6pm on a Monday evening isn’t the easiest ask for a family man like me, but some calls are louder than others. The highly-regarded and -awarded Penny Quartet was to take the stage in the Primrose Potter Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre on May 2, and I was very keen not to miss out.

This quartet emerged from ANAM, where its members first collaborated. One of them, Amy Brookman, is now employed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, so wasn’t able to be part of this performance. Her replacement, Matthew Tomkins, is a second with the MSO. Madeleine Jevons played first violin, with Anthony Chataway playing viola and Jack Ward cello.

Proceedings opened with György Ligeti’s first string quartet. There is a motivic concentration to this piece that demonstrates its debts to Bela Bartok, a composer who, it seems to me, never wasted a note. The initial gestures from the first violin are concentrated around a very small and chromatically illustrated interval, and what we hear at the outset is changed and developed throughout the rest of the work. Subtitled ‘Metamorphoses nocturnes’ the changes to this material seem to be what the piece is about.

You know, a lot of people hear ‘atonal’, and reply, ‘which way do I run?’. It’s sad, because the dramatic, the feeling, the questioning aspects of non-tonal music will be lost to such listeners, perhaps forever. And (I have to say) they’re missing out, because the incredibly creative composers who followed Mahler’s massive orchestras or Strauss’s blinding tonal harmony or the apparent summing up of Brahms imagined their way into fabulously productive waters and the 20th century produced incredibly resonant work from all over the place.

Ligeti’s first quartet is a restless, demanding piece, and for this reason doesn’t seem to be programmed nearly often enough. The same goes for the rest of Ligeti’s oeuvre, although the pre-eminence of historical tonal music in concert life is a conversation for another time. To hear it dished up by the Pennies at the MRC was a splendid treat.

There is so much colour in this ensemble, and its energetic programming choices draw remarkable work from its members. I took one of my children to the country once to hear an early Beethoven quartet paired with the Benjamin Britten D major; the meeting of these pieces was quite stunning.

And its work last Monday evening was breathtaking. With Ligeti first on the dance card things were captivating from the gate. Initially it’s both quiet and busy, with things seeming to be held in reserve, an immediate sense of tension. The energy brought to this mightily challenging score was extraordinary, and the meeting of the four players seemed perfect. Ensemble, the playing together, the combined effort, is the most challenging thing about delivering chamber music, but the Pennies have totally got to know each other and operate with an awesome sense of unity.

Ligeti’s management of all kinds of temperamental and emotional conditions is stunning, and one listens transfixed by the capacity he has to depict all manner of feeling. The deepest and most personal, the most fully exciting and willing to be shared – it’s all in this score, and the impositions on the performing body are considerable.

A shorter piece by Sydney composer Ella Macens followed the Ligeti, and contrasted effectively. Schumann’s first string quartet completed the evening’s music and if it sounds a little, shall we say, tame after the Ligeti, it was played with concentration and dedication and all its quirkiness was apparent. You said it was in A minor! What are you doing finishing the first movement in F? The scherzo was expressive and dynamic, and although you could have forgiven the players for being a little tired after all they’d been through already, the zesty tempi here and in the final movement were superbly realised. The contrasts towards the end of the composition were spectacularly beautiful and the conclusion a triumph. The poetry of the slow movement was evidently deeply understood, and again, the ensemble here was astonishing.

I am so thrilled to see young musicians dealing so energetically and so thoroughly with music as challenging as this, and my only regret as I sat listening was that the room wasn’t full to overflowing. Those of us who were there were witness to something remarkable, and I look forward to further work from this exciting band.

There is a marvellous essay at the end of Martin Williams’s Jazz Changes entitled ‘Recognition, Prestige and Respect: They’re Academic Questions’. In it, Mr Williams argues that the centrality of composers like Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann to people’s understanding and imagination of classical music is on account of scholarly work having been undertaken on them, of their having been brought to people’s attention by others who saw the value in their music and set their minds to promoting it. ‘Remember,’ he writes, ‘that for over a century Bach was not considered a great composer simply because no one had done the work on him: the work of biography, analysis, praise and publication. When he became a great composer in everyone’s thinking, his music did not change. It simply got played and heard and talked about.’

His case is that jazz deserves the same level of musicological investigation, in order that the public might be made aware of its cultural importance. Writing as an American, all his examples are American, and the cases he finds where people have seriously investigated the work of jazz musicians are also, to a one, American. This is no surprise, nor is it any kind of problem. His point stands, that there is an immense amount of truly great music that is in danger of being forgotten if people don’t step up to the plate to defend it and to speak for it.

I was in the car, and when I’m in the car I set my iPod to play something for which I’m in the mood. I was a late convert to the iPod but since I bought mine (which has ‘Timmeh’ engraved on the back, because that bit was free) I’ve loved it. It holds so much stuff and so usually whatever mood I’m in I can find something consoling. Today I played Paul Grabowsky’s Tales of Time and Space, which I’ve not heard for a while, and I was put in mind of Mr Williams’s essay as I did so.

I’m not going to whinge (I promise!) but my doctoral research was on Melbourne’s Red Onion Jazz Band, and my objective was to investigate the work of predecessors in the hope of throwing some light on things that were endangered. I had in mind something along the lines of demonstrating how our forebears here had imagined jazz music, how they had sought to replicate it, and how they had inevitably wound up sounding like themselves. How although they toured internationally and even had a fair amount of success it was not because they had successfully imitated anyone else, despite their initial objectives. I was, at the time, a little tired of seeing people finish their undergraduate degrees and then race off to New York to get the latest. My feeling has always been that the music is in you, if you look for it. (Mr Emerson: ‘I don’t care what I see outside. My vision is within. Here is where the birds sing! Here is where the sky is blue.’ (E. M. Forster, A room with a view))

Grabowsky rounded up some very senior Americans to make Tales of Time and Space: Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Ed Schuller and Jeff Watts. Scott Tinkler was there too, and the band sounds extraordinary. When it came out it was a bit of an event; I think there was a pre-release listening party at Bennetts Lane (although I wasn’t invited) and for a little while everyone was talking about it. People who read this silly blog o’ mine will know what a hero Paul is for me, and since I have most of the albums on which he’s appeared I had a copy of Tales pretty much on day of release. And I spun it and spun it and spun it.

And I haven’t heard it in a while but returning to it was charming in the way that tasting something you knew as a kid can transport you. I thought, though, who knows about it now? In my teaching past I have tried to turn students on to Six by Three, another of Paul’s magnificent efforts and an all-time favourite album of mine, only to find that they’ve never heard of it and it is completely inaccessible. It was re-released a few years ago but even those copies are probably gone by now. Tales of Time and Space can be found on eBay but there’s only a couple of copies; Discogs has more but it doesn’t seem to be available to purchase new anywhere. (It’s not even on bloody Spotify, but that’s to its credit.)

American jazz may suffer in comparison with European classical music, in terms of funding or appreciation or general social understanding. But whatever you want by Miles Davis is probably available. Duke Ellington’s music is mostly in print, as is Billie Holiday’s, Count Basie’s, Frank Sinatra’s, and so on. What happens to the Australian improviser’s body of work?

The first CD on which I appeared is now (I think) out of print. I only have my own copy of it. The second did get re-released by Rufus Records so I imagine there are a number of copies out there somewhere. Everything I’ve done since then has been printed in runs of 500 that have not sold out, so they are available, mostly through Bandcamp although here and there at more discerning record shops also. Most of us who have made CDs have boxes of them taking up space at home, and that’s the reason my most recent album came out digitally.

When you find a new author whose work moves you, it’s marvellous to find they’ve written a bunch of other things waiting to be encountered. Bookshops stock bodies of work by authors, or they can source them from without. Books that sell stay in print, and even Patrick White’s work is available although it’s my impression that very few of us are actually reading it. The library will probably hold works that have drifted out of print, meaning you can get hold of them one way or another. Julian Barnes has just published Elizabeth Finch, but if you want to read Metroland, which is now 42 years old, you can easily buy a copy. Graham Greene’s first novel (1929) is currently available, and I know this because I recently read the copy I’d bought.

So what, man, you’re going to compare Julian Barnes and Graham Greene with Paul Grabowsky? Well, yes I am. Because year after year after year I’m watching the recorded music of our greatest artists disappearing, and it troubles me. They used to say that the big rock bands made albums just to promote tours, which was where all the money was. That’s as may be, but people are still collecting Led Zeppelin albums. For me, an album is to demonstrate where the band’s at, or where I’m at, the latest thing we’ve been doing, all that kind of thing. A marker in time. My trio now has five albums of original music, albums that (dare I say) complement each other and bear repeated listening. I’m exceptionally glad Paul made Six by Three and When words fail because both his bandmates on those albums are dead now and the recordings are a testament to an extraordinary ensemble, three amazing musicians who were dedicated individuals but superbly appointed to operate in concert.

So losing this stuff is disastrous. The lessons that can be had in trio playing, or in composition, or in piano, bass and drum technique, from those last two recordings, are staggering. The meeting of the giants on Tales of Time and Space is a similar matter. Personally I have a need of it all and I’m very glad I was around when it was made, and able to secure my copies. Cos ya cannae do it now.

Presumably the Australian Jazz Museum has all this stuff and you could go there if you were so disposed and check some of it out. But who even knows about that? Who goes there? It seems to me we can all take a lead from Martin Williams’s ideas and start trying to get the word out about the music we value so dearly. If you’re a young musician entering or undertaking undergraduate study (which I’ll admit I’ve said for those who only want to perform is probably a bit of a waste of time) then think ahead to the work you might be able to do at the postgraduate level on someone or other whose music has moved you. Why not write about The Necks? Or Bernie McGann? Or David Jones, Geoff Kluke, Joe Chindamo? There’s so much work out there if you go back and fossick for it, and you might be amazed what you find.

Reading Roger Covell’s Australia’s Music: Themes of a New Society switched me on to Percy Grainger, and still I buy wholesale what he says about the ‘Colonial Song’. Covell’s thoughts on Grainger started me on a wonderful journey finding out more and more about this fabulous weirdo, and if I hadn’t read his work I may never had known. The research I did on the Onions caused me radically to reassess all I thought I’d known about so-called traditional jazz, and discovering just how wonderful was Jelly Roll Morton or King Oliver (inter alia) was one of the most magnificent side-effects of that work.

I’d love to be able to think of Australian improvised music as continuous and ongoing, all the work of John Sangster and Mike Nock and Judy Jacques and Bob Barnard and Judy Bailey and Keith Hounslow and Roger Frampton (etc.) available and present and understood. That we could know we are contributing to something so long-lived and so important that it necessitates our very best work.

 

14.iv.2022