Music

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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Vanda and Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory by John Tait & Behind the Rock and Beyond: The Diary of a Rock Band, 1956–1980 by Jon Hayton and Leon Isackson

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October 2010, no. 325

 The history of Australian rock music is rich and eclectic. Vanda and Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory and Behind the Rock and Beyond: The Diary of a Rock Band, 1956–1980 provide two perspectives on the early years of rock music in this country. John Tait, owner of a second-hand record and bookshop in Melbourne and a self-confessed ...

Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht: The Story of a Friendship by Erdmut Wizisla, translated by Christine Shuttleworth

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March 2010, no. 319

German commentators have often asserted – not without some justification – that pas­sages of the established Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare are superior to the original. A contentious proposi­tion, perhaps. But in the case of the volume under review, which first appeared in German in 2004, there is no doubt that although, as the publisher’s note points out, ‘a section devoted to a discussion on the debate … about the initial republication and publication of Walter Benjamin’s work in Germany from the mid fifties’ has been omitted, the resulting book is clearer and more user-friendly than the original, with its arguments shown to better advan­tage. A chronology of the Benjamin-Brecht relationship (relocated more sensibly at the front of the book), plus a map and time chart of the two writers, make it easier to refer back to the stages and dates of the relationship, along with – so crucial to an understanding of the course of the friendship and temper of the debates between the two principal participants, as well other involved contemporaries – the stations of the exile years between 1933, 1941 (Benjamin’s death), and 1947 (Brecht’s return to Europe).

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Why do otherwise sane human beings decide to become music critics? It’s often to jump on the PR treadmill of free passes to gigs and free records for review. There’s the writer who wants to be closer to his idol, the careerist who sees it as one more step to editorial power, or the music junkie who’s compelled to make the leap from mute fanaticism to the written word.

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Gordon Kerry’s New Classical Music is a valuable addition to the small body of literature about Australian composers. The author sets out by placing his project in the context of several important earlier books on the subject, notably Roger Covell’s Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society (1967) and the Frank Calloway–David Tunley collection of essays, Australian Composition in the Twentieth Century (1978). Kerry’s project is rather different from either of these, however; where Covell was consciously writing history (and perhaps deliberately shaping it at the same time), and where Calloway and Tunley commissioned independent articles on major composers, Kerry attempts something much more elusive – a more or less synchronic survey of the entire field in the last thirty years.

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In the course of its seventy-five years, the ABC has maintained a variety of in-house live music ensembles, including symphony orchestras, radio choruses, dance bands, a show band, military band and string quartet. In its capacity as a concert agency, the national broadcaster has been responsible for touring an astonishing array of artists. Claudio Arrau, John Barbirolli, Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer, Rafael Kubelík, Yehudi Menuhin, Birgit Nilsson, Eugene Ormandy, Artur Schnabel, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Isaac Stern, and Igor Stravinsky all made at least one visit to our shores, thanks to the concert-giving activities of the ABC. High-end classical music traffic in and out of the country has been so intense over the years that, at one point, piano legend Arthur Rubinstein crossed paths with violin virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman in remote Daly Waters in the Northern Territory (their inbound and outbound planes were refuelling at the time). To the Polish-born classical music celebrities, outback Australia in 1937 must have seemed as strange and unlikely a meeting place as deepest, darkest Congo. Rubinstein couldn’t resist exclaiming to his startled friend, ‘Dr Huberman, I presume!

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During the last dozen years of his life, from the initial diagnosis of leukaemia in September 1991 until his death in September 2003, Edward Said continued to lead an astonishingly active life: travelling, lecturing, writing, conversing with seemingly undiminished energy, even as his physical powers sharply declined. When his New York physician gently suggested it might be wise to slow down, he replied that nothing would kill him more quickly than that; boredom seemed a more lethal adversary than the cells invading his body. What kept Said quite literally alive was an unflagging engagement with what he saw to be the most pressing cultural and political issues of his time. That engagement is fully evident in the works that have appeared since his death, such as Humanism and Democratic Criticism and From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, both published in 2004. On Late Style, another posthumous collection, reflects a further and unsurprising preoccupation throughout these final years. The book explores the manner in which artists and writers often acquire a new idiom or mode of expression – what Said terms a ‘late style’ – during the last stages of their creative lives.

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Charles Osborne, who was born in Brisbane in 1927 and moved to London in 1953, is a prolific writer, broadcaster and opera critic. His latest offering, The Opera Lover’s Companion, sets out to guide its reader through 175 of the world’s most popular operas. Osborne correctly states that ‘the staples of the operatic diet today are the major works of five great composers – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss’ – and certain works by other luminaries. The operas of sixty-seven composers are included, but that core quintet gives us almost a third of the operas in this volume. Interestingly, in opera’s four hundred-year history, the vast majority of the most frequently performed works fall within the period between Mozart’s first featured opera, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (1770) and Strauss’s last, Capriccio (1942).

As with The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997), the list reveals a re-evaluation of many previously neglected operas, in particular some lesser-known works of Handel, Rossini, Donizetti, Massenet, and Strauss, which have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Doubtless this also reflects the dearth of modern operas and the scarcity of contemporary composers who know what their audiences want. Any opera company ignoring box office appeal does so at its peril, and a book such as this should be mandatory reading.

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