Forty years ago Roger Covell published his Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society.1 Covell was both actor and observer at a crucial time in the story of Australian music – indeed Graeme Skinner’s recent Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer2makes it quite clear that discussion of new music in the popular press by Covell and other serious writers was a serious business. (It should, but probably doesn’t go without saying that the principal subject of this essay is notated art-music.) By the late 1960s the generation of Australian-born composers like Peter Sculthorpe, Nigel Butterley and Richard Meale, and immigrants such as Larry Sitsky, George Dreyfus and Felix Werder were addressing the twin challenges of European musical modernism and the nature of Australia’s cultural relationship to its near neighbours and indigenous peoples. This didn’t come out of nowhere, of course. Margaret Sutherland had striven to introduce a modernist dialect into Australian music; John Antill’s Corroboree was a sincere response to real or imagined Aboriginal ritual; Percy Grainger told a very young Sculthorpe to ‘look to the Islands’. But it’s fair to say something reached critical mass in the late 1960s.

The upsurge of composition happened in a climate where public funding of the arts had started in a modest way during the premierships of Menzies, Holt and Gorton, and was much increased under Whitlam. In 1963 John Hopkins was appointed Federal Director of Music for the ABC which had ramifications for the status of new music in both concert and broadcast music. The early 1970s saw the establishment of the Australia Council and, in its wake, the Australian Music Centre, the foundation of the Australian Opera and a number of State companies, and the coming of FM radio. Numerous contemporary music ensembles came and went, as they have continued to do, and a number of solo performers committed to premiering new work emerged. Important expatriate entrepreneurs and composers returned to this country, and many composers of the 1960s generation took on teaching posts in new departments of music established in Australian universities at the time.

This had an exponential effect on the sheer number of composers in this country, as the students of such teachers themselves became both composers and teachers and so on. This went hand in hand with the burgeoning of new technologies for producing, dispersing and storing music that have become increasingly affordable and accessible. It’s not an unmixed blessing as there is the real danger of oversupply, inadequate resourcing and a Malthusian crash. Fortunately, Australian composition is far from monocultural and the more-or-less peaceful co-existence of wildly different composers and aesthetics is its great strength.

It was not always thus. In the late 1980s/early 1990s there was an unedifying turf-war waged in the pages of the AMC journal; many of the dramatis personae went on to declare war on the ABC Concert division on the ground of cronyism, and holding up the Australia Council as a model of propriety. (Needless to say once the ABC had changed its evil ways the same people attacked the Australia Council in pretty much the same terms.) This all generated much more heat than light, and thermodynamics being what they are, it ultimately ran out of energy. This has left us, in the early years of the new century, with a healthily pluralistic community whose main challenge is to justify its existence in a celebrity-obsessed, multi-niched culture – many of whose entertainment options would have been unimaginable even a couple of decades ago. So here goes.

Given my rose-coloured view about peaceful co-existence I’ll discuss genres rather than styles, and selected representative works from the last decade. Needless to say a visit to the Australian Music Centre website will yield much more information on most individuals and works.

Orchestral Music

The devolution of the state symphony orchestras in the wake of Paul Keating’s Creative Nation statement in 1994 was welcomed by numerous composers who assumed (mistakenly, in most cases) that it would mean greater access to the orchestra in their own capital. (The history of ABC music making is well covered in Martin Buzacott’s The Rite of Spring.3 Loss of centralised ABC control over planning (which in practice had involved co-operation between the ABC and each orchestra’s management anyway) meant the loss of the principle of maximisation, by which a newly commissioned work would almost always receive performances in more than one city during its premiere season. After the devolution, some of ABC Concerts’ responsibility passed to a service organisation, Symphony Australia, among them the funding of commissions (though a number of the orchestras have successfully sought private patronage for commissioning as well) and in general the individual orchestras have kept up the practice of commissioning. One specific instance: the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has a program for young composers which results in new works premiered at its Metropolis Festival each year. This is laudable given a climate in which all orchestras must raise as much revenue from box office as they can, that senior management is now frequently drawn from the marketing sector and that funding bodies and tend to insist on surplus budgets. We also should note that there are orchestras outside the former ABC network including the Australian and various capital-based Youth Orchestras who commission new work (often with the support of philanthropic organisations like Ars Musica Australis) as do some of the community based groups like the Kuring-gai Orchestra.

Reports of the death of the symphony (like that of the orchestra itself) have been exaggerated, though in this country new works still tend to be the 10-12 minute curtain-raiser. A number of our senior composers (Roger Smalley, Richard Meale, Don Kay, Philip Bra?anin) have produced individual (or small numbers of) symphonies but it is Carl Vine, Ross Edwards and Brenton Broadstock who have produced a substantial body of work in the genre. Vine’s symphonies adhere closest to the spirit of the classical symphony, being large scale, abstract works driven by the dramatic possibilities of the tonal system. One exception is his Sixth, or Choral Symphony in which he sets hieratic texts in the ancient Semitic language, Akkadian. Broadstock, by comparison, uses the genre to explore the lacrimae rerum of existence, be it the process of coming to terms with having a disabled child, the experience of mental illness or the tears of an angel at the miseries of human existence. Edwards is similarly concerned with a range of extra-musical concerns: a prayer for peace, an elegy for the earth or a hymn to the cosmos. There have also been a number of substantial symphonic poems, for want of a better term, in recent years: Barry Conyngham’s Now that Darkness (2004), Nigel Butterley’s From Sorrowing Earth, Brett Dean’s Beggars and Angels and Paul Stanhope’s Fantasia on a Theme of Vaughan Williams (2003) spring to mind, while Georges Lentz’s ongoing exploration of the mysteries of the universe in sound and silence continues to bear important fruit in several large scale works of his Mysterium series.

The group of often charismatic soloists who began to emerge in the 1970s and welcomed the opportunity to perform new work – we might mention Roger Woodward at this point – has been augmented in recent time not just by star pianists (like Michael Kieran Harvey, Ian Munro, Lisa Moore) or orchestral instrumentalists (the harpist Marshall McGuire, cellist David Pereira, or oboist Diana Doherty to name but three) but by virtuosos on non-canonical instruments. Recent years have seen a number of significant new concertos for traditional instruments: Michael Smetanin’s Piano Concerto Mysterium Cosmographicum (2005) is a coruscatingly brilliant response to the majestic clockwork of the universe; Andrew Ford’s Viola Concerto The Unquiet Grave (1998) thoughtfully teases out threads from a tragic ballad; Edwards’ and Graeme Koehne’s Oboe Concertos (Bird Spirit Dreaming, 2002, and Inflight Entertainment, 2000) use Doherty’s technical facility to strikingly different effect. But there has also been a growing interest in concertos for less traditional instruments. Elena Kats-Chernin (Reinventions, 2004) and James Ledger (Line Drawing, 2005) have both written elegant concertos for recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey; the rise of didgeridoo soloist William Barton has inspired Liza Lim to compose her most substantial orchestral work to date, The Compass (2006) – a double concerto for flute and didgeridoo in which the whole orchestra takes up and reverberates with the sounds of both instruments. Barton’s artistry has also revealed to Peter Sculthorpe that much of his own music implies the sound of that instrument. The composer has accordingly produced new versions of older works now with didgeridoo.

The choral-orchestral genre has continued to attract contributions, many of which have an inevitably spiritual if not overtly religious program. Despite a general move to more intimate, introspective music in his recent work, in 2004 Sculthorpe returned to the liturgy of the Requiem (which produced his masterly work for solo cello back in 1979) for a work which brings together the western Mass for the Dead, an aboriginal lullaby and the sound of the didgeridoo. Butterley’s Spell of Creation (2000) is a kind of summa of the spiritual concerns that have pervaded his work since the early 1960s, while Journey to Horseshoe Bend by librettist Gordon Kalton Williams and composer Andrew Schultz was a gripping depiction of the traumatic incident in the life of anthropologist TGH Strehlow.

Ensemble Music

One of the most enduring new music ensembles, the Seymour Group (known latterly as the Sonic Art Ensemble) turned up its toes in 2007. Such ensembles are inevitably evanescent, as none can provide full time employment with the result that there is often considerable turnover of musicians. Even Elision, the Seymour Group’s only real rival in the longevity stakes, has reinvented itself from time to time and is now arguably more of a resource for a range of performance types than a fixed ensemble. Many of the more recently formed groups follow the pattern established by the Australia Ensemble: a large enough mixed band which is able to field the conventional chamber groups for standard repertoire but which maintains a commitment to new work. Such ensembles include the Sydney Omega Ensemble and Brisbane’s Southern Cross Soloists. ‘Standard rep’ ensembles like the Australian, Goldner, Melba and Flinders String Quartets, the Freshwater and Seraphim Trios and Duo Sol have demonstrated a commitment to new music as well. National entrepreneur Musica Viva Australia includes new work in a number of its projects; in recent years its main-stage series has had a featured living composer (among them Matthew Hindson, Ross Edwards, Graeme Koehne, Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Mills) whose work has been surveyed throughout the season. Finally, a number of the metropolitan orchestras field ensembles at various times: the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under Roger Smalley, founded one in the early 1990s along the London Sinfonietta model of 14 or so solo instruments, a combination which to date hadn’t been available to Australian composers; events such as Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Metropolis and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Contemporary Music Festival use smaller groups from within the full band.

Dedicated new music ensembles still exist of course. Ensemble Offspring was born in the heady days of Roger Woodward’s Sydney International Festival of New Music but has long outlived its parent. Melbourne has number of groups, among them the Libra Ensemble and the David Chesworth Ensemble. Chesworth’s is an example of the composer-driven band. Similarly composer David Young, also of Melbourne, has formed the organisation Aphids to support a range of concert and cross-artform projects. Elision has since its foundation in the 1980s supported the work of late-modernist composers such as Mary Finsterer, Liza Lim and Adam Yee. Ensembles are perhaps more likely than larger groups to explore the boundaries of acoustic music: Roger Dean’s AustraLysis, following the path of Martin Wesley-Smith’s Watt has consistently produced intriguing new works involving both live acoustic and computer generated sounds.

Peter Sculthorpe has listed the string quartet along with the Georgian house as one of the glories of Western civilisation. Not surprisingly he has composed a body of quartets now equalling Beethoven’s in number and providing a document of his life-long compositional development. The quartet has been an important site for major works by Richard Meale, Andrew Ford and Carl Vine and for younger composers such as David Chisholm and Damien Ricketson.

Opera, Operetta and Song

Australian music-theatre (for want of a better grab-bag term) is a hugely varied area ranging from ‘grand opera’ through to highly innovative works performed in unconventional venues. The national company, Opera Australia, may have commissioned fewer new works than we might have hoped, but has supported several full scale works in recent times. The Eighth Wonder (2000) with libretto by Dennis Watkins and music by Alan John, was a post-modern apotheosis being an opera about the opera house in which the opera was being staged. John Haddock’s more recent Madeline Lee(2004) made a moving ghost story out of themes of comradeship and betrayal. Moya Henderson’s Lindy (2002) – her take, with poet Judith Rodriguez, on the miscarriage of justice in the Lindy Chamberlain affair – finally reached the stage after some unedifying spats and judicious cuts. Years in the making, Larry Sitsky’s The Golem (1993) (libretto by Gwen Harwood) was a perfect fit for Barrie Kosky’s iconoclastic production. Richard Meale with librettist David Malouf followed up the success of Voss (1985) with Mer de Glace (1991) a dramatisation of an event in the lives of poets Shelley and Byron, and novelist Mary Shelley, which produced the story of Frankenstein. Moffatt Oxenbould’s recent memoir, Timing is Everything (ABC Books, 2007) gives a good overview of the company’s commissioning history.

Other full scale works of recent years have tended to be co-productions with costs shared by various state or national companies and festivals. An obvious benefit of this is that works are seen in more than one city. Richard Mills’s three recent operas have benefitted in this way: The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1996) was an attempt, with Peter Goldsworthy, to mythicise the iconic Australian play; Batavia (2001) (also with Goldsworthy) tells the story of foundering mercantile capitalism through the metaphor of a Dutch shipwreck and the subsequent gruesome depravity of its passengers and crew off the coast of northern Australia; The Love of the Nightingale (2007), to a libretto by Timberlake Wertenbaker is pure Ovidian myth.

Music theatre also thrives outside the metropolitan opera theatres. Melbourne’s Chamber Made continues as the flagship of new work in this area commissioning works from composers as diverse as Elena Kats-Chernin, Bryony Marks, Gerry Brophy, Michael Smetanin, David Chesworth and Julian Yu. Con Koukias’s IHOS, based in Hobart, continues to produce its stimulating body of work in often spectacular and always unusual venues. The Song Company has supported worthy, often highly politically engaged initiatives such as Colin Bright’s The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1994) and Martin Wesley-Smith’s Quito (1994). Mary Finsterer is currently writing a piece for the group.

Solo vocal music – both in the new music world and the broader community – is less fashionable than it might be, but Melbourne soprano Merlyn Quaife has fearlessly premiered a range of new works by composers like Christopher Willcock; Yvonne Kenny sang the solo part in Ross Edwards’s Symphony No. 2 Mater Magna.

Sydney’s Song Company continues to fly the flag for new ensemble vocal music, and a number of the descendants of the old choral societies – Sydney Philharmonia, Melbourne Chorale and Royal Melbourne Philharmonic – have embraced the need to commission music. Sydney Chamber Choir and Melbourne’s estimable Astra Society have maintained their reputation for doing so, also.

Solo Instrumental Music

This category has a long and honourable history in this country, especially among composers like Miriam Hyde, Dulcie Holland and Esther Rofe who understood the need for new music in education. At present, those specialist soloists mentioned above have inspired numerous composers to write new solo works. The recital is perhaps an endangered species these days – Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata was commissioned, after all, by Sydney Dance Company. But instrumentalist/composers continue to produce works for a range of purposes – Sitsky, Kats-Chernin, Ann Ghandar have composed works for themselves which also do good work in the educational and amateur repertoire.


This is a very partial overview of some of the people who are composing what for whom. It is very gratifying that one can’t hope to give a full account in the space available, and cause for some optimism. So too is the fact that new music is understood to be an important aspect of national life, be it Peter Sculthorpe’s music for the 1988 bicentenary, contributions by Elena Kats-Chernin or Paul Stanhope to the opening ceremonies of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, or the sounds of Ross Edwards’ Dawn mantras heard and seen across the world on 1 January 2000 from atop the Sydney Opera House’s sails.

The dangers to contemporary ‘notated art music’ are self-evident: it requires enthusiastic and competent composers and performers, and advocates who can excite potential audiences. It’s at risk in an environment where the path of least resistance is the one trodden by straitened or unimaginative administrations. There is, fortunately, a collegiate spirit among those of us who love it, and that is a precondition for its continued existence.


Gordon Kerry. Last updated 9 February 2008.


  1. Roger Covell, Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society, Melbourne, Sun Books, 1967.↩︎
  2. Graeme Skinner, Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007↩︎
  3. Martin Buzacott, The Rite of Spring, ABC Books 2007.↩︎

Gordon Kerry, who has composed one or two things himself, has also worked as a music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, a freelance journalist with numerous other newspapers and magazines, and an arts administrator in which capacity he commissioned a number of new works. His book, New Classical Music: Composing Australia was published by UNSW Press in 2009.

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