Am I an Australian composer?

It has often struck me that describing myself as an Australian composer is not an overly enlightening statement.

Sure, I was born in Sydney (specifically, in Wahroonga, at the San, on Fox Valley Road), spent the first three and three quarter years of my life living there, and have now lived in Sydney for the 21 years since I was 21. My passport is Australian. I even have a kind of Australian accent these days.

But my formative years were spent in New Zealand, and it was there that I undertook the bulk of my musical education, and it is the sounds of New Zealand that shaped the way I hear the world.  That and my parents’ record collection, and various films and programs broadcast by Television New Zealand in the 1970s.

Maybe even more importantly, once we moved to New Zealand we lived on the campus of a boarding college which had a strong religious component to the on-campus experience: hymns, religious music from the Baroque to the then current day, choirs, organ music, guitars accompanying camp fire singalongs, spontaneous a capella singing, men’s quartets, women’s trios, solo vocalists, you name it – if it had a function in a local community church it was part of my experience.

And experiencing this kind of religious music at a boarding college in New Zealand had the added element that I was making music with gifted young musicians from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands, even sometimes from Tahiti. And that’s without taking into account the New Zealanders who were not of immigrant descent, the Maori students. It was a quite Polynesian musical upbringing, for a kid whose ancestry is fundamentally Scottish.

So.  What does it mean to describe myself as an Australian composer?

Well, geography, I suppose – I live here.  And maybe in addition I do fit into a narrative of larrikinism. And the third thing is that I have certainly made an effort to create titles for my educational piano music (and the handful of educational pieces I’ve written for other instruments) which connect the story of the music to the real lives of Australian children.  So I have pieces in my Little Peppers and Pepperbox Jazz series called: Cockatoo, Mozzie, The Lone Echidna, Bandicoot Ballet, Brolga Stroll, No Worries, Larrikin, Wombat, and Mulga Bill.

But more importantly, in my opinion, is that my tempo indications are in English, and evoke rather than dictate a performance approach: Glistening, Alarming, Laid-back, Nimble, Buzzing, Frantic, Showing Off, Feeling better than usual, and so on. Now this isn’t an effort to be democratic (a most American notion), but reflects being part of a culture in which authority figures are figures of fun, where expecting others to do as you say only sets you up for ridicule.  These are tempo descriptions, not tempo demands – I know, as an Australian, that you’ll end up doing whatever you want in any case! But should you be interested these tempo markings give you a clue as to what I reckon.

Pomposity is a capital offense in Australia.

Which leads to another element of my composing that maybe does mark me as an Australian. Brevity.  There’s not a lot of waffle or filler in my compositions.  I say what I feel needs to be said, and then move on.  Other cultures do seem to beat around the bush when addressing a point, but that’s not really culturally comprehensible in Australia (or New Zealand, for that matter). Our current prime minister speaks in bureaucratese at times, and is mocked and pilloried whenever an example of this tendency surfaces. But since he takes the mickey out himself (to a certain extent, in public anyway) he doesn’t suffer in the opinion polls.  [You can be any kind of person in Australia and be completely accepted so long as you don’t take yourself too seriously and you don’t think you deserve special treatment.] But I suspect that exactly the same kind of hyper-diplomatic or extreme-management use of language by a prime minister would not even raise an eyebrow in other countries.

Well, that’s as it may be, but am I really an ‘Australian’ composer because I live in Australia, sometimes name my pieces after Australian fauna, expect performers to do what they want with my music, and, write music that doesn’t mince measures?

Seems so.  And it also seems to me, in this age of instant everywhere, that my nationality is mostly important in terms of what this allows me to do and disallows me from doing. In theory Australian educators will be more likely to want to teach music by Australian composers, and there are, theoretically, funds available to support Australian music-making and composition – defined pretty much by one’s passport and address.

So yes, I’m an Australian composer.  Does this admission mean anything much to anyone? I’m suspecting not.

But maybe I’m being myopic, some kind of mid-summer response to the enthusiasm for flag-waving that might engulf us on Australia Day (January 26).  I’d be fascinated to know what you think – does being an Australian composer actually mean anything in 2010?

3 thoughts on “Am I an Australian composer?

  1. I think I need to immediately get a writing a response [to this blog entry] entitled “why I’m really a kiwi”……

  2. Hi Elissa, would I be correct in guessing that you spent some of your childhood at Longburn College? I also did my high school education there. Then one year at Avondale College, then a degree at Qld Con of Music majoring in Composition. It is strange the way life unfolds.



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