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Topographies of an Australian Soul?

Peter Sculthorpe’s music and the myth of the myth of Australian ‘identity’

By Neil Maizels

“To misquote Tolstoy: every nation is similar in its celebration of itself, but quite different in its expression of sorrow, smallness, loss and disillusionment…

Sculthorpe can reveal a fulguration of feeling, as a lightning flash shows us the stark interior of moving life usually hidden in the poring darkness…

It is an interesting question as to whether or not these qualities … would be more ‘Australian’ if he had more glissandi, scraped gongs, didgeridoos or fire-sticks…

Much conflict within the white Australian population centres on whether we need Aboriginal ‘guidance’ to make peace with the land and its crushing impact on our tiny minds and meagre resources..”

Over a mellow but full-bodied Italian coffee, and tuned into a Chinese-made but German-designed digital radio, I listened to the Sunday morning ABC news. There were only a few items—most of them about politicians struggling to balance the impossible splits in the desires and values of their constituents—but the top sports story was a rundown of the overnight results of the Giro d’Italia (Italy’s Tour de France) and the fact that one Australian cyclist was placed 125th in the field. Perhaps it was just the coffee, but for me this begged several questions—especially about our so-called Australian identity.

What, I wondered, does it say about ‘us’ as a nation that we are that desperate to know we have some sort of place in the world of nations—however relatively insignificant—holding onto the tattered fringe of a fringe race?

I’m not about to attempt to answer that question, here, but this essay on the place, and meaning, of Peter Sculthorpe’s music in a particularly Australian sense of identity is an attempt to think about the complex interplay of symbolism—musical symbolism—and what we might call a ‘national dreamscape’ or a sense of a shared, collective Australianism. For many Australians, Sculthorpe has earned the doyen’s cap and cape as the classical composer most exemplifying that elusive tag of ‘Australian identity’. I also think, keeping my cycling news anecdote in mind, that there does seem to be a sense of urgency and importance (Australian republicans will disagree) about our Australian identity that is probably not quite so intense in many other countries, notwithstanding those in the throes of revolution, and that this muffled fervour for identity and international recognition is only casually camouflaged by that bland Aussie self-descriptive phrase: ‘sports-loving nation’.

Peter Sculthorpe, the composer, already starting out with a geographical strait between his native Tasmania and the rest of the Australian continent, nestled into the fringy-but-close domain in relation to his musical and extra-musical interests. He has always assumed the posture of an outsider, politely, and very respectfully, knocking on a door—whether mainland Australia, England, Europe, the United States or Indo-China, and their respective favoured instrumental arrays and musical sensibilities—asking to be let in, with a hope of mutual enrichment.

Sculthorpe was drawn early in his composing life to Indo-Chinese harmonies and gamelanic (bells, chimes, gongs, gentle metallic harmonics) instrumental textures (not original in itself—Ravel, Stravinsky, Delage and Debussy had been similarly entranced with the oriental ambience), with its emphasis on the exotic, resonant pulsing of the warm, sensual tropical air. But Sculthorpe found his way back through his own Oceanic mirror into the heart of his own country—to the very centre, with his apparent evocation of ‘inner Australia’—let’s say with Kakadu, for example. The fact that he had not been there before composing his ‘Centralian’ pieces unnerved many people, who saw him as somewhat charlatan, and gimmicky, cashing in on the new interest in Aboriginality as the new Tahiti of the Art world.

However—and this is where I would see something more distinctly Australian—this curious outsider posture also applies to a looking inwards to that inner unknown country whose bourn becomes the artistic territory of a Nolan or a Fred Williams, where there is just as much curiosity and sense of bewildering but wondrous alienation when gazing into the continent as if it were the mind’s own navel. Sculthorpe can reveal a fulguration of feeling, as a lightning flash shows us the stark interior of moving life usually hidden in the poring darkness.

This lure to the infinite, numinous hidden life of the mind and its relationship to its environment makes fully explicable the shift in Sculthorpe’s emotional tonal palette from, say, pastoral British village, to Indonesian gamelan phrasing, to cosmically pulsating didgeridoo, alongside intangibly resonant scrapings of gongs, and screeching yet plangent glissandi violin birds flocking and clawing at the doorway to our infinitely focused un-colonised interior.

Yet Sculthorpe has not been too bothered by critics uncomfortable with the ambiguity of these multiple perspectives. He has been quite okay with a blend of delicate Eurocentric nuance with a more earthy, harsh and basic instrumentation musical sensibility, seeing this as an attempted integration of the primeval with the intellectual, deep within the strata of our group psyche, and therefore of universal appeal. The proof of that pudding is that Sculthorpe’s music strikes into the hearts of American classical audiences no less, and possibly even more, than Australian ones. In 2002 he became the only living Australian to be elected a life member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The only other Australians elected to the academy were A. D. Hope, Sidney Nolan and Christina Stead. And Sculthorpe’s string quartets are widely and often performed in the United States.

I also doubt that many other nations have been faced with such a vast, scary and inscrutable geographic interior on which to dream, and in which to project. So, what I would argue is that this particular posture (gazing simultaneously inward and outward, while retaining and even revelling in the strangeness) over time, builds itself into an identity of its own—what we might call, tentatively, an Australian spirit. This spirit is warm enough to find a lyrical beauty in the strangeness, yet distant enough to have a usefully objective and uniquely, sometimes silent, slant, which, for many, opens up a vast and numinous sense of perspective. And the effect of this perspective that gazes inward and outward simultaneously produces a massive reflective space for reverie on one’s individual place in a vast universe of the unknowable.

It probably corresponds to what Adrian Stokes referred to as ‘beneficence of space’ when referring to the art of Turner. It seems most evident in Sculthorpe’s music post his Sun Music(s), and much has been made of his rising (or falling?) to the challenge of writing without melody, harmony or rhythm in the fomenting of his Sun Music(s). Yet, most of that music is still very approachable through its plangent, if harsh, non-narrative ‘hymnal’ qualities, which allow for much inner reflection and emotional repose. And the inner vastness is even conveyed—summoned—through the usually intimate medium of string quartets.

It is not, therefore, just about orchestral majesty and troop numbers. The vast and the intimate; the warm ochre and the astringent metallic literally sing to each other when Sculthorpe is at his self-communing best.

Although many people were shocked that Sculthorpe had not been to Kakadu before writing his piece (although Debussy had never seen the sea before composing his orchestral masterpiece La Mer), he simply maintains that our Australian identity isn’t about travelling to the outback, or photographing it, but about the personal, abstracted emotional impression that it sets resonating on our psyche. And it is this depth of responsive feeling that he attempts to depict in his music.

Of course, that could be extended beyond the musical field to the whole of white Australia’s sense of ‘identity’. It’s about the strange feeling of being both the observer and the Other, as we might imagine how Aboriginal people see us—or the strange feeling of knowing that we inhabit Australia (or do we?) in a totally different state of mind to those who are natives to it. So, arguably, our yearning to have an ‘identity’ is an illusion. It is our apprehension of our own selves as being other-worldly and strangers that more truly comprises our identity and having strange qualities in a vast indifferent space that has existed for aeons before our arrival.

Nick Roeg’s film Walkabout, and Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (also known as Outback) got this dual tone of both a personal and topographical isolated strangeness right. (Ironically, or perhaps necessarily, both films were conceived and created by ‘foreigner-outsiders’.) They entirely evoke the desperate need to belong, even to a group that alienates us, and which calls us forth as pitiable strangers. Of course, it is often just this very outsider (Lawrence’s Kangaroo may be another example) who most clearly gets the perspective and sees the idiosyncratic qualities (sometimes just idiocy) of a culture and its geo-socio adaptation to its immersion in an impossibly bewildering wilderness.

It is an interesting question as to whether or not these qualities—beautifully expressed, for example, through the sighing, mourning cellos of Sculthorpe’s Lament—would be more ‘Australian’ if he had more glissandi, scraped gongs, didgeridoos or fire-sticks added to the instrumentation, and had named it ‘Lament for Uluru’, rather than Lament for Strings. Obviously, the piece had great emotional resonance for Sculthorpe himself, since he revised the original 1976 version in 1991. He must have kept it in mind as something significant, and, for me, it is his most intimate encounter with his own sense of longing for both the strange and the familiar.

That Sculthorpe’s aural palette, with string glissandi and wobbling waves of didgeridoo, might evoke shrieking water birds of Kakadu, with sun-soaked red-orange on baked million-year-old rock—which some seek and need as identity symbols—is proof, to me, of a need for the dual linkage of external landscape with internal landscape. Does his music give a sense of participation in the laying down of eternity in a simulacrum of our ‘cosmic soul’—which must involve us heavily in feelings about our smallness and mortality? But which are the more ‘authentic’ versions of the search for this elusive ‘Australian identity’ —something we can feel as uniquely ‘Us’, and distinct from the rest of humanity—is an interesting question, particularly because we all find our own individual criteria for what we feel is Australian in our character and soul. (Being told who we are does not sit well in our Australian psyche.)

It may be harsh to suggest that all national identity seeking is a form of defence against mortality and a sense of nothingness. But, the capacity to bear that feared empty centre—which is not nothingness, but a massive cry of yearning for interconnection with nature and the cosmos and our fellow creatures—is a search for a bridge-spanning spark across the millennia to fill, as Shakespeare suggests, the poring dark in the wide vessel of the universe. And every nation does seem to have a somewhat different ‘cry in the dark’ when in that fragile, yearning state. So then, to say that any true cultural identity is just a myth and a wish is harsh, and even untrue. The fact that there is a universal longing to interconnect as a large group, or race (most clearly symbolised in the flag march-around every four years at the Olympic Games) that we need to belong to a large group, and then to distinguish our own large group from others, suggests that the supposed myth of cultural identity is itself a kind of myth, because the particular ways that each nation expresses its yearning is, surely, worth preserving, if not celebrating. It contains a depth of feeling that transcends the infantile ‘Look at me!’ and is rather, ‘This is what I have suffered, and this is what I long for, as I can best express it, in whatever form’.

And so, I would like to suggest that there are (at least) two levels at which we crave a sense of national identity. The first is highly volatile, desperate, grandiose and narcissistic. It says: ‘Look at us! We are as least as good as the rest of you, and with Olympic gold, silver and bronze pedigrees and war medals (“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”) to prove it’. This (very) temporarily relieves feelings of emptiness, futility and a vast and bleak sense of smallness, isolation and insignificance. But it is a form of negative, or manic, identity in its shallow denial of the painful but crucial feelings of smallness. Any nation that has not struggled through its existential crises, and its losses and humiliations, will always crave a quick-fix, phallic, sporting or military validation of itself.

The second, where I believe Sculthorpe to be mostly sincerely and humbly engaged, says: ‘We have a unique voice, of which we are still uncertain—but, here it is, in all its naked yearning’.

Whether it be the voice of a Sibelius and his mournful Finlandia, Stravinsky’s vodka-soaked oedipal Russian puppets in Petrushka, Gorecki’s haunting, holocaustic Euro-chorales, or, of course, Beethoven’s arm-linking brotherhood, smashing down cold walls, there really are such things as national spirits, distilled from pain and bleak confrontation with like-minded souls, with lumps rising in throats of shared suffering and hard-won joy—and nothing hastens and intensifies that rising quite like music does.

To misquote Tolstoy: every nation is similar in its celebration of itself, but quite different in its expression of sorrow, smallness, loss and disillusionment.

With Sculthorpe, we may, together, touch on ‘trigger points’—pedal points of agreed, shared imagery—such as screeching birds on a wild bourbon sky, or a didgeridoo drone under a campfire of Eurasian yearning melody, on a cracked cor anglais—pining for expression in the lone desert of the mind. But whether or not Sculthorpe’s music needs the addition of a didgeridoo and screeching cockatoo violin glissandi to help evoke the miracle of an inner spaciousness, and to lick the stamp of an authentically individual Australian reverie of loneliness and suffering, is hard to say. But, it may be that it captures a conjoining of the feeling of a national interior soul with the exterior and the visual. Through his music, we can get the feeling of the vast and the eerie, in a fusion of visual fantasy and an emotional Earth Cry from within, expressing our small sufferings in the wake of the infinite yearning to be a cog in the chain of life. And that is a truly musical experience—transcending chords and melody and rhythm—and bringing us to a spirit of place within ourselves, no matter the cost of a sense of strangeness, both from within and from looking out into the life-filled skies and swamps and mangroves radiating the effulgent to the limits of our floored gaze. Sculthorpe knew, a long time ago, that a National Geographic type anthem would not cover such profound inner emotional experience.

If it is true that what is unique to the Australian experience of identity is that we are strangers not just unto the native inhabitants but also, simultaneously, to the harshness of the topography—and that we are therefore affronted, and perplexed, on two fronts, then it is under such psycho-tropic stress that we can either choose to try to recreate the ‘Anglo’ in a ‘New South Wales’ or ‘New England’, or we can seek the aid of the Aboriginal filter, and try to borrow, or incorporate its wisdom in surviving—through a respectful getting to know—our harsh interior, both physically and spiritually. Much conflict within the white Australian population centres on this difference of approach, and whether we are really in need of any Aboriginal ‘guidance’ to make peace with the land and its crushing impact on our tiny minds and meagre resources: the denial of which is maintained by a lust for minerals and bulging stock values.

Sculthorpe doesn’t always succeed. Child of Australia and other far too self-consciously ‘Australianic’ works can be contrived. But the soulful, plangent grip of the Lament, for example, really doesn’t need a didgeridoo to say this is a particular form of human longing which derives from a purely Australian slant on the world. It has to be acknowledged as a unique psychic reality, and not just a myth, which is there for our grasping if we wish it.

So, finally, is our inner call towards national identity—whether through music, art or yes, sporting achievement—more to do with grandiose vanity, being in love with our own idealised version of ourselves and demanding that the rest of the world see us through that rosy if eucalypt-scented lens, or: is it something as vital to our being as roots are to the struggling existence of a rare plant?

The music of Sculthorpe, and its rather hesitant approbation by the Australian public, may be mirrored in the nation’s massive ambivalence about becoming a true Republic. Didgeridoos and screeching glissandi may well express our angst at dis-identifying with the Brits, the Yanks and all their slings and nuclear arrowheads, yet whose (illusory) protection we still crave.

But Sculthorpe, at his best, dreams into us a richer and stranger adult lullaby that’s there for the sharing—an advanced Australia rare.

Neil Maizels is a Melbourne composer and psychoanalytic psychotherapist.