In 1955, a young Peter Sculthorpe visited Canberra. The story has it that, upon seeing the rolling topography of the Great Dividing Range and the Brindabellas for the first time, he was inspired to sketch this terrain on a 360-degree graph, forming the basis for a new piece for solo violin: Irkanda I. Writing music to follow the shape of these contours, the beautifully undulating opening melody must surely feel familiar to those who’ve spent any time in the nation’s capital.

Jessica CottisJessica Cottis. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

Sculthorpe described this piece as an evocation of the “lonely atmosphere of the wild Australian bush”. There are strange “sounds of the night”, and harmonics that imitate distant birdcalls. Perfect fourths and characteristic minor seconds predominate, perhaps imitating the song of a Canberra resident, the grey butcherbird.

Reflecting on this work, exactly 75 years after it was written, I’m compelled to ask: what makes an Australian sound, philosophy or aesthetic? How do our collective heritages inform our music making? How are we reflecting and interacting with the wonderfully pluralistic nature of Australia today?

I feel a real commitment to Canberra and its music scene. Of course, mine is a very personal connection: Canberra is my hometown, and many formative musical experiences took place inside the cubist architecture of the Canberra School of Music in the late 90s/early 2000s, where I studied organ and musicology. After studies in Paris and London, and a career that’s taken me to the London Symphony Orchestra, LA Philharmonic and Royal Opera House, it’s also been a real delight to return to Canberra and work with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians as a guest conductor over the past two years. Landscapes are geographic, but they’re also biographical and personal. There’s always a link between our own human story and the places we’ve inhabited.

Understanding the complexity of our national landscape and histories is something we as artists must explore. Deborah Cheetham phrased it perfectly in her recent Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, describing music as “an essential way of knowing the world and giving meaning to everything in it”.

With the COVID-19 pandemic halting live performances, Matthew Hindson (the CSO’s Australian Series curator) and I co-curated a new commissioning Miniseries: 14 new works by Australian composers, to be premiered by CSO musicians online. The composers involved include Cheetham, Ross Edwards, Liza Lim, Melody Eötvös and Ella Macens, and those with Canberra links: Chris Sainsbury, Kate Moore, Michael Sollis and Vincent Plush. This Miniseries is one solution for our immediate future: investing in new music, in Australian composers, and looking to find new ways to interact – realistically – with what’s actually happening at any given moment in our historical record.

I’m excited about our 2021 season. We’re looking in new directions where we explore a multitude of subject matters: the Seven Deadly Sins, the longing and desire of Romeo and Juliet, the celestial visions of Mozart and Mahler, and the transformative magic of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Our Australian contemporary works extend the themes: Benjamin de Murashkin’s LOGOS takes its inspiration from the formation of the cosmos, whilst Kim Cunio’s commission for chamber orchestra will explore climate change. I’ve also programmed recent works by Holly Harrison, film composer Leah Curtis, Canberra favourites Elena Kats-Chernin and Nigel Westlake, and Richard Meale’s luminous yet infrequently performed Viridian.

Whilst speaking with a distinctly Australian voice, Sculthorpe’s Irkanda I makes reference, in its sometimes spiky and unpredictable rhythms, to Bartók and Stravinsky – two towering figures of twentieth-century classical music. Great works of art are based on both a recognition and a lack of recognition; with this comes an invitation to reimagine and re-contextualise how our work with Australian composers and performers informs how we approach the classical canon.

Building on the successes of Nicolas Milton, and with the wonderful musicians and staff of the CSO, I’m looking forward to creating an orchestral journey that reflects our Australian experiences and one that the Canberra community can be proud to call their own.