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A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN


In the first article of this series I noted how, from about 1960, Australian composers were exhorted by academics and critics to reject, as a basis for original compositions (if they were to be truly Australian) all such traditional music devices as "conformist" melody, relative tonality, recurrent rhythm patterns, together with such intrinsically "second-hand" source material as our Irish- and English- derived bush ballads, for the reason that all such practises and sources were in themselves tainted by colonial ism, and by the contagious virus of the dreaded "cultural cringe"

No survey of Australian concert music during the sixties would be complete without reference to the work of Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe. The writer wishes to make clear his respect and admiration for the work of both composers. References to their music In these articles are through the mouths of musicologists and critics. My survey is of their comments, which reveal that in the sixties, there was a Meale versus Sculthorpe partisan battle analogous to the one which was fought between supporters of Brahms and Wagner in the late nineteenth century. Needless to say the music of both Brahms and Wagner has survived the literary excesses of their respective supporters and denigrators, and I have no doubt the same will transpire in respect of the music of both Meale and Sculthorpe.

One of' the honoured Dons of the new music's Cosa Nostra was Professor Roger Covell, and I now propose, at the risk of having a contract taken out on my musical life, to continue my review of his influential opinions, as expressed in his 1967 publication "Australia's Music: Themes of a New Society", opinions which, in retrospect appear to have acquired the force of law for the new generation of composers. Having severely heavied Australian composers of the past for their conservatism, Covell then proceeded to apportion praise and blame selectively amongst his peers according to how they did or did not conform to the new rules of the game.

Thus Richard Meale was commended for adopting the "new, incoherent doodling quality" peculiar to "much contemporary music", an interestingly colourful way of describing the principle of indeterminacy beloved of the then avant-garde. (The practise of this principle probably reached its apogee in Australia with the performance of David Ahern's "Journal" (commissioned by the ABC in 1969), a work scored for three actors, three actresses, didgeridoo, electric bass, violin, ring modulator and other live electronic equipment, and lasting fifty-five minutes. The score consisted of one page of symbolic notation in the style of Stockhausen, thus saving the ABC considerable expenditure in the copying of parts.)

Meale's thirty-five minute orchestral work "Nocturne" (1967) was applauded by Covell for its "static luxuriance" (as opposed to the suspect "irrelevant luxuriousness" of Goossens "The Apocalypse"?) Similarly, two works by Nigel Butterly, his instrumental Octet "Laudes" (1963), and his String Quartet (1965) both won approval as being "species of mystical contemplation in sound". Listeners who found either work "overlong or passive to a fault" were chided for "lack of temperamental co-operation" with the composer.

By contrast, expatriate Malcolm Williamson was "apt to puzzle" listeners because, in addition to writing "serious, intense pieces", he also showed a "fondness for the notion of the 'big tune' which induces a kind of happy surrender in its audience, even (sic) at first hearing." Williamson was not actually condemned for wanting to make his audiences happy, but he was firmly categorised as an "entertainer" composer, not, we were made to feel, an entirely respectable thing to be.

By contrast there was no hiding the endorsement accorded Meale because "the audience he is seeking is not the comfortable, tune-loving body of concert-goers, seeking diversion or entertainment of which they can remain intellectually in control." How many concert-goers were aware, I wonder, when they bought their tickets, that Australia's approved composers were seeking in them "a public which is prepared to submit (sic) to a total involvement in a group situation"?

James Murdoch, in his book "Australia's Contemporary Composers" (1972), confirmed Meale's "refusal to be an entertainer as a composer" and added, to make the matter quite clear, "now that he has the measure of his powers, writing with an eye to the Australian public is not going to be a consideration".

At this point, surely, we must stop and re-think. Is there not something odd, inverted even, about conferring approval upon a composer's philosophy because he, supposedly, despises his audience to the point where he does not wish to write for them, yet, at the same time, desires that the audience should "submit" to his music ?

Must we not ask ourselves, and by we I mean composers, audiences, critics, academics, music management and art bodies - must we not ask ourselves to reconsider what is the purpose of music in Australia? Is new music to be written solely for the purpose of illustrating academic models of what direction music "ought" to be taking ? Is this not another example of Australian deference to authority ? Having stamped out the "cultural cringe", has it not now been replaced by the "academic cringe"?

Even Wagner, the original exponent of the "music of the future" bandwagon and no mean innovator himself, was enough of a businessman to know that if you want people to buy subscription tickets to hear your music, you must allow them some expectation of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic enjoyment ! Are we now so alienated from the universal heritage of music, here in Australia, that we can ignore Mozart's dictum that "the essence of music is in melody"; or Beethoven's own definition of his work: "I write music from the heart for the heart." Coming from Beethoven, you cannot dismiss this as mere sentimentality, even allowing for the florid excesses of nineteenth century language.

Peter Sculthorpe, one of Australia's best known composers, seems to have faced this issue very early in his career. In his teens he presented his music teacher with his first atonal composition with the comment that music had now to be written like this "because the world has run out of tunes". To which she, the teacher, replied: "Does God ever run out of faces?" Sculthorpe apparently took the remark to heart. But one suspects that he would have written "tunes" anyway, because he has, in no small measure, the innate gift of melody, to use when he chooses.

Not surprisingly he has, thereby, incurred critical displeasure. James Murdoch, comparing Sculthorpe's Asian-influenced work with that of Meale, complained that "some of Sculthorpe's Balinese pieces ... sound like travelogue music" ! Well, they have travelled well, ail over the world, in fact, and Sir Robert Helpmann Iiked "Sun Music" enough to set dancers travelling across stage to it. Such Sculthorpe versus Meale comparisons were part of that healthy rivalry to which I alluded earlier, and which enlivened the music scene during the sixties. No similar controversy has replaced it since.

In retrospect it is unclear how much of this controversy was real and how much invented. Some musicologists encouraged us to believe that some Australian composers, unlike Sculthorpe, confronted ghosts of the past with trepidation. Thus James Murdoch, in 1972, described Meale's compositional process as one of "re-assessing his responses to much of the available musical material, in order to clarify what personal function it can serve him, even to the extent of coming to terms with a major chord!" This was in reference to the orchestral work "Very High Kings" (1968) in which an Eb major chord is indeed strikingly used to good effect in that most original piece, and is not noticeably out of place amongst its other intriguing sonic effects. Another reviewer might have commented, with equal justice, that there is really nothing mysterious or threatening about a major chord; that it is simply the name given to the concurrent sounding of the first three distinct tones of the harmonic series, as it exists in nature; and that from this primal series also emerged the basic scale of notes from which all the world's music evolved, and, in imitation of which every ethnic culture learned to extend speech into song; and that, therefore, the use of the major chord need not involve any major trauma.

Why some "serious" composers should have been so terrified of using this natural phenomenon, or the sophisticated sliding scales of relative tonality which developed from it, is a question better answered on the psychiatrist's couch than in the concert hall! A propos, and to be even-handed, it should also be pointed out that Stravinski, a tonal composer, refused to write atonal music until after the death of Schoenberg! One might be excused for concluding that Stravinski's lifelong espousal of tonality had less to do with musical ideology than with his ego as a composer! In any case, my concern in these articles is certainly not to offer any kind of qualitative judgement on the work of my peers. That task must fall to posterity, and, in the meantime, we must all compose as we think fit. Rather, it is my concern to uproot academic dogmas which, like weeds, have so overgrown the ground area of our musical life that Australians no longer see them as such, but mistake them for native earth.

At the beginning of the 1980's, then, there was a danger, for the future, that with nothing growing but yesterday morning's glories, nothing else would be able to grow. However, for every revolution there comes a counter-revolution and,

surprisingly, during the 70s, musicologists themselves had already begun to dismantle the barricades! One suspects that this was a pre-emptive action, taken so that they could appear to retain the prescriptive initiative. But it also calls in question how strongly held were their convictions in the first place. In my next article we will examine their retreat from dogma.

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