Identity Crisis In Australian Music

By Chanan Hanspal

On discovering that there was a contentious issue pervading the intellectual community who had a vested interest in trying to establish an Australian style of music, I became intrigued and was anxious to read more on the topic and put some of my thoughts into writing. My research was quite enlightening as it raised a number of questions that were not always pertinent to music, but to the history and socio-political climate of this relatively young country, Australia.

The perennial struggle to project an Australian music indicative of numerous conceivable factors representing provinciality and derivatives thereof is still the bane of a contentious argument. Even the search for classificatory amendments pertinent to certain characteristics within music of a supposed Australian style encompasses a complexity that is a reflection of the issue itself. The issue has raised a number of important questions as to how one might explore ways in which to project an Australian style in music and if indeed this is desirable. Should one be concerned with the influx of disparate nationalities into Australia as a means of adopting those cultural mannerisms in tandem with Australia’s own, as a form of expression to symbolise the country’s music. Is the emulation of Aboriginal culture set to a westernised musical heritage appropriate, does it express the reality of modern society? Some of these questions are far from being new, yet they prove to be self-perpetuating as a result of the difficulty in standardising an Australian form of music that is identifiable as such by people residing outside the country.

Early attempts at asserting Australianism through music proved futile. Percy Grainger had been anxious to emphasise his Australian origins by writing a piece entitled, Colonial Song between 1911-14 in which he proclaimed ‘no traditional tunes of any kind are made use of in this piece, in which I have wished to express my personal feelings about my own country (Australia) and people’. One assumes that the implication of ‘no traditional tunes’ refers to the exclusion of anything of British or European extraction. Grainger also wrote that ‘an Australian [composer] should have a continental conception (and such a continent, so grandly monotonous, uneventful and unbroken-up)'. These remarks provide an insight into the quest for an Australian style very early on in Australia’s musical evolution and with respect to the ‘continental conception’ predate in theory the subsequent practice by Peter Sculthorpe and others of the representation of the Australian landscape through music. Even the sometimes over romantic disposition of Henry Tate in some of his claims regarding for instance the connoted significance of the prevalence of major third intervals in bird calls corresponding to the liberty-loving aspirations of our citizens’ yielded some forward thinking ideas about devices utilised by composers later on. In his publications, Australian music resources: some suggestions (1917) and Australian music possibilities (1924) Tate investigated ways of procuring rhythms and pitches from bush sounds, a practice later taken up by Ross Edwards and Nigel Westlake.

The advent of the ABC in 1932 and its initiatives to promote orchestral music through broadcasting, recording and the deployment of orchestras in the capital cities were indispensable. The affects the ABC would have on public awareness of music were far reaching, ‘those decades were formative in the sense of developments which had a profound impact on music, especially in the fields of broadcasting and recording.’ (Brown, 1995, p. 5). Covell writes, ‘no musician of any kind who came to maturity between the wars or since has been able to ignore the consequences of the ABC’s entry into the organisation of music making.’ (Covell, 1967, p.108). Although the emergence of the ABC was important, it had been criticised for being too conservative, ‘this organisation [ABC] tended to foster conservatism and inhibit or ignore avant-garde activities through its funding and broadcasting policies and practices.’ (Shaw, 1988, p. 8). The failure by the ABC to address important musical movements abroad had its consequences. Apart from occasional airings of modern music during the 1930s and 1940s, the ABC fell short of advocating the modernity in music which had been prevalent in Europe for some time. Some say this deprivation might have been the cause of stultification of musical progress in Australia.

‘Music education was so far behind that students in the late 1940s at the Melbourne Conservatorium learnt serialism only by sending overseas for texts, through which they worked with no guidance; small wonder that it did not attract young composers who did not understand its historical raison d’être.’ (Shaw, 1988, p. 9)

Although Covell recognises the significance of the ABC, he is also apt to reveal the conservatism of the institution,

‘The post war rediscovery of serialism by a growing international band of younger composers, the enormous revival of interest in Webern and Berg… took their place in musical history without so much as a nod of recognition from ABC programmes of any kind. (Covell, 1967, p. 131)

As far as the advocacy for an Australian musical identity within the context of that newfound medium inaugurated in 1932, one of the main composers to filtrate the ABC was Clive Douglas. Douglas’ search for national authenticity in music was an ongoing endeavour during his tenure at the ABC.

‘A musical idiom must be found which is so entirely Australian that no other influence can be felt…’ (Douglas, 1956)

Douglas subscribed to the 1940s literary nationalist movement, Jindyworobakism which attempted to ‘...breath new life into Australian writing through an identification of literary subjects with indigenous Aboriginal traditions and myth, and through a closer identification with the unique Australian landscape.’ (Howard, 1978, p. 37) The conceptual transference of Jindyworobakism to music had inherited the same flaws as the literary movement, primarily the paradoxical existence of a white cultural ingratiation with a hitherto suppressed indigenous culture. The superficies of such a movement were glaring and the assimilation of Aboriginal culture as a means to epitomise Australian identity failed to bestow to posterity anything more than a novelty. Nevertheless, Douglas had utilised Aboriginal elements in his music by deriving rhythmic and melodic aspects, which to all intents and purposes sound slightly contrived. The intricacies of Aboriginal music or any other non-western music present the transcriber trained in western musical traditions with a problem in how to notate the music. Unfortunately, some have taken it upon themselves to quantise rhythms and approximate notes which make sense to the western trained musician but obscure the true form of the music. It is this caricaturing that results in the contrivance found in some of the music that adheres to the integration of Aboriginal music into a western context.

John Antill was another figure who had sought to combine the aforementioned types of music in his composition Corroboree. This piece is often cited as the catalyst that sparked the evolution of a new wave of Australian composition. However, Corroboree stands as a testament to the seemingly unresolved diametric opposition of the European music tradition’s emersion with Aboriginal themes. Consequently, Antill’s Aboriginal derivations in the form of non-western percussion instruments and the implementation of techniques employed by certain instruments to suggest ritual gestures are unconvincing.

‘Antill does not have…supreme tact in knowing how long to persist with passages relying on one metrical scheme for their effect and, in consequence, Corroboree in its complete version soon generates a feeling of extreme monotony.’ (Covell, 1967, p. 71)

Nevertheless, Corroboree imparted to Australian audiences a new aural experience which left a resonance Antill never achieved in any other work.

‘The impact of the pounding rhythms and rich orchestration of Corroboree when it first fell on the ears of Australians in 1946 was unmistakable. Here at last was a work in totally western idiom and instrumentation, paying a remote yet sincere homage to Aboriginal culture and possessing a recognisably Australian identity.’ (Brown, 1978, p. 47)

Antill worked for the ABC up until 1969 for thirty-six years; during his stint, he became Federal Music Editor for the Commission. ‘This meant that every composition, either local or from overseas, submitted to the ABC found its way to Antill’s desk for approval to broadcast…for many years he was the virtual arbiter of the selection of new music broadcast by the ABC.’ (Murdoch, 1972, p. 9) Murdoch claims that Antill was to blame for the conservatism that dominated the ABC for so long. The fact that much of the new music outside Australia received little attention until the 1960s was a consequence of the lag with the rest of the world.

The ‘continental conception’ asserted by Grainger in respect of an inference of the vast landscape which could be depicted to an extent in music had a significance as this conceptualisation had been a preoccupation for Peter Sculthorpe. Sculthorpe’s unmitigated desire to reflect identity in his music has yielded a certain amount of success; he has bequeathed to Australian music a significant contribution in the advancement of Australianism. From a technical standpoint, some of the features Sculthorpe’s music is renowned for are; monotonous rhythmic figures in imitation of the constancy of the didgeridoo, modality, and small intervallic relationships. These qualities in combination with the creative skills of a composer produce an ambience, a spaciousness, words in various permutations have been used to describe the general atmosphere of Sculthorpe’s music.

‘Sculthorpe uses intervals of small distances, for example minor and major seconds and minor thirds, to reflect the flatness of the landscape. He incorporates Japanese melodies because of its “Staticness”…a quality Japanese music has and that European avant-garde music, with its leaps and jumps hasn’t.’ (Hayes, 1993, p. 6)

Sculthorpe has gone to great lengths to instil his music with techniques that invoke the openness of Australian landscape. However, an issue has been raised by David Tunley of great validity in response to the exertion of Australian mannerisms in music, Tunley questions, ‘does the answer lie in that by creating so distinctly personal a style it was the composer who gave the national complexion to his country’s music rather than the other way round? This is not to deny that he was also the product of his environment.’ (Tunley, 1978, p. 5) This question carries connotations of great proportions. Tunley seems to be implying that in the pursuit of identity, composers have inflicted their perception of Australia through music and that the insubordination of idiosyncrasy has prevailed over accurate nationalistic representation, what ever that may be. Tunley is not in denial of a composer being a ‘product of his environment’, but it is an interesting stance to infer that the perpetuity of advocacy could have an influence on the perception of a composer’s work. To say Australian music is purely programmatic would be verging on blasphemy. But, apart from the utilisation of Aboriginal instruments and themes, and the nebulous distinction made by some as to the parallels of the drone-like qualities of the Didgeridoo and the harmonic staticness of some Australian compositions conjuring up images of vast landscapes, does make the argument prone to inconsistencies. Another relevant point Tunley expounds is the lack of local music of folk origin as a source in which to borrow that is untainted by overseas influence.

‘The source of materials from which sprang the great national movements in music…namely a strong and distinctive folk-music, is largely missing in Australia, while the use of Aboriginal music poses problems which many of the younger Australian composers would nowadays regard as being ethical as much as technical.’ (Tunley, 1978, p. 5)

The problem of a lack of source material in the form of folk music is also expressed by Jeanell Carrigan, who points out in her thesis Towards an Australian Style ‘the use of folk melodies has not proved very successful due to the fact that most Australian folk music is heavily laden with overtones of the English, Irish and even Scottish folk music and has therefore not been a substantial aid in creating a distinctly Australian sounding music.’ (Carrigan, 1994, p. 10)

With the limitation of source material, it has been somewhat challenging for Australian composers to develop an Australian style. However, some might say composers like Sculthorpe and Edwards have achieved their objectives in establishing an Australian identity. The intrinsic ‘staticness’ of Sculthorpe’s music for instance is a symbol of his Australianess and the abstention of any radical contrapuntal forms or formal structures reminiscent of European derivation is perhaps what some people perceive to be an Australian style. Roger Smalley has commented on this point succinctly,

‘You can take these observations negatively and say: ‘OK, Australian music is rather simple formally, rather simplistic in its structure, it is a little bit too straightforward, maybe even boring.’ [But this] music is the kind of music which the composers in Australia want to write, and if you don’t like it, or you find it boring, simplistic, repetitive, naïve of whatever, too bad! That is Australian music.’ (Roger Smalley)

The sparseness of some of this music is arguably suggestive of an Australian style, but unless a person unfamiliar with Australian music is told the music is Australian how is that person to differentiate between music of Australia or any other sparse-type of music. In a way, it is apt for Smalley to make the deduction of an Australian style as he has been living in Australia for some time and has had time to absorb its influence more than someone foreign to the country who’s detection of a distinctive style may be less forthcoming. The deprivation of an Australian folk music devoid of outside influence is an obvious hindrance to the harmonic vitality which can be found in the music of other countries and is possibly a result of the inability to immediately determine Australian music for foreign ears.

When discussing regional qualities inherent in music it must be assumed that the regional quality is representative not solely as a state of social consequence, which unless stated to the listener, eludes the immediate act of discrimination, but as an immediate response of familiarity with personnel, period and locality. For example, the music of Stravinsky, the early ballets in particular, it is perfectly plausible to assume with relative immediacy that we are listening to a composer who apart from utilising essential devices of established harmonic concepts in combination with his own musical polemics, is conspicuous in his usage of Russian folk melodies, a clear indication of Russian identity which is invariably perceptible. The supposition of a unique idiom in Australian music as has already been mentioned is negligible particularly within the context of someone listening to it for the first time.

Michael Hannan has suggested that Toru Takemitsu was a composer concerned with European traditions and that his music, ‘would have had a very much smaller impact if he hadn’t at the same time been obsessed with the traditional music of his own country…and his experimentation with incorporating musical traditions from Japan into his own western style music really gives the character of Takemitsu’s music.’ (Hannan). This quote was part of a response to Richard Mills who had said that the embracement of Aboriginal and Asian culture was a negative procedure in composition because the musical experience of indigenous and foreign cultures was intangible to a western experience in that it does not relate on a personal level. There is an element of accuracy in Mills’ judgement, and if Hannan is arguing for the emulative process of Aboriginal themes into western music as a normative act in response to ones own environment and Takemitsu’s adoption of Japanese musical traditions as being advantageous then it would need to be clarified that we are not omitting shelf life. Japan has a culture exceeding 2000 years and Takemitsu was Japanese, whereas European settlement in Australia commenced in 1788 and many Australian composers were not Aboriginal. The ‘Australian identity in music’ predicament is based on what some have coined a ‘transplanted culture’ as well as the relatively short time Australia has had to develop, and maybe it is too early to make hasty claims to an Australian style as Richard Meale opines,

‘In a country that boasts of being multi-cultural, how dare we inflict our concept of Australia which has been formed by a white, English-based people? We are trying to dictate what Australia is, and we call ourselves a multi-cultural society. I think it’s a big illusion and a sentimental approach that we have to have an Australian music. I don’t think it’s eventually a constructive view, because it is false. We are trying to define the thing before it has happened; we are trying to reverse a natural historic process.’ (Meale)

In summary, if there is insistence that Australian music should project a spirit that is unique to its geographical whereabouts then why not take a different approach. An Australian composer who seems to be exploring unchartered territories, at least unchartered in the sense of expressing national identity in Australia through the use of computer technology is Colin Bright. This is a good solution to eliminating ambiguity of an Australian style because it affords the composer a world of limitless possibilities. Sonorities and sonic forces that otherwise would be unachievable by an orchestra are realised in the digital domain. Bright has used dialogue extracts of Australian politicians and interspersed them with other types of dialectic samples and music which give a lucid impression of an Australian composer. This embracement of computer technology as a tool to express a composer’s creativity is indispensable and one cannot help think that this may be a way forward for Australian music.


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