Music

The reception of SBS’s documentary Go Back to Where You Came From held out the promise that Australians’ antagonism towards asylum seekers was softening. But old certainties shift in unpredictable ways. In an essay in the September 2010 issue of The Monthly, Robert Manne, a long-standing critic of the Howard government’s asylum seeker policy, asked some uncomfortable questions of the left: Didn’t Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ actually work? What if the Australians who are hostile to asylum seekers can’t be dismissed as a racist redneck minority, but are instead the ‘overwhelming majority of the Australian mainstream’? What, then, of the mythical Australian values of mateship, equality, and the fair go? Arnold Zable’s latest book, Violin Lessons, situates itself within this, the most disturbing moral debate Australia has engaged in since 1992, when the Keating government introduced mandatory immigration detention.

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In the autumn of 1962, as a student in Paris, I went to watch Edith Piaf perform atop the Eiffel Tower. My memory is of being in a thick crowd at ground level, straining to see a tiny floodlit figure while a huge metallic voice resounded across the night sky: ‘Non, je ne regrette rien …’ In this new biography of Piaf, Carolyn Burke reminds us that this was a publicity event for the launch of Daryl Zanuck’s film about D-Day, The Longest Day. Piaf, at forty-six, her health ruined, had only a year to live, but still managed to overcome her frailty and her fear of heights to project her whole being into the iconic image that the world had of her.

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A cluttered portrait inevitably diminishes its subject. I am thinking, in particular, of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his gallery in Brussels, by David Teniers the Younger, in which the Habsburg aristocrat is like an ant among his scores of pictures. This happens with biographies, too. A satisfying example is far more than an expansion of the subject’s curriculum vitae or a thorough examination of his appointment diary. When the author has strong feelings (as a widow inevitably does), the problem is aggravated. This new biography – of an extraordinary musician who might, in different circumstances, have contributed far more to Australia than he was allowed to do – is both partisan and prolix, and is as littered with quotidian details as the Teniers painting is with canvases. In both cases, these objects and details are too small to engage our attention usefully or thoroughly.

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My husband is proud to claim that in the 1950s, when they were both employed at Covent Garden, he was paid a larger salary than Joan Sutherland was. Fresh from Sydney, she had joined the company in 1952, and was soon appearing in small roles, including Clotilde, opposite Maria Callas’s Norma. This was followed by several years of steady progress and major roles (Agathe, Antonia, Micaela), but no great public success. My husband watched Joan’s progress from the beginning of her time and realised, as did others, that here was a great singer in the making. Then, in February 1959, Sutherland, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, made her triumphant début as Lucia di Lammermoor, and everything changed dramatically, including her fees.

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Over the decades, Richard Strauss has been well served by English-language commentators and scholars, ranging from George Bernard Shaw, through Norman del Mar’s magisterial three-volume study (1962–72), to Michael Kennedy’s shorter, though no less illuminating, critical biography (1999). The focus of Raymond Holden’s work is explicitly narrower than theirs, offering as it does a thorough documentation of Strauss’s career as a practising musician and jobbing conductor.

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There is too much Percy Grainger for one person. Having studied the man for twenty-five years, I still cannot account for his ability to achieve so much in so many fields. The thousands of lengthy letters he wrote alone constitute a lifetime’s work, irrespective of the music, the concert performances, the teaching, the publishing.

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Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim & Sondheim on Music by Mark Eden Horowitz

by
May 2011, no. 331

Given Stephen Sondheim’s well-known fondness for verbal games and puzzles (as a diversion from his day job, he has devised crossword puzzles for the New York Times), it seems appropriate to begin this review with a short quiz based on some of the ‘attendant comments and grudges’ referred to in the subtitle of, and dotted throughout, Finishing the Hat. Match the author’s critical judgements to the selected lyricists listed below:

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Rock music does not usually accommodate the likes of Dave Graney. Few Australian performers have been as resilient, and few have presented as many ideas in song form. While his contemporaries – Nick Cave, Tex Perkins, Robert Forster, and the late Grant McLennan – have not strayed far from blueprints forged during the late 1970s, Graney’s music and writing have undergone striking reinvention over thirty years. Equally, few of Graney’s generation have met with such indifference from the Australian public, except for a year or so in the mid-1990s, when, ‘for a brief moment’, in Graney’s words, ‘too many people listened, as opposed to too few … walking in on a line I’d been stringing out for quite a while’.

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Claudia Gorbman, in her ground-breaking and much-admired book Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (1987), invites us to imagine an alternative cinematic universe, one in which music has never played a part. Imagine if this were the norm, and imagine, after years of being accustomed to films in which music was absent altogether, attending a film such as the 1940s weepie Mildred Pierce and hearing the ebb and flow of Max Steiner’s luscious orchestral score. ‘What sheer artifice this would appear to the viewer! What a pseudo-operatic fantasy world! What excess: every mood and action rendered hyperexplicit by a Wagnerian rush of tonality and rhythm! What curious music, as well – robbed of its properly musical structure, it modulates and changes color, chameleonlike, in moment-to-moment deference to the narrative’s images.’ Of course, film music does not always defer to the narrative’s images, but Gorbman makes a good point: our willingness to admit music – music which emanates from a source external to the action on screen – as a perfectly normal constituent of film. It is surprising that we don’t find music in film surprising.

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In his ‘mongrel memoir’, How to Make Gravy, singer–songwriter Paul Kelly describes the ‘pretendies’ that can ambush a musician on stage: ‘One minute you’re putting a song over to the crowd, totally inside what you’re doing, everything meshing, then suddenly you’re adrift, floating above yourself and wondering what on earth you’re doing there.’

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