Melo­di­ous tract stuck in an old groove

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Richard Wag­ner no­to­ri­ously de­clared that Eng­land was “the coun­try with­out mu­sic”. It was our artis­tic fate to be­come its colony. Plainly, the mu­si­cal por­tents were not good when the First Fleet ar­rived at Port Jack­son: a vol­ley of ri­fle shots and the drink­ing of porter, but no mu­sic, “crisned” the colony on Jan­uary 26, which, ever sybaritic, we per­sist in cel­e­brat­ing as Australia Day.

How­ever, the band of the marines did play on Fe­bru­ary 7 when gov­er­nor Arthur Phillip’s com­mis­sion from Ge­orge III was read out in pub­lic and ev­ery­one — colonists, con­victs and sol­diers — was en­joined by the king “to live in amity and kind­ness” with the na­tive peo­ple, with the ad­mo­ni­tion that se­ri­ous penal­ties would be im­posed on any­one who “shall wan­tonly de­stroy them or give them any un­nec­es­sary in­ter­rup­tion in the ex­er­cise of their sev­eral oc­cu­pa­tions”.

While that oc­ca­sion was the first recorded pub­lic per­for­mance of Euro­pean mu­sic in the Great South Land, mu­sic had (un­be­known to those colonists) been an im­por­tant part of the indige­nous cul­ture, es­pe­cially re­li­gious cul­ture, for mil­len­nia. And be­cause the king’s or­der was ig­nored, not only was great dam­age done by the colonists to the lives of Abo­rig­ines, but those white peo­ple re­mained es­sen­tially deaf to the mu­sic of the van­quished peo­ple.

It was ap­pro­pri­ate, there­fore, that when Roger Covell first pub­lished Australia’s Mu­sic in 1967, he de­voted about 14 pages of a chap­ter (“Jindy­worobak­ism and more”) to indige­nous mu­sic. So it is re­gret­table that, al­most 50 years later, for this new edi­tion — which re­tains the orig­i­nal text but adds some foot­notes and a read­ing list, to­gether with an 18-page post­script as a lofty syn­op­sis of in­ter­ven­ing ac­tiv­ity — he has not added a word to his ac­count of indige­nous mu­sic.

I con­cede that my knowl­edge of the sub­ject is skimpy, but there has been a great deal of re­search in this field dur­ing the past half-cen­tury — not to men­tion study of the be­wil­der­ing di­ver­sity of Aus­tralian lan­guages, which have a pro­found nexus with that mu­sic. So, Covell’s treat­ment is dated. Both the mu­sic and lan­guages are at se­vere risk of ex­tinc­tion so, quite apart from any po­ten­tial en­rich­ment of our con­cert mu­sic, it is surely im­por­tant for all of us, as sen­si­tive Aus­tralians, to gain an un­der­stand­ing of the na­tive mu­si­cal cul­ture.

Read­ers would do far bet­ter to con­sult, for ex­am­ple, the rel­e­vant sec­tions of the Cur­rency Com­pan­ion to Mu­sic and Dance in Australia (2003, edited by John Whi­teoak and Scott-Maxwell).

Covell’s re­print is, to use one of his own favourite phrases, an op­por­tu­nity lost (though he does men­tion a few rel­e­vant books in the bib­li­og­ra­phy — which seems to have had scant, if any, in­flu­ence on this new book).

If his space al­lo­ca­tion is any guide, Covell ac­cords a rather greater im­por­tance to “folk song”: his chap­ter “Tra­di­tion­al­ism” is 34 pages and by this ti­tle he means Euro­pean folk song and its po­ten­tial as a creative re­source. Around the time of the orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance of his book, though he seemed am­biva­lent about its qual­ity, Covell had taken a se­ri­ous in­ter­est in this tra­di­tional ma­te­rial, but that in­ter­est seems to have evap­o­rated, oth­er­wise he would surely have re­flected on it afresh in his post­script, even if he lacked the mo­ti­va­tion to re­vise or ex­pand the orig­i­nal chap­ter.

How­ever, if th­ese chap­ters have been rele- Aline

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