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The golden age of Australian Music
April 27, 2015
READ Jessica's latest article for Limelight Magazine. Here she shares her top essential works of modern Australian music:
Conductors, as they travel so much, are often considered citizens of the world. To an extent this is true, and as the daughter of Australian diplomats who were posted abroad every few years, in many ways it is for me. But Australia has affected me deeply. I was born there, and the vast open skies, the grey-greens of the trees, the gold of the dry grass, that landscape, the air, the weather, have all stayed with me, wherever in the world I may be. Now, coming back to Australia to conduct the wonderful Queensland Symphony Orchestra, all this is much on my mind.
Australian classical music, steadily gaining pace since the 1950’s, has developed greatly in recent generations and so have Australians’ awareness of it – both the music being written today and from those who went before. Peter Sculthorpe, for instance, has become a widely known name, and not only among musicians and intellectuals. I’m conscious we need to do even more to support the development of Australian classical music, but already this increasing interest is very exciting.
I’ve noticed that orchestras worldwide are increasingly interested in Australian music and I am always keen to look for opportunities to programme something Australian in my concerts. It is fascinating to see the effect that it can have on the players. I have just completed a recording of Australian composers with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for BBC Radio 3. The players were profoundly affected by this music (composers including Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards, James Ledger and others). They were especially moved by Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry. From the moment we started playing it – that slow, beautiful repeated motif, an incredibly haunting melody shared between the trombones and the violas, perfectly evoking the profound stillness of an early morning forested landscape in southeastern Australia; the opening conjures, so clearly to me, the gently swaying dry grass, the ancient gnarled eucalypts... and, as the piece progresses, the relentless energy of ants below on the dusty ground. What I felt coming back from the players was sheer pleasure. And being half-Scottish, this bringing together of my two native cultures was something incredibly special for me.
As a conductor, the first big name that drew me to my own country’s music was Brett Dean. He’s a tremendous composer with an endlessly fascinating sound-world, that at once envelopes and reaches inside you, so that you feel as though you’re hearing his music in every possible way. I first encountered his work through some of the ABC recordings, after which I started to programme his pieces into my own concerts.
Last year, I conducted his Pastoral Symphony with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra – an extraordinary piece that powerfully and unapologetically depicts the catastrophic destruction of nature. You can hear chainsaws and trees crashing down, and the birdcalls get fewer and fewer. It’s a real punch in the face, a reminder that what we have on this planet won’t last forever if we continue on, blinded by commercialisation. The Pastoral Symphony works on a local level, also. It acknowledges the huge importance and relevance of the spirituality of our indigenous peoples. Australia is such an ancient land, that I often have the feeling that it almost existed before time itself. The history is all there, in the landscape.
Another composer I’ve come across recently and who really excites me is Annie Hsieh, a young composer from Melbourne. Her work Icy Disintegration was also included in my BBC SSO recording project. This arresting piece is highly programmatic, initially evoking the shimmering tranquillity of the Ross Sea and then detailing the immense break-up of the Ross Ice Shelf into smaller bergs. You actually hear the rumbling of ice creaking and fissuring apart: little droplets of melted ice trickle down to the sea before ear-splitting timpani and brass signal the breaking loose of an immense chunk of ice as it falls and crashes into the water below. It is, again, a poetic yet stark reminder. Whereas Sculthorpe’s earlier works invariably evoked landscape, Annie’s piece is representative of the new generation; who show us the urgent, almost desperate need to protect and conserve this wonderful land. That we can’t take it for granted any longer.
A great number of Australian composers are influenced by nature and the landscape around us. Open space, wilderness, vivid colour and heat all work their way inside you and shape our way of viewing the world. It’s no different to what composers like Sibelius, Mahler and Vaughan Williams did for their respective countries. Not only does this music fill an important role within our society, it helps to define us.
Of the Australian composers of earlier generations, there are major figures we should revisit. Malcolm Williamson had a tough time as a somewhat controversial Master of the Queen’s Music; his rocky tenure affected his reputation for a while, but now it’s time to clearly see what a masterful composer he really was. As a student I conducted his magnificent opera The Growing Castle. Based on Strindberg’s A Dream Play, the score is illusory and suitably disconnected. As in many of Williamson’s works, we hear an unusual yet fascinating juxtaposition of styles, an infectious optimism, and a dazzling understanding of theatricality. He’s a real candidate for rediscovery.
Of that general era, but still going strong, is Larry Sitsky. Less famous internationally, he has had a huge effect in Australia especially through his teaching. I first came into contact with him as a keyboard major undergraduate at the Canberra School of Music, and he was the first person to really open my ears to new music. His own music is intellectual, but it somehow manages to be a potent concoction of the avant-garde and a certain mysticism as well. His parents were Russian-Jewish, and he was born in China, so he grew up in cultures that had a strong sense of their spiritual past.
Spirituality and mysticism are words that have appeared a few times in this post, and these two things, combined with the power of landscape, lead to one quality I could use to describe many Australian pieces – energy. It is a word which, for me, embodies Australia itself. It feeds both into our directness and into our zest for life and growth. We are so privileged to share such a physically beautiful and vast country. Does our energy come from this? Whatever the answer might be, it has given us – and continues to give us – some incredible music.