|Inside the Recital Centre
By Dr Eamonn Kelly
Historically, there has been a strong reciprocal relationship between music making and the venues in which music is created and performed.
That is the thesis put forth by British architectural scholar Michael Forsyth in his fascinating 1985 study of opera houses and concert halls, Building for Music: The Architect, the Musician, and the Listener from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (MIT Press). Forsyth, and dozens since, have demonstrated the ways in which music composition, performance practice and presentation conventions have been profoundly influenced by architectural and acoustic contexts, and vice-versa.
Venues reflect and, over time, shape musical tastes. They determine the repertoire and musicians we are given opportunity to hear in performance. They alter the way in which we experience live music, influencing such things as auditory perception, concert etiquette, and the levels of emotional and intellectual impact.
But while buildings are clearly important, in and of themselves, in shaping musical activity, of equal or greater importance are the social, political and economic forces that inform and shape performance spaces. It is humans who accord meaning to cultural venues and individuals who determine the creative directions such venues will pursue.
Following the Melbourne Recital Centre’s opening in February, it is timely that we turn our minds to such musings. More than 25 years ago we celebrated the opening of the city’s last major, government funded music performance venue, the Melbourne Concert Hall. That venue fundamentally altered Melbourne’s musical landscape and now feels an integral, reassuring part of the city’s cultural fabric.
In future years, as familiarity replaces novelty, the MRC may similarly seem an old friend; an indispensable, enriching part of our lives. Such a relationship will be based on much more than the simple provision of a space for chamber music performance in Melbourne. It will require articulate, inspiring and imaginative curatorial vision and the human agency that lies behind all of history’s great creative hubs. Ultimately, it is people who realize a space’s potential by transforming it into a meaningful place.
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, the larger of the MRC’s two performance spaces, has attracted thorough media coverage and aroused interest amongst music lovers. Aside from curiosity about acoustic and architectural features, much interest springs from the close association between the hall and its centenarian namesake – one of Australia’s most widely loved and respected women. Dame Elisabeth Murdoch has not only helped catalyse Melbourne’s burgeoning chamber music scene through patronage and advocacy, but has inspired others to share her positive vision of a city touched by chamber music’s intrinsic, civilizing power; a celebration of beauty and humanity in a sometimes cynical and all-too-often ugly world.
But what of the other MRC space known simply, without dedication or corporate naming rights, as The Salon? Thus far, the press has barely mentioned The Salon and, although many of the 14,000+ visitors to the MRC during February’s Open Days will have peeked inside, few Melbournians have experienced a performance in the space. The MRC website is thin on information, a brief note to potential hirers suggesting that: “The Salon is a beautiful, flexible space that is perfect for intimate concerts, recordings, talks, receptions and dining”.
It is a utilitarian rectilinear space with a high ceiling and otherwise modest dimensions; 15.5 metres long, 10 metres wide and a seating capacity of 130. There is decorative continuity with Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, particularly in the use of wooden flooring and a mosaic of laminated Hoop Pine wall panels that jut irregularly into the room at jaunty angles. As in the main hall, The Salon’s walls reveal a flowing series of engravings that serve both acoustic and decorative functions. These engraved lines and dots are accompanied by an equally flowing line of text and, at eye-height, the signature of composer Percy Grainger.
The original design brief spoke of this space serving as “a contemporary version of the traditional salon”. Hence, the name. But what is meant by “the traditional salon” and how might a “contemporary version” exist in 21st Century Melbourne?
Many anglophones primarily associate the word “salon” with the worlds of waxing, manicuring and styling; a far cry from the great salons of Continental Europe that helped fuel western culture’s transition from Renaissance to Enlightenment and for over three centuries stimulated intellectual and artistic activity in Europe and its colonies. Curiously, the modern beauty salon does shares one important thing with the great European salons; it is a space where women are welcomed and typically, are in charge.
The etymology of the word “salon” is not particularly glamorous; a French adaption of the Italian word salone, designating a large hall (sala). That great icon of America’s historical Wild West, the saloon (of booze, fighting and prostitution), shares the same etymological root.
What made the great European salons interesting was neither architecture nor the name of the reception room in which they occurred. It was the women who hosted them. They maintained salons as inclusive places in which many rigid social conventions, including rank, gender and profession, could be cast aside in the name of free, thought-provoking conversation and creative risk.
And so we return to The Salon at the MRC. Those swirling grooves on the walls are in fact a precise reproduction of graphic notation developed by Percy Grainger in his quest for a new type of musical expression he called “free music”. The idea was to create music that broke away from the constraints of western music and more closely approximated the gliding, limitless sounds of nature. This quest lasted more than 60 years, involving experimentation with notation and the construction of several “free music” machines. Many of Grainger’s ideas, including his experiments with “free music”, foreshadowed major changes in 20th Century composition, including the entire electronic music tradition.
In his lifetime, the composer felt he had achieved some modest measure of success in developing the idea of “free music”. Yet he was periodically racked by what he felt was a lack of courage in publicly championing his most innovative ideas; his signature tune, Country Gardens, hardly sends one into rebellious paroxysms. The text that follows the lines of Free Music No. 2 (1937) around the walls of The Salon is transcribed from a letter Grainger wrote in 1950 (just shy of his 68th birthday) to long-time “free music” collaborator, American science editor, Burnett Cross. Grainger berates himself: “As I look back on my life as a tone-wright [composer] I am aware of having failed again & again [through] the lack of bravery rather than the lack of giftedness…not to let my tone-works be heard by the folk-host [public] until I was 40 showed that I lacked bravery about my art…It only takes a little bravery – but that I lacked”.
Taken collectively, these clues help explain The Salon’s imagined and potential function. It has been designed as a space in which ideas might freely be shared, in which creative risks might occur, and in which artists might tread bravely without fear of failure or ridicule.
Yet if it is primarily people who transform spaces into places, then The Salon at the MRC will surely require human agency – contemporary salon hosts – before the dream can become a reality. The grand tradition of the salon revolved around inspiring, intelligent, generous women. How wonderful it would be if Dame Elisabeth’s legacy was acknowledged not only by the grand space that has been named in her honour, but in The Salon; a place where her positive spirit of patronage could be sustained, fostering the creative imagination of musical generations to come.
Dr Eamonn Kelly is the Melbourne Music Critic for The Australian newspaper.Feature Articles Home