Peter Sculthorpe, the Most Indonesian Australian Composer by Ananda Sukarlan, composer & pianist

Left - Right:  Ananda Sukarlan - Peter Sculthorpe INDONESIAKININEWS.COM -  The  classical music world now has recognized Peter Sculthorpe as...

Left - Right:  Ananda Sukarlan - Peter Sculthorpe

INDONESIAKININEWS.COM - The  classical music world now has recognized Peter Sculthorpe as the first  truly Australian classical music world now has recognized Peter Sculthorpe as the first truly Australian composer, creating a distinct identity for antipodean classical music and pioneering the use of Aboriginal music in the concert hall. 

Born in Launceston, Tasmania on April 29th, 1929, he would have turned 95 in this year when Indonesia and Australia are celebrating the 75th anniversary of our diplomatic relationship. 

It was in 1949 when Australia recognised Indonesia's independence, although historically, contact between Australians and Indonesians began as early as the 17th century prior to the arrival of the Europeans, through the arrival of sailors from Makassar and Bugis and their interactions with the indigenous Australians around Marege' , now in the Northern Territory.

But not only that. Together with the Queenslander composer Betty Beath (born November 19th, 1932) they are the Australian composers who drew the most inspiration from, and are most attached to various Indonesian ethnic music.

Sculthorpe wrote over 350 works across many musical forms, and many of his works continue to be regularly performed throughout the world. 

He was passionate about his love for Australia, it’s landscape and indigenous culture. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music as well as Indonesia’s gamelan were significant influences upon his musical language. In Peter’s own words “the journey of my life can best be told through my music”.

Many of his works are associated with a particular place; from his youthful pastoral works written in Tasmania, through the varied cultures of Asia (especially Indonesia and New Guinea) to Mexico, to Australia’s geographical features and Aboriginal music, to places of the Human Spirit, where humanitarian concerns such as asylum seekers in detention, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and environmental concerns about climate change, have inspired his later quartets.

I only met him once in my lifetime, during one of his frequent visits to London. Before that, we had corresponded through written letters (it started before the era of emails, and even that, he didn't have an email until much later), and I was always delighted to receive his letters since Peter, amongst all other composers, had the most beautiful handwriting. 

It was in the early 2000s, I was about to perform some of his piano music at the BBC festival, discussed with and played it to him the day before. 

We ended up talking all evening about his concepts, ideas and manners of composing music.

I think he was quite impressed with my performance and then recommended me to record his piano music, which I then did in 2012, although not exactly all his piano music. 

I worked with the Plural Ensemble in Madrid, guided them to the interpretations and insight to Peter's music to record his duo and trios besides his solo piano works for the Compact Disc "Spirits of Place", which was released by the Verso label in Spain. 

This CD was only distributed in Europe, but later through Apple Music and now in Spotify, so everyone around the world could listen to it. 

We were so glad that Peter still had the chance to listen to it and commented so positively, before passing away in 2014.

The musicians of Plural Ensemble and me had a very nice, simple token of appreciation from him: his handwritten gratitude letter, sent from Australia. 

He praised our interpretation, which we obviously value as high as his beautiful handwriting!

I continue, right until today, to be his staunch supporter and his foremost champion of his music especially in South of Europe.

The music of Indonesia (particularly Bali) and Japan has a long-held fascination for Peter. 

He took great interest in Balinese music, after discovering Colin McPhee's book Music in Bali: A Study in Form and Instrumental Organisation in Balinese Orchestral Music. 

Sculthorpe's early Balinese-influenced works include Tabuh Tabuhan (1968, not to be confused with Colin McPhee's work of the same name) and String Quartet No. 8 (1969). 

In the 1970s, Sculthorpe experimented with Japanese musical influences, including the quotation of saibara melodies in works such as Landscape II (1978), Mangrove (1979) and Piano Concerto (1983) using compositional techniques of Japanese derivation, such as the so-called fuori di passo (out-of-step) textural effect heard in Mangrove or Landscape II; the use of Japanese scales in works such as Koto Music I and II (1973–1976); and the use of Japanese philosophical concepts in Snow, Moon, and Flowers (1971).

It is therefore interesting to note that when Sculthorpe began using actual Indigenous melodies, he was particularly discriminating in his choices, selecting motives with a view to their potential for homogeneous incorporation into his musical idiom. 

More frequently than not, we composers do this almost unconsciously.

The basic ideas used in his String Quartet no. 8 stem from the rice-pounding music, ketungan, of Bali, and the popular song play, arja. 

It is in five movements, the first and last being almost entirely for solo cello. These two movements, together with the third movement, are written in a spatio-temporal notation in order to create a feeling of improvisation. 

They also form a contrast to the strict meters of the quicker sections in the second and fourth movements. 

The actual metrical patterns in these sections, extremely limited in the number of notes employed, are characteristically Indonesian. These two movements, in fact, seem to have a static, ritualistic quality that is very much in keeping with the ideals of Asian music.

I studied how Peter "adapted" the Aboriginal songlines and other indigineous elements into his music before I wrote my own orchestral work "The Voyage to Marege' ", commissioned by the Australian Government through the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2017. The one thing I regret is that Peter just died a few years before I actually wrote this "Australian" music, which I consider a kind of reciprocity to his understanding and love of Indonesian music. I did talk to him several times about both our relationship to ethnic music, but never specifically on Australian indigineous music.

Peter Sculthorpe has told me in our one and only live encounter that he has sometimes been criticized for his adaptations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island melodies. But what are the underlying political issues, and what are the ethics of such cross-cultural borrowings? The 1980s marked changes in Sculthorpe's music: a new stylistic synthesis, the fascination with Kakadu National Park and the recycling of a small number of Indigenous melodies dubbed the ‘Kakadu songlines’. These melodies can be seen to conform to one of two pre-existing styles within Sculthorpe's works: one Japanese and one Balinese. Whereas Sculthorpe has carefully selected melodies that easily conform to these pre-existing styles, he has also shaped and moulded his idiom around the ‘Kakadu songlines’. Sculthorpe's careful attribution of the ‘Kakadu songlines’ as Indigenous in origin suggests that he is subtly positioning himself in the cultural and political spectrum. Identification with Aboriginal culture has arguably benefited him in perpetuating his quintessentially Australian image. Nevertheless, Sculthorpe's persistent fascination with these melodies and his persistent identification with Aboriginal attitudes suggest that a sincere homage to Aboriginal culture is being made. Although Sculthorpe's methods may appear to be vestiges of a bygone era, he has consistently acknowledged his Indigenous sources and heralded Indigenous cultures in Australia and abroad.

Working with the Indigenous musician William Barton, Sculthorpe has added didgeridoo to many of his chamber and orchestral works (in both performances and recordings). 

Moreover, the successful result of these collaborations is arguably related to the fact that Sculthorpe's style is predisposed to the addition of drones (or already has drones), with long passages of static harmonies and repeating rhythmic ostinati.

Significantly, Barton has been given high-profile billing on advertising material and concert programmes (to a previously unheard of extent for a didgeridoo player in an orchestral context). 

One cannot help but wonder whether Sculthorpe's motivations for sharing the limelight are at least partly politically motivated, as if to forestall further criticism of his appropriations of Indigenous melodies. 

Peter's work with didgeridoo inspired me, but I treated it very differently in "The Voyage to Marege' ".

Ten years after Peter left us, we see things in different perspectives now. In the end, it is not the political, racial or religious background that is left by an artist's product. 

An artistic product is a document of history, told through the innermost feelings and emotions that would make its audience aware of how and what really occurred during the creation of that particular work of art. 

It is an act of faith, as the Indonesian great writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma has written: "When journalism is silenced, literature should speak up". 

And when literature, that uses words, is insufficient to express the deepest emotions, only music can do the task.

Liputan indonesiakininews.com


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IndonesiaKiniNews.com: Peter Sculthorpe, the Most Indonesian Australian Composer by Ananda Sukarlan, composer & pianist
Peter Sculthorpe, the Most Indonesian Australian Composer by Ananda Sukarlan, composer & pianist
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