Email Correspondence (FAQs)

##Pop Influences##

From: “James Steendam”
Sent: Wednesday, September 11, 2002 1:56 PM
Subject: Pop influences

    Dear Matthew,
    I am a second year student at the University of Melbourne. I am studying a subject called ‘Music in Australia’. The up-coming essay topic is on popular music influences on current composition in Australia. I was wondering if you could help me out a little. I know that your pieces Speed and technologic 1-2 both contain pop influences. I was wondering if you could perhaps list a few more pieces for me, and their direct influence, if possible.
    James Steendam

Dear James,

Well, there are a variety. Homage to Metallica and Death Stench are influenced by death metal characteristics. The techno influence has been enduring – pieces like the 2nd mvt of In Memoriam, “Grand Final Day” from the Violin Concerto, etc. are examples of quite recent orchestral pieces. Ignition:Positive for tpt and piano is an example of a chamber piece. And then there are pieces like Chrissietina’s Magic Fantasy which mix styles. Chrissietina is one of the first pieces in which I did this. There is also AK-47 which is an early example (with a ’70s disco tune’ in there) and Moments of Plastic Jubilation a more recent example of solo piano writing. Jungle Fever started off life as being influenced by jungle music, though you couldn’t really tell from listening to it in its final form. n-trance, which became Velvet for two guitars, which became Velvet Dreams for massed choir and orchestra, was influenced initially by trance.

Probably my earliest piece was Teddy Bear, for bass clarinet, piano and percussion (never performed) in which I deconstructed the song “Teddy Bear” as performed by Elvis. I wrote that piece in either 1989 or 1990, I can’t recall which. This manifested a couple of years later in Elvis (1990-1991), in which I continued the process that had been started. The fourth mvt., “Elvis is Alive!”, used elements of house music in quite an obvious way. You can find the 2nd and 3rd mvt.s of this piece on an ABC Classics CD entitled Sydney Dreaming. In the 2nd mvt., “Suspicious Minds”, I took the piece as performed by Elvis and then deconstructed reconstructed it again. It sounds quite different from my music now, at least in harmonic terms.

In terms of very recent pieces, I listened to the funk music of James Brown when writing Comin’ Right Atcha for the Absolute Ensemble (to be performed in October in a Musica Viva tour).

And the list goes on… but I’m sure that’s enough for you to get started.

I suppose I should also say that it is most usual for me to use certain characteristics of popular music styles within my pieces, rather than the whole style holus-bolus. Pieces like Speed and the 2nd mvt. of technologic 1-2 are exceptions to this, where I directly and consciously invoked the style and/or structures. In more recent pieces, the popular music influences have been used really very unconsciously, and I would like to think that they have been completed integrated into my own personal ‘style’, whatever that may be. With the exception of Comin’ Right Atcha (I didn’t know much funk music before writing this piece, and only did so because the conductor wanted a piece influenced by funk), I don’t listen to popular music styles for inspiration. However you will find reoccuring rhythms, textural organisation, harmonic progressions and even large-scale structures – common to much popular music – if you listen to enough of my pieces!

I hope that this helps you out, and good luck with the essay,


    Dear Matthew,
    Thankyou for your e-mail, its very helpful to my essay. Just one more question (I hope you don’t mind. If you do, then don’t reply). Are you in contact with other composers use popular idioms in their music? Such as Nigel Westlake, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine and Michael Smetanin. If so, do you compare/discuss this part of your compositional styles? In the case of Michael Smetanin, I know his work Ladder of Escape but I am not familiar with any other of his works that contain pop idioms.
    Again, any help would be greatly appreciated.

Dear James,

Re. other composers, I am aware of other composers doing things with other sorts of popular music. Graeme Koehne is one of those of course, which works like Powerhouse which I believe is a rumba. Graeme’s musical influences are all sort of 1950s-based, if I’m reading him correctly. I don’t know much about what Carl and Nigel are doing in this regard. I think, like me, they might use an element of whatever if they think it’s relevant to what they want to do in a particular work, but I’m not aware of them doing anything in this regard to any extreme extent.

As for Michael Smetanin, you mention Ladder of Escape, and I think that many of his works from his ‘earlier’ period (i.e. the early 80s) are influenced by things such as rock music. You could ask him for more details of that – he works at the Sydney Conservatorium. He made a conscious decision to move away from that sort of writing. I don’t know what sort of music he’s been writing recently – I haven’t heard any, though I think he’s a good composer.

In any case, Smetanin came out in a magazine interview a few years ago and was derogatory about the sort of music that I have been writing, so I can’t imagine that he in any way wished or wishes to be associated with me in that regard. It doesn’t matter – each to their own (and I think his music is excellent in any case).

The only other composer you don’t mention is Thomas Ades in his piece entitled Asyla. There is one movement in there which is supposedly influenced by dance music. I’ve only heard it once on CD, and would really need to hear it live to be able to make a more informed judgement. However it would be true to say that he’s taking a much more non-blatant approach to the genre than what I do in, for example, Speed. His piece is the only classical work I’ve heard that has any relationship to techno music. Of course there are many techno pieces that come from classical music.

An interesting (well I think it’s interesting) point that you could explore is that Simone Young once mentioned that basically I’m doing what Bartok, Vaughan-Williams, Grainger et al did in terms of using elements of folk music in their own works. Popular music is the folk music of our times, and so it’s probably true!

Hope this helps you out,


Questions in relation to Speed

Original Message
Sent: Monday, September 09, 2002 1:09 PM
Subject: Seminar about you

    G’day, my name is Rowen Hodge and i am currently studying at the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music about to finish my degree. I have come across a little problem though, one of my subjects requires me to present a seminar and essay on a twentieth century composer. I did the seminar ok, i found some brief history on you from the musica viva website and did analysis on your work SPEED.
    I decided to study you because you are A) Australian and B) write very cool music. But my main problem is my essay- i can find very little information on you, and the journals that i could find on you had there subscription suspended at our library for that year of publication.
    I was hoping that you could help me out with a few questions about you. Was there a particular reason behind using techno and death-metal as a strong influence in SPEED? such as trying to bring a new aspect into the symphonic repetoire or that you just like the music, or wanting to try somthing different?

As for reasons why I used the influences, basically it was because I really like music of that genre (a big generalization) and thought therefore that it would be a good thing to try out – putting certain musical characteristics found in, say, the techno genre into symphonic music where to the best of my knowledge they haven’t been used before. Also I had tried this out in previous pieces such as Homage to Metallica, Chrissietina’s Magic Fantasy and some of Elvis (the last movement) and really like the results, so decided to continue this.

    When you composed SPEED did you have in mind all the different connotations that are mentioned in the programme notes for it such as fast talking, driving fast, amphetamine based drugs?

I was aware of the drug reference, but didn’t really take it into consideration. I’ve never taken speed, nor do I have any intention of doing so. In fact I’m quite an anti-drug person – take a day-trip to any municipal court and see how much of society’s crime is due to drug and alcohol abuse (about 90%!). I have opinions about the possible legalization of one illicit drug, but speed isn’t it. It was more about the general feeling of rush and forward-momentum that spawned the title.

Linda Kouvaras’ programme notes were her own in that regard.

    That’s another aspect that i found interesting is that drugs are mentioned in the programme notes for SPEED. I’ve never seen or heard of any other composer talking about them, or using them as a source of inspiration for a work, especially a symphonic work.

Try Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which is influenced (supposedly) by an opium experience. If you want to take it right back, there was Biber’s Tobacco piece, and Bach’s Coffee Cantata of course. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece Blood on the Floor is apparently about dealing with a drug addict, though I haven’t heard it. Don’t know of too many more.

    Would this be a social aspect that you are trying to bring to light through a different medium? trying to bring understanding on an issue through different means perhaps?

Hmm, not really. But good guess, and if you think that it is, well, that’s fine! Your interpretation is as good as mine – I certainly don’t begrudge others.

    Your use of the orchestra is a little different to the norm. as well, i play the trumpet and just from listening to it i know that after a performance it would feel like i’v been hit in the chops by a Mack truck doing 110 km/ph. This is very indicitive of techno and death-metal, Mahler creates a big sound, but yours is very different, were there any other reasons for creating such a raw, powerful sound? Though i have to say the contrasting section in the middle, the “eye of the storm”, is so beautiful with the solo cello, harp and clarinet in a chamber ensemble style.

Yes, I suppose so. The middle section is supposed to be a respite from the storm. You can’t have a 16 minute loud and fast piece pounding away non-stop – the piece would lose its impact. I remember a piece by Xenakis called Kraanerg that the Sydney Dance Company danced to about 10 or 12 years ago. The work was basically was a 55 minute climax. After about 5-10 minutes, that extreme energy level became the norm, and so (in my opinion), the point was lost.

One of the main reasons for my writing music is to engage with the audience. I think that music has to have some sort of ability to reach out and grab whoever’s listening. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that it needs to be fast and/or loud or whatever. That’s what I did in Speed, but not in every piece.

    Did you have any social reasons or any philisophical points that you wanted to convey through this work other than mentioned above?

No, not really!

##Emailed questions from Cindy Bailey (23 March 2006)##

    1.The first, and probably the trickiest question… Is there any way to define Australian music as a single entity, and, if so, how would you describe it, and any current trends and the future directions?

I don’t really think there is any single definition of Australian music. There is such a wide variety of composers writing in different idioms etc. – maybe this sort of diversity forms some sort of answer to your question – we are more diverse in compositional output than some European countries – but overall, the world is a global place now, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define any place by its music.

    2.Many composers appear to consciously seek to create an Australian identity, either through the use of Indigenous elements, or through using sounds from the natural environment. What is your view on this method, and is it counter-productive to the formation of a true national identity?

I don’t see how it could be counter-productive. As you know, many Australian composers have tried to do precisely this to create Australian identity.

Again, Australian culture (as well as Australian landscape) is diverse. Perhaps what we have in common is the sense of a sparse population.

    3. Is the insecurity of Australia as a nation echoed in the way Australians approach artistic endeavours?

I regularly hear from overseas folk that there is a ‘freshness’ in much Australian music. And yet, as you allude in your question, sometimes artists can be very much hung up on what is going on overseas.

I’m not too sure that most Australians regard Australia as an “insecure nation”.

    4. Music has always been the last artistic discipline to react to a new mood in the cultural realm: are there any common links and concerns being currently expressed across the various fields, through art, music and literature?

This is difficult for me to answer as I’m not really cogniscant with many other artistic realms, and certainly not knowledgeable enough to comment on trends etc.

    5. Is it difficult for the musical concepts and concerns of Australian culture to translate to other cultures, or is music, however idiomatic it may be, a universal construct?

Music is not a universal construct. I used to think that it might be, but then had the experience of hearing some Thai traditional music that seemed so alien that I just couldn’t understand any part of it. So music is not universal. Besides it’s not even universal within our own culture – different people like wildly different things.

    6. The merging of pop and classical seems to be a big feature of the music scene at the moment, with groups such as Bond, The Sydney Symphony and Elvis Costello attempting to hybridise the two genres. Do you see this as undermining classical music by lowering the demographic and standard of music and innovation; or do you see it as a positive move, encouraging those who might previously have avoided classical music, (because of its perceived elitist values), to discover its possibilities?

Well, Beethoven, Mozart et al. wrote works and so on that were written for largely ‘popular’ audiences (e.g. Mozart’s Magic Flute written for the music hall). In recent times, the gap between contemporary art music and contemporary popular music has become so wide that it is perceived as innovative and noteworthy when someone attempts to cross that divide. Because they are so far apart, it is difficult to do this successfully. I hope that when I do it,

It’s more common I would also say for the ‘crossovers’ to go from the classical music scene to the popular (e.g. Metallica with the SF Symphony, Ben Folds with WASO, Elvis Costello with the Brodskys etc.) than the other way around.

In terms of the demographic issues, this is more difficult because I’m not quite sure how everything will pan out in the end. Orchestral music is in danger of becoming a museum piece – however I’m not too sure that crossover works are necessarily going to solve anything. They may, however, be able to bring new material and approaches to orchestral music in general.

    7. People tend to resist new concepts and styles; do you find this an issue when trying to promote your compositions?

I haven’t found this to be the case. In fact I would say that a lot of people are looking for the latest trend, styles etc. Particularly artistic directors and administrators.

    8. Who, and what, has been the greatest influence on your compositional style?

There have been many, and so it is difficult for me to pin down any small number. Can I direct you to the last chapter or two of my Ph.D. Thesis for an answer to this question? It’s available for download from my website, or from

6 thoughts on “Email Correspondence (FAQs)”

  1. Hello,

    It has been said that the more one learns of music, the more he/she realises he/she knows practicly nothing about music. Do you believe this statment to be true?

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I am a student from the University of Melbourne studying this subject called Music In Australia. I am doing a composer dossier about an Australian living composer and I have chosen you as my composer. What I need to find out from you is your biographical information, including when, where and with wholm he/she studied composition. I understand that you have your bio publisjed by Faber Music and the link has been down since 2 weeks ago. I appreciate if you could tell me more about yourself here as my assignment is due in 2 weeks time and the infomation I need is crucial.

    Secondly, I am also supposed to list the works, writings that you have composed.
    I currently know of a thesis you wrote “An Investigation into correlations..”, Speed, AK-47, Music Composition Toolbox, The Rave and The Nightingale, Rave-Elation, Pulse Magnet. Are there any other cds or printed books that you have published which I have not listed?

    Please reply me asap and when I’m done with my 2000 word composer dossier I might email you a copy by me;).

  3. Dear Matthew,

    I am doing the same assignment as Annette. Would you please be able to send me the same information as you have given her. You are such an interesting person to study, and it would be fantastic to know these details.

    Yours Sincerely,


  4. Dear Matthew

    i am currently a yr 12 student and i am really fascinated by your music. I especially like the pieces Song of Life and Always on Time. I wish to play it for my music 2 and extension practical performance. It is just that i am finding it hard to get hold of the recording of these pieces, especially Song of Life because it is so recent. It would be fantastic if you could give me an idea of where i could get a copy of the recording.

    Yours sincerely,

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