The golden age of Australian music

This Article first appeared in Limelight magazine on the 7th April 2015
The golden age of Australian music
by Jessica Cottis
Conductor Jessica Cottis 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.


An Australian music playlist

Five works that anyone wishing to experience the range and (that word again) energy of Australian music should explore!

Peter Sculthorpe: Momento Mori
I saved up to buy all the ABC recordings of his music when I was growing up and the piece that made a really profound impact on me when I first heard it was his Memento Mori. Its impetus comes from the fate of the people of Easter Island who destroyed the land and then, ultimately, ruined each other. Although it’s only 15 minutes long, there’s something symphonic in its conception, a piece on a grand scale, whittled down to a clear message: this could happen to all of us, to the entire human race. Strains of the “Dies Irae” run hauntingly throughout and although much of the writing is warm and gentle, the underlying low Gs and A flats leave a rumbling sense of unease. Quietly, it packs a powerful punch.

Brett Dean: Bliss
Bristling with energy, exuberant and gripping, Brett Dean’s opera Bliss is definitely in my top five. It’s an immense sound world, with a characteristically virtuosic orchestration: moments of bluesy trumpets and electroacoustic sounds shining out from a rich, angular yet highly lyrical score which in places reveals the influence of Berg’s opera shocker Lulu. And like all great operas, the music is totally sympathetic to the text, yet it also propels the narrative. It came to Edinburgh for the Festival in 2010 and I certainly hope it’s going to be restaged again somewhere in the world, soon.

Liza Lim: Flying Banner (After Wang To)
Inspired by the rhythmic freedom of Chinese calligraphy, particularly the work of the 17th century poet Wang To, Flying Banner is a viscerally powerful piece, eruptive and bustling. Fusing mainstream Western and traditional Chinese traditions, Lim explores the codification of fanfares: repeated notes in the brass, strenuously high trumpets, all combined with sonorous chords which move non-geometrically and reflect the fluidity and flexibility of a master-calligrapher’s brush. There are – as in all of her works – displays of avant-garde virtuosity, before the work culminates in a non-human, quasi-spiritual sound, with cross-hatched string textures evoking a halo of cicada calls: the sound of summer.

Richard Meale: Viridian
A cosmopolitan composer with a diverse range of musical influences, Meale was hugely influential to the development of classical music in Australia and introduced to the country many of the methods used by the international avant-garde. By the 1970s, however, he stunned the compositional establishment by turning his back on radical modernism. Composed in 1975, Viridian is such a work: impressionistic, beautifully orchestrated, and shows the shift towards an aesthetic based on the importance of the poetic experience. There are, without a doubt, Proustian references to Debussy, yet this lush, symbolist piece is highly individual in style, never imitating, rich with sensual timbres and a rapturous un-earthly energy. I was blown away by it.

Paul Stanhope: String Quartet No 2
Composed in 2009, this conjoined four-movement work reflects the relationship between the old and the new, specifically the relationships of Old Europe and Australia, the migration of European Jewish immigrants and their stories. It’s soaringly beautiful in places (the third movement ‘Dirge’, for example), but for the most part full of propulsive and frenzied activity, Janacek-like in its rhythmic intensity. Addictive listening.