Why its prominence?

Dr Eric Gross

Many musical cultures include various plectrum instruments in their artistic heritage and mostly these tend to be used for performances of traditional music.

There is, therefore, an inbuilt resistance and prejudice against new or recently composed music on the part of performers and their audiences, especially as most of the performers, with a few exceptions, tend to be amateurs who, like their devoted audiences "know what they like and like what they know". It is, however, possible to persuade audiences and performers alike, to keep an open mind and maintain an inquisitive approach towards new and unfamiliar music: after all, even old music must have been new at some time or the other.

Naturally this does not apply to plectrum music only, but a concert-going world-traveller would find opportunities to attend interesting performances of traditional plectrum music, especially in Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, the Balkans, Greece and Italy, of course, and also in parts of South America. Almost everywhere it would be possible to hear splendid renditions of 'O Sole Mio' and other standard plectrum fare, but it would not be very easy to track down performances or broadcasts of 18th, 19th or 20th century mandolin music, apart from the occasional Vivaldi performance.

In Australia, due to a combination of circumstances, those of us with an interest in mandolin or plectrum music, either as listeners, performers or composers, can follow our interest as opportunities are far greater here than anywhere else.

There are three main factors why non-mainstream mandolin music is gaining exposure and general acceptance amongst music professionals and music lovers in our country: performers are interested in exploring the unfamiliar, radio stations are willing to broadcast such material in addition to the standard fare and record companies are willing to produce high quality discs of broadcast standard. Later in this article, I shall refer to the tremendous interest shown by Australian composers in the opportunities made available by the presence of interested and dedicated individual performers and ensembles.

During the last few years, record companies have become interested in releasing compact discs featuring contemporary Australian plectrum compositions amongst other works or discs devoted entirely to Australian performers and composers. At present, there are about 30 CDs on the jade label alone, produced by Robert Allworth, featuring Australian plectrum music and perhaps other labels will foray into this area as well.

2MBS-FM and the ABC have always been very interested and helpful by means of providing opportunities for studio recording sessions, which lead to broadcasts and sometimes, these studio recordings are made available to be transferred to discs. This is a very important process, because once a work is on disc, it can be repeatedly broadcast and thus become better known to listeners. At times, the ABC even made available the Sydney Symphony and Tasmanian Symphony orchestras, together with the services of that great supporter of Australian music, conductor Patrick Thomas, to record mandolin concertos with Paul Hooper as soloist. Surely mandolins cannot be far off the musical centre anymore! Certainly. the fine music stations like 2MBS-FM and ABC Classic FM do feature a fair amount of plectrum music on a regular and ongoing basis.

Over the years, there has also been some assistance from the Australia Council with composer commissions and recordings, The enthusiastic support given by the Australian Music Centre to Australian composers and performers has also been very helpful in the dissemination of Australian mandolin music.

Eva Kelly, Keith Harris and Steven Moray, the latter with a special interest in contemporary music, were important figures in the development of Australian mandolin music, but I understand that both Harris and Moray have now retired from performing. There were other influential figures in this area, but, in my opinion, the main reason for the rise in technical performance and composition standards has been the founding of the Sydney Mandolins in 1975 and the expertise and enthusiasm of its core members, Adrian and Paul Hooper, Joyce Bootsma and Barbara Hooper,

Apart from researching, performing and recording music from the past, the Sydney Mandolins, in Paul Hooper, can boast of having one of the world's great mandolin virtuosos in their ensemble and because of their constant challenge to local composers to provide original music commensurate with the expertise of the performers, an amazing number of compositions (about 175) have been written for them. There cannot be many ensembles anywhere who have had so many works written for them in the space of barely 20 years.

The Sydney Mandolins are also associated with larger plectrum ensembles which also perform Australian works at their public concerts and under their auspices, the Sydney Mandolin Ensemble, consisting of the two Hoopers, John Gray on harpsichord and Catherine Finnis on viola da gamba or baroque cello, broadcast and recorded many early music works for the ABC.

In other musical events managed through the Sydney Mandolins and other interested and sympathetic organisations, Paul Hooper, in particular, performs with other instrumental groups such as the Sydney Wind Quintet, various string combinations and even with organists such as Lawrence Bartlett.

In the 1970s, the Federation of Australasian Mandolin Ensembles (FAME) was formed with Adrian Hooper as a founding executive member. FAME organises summer schools each January in different states and also in New Zealand, Victoria seems to have the largest number of players who form three large ensembles and a number of smaller ones. New Zealand has a mandolin orchestra based in Auckland and in West Australia, virtually all players are in a large West Australian Mandolin Orchestra.

All these groups in FAME are amateur groups, with some of their more adventurous members performing in bush bands or helping out with ballet or opera (eg, Don Giovanni) performances when required. Some performers also like to write works for their own special groups.

FAME has also sponsored tours by overseas mandolin orchestras, has promoted an International Mandolin Festival in Melbourne and is arranging one to be held in Perth in 1997.

The number of Australian composers who have written works for Adrian Hooper and the Sydney Mandolins is very large and impressive. This is especially so when one looks at the repertoire of conventional Australian chamber music ensembles, such as string quartets or wind quintets and ensembles specialising in contemporary music, such as Synergy, who, of course, feature a certain amount of Australian works composed specifically for them. These are the Australian composers who have written works specifically for the Sydney Mandolins: Robert Allworth, Lawrence Bartlett, Betty Beath, Michael Bertling, Colin Brumby, Lee Buddie, Stephen Bull, Bruce Cale, Edwin Carr, Ann Carr-Boyd, Brendan Colbert, John Colborne-Veel, Lewis Cornwell, Eric Gross, Dulcie Holland, May Howlett, Mike Irik, Don Kay, Gordon Kerry, Dawn Nettheim, Graham Powning, Ian Shanahan, Craig Small, Paul Stanhope, Larry Sitsky, Michael Smetanin, Ben Thorn, Gary S. Watson and Stephen Yates.

Many of the Mandolin works, written by the 28 Australian composers named above, have been recorded and broadcast by 2MBS-FM and also by the ABC and quite a number have also been released on compact discs under the Jade label. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that just about all of the above have composed more than one work for the Sydney Mandolins and some of these I composers have written between 20 and 30 works for mandolin ensemble.

The following is a list of names of other Australian composers, who have written works for mandolin ensemble or for solo mandolin in combination with other instruments, but not specifically for the Sydney Mandolins: Michael Barkl, Peter Barlow. Gerard Brophy, Theodore Dollarhide, George Dreyfus, Andrew Ford, Jennifer Fowler, Helen Gifford, Percy Grainger, David Horowicz, Leslie Howard, Elena Kats, Douglas Knehans, Liza Lim, David Lumsdaine, Geoffrey Madge, Peter Myers, Felix Werder, Michael Whittiker.

Australian music lovers now have the opportunity to hear broadcasts frequently or to obtain recordings of plectrum music performed and recorded at a very high standard. As a result, they can now convince themselves, that mandolin music does not have to consist entirely of a series of continuous tremolos, but can stand its ground as valid and interesting area of music relevant to all musical purposes.


Published as cover story in the 2MBS-FM Program Guide, January 1995.