Australian Music and Modernism 1960-1975. By Michael Hooper


Author: Michael Hooper
Category: Musicology
New York (NY): Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 306 pp.
ISBN:  978-1-5013-4818-1 (Hardback). Also available as an ePDF and as an eBook
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“This book provides a well-researched and often fascinating account of the compositional practices and the historical, cultural and philosophical contexts and issues surrounding “modernist” classical music in Australia in the period 1960-1975.”

Only five composers of the period (Richard Meale, Peter Sculthorpe, Nigel Butterley, Don Banks and David Lumsdaine) are given detailed historical and analytical attention in the study. The last two of these spent most of the period in England, although Banks returned to Australia in the early 1970s and played a strong role in the development of new music funding policy in Australia. Lumsdaine, although mostly residing in England, spent long periods, from 1973, in Australia, notably doing wildlife sound recording projects.

The choice of composers for detailed study is phallocentric and Sydney-centric. Sculthorpe (originally from Tasmania), Meale and Butterley (both Sydney-born) all established their careers in Sydney, although Meale moved to Adelaide in 1969. Lumsdaine, although never a Sydney-based composer when he became established, received his initial musical training and compositional exposure in 1950s Sydney. Banks returned to Australia from England in 1972 and worked in Canberra until 1977, after which he moved to Sydney.

The works and ideas of several other Australian composers are mentioned in passing. I found it disappointing that some of the modernist Australian composers of the same generation, for example Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Helen Gifford, Felix Werder, Keith Humble and Larry Sitsky, weren’t allocated at least a page or so, and that some composers born in the 1940s and who were active in the 1960s and 1970s were also largely ignored. Barry Conyngham, Ross Edwards, Moya Henderson and David Ahern come to mind, the last two having worked closely for a period with the German musical arch-modernist, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Some discussion of these composers would have provided a suitable backdrop for the more detailed analyses of the music of the five composers who form the core of the study.

Hooper does admit in his introductory chapter that he has not considered a lot of the modernist music of the period, but it would have been useful if he had provided at the outset of his book a rationale for his actual choices for detailed study.

As for the book’s title, Hooper neglects to define what he means by modernism in music. I doubt that any of the selected composers ever thought that they were modernist composers when writing music in the period under examination. In fact, Meale, in a 2002 interview with Andrew Ford (quoted by Hooper), reports that “we didn’t have the word [modernist]  then” (p. 22). If they didn’t have the word, they probably didn’t have much of the theory behind it. The application of the term modernism is especially problematic considering that the theory refers back to nineteenth century creative approaches. In the context of this body of theory it is not unreasonable to consider Debussy as a modernist.

Michael Hooper

The reason for the book title’s designated period (1960 to 1975) is also not spelt out in the introduction. In Chapter 1, Hooper does make a brief reference to Richard Meale’s Sonata for flute and piano (1960), considered by some commentators to be the first flowering of the Australian music avant-garde; and the most recent piece he discusses in detail is Banks’s String Quartet (1975). Later in the book Hooper makes a case for 1975 marking the end of musical modernism in Australia. This is contentious in my view, especially considering 1975 saw the arrival in Sydney of Richard Toop whose subsequent mentorship of composers inspired a new wave of modernism.

In the book’s introduction Hooper outlines his approach as (1) “historical [including]extensive reference to the archives of correspondence that are now available; and (2) “musical [playing]close attention to the decisions that were made in the compositions being written.”

The first of these approaches is a reference to the treasures that can be found about prominent Australian composers in the National Library of Australia archives such as the “Papers of” the five featured composers in this study. Hooper has also accessed other revelatory NLA “Papers” including those of James Murdoch and of Curt and Maria Preraurer, prominent figures in the Sydney music scene in the period under discussion.

The second approach (“close attention to the decisions that were made in the compositions being written”) is code for Hooper’s obsession with conjectural musical analysis of how serial and other systematic composition processes are realised in works where there is evidence that these processes were used. Hooper is particularly interested in situations where there is a discrepancy between what the process should have produced and what actually happens in the published score. And he seems even more interested in any discrepancies in the transition from sketch to score. Paradoxically, Hooper, though fascinated by Sculthorpe’s relationship to musical modernism, does not undertake any substantial analysis of Sculthorpe’s music in his book, at least compared to his detailed analytical discussions of the music of Banks, Butterley and Meale. I suspect this is because Sculthorpe never had a real interest in serial processes except for a few minor juvenilial flirtations, a very short piano composition, Haiku (1965), and the use of Luigi Nono’s all-interval row to create a series of chords and chordal clusters in Music for Japan for orchestra (1970).

In his introduction, the author identifies “three strands of thought that come together to produce the early arguments about Australian Music”. (Hooper seems so preoccupied by the notion of an Australian music that he consistently capitalises the M in the word “music”). The strands are respectively “nationalism”, “the connection between Australia and the UK” and the “internationalist stance”. There is a degree of overlap in these strands in the five composers under the microscope.

In “The Formation of an Academic Discourse of Australian Music”, the first chapter of the book, Hooper is disgruntled about the lack of clarity in the term “Australian Music” in local arts policy and how this policy conflicted with an emerging “internationalist” arts agenda. The author gives a nuanced account of the development of musicological studies in Australia  and in particular, the musicology of Australian  music. The formation in the 1960s of the academic journals Musicology Australia (Sydney), Adelaide Studies in Musicology and Studies in Music (Perth) are discussed. These journals, although focused on European music, did include research studies of Aboriginal music and early Australian classical music. The journal Music Now established by The University of Sydney’s Chair of Music, Donald Peart, was probably the first journal to highlight new Australian music, although it was short-lived and not peer-reviewed.

Hooper highlights the correlations between modern composition and musicology about Australian composers, noting that composers, rather than musicologists, were the ones that typically wrote the articles. I might also add my observation that composers with university positions, rather than musicologists, were typically the academics who introduced the study of Australian contemporary classical and other contemporary music genres into the curriculum.

Discussing the emergence of a discourse on Australia identity in music, Hooper focuses on the Australian landscape narratives that Peter Sculthorpe expounded and which were reinforced by Roger Covell in his writing on Sculthorpe in Australia’s Music: Themes of a new society (1967). The pushback by composers who wished to be considered as part of an international community of composers, rather than being identified as an “Australian composer”, is also described.

In particular, when Lumsdaine first returned to Australia from England in 1973, he was appalled by the nationalist discourse on Australian music which he interpreted as being political and strongly tied to economic policy, for example in the talk of enforcing quotas on the percentage of Australian music played in Australia. This was despite Lumsdaine’s love and commitment to the Australian environment, expressed in part through his remarkable field recordings of Australian birds.

The author argues that funding for the arts based on economic imperatives has increasingly flourished since the 1970s. This seems to have been presaged by Lumsdaine’s 1973 homecoming outburst.

Don Banks

Chapter 2, about Don Banks, is divided into two parts. The first is concerned with Banks’s return to Australia from England and his central role in the development of Australian music policy, funding and dissemination. The second part discusses Banks’s String Quartet (1975) in great analytical detail. Banks’s return coincided with the election of the Whitlam government, after which he was made chairman of the Music Board of the newly established Australia Council for the Arts. Banks lobbied hard for new music including funding for the establishment of an electronic music studio at the Canberra School of Music and the formation of what became the Australian Music Centre, an organisation for the archiving and dissemination of Australian new music. Hooper’s detailed account of Banks’s role in these kinds of music support developments is quite revelatory.

Having focused on cultural and philosophical ideas about Australian music to this point,  Hooper then shifts his focus to an analytical dissection of Banks’s String Quartet.

Unless the reader has been educated in the arcane traditions of atonal theory, it would be very difficult to appreciate this 15-page analysis of the work. However it is not all sets, matrices and combinatoriality. Hooper references, for example, the influence of the Spanish Catalan serial music composer, Roberto Gerhard on Banks. Banks was taken with Gerhard’s idea of a “balance between intuition and reason” in the compositional act, and Banks’s conflicts between sticking to the serial method and deviating from it intuitively are ably charted by Hooper. Most of the discussion is based on pitch organisation although some aspects of rhythmic and textural organisation are also critiqued. But apart from the few quoted excerpts of the score, one doesn’t get much of an impression in Hooper’s analytical writing of what the music actually sounds like.

Richard Meale

Two chapters are devoted to Richard Meale, one (Chapter 3) for his emergence as a composer in Sydney and the second for his work in Adelaide post-1969 (Chapter 6). Unlike Banks, who had a formal music composition and performance education at the University of Melbourne and was mentored by high-profile composers in Europe, Meale was largely self-taught in composition. He did, however, study piano to a professional level with influential piano teacher Winifred Burston at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music. Meale’s creative development was through his detailed self-directed study of music scores and recordings of classical music and many other genres. He also actively engaged with new music scores as a pianist and conductor. Significantly, Meale broke with the Australian trend of musicians gaining further experience in England. When the opportunity arose to travel overseas, he chose to spend most of his time in the US, notably absorbing Asian music traditions by playing in the Balinese, Javanese and Japanese ensembles established by Mantle Hood at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After a general discussion of various aspects of Meale’s career including his prominence as the leading avant-garde Australian composer in the 1960s and early 1970s (in contrast to his later reversion to tonal composition), Hooper focuses on some key works in Meale’s Sydney period. The first of these is Homage to Garcia Lorca for double string orchestra (1964). In this flamboyant and often savage composition, Meale embraces atonalism, but without much devotion to serial principles. Consequently Hooper’s analysis is more descriptive than numerical. Then follows an account of Meale’s two pieces that respond to haiku poems by Bashō: Clouds now and then for orchestra (1969) and Soon it will die for orchestra (1969). Hooper finds more serial content in the latter but not enough to result in analysis as fulsome as that devoted to Banks’s string quartet.

Jumping ahead to Chapter 6 that is about the first few years of Meale’s Adelaide sojourn, Hooper discovers more fertile territory for his analysis of Meale’s Coruscations for piano (1971), Incredible Floridas for flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin and cello (1971) and String Quartet No. 1 (1974). For his ample treatment of Coruscations, Hooper draws on the composer’s sketches and pitch tables and a comparison of this material with what resulted in the published score. Meale had a “scheme” for the creation of the piece but Hooper notes the “flexibility of Meale’s decisions and how little he felt tied to the scheme”. Meale wrote Coruscations for Roger Woodward who reported that Boulez was “stunned” when he played it for him. Several other famous modernist composers were similarly impressed.

While Coruscations is completely atonal, despite its free approach to pitch organisation,  Incredible Floridas represents, in Hooper’s opinion, a transition away from serial processes through its inclusion of overt tonal elements, such as diatonic chords, in some of its sections. I like to think that Meale’s combination of serial and traditional elements has inspired the author to construct his most compelling analytical account of any of the works in the study. Hooper also includes a brief description of Meale’s radical String Quartet No. 1, which has intricate serial elements as well as pervasive indeterminate structuring strategies.

Nigel Butterley

Nigel Butterley is the subject of Chapter 4. Hooper contrasts Butterley with Meale by emphasising the former’s connections with English music and Anglican spirituality. Four works are discussed and analysed. The first is Laudes for chamber ensemble (1963), written after a period of study in England. Each of the four movements was inspired by churches respectively in Ravenna (Italy), Norwich (UK), Cambridge (UK) and Taizé (France). The work uses the Ambrosian hymn, Te Deum laudamus as a theme and also employs a variety of tone-row materials and motifs. Thus it is atonal with tonal elements. There is speculation about what the tone rows are, as there is no record of Butterley’s sketches or tone row tables that might provide a solid analytical starting point. Hooper’s approach in teasing out this intervallic sequence puzzle is to interrogate, perhaps even challenge, the analysis of Laudes that Elliot Gyger did for his book, The Music of Nigel Butterley (Wildbird Music, 2015).

Because some of Butterley’s sketches are archived for his String Quartet No. 1, there is less contention about how the work was assembled from a particular tone row and its variants and deviations. Hooper’s account of this work deals with the serial and other compositional processes, but is more discursive in its treatment of the underlying motivations of the work and the English influences that helped forge Butterley’s compositional voice.

Hooper forgoes musical analysis altogether for his treatment of Butterley’s Explorations for piano and orchestra (1970). Here his emphasis is on Butterley’s political reluctance to write anything resonant of the Bicentennial of Cooks “discovery” of Australia, even though the commission was related to that event and, at the première by the SSO, Queen Elizabeth was in the audience. Hooper sees the composition of this work as “articulating the tension between nationalism (“Australian Music”) and [Butterley’s] ‘present style’.

Peter Sculthorpe

Similarly with Fire in the heavens for orchestra (1973), there is more of a focus on the circumstances surrounding its commissioning for the opening of the Sydney Opera House and the literary sources that informed it, poems by Judith Wright and Christopher Brennan, than on pinning down the compositional methods underlying it, certainly not in the detail that Hooper applies to Laudes. The author notes the tension between two contrasting structural threads in the work: the lyrical melodic elements (which he attaches to Judith Wright’s poem) and the brash atonal fanfare elements (which are allied to Brennan’s verse).

Chapter 5, “Sculthorpe: Australian Music and Nationalism” grapples with the notion of Peter Sculthorpe as a modernist. I find it hard to conceive of Sculthorpe as particularly modernist since serial techniques were never a central concern for him as a composer. In fact, his only extant twelve-tone composition, Haiku for piano (1965), based on the row of Webern’s Variations for piano Op 27, was probably written as a miniature model to demonstrate dodecaphony to his undergraduate students at the University of Sydney. None the less, Hooper advances compelling arguments for Sculthorpe’s credentials as a modernist composer, particularly in relation to his nationalism as defined by place and landscape. He recognises, however, the problematic nature of his project:

The challenge of writing about Sculthorpe is to accommodate a diversity of often contradictory positions. He is a Romantic when he invokes Mahler. He is a cosmopolitan modernist when he goes to study with Wellesz and through his involvement with the ISCM. He is a nationalist when he writes The Fifth Continent. The resulting collage of ideas enables narratives that shift from piece to piece, or through the same piece as it is reconceived through successive anecdotes, including his own, and by those who have been close to him. (p. 138)

This quotation resonates with me as I am one of those who were close to Peter Sculthorpe and participated through my writings on him in the “narratives” and “anecdotes” of which Hooper speaks. Music critic and author, Roger Covell, was another. It is both flattering and disturbing that Hooper gives me and Covell subheadings in his chapter: “Reading Sculthorpe through Hannan” and “Reading Sculthorpe through Covell”. Disturbing, because it made me realise that I was complicit in spinning Sculthorpe’s narratives about aspects of his artistic vision and artistic development, essential elements in his self-promotional push for international success. To take what I think is an example of narrative spin: Did Sculthorpe really have a serial music composition “crisis”, or was the crisis narrative invented to reinforce his anti-European stance and his decision to promote a uniquely Australian artistic approach? Sculthorpe was obsessive about archiving his music manuscripts and other written documents, so where are all the manuscripts of his serial composition efforts that led him to his crisis?

Under the heading, “Music and Landscape Painting”, Hooper characterises Sculthorpe’s relationship to the Australian bush as something “relatively static: ready to be depicted rather than a resource for ongoing exploration”, depicted figuratively through his musical representations of it. But also literally: Hooper references Sculthorpe’s story of an outback road trip Sculthorpe took with the English composer, David Matthews, a long-time collaborator and friend. While Matthews was birdwatching in the bush, Sculthorpe would wait in the car. Hooper sees Sculthorpe’s music depiction of the Australian landscape as deriving from modernist landscape paintings, such as those by Nolan and Drysdale, rather than from on-the-ground experience. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine Sculthorpe ever roughing it in the Australian bush like Lumsdaine did in his ornithological pursuits.

There are some very revelatory ideas and arguments in this section of the chapter, as in sections under the headings “Isolation, Alienation and Rejection” and “Representation”.

On the question of the Sculthorpe/Meale rivalry, Hooper quotes some criticisms that Meale made either about, or seemingly about, Sculthorpe’s music. Most of Hooper’s analysis of the conflict is centred on the different ways the two composers were influenced by Asian traditional musics and cultures. As for the rivalry, Sculthorpe confided to me that he and Richard were always good friends, and that they promoted the rivalry between their respective groups of devoted supporters as a way of sidelining any attention given to other composers. Meale left Sydney before I started working as Sculthorpe’s assistant in late 1969, so I never got to hear his side of this story.

Which brings me to Chapter 7 which is titled “Landscapes in Painting and Literature: Lumsdaine and Sculthorpe”. It is worth noting that Hooper has published a book, The Music of David Lumsdaine (Ashgate, 2012), which I reviewed for Loud Mouth in 2014. See .

David Lumsdaine

Hooper divides this last chapter into two parts. The first details Lumsdaine’s response to poetic texts in the composition of Aria for Edward John Eyre for soprano, two narrators, solo double bass, ensemble, and two mixers (1972), and the second, Sculthorpe’s response to Russell Drysdale’s paintings across several compositions including Red Landscape (1966), which is now known as String Quartet No. 7; String Quartet Music (1969), which is now known as String Quartet No. 8; Landscape II for string trio and amplified piano (1978); and Music for Japan for orchestra (1970).

Although Lumsdaine has written quite a few instrumental pieces with Australia-oriented themes, Hooper argues that the use of excerpts from Eyre’s exploration journal makes Aria the least abstract of the composer’s engagements with Australian subjects. This is not to suggest that the work is easy-going for any audience, as it is an hour long, in a single movement format, and with surround-sound amplification. Hooper sees the vocal element and the sound elements as “[enlivening]  literal and abstract explorations of space and text.”  He focuses his analysis on one small section of the work, with a text involving “seahorses”, a vivid conflation by Lumsdaine of images in the journal of horses by the sea and in the sea and biting horse flies. Even though Patrick White’s novel Voss was modelled on Ludwig Leichhardt, Lumsdaine channels Voss for his interpretation of Eyre’s explorations. Hooper’s account of the many-layered literary elements in relation to the live, pre-recorded and amplified sound elements is complex, even poetic.

Frederich McCubbin. The Pioneer

Fred Williams, Echuca landscape

Having demonstrated a flair for lit-crit, Hooper adds visual arts to his critical repertoire for the second part of the chapter, “Sculthorpe and Landscape Painting”. He compares two paintings: the triptych The Pioneer (1904) by Frederick McCubbin, and Echuca Landscape II (1966) by Fred Williams. The latter looks like four adjoined vertically-arranged differently-sized panels of timber (thought it’s hard to tell since the images are published in the book in monochrome). However, Hooper sees it as triptych-like since there is a lighter-shaded central band. The inclusion of this comparison addressing certain arguments about landscapes (inhabited or not) seems somewhat gratuitous. There is nothing here that obviously relates to Sculthorpe, although Williams’s possible connection is re-visited later in the chapter. My recollection after many hundreds of hours of conversation with Sculthorpe over more than a decade, is that the art of Fred Williams was never a topic. Sculthorpe did mention Williams in his 1999 memoir, Sun Music, but only to lament that repetition and constant reworking of ideas in successive works was critically accepted in Williams’s practice but a point of negative criticism directed towards his own artistic practice.

Under a sub-heading, “An old argument about Drysdale”, Hooper interrogates different opinions about Drysdale’s work by art commentators such as Paul Haefliger, Robert Hughes, Alan Ross and Simon Pierce. His conclusion is that Drysdale “is a [modernist]  painter of relationships rather than a depicter of landscape”, which contradicts Sculthorpe’s interpretation of Drysdale’s art as depicting “the loneliness and desolation of the Australia landscape”. Various lines of arguments are used by the author to convince himself that the composer is “no less a modernist than Drysdale, [the British painter Graham]  Sutherland, or Williams”. Hooper contends that the “The ‘scorched earth’ sounds of the ‘Outback’ are always composed, not captured”, a reference to his earlier observation that Sculthorpe had little interest in going bush. This idea resonates with me, as Sculthorpe’s incorporation of imagined, and thus abstracted, birdsong textures, appearing in most of his compositions, are never based on transcriptions of actual birdcalls, Australian or otherwise. Even his signature “seagull” sound on cello (which sounds nothing like any gulls found in Australia) was borrowed from a performer who demonstrated it to him and showed him how to notate it.

Hooper then tries to populate Sculthorpe’s imagined lonely landscapes by arguing that the composer has had significant interactions with the musicians playing his works, and is thus hardly a lonely figure. For me this is confusing artistic vision with the business of enabling the realisation and dissemination of musical works.

The author’s critical assessments of the few works by Scuthorpe considered briefly here contain interesting analytical insights, although some of them are puzzling. I’m thinking particularly about Hooper’s highlighting of the semitone motif in Music for Japan and his identification of an octatonic scale structure in the chords heard at the opening of the work. Admittedly, the all-interval tone row starts with a semitone, but what about the other ten intervals? And although a lot of the chords generated by superposition of different versions of the tone row might result in chords formed from subsets of the octatonic scale, I suspect this is an outcome that Sculthorpe wouldn’t have planned or have been aware of; and it certainly isn’t something that would be obvious even to the most astute listener.

In the short “Conclusion” to the chapter which is also the conclusion to the book, Hooper summarises his views about nationalism and modernism in Australian music. He contends that, in the period of his study, the discourse about Australian music was dominated by Sculthorpe and Covell, and makes a plea for scholars to:

find new and more critical ways of making distinctions between – to return to the quotation from Lumsdaine (Chapter 1) – “music in Australia” and “music of Australia” and “music about or for or from Australia”.

Hooper’s book is impressive but it would be difficult to appreciate it unless one has advanced theoretical knowledge and analytical understandings of modernist music and of the other art forms and cultural theories being employed.

To conclude, I have an anecdote relevant to writing a book, heavily based on music analysis. In 1981, Nigel Butterley was briefing me on his lecturing duties at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music (Newcastle Branch) because I was filling in for him for a semester while he was on study leave. I mentioned that my book on Peter Sculthorpe’s music was about to be published. He asked me if the book included the story of Patrick White tipping a bowl of pasta over Sculthorpe’s head at one of White’s famed dinner parties. I replied: “It’s not that kind of book, Nigel”, upon which he quipped: “Then I won’t be buying it, then”.

Hopefully Nigel has received a complimentary copy of this one.


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