Minimalism isn’t dead…

‘Minimalism isn’t dead … it just smells funny’: phases in the Australian experience of minimal music

by Diana Blom

Paper presented at ‘Minimalism — Architecture, Art, Performance’

a conference presented by Artspace and the University of Technology Faculty of Design architecture and Building, Saturday 3 July, 1999.

In 1968, Terry Riley’s In C, generally considered as the typical minimalist pulse piece (Mertens, 1983:41), was released on vinyl by Columbia Records in the U.S. This release put “…minimalism onto the turntables…” (Schwartz, 1996:44), bringing the sounds of what was an under-ground musical movement into local record stores (Strickland, 1993:167), and making it accessible in countries outside the US.

In C embodies a number of musical characteristics. These include multi-repetition (that is repetition beyond the usual), an unchanging, fast pulse, a small pitch set, a tonal centre, tertian harmonies, ostinati, and a process. Not all of these characteristics are found in all music labelled minimalist, and by themselves do not necessarily constitute a minimalist characteristic. They are, however, an integral part of much of the minimalist repertoire, and help define the style. Johnson states that when two or more of these features are in a piece, it would suggest that “…the minimalist technique is a compositional feature of that piece” (Johnson 1994:751).

Australian music has often taken its impetus from musical ideas imported, or transplanted from abroad. My paper looks at and listens to the impact of American minimalism (musically speaking) on Australian composers, focusing on minimal music with a pulse, also referred to as pulse music, process art, hypnotic music, trance music, and repetitive music. Drawing on interviews with, and written responses from a number of Australian composers on their musical relationship with American minimalism, and other sources, I find that for many Australian composers born in the 1930s and 40s, American minimalism was a confirmation and an affirmation of ideas to which they were already committed, rather than an entirely new aesthetic. For many these ideas had been influenced by repetition in the sound and construction of musics of other cultures, especially the music of Asia, and in particular the repetitive, interlocking rhythmic layers of many musics of Indonesia and Bali. For other Australian composers born in the 1960s, American minimalism has been an important influence and a resource in their composition, but along with other musical influences, some of which share similar musical characteristics.

I will begin by outlining the impact of transplanted ‘musics’ on Australian music, point out Australia’s political, social, and artistic influences from Asia in the late 1960s, and discuss what message repetitive minimal music conveys. I will then focus on the music of three Australian composers from two different generations, who incorporate compositional techniques associated with minimalism, in their music. These composers are Robert Lloyd born in the late 1940s, Andree Greenwell born in the early 1960s, and Matthew Hindson born in the late 1960s.

The history of music in Australia has often drawn on ideas, styles and aesthetics from other countries, especially England and Europe, through the movement of people from and to Australia. In 1967 Roger Covell described Australian music as “…a European musical culture transplanted by Europeans to a country not in Europe; a theme paralleled in the experience of several other countries…” (Covell 1967:xi). He reminds us that the founding of Australia coincided musically, with “…the full pride of the Viennese classical tradition…” (2) and suggests that this was one major reason why the music of the Aborigines “…could hardly have been less accessible to the settlers who encountered it.” Instead of absorbing sounds and influences from the indigenous people, the settlers who were trained musicians “…adopted a second-hand variant of central European musical culture…” (2). This was equally true for folk music as for art music and the influence of European musical trends has continued to impact on Australian music through the twentieth century.

The earliest sightings and hearings of American minimal music in Australia date from the late sixties through scores and recordings. In 1968 Michael Hannan heard Terry Riley’s In C, the year of its release by Columbia (Hannan, questionnaire). My own memory is of hearing Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air issuing forth from Winsome Evans’s study at the University of Sydney Music Department in either 1971 or 72. The work had been released in 1968 by Columbia and its sound, the cover’s art work and text remained clear in my memory without any knowledge of the term ‘minimal music’. Ros Bandt remembers Keith Humble bringing a score of Steve Reich’s Violin Phase back to Melbourne in 1972-73.

In Sydney, David Ahern’s AZ Music presented “Musifilm” at the Waratah Spring Festival in 1972. Here Steve Reich’s O Dem Watermelons, and Plastic Haircut, Riley’s Music with Balls, and Cornelius Cardew’s Journey to the North Pole (Musifilm 1972) were shown. Around the same time, in the early 1970s, AZ Music performed a programme that included Riley’s In C plus works by La Monte Young, Robert Ashley, and John Cage. (AZ Music early 1970s).

Yet before these early appearances of American minimalism, Australian composers were incorporating into their music compositional characteristics associated with minimal music, especially multi-repetition, an unchanging pulse, a small pitch set and a tonal centre. For many, the musics of Asia, in particular of Indonesia, were the source. Writing in the late 1960s-early 1970s for the cover notes to an LP of Tabuh Tabuhan by Peter Sculthorpe, Covell points out the value of Balinese and Indonesian musics to some composers, despite no particular relationship with the area other than proximity. “Though Australia is not culturally akin to Bali in any important sense, it seems reasonable that Bali’s relative geographical proximity to Australia should help to give some Australian composers a heightened awareness of the value and richness of Balinese and other Indonesian musical traditions” (Covell undated).

**Australia and Asia – politically**

Politically and socially Australia did have a ‘particular’ relationship with other countries in Asia during the late 1960s-early 1970s — especially Vietnam and China, and by 1972 10,000 non-white immigrants were admitted into Australia each year, many of them Asians.

Socially and to a large extent, culturally, the 1960s saw Asian countries become places where young Australians chose to travel, rather than ports visited en route from Australia to England. These encounters helped change Australian attitudes to Asian peoples and their cultures. In The Lucky Country, published in 1964, Donald Horne wrote of the view of some young people that “we’re all Asians now”, and said he took that view himself. He urged Australians “to seek for similarities in Asians and mutual interests [which] could lead to a creative awakening among Australians” (Horne 1964/1984:120).

**Australia and Asia – artistically**

Australia’s artistic relationships with Asia in the 1960s and early 1970s, like its social relaltionships were warmer, more intimate and fruitful than its political relationships. Donald Friend settled in Bali from 1966 to 1980 where he “…wrote, painted, observed local events, and formed associations with other painters and his neighbours which were as important to his work as the landscape” (Broinowski 1992:78-79). During the 1960s a number of Japanese potters came to Australia and Broinowski comments that “no list can do justice to all the Australian potters for whom contact with Asia became a stimulus” (89). She identifies “the folk tradition and the aesthetic of Japanese farmhouses” (91) as inspiration for the ‘nuts and berries’ school of architects of the 1960s in Sydney — Ken Woolley, Phillip Cox, Philip Johnson and others.

Sculthorpe’s interest in musics outside the European art music tradition stemmed from a desire to reflect an Australianness in his music — static/unchanging harmony reflecting the “unchanging vista”, the “long walk”; repetition through the repetition of the vista, and of stones encountered on the walk. Debussy’s use of repeated two-bar phrases building into larger structures was an early influence on Sculthorpe, and in the late 1950s, he had first made conscious use of a pedal derived from the sound of the didgeridoo (Sculthorpe, interview). Donald Peart (1966) writing in 1966 noted that the music of Asia had not only began to colour the music of composers such as Sculthorpe and Gillian Whitehead, but also had “…already done much to determine the trend of their ideas” (1966:17). The “process” music of Balinese rice pounding, the repetitive, interlocking rhythms made when rice is pounded with poles of different lengths and densities producing different pitches, first appeared in Sculthorpe’s String Quartet Music (String Quartet No.8) of 1969.

For Covell “what is interesting in examining the music of a transplanted culture is to observe what happens to music when it is transplanted and in the course of this, perhaps, to gain further insight into what is durable or valuable or universally applicable in the original culture” (Covell 1967:xi). The minimalist-like characteristics of the sound of the Indonesian gamelan, and rice pound music – repetition, small pitch set, narrow register — and the resulting hypnotic effect emerge in a number of Sculthorpe’s works from the 1960s. “Balinese borrowings” (Gerster and Bassett 1991:126) as Gerster and Bassett describe this influence, first appear in Sculthorpe’s Sun Music III.

Composed for the 1968 Adelaide Festival, Sculthorpe’s wind quintet with percussion, Tabuh Tabuhan, at times, echoes the repetitive, interlocking patterns of the gamelan. The Balinese title means “all kinds of gamelan music”, and Mellers (1991) draws attention to the “non-evolutionary pentatonicism, the seductive sonorities, and the formal repetitiveness of Balinese gamelan music to its own ends” (95-96), all characteristics shared with minimal music.

Through his music and his teaching at the University of Sydney, Sculthorpe influenced a large number of musicians, composers and ethnomusicologists.

Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No.8 of 1969 and Tabuh Tabuhan (1968) for wind quintet and percussion by Sculthorpe, both works containing characteristics associated with minimalism, were influences on Ross Edwards’s compositional language. (Edwards, interview). Sculthorpe’s interest in Balinese music was in turn, a strong influence on Anne Boyd and Robert Lloyd who both visited Bali. 1973 was the year of Boyd’s first visit to Bali (later trips were made in 1976 and 1990) and the year String Quartet No.2 and As It Leaves the Bell were written. These works incorporate a number of characteristics associated with minimal music and also “games”, i.e. canons, rounds and repeated cantus firmi, repetitive structural processes adopted from medieval Europe, and found, later, in compositions by American minimalists (Boyd, interview). Anklung (1974) for solo piano takes its title, the four-note scale on which it is based, and its repetitive construction from the Indonesian gamelan bamboo ensemble. Michael Hannan names works of Sculthorpe with “minimalist tendencies” as having made the biggest impact on his music. (Hannan, questionnaire).

Other non-Western musics have provided ideas for composers. For Ross Edwards there has been the influence of the interplay of Madagascan voices in a Henry Cowell recording on his 1979 work Laikan (meaning ‘flickering’), and an interest in Sufi music (Edwards, interview). David Kotlowy names Indian and Far Eastern musics as being the source of modality, and rhythmic additions and subtractions in some of his work (Kotlowy, questionnaire).

For some, pop and rock music have impacted on their work in especially personal ways, often through performing – playing repeated drum patterns, playing pop music on an accordion while growing up, playing rock in teenage years, listening to pop, rock and jazz.

Repetitive environmental sound sources have played an important role – the continuous rhythms and changing metres of the sounds made by crickets and cicadas in Edwards’ music (Edwards, interview); both Lloyd and Bandt worked with tape loops and tape recorders; Chesworth listened to bell ringers ringing the small pitch set, repetitive “changes” at the local church for eight years of his childhood as he lay in bed (Chesworth, questionnaire).

For many Australian composers born in the 1940s and early 1950s, the late 1960s to mid-1970s were the time when first contact with American minimalism was made. Anne Boyd met Steve Reich (Boyd, interview), and Michael Hannan heard Glass perform (Hannan, questionnaire). Warren Burt was in contact with Reich’s music while studying in New York 1968 (Burt, questionnaire), and the music of minimalist and ‘pre-minimalist’ composers in the UK, Europe, Australia and the US has influenced a number of Australian composers.

This diversity of minimalistic influences on music of Australian composers is reflected in ideas as to the society minimalism represents. For Polin (1989), minimal music reflects America in the 1960s. Popular music of the time, through the words of protest songs by the Beatles, Baez or Dylan, was politically oriented, dealing with “…alienation, racial bigotry, ecology, war, civil rights, and similar temporally urgent subjects” (Polin 1989:231). For Polin, however, minimalism’s interest in eastern music, and the search “…for more contemplative modes” (228) is essentially the rise of a non-intellectual movement (230) with its political content not so easily decipherable (232). Despite its ability to offer escape, she finds minimalism “…represents a critical reaction to the condition of humanity in a complex and uncontrolled society” (238), and quotes Neumeyer’s dictum of the 1950s, that “…‘art tends to move away from contemporary cultural realities, even to the point where the artist creates for himself worlds that have not existed before…” (232). This is also part of Small’s discussion on minimalism.

Small (1977) chose one minimalist composition by American Terry Riley, to discuss the relation between music and “the potential society”. In Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, Small finds that, among other directions, the human race recognizes its relationship to nature, where the time of clocks and the tyranny of the future can be transcended, the individual finds his proper relation to society (1977:209). Small comments on the work’s ‘non-harmonic’ nature “…which contains no tension, no development, no drama, exists wholly in the present and does not demand concentrated, steady listening” (209-210). He quotes from Riley’s vision of a potential society, described and painted on the record sleeve and finds, that despite their naivety, “…the presence of those ideas…in the music of our century speaks clearly and eloquently of their presence within the matrix of our society, in however latent a form” (210).

This utopian society viewed positively by Small, is also seen negatively, as “not a solution but …a symptom of the disease” (Mertens 1983:124). Here Mertens interprets Marcuse’s views on the breakdown of dialectics in repetitive minimal music as “the desertion from history in favour of a utopian world”, but a utopian world in which the ego is broken down through induction of a hypnotic or religious state. With the breaking down of the ego comes a one-dimensional society, a society which accommodates the ruling monopolist powers. To quote Marcuse — “The breaking down of the ego-functions are intended to create and increase control and to strengthen the institutional monopolist powers” (Mertens 1983:124).

The composition by Australian composer, Michael Smetanin, Minimalism isn’t dead … it just smells funny, the title of which heads this paper, is in one way, a kind of aural ‘history’ of minimalism as it ‘appropriates’ aspects of various works, some by American minimalist composers. In doing so, it encapsulates the diversity of sources from which Australian composers have drawn the characteristics associated with minimalism. Smetanin’s title also reflects change in American minimal music in the 1980s, when he wrote his piece, a similar sort of change to that occurring in jazz when Frank Zappa made his earlier statement with cynical humour — ‘jazz isn’t dead …it just smells funny’. In minimal music the change was from minimalism’s tightly-constructed process pieces composed for small ensembles, to maximalism’s expanded structures incorporating minimalist stylistic aspects with more frequent changes, often composed for large ensembles such as the orchestra.

For Robert Lloyd, born in 1948, the most common aspect in his compositional process is a strong rhythmic structure. In his words, “Most of the music is derived from rhythmic cycles played against each other, which you hear in a variety of different types of music. African music has it, Indian music has it, Balinese, and medieval and renaissance music have it, as well as many others” (Potts 1995:32). These derivations resulted in multiple down-beat structures and isometric patterning influenced by Indonesian music, canons, and rhythmic cycles. During 1972 and 73 Lloyd was working with tape recorders combining music in different metres. For Lloyd, hearing and seeing a Balinese gamelan in Sydney in the early 1970s played a pivotal role on his work Bhakti (1973-74) for glockenspiel, two vibraphones and bells. The title Bhakti means ‘the yoga of love and devotion’. After the composition of Bhakti, Lloyd went to Bali in 1975 and received tuition on the Peliatan gamelan of central Bali with gamelan player Wayan Gandra. For him this was a confirmation of what he had been doing.

To quote Lloyd: “In Bali I got a sense of the connection between music, dance, theatre, and variety of experiences” (Potts 1995:32). This connection runs throughout Lloyd’s compositions, and he has undertaken collaborations with artists in theatre, sculpture and dance.

A percussionist by training, and drummer with the 1960s band Tully, Lloyd says that “in a sense, you could say drumkit playing is minimalist because you’re playing one rhythmic pattern for a long period before you start to embellish it” (The Drum Media 1992:51). The characteristics associated with minimalism which Lloyd identifies in his work are “repetition, limited pitch sets, rhythmic cycles — interlocking figures, two metres working at the same time, limited tone colour i.e. pure consort, limited register i.e. treating different registers of the piano as different instruments” (Lloyd, questionnaire). The release in 1974 of DGG’s boxed set of works by American minimal composer Steve Reich, was, to Lloyd’s ears, similar to what he had been doing (Lloyd interview 1994). A familiar rather than a new aesthetic.

Nullabor, for three percussionists, was written in 1987 and became the score for Molissa Fenley’s 1993 dance work of the same name. Lloyd’s collaborative work with Fenley began after he read of her use of “canonic and simultaneous rhythm structures, sequences which run out of sync and then come together” (Britton 1987:109). These were the processes and procedures he had been investigating with percussion ensembles. Fenley’s experience came directly from her childhood in Nigeria, Lloyd’s from an interest in creating “a more melodic rhythmic music with the drum parts becoming more melodic and the melodic parts more percussive”.

Inspired by Lloyd’s childhood in Adelaide, a city situated on the edge of the central Australian desert and the Nullabor Plain, Nullabor incorporates an Aboriginal-inspired song in two different sets of drums. It embodies the repetitive rhythms of the train journey from Adelaide to Perth and the influence of the music of the Pitantjatjara people who live on the edge of the central Australian desert, and from whom he learnt songs and dance during his early education. Lloyd’s use of musical characteristics associated with minimalism results in music in which Christopher Small would recognise aspects of his ‘potential society’. The sound, construction and structure of the musics of Bali are present in Nullabor, and remain an important part of Lloyd’s compositional style today.

Born in 1964, Andree Greenwell represents a later generation of Australian composer whose compositions incorporate minimalist characteristics. Her composition output includes a high proportion of works for theatre, either music for theatre, or operas. She does not mind the term minimal or minimalist being applied to aspects of her music, however reminds us that it is only one of many aspects of her music. Greenwell finds that when the press hear the reference to minimalism they often make inappropriate and grand illusions to Glass and other minimalist composers (Greenwell, questionnaire).

The characteristics in her work that she calls minimalist include her approach to harmony, motivic cells, rhythmic development of material, and also the new simplicity. “I like very simple but strong melody writing. Often I use a note per syllable as a starting point. Also, there is pleasure to be heard in this minimalism for both audience and performer. I am anti-hero — “I’m so fantastic I can write the hardest music that some poor bastard musician will never be paid enough to learn””.

Greenwell first heard the music of American minimalist composers while a student at the Victorian College of the Arts. The piece was Einstein on the Beach, one of Philip Glass’s operas. She says: “The opening chorus blew me away …I found the use of counting numbers as text, and the harmony beautiful. A lot of bass frequency”. She positively acknowledges the influence on her music of the music of American minimalist composers, mentioning the work of Adams, Glass, Reich and Monk. (Greenwell, questionnaire). However, within Greenwell’s music one hears what Kouvaras describes as “a very wide variety of musical procedures, effects, cultural associations” which heighten the emotional highs and lows (Kouvaras 1999) and in doing so return the dialectic to her use of minimalist techniques.

Passion, originally written for the Sydney Front’s theatre work in 1993, is structurally based upon the story of Jesus’ passion and uses voices, a chamber music ensemble and pre-recorded sound track of computerised and domestic sounds.

Laquiem: tales from the mourning of the lac women, composed in 1998, with a text by Kathleen Mary Fallon is written for chamber ensemble, and voices. The work employs a number of minimalist processes and devices similar to those of Passion, plus others. In her review of the work, Kouvaras refers to these as Greenwell’s “trademark minimalist/process music kaleidoscopic shifts of rhythmic and harmonic structures; forays into the unpitched, aleatoric soundworld; sections revisiting Baroque and earlier soundworlds; and tonal/modal harmonies and melodies” (Kouvaras 1999:37). For me, Greenwell’s use of minimalist characteristics in Laquiem juxtapose sounds which reflect the positivity of Small’s ‘potential society’, with the, at times, harsh, crude reality of the story the singers tell.

Matthew Hindson was born in 1968. Like Greenwell he doesn’t mind the term minimalist being applied to aspects of his compositional output, and characteristics associated with minimalism include repetition of rhythm patterns on a small and large scale, frequent use of an unchanging pulse, use of tonality and tonal centres in the harmonies he chooses, and clear structures. For Hindson these, perhaps, are from the integration of aspects of popular music into his compositions, specifically techno and death metal (Hindson, questionnaire). While acknowledging the influence of the music of American minimalist composers to an extent, he says it is not a deliberate or conscious influence, with no particular work making an impact. Rather, it is the minimalist characteristics in the music of composers outside the USA who have been more influential.

AK-47 for solo piano (with optional electronic bass drum), was written and premiered in 1994. The AK-47 is a Soviet assault rifle much favoured by insurgents and guerillas due its reliability, availability and general effectiveness, and in the piece, Hindson employs a loud, heavy, dissonant repetition which ‘machine-guns’ its way through a recognisably tonal chord progression. For Linda Kouvaras, Hindson “illustrates musically all that is annhiliatory in this weapon. Yet the work operates in true postmodern complicity critique fashion: although Hindson’s illustration is total and contains more than a hint of the murky thrill associated with war and destruction, the piece is not a romanticised celebration of the weapon. The listener cannot help but enter into the general assult, though the immersion is tempered by a middle section which is reminiscent of a 70’s disco tune. This bizarre juxtaposition of music affords the potential for reflection, the ambiguity of which can leave the listener in an uncomfortable position” (Kouvaras 1995a). The repetition in the piece, and its title, remind one of Marcuse’s views of repetition and a utopian world, a world that results in a one-dimensional society. For Jean-Luc Napoleon III, “from the outset, there is no doubt as to the … intention [of AK-47]…and hence it continues, encapsulating everything from the intensely vicious and overbearing to what could only be the psychotic pinings of a Bosnian Serb mercenary, one day too long in the field…the warped canons and postures of those who find this exalted invention a most suitable device with which to implement their dreams and fantasies” (Napoleon III 1994:256-257 in ISCM World Music Days Festival Composer Brochure). For the composer, the work also reflects his belief “that there is more to music than ‘listening’ soporifically to various sounds that do nothing to excite or engage anyone except for the ego of the composer who wrote them…” (Hindson interview 3.99).

Speed (Minimum Dose), recently renamed LiteSPEED, written in 1997 for orchestra, blends a tonal, often triadic harmonic idiom, with fast repetitive rhythmic writing producing “the energy peculiar to more ‘hard-core’ forms of techno” (Kouvaras, 1995b) to quote Linda Kouvaras in the note at the front of the score. The fast pulse and repetitive patterns of techno are produced easily by technology such as sequencers. Hindson introduces a MIDI rather than acoustic drum kit into the orchestra to drive the tempo and ‘feel’, and to balance with the acoustic orchestral instruments. But in a way, this also strengthens the link between techno and Hindson’s orchestral piece because techno uses synthetic drums. The title and tempo play with an association with drugs such as speed/ecstasy, substances which are often present within the world of techno music at rave and underground dance parties — associations such as “invincibility/ indestructibility, ecstasy, hyperactivity, paranoia, and …stamina” to quote Kouvaras (Kouvaras 1995b). One is reminded again of the club performance venues of American minimalism in the late 1960s and why minimal music is also called ‘trance music’. Riley recalls his performance of Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1967) and A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968) in 1969 at The Electric Circus, a psychedelic rock club in the East Village, New York — “The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was still hot, because I remember that ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was playing the night of my concert. Inside they were using strobe lights and mylar and projections to create light-illusions. There was this psychedelic sixties’ crowd, a mixture of young people, dope-blowing hippies, and academic types who came to check out new music” (Riley in Schwartz 1996:48). Thornton writing in 1996 of club cultures, talks of this same complete sensory environment. She quotes David Swindells’ 1988 ‘blurb’ about the club Shoom as “…providing the appropriate aural (not to say, astral) atmosphere for the euphoric and whooping crowd to take the idea of dancing to its outer limits, way beyond the confines of the dancefloor and the two step shuffle” (Thornton 1996:145-146).

In Speed, Hindson completes a circle for minimalism, almost achieved through techno’s use of multi-repetition, small pitch sets, little change, and fast tempo, by returning the ‘trance’ aspect of early American minimalism to the concert hall. This for me, creates a balance, for minimalism has always crossed cultural boundaries, being performed in ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music venues, drawing on music of non-Western cultures, technology, and popular musics, and in turn being very influential on popular music.

In conclusion, Australian composers using characteristics associated with minimal music, have transplanted or borrowed these from a number of sources. The sound of the American minimalists has been one of these, but the musics of Indonesia, Africa and India have been, and still are influences shared by composers in both America and Australia. For many composers the multi-repetition of minimalism induces a feeling of trance, whether the trance of spiritualism heard in many musics of non-Western cultures, or trance induced by drugs, or a combination of the two. The repetition of minimal music is around us in our mechanised society and is inherent in the capabilities of music technology, and the ‘new simplicity’ of some minimal music is deliberately sought by some composers. The music of the American minimalists has been influential on many Australian composers, but also an affirmation and confirmation of ideas already being explored and incorporated into compositions. For many of the musical characteristics associated with minimalism – multi-repetition, unchanging pulse, small pitch sets — we can see that in the 1960s and 1970s, their time had come.


AZ Music (undated – early 1970s) Programme of two concerts on July 3rd, and July 5th of music of Cage, Ashley, Riley, and Young given in Sydney.

Britton, Stephanie (1987) The Ecstatic moments of Robert Lloyd. Artlink Special Issue Art and Technology, Vol, 7, Nos. 2 & 3, p.109.

Broinowski, Alison (1992) The yellow lady — Australian impressions of Asia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Covell, Roger (1967) Australia’s Music — Themes of a New Society. Melbourne: Sun Books

Gerster, Robert and Jan Bassett (1991) Seizures of Youth. Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing.

Hannan, Michael (1982) Peter Sculthorpe. His Music and Ideas, 1929-1979 St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press

Horne, Donald (1964 reprinted 1984, Epilogue 1971) The Lucky Country Victoria: Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

International Society of Contemporary Music (undated) Composer Brochure

Johnson, T. (1994) Minimalism: aesthetic, style, or technique? The Musical Quarterly pp.742-773.

Kouvaras, Linda (1995b) Programme notes for Speed (Minimum Dose). (Composer’s score available at the Australian Music Centre).

Kouvaras, Linda (1999) Laquiem, music: Andree Greenwell, text: Katherine Mary Fallon. Review of the CD The Journal of the Australian Music Centre No. 54, p.37.

Lloyd, Robert (1992) The Zen of theatre composition (an interview). The Drum Media 16 June, p.51.

Mellers, Wilfrid (1991) New worlds, old wildernesses. The Atlantic, Volume 268, No.2, August, pp.94 — 97.

Mertens, Wim. Translator J.Hautekiet (1983) American Minimal Music. London: Kahn & Averill

Musifilm (1972) Programme of four nights of avant-garde music and dance seen through experimental film — AZ Music presented at the Waratah Spring Festival, October 2,4,6,8 1972 in St. James Playhouse, Phillip St., Sydney.

Peart, Donald (1966) Asian music in an Australian university. Hemisphere March 10, pp13-17.

Polin, C. (1989) Why minimalism now? In Music and the politics of culture. ed. Christopher Norris. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Potts, John (1995) Beneath the melody. RealTime 7, June-July, p.32.

Schwartz, K.Robert (1996) Minimalists London: Phaidon Press Limited

Small, C. (1980) Music, society, education. London: John Calder.

Strickland, E. (1993) Minimalism: Origins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

The Drum Media (1992) The Zen of theatre composition p.51.

Thornton, Sarah (1996) Club cultures — music, media and subcultural capital. Hanover, NH, US: Wesleyan University Press — University Press of New England.


Covell, Roger. Introduction to record cover notes (undated) for Peter Sculthorpe’s Tabuh Tabuhan — The New Sydney Woodwind Quintet. Philips 6508001.

Glass, Philip (1979) Einstein on the Beach CBS

Greenwell, Andree. Undated, anonymous cover note for Greenwell’s Passion. New 1044.2.

Kouvaras, Linda (1995a). CD cover notes for Matthew Hindson’s AK-47 on ‘Greenbaum, Hindson, Peterson’ — private release.

Lloyd, Robert (1995) Nullabor. Move Records:MD3171.

Riley, Terry (1968) In C

Riley, Terry (1969) A Rainbow in Curved Air; Poppy Nogood

**Interviews and Questionnaires**

Bandt, Ros, written questions answered in 1995.

Boyd, Anne, interview by author, Sydney, 10th September, 1997.

Burt, Warren, written questions answered in 1997.

Chesworth, David, written questions answered in 1995.

Edwards, Ross, interview by author, Sydney 16th August, 1994.

Greenwell, Andree, written questions answered in 1998.

Hannan, Michael, written questions answered in 1995.

Hindson, Matthew, written questions answered, 1996.

Hindson, Matthew, email to the author, 1999.

Kotlowy, David, written questions answered, 1995.

Lloyd, Robert, interview by phone with the author, Sydney, 25th March, 1994.

Sculthorpe, Peter, interview by author, tape recording, Woollahra, Sydney, 21 November, 1994

Smetanin, Michael, written questions answered in 1995.

© Diana Blom — 1999

Diana Blom is a lecturer in performance studies in the music department of the University of Western Sydney. She has made a study of minimalism over several years, and is one of Australia’s foremost experts in this area of music.

Popular Music Influences

Popular Music influences in the compositions of Matthew Hindson


This was an essay paper submitted by Eleanor Lewis as part of an “Australian Music” seminar undertaken at the University of Sydney Music Department. It gives a good introduction and overview to a number of works written by Matthew Hindson as of 1998.

Throughout history, a fusion of musical styles can often be perceived when the popular music of the day influences the so-called “serious” music. Examples include the music of Brahms, Bartok, Dvorak and Kodaly, to name just four, each of whom were influenced by the folk music of their own or other regions, incorporating heard melodies into large-scale orchestral or chamber works. Today the tradition continues, but with a difference. Sydney composer Matthew Hindson is leading a new musical crusade to draw together seemingly the most disparate forms of Western culture – “art” music and the grunge/techno/heavy metal music so prevalent at the raves and dance parties of Australian cities. Judging from the reactions of audiences to his latest orchestral works, Hindson’s efforts are proving to be a popular mix, particularly with younger audiences.

There can be no doubt that popular music is one of the strongest influences at work in the compositions of Matthew Hindson. A short perusal of his works to date reveals such titles as Elvis, Homage to Metallica and Techno Logic, names which clearly demonstrate their immediate popular-music inspiration. However, it is not just the music but the gamut of popular culture which fascinates Hindson, as seen by the titles Rave-Elation and GameBoy Music, each of which have their roots in readily identifiable (at least to the contemporary Australian) symbols of modern culture, particularly the culture of youth. Yet Hindson’s work probes still deeper into the realms of modern culture, to the outcomes and effects of these symbols of the age, and to other aspects of our society not related to artistic trends, but to the contemporary mindset. This can be seen in works covering subjects from the prevalence of guns in our society (The Power of the Gun, AK-47, SCUD) to the trends of drug use (SPEED, In Search of Ecstasy), issues of personal security (Mace) and the psychology of the murderer (The Rage Within). It should be noted that these titles do not necessarily indicate that the works attached to them are programmatic or descriptive, rather that Hindson draws his inspiration from aspects of the world around him.

In examining the titles of Hindson’s works, it is of course only possible to make very superficial judgements about the influence of popular culture in his music, yet such a study reveals a striking array of images relevant to today’s society. Obviously the starting points for the works Elvis and Homage to Metallica were two icons of the popular music industry. Prior to composing Elvis (1991), Hindson completed Two Variations on ‘Love Me Tender’ for young orchestra and Teddy Bear for small ensemble, apparently prompting comments that he seemed to have a fascination for Elvis Presley. As Hindson writes:

    “…why not? This piece explores both Elvis’s songs and their connections with elements of his own life.”

The compositional style of Elvis is neither an imitation of Presley’s own songs nor an attempt to represent his style. Instead, the work is an examination of the enormous populist cult which has grown around the name of Elvis. Hindson writes:

    “Although it sounds like a terrible cliché, the death of Elvis in 1977 was felt as a shock throughout the world, even to those who had known the man and his habits for years and who had witnessed him near death many times due to his extreme abuse…The immediate result of Elvis’ death was for tens of thousands of his fans to gather at Gracelands (his Memphis residence), mourning with profound and unbelievably hysterical grief, sending floral tributes, and amongst other things, writing bad poetry dedicated to their ‘King’.”

This mass outpouring of sentiment and grief is of great interest to Hindson, and an interesting parallel can now be drawn between Elvis and Hindson’s Lament for cello and piano, written in 1996. Lament is a huge departure in style from the rest of Hindson’s compositional output, a slow, intensely emotional and lyrical work. The programme notes state:

    Lament was written not long after the memorial service for the victims of the Port Arthur massacre of May, 1996. It is not so much a direct response to this event in particular, but rather an attempt to capture the feeling of immense sadness that was present at this, and indeed every other, funeral service.
    The cello part has been ‘set’ to the text of The Lord is my Shepherd, a religious text that was used at the memorial service for the Port Arthur victims.”

Reading Hindson’s own words about each piece, it becomes clear that in both Elvis and Lament, the composer’s primary motivation is an exploration of a mass sentiment, or how pivotal events in history can create a wave of feeling which is capable of bringing people together. It is a phenomenon seen recently with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and surely Elton John’s new version of Candle in the Wind will be only the first of many artistic reactions to an event which so clearly affected a great number of people.

In contrast with Elvis, Homage to Metallica is intended as a celebration of the achievements of the heavy metal rock band, Metallica and other exponents of the genre. Hindson seeks to evoke the character of heavy metal music, in particular, to quote the composer:

    “…the extreme sense of theatricality, virtuosity, rhythmic energy that is so representative of this style.”

Upon listening to the work, there can be little doubt that Hindson has successfully achieved an orchestral representation of these dominant characteristics of heavy metal music. As the present writer has not seen a live performance of Homage to Metallica, it is difficult to assess the extent of visual theatricality in the work, but the aural experience is so exciting that the listener cannot help but be swept along, and it would be very surprising if this effect were not also felt in the concert hall. The work is certainly virtuosic. The most obvious example of this is the solo violin part (performed on a 1/8th size violin with a contact microphone attached) in which the performer is confronted by an onslaught of unrelenting scrubbing combined with sections for improvisation, wild vibrato and ‘elastic’ intonation. The effect here is equivalent to that of a lead guitar in the role of frenzied soloist, an effect heightened by the peculiar sound quality of the tiny, miked instrument and the instructions to distort the sound through heavy use of the bow and approximate pitch, thus creating a resemblance to the distortion of an electric guitar. The rhythmic energy which characterises the heavy metal genre is also very much in evidence in the solo violin line as part of its virtuosity.

The orchestra as a whole indulges in various quasi-heavy metal effects, including pitch bending, glissandi and, for the strings, the use of maximum bow pressure to achieve “noise effect”, as it is labelled in the score. Nevertheless, the entire score is not devoted to an exploration of white noise. A solo viola introduces a reflective and haunting theme from bar 56 which is eventually taken up by the entire orchestra. This is a departure from the expectations raised by the title of the work, and a demonstration of Hindson’s interest in going beyond mere transference of heavy metal techniques from band to orchestra. Roger Covell writes that:

    “Hindson seems to be paying tribute to the ability of Metallica to invent variations on stereotyped heavy metal formulas and its capacity for stepping outside the implications of its generic label.”

Similarly, Homage to Metallica is not easily labelled, as it significantly blurs the lines between the seemingly incompatible “art” and heavy metal music.

Two other orchestral works by Hindson received significant exposure in July 1997. SPEED, composed in 1995, received its premiere in Hobart on July 26th, and Rave-Elation, a work commissioned by Youth Music Australia, was a significant item on the newImages touring program of the combined Cameratas Australia and Scotland, a tour covering much of Australia and Great Britain. In these works, Hindson turns his attention to the “techno” genre of music which dominates dance parties and raves. At the beginning of the score of Speed can be found the following definitions, or perhaps more accurately, connotations:

    record-breakingly fast velocity, rapidly executed activity, juggernaut-like motion, driving in a hurry, a fast-talker, the pace of modern life, amphetamine-based drugs…

As Linda Kouvaras explains in her programme notes to the work, any or all of the above interpretations can be placed on the music.

    “Hindson conversely – perversely even – celebrates both the idea of the deepest, philosophical contemplation…as well as the full gamut of postmodern life with all its ever-accelerating, all-senses-impacting, jolting sensation of rush.”

It is in SPEED that Hindson’s preoccupation with the importance of recognising underground culture within mainstream culture becomes most apparent. According to the composer, SPEED “started out as a techno piece for orchestra, and largely remains that.” On a technical level, this is achieved in the outer sections of the piece through use of “a mainly steady beat, many parallel triads flavouring the harmony, and of course a fast to very fast tempo.” More generally, Hindson has tried to achieve the hard-core energy and freneticism which characterise techno music, thus challenging the performers to cultivate the necessary stamina achieved by “ravers”. In contrast, however, the middle section contains a series of overtly romantic solos, cadenza-like in style and centred around the harp, musical symbols of the height of nineteenth-century romanticism in stark contrast with the unrelenting MIDI Drum Kit which powers the outer sections. It is a contrast, however, which is part of a unified structure and as such typifies Hindson’s efforts to unite the musically disparate.

On a secondary level, and again linked to the title of the work, Kouvaras explains underground culture as it relates to SPEED:

    “Linked with techno music through the rave party scene are the murky speed/ecstasy types of drugs. While this association is of secondary importance to the inspiration and intended effect of the piece, Hindson captures a sense of the psycho-physical consequences induced by these drugs: invincibility/indestructibility, ecstasy, hyperactivity, paranoia, and again, stamina.”

Therefore, Hindson has again looked beyond the purely musical influences to the deeper significance and effects upon society wrought by the exponents of the rave and dance-party culture.

Rave-Elation, while very reminiscent of SPEED in its compositional technique, lacks the harsher edge of its predecessor. A slicker, more refined style at times seems to owe more to the Hollywood blockbuster than underground culture, with huge movie-climax melodies a feature amongst the otherwise frenetic instrumentation. Here Hindson demonstrates the influence upon his music of a more mainstream popular culture. When interviewed about Rave-Elation, Hindson stated:

    “I like music to be really in-your-face and really at you…I don’t like the aggressive chip-on-your-shoulder attitude of rap. I like music to be really up.”

It is not possible to discuss here the enormous influence popular culture has exercised over the entire compositional output of Matthew Hindson. However,’ three major works mentioned above – Homage to Metallica, SPEED and Rave-Elation – all received performances in major concert hall venues around Australia and Great Britain in 1997. Each of the pieces was greeted with enormous enthusiasm from packed audiences, “…a degree of enthusiasm from the audience” wrote Stephen Whittington “which is relatively rare, alas, for contemporary music.” The music of Matthew Hindson is drawing a younger audience back to the concert halls of Australia, and this can only be a healthy sign for the future of live music in this country. Could we now be seeing a return to a time when the “serious” music of the concert platform is indistinguishable from “popular” music? Perhaps not – only time will tell – but certainly when “art” music and popular music overlap as they do in the compositions of Matthew Hindson, the results, both artistic and commercial, are to be strongly encouraged.


Covell, R., ‘A quiet homage to heavy metal’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25th August, 1997.

Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Elvis, 5th Anniversary Concert, The Contemporary Singers.

Hindson, M., Performance Notes for Homage to Metallica, no publisher given, 1993 (revised 1997).

Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Lament, Jean-Luc Napoléon III Press, Burwood, 1996.

Hindson, M., Programme Notes for Rave-Elation, Jean-Luc Napoléon III Press, Burwood, 1997.

Kouvaras, L., Programme Notes for Speed, Jean-Luc Napoléon III Press, Burwood,

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###

Question & Answer Session (1997)

Question and Answer Session:

###Youth Music Australia interview (1997)###


In 1997 my work Rave-Elation was performed across Australia and the U.K. by the combined forces of Camerata Australia and Camerata Scotland. The commissioning body, Youth Music Australia, produces a series of newsletters with information for their members, and this Question-and-Answer session formed part of that.

On a personal note, some of the points that I raised and ways of working probably wouldn’t apply to my most recent music, however the ‘gist’ of it is still quite relevant.

    Q1. How did you feel when you were approached to write a piece for Youth Music Australia?

Well when I was first asked to write a piece for the combined Camerata Australia and Camerata Scotland, aside from the fact that it was a wonderful opportunity to write for an unusual instrumentation, I immediately thought of all of the wonderful players who’d be playing (at least I know that’s the case for the Australian side, and of course the Scottish side will be great as well). So a large part of the inspiration came from knowing that I’d be able to write for absolutely top-notch players. That helps a lot in the whole writing process, because basically (within reason) you know that whatever you can write they will probably do!

Most of my music tends to be very fast and quite virtuosic – but this is much harder to successfully achieve in a large ensemble situation i.e. double chamber orchestra. The small amount of double chamber orchestra that I’ve actually heard has tended to be quite harsh and angular, and whilst I’m sure that all of it isn’t like that, I decided consciously just to write more the sort of music that I usually do, and just write it for large ensemble.

    Q2. How do you approach hearing your own music, particularly in rehearsals? Does it always turn out as you expect it to?

Going to rehearsals of your piece is generally extremely stressful if you’re the composer. It’s a weird sort of situation that you’re hearing your own creation actually being realised, live, in real time with X number of live performers. Luckily for me most of the time there have been no nasty surprises – although once or twice things have not gone well.

In general I try not to go to the first rehearsal as invariably it’s really depressing – nothing sounds right. But the further on you go, the better it gets!

    Q3. You’re both a young composer and an Australian composer. What are your feelings about this?

Am I still a ‘young’ composer? I suppose so, but sometimes I feel old (especially when there’s a commission due in a few days).

One of the most encouraging things about being an Australian composer these days is that we have so many outstanding ‘senior’ composers as role models. I’ve been overseas quite a bit to music festivals etc. and believe me, I would much prefer to hear Australian music than most European music. It sometimes seems like a hard road but if we hang in there, eventually something will pay off.

    Q4. Do you (or did you!) play any instrument or instruments?

Actually I’m a violist. I’ve found that being a string player helps you to really ‘feel’ what the sound’s like from the middle of the orchestra, and how to use it well. Perhaps the one instrument that I would have liked to learn is the piano, from the sheer practical point of view, but then again, computers work so well as a compositional tool that keyboard skills aren’t as necessary as they were a few years ago.

    Q5. Do you have any particular or recurring inspirations in your music?

You know that saying, “composition is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”… well whoever thought that up definitely didn’t have me in mind. I need to be inspired to write. Not all the time, but certainly for the initial ideas.

Lots of my music uses aspects of popular music as its inspiration, particularly techno and death metal. These types of music are pretty theatrical and “in your face”, things which I want my music to be.

    Q6. What other contemporary composers do you most admire?

Probably Xenakis – despite the fact that in terms of harmony we’re miles apart his music has a real sense of clarity and almost aggression that I really like. And he does it so well! You know when you listen to his music that there’s this unbelievably high quality. The same goes for Messaien, as well as Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards and Gerard Brophy.

    Q7. Do you work much as a composer? What other sorts of work do you do? Does this other work complement your composition in any way?

Whilst I mainly consider myself to be a professional composer, I teach both composition and classroom music at MLC School Burwood (in NSW). The good thing about this is that it keeps you down to earth. It is very easy to become out of touch with the so-called ‘real world’, and whilst this in itself is not a bad thing, there’s nothing like a dose of reality delivered by a rampant Year 9 class to bring you down with a thud. Teaching secondary school aged pupils certainly helps to keep your music focussed and attention-grabbing.

At the school I’m at we have a strong music programme which encourages students to really fulfil at music if that is what they desire. And they receive a really good training in a lot of areas of music, in particular ensemble playing, solo opportunities and contemporary music. I can’t really speak for other schools, but I think that the job that organizations like YMA do is fantastic, especially for gifted students who really thrive on those opportunities they’re not going to get anywhere else.

    Q8. How would you describe your own music?

It’s hard to really describe your own music, most people tend to let others do it for them.

As I said before, I use aspects of popular music in my own compositions, basically because (1) that is the sort of music I like to listen to a lot of the time, and (2) there is a real vibrancy in popular music performance that I would like to convey in my own music. A while ago now I went to a concert by Screaming Jets at the Shellharbour Workers Club. They’re performance was AMAZING! They were really into the music, and had no inhibitions about really going for it in a massive way. Their sense of fun and exhibitionism really got through to the crowd, and impressed me enough I suppose to consider attempting something sort of similar in my own work.

    Q9. Being a young person, how do you feel you represent youth culture in your music?

Well I don’t really know if I’m a part of youth culture, and it’s always dangerous to try to be part of something through imitation alone. I’m certainly not consciously trying to “appeal to the youth market” or anything like that – if I was then I’d be releasing pop music CDs. In the end I just try to write music that I like. If an audience likes it, then that’s my good luck! You have to please yourself first.

    Q10. Your music has some pretty way-out titles, e.g. DeathStench, Homage to Metallica. What is the rationale behind your thinking on this?

The titles of pieces are really quite important I feel. There are two ways of going about it really, either having the title summarize the piece or else having it as a ‘clue’ to what the music’s about and letting the listener decipher it as they hear it. I prefer the first way.

With Rave-Elation, the piece is based largely on techno music, hence the “Rave” in the title. The “Elation” comes from the happiness that I by listening to it. The piece is really purely hedonistic: it’s not “deep and meaningful” in any way, really. It’s meant to just be enjoyed in an very “up” kind of way. Of course that’s not to say that it’s easy to perform! Rhythmically it has to be very tight in terms of ensemble to be effective, otherwise it’s going to fall flat.

    Q11. What are your feelings about recordings?

I don’t really listen to much music in terms of CDs. I think I’ve got about 10 CDs at home, of these I’ve bought 1 or 2. Music is much better heard live. I go to a lot of concerts, mainly contemporary music. You can get a much bigger buzz from live concerts – it’s a multi-sensual experience rather that just an aural one which you get from recordings.

date placed on website: 16 March 2000

Some pages not working: working on fixing them – thanks for your patience