Return to Contents



A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN


When John Antill's "Corroboree" was first performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1946 (rescued from a forgotten back drawer by, as he then was, Mr, Eugene Goossens) it was hailed as the first Australian composition written in modern idiom. But the modern idiom was that of Stravinski's "Rite of Spring", first performed in 1913 time-lag of thirty years.

So when the new young composers of the 1960's dragged Australian music screaming into twentieth century nowtime, it was not just an updating of musical awareness. It was a quantum jump into a new time stream.

At the height of the revolution, regular subscribers to orchestral concerts might have been excused for concluding that, in the matter of original Australian compositions, there existed a national conspiracy to confuse, bemuse, abuse and only occasionally, and then inadvertently, amuse audiences with an unrelenting flow of works of unrelenting modernity whose purpose, as stated in programme notes, was to educate, to inform, but never to do anything so vulgar as to entertain.

When David Ahern's "Ned Kelly Music" was performed at a Sydney Prom Concert in 1968, audiences, in their innocence, accepted it as a "fun" piece. In the words of James Murdoch: "Players silently playing their instruments, or shouting 'Ned Kelly' and variations on it; farting noises from the brass; shufflings and anarchic movements within the orchestra - all produced delighted laughter from the "audience." However, such audience reaction, according to the composer was an incorrect response. In Ahern's radio talk, given before the broadcast of the work, he insisted: "I had no intention of providing a "fun" piece, nor gimmickry. The work is a serious working out of idea and principles that are current with the most advanced European thinking".

This was a surprising and unexpected self-justification in that, by invoking European precedent, it seemed to conjure up, yet again, the dreaded spectre of the "cultural cringe", that deference to older and therefore "better" cultures which has dogged Australian creative expression. The Jindyworokism of the 40's was a doomed attempt to "nationalise" Australian arts and now, it seemed, even the new music" of the 60's was falling into the earlier trap of working to "second-hand"

European models. The fact that the models were now current instead of superseded or even superannuated, did not make the same old dependence any less noticeable.

The only answer seemed to be to advance even faster and further into musical futurism than European and American rivals; to be more avant than the avant-garde, in order to dispel once and for all, at home and abroad, Australia's shameful reputation for being, in Roger Covell's phrase, "one of the final refuges of the arriere-garde in music". This meant embracing only such musical practises as rejected all old models. All traditional models of harmony, melody structure, form and rhythm patterning were regarded as suspect because of their associations; because of, in the words of Richard Meale, their "cosy terms of reference".

This posed horrendous problems for Australian composers of "serious" music, most of whom were emerging through tertiary institutions where caporales of the avant-garde were now entrenched as lecturers. If Brahms felt overawed by Beethoven, how much more difficult was it for Australian composers following Boulez, Cage, Messiaen, Penderecki, Varese et al. Brahms could use the same musical forms as Beethoven, yet still develop his own musical persona; still write truly German music. But Australian composers had to start with the doctrine that there was no doctrine existing which was truly Australian. New Australian forms had to be invented before a note of truly Australian music could be written. The problem was not one of inspiration. All Brahms had to do for inspiration was fall terminally in love with the widow of Robert Schumann. Australian composers are no doubt as capable of falling in love as Brahms was, whatever their sexual preferences. No, the problem was not lack of inspiration. It was lack of definition. If no existing definitions of musical practise were acceptable because they were not Australian enough, then all questions had to be re-asked, in order to find the ideologically correct new Australian answers, starting with the most basic question: "What is music?"

In a seminar on his own music given at the Australia Music Centre, in 1982, Australian composer Barry Conyngham publicly acknowledged that, in the matter of defining what is Australian music, he "followed the Roger Covell philosophy". This was interesting. Australia has now scored a first in world music history. Previously, academics and critics have anatomised music after it was written. Now we have an Australian composer acknowledging dependence on academic opinion to define the parameters of what Australian music is before it is written.

Professor Roger Covell, now head of the music department at the University of NSW was first appointed senior lecturer there in 1960, the year in which he joined the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald as music critic, a position which he also still holds. As Covell's opinions have so strongly influenced the direction and nature of original Australian music over the past quarter-century, these opinions are perhaps worth reviewing in the same spirit that he himself reviewed Australia's musical past in his authoritative work: "Australia's Music: Themes of a New Society", first published in 1967.

In this work Covell approached the task of reviewing Australian music past and present with the zeal of a prophet into whose hands has fallen a bulldozer for laying low mountains of museum art, exalting valleys of obscurity, and making smooth all crooked places in preparation for the advent of Australia's musical messiahs.

Those who fell short of the prophet's vision were given very short shrift. Eric Gross's "Botany Bay 1770" score sounds "as though he is shuffling a card index of standard effects". Clive Douglas, in "Essay for Strings", 1952, makes a "very aimless sound indeed". Sir Eugene Goossens "The Apocalypse" (revived by the ABC in 1981 ) displays "simplicity" overlaid by "randomly acquisitive thickening of harmony or colour" in a "style of gone-to-seed irrelevant luxuriousness."

In commenting on composers of Alfred Hill' s generation and after Covell wrote: "The second-hand sound of most Australian music was inevitable given the "provincial nature of Australian society" (an assessment which no historian would dispute given Australia's earlier geographical isolation and, consequently, the "nostalgia for a lost Europe" which pervaded not only the arts but social modes generally.

However, for Covell this fact became justification for rejecting even so innocuous a source material as our European-based heritage of folk-songs. Coercively prophetic, he pronounced it was "virtually certain that Australia will not make use of such traditional melodies as it now possesses after the manner of the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century music nationalists in Europe."

Feeling, perhaps, that this blanket indictment of our bush heritage was not strong enough to shame potential composers into turning their backs on it, Covell went on to opine: "it now seems too late for Australia to have a Bartok or Kodaly or Vaughan Williams, much less a Borodin or Dvorak, deriving a recognisable national and personal style from traditional sources." Instead he installed the "new cosmopolitanism of serial and post-serial music" as the norm to follow, a norm commendable for its "perpetually variable rhythm and non-conformist melody" and in which was finally laid to rest the "principle of relative tonality, a principle that amounted to a fetish in the Viennese classical period and later".

R.I.P. amongst others, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Wagner, Mahler, Sibelius, Stravinski, Shostakovich and even Bartok. Your works are buried with you and of no further use to us. Museum art. Monuments to past glories. The old regime. To the guillotine with them.

Your average, fellow-citizen concert-goer still sat happily in the front row, knitting brows while ABC Symphony Orchestras, under a parade of distinguished batons, expertly spilt the blood of the old masters. But programmed in among the old were increasing examples of the new music. In these the composer/audience roles were reversed. Whereas the old masters bled their hearts in public for the entertainment of patrons, the new masters set out to bleed the patrons for the entertainment of themselves. In my next article I will have more to say about this interesting, if messy, ritual.

Return to Contents