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Pockets everywhere: Australian music overseas

Brett Dean (Photo: Pawel Kopczynski)

I was watching Suicide Squad when I heard ACDC underneath the opening sequence. It’s not the first time I’ve heard ‘Dirty Deeds’ in a film soundtrack but it was the first time that it occurred to me that this might be the most famous piece of Australian music in all the world. Actually I soon discovered that ‘Highway to Hell’ appears in more films. But I started to wonder about the prominence of Australian music worldwide and launched a quick search. It made for a diverting morning’s activity. For example, I learnt that ‘I Come from the Land Down Under’ topped Canadian charts in October 1982 and reached number 1 in the US in January 1983 where it stayed for four weeks. There were other little morsels that kept me amused.

But how then, I wondered, does Australian classical music fare? How much does it rate beyond our shores? I had memories of Peter Sculthorpe causing a stir in the northern hemisphere, reports of UK and US critics waxing over the way his music evoked an unfamiliar, yet intriguing landscape. But this would have been the late 1960s when Australia was flavour of the month; around the time when Sir Russell Drysdale’s paintings of bones and trees bleaching in the desert sun also shocked non-Australians into taking a dedicated look at our side of the world. Who gets noticed now?

Because I work for orchestras, I spent an hour or so scanning season brochures of various world orchestras. As you might expect, national orchestras will favour their own when it comes to commissioning new work. The Singapore Symphony opens its final concert this season with Senbonzakura Gossamer Shrouds the Tal by Singapore composer, Jeremiah Li. Next season, the Chicago Symphony premieres works by Americans such as Melinda Wagner and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Jennifer Higdon. But the Singapore Symphony is also performing Christopher Rouse’s Der gerettete Alberich, and the Berlin Philharmonic performs the music of American Andrew Norman a few times in the current season. Of course, the Berlin Philharmonic has also performed the music of its erstwhile viola player, Australian Brett Dean. So Australians do appear. I noted that Sculthorpe’s Improvisation on a theme from The Song of Tailitnama is scheduled for a Berlin Philharmonic lunchtime concert.

My curiosity lured me deeper into a quest that I would inelegantly describe as ‘which Australian composers get performed overseas, where, how often and why’? I can’t say that this short piece gets to the bottom of the ‘why?’ but maybe musicians will respond to this provisional survey with facts and rejoinders (even: ‘You forgot me!’) that flesh out the picture.

The first place I went to check my impressions was the Australian Music Centre and the Centre’s CEO, John Davis. ‘Aussie music is everywhere,’ he said, ‘mostly in particular pockets, but happening in every corner of the globe. There are those who have an international publisher and supported access, through their publishers, to networks where international performances can be realised.’ He cited Sculthorpe, Hindson and Vine with Faber; Dean and Kats-Chernin with Boosey & Hawkes; Liza Lim with Recordi/Universal, and mentioned that these publishers are probably active with orchestral networks ‘as there is a business model that can be sustained from the scale and scope of orchestral networks internationally. But there is also another layer of performances that take place through composers’ own networks, and orchestras/ensembles who champion them  – the Andrián Pertout performances in Latin America and elsewhere, for example, among others. There are other communities of practice, where Australian artists are adept in their global engagement.’

I had to admit that I don’t know what’s happening in all areas of music but in terms of orchestral music I still had an impression that Australian classical music was not doing as well as it should be. ‘John Adams has something on somewhere in the world nearly every day,’ I freaked out, when I looked him up on the Booseys’ site and found out how widely his music is played.

And yet, I checked out the Faber website and found that Matthew Hindson is increasingly getting performances overseas (eg. Headbanger to be performed by the Grant Park Orchestra and Simone Young in Chicago in July). So, too, is Nigel Westlake who recently scored a big success with the New York Philharmonic and their performance of his music for the movie, Babe (a live screening). And actually, Westlake is self-published.

What brought Dean or Lim or Kats-Chernin to the attention of publishers in the first place? Since I was in Australia in March it made sense to seek some people out. I visited Elena Kats-Chernin on her Big Dipper of a street in Coogee. It’s possible that one of Elena’s pieces has had the ‘most hits’ on YouTube of any Australian classical composition; ‘Eliza’s Aria’ from the ballet Wild Swans became popular when the UK bank Lloyds-TSB used it for an animated TV commercial.

When I arrived, she was playing for Chris Latham (former director of the Canberra International Music Festival) the most recent draft of the tender ‘Lacrimosa’ she has written for Digger’s Requiem, another of the multi-composer/multi-continental works Chris has commissioned for World War I commemorations (in this case, next year’s 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice). I’ve known for years that Elena divides her time between her Sydney beachside suburb and Europe and was curious how she got a ‘leg up’ overseas.

Actually, she said, it was publisher Peter Grimshaw who put her onto Boosey & Hawkes from the days when Boosey & Hawkes had Peter as an Australian agent. Peter took her work to New York, telling her that ‘it would really fit in with their portfolio’. But now she’s with the Berlin office because she works more in Europe. ‘I’m quite social,’ she said. ‘I keep up my contacts, and not just with a view to work.’ She gave an example. ‘When I’ve been in Germany, I like to have two days in Berlin after a show or premiere. In 2006, I worked on a dance project, a piece for four horns for the Berlin Philharmonic. After the premiere, I phoned a friend to say hello and she said, “Ah, we’re looking for a composer to write a piece for sound machines for a presentation at Hannover Messe (a leading world trade fair for industrial technology)”. But I had called just because I wanted to catch up. My tip? Be open, have breathing spaces around a trip if possible. Have time and gaps to meet people or to just think about things because unexpected things happen!’

So, it’s personal contacts? Of course, Elena spent many years in Germany working for a theatre company in Bochum and even for a time as Music Director. ‘I met people through theatre,’ she says. ‘Having a connection to a particular theatre in Germany helped in my case, because there are many art forms all united in one place and many people working there as guests and they take the experience of working with you to other theatres, and so the word spreads. And that’s how I came to work for the Komische Oper, Berlin. But I don’t do the squeaky wheel. I don’t do cold calls.’

Brett Dean is another composer who emphasises the importance of residency. Best-known probably for his Grawemeyer win, the beautiful violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter-Writing, Brett gets a lot of international exposure. A glance at a single page on the Booseys website (actually, a single screen view) shows that for the month of April he had performances at the Library of Congress Washington, in Taipei, at New York’s Lincoln Center, in Tischlerei Germany (Deutsche Opera), and Hobart. Glyndebourne premieres his Hamlet in June.

I tried calling Brett in Berlin from rural Armidale where you really can stumble across kangaroos in a paddock, but gave up on that when I started having trouble with my disposable phone. He answered my questions by email instead.

‘As I was saying on the phone, in my case having already spent quite a deal of time overseas was a critical factor in reaching a wider audience, both as player and then later as composer. Studying, meeting and working with other musicians from elsewhere, immersing myself in a larger world, this was crucial. The internet makes it easier to get work heard outside of one’s immediate surrounds. But there simply is no substitute for being there: travel not only broadens the mind, it vastly increases one’s realms of opportunity, experience and contacts.’

I wondered if being Australian gave him any cachet. ‘The longer I live in Europe, the less that seems to matter to people to be honest; maybe they just accept me as part of the furniture nowadays! In Germany I found being Australian triggered a definite fascination factor, although not necessarily in artistic terms. It was more a general curiosity as to why one would leave such a lovely, warm place and come to study in Germany. Australians were a novelty in Berlin then. But Prenzlauerberg is now full of Aussie-style cafes.

‘However some Germans, even colleagues of mine in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, where I played in the viola section for 17 years, expressed skepticism that an Australian could possibly even understand “their” music. I might add that I don’t think my music is especially “Australian”. For every European I’ve encountered who claims to hear the “wide expanses of my homeland”, there’s an Australian who comments on my music’s obvious “Euro-ness”. I am the sum of my parts I guess, and it comes through. When I consider the works of other Australian composer colleagues of mine whose work is similarly better-known overseas than it is at home, then I can’t say the “Australian-ness” of it is something that looms especially large, even though some questions of place in the world or perhaps environmental concerns may be a part of their message.’

‘It’s a distinctive sound they want’, said Elena. But she could have been echoing Brett’s point because in her case, too, the sound is not particularly Australian. In his book New Classical Music: Composing Australia, fellow-composer, Gordon Kerry, points out that Elena’s sound-world is coloured by the Russian folk imagination and I would add musical diet, growing up in Soviet Uzbekistan and Moscow.

Joe Twist conducting at the ASCAP Film and TV Scoring Program, Fox Studios. Reprinted by permission of the composer.

Is residency the clue, I wondered, and what if you can’t travel? Are you consigned to anonymity? After I got back to Los Angeles, I met up with Brisbane-born composer Joe Twist at Paradocs in Little Ethiopia, just south of Museum Mile. He’s been living in the US for some years. (Of course, being Australians we spent the first few minutes talking about the standard of coffee in Los Angeles.) Joe noted the irony of the fact that he gets performed more often in Australia these days even though he’s living in the States, and in fact ‘I actually feel that I’m performed more often in the UK than in America, even though I live here.’ I wondered if that was because he writes choral music. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘although it’s more to do with the fact that a lot of the Australian choirs I’ve written for have taken my music to the UK and Europe.

‘But I feel I write choral music because I’m just involved with it. I can’t stop doing it and I just get such good opportunities. I’m here to write film music really. I’m working here for sure, but mostly on bigger movies as a copyist or proofer, an arranger, commercials… I like different styles. I like leaving one thing and going to another and finding variety in that. Being versatile is important for me, not only from the “money angle” but psychologically. I don’t really think of myself that much as an “artist”. I don’t want to completely dismiss the fact that I have pieces that are artistic but I feel that I’m not always thinking about that side of things.’

Was ‘filling a niche’ a factor? But hidden in Joe’s answers was another explanation – Australian groups who take Australian works with them on overseas tours. That point came up a number of times – in conversation with conductor Brett Kelly; with Brett Dean who mentioned the efforts on behalf of Australian composers by Lisa Moore, Zubin Kanga and Tony Buck; and from several respondents who cited Nicholas Milton’s advocacy of Australian work during his time with orchestras in Saarbrücken and elsewhere. I remembered that Lorin Maazel took Diana Doherty to the New York Philharmonic with Ross Edwards’ oboe concerto, Bird Spirit Dreaming in 2005 and that David Porcelijn and Nicholas Braithwaite, conductors with longstanding Australian connections, have performed music of composers such as Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Andrew Schultz, Graeme Koehne among others in music of the Southern Hemisphere in Belfast.

I asked Brett if he had any suggestions for ‘hometown’ measures that could generate overseas performances:

‘One really promising initiative is the SSO’s commissioning program which is successfully encouraging subscribers, friends of the orchestra and regular concert-goers to become involved in the commissioning process, even with just modest amounts of money. It’s a model that I first encountered at the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and their program called “Sound Investment”. The trick then as I see it is to set up reciprocal agreements with orchestras outside of Australia, a great way not only to get Australian music heard outside of Australia, but also to get more premiere and early performances of non-Australian new music performed on our shores, something which also happens too little in my opinion.’

But all of this started to make me wonder if the struggle to be heard is any worse for Australians than for anyone else? I asked Wolfgang Fink, former Director of Artistic Planning for the Sydney Symphony, now with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, who recounted an episode from his time with the Bamberg Symphony:

‘Programming needs both ideas but even more the passion to defend the underlying ideas. The biggest challenge for an administrator is to convince “his” artist or orchestra. Obviously this is easier with repertoire or composers known at least by the majority – but even then. To give you an example: I wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hindemith’s and Hartmann’s death (December 1963) – not least because Hindemith conducted the Bamberg Orchestra regularly in the 1950s and early 60s – but apart from Blomstedt (who, of course, knew Hindemith personally) none of the conductors of the newer generation were seriously interested… To make an even longer story short: it is not too difficult to program Brett Dean’s pieces, because he has created a name (in modern terms: brand) outside Australia. It is not too difficult to program Georges Lentz, because his publisher is based in Europe, and he is also a composer Luxembourg is very proud of. As a composer you need allies who long-term and continuously work for you on an international basis. This is, in my opinion, the key to promoting repertoire outside your country.’

I remember coming across a front page of The New York Times from 1922. One of the stories read: ‘Grainger’s Mother Is Killed By Fall’. It was a story about the death of Rose Grainger, Percy’s mother, who either fell or jumped from a New York skyscraper. What struck me was not just the harrowing story, but the fact that this was the front page of The New York Times, and in 1922 they didn’t need to spell out whom they meant by Grainger. He was a household name. Will any Australian classical composer ever be that famous again? Does it matter? Should we expend energy wondering how it could be done? I tend to think we might want that bigger market, that feedback and that sense of community. But how well are we already doing?

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2017

Elena Kats-Chernin (Limelight magazine, photo Sam Grimmer)