Downside of Matilda’s Waltzing

The estimable Warren Burt (whom I believe I have run into in more different parts of the world than any other composer), American born but long resident in Australia, writes in to clarify, correct, and complete the picture of the Australian scene I alluded to in writing about Canada. He agrees that Australia treats its composers better than the U.S., but not as well as Canada. In particular, he says, 

your implication that there are orchestral commissions aplenty down here is mistaken. The orchestral scene here is a closed shop, and only members of a certain class get access to it. In my 33 years in Australia, I’ve had access to an orchestra once – and that was when I was a composer in residence with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1987, and I got access to the Adelaide Symphony for 1 day for a recording session. (It’s true I’d never have gotten even that in the US, which is why I say the situation here is better than in the US.)  But I’ve never had a commission for an orchestral work here, despite repeated attempts at getting one. My best rejection was when I got a rejection letter that said “please do not send us work of this calibre again.” Felix Werder, currently 85, and still composing (plug: check out the current CD of his electronic music from the 1970s on Pogus) got the same rejection letter for his 7th Symphony, which had just been played in Russia. (The bureaucrat who wrote those letters was later fired, but Felix still hasn’t had an orchestral performance since the mid-90s, when his 1st Symphony (written in an Australian migrant concentration camp in 1942) was premiered.)

The best difference between the Australian and US new music scenes is that Australia has Medicare (socialized medicine) and unemployment benefits without time limit. Those two things make life easier, and less stressful here. That’s why flourishing new music scenes can exist in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, and Adelaide, and Perth.

The main thing to say is that except in Melbourne (where groups such as the Astra Choir, Speak Percussion, and the Melbourne Composers’ League buck the trend), in Australian new music, there is in general a wall of apartheid between music written with notes on paper, and everything else. And composers who work with “everything else” very rarely get a look in, or a chance, to deal with acoustic musicians playing professionally. So we have two (mostly) very distinct scenes here – a scene much like the US, where we make our own instruments, ensembles, improvisers collectives, installations, etc; and a scene of people writing fully notated scores for instruments, which are played by professionals (usually on a charity or pro-bono basis.)  There is limited financial support for this stuff (but proportionately more than in the US), and commissions go to both groups (“everybody else”, and “notated for professionals”), and in recent years, when there has been much less funding around, and more competition for it, the funding has been pretty evenly distributed between “everything else” and “notated for professionals.”  The funding is not enough (it never is), but it does enable a certain level of activity to keep going.

Nice to have it on such good authority. Nevertheless, when I performed in Brisbane in 2002, I commiserated with Aussie composer Rob Davidson on the problems faced by Downtown music. “Do you know,” he lamented, “that in Brisbane there are only five groups that play this kind of music?” “Rob,” I looked at him incredulously – “that’s how many we have in the entire U.S. of A.” “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

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