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This article is an example of aggravated rhetoric written in 1984 and accepted for publication by The Australian, a national daily: in fact, Australia's only national daily, the other dailies being state-based. My thanks to the then Arts Editor, Maria Preaurer. I reproduce it here exactly as published then with a few updates for 1998 indicated in italics. My basic viewpoint remains unchanged 14 years later, but I offer one important disclaimer which refers to a paragraph in which I malign a musical effect obtainable on woodwinds known in 1984 as "polyphonics" but now more often referred to as "multiphonics" - a clear case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

I had become intensely irritated by the way this and other "effects" were used in works which their authors described as avant-garde. I felt the works were motivated by a determination to sound "original" and that this end was achieved by relentlessly directing performers always to produce sounds which were "new". Unfortunately there is a limit to the newness of sounds, just as there is to the newness of colors, so after hearing a number of works which all featured these "new sounds", the works themselves all began to sound the same! There are a finite number of basic sounds in nature which are audible to the human ear and they are to be found in the harmonic series; just as there are a finite numbers of colors which can be seen, and they can be observed in a rainbow (the colors of the spectrum). In my view, originality lies in the way this material is used, combined and refined; in the way it is shaped, and in the resonances it produces in the human spirit.

In the past decade I've met a number of young composers with whose philosophies of composition I felt much more in tune - though obviously this does not mean that we all share the same aesthetic or are following the same evolutionary path. But the music which results from their efforts has resonances which appeal to me because, in the conception, there is a balance between intellect and emotion. Actually, I believe that what is called "emotion" in music can only result from careful intellectual organisation of material. This, after all, is how the universe is constructed.

One of these composers, Ian Shanahan (also a chess player and mathematician) opened my eyes to the potential of "multiphonics", to the science of them, which is essentially the mathematics of overtones; and also, in practise, to the beauty of them in performance when intelligently employed. Ian has also made a study of harmonics in stringed instruments, and in the mathematical values of them (which allows the composer to "find" the overtone he/she wishes to use - as I understand it! Check with Ian for the goods on this.)

Ian has written a thesis on MULTIPHONICS with particular reference to his speciality, recorders. I mentioned to him that I was"posting" this article on my site, and that I wanted to retract my earlier dismissal of "polyphonics", and now wished to "praise them not bury them" and refer to his work in this area. With his kind permission I have added passages from his thesis to this file, following my article. Ian's reasoned dissertation makes a salutory contrast to my aggravated rhetoric. In fact, he won't agree with all of it!

However, I have left the text of the article as I wrote it, because it expresses the irritation I felt at the time - and, morevoer, I find that I am not the only one who got annoyed with WAY multiphonics (and other "effects") were sometimes used.

Ian Shanahan is a If you would like to get in touch with Ian his email address is
For further contact details go to

My respect for multiphonics as a natural phenomenon was increased recently when I caught on Cable TV a program about research into the sounds that dinosaurs made. The bony outgrowths on some dinosaurs heads, it is now thought, were resonating chambers used to enhance their cries. Practical research suggests that when dinosaurs honked, they honked in multiphonics!



An open letter from a composer

by Derek Strahan

As published in the national daily The Australian on Wednesday November 21 1984

All rights reserved Derek Strahan Copyright (C) 1984

Dear Private Sponsor,

We used to know each other well, you and I. I was a composer of music. You were a patron of music. You used some of your disposable wealth to have new works of music created to order. In the possession and enjoyment of these new works, you gave expression to your taste, you added to the quality of life of yourself, your friends and colleagues; and you established yourself in the community as a vital, generative force.

Sometimes, by your efforts alone an entire music movement emerged which epitomised a capital city, a country, an era. You entered history, for the world knew that without your guidance, your initiative and your passion for music, the immortal flowers of genius would never have blossomed.

Because it was the art of music you chose to sponsor, you showed yourself to be particularly enlightened. It is not possible to possess an original work of music in the way that you can possess a painting. There is only one original painting therefore it is possible to own it outright. But an original work of music "exists" only in performance, at which time it belongs, equally to everyone. You, understood this well, and you enjoyed the social life which revolved around the performance of your new works of music. Yes, they were, your works just as much as the composer's. The Rasumovsky Quartets, the Archduke Trio.

Well, times have changed, haven't they? Private sponsorship still exists, but, in the commodity-mad 20th century, it flourishes only in the world of the plastic arts, where originals are bought and traded in the frantic art futures market. The sponsorship of music has passed into the hands of bureaucracies and universities. As a result concert music has ceased to be a universal art form whose sentiment enriches our lives. It has become an exercise in working to academic models, in which the calligraphy of the score has become as important a fetish as the sound of the music. Academics define the parameters by which new works are written. Composer-students dutifully clone off works in which the absence of melody, form and rhythm is deemed, by their peers to be a virtue. Audience reaction is not a consideration.

Dear Sponsor, you are needed. If music is once again, to be a means of enhancing the human condition, you will have to step in and resume the role which you so effectively played 200 years ago in Vienna.


It is odd that there is no tradition of sponsoring composers in Sydney because, in every other respect, it is a city very much like the Vienna of old . As Vienna is cradled in the waters of the beautiful Blue Danube, so is Sydney in the beautiful blue waters of one of the world's most exquisite harbours. Like Vienna, Sydney is a centre of economic, political and social intrigue, and its citizens have displayed a passion for art which has given us the world's most individual performance center, the Sydney Opera House. The citizens of Sydney have a fine record of funding the performing arts. But not of funding composers. In this, and in this alone, is Sydney totally unlike Vienna.

It is, of course, the composer's own fault. Modern composers are unpopular because the music they write is unpopular. As I mentioned earlier, the modern philosophy of composition is based upon negatives, laid down by academics who have ruled that the composer should not base his music on models of the past, nor should he trivialise his music by writing in the popular idioms of the present. You and I know that this is, and always has been, hogwash.

The greatest works of the 18th and 19th centuries were looked upon as the pop music of the time (and the performers, like Liszt and Paganni were adulated like pop stars - those two were also composers)). The names of the movements are all the names of dance music, whether slow or fast, the dances of high life and of low life. The gavotte, the jig, the saraband, the minuet; the tarantella, the furiant, the waltz. The great composers of the early 20th century, among them Stravinsky, Bartok, Walton, and Milhaud , gorged themselves upon dance music, folk music and jazz.

(Update 1998: we now know that there were many more composers making "experiments" in the use of jazz and pop music in the 30s whose careers were aborted by Nazi persecution, and some of whom died in concentration camps. Their music is only in this decade being rediscovered! Refer to the Decca series of CDs "Entartete Musik")

You and I know, Dear Sponsor, that there is still time in this century to write orchestral and choral works which will feed upon and transform the dance music of our time, from the foxtrot and the Charleston, through the infinite permutations of blues, jazz and rock, to calypso, reggae, and other ethnic crossfusions yet to be invented by the tireless and irrepressibly festive human spirit. There is still time. But we must first outgrow the adolescent absurdities of the so-called avant-garde, an avant-garde which is now as old hat as a bowler on Bondi beach.

(Update 1998: The following is the paragraph referred to in the Introduction from which I now dissent to the extent of maligning "polyphonics" (also known as "multiphonics") as invariably fraudulent! Thanks to revelations by inventive young composers over the past decade , notably Ian Shanahan, I happily concede the innate musicality of this "natural" device. Please refer to Ian's MULTIPHONICS posted below. As an example of exasperated rhetoric I have left the paragraph, as published in 1984, unchanged! The underlying reasons for my exasperation remain unchanged! I am glad to find out that I was not the only person to be irritated by postmodern vacuities in music.)

In compositions which still pass for modern, players are asked by the composer to make many strange noises on their instruments which they were not trained to make at the Conservatorium. Indeed, players are taught to avoid making them. If an oboist in playing a classical piece should combine a squeak with a squawk

that is called a mistake. If he does so in playing a modern piece, that is called polyphonics. The fact that a squawk is not especially musical doesn't matter. What matters is that the modern composer is doing something not done by a classical composer. Bravo! Now you know everything you ever wanted to know about modern music but were afraid to ask.

Dear Sponsor, I do understand why you have not put money into music. It is because you do not wish to pay good money to have a pianist attack the entrails of a grand piano with a toasting fork. You would prefer to leave that to the government.

I also understand that you would prefer to get a tax deduction for your arts dollar. And so you direct your money to (1998 ) a registered Cultural Organisation and leave decisions to a Committee or Board of Management. The baleful effect of this policy is to give a very few individuals total control over what music gets written (if any) and what doesn't. What doesn't get written is your kind of music. Knowing this, your preference, naturally, is to invest your money in the performing arts, where you know your money will be spent on the performance of music that you like listening to, even though most of it is by dead composers.

If you want to get your kind of music written by a living composer there is a very simple method. Talk to him. Or her. Tell the composer what you want.

I know that by doing it this way, we will be excluding a multitude of angry academics from the consultation process. If you do not consult an academic you remove the reason for his or her existence. But, Dear Sponsor, if you want new music written with tunes, with vitality, with infectious rhythms; if you want music which you will enjoy having played in your home for an invited audience, don't wait for the government-funded bureaucracy to make it happen, because you'll be waiting forever.

Talk to the composer. Tell the composer that if he or she wants to be paid, he or she will have to write the kind of music you want written. That might sound authoritarian but if you're paying you have the right. And you'll be doing exactly what university lecturers, music critics and all the assorted self-proclaimed pundits of the music world have been doing for years. Most of them are on government salaries, which means, Dear Sponsor, that you have been paying them to talk for you.

Dear Sponsor, do we need this army of meddling middlemen? With affection and respect, I suggest that all we need is each other.