This article is the introduction to my book (written in 1992) published by the Australian Music Centre in 1995.

Sound Ideas - Australian Contemporary Composers Born Since 1950


On December 2, 1972 a revolution occurred in Australia that changed the direction of Australia, politically, economically, socially and culturally. It was probably one of the most significant events to occur in this country since the Second World War. It caused division and heated debate on a scale never experienced and has had ramifications, which are still felt in Australian society. The event that caused the revolution was the election of the Gough Whitlam Labor government, after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party rule dominated by Robert Menzies. The new administration came in like a whirlwind, and within three months Australian foreign and domestic policy had been radically transformed.

page21_1 Gough Whitlam

Here are just some of the changes that occurred: On December 5 Whitlam was sworn in and immediately he assumed, on an interim basis, 13 of 27 portfolios. He immediately: ended conscription and orders draft resisters released from prison; confirms that he will establish diplomatic ties with China; opposed independence for Rhodesia; approved sanctions against South Africa. On December 7 he stops federal government nominations for British knighthood and other titles; declines the customary appointment to the Privy Council in London; plans to offer new forms of official recognition; states that women will receive equal pay. On December 8 he bars segregated sporting teams from Australia and ends the 27.5% tax on contraceptives. On December 9 he freezes lease applications in the NT pending recognition of aboriginal claims. On December 14 he announces that aborigines will receive primary education in their own language with English as a second language; halts wheat exports to Rhodesia. On December 18 he becomes foreign minister. On December 21 he sends a letter to President Nixon protesting US bombing in Vietnam. On December 22 he establishes diplomatic ties with China and the German Democratic Republic and severs relations with Taiwan. On December 26 he ends racial restrictions on immigration policy. On January 3 he warns France that it will petition the World Court to ban nuclear tests in the Pacific. On January 5 he simplifies and reduces costs of divorce procedures. On January 11 he bans the exports of kangaroo products. On January 26 he asks Australians to submit entries to replace God Save The Queen as the national anthem. On February 13 the reference to Queen Elizabeth is omitted from the oath of allegiance and citizenship privileges are suspended for British immigrants. On February 19 an independence date is set for Papua-New Guinea. On February 23 he pledges joint Australian-Indonesian co-operation after four days of talks with President Suharto. On February 26 diplomatic relations are established with North Vietnam. On February 27 he proposes legislation that would establish universal health insurance, increase pensions, and lower the voting age to 18.

page21_2 Whitlam and his ministers, Rex Connor, Clyde Cameron, Jim Cairns and Lionel Murphy

Many of these changes and those that followed were monumental and had a far-reaching effect upon the development of the arts and music in Australia. To summarise the result of these actions: The thrust of many of Whitlam’s changes was toward an ‘Australianisation’ of our country and its people. He broke many ceremonial, legal and ancestral ties Australian had with Britain. He forged a new and independent foreign policy. He developed a new nationalism and a new Australian consciousness, putting the focus on who we were (in 1972) and what we could become as a nation, and not what we had been. This was radical and the debate over republicanism and a new flag is still raging today. The corollary of our break with the ‘mother country’ was the necessity to find our place in the world, and this was to be in Asia. There was, and still is, a strong move to multiculturalism; the ‘White Australia Policy’ was ended, and desire and necessity to become part of the Asian region manifested itself in the recognition of several Asian countries and the development of trade and diplomatic links with other countries with which Australia had previously had a tenuous relationship. Gough Whitlam became the Minister for the Arts and personally saw to their restructuring, development and encouragement. He reorganised what was the Advisory Board, Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers into the Australian Council for the Arts (now called the Australia Council) with seven autonomous boards - theatre, music, literature, visual and plastic arts, crafts, film and television, and aboriginal arts and in its first year provided $14 million. This heralded a new era of government patronage for music. The government supported the building boom in the arts. The Sydney Opera House was opened on October 20, 1974. The new concert hall in Perth opened on January 26, 1974. Construction of a festival-centre complex was under way in Adelaide and the first hall opened in June 1974. The Seymour Centre at Sydney University was under construction, and in Melbourne work began on the Victorian Arts Centre opera and ballet theatre. Coincidentally and significantly titled, Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘opera’ Rites of Passage was commissioned for the production at the Sydney Opera House.

These three factors, Australianisation, Asianisation and patronage, I believe, had a significant impact upon the development of music in Australia and represent a ‘rites of passage’ period where Australian music moved from a virtually homogenous and traditional Anglo-Celtic view of music, to one which now, in 1992, is world oriented and multifarious.

Firstly, the move to Australianisation has manifested itself in fewer composers travelling to England as the main centre of compositional learning. Of the earlier generation of composers, nearly all went to England first, to establish themselves as ‘legitimate’ composers. Obviously the experience was important, Europe was culturally richer than Australia, but there was still the need to ‘go overseas’ and make it there first. Arthur Benjamin went to England when he was seventeen and returned later in 1922 to teach at the RCM; Roy Agnew went to England in 1923. Margaret Sutherland went to London in 1924 and studied with Arnold Bax. Peggy Glanville-Hicks received a scholarship to the RCM in 1931 where she studied with Vaughn Williams, Arthur Benjamin and Constant Lambert (later she went for further study in Vienna with Egon Wellesz, and Paris with Nadia Boulanger). Dulcie Holland studied at the RCM with John Ireland. Miriam Hyde studied at RCM with R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob. Dorian Le Galliene went to London in 1938 to the RCM, and again in 1951 when he studied with Gordon Jacob. Don Banks studied with Matyas Seiber, while Malcolm Williamson settled in England in 1953 and studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and Erwin Stein. David Lumsdaine, Banks and Williamson all settled permanently in England. Keith Humble studied at RAM for a year, composition with Howard Ferguson, before moving to Paris in 1951, where he studied with Rene Leibowitz. Nigel Butterley studied with Priaulx Rainier. Colin Brumby with Alexander Goehr (also studied with Philip Jarnach in Barcelona). James Penberthy studied in England, France and Italy in 1951. Even Peter Sculthorpe went to Oxford in 1958, studying composition with Edmund Rubbra and Egon Wellesz, but it was this experience that was the turning point for him and caused him to look toward Asia and Australia as a greater source of inspiration. Of those who went to the USA, Richard Meale went to UCLA to study non-western music in 1960; he then went on to France and Spain. Larry Sitsky studied at the San Francisco Conservatorium with Egon Petri.

page21_3 Richard Meale

In the late 1960s and early 1970s several of the now middle to senior generation composers went to England. Anne Boyd went to York in 1969 and received her doctorate there in 1972. Martin Wesley-Smith went to York in 1971. Ross Edwards went to London and to York in 1970 and remained until 1973; he studied with Peter Maxwell Davies. Ian Bonighton also went but was unfortunately killed there in 1975. Alison Bauld studied with Elizabeth Lutyens in London and went to the University of York in 1971. Bauld and Jennifer Fowler have both settled in England.

page21_4 Barry Conyngham

Barry Conyngham was an exception, who, late in 1972, went to the USA on a Harkness Fellowship, following on from his visit to Japan in 1970. In the USA he became aware of electronic and computer music. David Ahern studied with Stockhausen in Cologne in 1969, but then went to London where he was influenced by Cornelius Cardew.

Most of the younger generation, born since 1950, have gone to places other than England and I will talk about some of them later.

Secondly, the Asianisation process has caused several developments. Several composers have travelled to centres in Asia for study in both Asian performance and compositional practice and various multicultural ensembles have emerged.

Several composers while not necessarily studying Asian music have felt less self conscious about using or assimilating Asian musical techniques in their composition. The influence of Asian philosophy, perhaps as filtered through the ideas of such people as John Cage, has created a new breed of ‘experimental’ composers who have created music on ‘found’ and invented instruments, many similar to traditional Asian instruments, and who have sought new means of musical expression centred around normal life situations, such as sound sculptures and outdoor space. They have become ‘like’ Asian musicians, who are performers and composers, involved in the traditions of their society and they moved away from the traditional modes of western musical thought that have limited music to the concert hall and anachronistic ensembles and institutions.

Thirdly, the increase in patronage for music has had considerable ramifications for music in general. (In 1992 $60 million was allocated to the Australia Council.) There was greater support for composers, allowing them time to compose. David Tunley said in 1978: Some idea of the financial support recently enjoyed by Australian composers can be gained by noting that in the twelve month period 1974-75 the Australian Council provided up to 75% of commission fees paid to some 40 composers, and granted generous fellowships to 19 composers for the purposes of composition, travel, research or further study….financial assistance.... has been considerably increased towards publishing, copying, and recording, towards seminars and the general propagation of Australian music. Thus after a period of virtual neglect the Australian composer has entered an era of patronage that would seem to rival the princely courts of the past. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that it came at a time when Australia was experiencing an unprecedented level of prosperity and displaying an ebullient spirit of national awareness and independence. (p.5 Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century)

In 1992 the Australia Council allocated approximately $1 million to the support of composers through commissions, residencies, creative development and study. There were several full-time year-long fellowships also available. Ironically, it is also a legacy of Whitlam’s support for the arts that young composers expect to be supported. They have grown up in an era where funding has always been available and if one wishes to pursue composition there will be funding for commissions, residencies, copying of parts, creative development and overseas study. This situation is becoming more dire and competitive, with a decrease in funding during a recession and an increase in the number of composers, many of who do not want other work, or cannot get it, and see the Australia Council as a means of support.

In addition a large amount of money was given to performers for the performance of Australian music. So it was not enough to pay a composer to produce the music it also had to be performed. The Australia Council has been instrumental in setting up and maintaining a performance infrastructure. In 1992 $1.9 million was given to performing activities. In particular contemporary music ensembles have been given strong support - Flederman, Seymour Group, Synergy, Elision, Chamber Made Opera, Perihelion and many others The government supported the building boom in the arts. The Sydney Opera House was opened on October 20, 1974. The new concert hall in Perth opened on January 26, 1974. Construction of a festival-centre complex was under way in Adelaide and the first hall opened in June 1974. The Seymour Centre at Sydney University was under construction, and in Melbourne work began on the Victorian Arts Centre opera and ballet theatre. Peter Sculthorpe was commissioned to write the ‘opera’ Rites of Passage for production at the Sydney Opera House. There was a strong move toward the use of technology in music and there was money available to set up electronic studios at Adelaide University, Melbourne University, La Trobe University (1974) and the NSW Conservatorium of Music. This has produced a generation of electronic composers.


Since the early 1970s composers have looked elsewhere for places to consolidate their compositional skills. Paradoxically, Whitlam’s push to independence, and associated ‘Australian-ness’, can be seen as being incompatible with his push to multiculturalism and increasing identification with Asia, and has led to greater difficulty in identifying what is ‘Australian’, and may make it impossible to ever create an Australian musical sound. The result of this paradox is that for many of the younger composers an Australian sound is simply not an issue; being Australian is a fact that they take for granted and do not feel the need to be ‘Australian’. This has been exacerbated by their study in overseas countries some of which are becoming subsumed into a unified Europe and which place no value on Australian music; it is seen as a country which is too far removed from the mainstream of musical activity to possibly have any influence on, or significance in, the development of western art music.

Several composers have gone to Italy to study such as BRIAN HOWARD, and more recently some with the respected Italian composer Franco Donatoni - GERARD BROPHY, RICCARDO FORMOSA, ANDREW WILSON, MARK FINSTERER and CLAUDIO POMPILI.

GERARD BROPHY (b.1953) studied at the Sydney Conservatorium before going to Italy. Although he now lives in Queensland Brophy's music is clearly European in intent and sound. Most of his performances take place in Europe. Lynne Williams in her article in the Musical Times in November 1988 said of Brophy that he has been successful in: ...welding complex techniques with an expressive quality...his very individual voice results from a conglomerate of interests and influences ranging from the passionate rhythms of Brazil..., the fascination with eccentric and hedonistic literature and painting..., to his concerns with virtuoso performance... (p.594)

page21_5 Gerard Brophy

Several composers have ventured to northern Europe. MICHAEL SMETANIN, LIZA LIM and BARBARA WOOF to Holland, MICHAEL WHITICKER to Berlin. Whiticker and Woof have taken up positions as Composers In Residence with the ABC; Michael with the MSO and Barbara with the SSO. None of these have sought an 'Australian' style, nor has their music identified with any Australian characteristics. Their eyes are firmly fixed on Europe. Of these, MICHAEL SMETANIN (b.1958), who studied with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, has made an impact with his aggressive music influenced by pop and contemporary techniques. Again to quote Lynne Williams: This ‘angry young man’ has been most outspoken in such pieces as his recent orchestral work, Black Snow, which (apparently) caused a furore in its repudiation of the conservative trends seen by Smetanin in the work of the populist composers - those deemed ‘retro-garde’ and neo-romantic. (p.592)

LIZA LIM (b.1966) studied at the VCA with Richard David Hames and later with Ton de Leeuw at the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam and has an intense interest in the so-called ‘maximalist’ or ‘new-complexity’ school, particularly the work of Brian Ferneyhough. She has had considerable success for her age having received several awards and commissions from Radio Bremen, the Arditti Quartet and the Ensemble Intercontemporain and performances at ISCM World Music Days festivals in Hong Kong and Zurich. Liza says that her work is: ...confusingly intricate. I like to write music that’s multi-faceted, labyrinthine...It’s not a linear kind of music at all....Composition for me is more a way of living than responding to conditions. I don’t even think in terms of writing a particular composition. Life is more a continuous flow from which pieces of music emerge. (Artforce, June 1992, p.6)

Several Australian composers GRAEME KOEHNE, VINCENT PLUSH and myself have studied in the USA, a country, which to some extent reflects a similar musical development to our own. Also a colonised country having no tradition to draw upon, their composers have experienced similar difficulties in defining their national sound. It is interesting that these composers are also exploring new levels of performer and audience accessibility, but not necessarily consciously.

GRAEME KOEHNE (b.1956) first studied with Richard Meale and has assumed much of the luxuriance and accessibility of Meale's recent style. This aesthetic was confirmed when he studied with the grand old man of composition in America, Virgil Thomson. For some time he taught in Armidale, NSW and he was influenced by the rainforests of the area, which was translated into a work he wrote in 1982 called
Rainforest. You will hear a strong French influence, possibly of Debussy, or of the English composer Frederick Delius. It is very lush and accessible music and represents Koehne’s view of the necessity for composers to appeal to an audience. A view which other composers, such as Michael Smetanin, have dubbed ‘retro-garde’. Koehne now teaches at the University of Adelaide.

page21_6 Graeme Koehne

I, BRENTON BROADSTOCK (b.1952) also studied in the USA and upon returning to Australia, studied with Peter Sculthorpe. My music also draws upon many sources, including contemporary techniques, Asian scales and certain Australian characteristics. My main motivation is a very strong social conscience. Social issues such as nuclear testing, pollution, mental and physical handicaps and humankind’s ability for destruction have inspired nearly all of my music. My orchestral work,
Voices from the Fire, is concerned with the destruction of two groups of people, the Jews and the Tasmanian aborigines. My Symphony #2 - Stars In A Dark Night, related to the English composer and poet, Ivor Gurney, who suffered from schizophrenia and died in a mental asylum in England in 1937.

Other composers have ventured to Asia. PETER SCHAEFER has studied Indian music composition and performance in India with Ashok Roy and TONY WHEELER has studied Chinese music composition and performance in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Neither, as yet, has made a big impact upon the still largely traditional realm of composition. Both have formed multicultural performing groups composing their own music and it will be interesting to see how this hybrid form develops. Several other multicultural ensembles have formed such as Southern Crossings and Back to Back Zithers. The 1970s saw an upsurge in the development of electronic music and eventually into computer music. Electronic studios were set up at Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and La Trobe Universities and the NSW Conservatorium of Music.

Some of the younger generation now leading the way in this area are GRAEME GERRARD at Melbourne University, DAVID HIRST at La Trobe University, TREVOR PEARCE and ROBERT DOUGLAS at the NSW Conservatorium, DAVID WORRALL at the Australian Centre for Art and Technology in Canberra, and ALISTAIR RIDDELL who is currently studying at Princeton in the USA. ALISTAIR RIDDELL and GRAEME GERRARD both studied at La Trobe University that has produced several important composers in the electronic and sound art areas. RIDDELL produced a piece in 1984 called
Fantasie, which is for piano controlled by microcomputer. The computer drives the piano hammers with incredible speed and accuracy. It opens with a single melody played at breakneck speed, which is soon joined by a second voice in counterpoint, and so on until eight voices are sounding across the entire range of the piano. GERRARD produced a work called Birdbrain in 1991 that is comprised almost entirely of a recording of the sounds of birds in the bush where he used to live in Healesville. The original recording is heard at the beginning, then is transformed in various ways using multiple-effects boxes, gating, multi-tracking, digital filtering and editing. An important off-shoot from the breakdown of tradition and the multicultural push from the 1970s is the area of sound art, sound sculpture and audio art, the so-called ‘experimental’ music.

Composition prior to the 1970s was traditional, acoustic and western oriented. Post 1970s it was becoming more ‘world’ oriented and many of the younger composers, or rather sound artists began to emerge as such because of the more liberal and experimental thinking of people like John Cage, which was finally filtering through to our educational institutions, particularly La Trobe University. Composers such as ROS BANDT, COLIN OFFORD and SARAH HOPKINS have been creating unique sounds, instruments and sound environments. SARAH HOPKINS has received several fellowships from the Australia Council and is active in conducting workshops around Australia. She has been composing since 1976 in an expansive, pure musical style that resonates with the space and energy of the Australian landscape. She composes solo and ensemble music of a holistic nature that draws upon the natural beauty of the cello, voice, whirly instruments and handbells. She collaborated with ALAN LAMB to produce a work called Voice in the Wires using abandoned telegraph wires on the Nullabor Plain. ROS BANDT has built up an international reputation for her sound sculptures and innovative performance environments. Last year she was the recipient of the prestigious Don Banks Composition Fellowship awarded by the Australia Council. In her work
Ocean Bells of 1982 she uses electronic tape and an instrument she invented called the Flagong, a 3 tiered wooden frame with 31 suspended glass objects, mainly flagons.

page21_7 Ros Bandt

Other composers such as DAVID CHESWORTH, JOHN ROSE, RAINER LINZ and RICHARD VELLA have often adopted a deliberate polemical stance, aiming to shock or offend, or to place music in a different social or political context, or to deconstruct it in order to alter its perception. In 1986 DAVID CHESWORTH wrote a piece called Stories of Imitation and Corruption, which was performed at the National Orchestral Composer’s School by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Chesworth wanted to place the orchestra in an incongruous setting so that we might hear familiar orchestral sounds differently. He did this by incorporating tape playback consisting of very low continuous rumbles into the performance. The orchestral music consisted of ‘unimportant’ musical fragments lifted from existing works by ‘famous’ composers, and fragments composed by David which made use of just about every compositional technique and musical style he could think of. The fragments follow each other in a completely arbitrary way, with no attempt to link them musically. This was to avoid traditional narrative form.

page21_8 David Chesworth

This then covers superficially the various streams of composition currently occurring in Australia.
©1992 Brenton Broadstock

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