Peter Wegner’s Centenarians

In 2021 Australian artist Peter Wegner won Australia’s prestigious portrait painting prize, the Archibald, with his painting of the Australian artist Guy Warren, who also happened to be a centenarian. That year also happened to be the prize’s centenary. Coincidence? Who knows! Regardless, the portrait was in fact part of a Centenarians project which Wegner has been working on since 2013.

As it so happens, on our drive down to Melbourne a few days ago we stopped, as we often do, at the lovely Benalla Art Gallery. It has a great cafe overlooking the Broken River (a tributary of the Goulburn); it has three exhibition spaces offering varied programs; and its little gift shop is also excellent. On this visit, the smallest space, the Simpson Gallery, was occupied by an exhibition titled Peter Wegner: The Centenarians. This exhibition comprises pencil and beeswax sketches of 20 centenarians made by Wegner between 2015 and 2019. (Given some of the subjects we saw were born in 2021, this means that “centenarians” includes those nearly 100 as well as those who were actually 100 when they were drawn).

The exhibition notes quote Wegner on the process and his aims:

Each drawing was completed from life in an afternoon or morning with little alteration to that first impression, they are moments captured within a time allowed.

The exploration of ageing and how well we age is central to this project. Maintaining human dignity and independent living are important issues as we age, alongside the question of what it means to have a productive and meaningful life. One’s good fortune in life was acknowledged by nearly all of my sitters—sometimes bewilderment about having reached such an age was expressed.

I loved them, partly for the art work which seemed to capture their subjects beautifully (though of course, I don’t know them), but also for the centenarians’ little commentaries which Wegner incorporated into the sketches.

Boz Parsons (b. 1918, sketched 2018)

Most of these commentaries reflected on how they’d lived to an old age – and here’s the probably-not-surprising thing, there was no consensus. For example, some never drank, some had a glass of wine with a meal, while one had beer before dinner and wine with dinner. A couple mentioned genes, though not many. A few mentioned work and/or attitude, like not worrying. As Boz Parsons said, “there is no secret to living a long life”!

So, for example, when sketched in 2019, Jack Bullen (born 1921) had two glasses of wine every night, and still had his driver’s licence but didn’t have many “close friends” because “they didn’t see the distance”. Sylvia Draeger (also born 1921) reckoned “the secret to a long life – take one day at a time”. Married twice, she says “I’m not looking for another husband”. Maisie Roadley, another born in 1921, says “I never worry. Hard work and a glass of wine every night”.

Erwin Fabian (b. 1915, sketched 2017)

But my favourite is Mim Edgar (born 1914, sketched 2018) who said “I don’ feel very old. When I’m sitting down I feel 16. When I then stand up I feel 100”. Haha, know the feeling!

Gallery Director, Eric Nash, introduces the exhibition in its catalogue. He comments that the portraits have both a “stillness, and a sense of energy and vitality”. He’s right. The life is there in the expressions, while the poses have a lovely stillness.

Nash also suggests that the portraits have lasting value for two reasons. One is that they preserve “the sitters’ accumulated knowledge and insights”. He notes that the artist has ensured this by dipping the drawings in beeswax “to protect the pencil markings”. This also gives the work an effective sepia tone. The other reason, Nash says, is that the works

could inform how we as a society support our older residents to continue enjoying enriching lives. Wegner has particularly sought sitters who “are still living lives with my mobility, curiosity and purpose … the exploration of ageing and how will we age is central to this project”.

Colin being congratulated on his 100th by two grandchildren.

To conclude, I thought I would include a photograph of my own centenarian, my Dad, who was born in 1920 and died in 2021. I’m not sure what he would have said to living a long life. He did have a whisky every night until his mid-90s; he was an optimist; and he valued good friends and family. He was alert until the end. Vale, again, dad.

Peter Wegner: The Centenarians
Benalla Art Gallery
1 July -28 August 2022

Note: For copyright reasons, I have not included images of complete portraits here, but you can see Wegner’s winning painted portrait of Guy Warren at Wikipedia.

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 6, Great Australian novel (again)

The things you find in Trove! As l was trawling Trove for my 1922-project earlier this year, I came across a reference to the Great Australian novel. Just one. So, I put it aside, thinking it would be a neat, quick little post for a busy week like this one. Little did I know …

Before writing this post, I thought I should do one more quick little search. Nothing much came up, except that buried in one of the few articles my search retrieved was a reference to a book titled The luck of 1825 by Horace B. Pithouse. Launceston’s Daily Telegraph (18 November), wrote that “the rough draft of the MS was originally sent for sake of a criticism to the de Garis Great Australian novel competition”. The de Garis Great Novel Competition? Ever heard of it? I certainly hadn’t.

So, I decided to do an Internet search, and up popped the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) with an article on one Clement John De Garis (1884-1936). Heard of him? I certainly hadn’t.

However, he was quite a character, and you can read about him at the link on his name above. In a nutshell, ADB lists his occupations as aviator, financier/investor, novelist, produce merchant, and short story writer, and describes him as “a man of effervescent charm and superhuman energy—a ‘prince of ballyhoo'”. Born in Mildura, he got involved in the dried fruit industry and was entrepreneurial in developing and promoting the product. But, it didn’t stop there. ADB writes that his “ambitions took on a manic quality and he began to see himself as all things to all men. A self-constituted patron of the arts, he launched a Great Australian Novel Competition”. This competition was advertised in 1919 with a closing date in early 1920. Hobart’s World (3 January 1920) promoted the competition, which had three prizes (£300 for first, £150 second, and £100 third). The goal was a “really great Australian novel”; the writer had to be Australian born; and “the story must be typically Australian”, which did not mean that ‘”local color” must be that of a shearing shed, or of the thirsty tracks in the Never Never.’

A humorist named “Dip-Tin” in Western Australia’s The Moora Herald and Midland Districts Advocate (5 May 1920) promoted it in verse, and included this on the potential subject matter:

There’ll be yarns about Ned Kelly. 
And Judge Bevan, and Oenpelli— 
Bet your life! 
And be sure each central figure 
Will become a dinkum digger, 
Plus a wife. 

Late in 1920, the winner was announced – Frank A Russell’s The ashes of achievement. Heard of it? No, nor have I! And that’s not surprising because the reviews, overall, were poor. Take this one (with an unreadable by-line) in Perth’s The Call (31 December 1920), titled ‘When DeGaris slept! The prize Australian novel candidly reviewed. A literary “Dud” – which isn’t brilliant – and isn’t even Australian’. You get the gist. The writer critiques the book’s failure at length, exposing its weaknesses in subject-matter, characterisation and language. If you’d like to know how to thoroughly pan a book, here is a good example, and if what he (I think it’s a Hector) says about it is right, his assessment is fair enough. Hector (?) concludes that:

With the publicity that has been given it The ashes of achievement will probably be widely read. But it will not be remembered.

The Queenslander (1 January 1920) agrees with The Call, albeit with brevity:

The C.J. DeGaris Publishing Company is worthy of commendation for its courage and confidence, because the work of publishing in these days is a very expensive business, but if the remaining novels are not better than The ashes of achievement the effort to enhance the literature of Australia will not be very considerable. There is more real Australian atmosphere in a few chapters of a score of other Australian novels than in the whole of Mr. Russell’s very long and mediocre production. The test of a novel lies in its atmosphere and character studies, but while in the 30 chapters of “The Ashes of Achievement” one is continually meeting new characters, and as suddenly dropping them, there is none of any outstanding merit …

I did find one positive report – in Perth’s The Southern Argus and Wagin-Arthur Express (8 January 1920) – but it was cursory:

Under such circumstances [that is, winning this prize] one would naturally expect a good novel, and one is not disappointed. The ashes of achievement is an Australian novel, by an Australian author, and not flavored with gum leaves to make it so. It maintains the reader’s interest from beginning to the end, and will rank amongst the best of international novels.

Fair point about the “gum leaves”, but …

I’ll leave De Garis here, and will get to the article from Smith’s Weekly (16 December 1922) that inspired this post. It starts by saying that ‘about once a week in our “esteemed contemporaries,” Australian authors are adjured to write the Great Australian Novel’ and goes on, tongue-in-cheek, to explain why it’s so difficult. It’s because, for example, Australian heroes and heroines can’t match the English versions with their titles and valets, and rose-leaf skin. Further,

No British hero or heroine has to work. Readers dislike working heroes and heroines. They know all about work without reading about it. 

Smith’s writer concludes:

Instead of picturesque characters, ivy-clad ruins and dear old London, we have galvanised-iron, bank managers, kerosene-tins, gum-trees, the golden wattle-bloom, shearers’ strikes, drought, the W.C.T.U., the blue, blue sky (over-worked), the last-lady-help-but-one, Old Pardon the son of Reprieve, Clancy of the Overflow, and dear old Woop Woop.

That is all the material we have. Personally, I don’t see how we can make the Great Australian Novel out of it. 

Love it … the less said about the Great Australian novel the better, I reckon.

This was the sixth post in my 1922 series.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels; 5. Art books

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 5, Art books

As I wrote in my fourth 1922-themed post, some genres and forms kept popping up in the articles I was reading about Australian literature. One was the adventure genre which I featured in the last post. That wasn’t particularly surprising, but today’s topic, art, is another matter.

However, before we get onto that, a note about by-lines. I’ve had it in mind for some time to do a Monday Musings post on by-lines. I probably will one day, but I need to do more research. One of the issues is that many of the articles I read in Trove have no by-lines, while those that do are often pseudonyms – and my, are some of them difficult to identify. There are two relevant to this post – Narrung who appears in the Sydney Mail (and Smith’s Weekly) and J. Penn in Adelaide’s The Register. I haven’t identified either of them yet, so if you know anything, please say so in the comments.

Now, onto art … I was intrigued to see such focus on writing about art, but I suppose I shouldn’t be, as the 1920s was a lively time in Australian art when Modernism, along with other exciting new styles and approaches, was taking hold.

Art in Australia

Issue no. 4

It’s not often that whole journals are reviewed these days – though there are exceptions, like the Griffith Review. I was surprised then to see how often Art in Australia was featured in 1922. The journal, which was published from 1916 to 1942, had a chequered publication history. Wikipedia explains that it had four “series”: (1) No.1, 1916 – No.11, 1921; (2) New Series Vol.1. No.1. (February 1922) – Vol.1. No.2 (May 1922); (3) Third Series No.1 (August 1922) – No.81 (November 1940); (4) Series 4, No.1 (March 1941) – No.6 (June 1942).

Two of the articles I read came from early 1922, and they discuss Issue no. 11. Penn, writing in Adelaide’s The Register (7 January), starts by saying that the introduction to the eleventh issue of this “fine literary and artistic serial … confirms an opinion frequently expressed in The Register Literary Page that the publication of such beautiful works as have emanated from the enthusiastic publishers in Sydney must … have been largely a labour of love”.  Penn says this because after this issue the new version will be a larger (newspaper-style?) format and produced less frequently.

The eleventh issue “is one of the best”, Penn says. It contains reproductions from artists like the Lindsays, Arthur Streeton, and G. W. Lambert, and literary contents from people like Lionel Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith (the journal’s editor), Zora Cross, A. G. Stephens, and Christopher Brennan. Those of you interested in the history of Australian literature will recognise some names here like Cross, Stephens and Brennan.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Argus (21 January) also talked about this issue, but focuses on describing some of the art works produced within its pages. S/he writes, for example, that:

George Lambert is represented by his head of Miss Mollie Dangar, a pencil sketch that most critics would probably prefer to his “Bush Landscape,” reproduced in this number, though one must make liberal allowances, of course, for the loss inevitable in all coloured process work. 

The issue also includes “Red Gum Tree” by George Streeton (presumably a typo for Arthur). The article concludes by advising of the changed format to come. It will be “in larger size, though there will be fewer plates. The price will be only half that charged now, but the publishers say that there will be no diminution in quality.”

Late in the year, Adelaide’s The Mail (2 December) wrote about the November 1922 issue of Art in Australia, from the third series, but starts by commenting on the journal as a whole:

Once in each quarter the soul of Australia is nourished and kept alive by the group of artistic and literary spirits who under the name of “Art in Australia, Ltd.,” register the vitality and departures of art and the arts in Australia to-day.

I love the belief that “the soul of Australia” is “nourished and kept alive” by a “group of artistic and literary spirits”. The writer argues that, while painting in Australia can’t “yet compare in range and extent of output with English resource”, this journal “can proudly take its place beside the older Studio“. Not only is it “accomplished in its colour reproduction” but it has “a freshness and virility characteristically Australian”.

Moreover, the issue is, the writer continues, “possessed especially of literary strength centring upon living and candid appreciations of Henry Lawson on the part of A. G. Stephens and J. Le Gay Brereton”. Melbourne’s National Gallery director, L. Bernard Hall, writes on aesthetics, and someone called “F. Bennicke Hart deals suggestively with the prospect before Australian music, stressing the propriety of at any rate continuity with the British spirit”. (Hmm…) There are also “characteristically caustic comments and epigrams” from Norman Lindsay, and poetry from writers like Dorothea Mackellar and Leon Gellert. And much more, but you get the gist of the breadth of the arts covered by the journal.

The writer concludes that “the duty and privilege” of all who support progress in Australian art is to not only support the journal, but introduce it to others.

Art books

Newspapers in 1922 also carried articles about art books, but Narrung, in the Sydney Mail (28 June) starts by discussing the book production industry in Australia, noting that books produced here had been of poor quality: “the less said about them the better; no library would care to own them, and they remain a sad record of ignoble effort and artistic failure”. Meanwhile, overseas, beautiful books were being produced, books that “should have set a great example locally for those who had eyes to see and admire”. Angus and Robertson’s and The Bulletin had produced some beautiful books, but they were made overseas.

Then, Narrung writes,

after a long period of sterility the subscription edition of “Satyrs and sunlight,” by Norman Lindsay and Hugh McGrae, made its appearance some 10 or 12 years ago, and until recently remained probably the handsomest example of a book ever turned out in Australia.

After a few more years, books of “great artistic merit” finally started to be produced here, like Elves and fairies by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The art of Fred McCubbin, and the famous catalogue, the first Hilder book. Suddenly, Australian publishers, including Art in Australia, were publishing beautiful books, albeit many being limited or subscription editions. A particularly beautiful example, according to Narrung, was Norman Lindsay and Leon Gallery’s The Isle of San. Narrung concludes with:

The fact remains that when some local artist or author is singled out nowadays for a special edition the result is always a delight, and Australian books, like other of our products, compare with the best of the world’s market.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Herald (2 December) also takes up this issue of publishing beautiful books, saying that “every painter whose work is worthy gains nowadays the recognition for which, in the past, genius often strove vainly”. S/he reviews The art of Sara Levi, published in 1922, calling it an “attractive portfolio”. Sara Levi was a nature painter, and was involved in several art societies at the time. “Brighton Beach”, a “charming picture” that was included in this volume, apparently fetched $4,400 in 1990, the highest price she’s fetched to date.

A superficial survey, but I’m enjoying learning (and sharing) these little insights into literary Australia of a century ago.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 4, Adventure novels

Continuing my 1922-themed posts, it became clear as I delved into Trove that certain genres or forms kept recurring in the reviews and articles I was reading about Australian literature. I plan to share them over the next few 1922 posts, starting with adventure in this post.

You might remember that my first 1922-themed post was on the N.S.W. Bookstall Co. Adventure novels, it seems, were among their popular fare. A brief article in The Australian Worker (22 February) discusses a couple such novels, but starts by saying that the N.S.W. Bookstall Co.

continues to deliver the goods, and as the goods, in the shape of vigorous yarns by Australian writers, appear to be selling well enough to make a further continuation certain, the company can be congratulated in believing years ago that local talent would make good if it were given the chance hitherto denied it.

Adventure novels

Some of you might remember a recent Monday Musings I did on Australia’s favourite genres, in which I reported that a Swiss-based study had determined that Adventure and Classics were our favourites. I won’t revisit that now, as you can read the post and its source information yourself if you’d like, but I was surprised that Adventure seemed so popular now. I am not so surprised, however, given the still relative newness of the Australian settler colony in 1922, that adventure was popular then. What did surprise me, however, was that, despite the longstanding strength of the bush myth, the bush was not the main setting I found – but I did find a few.

One was titled The black opal. I don’t know how many novels have been titled The black opal, but they abound, including Katharine Susannah Prichard’s of 1921. In 1922, however, there was one by journalist-cum-novelist Jack North. The Northern Territory Times and Gazette (16 September) writes that it is sub-titled “A story of Australian love and adventure”, but that

it is more than that. Notwithstanding the melodramatic incident which Percy Lindsay selected for his cover design, The black opal is a wholesome, well-written novel in which the lure of the bush triumphs over the glamor of the city.

I think “Jack North” might be a pseudonym. He had written, at that time, two other popular novels, Harry Dale’s Grand National and The son of the bush, plus, apparently, scenarios for the “movies”. (The article writer used those quotation marks for this clearly still strange new medium.)

A more traditional-sounding bush-adventure novel is Roy Bridges’ historical fiction, The cards of fortune, which the writer in the Kandina and Wallaroo Times (20 December), says is set in “the stirring days of the first settlement in Tasmania”. (Not sure all would call those days “stirring”, at least with a positive connotation!) It is, says the writer, “an appealing love story which is developed with the aid of stirring adventure”. (There’s “stirring” again”.) The novel, about a bushranger hunt, is described as a “bright little story of the early days”. Adventure novels are, I guess, escapist!

Island adventure novels

The most common adventure novels I found, however, were island adventures, which I think could qualify as a sub-genre?

The Australian Worker article I mentioned in this post’s opening briefly discusses two novels, S.W. Powell’s Hermit Island and Jack McLaren’s Feathers of heaven. The reviewer clearly admires the publisher, but not necessarily these books. They are both set to the northeast of Australia, and, s/he says,

are big-bulged with thrilling adventures in those places where the codes of life, to put it mildly, are not exactly of the parlor or the Sunday school variety.

They hope “this island type of yarn won’t be overdone”, because, they say

There’s plenty of love, and adventure, and goodness, and badness in Australia without going north-east in a boat to look for these elements of a readable story.

I will digress briefly here to say a little about Jack McLaren (1884-1954), because he was quite a prolific and popular writer. According to Wikipedia, he wrote novels based on his own experiences and was renowned for his “authenticity of background”. The son of a minister, he apparently ran away from school when he was 16, and worked as a cabin boy and seaman before landing in North Queensland in 1902. For the next 10 years he worked and travelled around the islands north and northeast of Australia, like Fiji, Java, New Guinea, Malaya and the Solomon Islands. He wrote for The Bulletin before turning to novels in 1919. Feathers in heaven was around his 7th novel.

The writer in the Kadina and Wallaroo Times (8 March) says that McLaren was one of Australia’s most popular authors. Feathers in heaven, this writer says, “is a novel of stirring adventure written round the illegal hunting of New Guinea’s beautiful birds-of-paradise … [and] … of course there is a girl in the story”. For this writer, the novel offers “wholesome adventure”.

Our Kadina and Wallaroo Times writer also discusses Powell’s Hermit Island, identifying it as being “of the Islands adventure class”, and set “off the beaten track” in Tahiti. It involves suspicion of piracy, for which there is “circumstantial evidence” and “develops rapidly to a wholly unexpected climax”. Sydney’s Sun (12 February), reviewing the same novel, makes a strong point about its Australian quality, starting the review with:

For a fine adventure story, neatly told, it is not always necessary to go overseas. Here is an Australian author, S. W. Powell, who knows the knack. Hermit Island is excellent value … The yarn is as capably done and as well imagined as any that comes out of California, and it has the advantage of speaking our own Australian language. 

S.W. Powell had, at the time, written four popular island-adventure novels. The genre was clearly a goer back in the 1920s.

Another reviewer, this time in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (18 July), discusses Powell’s The pearls of Cheong Tah. Like the previous reviewers, this one comments on Powell’s inclusion of humour in his novels – along with tragedy and romance.

Some random concluding observations

Did you notice the focus on “wholesome”? “Little” things like this provide such insight into their times.

Also, I struggled to find cover images. These books may have been popular, but most were cheap paperbacks and have not, apparently, survived well. Neither have the literary reputations of most of their authors. As always, it’s interesting to see how popular authors of a time fare over the long term. Could it be argued that the more popular a work, the greater the likelihood of appealing to more ephemeral interests and tastes and therefore of dating?

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night

On John Sinclair

Who is John Sinclair, you are probably asking? Those of you who read my last post, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, may remember that he was the husband of the marriage in question, and father of the author, Jane Sinclair. However, as I briefly mentioned in that post, John Sinclair was also a music critic in Melbourne from 1947 to 1985.

As a keen concert-goer I was intrigued, and so did a little digging. I found an interesting man with a passion for some things that might interest us here. This is to say, he had some definite ideas about criticism, and about supporting Australian music and culture. Most of what I’m sharing here came from a 1998 article by Adrian Thomas called ‘“Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’.

If you are interested, read the article, but regarding Sinclair’s background, Thomas tells us that he started out as an artist. In fact, in the early 1940s, newspaper owner Sir Keith Murdoch gave him a stipend over other prominent artists like Sidney Nolan (who was a good friend of Sinclair’s). It was during this time that Sinclair became involved with the Heidi artistic community. Thomas doesn’t know why he didn’t continue with art, but says that his association with this circle and “their artistic beliefs” informed his career as a music critic. He was determined “to encourage a vibrant and enduring musical culture in Melbourne” like that artistic one. He also advocated for contemporary music and championed “those Australian composers and performers whose talents he deemed worthy of support.” In 1947, he was employed as music critic by Murdoch’s Herald, and there he stayed.

The function of the music critic

Sinclair apparently wrote quite a bit about criticism. Re music critics, he argued that, in addition to having the skills necessary to determining “the merit or otherwise of a performance, it is equally important that he [this was 1947] should possess the ability to translate his musical experience into terms accessible to the layman”. He saw criticism as being still “relatively undeveloped in Australia”, and was keen to be part of its development.

He was known, says Thomas, for writing “direct and uncompromising reviews” which “shook the musical establishment”. As is the way of these things, people focused on the negative, but Thomas says that “quality performances were always acknowledged”. I couldn’t resist checking, and I found many positive ones in Trove, alongside some negative ones.

For example, he wrote in 1952 of a young Australian organist, John Eggington, just returned from England, that “certainly, Melbourne organ lovers would find it difficult to recall many occasions on which the playing was as clear, expressive and brilliant as Mr Eggington’s was today”. 

His negative reviews, though, were not gentle. In 1947 he wrote on a recital by Viennese-born Australian pianist Paul Schramm, saying he “sat at the piano, dispassionate and efficient — something of a musical pharmacist dispensing a potion with deft and skilful fingers. He is a natural musician, and a fluid and sensitive interpreter.” However, while it was good playing and musical, it was also “always facile”. Returning to the pharmacist analogy, Sinclair concludes that

Mr Schramm, however, appears more concerned with the effect of his dispensations on his listeners than a personal search in the deeper realms of the composer’s meaning. 

All told, I think Mr Schramm and I were among the few people who weren’t really enjoying themselves last night.

The negative ones caused controversy, which was good for the newspaper business, but even Murdoch himself, writes Thomas, stepped in to give Sinclair his view of criticism.

Anyhow, Sinclair said a few more things about criticism that are more broadly applicable, and appealed to me, such as that it is the critic’s

job to know his subject, to set his standards and then to hold to them so that any thoughtful reader, on the evidence of a series of criticisms, can determine where he and the critic stand in relation to music. Only then can the reader form a worth-while opinion of the music on which the critic has reported. (1952)

I like this point about critics having clear criteria/standards that we can get to know. He also noted in 1952 that “the critic stands between the musician and the public and contributes to the understanding of music by measuring the individual work or performance against the widest possible background”.

And in 1973, in a letter to the Australian Council of the Arts, he said, among other things, that:

I have always believed that my responsibility was to the cause of music in the widest sense [my emph.]; that I had a responsibility not only to make reputable judgements about performance but to understand the many and complex factors that determine the quality of music making in the community.

I like his views on the practice and role of criticism. What about you?

Supporting contemporary music and musicians

Thomas discusses Sinclair’s role in improving what was Australia’s “immature musical culture”, in terms of concert-going behaviour, but my main interest is Sinclair’s ongoing concern with public’s “indifferent attitudes towards Australian composers and performers”. He laid much of this at the feet of the ABC. It was Australia’s main concert organiser and it focused on international performers. He wrote in 1952 that “in the long run it is the quality of indigenous musical activity, and not the playing of visitors that determines the worth of a year”.

The public, he saw, was being trained to prefer the international celebrity. Even worse, the concerts these and local orchestras performed primarily comprised standards from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He argued that “the ABC has an obligation to foster public taste and to provide conditions in which Australian musicians can develop and mature”. He worked hard to promote contemporary music and local composers. I found a 1951 review of a concert conducted by Eugene Goossens in which he praises Goossens for “continuing his very tangible services to Australian composers” by conducting the first Melbourne performance of Margaret Sutherland’s tone poem “Haunted Hills”. Similarly, a review of a 1952 Victorian Symphony Orchestra concert starts:

Much more contemporary music than usual and an excellent standard of performance distinguished last night’s concert by the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Juan Jose Castro in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Thomas tells us “by the time the ABC tried to change the culture by appointing composer and contemporary music advocate Juan Castro as resident conductor in 1952, a conservative attitude to music was firmly entrenched in audiences”.

Converting audiences to contemporary music has always been a tough ask, but it, like all contemporary artistic endeavour, must be supported if culture is to remain fresh. I have enjoyed getting to know John Sinclair a little more, and greatly enjoyed reading his writing in the Herald.

We don’t hear much about his work in Shy love smiles, but he and Jeannie do discuss music occasionally. I’ll close on something Jeannie wrote to him in 1961 about a concert she attended at Glyndebourne. The work was modern, “Elegy for young lovers” by Henze, with words by Auden. She loved it:

my hair stood on end as the symbols [sic] clashed on and on. You probably read about it. Ah well. Also the audience was more serious and highbrow and sympathetic. Obviously the society ladies were frightened.

They shared some values, it seems. I’ll leave it there.

Adrian Thomas
‘”Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’ in Context: Journal of Music Research, No. 15/16, 1998: 79-90

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch, with Irma Gold

Local performance poet-novelist-artist Omar Musa’s latest book, Killernova, had two launches in Canberra this weekend, one with Polly Hemming and the other with Irma Gold. Being Gold fans, Mr Gums and I booked her session, and it was both engaging and illuminating, but I have it on good authority that Polly Hemming’s session, though different, was also well worth attending.

Omar Musa has three poetry collections, a Miles Franklin Award longlisted novel (Here come the dogs), and a play to his name. He has also released solo hip hop records. And now, he has turned his hand to woodcuts and woodcut printing. He is, you’d have to say, multi-talented – and it comes, I think, not only from a curiosity about the world, but a desire to find his place, to engage with it, and to explore ways of expressing the things that he feels strongly about.

Not surprisingly, then, this was not your usual “in conversation” launch. It started with Musa performing some of his poetry, and a song. There’s nothing better, really, than hearing a poet read or perform their own writing, and Musa is a polished performer. So there was that. Then there was a display of his woodcuts, most of which appear in his book, and home-made sambal for sale, along with the book, not to mention the conversation with Irma Gold.

The performance

It was such a treat to have Musa perform some poems. I’ve heard him before, and love his heart and his ability to convey it so expressively through words and voice. His poetry is personal but also political, carefully crafted yet fresh too. Here’s what he performed:

l am a homeland: Musa, who has Malaysian and Australian heritage, started with this poem that explores home and belonging, when you don’t have one place, and got some audience participation going, asking us to breathe in its meditation-inspired refrain, “inhale”, “exhale”:

Inhale – I am singular
Exhale – I appear in many places

UnAustralia: Musa explained that he is often criticised as being UnAustralian because he (dares to) criticise Australia. This poem is his answer to that, and perfectly examplifies his satirical way with words:

Come watch the parade!
In UnAustralia
Land of the fair-skinned.
Fairy Bread.
Fair Go.

Rose gold lover: this one was a song – part ballad, part rap, and beautiful for that. (You can hear it performed with Sarah Corry on LYRNOW)

Hello brother: Musa dedicated this poem to Haji-Daoud Nabi, who, with the words “Hello, brother”, warmly welcomed to Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque, the shooter who went on to kill him and 50 other people.

Flannel flowers: Musa introduced us to a rare pink flannel flower that grows in the Blue Mountains. It flowers only when “specific conditions … are met … fire and smoke, followed by rainfall”, making it bitter-sweet – and an opportunity to contemplate both the environment and our mortality.

The conversation

So, I’ve introduced Musa, and Irma Gold needs no introduction, as she has appeared many times on this blog, including for her debut novel, The breaking (my review). Click on my tag for her to see how active she is. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.

Musa and Gold, National Portrait Gallery, 27 November 2021.

Gold commenced by introducing Musa as a multi-talented artist, poet, rapper. She also praised, as an editor, the book being launched, Killernova. It’s a collection of diverse poems and woodcuts, and yet flows seamlessly, she said.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that, with Gold’s warm and thoughtful questioning, covered a lot of relevant ground.

The woodcuts

Given woodcuts feature strongly in the book, and are a “new” art for Musa, Irma started with how he got into woodcutting. He explained how he’d been in a dark place – had started to hate what he was supposed to love, writing and performing – so was visiting his father in Borneo, when he came across Aerick LostControl running a woodcut workshop, and joined in.

He spoke of the leopard which appears – often playfully – in his woodcuts (including one on top of Canberra’s iconic bustop.) So much of his writing, he said, focused on the ugliness of humanity, on racism, depression, so he wanted to do something beautiful. His first woodcut depicted the local small leopard (Sunda clouded leopard, I think). Although he felt it was “childish”, his teacher saw talent – what a surprise! – and a new form of expression for Musa was born.

Gold also asked him about the practice of “stamping the spirit into the works”. This is, Musa said, the traditional Southeast Asian way of printing woodcuts, and is still used, I think he said, by Indonesian protest poster-makers.

Musa then talked about taking the craft of writing so seriously it can lead to paralysis. Language is so imprecise you can just keep going, tweaking, tweaking the words. In woodcutting, if you make a mistake, you have to move on, as what is done is done. To make art, you have to take risk. He’d been taking himself too seriously, he felt, so wanted (needed, too, I felt he was saying) to be playful.

At the end of the conversation, but I’m popping it in here, Gold asked about how woodcarving deepened his connection with heritage. Musa said that he “would like to say it felt like homecoming but it felt more like tourism”. Some of this tension is conveyed, he said, in the first poem he performed, “I am a homeland”. It explores how we can inhabit different identities. A box limits you, he said. He prefers fluid identities.

The writing process

Gold asked whether, given he’s a performance poet, he reads aloud when he is writing? Musa said he writes in a “trancelike state” then “sculpts” his work. “Write in passion, edit in cold blood” is his practice. He also shared the philosophy of his favourite poet, Elizabeth Bishop – write with “spontaneity, accuracy, mystery”.

On whether he ever edited a poem further after performing, I think he said yes! (Given I sometimes post-edit my blog posts – because I can – I say, why not?)

Art and creativity

Gold referred to the poem, “Poetry”, because she related to its ideas. In it, he plays with the traditional recommendation to “write what you know”, shifting it, first, to “write what you know about what you don’t know”, then rephrasing it to “write what you don’t know about what you know”, before finally getting to the crux – and I like this – “write a question”.

The best art, he said, makes us ask questions about the world around us, but he likes to start with a question about self, with something that tests one’s preconceptions. Art, he believes, does not have to provide answers, just ask questions. Yes.

Gold then asked him about the role of alcohol and drugs in creativity, something Musa has spoken about. Killernova, he responded, is partly about undercutting mythologies in the art scene. One is the singular genius writer or artist. It’s b***s***, he said. All artists are products of their environment, so, this book includes collaborative poems. Another concerns the “addict musician, drunk poet” which he had bought into, but this book was “written when clean”.

The environment

Gold noted that concern with desecration of the environment runs through book, and asked Musa about the role he saw for art. Art, Musa believes, both holds a mirror up to world as it is and as it can be.

There is a Utopia in Killernova, Leopard Beach. Are Utopias dangerous, childish ideas that distract us OR could they project the world as it could be? he asked. Good question. He described a successful turtle sanctuary in Borneo, which was the result of someone’s dream. Through art, we can reimagine the world, and make us feel less alone.

Can art change people’s minds?

Musa responded that Werner Herzog said no, but he thinks it can, through asking questions. However, this needs to go hand-in-hand with collective action.

The end

Musa gave us one more performance to end with. It was a collaborative poem (“after” Inua Elliams) about pandemic, F***/Batman. Loved it, with its wordplay on masks (“we could finally drop our masks”) and references to toilet paper, Zoom, jigsaws; its exploration of the positives, negatives, and potential contained in the pandemic; and the idea that we “grew madder yet clearer headed”. What will we do with this, though, is the question. A provocative end to a great launch.

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch with Irma Gold
National Portrait Gallery
Saturday 27 November 2021, 3-4pm

The Griffyns are back – with Songs from a Stolen Senate

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the performing arts industry, as we all know, and that, of course, included our beloved Griffyn Ensemble. However, they clearly didn’t spend the time twiddling their thumbs, because this weekend they returned to live performance at the new Belco Arts Theatre. What a thrill it was to see and hear these special musicians again – and with an inspired and inspiring program*. Titled Songs from a Stolen Senate, it featured music commissioned from some of Australia’s leading First Nation musicians. Their brief was to use Parliamentary text – hence the performance’s title – to create “song and storytelling from the perspective of their own life stories”. This is the first in an ongoing series that the Griffyns say will explore how Australian identity has been forged since European settlement.

It was a brave program, because it involved the Griffyns working collaboratively with a number of Indigenous Australian musicians and laying themselves bare to the discomfort – to leaving one’s comfort zone – that such collaboration inevitably entails if it’s conducted honestly. However, it also showed what such collaboration undertaken with open hearts and good will can achieve, which is why I started this post with the words “inspired and inspiring”. Of course, it goes without saying that Indigenous Australians have experienced discomfort – and much, much worse – for a long time, so it’s time that the rest of us opened ourselves up to that too, as Jimblah said in his video statement during the show.

Promo published on YouTube in October 2020

So, who did they collaborate with? With indigenous artists from around Australia: Warren Williams (Aranda country musician), Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Noongar singer-songwriters), Norah Bagiri (singer-songwriter from Mua Island in the Torres Straits), Christopher Sainsbury (Canberra-based Dharug/Eora composer), Brenda Gifford (Canberra-based Yuin composer), and with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith, who undertook parliamentary research and helped with the lyrics. If I understood correctly, to these original five collaborations were added Gina Williams’ beautiful Wanjoo welcome song, chosen by Griffyn soprano Susan Ellis; a piece composed by the Griffyns in collaboration with local Ngunnawal visual artist, Richie Allen; and the song “Not in my name” inspired by hip-hop artist from Larrakia nation Jimblah’s call for us to “activate”.

And what, exactly, did they collaborate about? Well, these won’t be a surprise as the musicians explored the sorts of topics you would expect, including the Stolen Generations, climate politics, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, assimilation policies. The original brief was, as I’ve said, to use Parliamentary text, but some of the musicians needed to go wider. For example, Norah Bagiri wanted to write about climate change and rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, but that has not been covered in Parliament, so it was to the UN that she and Melinda Smith went! Similarly, Gina Williams was interested in AO Neville, the notorious Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, so they used words from the Western Australian government.

Anyhow, the end result was a musical program performed by the Ensemble, supported by beautifully curated verbal contributions from the creators, presented on a large screen, interspersed with the live music.

Program (jotted down in the dark so perhaps not quite right)

  • Wanjoo welcome song (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Instrumental work (Warren Williams)
  • The view from the shore (Norah Bagiri)
  • Music from Ngunnawal Country (inspired by local Ngunnawal Kamilaroi visual artist, Richie Allen)
  • Breathe (Brenda Gifford)
  • What are we to do (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Not in my name (Jimblah)
  • Red kangaroo standing (Christopher Sainsbury)

Some of the issues that came out through the program included exploration of our national anthem’s notion of “young and free” (Gifford) and the fact that Noongar language didn’t have words for “stolen” and “freedom” (Williams and Ghouse):

They have no word for stolen
They have no word for freedom
What kind of civilisation is this?

All the pieces were strong, engaging and musically interesting, but I found “What are we to do” and “Not in my name” particularly haunting.

The program ended on something a little more hopeful, Christopher Sainsbury’s “Red kangaroo standing”, which was inspired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, to serve as a government minister, and to be appointed to cabinet. Sainsbury, I believe, wanted to leave us with a positive sense of where Indigenous Australians are now and of non-Indigenous Australia’s increasing openness to Aboriginal culture. However, I couldn’t help hearing a touch of irony in the the last words of the piece – and of the program – “thank you”!

The Griffyns’ current line-up has been together for several years now, and the simpatico – musical, intellectual and yes, I’d say, emotional – that is clearly between them makes these concerts not only of high quality, performance-wise, but a real joy to be part of. It goes without saying that I look forward to their next concert. (Meanwhile, if you live near Castlemaine, Victoria, you can see this program there on 28th March.)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director, mandolin), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (voice), Kiri Sollis (flutes), and Chris Stone (violin)

* This program was intended to launch the new theatre at Belco Arts last May, but COVID-19 stopped that. It was then presented, virtually, last September in the Where You Are Festival, for which I booked, and then missed!

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

Challenge logo

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Monday musings on Australian literature: New England Writers’ Centre

I thought I had finished my round-up of Australia’s writers’ centres with my post on the Australian Writers Centre, but then I came across a rather interesting – and active – regional one, and would like to share it with you (as well as document it here). It is the Armidale-based New England Writers Centre (NEWC).

Like most writers’ centres, the NEWC is a membership service, and has been running for over 20 years. It describes its activities very simply, as

delivering writing and illustrating workshops, professional opportunities, fabulous  literary events, showcasing of local talent, and more, to its members. (About Page)

Like the other membership-based centres it:

  • runs a variety of writing and outreach programs, in Armidale and throughout New England, as well as via online technologies
  • offers and/or supports various writing (and associated) awards and fellowships
  • communicates with members via newsletters, emails and social media.
  • provides resources (primarily prepared by Sophie Masson) to all sorts of sites of relevance to writers and illustrators. Check the link to see what I mean.
Arielle Van Luyn, Treading air

The Centre’s current Board includes, among others, published writers, Sophie Masson (who has more than 50 books to her name) and Ariella van Luyn (whose Treading air I’ve reviewed), professional editor Linda Nix, and local publisher (and, love this, “Rolls Royce trained, professionally qualified mechanical engineer”) Peter Creamer.

You may wonder how I came across this regional centre? Interestingly, it was via the new ARA Historical Fiction Prize which I wrote about recently. The prize was established by the ARA Group and HNSA (The Historical Novel Society Australasia), but this Centre was actively involved, by being part of the Prize sub-committee and administering the submissions.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with most of the other centres, I’ll share some of their main programs … but I must say that, as with most organisations this year, it looks like there’s been a bit of rejigging of programs and activities, and a willingness to turn to new forms of communicating and reaching out.

New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing

This prize seems to be one of their most significant ongoing programs. It has been running for eight years, and is a multi-prize award with the following categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Youth Award, Emerging Author and the New England Award. The prizes are relatively small – $250 to $500 – but, a prize is a prize, and must help the cv.

Aussies will know of course, but for others, this prize was named for the infamous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt.

They also offer an Illustration Prize, which is interesting, as I haven’t seen this aspect of writing/publishing supported quite so obviously in the other centres is it seems to be in this one.

Varuna/New England Writers Centre Fellowship

Regular readers here will have heard of Varuna Writers Retreat before, but in 2019 the NEWC established, in partnership with Varuna, a new annual fellowship. The prize is

a week’s inspirational writing residency in the beautiful surroundings of Varuna, in the Blue Mountains, and include full board and accommodation at Varuna, funds towards travel, a one-on-one consultation with a Varuna expert and more. 

Shortlistees receive two free workshops of their choice from NEWC’s program. 

By the Book video series

This is a new program, just launched this month, comprising YouTube videos featuring “local professional writers, illustrators, editors and publishers offering tips and advice on all kinds of aspects relating to book creation and production”. They range from a couple of minutes to six or so minutes. Here is Sophie Masson introducing the series:

Finally …

For a (not so little) region, the NEWC sounds like an impressively active writers’ centre, which supports a wide range of writing activities in the New England area. It’s exciting seeing such energy coming from regional towns and cities, particularly now when regions seem to be coming into their own, with city-dwellers, post-COVID, starting to see the very real benefits of regional living.

Writers Centres posts: ACT, Australian Writers Centre, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Writers’ Centre

I have written posts now on writers centres in every Australian state and territory, but there is also, would you believe, an Australian Writers’ Centre. Who are they, and where do they fit in?

It seems like they are primarily a provider of writing courses. When you click on the About link on their website, the first thing you read is:

Welcome to the Australian Writers’ Centre

We’re Australia’s leading provider of writing courses and we’re so excited that you’ve found us at last!
If you’d like to improve your writing skills or simply find your inspiration, this is the place.

They say that they offer courses in “in creative writing, freelance writing, business writing, blogging and much more”, and that people love their courses “because of their affordability, short duration and accessibility – a risk-free way to gain new writing skills in a supportive environment”.  Their courses are “created by experts who are active in the industry”. They run in-person courses (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane) and online ones.

Nick Earls, NoHoThey sound and look highly self-promotional, but who teaches their courses? Well, there are some well-known names there, including published (many of them internationally successful) Australian authors, such as Kate Forsyth (best-selling author of fantasy, primarily); Alison Tait (best-selling author, particularly of children’s books); Nick Earls (popular writer of books for adults, young adults and children, and who has appeared here); novelists Annabel Smith (who has also appeared here a few times) and Natasha Lester; plus others including Valerie Khoo, and various journalists and free-lance writers. I notice, for example, that Annabel Smith’s Creative Writing course that started today is sold out.

They also offer other free “resources” or activities:

So, as far as I can tell, the AWC is primarily an organisation offering courses and other resources for writers, both fee-based and free. Unlike the state-based centres it is not a member organisation, but I can’t find anything on their site, not even their FAQs, about their history or governance. (Wikipedia’s article on Valerie Khoo says she founded it in 2005.) This sort of information is not essential, of course. If they are providing a needed and appreciated service, that’s the important thing. But, I’m a librarian-archivist, and I do love it when organisations provide some history on their sites. It’s not hard to do.

A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life. (Barbara Kingsolver, from AWC Newsletter, 6/2/20)

Exactly why I love to read (notwithstanding there are some lives I may not want to be in) … what about you? 

Writers Centres posts: ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.