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Book Review: Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975

Katherine Firth, The University of Melbourne

Michael Hooper, Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)

Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975, the new monograph by Michael Hooper (University of New South Wales), is a rather more specific intervention into the field than the title might suggest. Rather than providing a survey of Australian modernist music during a period of exciting development and diversity, the book reconsiders the late twentieth-century formation of a view of ‘Australian’ serialist music and the continuously evolving reputation of five male composers: Peter Sculthorpe, Nigel Butterley, Richard Meale, Don Banks, and David Lumsdaine. Hooper’s book corrects a celebratory and nationalist model of these composers’ music that emerged in the late 1980s. 

Hooper assumes a full awareness of the construction of ‘Australian music’ and Australian musical modernism, and a high level of technical and historical knowledge from the reader. For example, in order to understand the studies, a reader would need to be already fully aware of the biography and importance to the Australian art music canon of Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014, one of the most well-known contemporary Australian composers awarded both the Order of Australia and Order of the British Empire for his choral and orchestral works) or Nigel Butterley (b. 1935, choral composer best known for the 1966 radiophonic composition In the Head of the Fire, which won the Prix Italia). The brief literature review on ‘Modernism’ (pp. 15-16) also takes for granted that the field is well known to the reader, and so Hooper merely foregrounds some anomalies. Hooper quotes at length JPE Harper-Scott’s argument that William Walton was a modernist because he wrote in ‘the twentieth-century’, without giving space to the more common view that Walton was a modernist because he was influenced by modernist composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, a point made in Matthew Riley’s English Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 to which Hooper makes reference (p. 15). 

The work excludes any significant discussion of Anne Boyd or Alison Bauld, nor even a mention of Helen Gifford. Hooper makes the case that Boyd and Bauld both had careers that took them extensively overseas, to the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, respectively. However, Hooper includes a significant discussion of David Lumsdaine who moved to London in 1952. The work therefore sidelines significant female figures, using logic that he doesn’t apply to Lumsdaine. In comparison, Graeme Skinner’s chapter on ‘Australian Musical Modernism’ (2015) sketched a musical genealogy of modernist composers in Australia from Percy Grainger, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Arthur Benjamin. Roger Covell’s foundational work, Australia’s Music (1967), positioned the new composers of the 1960s in reaction to the previous generation that included John Antill, Robert Hughes, Dorian Le Gallienne and Margaret Sutherland. Such rehearsals are probably unnecessary for a local musicological audience, but would have been useful for international readers who are likely to be familiar with only one or two of the Australian names mentioned so far in this review. 

Hooper’s repeated theme is that modernism is often more complex and contested than the major modernists, such as the Second Viennese School (1900-30) composers including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Weber, might have liked. Their claims of abstraction, impersonality, internationalism, and technical avant-gardism needed to be tempered, something Hooper does by adding awareness of the personal, local, and emotional. A demand for music that is national and celebratory emerges from the organisations for supporting new music in Australia after 1975, particularly the Australian Music Centre, the national organisation for supporting art music. While other scholars (myself included) have argued that modernist composers are able to find ways of continuing to use modernist resistance even in institutionalised and propagandist works, for Hooper ‘the process of consolidating a movement therefore brought about its end, from which emerged a different form of Australian Music’ (p. 238). Hooper highlights the disjunctures between earlier and later works of the composers, like Sculthorpe who moved from ‘difficult’ modernist styles in the 1960s and 1970s, using atonal and clashing techniques, to more accessible styles in later works, with more melodic and harmonic compositions. As Hooper points out: critics should emphasise ‘a sense of continuity through Sculthorpe-the-person even when that was at odds with the composition’ (p. 4).

The close musicological analysis of Buttlerley’s and Meale’s works is extensive, careful, and highly technical. It is extremely difficult to write accurate close-analysis of music for a non-musical audience, and Hooper does not attempt it. Readers will either thrill or shudder to know there are sentences like ‘The overlapping of sonority fields becomes more interesting after the comma, since G7 also has the E with which F6 finishes, though there is not strict overlap here since G7’s own E quickly follows’ (p. 169). Such close reading enables Hooper to trace musical engagement with ideas and other composers, in this example Richard Meale’s resistant readings of Pierre Boulez’s exemplars from Weber’s Opus 27 (Boulez on Music Today, pp. 169-70). Hooper matches these readings with manuscript sketches, letters, programme notes, musical examples and figures and tables which enable understanding of the clusters, progressions, series and conjunctions within the works.  

The book addresses the issues with creating an ‘Australian’ music between Europe, Asia and Indigenous musical traditions. In the central chapter on ‘Sculthorpe: Australian Music and Nationalism’, Hooper considers whether Sculthorpe’s use of Indigenous Australian, Balinese and Japanese music is a problematic form of ‘appropriation’ or Orientalism. It is notable, however, that the discussion of appropriation focuses on the views of Richard Meale and Jonathan Paget, rather than scholars who have worked more comprehensively in the area, like the composer/musicologists Liza Lim or ethnomusicologists such as Elizabeth Mackinlay or Peter Toner who have worked extensively with Indigenous communities. 

However, as a close study of five significant Australian composers, the work is a useful contribution to the literature. Hooper has extensive access to archives, interviews and correspondence, some which have become newly available. Hooper uses these sources to establish a history of the construction of infrastructure which underlies the explosion of postmodern music in Australia after 1975. 

Readers who would be interested to learn more about the music might want to listen to the Kreutzer Quartet’s ‘Unfold’ (2014), which includes three works discussed in the book: Banks’ String Quartet (1975), Meale’s String Quartet (No 1, 1974), and Butterley’s String Quartet (1965) (extensive audio previews available online).


Boulez, Pierre, Boulez on Music Today, trans. by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett. (London: Faber & Faber, 1971).

Covell, Roger, Australia’s Music, (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1967).

Harper-Scott, J. P. E. The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Hooper, Michael, The Music of David Lumsdaine: Kelly Ground to Cambewarra, (London: Routledge, 2016).

Hooper, Michael, Australian Music and Modernism, 1960-1975, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). 

Firth, Katherine, ‘“Bright flower breaks from charnel bough”: The arts of peace and the 1953 Coronation’, in The Finzi Journal (March, 2014), 90-118.

Kreutzer Quartet, ‘Unfold: Banks, Butterley, Meale, Werder’, MD3371. (Move Records, 2014). 

Riley, Matthew, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, (London: Routledge, 2017).

Skinner, Graham, ‘Australian Musical Modernism’, in The Modernist World, ed. by Allana Lindgren and Stephen Ross (London: Routledge, 2015), Chapter 29. 


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