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AUSTRALIAN MUSIC - PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN
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All Rights Reserved Derek Strahan Copyright (C) 1998
By Derek Strahan
BA Cantab (Modern Languages), is a composer and writer. His work includes film and television scripts, libretti for his own songs, poetry, documentary and film scores, and concert music scores (many recorded on CD).
In accordance with the policy of this website I first reveal the subjective impulse which prompted the writing of this series of articles. This is so that you can make your own judgement about how objective I have succeeded in making them (or otherwise!). Personal reasons are usually kept hidden so as to enhance the veneer of objectivity in most writings on "art". But since, as in all human activity, the purpose of polemic is inevitably linked to campaigns underlying "turf wars", a search is always conducted for hidden motives (usually referred to as "hidden agendas"). I hereby save you the trouble of searching!
Humans, being mammals, are territorial by nature. This nature remains unchanged even (perhaps especially!) when the "territory" is "intellectual". It has always amused me that the most vicious turf wars are fought by that class of human mammal which arrogates to itself the in the highest degree the qualities and characteristics of superiority: of being "civilised", "dispassionate", "rational", "objective". I refer, of course, to that curious subspecies of human, the "academic".
I do have academic qualifications, but not in music. Fate did not allow that. However, fate did allow me to polish my natural facility in language through acquiring a BA degree in Modern Languages from Cambridge University, U.K. (1956). I am therefore as entitled as any to posture as an "academic", and, in writing these articles, I "aped" the academic approach. This annoyed some readers and, as you may note, resulted in at least one exchange of correspondence which is included in this file under - AN INTERLUDE: LETTERS TO THE EDITOR.
Getting back to motivation: after composing my String Quartet and Clarinet Quintet (both No. 1) in 1980/81, one of the performers kindly suggested I might write something for him. At the time he was a member of a high profile chamber ensemble attached to a University, and so it seemed appropriate to make the application for funding to compose this work through that ensemble. Alas, the application was "blocked" - that is, submission was declined by the musicologist who administered that ensemble. The explanation given was: "We weren't quite sure how it might turn out". I felt that this was an evasive answer, since it was quite clear from my two recent chamber works how it "might turn out": melodic, contrapuntal, and with some eclectic use of the dance rhythms of this century. I still feel the more honest explanation for lack of interest would have been something along the lines of: "I have heard your two recent chamber works and I know exactly how your proposed new work would turn out. So long as I have any influence I shall make it my business to ensure that the kind of music you write is not encouraged. I have an entirely different view of the direction that contemporary music should take."
It was in order to understand why my application had been "discouraged" that I undertook some reading to update myself on current musicological theory, and these articles were the result of that study. The first three were written in 1982, and were rejected for publication by mainstream newspapers (although my first BEETHOVEN ARTICLE was accepted). In 1989, a music journal, the Sydney Music Diary expressed interest, and I expanded the series to six. On re-reading them I find that they still express the views I currently hold. Some of the references to parochial Australian issues in No. 3 (Counter-revolution) are dated. The Sydney Symphony orchestra is now autonomous, and operates under its own management. The Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council no longer exists as such its functions having been assumed by a larger umbrella body created under a "new broom" policy which encourages greater accountability in funding decisions.
I have added a POSTSCRIPT 1998, since it has becomes clear, in the nineties, that much of what I was sniping at in these articles was the all-pervading and generally baleful influence of post-modernism over the past three decades, and I have made a few comments thereto, as an aid to clarifying my own thoughts.
By the way, those two pieces which "turned out" so dubiously, in fact, "turned out" to be popular with radio presenters, in particular my Clarinet Quintet which has been regularly broadcast in Australia on national radio and on fine music FM stations since the recording first became available on analogue tape in 1981. From there it progressed to LP then CD and still gets heard several times a year, and was recently included in a series of broadcasts of Clarinet Quintets including those of Mozart and Brahms. The work also owes a lot to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman.