In the first of a series of essays, film-maker Nicholas Searle explores contemporary Australian music.

Discovering exciting new locally-made music was a task I neglected for years – and stretched as most of us are between family, work and life, I don’t think I’m the only one.  

I make television for a living, and work on shows like Grand Designs Australia, New Inventors, Catalyst, Mythbusters and River Cottage Australia. Music is integral for these shows, but only to keep the story moving, to cover gaps. Music for television is like grease for a car – critical, but you don’t want the passengers to notice it. Until recently that didn’t worry me all that much.

But in August I read a tweet about Julian Burnside. The barrister come human rights superhero had commissioned something called Wind Farm Music, dedicated to Tony Abbott. It had premiered just the day before at the State Library of Victoria, and social media was awash with retweets and videos. The music was a brilliantly clever mash-up of every great classical tune you’ve heard. Burnside’s cheeky title was a stroke of genius.

Lyle Chans Wind Farm Music

I searched out the composer – his name was Lyle Chan. On Spotify I found another piece of his, a string quartet called An AIDS Activist’s Memoir in Music.

AIDS Memoir gestures towards grief and loss, yet without being maudlin. Without being obvious it alludes to the time gays feared nightly for their safety in the streets. There’s moments of trust and passion, of solidarity and loneliness and hope. And listening to it brought me to the edge of tears.

Why? I’m not a gay man. I haven’t lost a close friend to the disease. Still – the music totally engaged me. It felt curiously familiar. I realised it was the first time I’d heard a piece of music that expressed a story to which I had been a witness.

Through the late eighties and early nineties, the dark times of AIDS, I rode buses up Oxford Street to Sydney Boys High. I remember the fear, and the hate, and the death. I remember Mr Ainsworth the English teacher going from a buff and tanned Adonis to an emaciated shell.

Chan’s piece was classical music that could not be more contemporary, and it got me searching for more. I found lots and lots of contemporary Australian music – beautiful melodies, powerful sounds, exciting beats, engrossing structures. There was music about places I knew – from mighty rivers to railway stations. There was quirky music and ferocious music and music that was made with instruments I’d never heard of – or instruments which I wouldn’t have imagined could make music. I recognised a few named – Peter Sculthorpe and Nigel Westlake and Elena Kats-Chernin – but many, many more I didn’t know. And devoted to playing this music across the country were ensembles, and even festivals, from Brisbane to Bendigo, from Yackandandah to the Adelaide Hills.

I realised it was the first time I’d heard a piece of music that expressed a story to which I had been a witness.

The more I listened to this music, the more I was excited to find more, but something else was happening as well. I found myself calmer and less anxious. I was meeting challenges with a clearer head. One person’s experience does not a scientific sample make, but listening to new music was somehow doing me some serious good. I wasn’t alone – I was buoyed to find a speech from 2004 given by Burnside making a stirring case for commissioning artists to make art.

However, history seemed against us. While in the 19th century the vast majority of music played at concerts was ‘new music’, the 20th century saw the invention of ‘classical’ music, under the influence of recording technology.  I heard a podcast about the devastation being wrought across the music industry by streaming and copyright infringement. I read an article about music commissioning scene and was shocked how little most Australian composers could expect to be paid to write music. I downloaded a ‘users guide’ to the not uncomplicated process of commissioning of new music. It had been developed by none other than composer Lyle Chan.

I contacted him, and he surprised me at once. “There’s never been a better time to be a composer,” Lyle told me. “More people are writing more music than ever before – and more people are listening to more music than ever before.”

Lyle sees the scene as awash with new opportunities. Yes, there are challenges, yes, you are competing for attention with vast canon of ‘heritage’ classical music, but if you are strategic, if you market you work cleverly, if you network your contacts to grow a base of commissioners, your music will be played, and you will be paid.  Chan has worked exclusively as a professional composer since 2012, and he assured me his attitude was not unique.

It seemed what I’d found was an ecosystem of creative entrepreneurs with a passion for expressing in music contemporary experience to as wide an audience as they could reach. And the more I listened to their music, spoke to the artists making it, and the patrons and institutions supporting it,  the more I wanted to see their stories told to a television audience.

Lyle Chan

I’d been down this path before. Just months earlier I had delivered a television series to SBS called BigArt, about Brisbane-based art fabrication company Urban Art Projects. On behalf of artists and their clients, UAP builds some of the most extraordinary – and extraordinarily large – artworks you have ever seen in your life. The series explores the stories behind six of them, and each is uniquely extraordinary.

The problem with BigArt was convincing a broadcaster to back the project with money to take it into production. Art and culture seemed a hard sell, despite the extraordinary charisma of the talent and the venue – molten hot bronze and giant seat-of-the-pants installation dramas? I mean – come on!!! Yet between first approaching UAP and finally scraping the money together (thanks to Screen Queensland’s trust in production company WildBear with whom I’d teamed) six years passed. Six. Years.

As I began to imagine the shape of a new television series that would explore Australian musical ventures and the personalities behind them happen, I wondered if I could find a different way to bring the extraordinary stories of Australian cultural production to television. With even the most established composers in Australia only barely household names perhaps I could build momentum in the project thanks to the small but vocal number of public identities who were proud to associate themselves with Australian art.

I wrote to Julian Burnside. Would he be willing to be interviewed for a tv series about making new Australian music. “Yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “Anything for the arts.”

And we were off.

NEXT: Musica Viva, Nigel Westlake, Syzygy Ensemble and the New Music Marketing Symposium – can crowdfund kickstart a new music series?

TV maker Nicholas Searle has worked on shows including Grand Designs Australia, The New Inventors and Mythbusters. His most recent project BigArt is about Brisbane art fabricators Dan and Matt Tobin whose company Urban Art Projects builds giant artworks on behalf of top local and international artists. SBS will screen the six part series in 2016.