Elwyn Dennis

Elwyn Dennis Elwyn Dennis, a composer inspired by the Australian environment, was born during a mid-summer heatwave in southern California in 1941; a time, he considers, when the clear blue skies over that state were not just legendary. Today, he lives at `Clouds' - a private sanctuary in bushland of the Black Range outside the Victorian country town of Stawell - with his partner, the artist Anne Davis.

Together they tend the koalas, wallabies, bandicoots, pygmy possums, rare marsupials and native orchids under their care, sometimes venturing into part- time work "to ward off bankruptcy". In the congenial setting of weathered granite tors and bushland slowly returning to its pristine state, Dennis is engaged in a string of projects involving painting, drawing, writing, sculpture and architectural design; and with his music.

A multi-talented non-specialist and the antithesis of an academic composer, Dennis began writing music in 1981, when he was 40, out of a feeling of inner necessity, and is almost entirely self-taught.

Music was not part of his formal education, which he completed at three Californian Universities, each of which, it impressed him, "propagated a different version of reality" and embedded separate value structures.

The first, at which he majored in science subjects from 1961 to 1962, was the University of Redlands - a small, genteel, liberal arts school with good academic standing, an excellent organ and compulsory chapel - endowed by the Baptist Church.

Dennis was finally unwilling to embrace the religious aspect of the curriculum, and transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he also completed a transition from science to arts subjects. In contrast to Redlands, he found this new campus a vast and effective instrument for shaping minds: high-powered, energetic and self-confident.

His education was interrupted by a serious automobile accident, a time in hospital, then by financial problems. The latter were solved when he was offered a position managing a small academic gallery within the University of California at Long Beach, which he attended in 1964, completing a degree in English Literature. At this relaxed and hedonistic campus by the sea, in the town that sponsored the Miss Universe contest, he also studied a number of ancillary subjects including criminology.

The three universities were of equal importance in his life, and he found excellent teachers at each. Redlands sponsored regular series of concerts and had a resident string quartet. Beneath its religious veneer, there was an integrated notion of education and a humanistic focus. Berkeley - success-oriented and fiercely competitive - instilled an appreciation for intellectual rigor; while Long Beach encouraged individual effort and exploration.

Dennis' interest shifted from the sciences to the arts following a gradual re- appraisal of the importance of science in human life. While the sciences were always logical, they did not seem to be adequate to a wider sense of human aspiration; whereas he saw the arts as holding a profound potential to change human consciousness and enable communication.

The narrow and highly specific nature of the attention science focused on the world seemed to him its greatest strength and weakness. Because it leaves out so much, Dennis defines the scientific method as `rational' only in a very restricted sense . However, he is still very interested in the sciences, as can be inferred from his affinity for electronic music. His chosen instrument is the synthesizer.

At Berkeley, Dennis befriended an Australian who stimulated his interest in Australia. He had long wished to travel and, in 1965, at the age of 24, emigrated to Australia - and to bluer skies beyond the haze of Los Angeles.

Australia appealed because it was English-speaking, close to South East Asia (where Dennis subsequently travelled); it was nine tenths the size of continental United States, but with a total population less than that of Los Angeles County; and Australia welcomed new settlers from around the world.

This was all he knew about his new home when he touched down at Melbourne in 1965. But it wasn't long before he began to discover Australia and to claim the country as his own.

He found he was conferred with a high degree of personal freedom, which seemed to border on an agreeably mild form of anarchy; yet within a society that did not allow those without advantage to starve.

On car trips to country Victoria and while exploring greater Melbourne, he was excited by the landscape, and by the transparent quality of the air and light. He discovered fern gullies in temperate rainforest, eroded granite boulders and extraordinary animals such as the platypus, all bearing witness to the long and separate evolution of an isolated and ancient continent. The bush seemed to exemplify a unique perfection and completeness, and Dennis became sensitive to its subtleties of color and form, to its great age and indifference to human striving: all of which eventually found expression in his music.

At that time he was sometimes irritated by what he perceived as a slavish following by Australians after overseas cultural trends; the manufacturing of a derivative culture based on the worst of what he had left behind. Yet, alongside what he saw as a yearning to be anything other than Australian - and preferably somewhere else - was an aggressive parochialism. On the one hand, the dominant mythos insisted that all value was born overseas; on the other, that Australia and Australians were superior in every conceivable way! At that time, he believes, his adopted country was suffering the traumas of its cultural adolescence.

As a sculptor, Dennis works in wood, stone, glass and bronze. His paintings are mainly portraits, and he has exhibited at the Gryphon Gallery at the Melbourne State College of the Arts; and he designed all the buildings at his property outside Stawell. As an artist and architect Dennis is fastidious, but not prolific. His creative activities - all undertaken on a relatively small scale - underscore his life-long concern to avoid narrow specialisation while, at the same time, give full commitment to any project he undertakes.

Like many artists, Dennis has found it impossible to rely solely on his creative output for a living, and has worked as a lifeguard, signwriter and teacher. He was a curator of sculpture and Asian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, where he worked for almost four years; originating the gallery's ethnic art collection and acting as the first curator of ethnic art. This experience deepened his appreciation for non-Western cultural traditions; and he has a particularly vivid and humbling memory of handling and packing each of the objects in the collection when the gallery shifted from the library in Swanston Street to its present location.

In 1981 Dennis turned 40, and felt he had achieved maturity both as a person and a visual artist. However, he also felt there was something missing in his life - a vacuum that could only be filled by the music he had begun to imagine while walking in the Black Range.

At the time, he wrote this poem:

Seeking the mountains,
I thought I had matured
Until I heard a stone breathe

Convinced he should learn to play the synthesizer, he asked the composer Les Gilbert for advice; and was referred to another composer, Warren Burt, who offered helpful technical suggestions. In 1982, Dennis bought a Serge synthesizer, which does not have a keyboard and is programmed rather than played. He took the instrument home and for the next six months it dominated his life. Eventually, he mastered its peculiarities and composed his first piece.

Although Dennis's late emergence as a composer is unusual, he has no desire to mystify the creative process, as he considers the sources of creativity are much more inclusive and ordinary than people generally allow.

For example, as a child, there was little interest in music in the family home. His parents were Puritans - a faith Dennis still respects but no longer shares - and their religion expressly precluded instrumental music during worship. It would be easy to conclude his home life made no contribution to his musical development. However, his parents always encouraged him to exercise his curiosity, to solve his own problems, to remain undaunted by the unknown and not readily accept limitations to his own capabilities.

His memories of music during childhood are isolated and sparse: his father singing, an uncle strumming the mandolin. But at the age of 16 he was taken by friends to hear a sophisticated, state-of-the-art sound system. The demonstration included playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor . He listened intensely; his ears were opened and he was won over; the prejudice he had inherited from his peers against `serious' or (in those far-gone days before The Beatles ) `long-haired' music, dissolved that night. He discovered a depth of insight and humor in serious music hitherto unsuspected; it could stimulate his mind as well as assault his senses, and seemed to hold a greater capacity than he had previously imagined.

After this incident, which marked a significant turning point, he became a passionate listener. And, in the years that followed, his musical interests ranged over a wide terrain. At first, it was the standard repertoire within the Western `classical' tradition; then the music of Asia and Africa, and of the American Indians; next the sacred music of various religions. He also listened to jazz, honky- tonk, country and western and the music of bars and nightclubs. Dennis became convinced that music was able to convey a huge diversity of human experience, to "contain multiple realities".

He became interested in the connections between various musical strands and traditions; for example, the influence of Moorish on Western Medieval music during the crusades; or the links between Chinese and Indian music. Everywhere, in the evolution of instruments, as well as in the music itself, there were correspondences which questioned the notion of any dominant or pristine tradition. This seemed to confirm his openness to the music of all times and peoples, which he saw as part of a greater historical trajectory.

Because Dennis discovered music through recordings, he has a high regard for reproduced sound, and technical advances in this field - from the scratchy radio reception when he was a boy, to the modern development of digital recording and synthesizers - have held a life-long fascination. Through advances in technology, he believes, the world is now able to draw on multiple sources of myth and inspiration.

On a more personal level, Dennis' wide listening became "a freeing exercise". Prejudices fell away; and he felt able to share and inhabit to some degree, the consciousness that had produced each piece, irrespective of its tradition. Each musical tradition, he found, was complete, satisfying and real; while the future possibilities for music they collectively suggested seemed endless.

But the richest and most immediate source of ideas for Dennis is the bush. There, each sound is produced by an event in the real world, conferring it with a unique resonance in space and time. Living in the bush, Dennis has tuned his ear and mind to its subtle aural textures.

Often his music reproduces a sense of distance, of a remote sound travelling across space to the listener.

At his home, on full-moon nights, for example, wagtails sometimes sing until dawn, and he is able to hear them five kilometers away, from points distributed spatially within a giant circle. Or he might hear rain coming from afar, borne on wind sweeping through the trees. Sounds in an open environment tend to approach and recede, and each has a specific site of origin. Dennis strives for a similar spatial dimension in his music.

There are other, perhaps more subtle, suggestions from the environment he would like to incorporate musically. For example, the sense of an infinite series of natural cycles shaping the landscape, which have left the stamp of time on every plant, animal and stone; a unique depth of shaping.

For example, during a recent drought on his property, he noticed how some species of plants died while others prospered. This underlined what he perceives as a depth of layering in the Australian environment; of solutions to each new catastrophe. These solutions, he believes, are incorporated and lie dormant in the bush ecosystem - which has weathered so much over the course of time - its fragility allowing change in the face of stress, and its durability allowing adaptations and new resolutions to be preserved.

Dennis considers it a mistake to perceive the Australian landscape through eyes conditioned to those of Europe, because it leads to its eventual damage, and prevents us from seeing what is there.

Many of Dennis' artistic directions, and his concern for nature, were demonstrated in the piece Bright Light , recorded at the Sound Research Studio of the Victorian College of the Arts, in 1986. (The instrumentalists were Catherine Schieve , flute; Robert Paredes, clarinet; Elwyn Dennis, analog synthesizer; Michael Letho, engineer.)

The title refers to the spectra of energy in which the Earth is bathed, including sunlight which sustains life and allows human vision and consciousness. Because sound is also a perceivable form of energy, the composer thought it reasonable for it to stand for the larger pool from which it arises.

In the piece, the similar resonant qualities of the flute and clarinet were reinforced and their relationship extended. The synthesizer was programmed to fill the harmonic gap between the acoustic instruments and extend the harmonic range on both sides of them.

A sequential structure was devised to mirror the multiple ways in which energy is transformed within natural systems. Resonance and harmonics were structured to interact, and sound sources articulated so all sounds mixed in the air.

Because Dennis does not write music, he produced a written score using finger charts by first isolating the parts for the other instruments on the synthesizer. The musicians learned their parts, the piece was recorded and subsequently polished in the studio. The entire process took six months.

Dennis's intention within music can best be grasped intuitively. He would like to provide a space into which human consciousness can flow, uncovering a new and beautiful dimension within reality; to address life as fully as possible and celebrate the vitality of our experience of space and time.

He believes the function of art is to establish a human position towards the universe; that only a rationality beyond the logical has the power to move us.

Another piece, which demonstrates a strong poetic direction, is the song Clouds Are , also recorded at the Victorian College of the Arts Sound Research Studio, in 1983. It was first performed by Jeannie Marsh, mezzo- soprano; Ann Murphy, harpsichord; Michael Sargent, flute; Michael Letho, engineer. The lyrics are by Dennis:

Clouds are...
Clouds are...
Clouds are.
Clouds are
instruments of infinite precision.
Clouds are.
Clouds are
ripples in the rivers of the sky.
Clouds are.
Clouds are
mountains of the moonlit night,
Dream screens,
Envelopes of imagination.
Clouds are
bubbles on the brow of time.
Clouds are...
Clouds are innocent.
Clouds are...

This piece begins with an instrumental cycle, which contains all the subsequent musical phrases which are requoted as the lines of the poem. The voice is treated like another instrument, without particular emphasis, no two instruments sound simultaneously, and notes are interspersed. There is a transition between fast and slow parts and an extended rhythmic sequence.

Dennis' tendency to subsume each element of his music to an overall, organic order follows directly from his ideas about art. He believes that beyond value judgements, prejudices and status-seeking - and the ideological, economic and cultural definitions that cluster around `art' - beneath these, more primal and profound motivations are at play; also, that the impulse to produce art is universal, and so innate as to resemble an appetite; one, moreover, which must be satisfied if the health of the species is to be maintained. In the Western tradition, he considers the deepest purpose of art is to provide a human definition and perception of reality which compliments that provided by the natural environment. In his view, the most meaningful art, while individually generated, is universally directed; and art not grounded in a wider vision too easily lapses into self- indulgence, or is concerned with the mere illustration of styles or artistic credos; resulting in empty formalism, passing fads, art used as propaganda and general impoverishment.

Dennis sees aesthetic concepts, such as beauty and unity, as a sort of filter, through which we channel and color our perceptions. He believes that if one attends to the whole system that sustains us - that is, to what people call `nature' or `the cosmos' - then the inherent beauty and unity of existence becomes apparent, without having to be emphasised.

Dennis was given an opportunity to give his ideas a collective expression when the contemporary dance company, Danceworks , invited composers to produce a dance as well as a piece of music. In his case, the collaboration resulted in the performance of Energy Dance , a piece specifically for video, in 1986.

The dancers wore colors of the Australian landscape: Rebecca Hilton, grey; Jan Ferguson, light blue; Sue Healey, pink; Brian Smith, yellow; Karen Ermacora, dark blue. The video camera was operated by Peter Sperlich.

The piece was designed to be viewed on video, not on stage, and therefore composed within the square frame. There are no shots of the full body. Instead, overlapping details of each dancer are shown in a constant flux. The action has no centre, and each element gains its emphasis as part of the overall pattern. At one point, three female bodies revolve slowly on the floor. There are views of contrasting contours and overlapping edges, of bodies in silhouette; a flow of form and color which sometimes approaches abstraction.

Dennis found it a challenge to work with the immediate fluidity of dancers, even though he began with a strong idea of the relationship of dance to music; and he found their eventual lamination very exciting, as it drew together many of his interests: visual composition, music, sculptural form and the architecture of movement. He hopes that many more such adventures become possible; and that greater interchange is allowed and support given to projects that similarly look to the future rather than back to the past.

Finally, Dennis believes the rationale behind his music is to be found in the work itself. Because its meanings are expressed in aural terms, they are largely pre- or non-verbal. Words, he feels, are often shadows, but the music remains primary. Otherwise, he believes, there would be no need to do the work; one could be content talking about it.


"Particle Flow", (with Sarah Hopkins), Soundworks 1 , Resource Recordings, Darwin, RR-SW1, 1985.

"Wimmera" and "Bright Light", hear NOW , National Programming Service - Public Broadcasting Association of Australia, Sydney, 1986.

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