I first left Australia in late 1981. I was already 31 and, in terms of the international rite-of-passage most Australian composers took at that time, it was perhaps already a bit late. Aside of a week in New Zealand a few years earlier, I really hadn’t been outside Australia. Not to the UK (not until February 1999), nor Europe (never), nor even to Bali (never)!
My mother used to tell me that, even as a teen, I had my sights set on the USA. Throughout the 1970s, a busy decade living and working in Sydney, I had become obsessed with American music and with Charles Ives in particular. This peaked around the time of his centenary (1974), which bled into celebrations in Sydney of the American Bicentennial (1976) and the visits of major composers like John Cage, George Crumb and Aaron Copland.
Aaron Copland with Vincent Plush Audio-visual TV studio, Yale University New Haven, Connecticut. 7 December 1982. Photograph taken by Martin BresnicIncreasingly, I wanted to understand how Ives had become an American composer, how he had managed to avoid becoming some kind of transplanted European composer, and how he had based his music and aesthetic on what he called “the home-cloth of home”.
By this stage, the Australian composers I knew best had already carved out their creative turf. Sculthorpe had the land, Meale had post-War European modernism, Conyngham had the cities, Edwards carried on the Maxwell Davies tradition of ancient airs and dances, Boyd had Asia. Through my pieces based on Australian folklore, I guess I had acquired, by default, Australian heritage.
So in late 1981, I made my way to the USA. I had been awarded a Harkness Fellowship. (I was only the third Australian composer to receive this prestigious award, following Sculthorpe and Conyngham. Koehne would follow a little later.) Not only did we get to choose the location of our American base, but, in addition to a generous living allowance, we were required to travel for several months of our award. Fundamentally, I decided to base myself at Ives’s own alma mater, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Looking back, my time at Yale was something of a disappointment. My fault, entirely. I chose not to live on campus, I spent too much time in Manhattan, and, by 1981, American music was finding Ives a bit over-cooked. Certainly the most valuable and enduring connection with Yale came in forging an association with Vivian Perlis and the American Music Oral History Collection.
Over the next 20 years or so, I managed to interview some 212 American composers, from the very young John Adams to the very ill Frank Zappa – from A-Z, we joked.
Early in my Yale days I had bought a burgundy coloured 1967 Volkswagon squareback. I trundled around North America for three years, back and forth from sea to shining sea, ticking off 48 of the contiguous United States in what the Harkness Foundation ladies in New York said was a record for the Fellows.
My forays into Manhattan often saw me in the ABC offices in Rockefeller Plaza recording weekly segments for ABC arts programmes. They were my very own ‘Letters from America’ modelled on the acclaimed series of another Harkness Fellow, Alistair Cooke. By claiming to be the cultural correspondent for The Murrumbidgee Irrigator [sic]or the like, I managed to con my way into the Met, Carnegie Hall, virtually anywhere. These excursions I wrote up in the Gygers’ monthly opera magazines and in journals like the ABC’s 24 Hours.
With all this, I didn’t have much time to write letters or even postcards but radio and journalism kept the folks back home up to date with my comings and goings.
Peggy Glanville Hicks was still fondly remembered by many music folks in New York. She had written notes to introduce me to her chums in the Composers Forum, BMI and ASCAP and various festivals. Peggy had mentioned that ‘any American will talk to an Australian microphone’. Worse, composer Jacob Druckman used to joke that when I walked into a room, people would see QANTAS tickets.
Certainly, in the early 1980s, Australia held a certain mystique in North America. The first wave of our new film industry was hitting American screens (eleven times I was dragged along to see Gallipoli which, in the Boston Globe was advertised as Galli-Poli “spoken in English, but with subtitles”). The 1983 victory of Australia II in The America’s Cup was sorely acknowledged. Australian wines began to appear in West Coast supermarkets. At the time, it felt very cool to be an Aussie.
Fortuitously for me, 1982 was Grainger’s centenary and I managed to chase Percy’s music around North America. Fortunately, there were several major performances of The Warriors to balance out the plethora of lollipops.
It was Grainger who (posthumously) introduced me to a number of American music buffs over the years. In New York, Don Gillespie, leading editor at the publishing house of C.F. Peters, introduced me to his stable, including William Duckworth and Neely Bruce, and associates like Burnett Cross. Eliott Carter wondered if I had ever met Grainger and was disappointed I was far too young for that (I was barely eleven when Grainger died in 1961). Many of us crossed paths at the New Music America Festival in Chicago in July 1982. It was there that I encountered the Kronos Quartet trying to make sense of the ‘floating lines’ of Grainger’s Free Music.
It was in Chicago that I also first met a man who became central to my American life. For many years, Charles Amirkhanian, former percussionist-composer, had been Music Director of Pacifica Radio KPFA in Berkeley, CA. He was the American music buff sans pareil and had interviewed virtually every major figure in American music. Single-handedly, he had dragged Conlon Nancarrow back into the American consciousness. The one great gap in Charles’s composer collection was Peggy Glanville Hicks. It was this that primarily attracted Charles and his wife Carol to visit Australia in April 1986. At her home in Paddington, Charles recorded a discursive interview with PGH, as she styled herself, then a quirky 74 years of age.
Charles also arranged for me to attend the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. Every year, then Music Director Dennis Russell Davies charged Charles with programming a concert of his choosing. Dennis was keen to see PGH at his festival in 1984 and had arranged for Keith Jarrett to play her Etruscan Concerto. I was charged with getting PGH there, but she would not get on a plane and the performances of her music had to proceed without her. On that same festival, in the shadow of the LA Olympics, Lyndon Terracini and I performed my Australian Folksongs. We shared that programme with music by Stephen Scott and his bowed piano ensemble from Colorado College. This cemented a further enduring association. Steve invited me to teach at CC over three years and he and his ensemble made three tours of Australia. A sometime inventor and instrument builder, Steve was captivated by the Australian experimentalists, and produced a CD of their music on the New Albion label in San Francisco.
Beyond Chicago over the summer of 1982, I attended several other New Music America festivals, each taking on the cultural identity and music of their locales – Atlanta, Hartford and others. At some stage, Amirkhanian and I began to reflect on musical connections across the Pacific. And so New Music AusMerica was born; it would be in Melbourne in August 1989 and it would have a political theme, supported by the union movement. Rzewski and Nancarrow would be major guests, Dennis Russell Davies and the Kronos Quartet would also feature. But the Victorian government changed from red to blue complexion and funding was withdrawn.
Gradually it dawned on me that as I criss-crossed North America, I might very well be the only Australian some Americans had actually met. At the Grawermeyer dinner for Ligeti in Louisville in 1986, a Kentucky matron was relieved to see that I was white and six-feet tall, and where did I get to speak “such beautiful English?” In Washington, State Department bureaucrats expressed gratitude for Sydney’s celebrations of their Bicentennial in 1976 and my role in supporting American music. And wasn’t there an Australian Bicentenary looming around the corner?
,Meantime, I chugged around North America continuing to collect my Yale interviews. For my research, most composers sent me LPs and audio cassettes, as well as biographies and press clippings. Scores too, some of them. In return for their largesse, they would receive “Plushkits”, which consisted of recorded performances of my music, always on audiocassettes, with copious annotations. CDs had barely begun to make an appearance.
I would send all this American wampum to the ABC office in Manhattan, where it would be put into the ABC bag to be airfreighted to Sydney. There, Tony Fogg’s office groaned under a teetering stack of this stuff. What were we going to do with it?
Tony and others had actually listened to some of it. Thus, sight unseen, John Adams’s Harmonium was programmed in April 1986 with the SSO conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki. When the choral parts arrived somewhat late, the Sydney Philharmonia held a stop-work meeting, but all was eventually resolved and the performance went ahead. 34 years later, John Adams would conduct his music in Sydney.
Harmonium was the last of 100 pieces of American music in the first stage of my radio series MAIN STREET USA. The series featured music recordings, many not commercially released, excerpts from my Yale interviews, and recreations of experiences during my travels. At 10pm on Friday 6th April 1984, the first of 20 programmes, each of 120 minutes’ duration, went to air. (There would be two other series a few years later, progressively diminishing to six programmes over one hour.) Apparently, these became de rigeur listening for composers. To this day, Robert Davidson maintains they changed his life. Roger Smalley used to say they moved “the gravitational pull of Australian music”. They were keenly followed by the Adelaide Pastoralists and the Sydney Toop family alike.
American composers began to note broadcasts in Australia in their royalty statements. A few years later, Belinda Webster and I produced AUSWAVES, a series-in-reverse designed for American radio. Somewhere around 80 stations took the series of ari thound 60 recent pieces of Australian music. Slowly, Australian composers began to note American broadcasts in their royalty statements. Whenever possible, the composers themselves introduced their music. Over my entire career, I have insisted that, if a composer is present at a performance, he or she should be both seen and heard.
Radio, in both directions, was another important dimension of my networking in North America.
I tried to organize my travel itinerary around conferences and festivals in North America. One of the earliest of these was my first Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. For the week before and around Easter, 150 people in all sorts of disciplines gather to discuss all sorts of world issues. In April 1982, the Falklands War was in full swing and my JBL ghetto blaster was very popular with the British press corps from Washington DC as they tried to make sense of it all. Moreover, my Chilean piece On Shooting Stars had just been played over NPR radio, earning me a place on the blacklist of the Chilean Embassy and near hero-status with various branches of Amnesty International. I lost count of the number of concerts which featured that piece, certainly well over 100. It helped that Costa-Gravas’s film Missing appeared at the same time.
Another network grew around that work and its unsuspecting composer. Inadvertently, I had become identified with the Amnesty cells crusading for Chilean self-determination. Introducing audiences to that piece, and its orchestral counterpart Pacifica, I got to talk about its political background. Moral: American audiences love a good story. On more than one question time, I was asked if I was a Communist. Moral 2: never underestimate the thick-headedness of many American concert-goers.
More common, though, were other questions about Australia. Top of the list, not unexpectedly, related to our fauna and flora. Next up was New Zealand, and then the Queen. followed by Olivia Newton-John. Occasionally the Opera House, but never Joan Sutherland.
In Minneapolis at the invitation of Dick Letts, then director of the McPhail Conservatory at the University of Minnesota, I found myself at a mini-Australian arts festival, which included film screenings, forums and performances by local performers and the visiting Australia Ensemble. Barry Conyngham and I were featured composers.
Prior to this, I was guest at a residential conference on the mosquito-infested shores of Lake Minnetonka. So prevalent was the mosquito in this “state of ten thousand lakes” that local wags declared the mosquito to be the State Bird.
The Minnesota Composers Forum had been created by Eric Stokes and a group of younger composers, people like Stephen Paulus, Randall Davidson and Libby Larsen. In our music, brother Eric and I shared political and historical interests, but it was a chance remark one day by Libby that hit home for me. “I do what I can to help the composer family in my region and country,” she said. To this end, she maintained, she devoted one day each week to “furthering the republic of music”.
From that moment, back in May 1982, it would become my guiding maxim also. “Furthering the republic of music.”
Through that experience in Minnesota, I got to see how that “republic of music” was working throughout North America. At the instigation of John Duffy, founder of Meet the Composer movement in Manhattan, American orchestras were taking on ‘Composers-in-Residence’ as a loose network of Music Advisors. Funds were being sought and found from that seemingly inexhaustible fund of American private philanthropy. Commissions and recordings, often on composer-driven labels like CRI, flowed. Ancillary positions for younger composers were being established, many working with ensembles and choirs. I spent short periods in artist retreats like Yaddo and the MacDowell colony. More remarkable, the performing right organizations, ASCAP and BMI, maintained retirement homes for their elderly and less well-off composer-members.
Moving to Atlanta several years later, in 1994, I caught a familiar face on the street near Emory University. It was Steve Paulus, who had been appointed Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Steve knew that Sydney was due to host the 2000 Olympics and he suggested we meet up with a friend of his. That turned out to be Jeffrey Babcock, a composer-graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Jeff had been appointed Director of the Cultural Oympiad for the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996. He wanted to create special links between the two Olympic cities, Atlanta and Sydney. Mindful of the racial population of Atlanta (68% African-American) his ‘theme’ was wonderful: what would happen if you put a black person in a white environment and, vice versa, a white in a black environment? From me, he wanted to know if there were any operas on black-white subjects (I immediately thought of Andrew Schultz’s Black River), a black dance company (Bangarra), black art (Indigenous dot paintings) and what was the best orchestra Australia could offer (AYO)? After some bureaucratic bumbling, most of those actually made it to Atlanta in the summer of 1986. A pity that the AYO’s programme and choice of conductor were so unimaginative!
More than any other gathering I attended in North America, that conference in Minnesota expanded my network considerably. I returned to the Twin Cities on several occasions, twice to review membership applications and once to interview (unsuccessfully) for CEO of the Minnesota Composers Forum. That conference enabled me to meet some of the leading figures in new music in New York, publishers, broadcasters and critics, also composers associated with ensembles and organizations in regional centres: up and down both East and West Coast, and in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Washington DC, Seattle, Atlanta, Austin, Hartford, Las Vegas, Denver, Buffalo, Honolulu, others. John Miller, the genial director of the Canadian Music Centre, based in Toronto, hosted me there and in other Canadian centres where I got to freshen up my very basic high-school French.
Over the next few years, I would visit most of these colleagues in their home base. Casual conversations would become preliminary planning sessions some of which would extend into the wee hours, fortified, wherever possible, by prized bottles of Australian red.
By summer 1982, I had tired of the parochialism of the East Coast and its bleak winters. I decided to transfer base to southern California, where there was sunshine and oranges, Pacific sunsets and a more relaxed collegiality in the new music community. On my very first weekend in La Jolla, I tapped into the International Stravinsky Symposium, where the world’s Stravinskyians gathered to celebrate the master. (More names for my address book, including Richard Taruskin, Michael Steinberg and Louis Andriessen.) Fortunately, Robert Craft was back in Manhattan attending to the dying Vera Stravinsky so conversation among conferees was considerably less guarded.
I had applied to join what was the Project for Music Experiment at the University of California, San Diego. At the time it was renowned for its focus on extended vocal and instrumental techniques under the direction of Pauline Oliveros. Around this time, Keith Humble was dividing time between UCSD and his new department at LaTrobe. He turned out to be amicable company there and his accent was even more pronounced ‘Aussie’ than mine!
By the time I arrived, there had been a palace insurrection at PME. It had now become the Center for Music Experiment, a computer music research institute, largely the brainchild of Roger Reynolds and F. Richard (Dick) Moore. Never very comfortable with digital technology, I did not fare particularly well there. CME did however serve to introduce me to other Fellows, renegades like Diamanda Galas, and to computer music languages, email and the network of Stanford, MIT and IRCAM in Paris. I mounted a concert to observe the tenth anniversary of the coup in Chile, continued my Yale interviews and extended my network along the West coast.
By late 1983, my Harkness funds and J-1 Visa were running low. After two years, it was time to return home to Sydney, but without the security of an income, home or partner. Fortunately, these factors were soon addressed. By December 1983, I was 34 and, while I had written little music in North America, I had acquired ideas and experiences, ideas and models, networks and cohorts unlike most others.
The Australian Bicentennial was now four years away.
VIEW AND LISTEN
The Plaint of Mary Gilmore (1984) 41’52”
song cycle based on texts by Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962)
Susan Ellis, mezzosoprano; Diana Nixon, piano/voice
26 November 2017, Wesley Music Centre, Forrest, ACT
Bakery Hill Rising (1980) 8’12”
Peter Luff, French horn solo and multiple pre-recorded horns
Southern Cross Soloists CD ‘Australia’ (2002)
Pacifica (1986/rev 1987) 26’00
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Isaiah Jackson, conductor
Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
For over 50 years now, Vincent Plush has lived a varied career in music, not just as a composer, but also as a teacher and broadcaster, writer and commentator, and conductor-director of ensembles and small-scale festivals. At various stages of his life, he has worked for extended periods in most Australian capitals and for nearly 20 years was based in North America, living in 15 cities throughout the USA. Since his permanent return to Australia in 2000, his focus has been on developing ties with colleagues and institutions throughout Asia. He has composed over 120 works, few of which have been recorded or even played in Australia. These include four orchestral pieces (only one of which Pacifica  has been heard in Australia) and large-scale community pieces, as well as solo pieces and works for multiple instruments and voices. An articulate and sometimes controversial figure, most of his music relates to Australian heritage and universal political issues. In 2018 he completed his PhD in Musicology with a thesis devoted to music in the life and work of Patrick White, reflecting his interest in the intersections of various strands of Australian culture.