Josten Myburgh: Sculthorpe Studies

Saturday 17 April 2021

One of the most exquisite items of late 20th Century kitsch is Bird Symphony, an album by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation featuring various Australian orchestras playing popular classics by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel with overdubbed recordings of native birdsong. Heavily advertised on Australian TV in the 1990s, it appealed to a more mature audience, of which many of the older members would recall a childhood in which they were taught that their country possessed no notable indigeneous birdlife at all, save the laughing jackass. The pairing of local nature with foreign culture was once considered a small victory in that it acknowledged the local having any aesthetic value at all, but by the age of the CD the more sophisticated Australian recognised it as a beacon of the Cultural Cringe for which we supposed ourselves famous.

It would take a crassness of Boulezian proportions to say that Peter Sculthorpe represented this form of kitsch raised to its most refined pinnacle; particularly as it isn’t even true. Nevertheless, the temptation persists: Sculthorpe’s employment of regional, non-Western sounds and culture in a European impressionist idiom earned him, for his sins, the sobriquet of “Father of Australian Music” and a standing invitation for each successive generation of composers to knock him down. (I note that the ABC has recently reissued their Sculthorpe recordings, with the original ‘modernist’ cover art replaced by postcard photos of landscapes.) For the cultural Insiders, the persistence of Sculthorpe is a complex debate that runs beneath the surface of a lot of Australian musical activity. Josten Myburgh’s Sculthorpe Studies is an unusual work in that it confronts the argument head-on and the fact that listening to it makes me want to discuss Sculthorpe more than the Myburgh is a testament both to the piece’s strength and weakness.

An ensemble (flute, saxophone, electric guitar, bass, piano, percussion) plays mid-20th Century harmonies extracted from Sculthorpe’s compositions over field recordings featuring birds from various parts of southern Australia. The instruments play ‘Sculthorpe’ as isolated, sustained tones, evoking an extended, non-directional flatness that might almost parody the impressionist cliché of Australianness. Myburgh, however, has studied with key Wandelweiser figures Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro, so that kind of sparse, undeveloped sound can also be taken in earnest, with international approval. Myburgh intends this piece as critique – some of his statements show symptoms of the competitive false humility typically used as cultural capital in Australia – but smartly avoids didacticism by allowing paradoxical complexities such as these to proliferate.

Sculthorpe Studies succeeds in being neither affectionate nor rebellious; as an act of “playful provocation” it achieves an ambivalence that perfectly suits the national character. As commentary, we can listen to it as a caricature, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, and remember that sarcastic mimicry is a cornerstone of Australian satire. If it is, then it gets murky when identifying who the target is. The piece itself becomes an example of the music it critiques. Or we can try to listen without thinking too hard. The birds sing prettily, the musicians add what turns out to be a surprising amount of colour and phrasing, but nothing much seems to be going on. I’ve always found Wandelweiser style at its worst when it’s noncommittal about whether it’s worth listening to it or not. Are the birds there to fill in silence between the notes? Are the notes there to justify the presence of the birds? Myburgh simply sits the two side by side, knowing that neither is truly representative nor truly natural. If nothing truly belongs anywhere anymore, then what was the problem again?