The documentation of Australian music has been and is relatively poor when
measured against other artforms such as the visual arts or literature. The
documentation that does exist is mostly of an ephemeral or transitory nature,
and the discussion of musical issues is by and large not a mainstream activity.
There is a view that music must speak for itself and needs
no additional explanation. Yet for a community of composers and musicians
involved in experimental activity, as well as for the audiences of this work,
the opportunity for discourse can be a motivating force.
It is against this background that NMA magazine was first published in 1982
with the aim of promoting new music by featuring articles written by musicians
and composers about their own work. A cassette with music by the authors was
released with each issue, in this way creating a relationship between the
musical work and a written elaboration of it. A vehicle had thus been
established to formalise the connection between theory and practice. Given the
limited publishing resources available at the time, the magazine / tape
combination still holds as a reasonable documentation of over a decade of new
and experimental music, principally between the years 1982-92. Looking back
period of ten years, what is immediately apparent is the enormous variety of
musical approaches that can be found.
Bringing together a musical work and an elaboration of it in text form raises
the question of the composer, and correspondingly the aims, intentions and
approaches to a work. It was essential that composers themselves contributed to
the discussion of their work rather than leave it solely to the critics, and
fittingly the first issue of NMA magazine contained a number of perspectives on
the composer. In hindsight, it is possible to refer to a process of
redefinition of what it means to be a composer, an ongoing discussion that
accounts in large part for the remarkable diversity of Australian music. An
outcome of this discussion is that one needs to be careful who one calls a
composer (or not) in Australia. In his 1982 article "How to be a Great
Composer" Warren Burt wrote "This blind, unquestioning faith that to write for
orchestra, opera, string quartet etc is the noble, laudable, desirable and
god-ordained way to extend the history of music strikes me as pathetically
naïve." And from an interview with Jon Rose: "Q. I've often heard people call
you a composer. What do you say about that? Jon Rose: I've had worse insults."
Published elsewhere in the first issue were two short piano pieces, having been
improvised freely by a non-pianist, transcribed and notated in score form,
played from the score by an experienced pianist and recorded for the
accompanying tape. Here there is also an implicit questioning of the role of
the composer and the mechanics of musical production. The ongoing nature of
this discussion is reflected in more recently published comments, by even well
established composers such as Keith Humble (1989) "What is really involved?
What is involved is self-aggrandisement: 'look, I'm a composer'. It doesn't
sound so bad in French, but which I am embarrassed about in English. Composer –
a 'poser' – that's the point, pretending to be a creator!" These – and similar
– views of the role and function of the composer pervade much experimental
musical production over the last three decades.
The continuation of the publishing project resulted in a number of artwork
'pages' being commissioned, for unmediated inclusion in the magazine. In this
way a direct connection between music and the printing process is established.
Among these pages was a portrait by Ernie Althoff of his music machines, (see
illustration) constructed from domestic appliances and found objects, machines
which have been described elsewhere as 'sentient' percussion instruments. The
unusual presentation of this artwork material highlighted once again the
primacy of the creator as the source of information about the work.
The use of 'low tech' solutions to musical problems became for a time a marked
feature of the musical environment, particularly in Melbourne where a great
many performances involved the use of handheld cassette recorders and other
domestic technology. Implicit was the idea that 'anyone can do it'; that the
creation of music did not require a formal musical education and to some extent
was also independent of historical practice. Given that Australian (Western)
society is a relatively young one, it should not be surprising to find
ambivalence toward older – which is to say European – cultures. Rather, the
impetus for musical creation has been found elsewhere.
Chris Mann has contended that because of the unique features of the Australian
environment the sound, like the light, is different. It therefore stands to
reason that Australian music should have its own sound. In his "Rationales"
published in 1986 he writes: "An Australian is someone who when asked 'Can you
play the piano?' says "Dunno I never tried'. In the 19th Century Australia
imported 700,000 pianos."
Here is an acknowledgement that nothing is necessarily a foregone conclusion:
that what is most relevant is the attempt to achieve a result. This notion of
attempt - of 'having a go' – reaches in one important respect to the roots of
Australian culture and its recognition of democratic fair play. The application
of low technology solutions to musical problems can thus be seen in a local
cultural context, and applies as much to improvisational practice as to formal
composition. In light of the above, we can discern an uneasy relationship
emerging between composition and improvisation, with an emphasis on the 'doing'
or 'attempting' of a work a number of fundamental contradictions appear.
The question of a cultural context is a vexing one and it would be fair to say
that for each composer or musician actively concerned with it, there is at
least one who dismisses it out of hand. Nevertheless the question of music and
society is worth consideration. Accordingly a number of issues of NMA
magazine were devoted to this relationship. In particular
the emergence of a popular culture, concerned largely with critical practice,
provided fertile ground for hybrid forms of work. Richard Vella's "Lookin for
the Beat" (1984) opens with the lines: "The piano is a metaphor for a
productive process that can subvert… the exploitation of desires… and
patriarchy. No! …that can subvert patriarchy… and the exploitation of desires.
Enter the piano!"
This attempt to redefine one of the ubiquitous icons of 'art' music can be seen
as an attempt to shift the nature of musical debate away from historical
imperatives and ground it firmly in a more modern – and some would say relevant
– context. Reception of these ideas by a bewildered mainstream press also
provided a focus for debate. The complaints of critics who claimed they could
not understand the work became something of a cliché, to be enjoyed as a comedy
were it not for the serious implications of their denunciations. Consequently
Stan Anson, in his article "Old whines in new Battles, or 20th Century Music
and 18th Century Reviewers" (1989) referred to the 'deaf' critic – whose
critical apparatus consists of "a range of empty critical adjectives whose
significance is not technical but normative, which refer not to properties of
the music, but to properties of the critic's subjectivity… The critic claims
the right to say what is not real music, real theatre, a real composer, but
feels no responsibility to identify what... it is that makes real music real."
That the ground for musical debate had shifted could be seen in the fact that
at least one prominent music critic has refused to review performances of
modern music since around this time. We see in this a tacit acknowledgement of
the legitimacy of emerging ideas.
Most of the initiatives referred to above took place outside of any
institutional context. By and large the music schools and universities at this
time did not acknowledge current work in the field, and still placed a strong
emphasis on traditional technique and international models of composition.
Nevertheless a movement away from the institutions could be discerned, with a
number of prominent, active composers claiming no formal music training
whatsoever. Where the institutions came into their own was in the supply of
resources, most notably the establishment of electronic and computer music
facilities. There is a large and active group of composers concerned with
computer music, but it seems that the link to institutional bases and the
correspondingly closed nature of the debate serves to limit any broader public
discussion of this work. There is also a large body of work created on personal
computer workstations, realised and performed outside of an institutional
context, and once again scantily documented.
The establishment of a cultural debate, as alluded to above, is difficult
without reference to contemporary documentation of events. Part of the NMA
project was to make available for the first time this type of historical
background, and so to provide a revised context for current musical practice.
Consequently in 1989 an overview of experimental music activity in Australia,
from the early part of the century to the present day, was published. This
overview began with Percy Grainger whose "free music", conceived in the latter
part of the 19th Century, remains a seminal influence on a number of Australian
composers. Other initiatives, such as the AZ music group in Sydney, the
Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide or the Clifton Hill Community Music
Centre in Melbourne, serve as a historical reference point for a range of
experimental music activity.
If there was anything radical about the NMA magazine project, it was an
inclusive approach that brought together composers, musicians, sound artists
and poets from the most diverse backgrounds. To maintain this diversity a
number of guest editors were drawn into the project, who over the years
included myself, Richard Vella, Graeme Gerrard, Aline Scott-Maxwell, Alistair
Riddell, Fran Dyson and Ross Bolleter. The open approach runs counter to that
of many magazine publications before or since, which can be overly pre- or
proscriptive. NMA was for some years the only magazine of its type in Australia
and remains one of the few primary sources on experimental music in the
country. Additional background on the project can be found on the web at