(This article was originally written for the Financial Review before the premiere of In Memoriam, my concerto for amplified cello and orchestra.)
There are around about 330 contemporary classical composers whose works are represented at the Australian Music Centre. That is a huge number of dedicated and hard-working artists, covering a wide range of interests and specializations. Some composers may specialise in the chamber music domain, others music theatre, others may deal mainly with electronic or electro-acoustic works.
A number of commentators have remarked that Australian music seems to be going through a â€˜golden ageâ€™ at the moment, particularly in terms of the high standard of works that are being written and of the growing appreciation of Australian music by musicians and audiences.
Perhaps it was the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics that will be seen in later years as a turning point for the appreciation of Australian music and culture. The memorable marching band fiasco, for example, was possibly the first major mass-revolt of the general population in response to the idea of having another cultureâ€™s musical traditions paraded as our own.
After a lot of conversations with members of the public including members of the arts community, there was a universally tremendous response to the Opening Ceremony. People were proud that given a large enough budget and excellent homegrown artistic vision and performances, superb results would be achieved.
Maybe the Cultural Cringe is now fading away. Australians seem to be interested in, and proud of, their own homegrown product as well as whatâ€™s going on overseas. I would imagine that an ever-increasing appreciation of Australian music is most necessarily going to be recognized by larger performing organizations, since it is inconceiveable that younger audiences will be interested by the â€œstandard repertoireâ€ in the future. New works of today will become their standard repertoire 40 years down the track. The extraordinarily wide range of different musical styles available through recordings and digital media faces us all. As Australia has developed into a much more pluralistic society over the past 30 years, so the choices of music, art and entertainment in general have expanded.
The Opening Ceremony was also a good indicator of such plurality in terms of the eclectic nature of the material that was included. There was indigenous Aboriginal music, tap dancing, and even a quasi-Wagnerian lighting of the Olympic flame, and it was impressive to think that the 100,000 people or so who purchased tickets for at least $1000 per head were not going to necessarily see the athletes march in, but rather to witness a spectacular cultural event showcasing this country.
However there is still work to be done. There are consistent complaints (mainly by composers) about the levels of Australian music that are being programmed by larger Australian performing ensembles, and the levels of support that are being directed to the creation and maintenance of new and existing pieces of Australian music. For example, it was noted that the hotel bill alone of a recent visiting soloist could have funded an entire yearâ€™s residency of a composer with one of Australiaâ€™s symphony orchestras!
As a composer, of course I have a vested interest in an increasing level of Australian music support. Personally I have been very fortunate to receive much support from different organizations over the past number of years, including the Australia Council and most recently, the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Trust.
What such support enables a composer to do is to (1) have the time and â€˜headspaceâ€™ to be able to develop ideas fully, and (2) have your works performed by excellent performers to a large audience. It is probably the second of these that is more important. The whole experience of getting a work performed shows the composer â€“ the hard way! â€“ what works, what doesnâ€™t, and consequently, how all sorts of things can be improved upon in the next piece.
One extremely important level of support that I was lucky enough to receive was in the form of a â€œComposer Attachmentâ€ with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1999. The main parts of the residency from my point of view involved writing three works for the SSO as well as gaining the opportunity to go along to many concerts and rehearsals.
One of the more unusual parts of the composer attachment contract stipulated that I was to write a work â€œfor full orchestra, lying outside the composerâ€™s usual idiomâ€. Initially it seemed slightly weird that I should be asked to do something that was not typical. After all, as a commissioner it would to be preferable to have some idea of what youâ€™re going to get!
Happily, this stipulation drove me to consider the idea of writing a concerto, which was a form that I hadnâ€™t tackled before.
Writing a concerto is certainly different to writing a piece for orchestra alone. Initially it was a bit of daunting prospect. Youâ€™ve got a single soloist on the front of the stage, fronting the entire orchestra. Plus whatever instrument you write for, thereâ€™s a whole history of concertos written by other composers over the past.
The opportunity to write a work for a performer such as Nathan Waks was fabulous. Nathan in fact first suggested the idea of a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, â€œso we can put lots of effects pedals and other wacky stuff into itâ€.
Nathan Waks is an amazing soloist with an amazing musical history when it comes to new works. Not only has he worked with some of the twentieth centuryâ€™s greatest composers such as Iannis Xenakis and Olivier Messaien, but also he has had one of Australiaâ€™s seminal solo cello works, Peter Sculthorpeâ€™s *Requiem for Cello Alone*, composed especially for him. The equivalent would be getting Gary Ablett to come in at full-forward for your local AFL team.
There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in terms of writing the work. Because the work is for cello, I felt that it needed to have a slow movement that could showcase the extraordinary lyricism that is so possible with this instrument. Having the amplification available meant that in addition, some very fast music could be written with reduced worries about adequate projection from the soloist when contrasted with what the orchestra is playing. The best of both worlds!
Having the ability to work closely with a soloist and get first-hand feedback on musical and technical matters is also a valuable process. Itâ€™s satisfying to know which parts of your work can be easily played, and which parts are â€œstretching the friendshipâ€.
If Nathan Waks is Gary Ablett, then the conductor, Richard Gill, is the Kevin Sheedy of the whole process. Itâ€™s amazing what a difference a conductor can make to the whole compositional process. When a conductor is up on stage, they seem to be just waving their arms about, but what is often not obvious is the many hours of work that go into learning a new score beforehand. A conductor may have discussed the piece many times with the composer, questioning as to the exact intentions. The conductor is responsible for not just directing the musicians where needed, but keeping the whole performance and rehearsal processes intact and focussed. A sympathetic and dedicated conductor can make all the difference in the world as to whether a new work is successful or not.
Having a large work like a Cello Concerto being premiered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is certainly a success for any composer, even before a single note is performed. Itâ€™s a huge honour and a privilege knowing that you have the opportunity to write basically whatever you want and know that you have the highest calibre of musicians expressing whatever it is you choose to convey. In the case of this performance, I have a Dream Team in there playing for me, and I sincerely hope that many other Australian composers get similar opportunities in the future. The Australian audiences of the future will thank us for it.