Music Compositions – Defining a National Style

July 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Musical nationalism in composition is the use of musical motifs and aesthetic intentions that are identified with a specific region or ethnicity and new works written in correspondence. Well that is the usual way to think about musical nationalism (for example, “English Orchestral Suite”, “Polish Mazurka”, “French Impressionist Style”).

However music nationalism has a different form where the musical style is thought to be associated with the country with some non-musical link, for example Australian composers having their works identified with an Australian National Style – where there is no former musical style having the label ‘Australia’ – thus adjusting their music to take ideas from something uniquely Australian, such as the uninhabited landscape, great distances between cities or for example the Aboriginal culture. This variety of Musical Nationalism arises in places such as Australia where the western music traditions have been carried in but were unable to brew and mutate for long enough in isolation for something distinct to arise – illustrating, a species similarly evolves uniquely upon an island (the time scale expanded) but will initially share the same origin as its family away from the island.

The public attention to national style in music was extremely strong in the late 19th Century, barely existed prior to the 19th Century, and largely died out gradually through the 20th Century. Musical Nationalism obviously died out because it became easy to travel from one country to another, a massive increase in trade, media technologies allowing information to be spread around quickly (especially radio and newspapers) and above all the ability to share recordings of any music between countries. People could suddenly become highly exposed to the music of any culture that one is naturally inclined to take the greatest pleasure from.

The argument that I hear the most to define an Australian Style is to point to its unique landscape or its Aboriginal history. These subjects could be reflected upon to nurture something novel within the imagination. Perhaps that could further iterate and be meditated upon more deeply to produce a creatively resourceful and unique Australian aesthetic.

The first problem with that is that Australians can study the landscape of Tuscany (visiting or watching videos) and Bavarians can study our landscape as deeply as we can. The Bavarians can study Aboriginal folk music about as easily as Australians. The isolation of countries just no longer exists in the way that it once did (owing mostly to the profoundly immediate information transfer rather than the greater ease of travel). Australian composers can listen to a CD of “Fast Hungarian” dance music from the Kl├ęzse village in Moldova and be deeply affected and influenced without leaving our country – that CD will probably be more stimulating and create a bigger impression (to a composer) than looking at a Magpie.

The second problem with composing to such things as the unique landscape is one of sincerity. It is of my view that art fails almost instantly when insincere thoughts are involved. Yet most Australians are not actually exposed to the unique landscape (we are mostly exposed to suburbs) – one would need to live in the desert to be affected by it sincerely (for the purpose of creating art) and this would leave the composer as freak rather than as a common Australian and thus it could be argued that the style is no longer reasonably Australian.

My central point is the aesthetic inclination that one takes as an artist must be sincere and impassioned and not formed based on assumed heritage (or citizenship). The German man would be foolish to write traditional German music if he was more familiar with, influenced by and agreeable with Scottish folk music – the melodies in his works must take the form of what is naturally beautiful, interesting and catalytic for further thought. Established music performers will occasionally say to the German, “Why are you writing this music when you are not Scottish?”, whilst raising their eyebrows to imply the upper-hand.

In a sense, no-one in the developed world has an authentic origin in the 21st Century where communication between cultures is largely unhindered. Factual heritage and cultural identify should not be assumed by artists in the 21st Century to be paired.

I hope that I have written enough for any composer reading to feel more spirited and enthusiastic to identify their own Musical National Style in a manner independent of their family background or location of upbringing. Besides this, to produce highly valuable art the music must be created with passion, sincerity, ingenuity, effort and conviction; in order to be productive there are no other conditions that need to be added.

– Julian Cochran


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