Composers without borders

Caitlin Rowley essays the influence of pop music on five young Australian composers, and discovers their ambivalence for an ‘Australian sound’

published in 2MBS-FM: Stereo FM Radio 102.5, January 2000.

What is happening to classical music? As the new millennium dawns and orchestras update the titles of their Twentieth Century concert series, more and more classical composers in AUstralia are showing the influence of pop music, and what’s more, showing it off. From Matthew Hindson’s Homage to Metallica to the fusion sounds of Coda, it is becoming harder to define boundaries between classical and pop.

This trend is part of a worldwide ‘new tonality’, with its roots back in the 1960s when the early ‘minimalists’ rebelled against the strictures of the prevalent serial, or twelve-tone, methods of composition. Composers such as Steve Reich and Michael Nyman drew inspiration from the popular artists of their time; Nyman formed his style (familiar from Peter Greenaway films such as Prospero’s Books and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her lover) from the radical idea of playing the ‘catalogue aria’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the style of Jerry Lewis. Jazz players such as John Coltrane as well as rock’n’roll performers influenced the return to tonality in the ’60s; today composers can look to dance music, hip hop, rap, heavy metal and grunge (among others) for inspiration.

While all this might seem like a rejection of the classical tradition, composers are actually re-embracing the past. No longer do they feel compelled to find an entirely new form of musical expression. Instead, they recognise the importance of communicating with an audience by using old materials from the established classical tradition in new ways. This can draw the criticism of ‘pandering to the audience’, but according to Melbourne composer Stuart Greenbaum, the agenda is not one of universal accessibility.

‘I do not believe that the process of writing new music requires the rejection of old music,’ says Greenbaum. ‘The modernist notion that we could totally re-invent musical language seems to me a bizarre and foreign concept. When I compose, I write the music that I want to hear. I seek an expression which reflects who I am and how I feel about the world I live in.’

The same argument, in short, as that used by the early American minimalists who questioned the validity of a style of music, founded on European post-war angst, performed in a world of Chuck Berry, hamburgers and tail-fin cars.

The crossover element in the music of composers interviewed for this story suggests that perhaps it is no longer appropriate to make a distinction between pop and classical. Some composers were strongly in favour of a change of terminology, from pop versus classical styles, to pop versus classical contexts or situations. Whatever the reference, there still seems to be an overall distinction between pop music and pop-influenced classical music, albeit with a grey area between the two.

Nick Wales is one composer who inhabits this grey area. He makes a living by writing and performing string arrangements for bands such as Pollyanna, Leonardo’s Bride and Mental as Anything. He also composes for Coda, a band which plays in such varied venues as The Basement and the Eugene Goosens Hall, and which is currently part of the Musica Viva in Schools programme. Originally formed as a (somewhat experimental) string quartet while Wales was studying composition at Sydney University, Coda has undergone some changes of personnel, most noticeably the addition of a singer, Mina Kanaridis – whose repertoire includes mediaeval and Middle Eastern songs as well as more standard classical works – and a drummer.

A classic example of how the grey area between pop and classical functions was seen this year when Wales’ song Stevie, written for Coda and performed on their album passion:pop, was nominated for an Australian Music Centre Award (Best Composition category). The version nominated was a chamber orchestra arrangement (without words) of the original.

Wales sees no distinction between composing dance tracks for nightclubs, soundscapes for art galleries or art music for the concert hall. ‘Sure, the musical languages differ,’ he says, ‘but so do the musical languages of minimalism and 12-tone music.’

Drew Crawford, also a Sydney Uni graduate, is in a similar position. His music theatre work Why are our porn stars killing themselves?, a collaborative piece created with singer Michele Morgan, was first staged at the nightclub Kinselas. Since then, songs from the show have been presented in classical concerts, and now appear in new arrangements by his band DC5 as part of Pulse, a regular event held in Darlinghurst featuring drum’n’bass and other popular music styles. The latest step in the career of this versatile work is a proposed restaging with DC5 and The Seymour Group.

The trend is not restricted to Sydney, with similar influences at work across the country. Morpheus New Music Band in Perth performs WA composer James Ledger’s pop-influenced music alongside arrangements of Led Zepplin and pop-influenced composers from overseas, such as Michael Torke. Ledger cites a number of popular influences on his music: ‘Rock, pop, techno, dance, jazz, film, cartoon music and daytime television themes have all made their mark because it is what I hear all the time, directly or indirectly.’

The ubiquity of pop music today, whether Triple J grunge or 2Day-FM Mariah Carey, in shops, lifts, lobbies, even on station platforms, means that there must be few composers left who have never been influenced by it. Pop music soaks into us everywhere we go in pubic, washing our ears with beats, melodies, harmonies and phrase patterns.

Stuart Greenbaum discovered the power of the subconscious when he found that the middle of his piece Noyz in th’ Hood was straight out of Led Zepplin’s Black Dog. ‘I never owned any Zepplin, but my older brother played it all the time and it must have sunk it; not just as brainwashing, but as what I would term “adrenelin-identification”. I had no conscious agenda to allow Led Zepplin into my notated music, it just happened.’

Naturally, though, popular music is not the only influence on these composers. All classically trained, their musical interests encompass the work of composers such as Monteverdi, Copland, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Webern, Varèse, Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, and some fringe-dwellers in the world of film scoring (itself sometimes considered a popular genre) such as Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner.

So what does all this mean for an ‘Australian sound’? Considering that three of the five composers interviewed have been students of Peter Sculthorpe (well known for his development of an Australian sound with works such as the Sun Music series and Kakadu), it was interesting to find that most of them did not think Australian-ness in their music was something to aim for, or even be overly concerned about. This is a big change from the ideas which developed with the first major flourish of Australian classical music in the 1960s, which explored the distinctive Australian landscape and drew on Asian and Aboriginal music.

‘As Peter Sculthorpe has noted recently in his memoirs, such questions about the existence of an Australian identity (or sound) in music are often asked by those who are insecure about their own cultural identity,’ says Sydney composer Paul Stanhope. ‘I think this is a fair observation. I also think that inevitably the way we do things in Australia is going to have its own flavour [whether] composers know it or not.’

Evidently, the music of this country has developed enough for composers to feel that they don’t have to define themselves through the use of Australian or Asian materials. And following the lead of Barry Conyngham, today’s young composers feel no imperative to go to Europe to further their musical training, choosing America, Japan, or anywhere else that takes their fancy.

Part of this is due to the communications boom which sees the world becoming smaller day by day with ideas flowing back and forth between countries in seconds. In past ages, it took about 100 years for a musical style to develop, spread and finally be overtaken by something new; in the 20th century alone we have seen more than half-a-dozen significant styles – from Impressionism through to new complexitism – with numerous schools of thought blossoming in between, along with radical individuals such as Erik Satie and Charles Ives who have been of significant influence to later composers.

Maybe the return to the simpler tonality of popular music, and the prominence of rhythmic pulse in music for the concert hall, is another instance of what has happened in the past, where simpler musical styles overtake the more complex.

Many thanks to composers Drew Crawford, Stuart Greenbaum, James Ledger, Paul Stanhope and Nick Wales who constented to be interviewed for this article. CR.