality of current dance music. The reason why such music is lacking is because funds have not been provided for those who wished to compose it. The "evidence" that such music is lacking, Mr. Farmer, lies the fact that such music is Iacking.

Derek Strahan, B.A.Cantab.

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