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Saturday, April 09, 2016

Australia to Albany

From the Vault Dept.: The issue of America’s musical identity has dogged this country since its founding, and, more than any other topic, has revealed a deep insecurity. We attempt to categorize our music, we’ve tried to assign it an intellectual caste system, we seem to do all manner of things to it except listen. It’s different down under. I had an ear-opening conversation with Australian composer Vincent Plush in 1989, on the eve of an Albany Symphony performance of one of his works, and here’s the piece I wrote for Metroland back then.


THANKS TO VINCENT PLUSH, Australians are better informed about American music than are most Americans. His broadcasts on Australian radio – hundreds of hours’ worth – have inspired an sharp increase in the number of American works programmed by Australian orchestras.

Vincent Plush
The Albany Symphony Orchestra returns the favor this weekend. Plush’s Pacifica will be performed as part of the orchestra’s observance of Australia’s bicentennial. “Last year about a dozen Australian composers were based on campuses throughout the U.S.,” says Plush, “and I took an appointment at Rollins College in Florida because it was the quietest. There wouldn’t be another composer within 150 miles, which meant I would have to hear no contemporary music.”

Plush is in the area this week and spoke over afternoon tea about the piece – and Australian music in general. Despite the seeming British-ness of the set-up he’s a revolutionary who has evolved a musical identity based in part upon defying the European traditions.

“In the mid 1960s it occurred to several of us who were writing music in Australia that Europe, being 1600 miles away, really shouldn’t be regarded as a major influence. I mean, we’re in a country where there’s almost no snow and the Fiji Islands are nearby. What’s led to an Australian sound, then, is a new attitude that you don’t have to obey European rules or American rules. You can have your own voice without apology or condescension.”

He has spent time in American cities on both sides of the country, and likes to compare the similarly-sized land masses to illustrate what he sees as a key musical difference. “In Australia the landscape is flat and stark, with slow, undulating hills. When you drive across the U.S. you find a change every hundred miles or so. I mean, it’s bang! the Rocky Mountains, then suddenly you’re in the plains of Utah. In Australia, you drive a hundred miles and say, `Hey, there’s a tree!’ That’s how unchanging it is.

“And this is reflected in the music. The sense of time in Australia is expanded, so the music is slower, without great melodic or harmonic leaps. Like the people, it speaks in a monotone with a nasal drawl.

“There isn’t a lot of European imperialism in the Australian musical training. There’s no Nadia Boulanger or Schoenberg to study with, so we’ve managed to escape such things as serialism. A lot of Australian composers are self-taught, which leads to a naive innocence.”

Albany Symphony music director Geoffrey Simon is an Australian native and conducted Pacifica in that country two years ago. “We thought it would go down well in Albany,” says Plush. “Of course, this may the wrong time of year for the piece, which is very summery. My piece was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to commemorate a decade of FM broadcasting. And it was intended as a showcase for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”

“It has a `good to be alive’ feeling, with a lot of optimism. It’s a reflection of Sydney, too, which is a very outdoorsy place with a harbor and a shimmering sun. In effect, Pacifica is an ocean voyage. Imagine it taking you – and the orchestra – in a tall-master out of Sydney harbor, sailing east across the Pacific. We pass the islands as we head for the shores of South America, making stops in Mexico, Peru and Chile, where we absorb the music and rhythms and take them all back with us.

“On the other hand, I don’t want you to think of this as a picture postcard or anything. In fact, since it was first performed I’ve taken some of the Errol Flynn out of it.”

The Latin American material was gathered from recordings, the composer says. “I’m not an ethnos-musicologist and these aren’t meant to be strict representations of the music of those countries. They’re my interpretations, and I make no apology for that.”

He is very influenced by Charles Ives and shares that composer’s belief that music should assimilate “whatever is in the world around me. I believe in music with a strong political content – I don’t see why music should let the listeners sit back and let their consciences go.”

Pacifica is Plush’s first orchestral work and offers a movement-by-movement survey of various Latin American cultures. “The movement marked Danza is a transcription for winds and brass of an ancient Peruvian pan pipe dance. When you listen to the originals you can hear the origins of minimalism 1500 years before Philip Glass. So those who think it’s a passing fad should be warned that it’s been around for a while.

“Another movement is an homage to the victims of the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. I spent some time in San Diego a few years back and would travel across the border to Tijuana where I could enjoy the sleazy awfulness of the mariachi players. A lot of them were wiped out in that earthquake because so many of them lived in one building that was completely destroyed, so you’ll hear a paean to the mariachi musicians in the piece.”

Chile: Song of the Innocents is a lament written in tribute to Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, who was killed in the military coup; “it’s also a lament for the lack of self-determination in many Latin American countries.”

The Albany Symphony program also includes Leo Sowerby’s Symphony No. 2 and soloist Stephanie Chase playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto.  Friday’s concert is at the Troy Music Hall; Saturday’s at the Palace Theatre in Albany. Both are at 8 PM. Tickets are available at the respective theaters and at CBO outlets.

Metroland Magazine, 19 January 1989

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