Advancing Australia’s Fare

This was a prepared speech for The Orchestras of Australia Network 1998 Conference, entitled “Orchestras Alive 98”, held in September 1998. It formed part of a round-table discussion broadly under the heading “Advancing Australia’s Fare”. The abstract of the session was as follows:

    “This round table discussion tunes into Australian repertoire, its range and versatility for orchestras and ensembles. How do we choose Australian repertoire that is right for our audience and players? Will we ever be able to move beyond the blockbusters of 19th century Europe? What will Australian orchestral programming look like as we move towards the Centenary of Federation? A lively, controversial look at the way orchestras select their repertoire”.

To introduce my contribution to today’s round table discussion, I thought it might be interesting to all if I read part of a review written about an orchestral work:

    “They began with [this piece]… I do not know whether I possess a sixth sense which seems necessary to understand and appreciate this new music, but I confess that violent fist blows on my head would not have caused a more disagreeable sensation. This is a series of strident chords, high-pitched hisses, screechings of infuriated brasses, without any respite or rest for the ear. If the composer wished to depict a storm, he at least produced its most painful effect, for it makes one seasick”.

Now from the tone of the review, not to mention the disparaging things that this critic mentions, can you guess the composer that it’s referring to?

You would be forgiving for thinking that perhaps it may be some work written possibly in the 1950s or 1960s, in a modernistic, abstract style.

Or perhaps it may have even been composed today, if your opinion on Australian music is that it is invariably dissonant and difficult to listen to.

Well then, it may surprise you to know that in fact, the review was by P-A. Fiorentino writing in the Constitutionnel in 1860, and he was reviewing the Overture to The Flying Dutchman, by Richard Wagner! (from A Lexicon of Musical Invective, ed. N. Slonimsky)

The more things change, the more they stay the same — but this needn’t be the case.

Being a composer, you probably will have expected me to come out blatantly in favour of orchestras programming more Australian music. After all, I suppose it IS in my direct interest to have Australian music programmed and performed, as some of it may perhaps include some of my own.

It’s true, I do sincerely believe that the inevitable future for orchestras in Australia, be they professional or amateur, be they composed of adults or students, is to include at least SOME portion of Australian music in their repertoire.

My own opinion is that to a large extent it’s got to do with education of audiences and performers. Contemporary music is like Thai food – the first time you have it, it’s either not very nice, or perhaps just OK. The next time you have it, you like it some more. And the next time, even more. And so after a while, you can appreciate all the different flavours and tastes between different dishes. Can you imagine the Sydney restaurant scene without Thai food?

I feel the same way about contemporary Australian music. There is an extraordinary diversity of styles and different ways of working that Australian composers use these days. There’s everything from hard-core modernist works (which may equate to say, a Jungle Curry), to the so-called ‘pastoralists’ who choose to use techniques that come from ages past. Some composers like to use very “Australian” sorts of things, such as landscapes, as their primary means of inspiration – examples include Peter Sculthorpe, Anne Boyd and Colin Bright and Paul Stanhope – whilst others may choose philosophical bases, such as the different levels of consciousness within the human brain (for example) – Ian Shanahan is a composer who uses these ideas. There’s a whole range of different things out there, and each composer really works as an individual, doing what THEY feel they should, and writing the sort of music that THEY want to hear.

It’s this extreme diversity of stylistic influences and ways of working which I believe makes the future of Australian music, and its programming and performance by Australian orchestras, so exciting. The thing is that there is always going to be some composer or some already-existing piece of music that will suit each particular ensemble and what it’s trying to achieve, down to the ground. There has to be. And if there’s not a piece that you can find that readily suits your needs right now, then there is an Australian composer out there who will be able to write one for you. Guaranteed.

There is a tremendous level of exciting work being done by ensembles all over the country. For example, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s “Meet the Music” concert series and its educational concerts always include an Australian work, and are extremely well patronised by audiences. They are exciting and innovative concerts, often with the premiere of new Australian orchestral works. Other examples include the performance of Anne Boyd’s *Dreams of the Earth* by Knox and Abbotsleigh schools in 1998, and MLC School’s forthcoming concert in the Opera House Concert Hall of entirely Australian works. This includes works for orchestra, concert band, choirs, etc. etc. and integrates include existing works, such as those by Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards, with newly commissioned and arranged works specifically for this occasion by Martin Wesley-Smith, Paul Stanhope and Douglas Simper.

As we approach the next century, the integration of Australian music into concert programmes will increase. I often wonder why some concerts series consist wholly of European music that was written anything up to 700 years ago, when Australia was even known to exist (that is, to the Europeans), let alone colonised. Surely there is something that Australian music has to offer people today, music of our own time and place, of our own society!

Recently I attended a concert given by a community orchestra. All of the music performed that evening had been written at least a century earlier. The concert was well attended, and the performance standard was really high. However, I was about the youngest person in the audience, by a difference of about 30 years. This is not a good omen.

What has been my personal experience as a composer writing orchestral music?

As a composer I have been tremendously fortunate to work with a large number of different ensembles and orchestras around the country, from professional organisations such as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to student and school-based groups like MLC School, the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra, Abbotsleigh Junior Strings, and the Border Music Camp. All of these experiences as a composer have been tremendously positive, both in terms of the feedback from the musicians involved (conductors and performers) as well as the audiences.

Imaginative programming and marketing don’t necessarily equal audience antagonism and financial disaster. I have been involved with several successful bums-on-seats concerts. (N.B. The following examples shouldn’t be interpreted as an example of self-promotion!)

Imaginative marketing with imaginative programming can really influence the audience demographic. In 1997 the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) played my orchestral piece SPEED, which is influenced heavily by techno music. The orchestral marketers plugged the concert for a couple of months as “TSO Goes Techno”. Consequently over 200 people turned up at a dedicated 20th Century Orchestra concert. The majority of the audience were young people. As well as SPEED, they also heard a lot of other repertoire in that concert, and were exposed to a different sort of musical experience (i.e. contemporary classical orchestral music) that they possibly hadn’t heard before.

It is impossible to be infallible when predicting what a given audience will enjoy hearing. A recent example of this relates to the Camerata Australia/Camerata Scotland performances of Rave-Elation, which was performed around Australia and the U.K. in 1997. Rave-Elation is again influenced by techno music. The main motivation when writing this piece is that the young performers would really ‘get into it’. Actually it turns out the biggest fans of the piece were audience members in the 60+ age bracket! Who would have thought that a hard-core-full-on techno work would appeal to this age bracket!?! So whilst artistic and musical administrators of course will make the decisions in choosing repertoire based on their own (expert) experience, sometimes it may be worth taking a risk or two.

Another example of good marketing is when the SSO programmed Homage to Metallica in the Meet the Music Series in 1996. Both of these concerts were sell-outs. Of course I don’t want to take too much credit for this as the rest of the programme was outstanding (e.g. Boulez Notations, Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Ravel Piano Concerto etc.). But all pieces were written the twentieth century, and the concerts sold out.

These experiences are of course my own personal ones – there are many more composers out there that will have similar ones to tell.

**The Nitty-Gritty: Pros and Cons / Practical Details**

So, from a composer’s perspective, what are the options a music organization has when they’re thinking about performing an Australian work?

I would say that there are three options available in this area.

The first is to use an already-composed work.

The selection of an already-composed work can be both an interesting and a frustrating experience. It can require extensive research and listening to a whole lot of scores. If you don’t know which composer you’re after, you will probably have to examine a significant number of works held in the libraries of organizations such as the Australian Music Centre or the Symphony Australia Music Library.

You may (or may not) come up with a set of pieces that are suitable to your organization’s needs. This is more likely to happen with some organizations as opposed to others. For professional-standard ensembles, there will be a wide choice. For groups such as school orchestra, the choice is (at present) less extensive.

Another option that you may like to use is to have a ‘call for scores’. This is best achieved by placing a notice in the Sounds Australian Update, asking for composers to submit scores and recordings or works that may possibly be performed by your particular ensemble. Obviously the more specific you are in terms of your instrumentation (e.g. no contrabassoon), the more targeted your responses will be. I would not advise placing stylistic restrictions upon the works you are looking for, however. Doing so will reduce your options in terms of uncovering something different, an unexpected gem. Such an approach will also most likely turn composers off in that they’ll think “oh well, they’re not going to like my stuff at all and so I’m not going to bother”. Again, the choice will be restricted.

One positive is that by composers sending in scores (and recordings if available) to you, you will flush out a lot of talent that you may not have otherwise known about. This is a relevant point when it comes to a country as big as Australia. Composers from Adelaide or Perth are usually not as well known to Sydney organizations as composers in Sydney. This does not mean that they don’t write great music!

A negative is that from the composers’ point of view, it may be a real hassle (time-wise) to have to photocopy and send off an orchestral score that may not even be performed. Some composers won’t have the time to do this.

If an organization is really serious about performing a new work, particularly those that may not have been performed before, then the composition competition, with a money-based prize, can create interest and response.

The advantage of this is that you can set your own criteria for the piece, e.g. so that it exactly tailors your own orchestra/ensemble. Obviously the more generic the ensemble is, the more likely the piece is to get another performance by another ensemble, and thus the more likely a composer is going to make an effort to write a piece.

Another more Machiavellian advantage is that you might end up with a wealth of excellent pieces that you would be interested in performing. You only have to pay for one.

The disadvantage to this method is that like the call for scores option, a lot of composers aren’t going to bother writing a new piece that may not even get performed, particularly if they have other projects going on, and are working as professional composers.

The other disadvantage is that you have to put up the cash. Obviously the more cash you offer as a prize, the more works will be submitted.

Finally, there is the option of commissioning composers directly. Research into the composers’ previous works is essential, as are clear and defined guidelines as to (1) the instrumentation, (2) the performance dates and therefore the timetable that the piece must be written to, and (3) the technical standards of the ensemble.

Most composers really enjoy working with different orchestras, and from a composers’ perspective, it is much better for us to know the ins and outs of the ensemble’s capabilities. The result will be a better piece. It will ensure a better performance, the orchestra will be happy and committed to the performance, the composer will be happy, the audience will be happy.

The ability to work directly with composers and to have influence in the shaping of the piece (e.g. the character of the piece, the time limit, the instrumentation) is a huge advantage when commissioning a work directly from a composer. To an extent, you can predict what you’re going to get. There is also the prestige value of performing a newly commissioned work that was written for your ensemble.

If you are thinking of pursuing this path, then I would recommend after doing your initial research into a number of composers, call them up and ask them to send you some more information, scores, recordings of their works. If you let composers know that you are serious about possibly commissioning them in for a new work in the near future then most won’t mind doing this too much. Alternatively they could let you know which existing pieces of theirs would be most appropriate for you to listen to, and direct you to the Australian Music Centre library.

In terms of practicalities, it is a good idea to allow the composer at least a year to write the piece, so therefore, the approaches and commissioning process should take place at least a year before the first performance. Some composers are booked out for a couple of years, so it may be a process of advanced planning in some cases.

So hopefully I’ve given you some practical ideas from a composers’ perspective on Australian music and different processes you can go through when interested in programming an Australian piece.

The wealth of musical talent throughout the length and breath of Australia is astounding. Composers are one part of the musical equation: performers and audience are the others. By working together we will ensure a vibrant cultural future.

###Matthew Hindson###

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