Merits and limits of a national sound

Joe Gorman 

The digeridoo or the wobble board? Peter Sculthorpe or The Saints? Choral music or hip-hop? Does Australia have a distinctive Australian musical style? According to the panel at the Sydney Writers Festival, the individual rather than the nation should frame the way in which we consume, create and discuss music.

In front of a small but eager audience at Bangarra Mezzanine, Mark Mordue hosted a discussion on Friday evening with singer-songwriter Dave Graney, and composers Richard Gill and Andrew Ford.

Richard Gill kicked off the evening with an impassioned plea for Australians to “avoid the phoney” when listening to, creating and identifying music. “More important than an Australian sound,” Gill explained, “is that every Australian kid can make sound.” Coming from a background in musical education, it may not have been a surprising statement, but it was one that certainly resonated with the audience.

Richard Gill

Richard Gill

When debating the merits and the limits of a national sound, the discussion never strays too far from the political. Gill said that throughout his life, politics has made him want to leave Australia. However, with one fist pumped, he said that Australians “must stay and fight”. For what exactly he left unsaid, but the murmurs of approval from the gallery suggested that they understood and agreed with the sentiment.

Taken aback slightly by Gill’s provocative opening statement, Mark Mordue called on Dave Graney, who spoke about the importance of the Australian accent, and how Australian hip hop has continued a tradition of “keeping it real” by maintaining an Australian accent. Indeed, hip-hop is one area in which issues surrounding the nation and what it means to be Australian have been most hotly debated in recent years.

However, both Graney and Andrew Ford agreed with Richard Gill’s wariness of “an Australian sound”. While Graney spoke of a “superhuman other persona” that was not necessarily linked to “an earthly locale”, Ford stated that he was “ambivalent and possibly opposed” to the identification of an Australian sound or style.

Instead, Ford spoke eloquently about the individual artists search for their own voice. Interestingly, he linked the personal to the national, stating that a distinctive voice is often found “when you stop thinking about it.” Can we say the same about any attempts to rationalise and explain a musical nationalism?

Andrew Ford

Indeed, who decides what is Australian, when the consumption of music is an inevitably personal experience? In this regard, Mark Mordue commented that bands like The Necks and The Dirty Three evoke feelings and pictures that reminded him of an Australian home.

Amidst all the talk of ‘de-nationalising’ music, it was a point well made. That music can evoke images and feelings of community and of connection is part of it’s eternal power and appeal.

However, the rationalisation of definitions of Australian music is what seemed to worry the panel the most. Richard Gill commented that artists like Chad Morgan, the vaudeville country singer, were “so Australian they’re exotic.”