Currently clocking in at over three decades and counting, the Art Music Awards have had more reboots than Star Trek. Don’t be fooled though. They may have changed their name twice, but they are just as vital a part of the Australian classical music scene now as they were back in 1988 when Australian Music Centre General Manager Richard Letts launched the inaugural Sounds Australian Awards.

Australian Music Centre CEO John Davis. All photos supplied

Back then it was a modest, no-frills event held in a gallery in Sydney’s CBD. John Davis, the AMC’s current CEO, first attended the awards the following year as a staffer. “My role was to play 30-second musical excerpts of finalists’ work on a small stereo system, which we had brought in for the occasion, compiled on a cassette tape,” he recalls. “Somewhat different to what happens now.”

In its first iteration, the Sounds Australian Awards had a bit of a larrikin feel about them with a bolshy edge that today’s smoother-tongued event has left behind. Along with the usual “Most distinguished contribution to the presentation of Australian music” type categories there was a pugnacious award for the “Most unhelpful contribution or most obdurate non-contribution to the presentation of Australian music”. To clarify exactly why an organisation might deserve this most wooden of spoons, the organisers wrote that it implied “the nominee has had a responsibility or opportunity for the presentation of Australian music which has not been taken up or which has been executed with exceptional clumsiness”, adding that the judges should consider “major responsibilities disdained, major resources not applied or misapplied, opportunities ignored, token payoffs, plodding boredom, enthused presentation of worthless music and so on”.

Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine at the 2002 Awards

The very first Awards saw Belinda Webster, the founder of the Tall Poppies recording label, carrying off the major prize for the most distinguished contribution. In those early years the awards for composition went to luminaries like Richard Mills, Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine and Michael Smetanin. At the time there was a real sense of optimism that the Awards were helping raise awareness of contemporary classical music among the general public helped by regular coverage in newspapers and on radio and television.

Over the years, however, certain categories have fallen by the wayside. “Most distinguished contribution to the presentation of Australian music by a radio or television station or broadcaster” and “Most distinguished contribution to the presentation of Australian music by an overseas organisation, group, or individual”, have been notable casualties, a reflection, perhaps, of dwindling interest in homegrown product on TV or a decline in international attention. Critics awards – recognising outstanding new works and once judged by the critics from the major papers in each state – have also gone the way of all flesh, just as surely as the mainstream media have jettisoned their classical music reviewers.

Composer George Dreyfus wins the Distinguished Services Award in 2013

In 1993, cuts to the AMC led the Awards to fold for three years. Davis describes the period as one of restructuring and a revisioning of role and focus. “It was part of the natural (and essential) ebbs and flows in the lifecycle of any organisation,” he says. By 1996 they were back under Davis’s stewardship with the first of what would become a regular shakeup of award categories to reflect the burgeoning diversity to be found in the new music scene.

Davis remembers events in those days being held in the function rooms of the then NSW Premier Bob Carr and in Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s rooms in Melbourne. He also has fond memories of some of the award recipients in early years, for example distinguished composer Robert Hughes, a long-term champion of composers in various roles and a fine composer himself. Miriam Hyde being recognised for a lifetime’s work, he describes as a “very moving moment” and mentions a particularly significant award in 1996 going to the Composing Women Festival held in Sydney in 1995.

Miriam Hyde at the Awards in 2002

In the 1990s, the Awards might well be hosted or attended by major political figures, something Davis would love to see making a comeback. “We always live in hope!” he says. “Hazel Hawke and Anita Keating both enthusiastically attended in the early years, Bob Carr also, and since then we have had politicians or their representatives, from both sides of politics, State and Federal, attending as presenters.”

Recorder virtuoso, creator and curator Genevieve Lacey is the AMC’s current Chair of the Board of Directors and first attended the Awards as a performer. “My impressions were largely backstage experiences: seeing the machinations of a large-scale event about to be delivered, and my nerves as I contemplated all the peers, potential employers, composers and experts in the audience I was soon to face,” she remembers. “On stage, I strongly recall the energy emanating from a room of passionate people, and a sense that this was an essential gathering and celebration of a community of artists.”

AMC Chair Genevieve Lacey

Soon after she would celebrate the first of several wins (Best Performance for James Ledger’s recorder concerto Line Drawing in 2006). “I remember the great rush of adrenaline and joy,” she reflects, “and the almost tears on stage as I spoke, as in each instance, the award represented vast amounts of skill, care, commitment and generosity from many people.”

It was in 2002 that the AMC and the Australasian Performing Right Association first joined forces to present the Awards, now rechristened the Classical Music Awards. For Davis this was very good news indeed: “Up to 2002, APRA’s music awards included one ‘Classical Music’ category,” he explains. “The partnership between both organisations enabled a dramatic expansion of what the Awards could be, and how they could be presented.”

By now the Awards included a Distinguished Services category and its annual recipients are among Davis’s most cherished memories. “[It] always produces great outpourings of love and goodwill,” he says, citing much-loved recipient composers George Dreyfus and Helen Gifford, conductor and educator Richard Gill, and former National Library Music Curator Robyn Holmes, as personal standouts.

Richard Gill wins the Distinguished Services Award in 2014

Lacey agrees: “I love hearing the speeches associated with the Distinguished Services to Australian Music Award. They are always an inspiring lesson in our history as a community, a reminder of the tenacity, courage and vision it takes to make a significant contribution to any field. I’m particularly excited about this year’s winner, [composer, sound artist and scholar Ros Bandt] a woman who has been a pioneer in her field, paving the way for other artists to create their own careers in experimental sound art, with a strong focus on environmental and cross-cultural principles.”

Nine years ago, another restructuring saw the Classical Music Awards become the Art Music Awards, enabling broader inclusion and including categories for jazz and experimental practice. This year has seen the categories morph yet again. “Creative practice develops and changes all the time, boundaries become increasingly blurred as artists continue to find different ways to create, collaborate, and explore new territories,” explains Davis. “The additional categories include, for example, a new Performance of the Year category to include jazz/improvisation performances. And the new Luminary Award categories, which acknowledge people and organisations who have made a significant impact in State and Territory contexts, and nationally.”

Such changes have made each successive year busier and buzzier than the last, especially for  a tireless advocate like Lacey. “I don’t recall ever being at an awards night without a ‘job’, be it speaker, board member, curator for the live performances, recipient, or performer, all of which come with particular responsibilities,” she says. “I so much look forward to being there one year and simply enjoying the evening!”

Didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton performing at the Art Music Awards

Davis, meanwhile rattles off a checklist of memories that, for him, has characterised each and every event over the years: “The “gathering of the clan” and the reinforcement of connection and relationship that the event generates; the always articulate acceptance speeches from the winners, the often powerful and profound words that are spoken; the generosity of spirit and solidarity always on display. These are the elements that create a sense of magic and reinforce our commitment to celebrate and champion the people and the creative work that enables Australian music to flourish.”

So, with this year’s Awards a week away, how do people perceive their importance today, and do either Davis or Lacey ever fear for the future of art music in Australia? “At this moment in history, the Awards are more important than ever,” says Lacey, emphatically. “Livelihoods have been decimated by COVID-19, individuals and communities have been isolated, vast numbers of people are out of work, and we have a very long road ahead. It’s essential to connect, to keep one another’s spirits strong, and share the amazing work of Australian musicians as widely as possible.”

Davis concurs. “Artists specialise in imagining and inventing futures, so this something that will continue to happen, despite the challenges of these times. And this needs to be embraced, and invested in,” he says. “But I do worry about career pathways for artists, and how creative practice of all kinds can be sustainable and can be celebrated and recognised as an essential ingredient in Australian society.”

Do I worry about the future?” muses Lacey. “No. Musicians are improvisers, inventors, makers of our collective futures. Financial, structural, political supports are currently far from ideal, and material realities are grim, but the fundamental human urge to create, to share, to connect will not be quashed. It’s never been clearer that music is essential.”

In their own unique way, the Art Music Awards – or whatever some bright spark might call them next – look set to play their part in supporting that future for years to come.

The 2020 Art Music Awards will be presented on Tuesday September 8 at 7pm AEST and will be streamed live on YouTube