Australia’s most distinguished composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) has left a magnificent legacy – his music. Sculthorpe pioneered a uniquely Australian sound. The distinctiveness of his music emerges from its connection with the landscape, the Indigenous inhabitants of the land, and with South-East Asian music.
Many excellent obituaries have been published over the past week covering this, including Stuart Greenbaum’s on The Conversation, but another lesser-known legacy is his influence on two of his first students at Sydney University, composers Ross Edwards and Anne Boyd.
Music ‘shaped by this land’ The geographical isolation of Australia from Europe coupled with the concept of landscape entwined with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island music, plays an important role in shaping Sculthorpe’s musical style.
Explaining his use of Aboriginal music, Sculthorpe said that it: “always seemed foolish not to take heed of a music that has been shaped by this land over many thousands of years.”
Although there are many kinds of landscape in Australia, it is the landscape of the interior that is most strongly associated with Sculthorpe’s music. This landscape is imagined as a vast, flat, arid place. It is particularly evident in works like Sun Music I (1965) where, as Gordon Kerry noted: “colourful, fragmentary events take place against static drones or luminous clouds of sound.”
Sculthorpe’s style is antithetical to the complexity of European serialism. It is not about the creation of an intellectual framework – such as a 12-tone row – for the expression of a musical idea. Rather, the music springs from a deep and personal engagement with human concerns.
At a very young age, growing up in Tasmania, Sculthorpe was attuned to emotions such as loss, grief and loneliness. Anne Boyd summed up Sculthorpe’s music as having: “a dark sorrowing under-side powered by a sense of loneliness, of yearning and of regret.”
The music gives expression to these emotions in works like Irkanda IV (1961), composed as a memorial to his father. The Aboriginal word irkanda literally means “scrub country” but for Sculthorpe it was associated with the idea of loneliness or “lonely place”.
Whereas the Irkanda series represents the individual alone in space and time, the Sun Music series that followed presents a world devoid of human population.
The orchestra is treated like a gigantic percussion instrument. Gradually through the Sun Music series there is an abandonment of European characteristics in favour of influences from Asia, in particular, the gamelan music of Indonesia and traditional music from Japan. Sculthorpe considered Australia as part of Asia.
From the mid-60s onwards, Sculthorpe’s music became more and more imbued with Asian aesthetics, as well as with the music of Australian Aboriginal culture. Works such as Mangrove (1980), Earth Cry (1986), the latter a recasting of an earlier work, The Song of Tailitnama (1974) and Kakadu (1988) exemplify this style. His last large-scale work was his Requiem for mixed chorus, didgeridoo and orchestra (2004).
Sculthorpe the mentor Australian composer Ross Edwards inherited something of the Sculthorpe legacy. In his own unique way, Edwards taps into the diversity of Australia and its natural environment.
For Edwards, the main preoccupations are with landscape, birds, frogs and insect life. The music falls into two styles, one marked by slow ritualistic music, exemplified by a work such as Yarrageh-Nocturne for percussion and orchestra (1989), and the other by lively, rhythmic music as heard in works such as his oft-performed violin concerto Maninyas (1988).
Ross Edwards and Anne Boyd were both close to Peter Sculthorpe. Boyd says that without Sculthorpe she would never have become a composer. She and Sculthorpe were engaged at one point. Although the marriage did not eventuate the relationship was deep and long-lasting. She was by his bedside in the last days of his life.
The genetics of one composer to the other are strongly evident in this relationship. The father-figure Sculthorpe passes on to the younger Boyd his ideas about music and its connection with landscape, indigenous music and the music of South East Asia.
As an undergraduate student of Sculthorpe (1963-69) at Sydney University, Boyd absorbed his ideas. Boyd, like Sculthorpe, had a childhood marked by loss, grief and loneliness. She suffered tragedy at a very young age with the death of her father and then, aged 12, her mother. Music was her companion throughout as a child growing up in outback Queensland.
For Boyd, the landscape surrounding her in her childhood years was etched with sorrow but also with great beauty. The childhood memories of landscape were powerfully re-awakened when she was introduced to the music of South East Asia by Sculthorpe.
Boyd went on to develop and refine an Asian aesthetic, establishing a reputation for her uniquely original voice in works such as As It Leaves the Bell (1973), Angklung for solo piano (1974) and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams for 12 unaccompanied voices (1975).
These works broke new ground and have since found a place within the established contemporary repertory worldwide. Through her collaboration with the Korean poet Don’o Kim, she conceived the basis of music to be the intersection of Christian love with Buddhist silence.
Both Edwards and Boyd have, in their own distinctive ways, earned a place alongside their “father” in the world of Australian music. More than this, Sculthorpe’s encouragement of Boyd has produced one of the most important women composers in Australian music.
Ultimately, the influence on all three composers is Australia itself. The outstanding legacy that each of them leaves, then, is a spiritual connection with the land.
Sculthorpe shaped composers with a connection to this land
By Sally Macarthur, University of Western Sydney
Sally Macarthur does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Image: Peter Sculthorpe