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Australian composers

Traditional western-style music was brought to Australia with the First Fleet - Captain Arthur Phillip's fleet comprising eleven ships which established the British colony of Australia in 1788.

Western music in Australia has tended to follow European traditions. Choirs and opera performances were most common in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the early 20th century, orchestras became more popular and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (known at the time as the Australian Broadcasting Commission) set up a symphony orchestra in each Australian state.

More recently, jazz and electronic music have influenced Australian composers. The meaning of the term 'composer' has expanded over time to include compositions used and performed in places other than the traditional concert hall.

A number of organisations promote Australian music and assist Australian musicians and composers. These include:

  • The Music Board. A division of arts funding body the Australia Council, the Music Board provides financial, touring and marketing support to practising musicians and composers in Australia.
  • The Fellowship of Australian Composers. This Fellowship acts on behalf of Australian composers in matters of copyright, composers' fees and the amount of Australian music broadcast on radio and television.
  • The Australian Music Centre. The Centre encourages and facilitates an understanding of Australian music throughout the world. It provides information, publications and scores relating to Australian music.

The following are brief introductions to some Australian composers, past and present. Find biographies of hundreds of Australian composers on the Australian Music Centre website.

Percy Grainger (1882–1961)

Percy Grainger, 1924.

Percy Grainger, 1924. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia

Melbourne-born Percy Grainger made his first concert tour as a sixteen-year-old. Soon afterward he travelled to Europe to study music in Germany. He worked as a concert pianist in England from 1901 until 1914. While living in England, Grainger became friends with Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who inspired him to investigate English folk music. He collected many traditional folk songs and made his own arrangements of them.

In 1914, Grainger moved to the United States of America and became an American citizen. He lived in America for the rest of his life. He served in the United States Army and was a member of the United States Army band. It was during this time that he wrote 'Country Gardens', his most famous piece.

Grainger toured Australia several times throughout his career. In the 1930s, he established the Grainger Museum on the campus of Melbourne University in Victoria. The museum was created to explain and explore the processes involved in composition. As well as detailed information about Grainger's own life and career, the museum holds material relating to the careers of his musical contemporaries. It contains artworks, costumes, instruments, Grainger's own personal library and a series of archives holding manuscripts, letters and recordings of Grainger's performances.

In the late 1950s, Grainger worked with scientist Burnett Cross on the Free Music machines, which are now thought of as early versions of today's electronic synthesisers. One of these machines was also called 'The Electric Eye Tone Tool Cross-Grainger for Playing Grainger's Free Music'. Cross and Grainger played an unusual, experimental kind of music that evolved from Grainger's experiments with theremins (an electrical instrument that uses radio waves to make sounds) and with changing the speed of recorded music. Some of these instruments are held at the Grainger Museum.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912–1990)

Peggy Glanville-Hicks was born in Melbourne and studied with Fritz Hart, conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, between the ages of fifteen and nineteen.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks

Peggy Glanville-Hicks won an international reputation as a composer. Image courtesy of the Australian Music Centre

At nineteen, Glanville-Hicks won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. She studied there for five years. Her teachers included Vaughan Williams for composition and Arthur Benjamin for piano. She also studied conducting under Constant Lambert and Malcolm Sargent.

In 1936, she won the Octavia Travelling Scholarship. This allowed her to travel to Vienna and Paris to further her studies. In 1938, her 'Choral Suite' was conducted at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) Festival in London. This was the first time an Australian composition had been performed at an ISCM festival.

In 1942, Glanville-Hicks moved to the United States of America and lived there until 1959. It was during this time that she wrote most of her compositions. One of her most famous works is the opera 'The Transposed Heads', which is based on Hindu sources. It was first performed in 1954 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. In 1958, Glanville-Hicks was commissioned to write a score for the ballet 'The Masque of the Wild Man'. She wrote various ballet scores after that, including 'Saul and the Witch of Endor' 'and 'A Season in Hell' .

In 1959, Glanville-Hicks moved to Athens, Greece, where she began studying the music of both Greece and India. She put these studies to use when she wrote the opera 'Nausicaa'. The Greek scholar Robert Graves wrote the libretto (the lyrics of the opera) to 'Nausicaa'. The opera was performed on behalf of the Greek Government at the Athens Festival in 1961.

Glanville-Hicks's career has had a wide-ranging influence on contemporary composition. As well as writing music, she was deeply committed to the organisation and promotion of contemporary music. She helped to establish the International Music Fund, writing its first manifesto. In the 1950s, she organised many avant-garde musical events for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She also worked as a music reporter for many publications, including Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and the New York Herald Tribune . Between 1950 and 1960, Glanville-Hicks was the Director of the New York Composers Forum.

David Chesworth (1958 - )

David Chesworth's musical career is long and diverse. He has worked as a composer and a performer. He has also worked with sound installations and film. He studied composition at La Trobe University in Melbourne between 1976 and 1979.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chesworth joined experimental band Essendon Airport. Essendon Airport's music has been described as hypnotic, minimalist and hypothetical. Between 1978 and 1982, Chesworth was the co-ordinator of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne, an experimental music performance space that was based in a dilapidated factory that used to make pipe organs.

In 1986, Chesworth completed his first opera, 'Insatiable'. Soon after its first performance, Chesworth received funding to turn it into a video for television broadcast. Insatiable's story plays with, and asks questions about, the nature of performance, communication and auditioning.

In 1993, Chesworth formed the David Chesworth Ensemble, a group of musicians dedicated to performing Chesworth's own work as well as reinterpretations of the work of other experimental and contemporary composers. Around this time, he started collaborating with Sonia Leber, and soon after they founded Wax Sound Media, a group dedicated to the creation of sound-based multimedia installations. Wax's installations have appeared all over the world at festivals and in museums, galleries and public spaces. Their best-known installation is '5000 Calls', which was originally set up for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It involved placing eighty speakers within the artificial forest that surrounded the Olympic stadium. The speakers were programmed by computers to play snippets of people's voices and breathing sounds recorded from everyday conversations and activities such as sports, singing, dancing and phone conversations. Since the Sydney Olympics, 5000 Calls has also been installed in Wales and Slovenia.

Chesworth describes his own work as a 'musical cartel'. He uses this term to describe the way he uses different kinds of music and sounds and puts them together in ways that are unexpected, but which also blend well together.

David Page (1961 - )

David Page's first experience with the world of musical performance came as a twelve-year-old when he won the talent night at the Sunnybank Hotel in Mount Gravatt, a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland. He was spotted by a talent scout from Atlantic Records, who signed him up immediately.

Page was said to be 'the next Michael Jackson'. He went on to release two singles, both of which made it into Australia's list of weekly top ten recordings. Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen was released in 1975 when Page was fourteen, and Dreamtime Lover was released in 1976. But Page's fame, television appearances and chart successes were short-lived: when he turned fifteen, his voice broke and his career as a child star was over.

In the 1980s, Page studied music at Wilto Yerlo, the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music in Adelaide, South Australia. He studied voice, song arrangement, saxophone and song composition. He worked as a musician and songwriter, playing with the band, Azur . He also sang, acted and danced in various stage productions including Eva Johnson's 'Murras' and Reg Livermore's 'Big Sister' .

In 1989, Page worked with his brother, choreographer Stephen Page, composing and choreographing for Kyan Walu, a National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association dance production. In 1991, Page joined his brother once more and became resident composer and performer with the Bangarra Dance Theatre. He has composed scores for many dance performances, including 'Ochres' (1995) and 'Fish' (1997) for Bangarra, and 'Alchemy' (1996) for the Australian Ballet. All three scores have won Deadly Sounds Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music, Sport, Entertainment and Community Awards (known simply as the Deadlys) for the Best Soundtrack.

Page has composed scores for film and television, including 'Heartland', 'Songlines', 'Poison' and 'Copy Rites' . He continues to perform as an actor too. In 1999, he took the lead role in The Sunshine Club for the Queensland Theatre Company and in 2001 he featured in the Sydney Theatre Company's 'The Cherry Pickers'. His autobiographical show, 'Page 8' , in which he tells his life story from child star to drag act to composer, was featured in the 2004 Brisbane Festival.

Ros Bandt

Ros Bandt is not only referred to as a composer, she is also known as a 'sound artist'. This is because of her work in sound installation, which involves using music and sounds to create an atmosphere or mood in a specific space. Sometimes these are internal spaces, and other times they are external spaces.

Ros Bandt, 1992.

David Franklin, Portrait of Ros Bandt, 1992, gelatin silver on fibre based paper. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Bandt has been exhibiting her installation work since 1977. In 1990, she was the first woman to win the Don Banks Music Award. Her works are unusual, thoughtful and undoubtedly experimental. 'Alchemy' (1999–2001) has been exhibited in over ten venues all over Australia. It uses recordings of the sound of cymbals being hit inside empty water tanks. It was inspired by a visit to a friend's property in Gippsland, in Eastern Victoria, when Bandt and her friend climbed inside an empty tank to see what their voices would sound like.

Another work, 'Voicing the Murray', uses recorded sounds of the Murray River in Victoria (cockatoos, grape picking, magpies, water, frogs, water pumps and stories told by people who live near the river). These sounds are played in a continual loop from inside large ceramic urns.

Bandt's interactive sculpture 'Sound Playground' was built in a park in Brunswick, Melbourne. It was made up of panels of musical instruments in a frame that could also be climbed. The materials used for the installation came from the local factories, tips and warehouses. After it was finished, Bandt gave workshops to teach people how to play music with the sculpture.

Bandt is one of the founders of the Australian Sound Design Project (ASDP), a nationwide resource for Australian sound artists. The ASDP researches and publishes original works that deal with sound and its use in public spaces.

Useful links

Organisations for composers and musicians

Australian composer websites

Music collections

Last updated: 26th November 2007
Creators: Mijo Consulting