“I’d love to see a dialogue about how we can do better,” Mr Frame said. “There’s some fabulous, living, diverse, exciting music out there that doesn’t need to replace Beethoven but can sit alongside it in fantastic ways.
“If we want to see music develop into the future, if we want orchestral music to survive, that needs diverse experience to carry us there. There’s so much power in living music, and an infinite number of ways you can program it, but almost zero of those infinite possibilities are being explored.”
Mr Frame studied at the Sydney Conservatorium but moved to Melbourne for its “vibrant cultural scene”.
He was not surprised that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra scored well in his analysis. In 2019, it played the most Australian work of any of the majors (13 per cent of the program), and the second most “living music” behind the Australian Chamber Orchestra (24 per cent and 34 per cent respectively).
MSO was also the only orchestra to feature any work composed by First Nations musicians and one of three, including the QSO and SSO, to perform CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) Australian works.
John Davis, chief executive of the Australian Music Centre, said some Australian and diverse voices were “hidden” from Mr Frame in orchestras’ development and education programs, “but not on the main stage and that raises questions in itself”.
Mr Davis also warned such content can vary greatly from year to year: the coronavirus shutdown and Beethoven anniversary may “completely skew” 2020’s figures.
But overall, he said, “dead white European males are the ubiquitous sound we’re hearing from the largest cultural structures in the country”. He agrees with Mr Frame that the shutdown, while an existential threat to live music, is also an opportunity to reimagine programming and make classical music “a living and meaningful thing”.
Ben Northey, the MSO’s principal conductor in residence, is a driving force behind the inclusion of more Australian work. Last week he conducted an online livestream that sandwiched Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe and Lisa Illean between works by American Aaron Copland.
He said having Indigenous soprano Deborah Cheetham as their composer in residence has been a “big step forward” that helped them learn how to incorporate both her music and a more integrated approach to reconciliation. Their Beethoven’s 9th concert this year included Cheetham’s musical response to the choral symphony.
“The challenge is to make people fall in love with (new and Australian) music, and we have to perform it for that to happen,” Mr Northey said.
“The arts are at their best when they’re able to incorporate our living voices, and be relevant to the life of a country, a state or city.”
Mr Frame doesn’t compose orchestral music himself – “no-one has ever asked me”. His work is more obscure: he recently spent time in the far north of Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, programming a computer to generate music from the structure of lichen.
He’s not sure if that would qualify under his rules as Australian, or Finnish music.
“The music was written by the lichen and I curated it, I guess,” he said.
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age.