Honouring Canberra’s Centenary with music

By January 9, 2013History, Music, Society

Some years ago, like many others who live in the national capital, I wondered how the Commonwealth would want to recognise the centenary of the city whose creation symbolised the arrival into the world of the new nation. As it dillied and dallied I began to realise that it was too much to ask the rest of Australia, let alone its government, to celebrate such an event. The jealousies and tensions that have been a part of the federation from the beginning prevent the whole country acting in concert for such a moment. If there were to be a celebration, we who live in the city would need to do it, and invite everyone else to take part in it.

By and large, that is what has happened. The Commonwealth has put some money into the National Arboretum (an ACT initiative, despite its title), and finally agreed to fund the reconstruction of a main street that it once decided to rebuild anyway, and had then reneged on the decision. The ACT Government appointed Robyn Archer as the Creative Director of the Centenary Celebrations, and she has developed an extraordinary array of events. In an early conversation with her I suggested that Canberra’s musical community should take part, providing music throughout the year. She blessed the idea, and I went off to develop it.

What came out of the thinking and discussion, and the gathering of like minds, is ‘The Musical Offering’, an initiative whose aim is to provide a short musical event every day throughout the Centenary year. You would encounter the music when you were shopping, or visiting one of the National institutions, or outside a government department, or at a hospital. The music would go to the people, rather  than asking people to go to the music, as is the usual case. We have remembered those who can’t easily travel, and there are musical events in retirement villages, and later in January one concert will take place in a church, to which people from those villages will come in their buses.

The music is the offering, and the musicians are giving their music freely, as a gift. No one is paid, and there are no venue charges, although contributions toward the fabric of the church, or the maintenance of a garden, are asked for. Could we get the support of Canberra’s musicians for such an ambitious venture? I thought so, and so far the response has been enthusiastic. Musicians like to play. They like to be paid, too. But they like to play: making music is their craft and their interest.

Canberra is blessed with excellent choirs, and we found that the High Court of Australia would allow our choirs to sing in their cathedral-like building on Sunday afternoons. We filled the January Sundays within a day or so, despite so many being on holiday. I spoke to a fine musician whom I had encountered a few years ago when he recorded a CD with another, and asked whether he might be interested in appearing at a certain cafe. He said that he had decided to go to such a place and simply offer to play, for nothing, after work — he wanted an audience and an opportunity to play.

So far the enterprise has taken wings. We haven’t missed a day, and the variety is extraordinary: choral music, jazz, solo piano, solo flute, the Japanese shakuhachi, cello and piano. The music attracts an instant audience, even in a shopping centre. One shopper stopped, sat down and said to me, ‘Isn’t it wonderful — and so much better than the sounds that come through the public address system!’

Canberra has a rich and diverse musical community, one much larger than one would expect for a city of its size, which I know from ten years and more with the Canberra International Music Festival. Our hope is that, among other things, we are helping in the rebirth of live music as something characteristic of the national capital. When the Centenary is over, the pattern that we are developing, of live music in places, will continue. And the musicians will be paid, too!

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