Quadrant Music

Playing at Home and Away

The concept of home and away is one of the most essential dialectics of the human condition, only a touch more complex than here and there. The Australian soap opera Home and Away has, since 1988, become one of our few really enduring cultural exports, to some eighty countries.

In his two great epics at the dawn of Western literature, Homer effectively presented the contrasts of home and away; that is, departing the Greek city-states to fight an enemy in Ilion. Then followed the adventures of the wandering Greek hero Odysseus, ever delayed in his home-bound quest, yet finally returning to his “hearth and home” in Ithaca, whereupon only his trusty hound, Argos, truly knew him. Odysseus was unrecognised at home, but not for long.

In team sports and sports betting, home and away are essential distinctions. Home games evidently bring comfort to a sports team. The field, the familiar surroundings and the adoring fans are reassuring in contrast to the unknowns of away games. Being away involves other tests of team resilience. One football betting company advises inexperienced punters: “A mixture of home and away form shows general team strength … when a team is scoring away goals, it is a strong indicator of goal scoring power.”

The arts are just as infested with home-and-away trials as sports, but often over different timespans, distances and expectations. And they call for more complex betting strategies, as any concert agent knows. It is not good enough to be a solitary genius in your hometown, or even the best pianist in Sydney. You must be tested against the competition of the world, to prove you are world-class and not just a local flash-in-the-pan. Hence the continuing conundrum for many Australian visual and performing artists in handling Australians’ long-term artistic insecurities, which plays on a home-and-away variant, at home and abroad. Or, sometimes, overseas. Your Australian cultural credentials will be burnished by leaving to test yourself abroad, either in advanced study, competitions, or the reception of early professional gigs or shows. With acclaimed successes, in institutions or venues of unquestioned stature, and hopefully stamped with a few distinctive, personal hallmarks—of style, repertory, virtuosity or ebullient personality—you prove that you are an international phenomenon, worthy of commissioning agents having a punt on.

Of course, as the pandemic showed, however far you may roam, you still sometimes do really want to “call Australia home”. But here’s the rub: if you really are so good, why are you coming home? The question lingers. The suspicion is that you might be running out of bookings, or perhaps you really can’t hack it in that supposed real world any more? Our Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) early enshrined this conundrum in its 1983 strapline, “Bringing the World Back Home”—a world of which Australia, evidently, was not a part, hence the need to bring it back home. Yes, cultural matters here were, and still are, more matters of importation, like cars, while any concept of sending home back to the world is reserved most for such exports as minerals, agricultural produce, education and, occasionally, sporting expertise.

So, for many decades, the trick as an artist was to make the most of your Australianness, even becoming a self-appointed cultural ambassador, while actually permanently being based abroad. Thereby, you stared down those who would assert your second-rateness should you return for more than a fleeting tour or supposed personal visit.

Think of that now departing generation—Clive James, Rolf Harris, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries, to name a few—who played these tricks of home and away better than most. Whether ultimately judged famous or infamous, each became an Australian cultural icon, showing strong “goal scoring power” in their perpetual away-games. 

At home and abroad is, then, a particularly suitable subtitle to this new book, Australasian Music, at Home and Abroad, edited by Sarah Kirby and John Gabriel. Its genesis goes back to the first pandemic year, 2020, when the University of Melbourne set out to celebrate the one-and-a-quarter centuries since the establishment of its Music Conservatorium, now part of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music. Founded amid 1890s optimism about the morally redeeming power of music, that Conservatorium, along with its younger sibling in Sydney, has produced a large share of Australia’s performers, composers, educators and therapists. And musicologists. The university sponsored a (as it turned out, virtual) conference of the Musicological Society of Australia, to be joined by many members of the New Zealand Musicological Society. One conference theme was the celebration of music in Australasia, which turns out to be a term of geographical convenience rather than any sustained attempt to interrogate what defines a common usage, modality or style of music shared between, for instance, Australia and New Zealand.

Australasian Music contains a dozen peer-reviewed papers owing their origins to this 2020 internet conference. In the end, however, only one of the papers had primarily New Zealand content. But the book radiates with that shared, sometimes naive—and frequently thwarted—Antipodean sense of artistic hope. As G.W.L. Marshall-Hall, Melbourne’s original Professor of Music, noted in early 1915, when returning from abroad: “The young babe of the future Art [author’s emphasis] must be born in sunshine and freedom. Let poor old Europe totter to her grave—it is out here that the world buds anew.” Despite its mainly Australian content, this book is a useful, excellently documented addition to a rapidly growing literature about the varied musics of the South-West Pacific. In fact, it took as its model Performing History: Approaches to History Across Musicology (2020), edited by the University of Auckland’s Nancy November, the fruits of a joint meeting of Australasian musicologists in 2017.

It is in the subtle chronological progression through this collection’s pages that the at home and abroad subtitle proves its worth. The first three essays look at a largely pre-Federation, colonial age that still called the British Isles home. These essays by Peter Tregear, Janice B. Stockigt and Peter Campbell illuminate historical corners of the story of how several “older” colonies, in connection with nascent universities of Adelaide, Melbourne and Tasmania (but not so much yet, Sydney), struggled to establish music courses, professorships or examination systems. Featuring in these early struggles, from the 1870s on towards the 1900s, were competing British, French and German pedagogic models. These years also saw increasing funding drives and scholarship endowments to support talented young musicians to go overseas.

A following set of three essays turns more to the biography and analysis of the output of three Australian composers born before 1945: Ian Bonighton’s guitar music, by Ken Murray; Barry Conyngham’s landscape work, Sky, by Michael Hooper; and the periodisation of Larry Sitsky’s compositions, by Stephanie Shon. While these composers were unlikely to have called any part of Europe or Asia (in Sitsky’s case) home, each drew on European or American innovations while being catalysed by the eruption of a distinctive, Australian sense of compositional identity during the 1960s and 1970s.

The six essays of Australasian Music’s second half start to twist this historical home-and-abroad dialectic in fresh ways. Writing about contemporary Yolngu aesthetics of creativity and collaboration, Samuel Curkpatrick and Daniel Wilfred connect Yolngu public ceremonial song to the visual aesthetic of “shimmering brilliance”, and the ancestral power in the interweaving of Yolngu voices. Home, in every respect, is found in the “songs of old, and ancestral figurations”. Abroad is only mentioned in terms of collaborations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal musicians.

In restoring to memory two early festivals of New Zealand music, held in Christchurch in 1916 and 1918, Francis Yapp recounts some ambitious attempts to locate a “national identity” in New Zealand music. Giving pride of place to local composers and performers and recognising works about, but not by, Maoris, these festivals failed to demonstrate any identity distinct from being still an outpost of the empire. The later festival served a purpose “in encouraging Dominion talent”, one critic noted, but asserted that a distinct style “will come into its own in good time”.

John Whiteoak documents the inter-war emergence of “Continental” music, despite prevailing Anglo-Australian norms. Mainly referring to Melbourne’s musical scene, he depicts a growing “mosaic of culturally-contrasting societies”, coming from across the Channel, and looks particularly at the central European “gypsy manner”. This emergence, paralleling the advent of radio, from the mid-1920s, and lasting four or so decades, met the nostalgic demand of recent European immigrants for lighter or cabaret styles, as would recur from the 1970s with Asian and Middle Eastern “homeland” musics.

A companion essay, by Aline Scott-Maxwell, explores the bringing of Italian-Australian music to mainstream commercial television during the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on a “cresting scene” in Melbourne from 1967 to 1973. These generational changes from original post-war Italian communities into Italian-Australian and then Australians of Italian heritage, brought ever-shifting musical tastes, but still all connected to Italian modernity. These trends resonate with the SBS’s aim of “Bringing the World Back Home”, as Australia had become for most post-emigré generations.

The final chapters of Australasian Music present two fascinating, contemporary case studies of music-dance traditions: one Carnatic from South India, by John Napier; one Acehnese from Indonesia, by Niall Edwards-FitzSimons. These studies, often based on interviews, reflect the strongly unifying sense of community, authenticity and pride in promotion that performing such traditions can bring in Australia. Over the years, the participants frequently move along a spectrum from being diasporic, “foreign” practitioners—for instance, as “students abroad”—of a stylistic, regional (or claimed national) tradition, through several stages of changed belonging, both to “new and old home communities”. Their performances start to become “Australian”, welcomed as part of its multicultural fabric.

These half-dozen glimpses of changing historic or contemporary First Nations, New Zealand, Continental European, Italian, Indian and Indonesian musical identities are vivid exemplars of the myriad musical paths taken across Australia and New Zealand over the last century. They often involved changing recognitions of belonging, home and homeland, as reflected in changing musical practices. Unlike the earlier half of this book, which shows music as an often solitary, even moralising, art, the music of these later essays enjoys a broader artistic context, connecting with visual arts and drama, with cabaret, radio and television, and especially with dance. “I can still feel at home if I dance the traditional dances,” commented one Acehnese participant. Such testimonies illustrate how participants’ self-awareness of being from abroad transformed over time into a new sense of artistic celebration in a land where they now felt at home.

The editors of Australasian Music saw the Melbourne Conservatorium’s recent anniversary “as an invitation to reassess the trajectory of Australian and Australasian music scholarship, looking both back at the history of the discipline, and forward to how music is used and experienced in the Australasian region today and into the future”. They were aware that, for its hundredth anniversary, in 1995, the Melbourne Con had held a more extensive five-day conference, resulting in a comprehensive 580-page book of proceedings titled Aflame with Music. (“His soul was aflame with music”, had professed one plaque commemorating Professor Marshall-Hall.) That massive tome’s eight sections well highlight the Conservatorium’s research and professional strengths of that time: opera, music therapy, ethnomusicology, Australian music, theory and analysis, music and gender, Renaissance studies, and music education. Its many contributions to music performance were demonstrated through an accompanying program of concerts.

Perhaps nostalgically, I look back on that period as being the highpoint of the University of Melbourne’s—and Victoria’s—then leadership of predominantly classical music in Australian music research, and perhaps also music education. In retrospect it was, as with so many Australian cultural endeavours, a typical product of the end years of a Europhile century, when some universities still aspired to be a place apart from society, as John Poynter and Carolyn Rasmussen’s 1996 history of that university was indeed titled. Let’s remember, too, the root meaning of that very word conservatorium: preserving something precious.

This 2020 conference also looked forward to the future, which should encourage the reader of this book to ask such questions as these. Will there actually be a country called Australasia by the time of the Melbourne Conservatorium’s sesquicentenary in 2045? Even the preamble to the 1900 version of the Australian Constitution noted “it is expedient to provide for the admission into the Commonwealth [of Australia] of other Australasian Colonies and possessions of the Queen”. That idea has clearly not been lost; a retiring New Zealand politician recently suggested that New Zealand join with Australia.

In a smaller, one-planet world of compulsory globalisation, driven by the need for common actions in the face of existential threats, will the very concepts of being at home or from abroad be recognised as indulgent and petty localisms? And will our universities, with their rigid focus upon research, education and engagement metrics, prove finally not to be the best places for the advanced study of all that is precious in the visual and performing arts, leading to the unpicking of Dawkins-era amalgamations of three decades ago?

What is sure is that in 2045 music will still be with us, triumphing through its powerful invisible forms and most intimate of messagings. Little wonder the Taliban so fear it.

Australasian Music, at Home and Abroad
edited by Sarah Kirby & John Gabriel

Australian Scholarly, 2023, 277 pages, $44

Malcolm Gillies is a musicologist and retired vice-chancellor, now living in Canberra


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