Thursday, 26 January 2012

Musical Architecture

Some say there’s only one way to set up a tarpaulin. Not my dad. He’ll keep tweaking and refining his masterwork for the whole camping trip. I may have inherited his architectural vision when it comes to setting up a tarp, much to the misfortune of my husband who has to listen to my constant stream of advice!

I had no idea tarp architecture was such a strong part of my DNA; the far-reaching influence of my parents continues to surprise me. It is like cats eyes that mark out the road, or goal posts on the footy field. Do they ever fade?

Then there are musical parents – jazz artists have ridiculously long lists of ‘influences’ in their bios. Brahms could hardly bear the shadow of his forefather Beethoven – the demi-god’s symphonic legacy was so comprehensive that it took poor Brahms 21 years to write his first symphony.

Margaret Sutherland (1897-1984) was essentially Australia’s first woman composer and I wonder where she looked for her musical parents? The composer Alfred Hill could have been a father figure, if he had considered a woman a worthy beneficiary. In the early 20th century it was thought inappropriate for a woman to write music beyond the parlour; Margaret’s husband (a psychiatrist) thought any woman wanting to compose music was mentally insane.

There were a few female figures from the distant past: Clara Weick (Schumann), Fanny Mendelssohn (Hensel), Hildegard von Bingen. Would Margaret have known much about them? Margaret’s harmony teacher was Mona McBurney, who had composed an opera among other things but wouldn’t have called herself a composer. Fortunately Margaret’s artistic talent was encouraged by her free-thinking Melbourne family which included several musicians and an Aunt Jane who was an artist associated with the Heidelberg School.

Essentially Margaret was an orphan in the composition world.  Still she pursued composition relentlessly and exploded the myth that women don’t compose music. Her music was bittersweet, adventurous and focussed on Australian poetry and themes. She used cutting edge compositional techniques and brought Australia up to speed with the modernism that was sweeping Europe. Perhaps best of all, she became a mother figure to the generations of women composers who followed. Now there is a tarp built to last!