Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 1. 1969.
Tender Roots or Mature Dwarfs
Tender Roots or Mature Dwarfs
Robin Maconie has specially prepared this article for "Salient" based on his discussion of New Zealand music at Curious Cove in January.
The Claim Recently advanced over the YC network by a free-lance PR music and sundry gossip commentator, that New Zealand had ten composers worthy of the name—eight of them actually resident in the country—attracted about as much sympathy as its incorrigible naievety deserved. Fond notions of a seedling are flourishing in the excremented dust of provincial review have been dismissed often enough in the past; if the current load of old compost has excited fewer flies than usual perhaps its nutritive value should be questioned. Perhaps the tender shoots, after all, mature dwarfs.
Actually the evidence is very close to hand. What New Zealand composer has made it overseas?—I mean simply made a contribution to European musical literature as significant as that other individual New Zealanders have made to other arts or sciences? The question is rhetorical. It's unfair, too, if you have a parochial mind and have lost all selfrespect as well. But I was talking about evidence: as close to hand as the New Zealand Encyclopaedia, section headed Music. This country must be one of the few which has not yet developed to the primitive level of distinguishing between musical activity and musical art. A lot of criticism has been directed at those parts of the Encyclopaedia devoted to the arts, but in the case of music, adverse reaction is unwarranted. For once without hocus-pocus the musical priorities of this country are set in proper order, with brass bands and choral societies at the head, composers rating hardly a mention, and their music not a word. Altogether an accurate exposition of New Zealand's traditional attitude; lacking only the conclusion that professional musicians, including semi-professional composers, are superfluous to this country's cultural requirements.
The history of the local composer is one of individuals struggling to find a role. It is a history of compromise and defeat. We might have produced ten composers worthy of the title by now if the ground had been more fertile, but even in an unchanged environment one or two might have survived with dignity had they not been fatally seduced by the small-town Iagos of the daily press.
The history of New Zealand's musical attitude is also perfectly clear, though it has never been clearly expounded. Music came to this country with the military, and has remained a paramilitary activity. Law and order was soon followed by culture and religion, giving colonial society brass band, light opera and concert oratorio, each cultivated for a sense of community, not out of musical virtue. New Zealand is still dominated by these three forms, and remains in the grip of a rabid amateurism and a passion for vulgar display. Private music did occur, and still flourishes, but it has never, as chamber music or solo performer, successfully gone public. Competitions, Festivals which, like Bands Contests, contrive to manifest our military obsession, offer the concert soloist some kind of a forum, but hardly a healthy one. By and large he is treated as an exportable commodity. This is the treatment we reserve for individualists, and composers are no exception. To become an integrated member of New Zealand society the composer has had to compromise his art to its grave disadvantage.
One can discern three stages in New Zealand composition. The first, with such figures as Vernon Griffiths and Victor Galway, accommodated most easily with the prevailing attitude of colonial dependency, and has perhaps wrought the greatest damage. The second movement, headed by Lilburn, attempted to institute a National style like that promulgated for poetry by Allen Curnow. The third and present period, dating from the LP explosion of around 1950, is one which some observers in other fields call Internationalism but which I prefer to interpre `t as the start of a trend among composers simply to write good music and to hell with superfluous considerations. Ron Tremain is the mentor of this period of New Zealand composition. which also includes Jenny McLeod and a lately-converted Lilburn (though Return still reflects the past in an electronic rear-view mirror).
Vernon Griffiths' principal achievement, the institution of a school music programme modelled on the disciplinarian functionalism of colonial music-making, was an admitted success. The noble enough ideal of providing every school pupil in the country with singing instruction and where possible instrumental training as well, still animates Education Department policy on the subject. It also massively immunised innumerable school-children against any genuine musical experience. The detritus of yesterday's policies is the sour society of the present, equating music with football and adopting holus-bolus the same criteria for both. Not long ago I obtained a draft copy of the Department's Suggestions for Teaching Music in the Primary School (1964, Government Printer), "designed primarily for the class teacher who has a limited knowledge of music" in the words of W. H. Walden-Mills, one-time band conductor and present National Adviser on School Music. I have dealt with the contents of this absurd little booklet elsewhere. (Third Stream I, March 1968). As an end-product of Griffiths' ideal, it exposes an intimate art reduced to a tasteless and punishing discipline. Two years ago the National Film Unit produced a news feature about a secondary school combination band and marching team. Its virtues, according to the school principal, lay in discipline, teamwork, development of character, and school pride. The music was horrible, but he wasn't concerned. Griffiths' policy, on its own terms, has been an unqualified success. But 'music' is a misnomer.
Around the 1940 centennial the idea of a National style caught the fancy of a number of younger composers whose dutiful study in England awakened the desire for an independent identity. Griffiths had always been keen to push the English tradition of choral singing: no matter that the English tradition had been moribund since 1695, there were certain principles laid down which could be effectively translated into this environment. The quest of the new wave, with Lilburn and Heenan riding the boards and Pruden and Ritchie paddling behind, was far harder to determine: the quest for a National Image. Maori musical tradition was discarded at once. For some years fiordorama (Sibelius) view unsuccessfully with cornpone (Copland) and pseudo-folk (Vaughan Williams). Such a passion for poster imagery seems curiously juvenile today, and it was sometimes carried to extremes— compare Copland's Hoedown with Heenan's Cindy, for example. But it does show a crippling lack of decision. Spokesmen and leaders they wanted to be, and public servants they remained. Their output of occasional pieces, particularly festive suites and overtures, shows that where it matters these composers were no closer to a responsible community role than their 19th-century predecessors.
Lilburn recently complained to a friend of mine that young composers today have no sense of history. If this means a disinclination to pursue nationalistic ideals, he is certainly right. Socialist realism is no longer attractive, cultural isolationism is no longer necessary. We are no longer cut off from European musical life, but through recording and broadcast may actively attend to current developments. Participation and dialogue will begin as our composers learn the language: the new spirit animating New Zealanders in anticipation of such idea-exchange, forgoes role-searching and is content to try simply to write good music. There are no guarantees of a livelihood, of course, but no composer's life has ever been comfortably secure in this country without being compromised. Likewise no prospects of performance, for even if our cultural fathers were to disregard public taste long enough to sponsor concerts of worthy music, the available musicians, with no practice in the music of this century, would prove inadequate to cope. For there is a difference, whatever the apologists may protest (and there are composers among them), between a reading-over of Lutoslawski such as occurred a year or so ago, and a genuine performance. Our orchestras, no less than our composers, fail to identify with their musical activity.
The younger composer simply writes what he wants to, as well as manuscript will allow. He will not write the sort of music that philistinism requires, even if the only performance outlets may come from such compromises. His attitude is rather that when people's tastes finally change there will be a store of music to cater for the new demand; in other words, when society needs composers, they will emerge.
But for the time being it is conceited or misleading to claim that the composer exists as a community figure. The kind of society we are does not allow for them; the extent to which some have accommodated in infertile soil is the extent to which they have accepted a stunted development. Evidence of dwarfism is not so much a limited horizon as a warped sense of scale, as when a certain Mr Bruce Mason mentions Heenan in the same breath as Haydn. A sign of maturity is the capacity to judge true relationships. The old guard needs a large dose of self-awareness.