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A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN


In the first two articles of this series I outlined the process by which entrenched academic opinion, preaching a philosophy of austere modernism, created during the Australia of the sixties a climate of rigid musical puritanism in which certain reprehensible musical acts carried with them the stigma of original sin: the indecent exposure of a major chord; the lewd pulsation of a repeated rhythm pattern. And as for writing anything so vulgar as a tune, this was like being caught with your musical pants down, and hard at it.

On the credit side, one of the brighter canons of musical thought was that Australian music should start to reflect an awareness of our true geographical situation, by absorbing influences from our northern neighbours. Both Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale brought sonorities new to the public into the concert hall through their compositions using Indonesian instruments and carefully considered musical affiliations.

Even in this area, however, the modernist's distrust of rhythmic vitality was evident, The potential of the astonishing polyrhythms of Pacific cultures, of the intricate beat cycles of the Indian subcontinent was not tapped. Instead we were treated to works of a still, sonic timelessness. A kind of musical zero gravity, which certainly had its own ethereal charms. But beat, in the sense understood by jazz and pop musicians, by Milhaud, in "La Creation Du Monde", by Schumann in the Scherzo of his Op. 44 Piano Quintet (to take some random examples) was not present. Beat, in that sense, has been a no-no in contemporary music. Here, to be fashionably avant-garde, one might only use, in Roger Covell's phrase, "perpetually variable rhythm" which means, in practise, for the listener, tempo so anatomised and so rarefied, so fractured as to exist only in the sense that a shattered pane of glass still exists in the sum of its pieces.

In summing up the musical output of the past quarter-century in Australia, one can point to works of rarefied sensibility, of agonised self-revelation, of contemplative introspection, of sonic brilliance and economy of statement. On the whole it has been music of the essential moment rather than music of progression through time. On occasions the essential moment has been unbearably prolonged for a considerable period of time. It has been music defined in its parameters by academics and critics who have sought to educate the public in what they ought to appreciate, and brainwash composers into supplying the product. There has been little attempt to furnish composers with feedback from that important, but neglected element in the musical transaction: the audience.

As a consequence of this policy - and it has been a policy, invented by a paternal academia, applied by government funding bodies - what is now missing in the repertoire of original Australian compositions, is works of populist persuasion, works reflecting the passions, preoccupations and tastes of that not unintelligent and certainly not irrelevant Australian individual - the ticket-buying concert-goer, who would probably appreciate, at minimum, courtesy and consideration from a composer, and, at maximum, vitality, enthusiasm, melodic and rhythmic invention, and possibly even a little inspiration.

If works which involve by virtue of passionate statement are not forthcoming from the traditional Australian sources of sponsorship: arts bodies, statutory bodies, municipal bodies, corporate bodies, then there remains one other and most honourable option: individual patronage. It worked in Austria two centuries ago, and it can surely work in Australia today, especially in Sydney which shares with the Vienna of old a complex and Byzantine socio-economic structure, and an extravagant love of musical entertainment.

The only problem which a composer faces in securing private patronage today in competing with other causes, and which Mozart and Beethoven did not have to face, is in offering tax deductibility. The short answer to this is that any enterprise which creates income qualifies as a business, and as music works are written for performance, and performances can take place anywhere, even in private homes, this is a matter which can safely be entrusted to the patron's accountant. Even tax deductibility can be arranged through the good offices of the Australian Elizabethan Trust, so, in principle, there are really no obstacles.

POSTSCRIPT 1998 - In 1990 the Australian Elizabethan Trust went into receivership taking with it $100,000 of "donations" intended for support of the arts. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia had "use" of this money for four years before it was finally distributed to the intended "recipients". Donations to the Arts can now be made to Registered Arts Bodies. But individual artists cannot be registered to receive donations. (See PROPOSAL: REGISTRAR OF PRIMARY CREATORS)

The advantage of private patronage is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. I suspect that if there is to be a new wave in Australian music over the next quarter-century, it will come from creative sponsorship by private individuals deciding unilaterally what kind of new music they would like to listen to and paying a reasonable fee to have it written and performed.

I refer now to the Concert Music Department of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Once upon a time, in 1982, before it imploded, this Department had a stated policy of supporting new, adventurous, entrepreneurial musical endeavours, so that new works of a suitably high standard created by private sponsorship would have a sporting chance of subsidised performance. The criterion, as outlined to me then, was excellence in craft, in both composition and in performance. Content and style were recognised to be matters of creative prerogative. This policy, stated but unwritten, was honoured more in the breach than in the observance. It was fulfilled in an isolated instance, in the programming of Sculthorpe's new work "Mangrove" which the composer donated to the ABC for its 50th anniversary year.

Shortly thereafter, circa 1983, ABC Concert Music imploded, and has not yet sufficiently recovered to have formulated anything other than an ad hoc policy in respect of commissioning and programming new Australian works.

In 1989, under the direction of Antony Fogg, there seem to be

1) an adamant refusal to commit to any statement of policy in respect of the commissioning and/or performance of new works

2) a related fear that any expression of policy might be construed as partisan support for a particular school of music.

The effect of a refusal to commit is, of course, to give ABC Concert Music the unrestricted power of partisan support; in other words, a maximum of discretion allied to a minimum of public accountability.

POSTSCRIPT 1998. Dissatisfaction with this state of affairs within the music community reached such a peak by 1992 that, after a series of placatory public meetings, the ABC appointed a new director of music , Nathan Waks. I quote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of March 25, 1993. Announcing Mr. Waks' appointment it continued: "Mr. Waks, a cellist, was asked by the managing director of the ABC, Mr. David Hill, to undertake a one-man review last May after a group of 97 musicians and composers called on the Federal Government to intervene in the ABC's concerts department. The group - including Larry Sitsky, Roger Woodward, Miriam Hyde, Bruce Smeaton and Patrick Thomas - had claimed that a small group of composers were unduly favoured by the ABC under its director of ABC Concerts, pianist and artistic director of the Seymour Group, Mr. Anthony Fogg.

In his report, Mr. Waks found no evidence to substantiate a conflict of interest in choosing concert music but he recommended that decision-making needed to be "more transparent and informed by a wider range of artistic input" ... While Mr. Fogg will remain responsible for schedules and detailed programming, Mr. Waks will oversee overall artistic and musical direction".

In 1996, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra became an autonomous body, working in conjunction with the ABC, but under its own administration.

According to Professor Roger Covell, writing in 1967, ABC Concert Music has always had a tendency to operate in a manner which is both self-serving and autocratic. Commenting on the role played by the ABC in furthering the cause of music in its foundation years, when programming was safely conservative, he wrote that monolithic ABC leadership was "appropriate to a country in which paternal authoritarianism has tended to be the prime source of (musical) enterprise and initiative"

It seemed that an adverse criticism of ABC administration was intended in these remarks. It is ironic therefore that when, from 1960, academic opinion took over ideological leadership in matters musical, university lecturers and newspaper critics in turn became father figures of whose authoritarian opinions even the ABC had to take note, in commissioning new works and in its concert programming; and, as we have noted, still perforce does take note, displaying today, three decades later, the customary stalinist authority, but without the former initiative!

Covell acknowledged the shift in leadership which occurred during the sixties when, in a 1977 article in Quadrant Magazine titled "An End To Modernity In Music?" he wrote retrospectively, of that period:

"Musicians and listeners were made aware, through a process of moral blackmail, that support of the new music was their duty to the present and their obligation to the future". Moving belatedly with the times he then observed: "All periods, all styles (of music) are simultaneously co-existent as never before", concluding therefore that ''innovation is no longer credible as a belligerent and intolerant cause for which other music has to serve as a whipping boy".

Such wisdom after the event was incongruous from one who, as his writings testify, was an enthusiastic enforcer of the (now condemned) "intolerance" and "moral blackmail"; from one who, in 1967, in one breathtaking generalisation dismissed the whole of the nineteenth century as "aberrant" because in that period composers were honoured as "cultural heroes" or "demigods", Covell displayed then, and perhaps still feels an egalitarian distrust of the notion of the "hero-composer". For him "a concern for the health of the musical community is of infinitely more importance than an attempt to pick winners in a Parnassian race". This attitude smacks of an artistic pseudo-socialism in which all composers are deemed to be "equal", a la Orwell, and may not presume to be otherwise; a doctrine which both Orwell and that arch-socialist Bernard Shaw, who revered the creative impulse, would have found most risible. Covell spelled out his priorities even more specifically by stating: "The vision splendid of Australian musical education and by extension, of Australian music is that it should occupy a leading role in the study and synthesis of the musical idioms of the Asian and Pacific areas".

In this interesting and self-revealing pronouncement Covell made clear his view that if there were to be Australian composers they might exist only as part of an education process and that their work must be written only in conformity with the prescribed syllabus. Only thus could they hope to bask in the reflected glory of the "vision splendid".

To have limited Australian music to absorption by osmosis of' the musical cultures of adjacent Asian land masses was a patently ridiculous notion even back in the sixties. It is even more constricting today when we live in an age of instant global communications; where both time and space have been annihilated; when the music of all cultures past and present is now immediately and instantly accessible. If Australia has a folk tradition to draw on it is the tradition which reaches us through the media. That this tradition also belongs to every other nation does not make it any less ours. The process of assimilation has, of course, already begun. However, in Australia, as you might expect, given the Australian tendency to defer to authority, the process has orly been allowed to occur within very strictly defined ideological parameters.

In a later article I will bring my survey into the 80's and explore how the advent of minimalism brought about a re-use of structured melody and rhythm, but only in such a way as to reduce audiences to a state of comatose boredom, when subjected to new works written in conformity with the strictures of that particular school. Composers of concert music, it would appear, are still denied license to entertain. In my next article I shall endeavour to identify the political cause of such denial.

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