SAN DIEGO — It pretty much seems that most Americans have picked up their perceptions of Australia from "Crocodile Dundee." David Ward-Steinman wants to counter this caricature. He has organized a six-day festival of new music from Australia and New Zealand to run Sunday through Feb. 15 at San Diego State University.
"I was pleasantly surprised to discover a viable, world-class, new music scene during my year in Australia," said Ward-Steinman, an SDSU composer. As a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Ward-Steinman spent the 1989-90 academic year performing contemporary U.S. music, including his own, in Australia and New Zealand. He also discovered a healthy variety of new music performances there, flourishing outside the protective environment of the university and music conservatories.
"The first five concerts I attended in Melbourne were all independently produced and supported--not one of them was connected with the university. I also noticed that their classical music stations played more new music than ours do," said Ward-Steinman.
The local festival will present a cross section of Australian music since 1980, utilizing three chamber music concerts (Sunday, Wednesday and Feb. 15 in SDSU's Smith Hall), a pair of panel discussions and a lecture by Australian composer Gordon Kerry.
Ward-Steinman first encountered Kerry's music at the 1989 Melbourne Spoleto Festival. Ker ry, a much-commissioned 29-year-old composer from Sydney, won the 1990 Sounds Australian Critics' National Award while he was composer in residence for the Sydney Philharmonia. Four Kerry compositions will be performed at the SDSU festival, including the premiere of "Cantata" for soprano and four instrumentalists Sunday.
Kerry explained the interest of his countrymen in new music.
"Contrary to the generally held view of Australia, we have quite a good level of education. I think the fact of the country's isolation makes us even more conscious of the need to find out what's going on elsewhere and then either to reproduce it or respond to it. Similarly, if you go to Australian art museums on the weekend, you'll find them filled with typical folk eager for a dose of culture."
According to Ward-Steinman, the musical interests of Australian composers parallel those of American composers.
"They have a group of composers that makes its own instruments, gamelan and other ethnic groups, Minimalists, orthodox serialists, neo-tonalists, and some composers who exhibit influences of various Asian musics. Curiously, the one influence the Australians said they are trying to escape is the American influence."
Kerry said these factions do not live a peaceful coexistence.
"The orthodox serialists don't talk to those people who write neo-Romantic tonal music, for example, and they publish abusive letters about each other in the Australia Music Center Journal. I see myself in the middle of these factions. The music I write is challenging but not alienating to the listener."
Ward-Steinman said SDSU musicians preparing Kerry's compositions for the festival found his idiom both rewarding and accessible, although he added that this did not mean that Kerry's style was conservative.
"When I first studied composition, I felt morally obliged to write difficult serial music," Kerry said. "The piano piece I'm playing for the festival ("Winter Through Glass") is in serial style."
Kerry quickly discovered the limitations of writing strict 12-tone music and modified his style to follow his own ear and structural inclinations. As a result, he has enjoyed a steady stream of commissions to keep his compositional muse active.
"The public seems to like my music, although the critics waver in their judgment. The last critic who didn't care for my music also didn't like the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen either, so I felt I was in pretty good company."
Kerry's two-week residency at SDSU for the festival is underwritten by the Australia Council, which, according to Ward-Steinman, is indicative of the Australian government's strong support of the arts. He pointed out that, although the U.S government spends about 79 cents per capita to support the arts, the Australian government spends more than $5 per capita.
"Of course, we don't have the tradition of grand philanthropic gesture that Americans have," Kerry added, alluding to the private foundations that support arts groups. (UC San Diego's noted Center for Music Experiment, for example, was started with a major Rockefeller Foundation grant.)
"In Australia, the wealth is new money, and we don't have people giving away fortunes to foundations. So our arts organizations need to rely on the generosity of the government. With such a small population, we cannot expect the box office to do the whole job."
Kerry will lecture on Australian music since 1961, which coincidentally is the year of his birth. He acknowledged that he did not start analyzing new music while he was in his crib.
"The year 1961 is a watershed year, because that's when the indigenous Australian avant-garde school began to flourish. Peter Sculthorpe's series of 'Sun Music' compositions are typical of this trend."
\o7 Kerry will deliver his lecture at 11 a.m. Tuesday in Smith Hall.\f7