Journey Within

Listening to history: some proposals for reclaiming the practice of music.
The 2007 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address
Jon Rose

Ntaria Ladies Choir
Ntaria Ladies Choir                                                Andrew Schultz©2008

A composer, critic and organizer, Peggy Glanville-Hicks was a major figure in 20th Century Australian music. The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Trust underwrites various programs, the most ambitious of which provides fellowships and residencies in her Sydney home to Australian composers. Established in 1999 and administered by the Australian New Music Network, the annual Address is given by an advocate of Australian music with the expressed purpose of challenging the status quo and raising important issues shaping contemporary music. “Listening to history: some proposals for reclaiming the practice of music” was delivered on 3 December 2007 at The Mint in Sydney.


Last year at a Sydney university, a musicologist observed, “Everybody knows that music in Australia didn't really get going until the mid-1960s.” Significantly, this gem was spoken at a seminar that featured a film about the Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg, Central Australia. The denial of a vibrant and significant musical history in white as well as indigenous culture has done this country a great disservice.

It may well be the prime reason why none of the twentieth century's great musical forms ever originated in Australia. Bebop, western swing, cajun, tango, and samba (to name but a few) originated in lands also saddled with a colonial history. A tiny country like Jamaica has given birth to no less than calypso, ska, and reggae.

To many, living in our current cut and paste paradise, this probably seems irrelevant and an irritation – why bother with the detailed sonic interconnectivity of the past when you can avoid both past and present by logging into say “second life”? I didn’t add ‘future’ to the list of avoidance, because you can guarantee that the future will be mostly a rehash of the past. It’s what we already have in Australia - everything from faithful copies of European Baroque to yet more hip hop, to concerts where almost any plink or plonk from the 20th century is attributed to John Cage.

Unless we investigate and value our own extraordinary musical culture, the dreaded cultural cringe will continue to define what constitutes the practice of music on this continent.

If you think that the cringe is a fast vanishing behavioural trait, then you haven’t been observing the promotion from our national institutions or listening to ABC radio over recent years. But this lecture is not about my long list of favourite cringe moments. I’m sure you have your own. My intention is otherwise. I want to describe a story of music, sometimes positive, often wayward, always interesting, which could point to a productive future.

So first to History. It didn’t start off so badly. As Inga Clendinnen recalls in her book Dancing with Strangers, the first hand account of Lieutenant William Bradley’s initial contact with Aboriginal people states that “the people mixed with ours and all hands danced together.” Other dance events followed, musical gestures of friendship also took place. “The British started to sing. The Aboriginal women in their bark canoes either sung one of their songs, or imitated the sailors, in which they succeeded beyond expectation.” Some tunes whistled or sung by the British became favourite items with the expanding indigenous repertoire of borrowed songs. Right there at the start, we have a cultural give and take from both sides.

In the late 18th Century dancing and music – and you couldn’t really have one without the other – offered significant levels of communication between indigenous people and the invaders. Dancing was necessary before any exchange of gifts or getting down to the business of how do we steal your land without you getting violent. Aboriginal mimicry (and general piss-taking) of the soldiers parading, bowing, and bellowing at each other, was a method of comprehension, a way of accepting strange behaviour. Dance and music were the live commentary, the literal embodiment of the story. Records recall that Aboriginal peoples were, up to the destruction of their traditional way of life, the masters of tactile learning and the oral transmission of all cultural knowledge.

This early window of cultural opportunity vanished of course when Australia stopped being perceived as a jail and became instead a place of plunder. But this didn’t mean that music as a prime tool of communication became redundant. On the contrary, just about all aspects of colonial life are embedded in the musical record if you care to look. It’s not easy as, until very recently, few historians ever took the place seriously. From the indigenous point of view, there may be images of whitefella’s boats in rock art, but we’ll never know what songs were dreamed about the invaders – after initially trying to ignore the crazed strangers, you may be sure that such a catastrophe quickly became part of the oral record – read Allan Marett’s Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts – The Wangga of North Australia if you doubt me – contemporary events are still subject matter for the comparatively few traditional song dreamers that are left.

Translations of Central Australian Aboriginal songs were belatedly undertaken by Ted Strehlow in the 1930s, but he had his own Lutheran agenda and concentrated on ceremonial songs, not personal everyday songs – he also wasn’t interested in how they actually sounded, the sonic structures, the grain of the music. Strehlow sadly let both himself and the Arerrnte down, not only modifying the sacred texts for his own confused religious ends, but flogging photos of secret objects to the flashy and trashy Stern magazine in Germany.

There is a unique recording made in 1899 of Tasmanian Aboriginal Fanny Cochrane singing into an Edison phonograph machine. The photo is stunning too. But that is all there is until Elkin’s first recording in 1949 – as far as I can ascertain. Audio recordings thereafter document almost exclusively the music practice in Arnhem Land.

Along with hundreds of languages, we have rubbed out thousands if not tens of thousands of ancient ceremonial and everyday practical songs without a trace.

That recording of Fanny Cochrane is arguably one of the most important 19th century musical artifacts from anywhere in the world – certainly more important than the recording of Brahms playing his piano in the same year – with Johannes we still have the notation, without Fanny’s voice there would be nothing. And maybe that’s what we have wanted, ‘nothing’ to connect us to the horrors of Tasmanian history.

“An impossible past superimposed on an unlikely present suggesting an improbable future”. Here Wayne Grady, in his book The Bone Museum, is describing the nature of the palaeontologic record but he could be describing the culture of the modern Australian state. I find it a useful key. Let’s unlock some other musical history that has been documented.

We know that the first piano arrived onboard the Sirius with the first fleet. It was owned by the surgeon George Wogan. What happened to it is not known but we do know that the import of pianos by the beginning of the 20th century had grown from a nervous trickle to a barely controllable flood. The famous statement by Oscar Commentent that Australians had already imported 700,000 pianos by 1888 may be unsubstantiated, but the notion of one piano for every three or four Australians by the beginning of the 20th century could well be close to the mark. The port of Melbourne processed the importation of 3,173 upright pianos and 1,247 organs that year alone. In just the four years from 1909 through 1912, 64,708 pianos had been imported into Australia. (Figures are from the Musical opinion and musical trade review of November 1914. I’m grateful to Alison Rabinovici for these statistics.)

And with regard to piano making within Australia, Beale and Company of Sydney may have started out producing sewing machines, but between 1879 (when they started) and 1920, they had already cranked out 60,000 pianos.

Which ever way you estimate, there were hundreds of thousands of “Joannas” in Australia by the time of the 1930s Great Depression.

These pianos didn’t just stay in the capital cities. Dragged by bullock dray, lumped on the back of camels, these instruments ended up all over the country. 

Let’s look at a few 19th Century sources to ascertain how and what they played on all these pianos. A Melbourne concert program from 1841 notes that “Mr. Issac Nathan will preside at the pianoforte and will in the course of the evening give extemporaneous performances on that instrument.”

John Caws, a Goldfield pianist in 1860s Victoria: “For my own part, as a keyboard player, I had to learn quickly how to fake introductions, endings, modulations; spontaneously interpolate or leave out a section of music; transpose on sight or by ear; spontaneously ‘fill-out’ or otherwise modify a given arrangement…embellishing or otherwise varying each repetition of my solo.”

This empirical methodology would sound familiar to any professional musician who worked in the social and RSL clubs of Australia 100 years later. We’ll return to the practical side of the piano later in this talk.

A read through John Whiteoak’s groundbreaking book Playing Ad Lib (from which the prior two quotes were taken) presents a strong oral tradition; and through observations of colonial Vaudeville, the music hall, the silent cinema, circus, and theatrical events, he exposes a lexicon of unorthodox music making more akin to the 1960s avant-garde and beyond, than repressed Victorian society. If you like – the colonial 19th century was a period of fecund instrumental technique, music making without the instruction manual.

Here is a description of a concert in 1918 by Belle Sylvia and the first Australian Jazz band complete with Stroh (that’s a Violin with a horn attachment for mechanical amplification). It’s already in the Australian tradition of mimicry, send up, and pastiche. “The performance included farmyard and jungle effects, the playing of two cornets at the same time, thunder, pistol shots, frenetic drumming with kitchen utensils and grotesque vocals.” Sounds more exciting than what you get at The Basement these days eh...

Also from Whiteoak’s book: “Descriptive pieces often combined familiar musical segments, innovative textures and individual sound effects to represent a particular event in sound. Some notable examples were performed in the early 1860s by the violin/cello duo Poussard and Douay. The duo interpolated variations (sometimes improvisations) on popular tunes and an array of unorthodox instrumental techniques to create complex and lengthy musical ‘descriptions’ of events such as The Burke and Wills expedition”

So the evidence indicates that colonial music often pointed to the many characteristics of indigenous music practice, and through mimicry Aboriginal peoples rendered and made a place for the invaders music in their own repertoires; It was a Gebrauchsmusik – a Functional music embedded with common narrative and common frames of reference, a shared sense of purpose. Music that was practical, local - in which mimicry and improvisation were the prime vehicles of expression. Unfortunately from the gold rush onwards, the common purpose of the colonizers became clear. Even the most enlightened were engaged in the wholesale destruction of Aboriginal culture, a political economic agenda formulated by the powerful and still entering the law books via the mining industry to this day.

Even where Christianity worked a more moralistic trail of destruction compared to the pastoralists, the practice of music was both the medium of conquest and the medium of survival. Whatever your view of history, when the Hermansberg Aboriginal Women’s Choir sing the Chorales of JS Bach in their own Arrernte language, with their own articulation, gliding portamento and timbre, it is an extraordinary and unique music that is being made. Started by Lutheran Pastors Kemp and Schwartz in 1887, the choir’s music is full of colonial cultural contradiction, but that music has also nurtured the indigenous population through times of persecution and extreme physical hardship. The choir has gone from a 40 plus membership in its heyday of the 1930s to the current situation where it is difficult to muster eight singers – on our way to record the choir two years ago, two of the choir’s ladies had died in that week. This music could vanish in five years.

Part of government policy to liquidate Aboriginal culture was the placement of mixed-blood children in institutions. In 1935 Aboriginal children with leprosy were “rounded up” (to quote the local newspaper) and placed in the Derby Leprosarium in Western Australia. An unexpected outcome of this brutal herding was the founding of The Bungarun Orchestra. To keep their fingers exercised, up to 50 patients performed Handel, Beethoven, and Wagner by ear, copying one of the sisters at the piano. And, according to their own testimony, the music helped the inmates escape the loss of their families and traditional cultural life, and also the painful injections of chaulmoogra oil into their bodies. Documentation of the orchestra shows dozens of violinists, the odd guitar, a didgeridoo, and some 4 banjo players. I’m not a fan of Wagner but I would pay big bickies to hear a recording of Wagner with banjos. Unfortunately the only audio documentation seems to be the singing of an Anglo hymn; nothing from the classical canon.

In spite of the Nuns who ran the Leprosarium doing their very best, by 1960, 350 Aborigines had died painful deaths there from Hanson’s disease. It’s a shocking frontier story but my point is that the practice of music fulfilled a vital if contradictory role – it was part patronizing Western hegemony, and part a genuine release, expression and consolation for those suffering. (The treatment under this regime was harsh. They had a jail at this Leprosarium – a fuckin’ jail in a hospital?!)

The inquisitive and insightful Bishop Salvado, who founded the New Norcia Benedictine Abbey and mission in Western Australia in 1846, wrote that “Australian aboriginal music is beautiful and sprightly, like the Phoenician, whilst at times it is solemn and serious, like the Dorian. A native song of warfare, which would scarcely sound to us as such, is liable to drive the natives frenetic and to provoke them to fight. On the contrary, they get so touched by their mournful songs as to be moved to tears.”

Salvado also understood that “Australian natives associate, almost invariably, singing with dancing. In fact, they seldom put on any singing without finishing up in dancing, especially when a large number of them come together.”

The commitment to music from Salvado and, a 100 years later, Dom Moreno – both skilled pianists and composers – is one of the most compelling stories of inter-racial music making in the history of Australia. Despite the vicious, racist policies of the Perth Government, the Spanish sought to ameliorate the sufferings of the Nyungara through constant music making – and a good Mediterranean diet. At the beginning there was a 20 piece string orchestra, which by 1885 had morphed into a 25 piece brass band. The Library at New Norcia has many documents that attest to the oral skills of the Nyungara children. Within 9 months they had mastered all the instruments of the brass band and a substantial body of the repertoire. Father J. Flood recalls that on one occasion he gave one of the Aboriginal kids a flute for amusement on a 40 mile journey by horse and trap; by the end of the journey his student had “mastered all the difficulties of the instrument and could play some tunes really well; and yet he had never seen a flute before.” Of course to an indigenous people whose oral skills were a matter of life and death, such a feat would have been seen as commonplace.

Naturally enough, everybody sang at New Norcia as well – including daily Gregorian chant. Think about it, Gregorian chant and Aboriginal song – both coming from ancient ontological forms. Can you imagine if this practice had continued leading to a unique articulation, bending and transformation of the rigid western melodic contour? Australia could have its very own hybrid tradition of monophonic song by now. Dr.Therese Radic suggests that the main reason for the collapse of the Aboriginal choir at New Norcia is that, once the inspirational and knowledgeable figures of Salvado and Moreno had floated off into the clouds, the Nyungara people just got fed up being forced to sing like a bunch of whitefellas by the musically inept monks that kept the place going. (I’m grateful to the library at New Norcia for this information.)

Gumleaf playing may well go back thousands of years. Again the record is hazy. According to musicologist Robyn Ryan, It was documented first by pastoralists in 1877 in The Channel country of Western Queensland. The Gumleaf was used by Aborigines in Christian Church services by the beginning of the 20th century, and reached popularity in the Great Depression of the 1930s when the desperately unemployed formed 20 piece Aboriginal gumleaf bands like Wallaga Lake, Burnt Bridge, and Lake Tyers, and armed with a big Kangaroo skin bass drum, marched up and down the eastern seaboard – demonstrating a defiance in the face of the whitefella and his economic methodology. The spirit of this music was not to appear again before the 1970s Aboriginal cultural revival. Alas, the band music itself has disappeared.

What has happened to this tradition? The Wallaga Lake Band played for the opening of The Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Why isn’t there a 20 piece gumleaf band marching down George street on Australia day? This is the New Orleans jazz of Australia: Who is looking after this, who is nurturing this?

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