1965 Commissioning a legacy
In 2004, I listened to Julian Burnside’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, Why Bother?, on the importance of supporting the arts.
Three things stuck in my mind. He talked about what would happen if, for a time, there were ‘no new paintings made, no new novels or poems written, no new music, no new sculpture’, and tried to imagine what someone, looking back in 50 or 100 years’ time, would make of it. ‘Like a layer of ash in the archaeological record, it would stand as a silent marker of a period of desolation.’
He also mentioned that if you couldn’t afford to commission a piece of music yourself, you could club together with a group of like-minded people and pool your resources. Thirdly, he suggested that ‘if you commission a piece of music, consider doing it through one of the major arts companies: Musica Viva or one of the orchestras. This will probably guarantee that the work will be performed’.
As someone who had problems selling Red Cross Christmas cards at high school, corralling a bunch of people to commission a piece of music seemed to me to be an impossible undertaking. But, after years of picturing someone in the future with no clues to go by trying to make sense of our culture, I contacted Musica Viva artistic director Carl Vine to see if the modest amount of money I believed I could raise would be of any use.
It was, and the Silo Collective’s first commission, Rosalind Page’s string quartet, nous sommes embarqués, had its premiere at the 2011 Huntington Festival. Later this year, the Silo Collective’s seventh commission, a string quartet by Alice Chance, will be heard for the first time at a Musica Viva coffee concert in Sydney.
It is one of six premieres that Musica Viva is featuring this year over its International Concert Season, festivals and Coffee Concerts. For its regular audience, six doesn’t seem a stretch – for years, premieres of Australian works have been slotted in between Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn. For Vine, commissioning new works ‘is a natural function of putting on concerts – it makes for more interesting programming. It would be ludicrous not to collaborate with Australian composers’.
As one of the major organisations involved in commissioning – all up, it’s commissioned more than 130 works by close to 50 composers – it’s tempting to imagine that new music has always been a feature of Musica Viva. That’s not the case at all. It was almost 20 years after its inception that the organisation commissioned its first piece of music.
Musica Viva, after all, was set up to transplant the very best elements of Viennese musical culture to the new world. With an enormous bank of established music to draw from, and with many members of the audience and organisation having recently arrived in Australia from war-torn Europe, it’s unlikely to have crossed anyone’s mind to create music from their newly adopted country.
Various factors converged during the Sixties to create a climate for commissioning, including composer Mirrie Hill’s award to commemorate her late husband, the composer Alfred Hill, and Ken Tribe’s involvement with Musica Viva. According to Australian Music Centre CEO John Davis, the tale of the organisation’s commissioning is very much tied up with him. ‘Ken was someone who understood we needed to express ourselves, and that we needed a platform to do so.’
In that regard, music was slightly lagging behind other art forms. The first Miles Franklin Award, for instance, had been presented in 1957 to Patrick White for Voss; Australian paintings, by the likes of everyone from Streeton to Nolan and Drysdale, were seen on gallery walls.
First off the rank for Musica Viva commissions was Felix Werder’s sixth string quartet, followed in 1965 by another sixth string quartet, this one by the young composer Peter Sculthorpe, a recipient of one of the first Alfred Hill awards. In some ways these two works – poles apart – inadvertently embody the spirit of Musica Viva. On the one hand, German refugee Werder was, according to musicologist, critic and author Roger Covell, ‘fighting the battles of Schoenberg and company’, a champion of the European modernist movement. The Tasmanian-born Sculthorpe, on the other hand, not all that long back from Oxford, was, he said years later, ‘trying to find the essence of the Australian landscape’ in his sixth quartet.
Over the rest of the decade, Musica Viva commissioned a number of works by such composers as Nigel Butterley and Larry Sitsky and, in 1966, took a chance on the 22-year-old Ross Edwards. That first commission by Edwards was not performed at the time (he had been asked to write a piano trio but turned in a sonata for nine instruments). That didn’t stop him being commissioned a couple of years later and several times since.
Throughout Musica Viva’s history, commissioning has partly come down to the interests and enthusiasms of the various artistic directors and general managers – some periods were particularly vibrant while virtually nothing happened at other times. In the early days, it was also dependent on who was available, says composer Gordon Kerry. ‘There really weren’t that many composers around then. Even with the best will in the world, there were only so many people to commission at that stage.’ As well, says Vine, there wasn’t a huge appetite amongst the audience for new music of what he calls the ‘squeaky gate’ variety that was almost considered standard for decades. ‘Composers used to go out of their way to be unpleasant to their audiences – a lot of mending has had to go on.’
There are other hazards around commissioning. As Vine puts it: ‘The risks are considerable – even composers with a very good track record screw up occasionally. They can deliver late, deliver a work that wasn’t commissioned or a substandard work – all these things happen, and there’s no absolute panacea.’
Up until the late Nineties, funding of commissions came both through Musica Viva’s own finances and via grants from the Australia Council. Many of the works, unsurprisingly, were for string quartets, piano trios and other small ensembles. However, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in its early days coming under the banner of Musica Viva, such works as Peter Sculthorpe’s Port Essington for string trio and string orchestra was a Musica Viva commission. So, too, was Brian Howard’s 1982 opera, A Fringe of Leaves, for choir and chamber orchestra, which the Australian Chamber Orchestra played for the opening of the Melbourne Concert Hall.
The Eighties saw the introduction of Musica Viva’s composer-in-residence, an initiative in which Gerard Brophy, Michael Smetanin, Riccardo Formosa and Vincent Plush were given the opportunity to compose full-time for a year. It sounds like a good idea, but as Carl Vine explains, ‘Someone failed to deliver, and that put paid to the program. Most composers wouldn’t have any idea how to write four pieces in a year – they’re not usually under such pressure.’ It wasn’t a complete disaster – some works, including Smetanin’s Red Lightning, Brophy’s Orfeo and the works Gordon Kerry wrote when he was the education program’s composer in residence in 2001–2 have had a number of airings since.
More recently, under Carl Vine’s artistic directorship, there have been 10 featured composers whose works have been showcased during the International Concert Season during any given year. ’After that, we ran out of senior composers with a back catalogue of chamber music.’ (Emerging composers’ works have their premieres at Coffee Concerts or festivals.)
Vine was, he says, brought into the organisation in 2000 ‘to shake things up’. One of the first things he did was name the young and relatively unknown Matthew Hindson as the first featured composer for 2002. Peter Sculthorpe or Ross Edwards would have been the expected choices. ‘Starting with Matthew, and two years later to have Brett Dean, spelt a different kind of profile for the program,’ says Vine. ‘It was all very conscious and purposeful – for me, Matthew was the obvious choice.’
In subsequent years, composers have included Sculthorpe, Edwards, Gordon Kerry, Ian Munro, Paul Stanhope and, in the seventh year, Vine himself. Vine admits he finds it ‘very difficult’ to give himself work. ‘I’ve done it very rarely and normally under duress. I have no problem positioning myself in the top ten, and I think seventh was a reasonable place to be.’ Roger Covell sees it as a brave move: ‘It invites blows from outside. You can only do it when you know where you stand in the local world of music. If he’d been a lesser composer, it might have been dangerous.’
For Hindson, having such recognition in his early thirties ‘came completely out of the blue, and took me to the next level. I had the opportunity to write for top ensembles around the world and you don’t get that ordinarily, unless you’re someone like John Adams and, even then, it’s pretty damn hard.’ On top of that, ‘the works get played around the country, which helped build my profile, plus I see those pieces develop. And when the players go back home, perhaps they take the piece with them, which has happened on occasions.’ One work, Comin’ Right Atcha, which had its premiere performance by Kristjan Jarvi’s Absolute in 2002, is being played in New York in April, elsewhere in the States later in the year and is ‘played quite regularly’, says Hindson.
Inevitably, Vine’s choice of composers is not to everyone’s liking, but for that he’s unapologetic. ‘It has happened that I haven’t liked a composer, but I figure it’s my job to have artistic opinions.’ And there are composers he admires, but doesn’t believe they write good chamber music. ‘And then there’s chamber music that would fit well in a contemporary concert, but it has to have a certain patina to stand alongside the great masterpieces.’ Says Roger Covell: ‘There’s no compulsory ordinance going about that says everybody must be heard – that would be intolerable.’
Not all musicians necessarily want to play the premiere of a piece, but for most, it would be considered a ‘privilege’, according to Kerry Martin, second violinist with the Enigma Quartet, although not without risks. ‘When we first went through Phil Jameson’s piece, we thought it was unplayable,’ she says of Black Rapids, a Silo Collective commission that had its premiere at Huntington last year. ‘If you’d got it off the library shelf you’d think it wasn’t going to work and put it back. But because we knew we had to do it, we got into it, and it took the time for us to realise how awesome it was.’
Alexander Sitkovetsky, violinist with the Sitkovetsky Trio, said it was ‘a no-brainer’ when asked, before it was written, if the ensemble would premiere Carl Vine’s Piano Trio The Village last year. Apart from Percy Grainger, Vine was the only Australian composer he was aware of. ‘His piano sonatas, especially, are played a lot in London. We had no fear whatsoever that it would be a great piece.’ It was a definite benefit, he says, for the trio to be able to work closely with Vine, who was ‘incredibly clear’ about what he wanted. ‘In some ways it simplified the whole process – it takes out the constant questioning. Although the other side of the coin is that part of the greatness of Beethoven is that you can ask a million questions and never get the answers – the possibilities there are limitless.’
After The Village received a positive reaction around Australia, the Sitkovetsky Trio decided to resurrect it in March in Carmel, California. ‘The reaction was incredibly positive – we’re going to try to include it in our programs wherever appropriate.’
While government money used to be available for commissions, now it falls to individuals and groups to do so. Julian Burnside’s first commission for Musica Viva was Gordon Kerry’s Vigil for two pianos in 1999 and since then he has commissioned about one piece a year through the organisation. ‘I gradually drifted around to the idea that it was our responsibility to add to the pile of music that we inherit free of charge, and the way to do that was to commission work. For a while, I had thought there were some difficult ways to make a living, and being a composer or poet would have to be close to the hardest. I became increasingly concerned that quite a few people in other occupations make big incomes, even if they’re doing room-temperature jobs, while artists and musicians performing at Olympic levels struggle to make ends meet. That struck me as profoundly unfair.’
Some people commission for more personal reasons. Denise and John Elkins, Musica Viva subscribers since the Seventies, commissioned Gordon Kerry to write a piece after hearing his String Quintet (commissioned by Kim Williams) at a concert in Brisbane in 2012. ‘I bowled up to Gordon in the interval and said I’d like a piece about the bird calls we hear at our retreat on the Sunshine Coast.’ She’d imagined woodwind; Gordon had the idea of a piano quintet. Aroona Dawning had its premiere at the Huntington Festival in 2013, which Denise Elkins describes as ‘a surreal experience. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done – you feel as if you’re supporting the arts in a way you haven’t done before’. Her husband, John, says he can ‘still feel the thrill of hearing it the first time – I think I shook the chairs in the whole row. I was extremely excited’.
There’s no ‘written down policy’ at Musica Viva on commissioning, says Vine. ‘But, yes, we do have an ongoing policy that we’ll keep commissioning.’ Where once, audiences would have flinched to see an Australian composition on the program, now, he says, ‘it’s commonly accepted at interval that everyone will be talking about the Australian work, even if they didn’t like it.’
Roger Covell believes that creating music of our time and place ‘is a mark of a developed society – it’s required of us in terms of civilisation’. For John Davis, Musica Viva’s achievement in commissioning is ‘astounding. The question to ask is what would Australian repertoire look like without it, and it would be pretty slim pickings – instead, what we have is an incredible array of distinctive, individual voices that have had the opportunity to express themselves and develop’.
Leta Keens is a Sydney-based journalist who specialises in architecture, design and the arts. She started her career on the architecture and women’s pages of a Fleet Street newspaper, and has since worked in Australia, Italy and the United States. She has edited several books, is the co-author of The Slow Guide to Sydney, and has written for a number of publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, the Australian newspaper and Qantas inflight magazine. For a number of years, she has been editor-at-large of the architecture and design magazine, Belle. Her books include Shoes for the Moscow Circus and Rural Australian Homes. A long-term Musica Viva Musica Viva subscriber and supporter, Leta is the guiding force being the music commissioning The Silo Collective.