Contemporary Art Music in Adelaide: Passion, Determination and Inventiveness

Soundstream’s Gabriella Smart Picture: Julian Cebo
Chris Reid
| March 1, 2016

Adelaide’s vibrant contemporary art music scene including Soundstream, composer Stephen Whittington, the Electronic Music Unit, Zephyr Quartet and The Firm, is profiled here by Chris Reid, who finds a deeply engaging and high quality musical environment.

For a music scene to thrive and develop, it needs leaders with ideas, energy and ability. Adelaide’s contemporary classical / art music scene is flourishing, thanks to the efforts of its composers, performers and organisers, some of whom are stalwarts of longstanding, and others are just emerging.



Adelaide pianist Gabriella Smart has been a champion of contemporary music nationally for over 20 years, primarily through her Soundstream organisation, which she established in 1994. The Soundstream Collective, a flexible ensemble of some of Adelaide’s finest musicians, regularly stages concerts and mini-festivals, such as the Adelaide New Music Festival (2009 to 2012). Soundstream takes a collaborative approach, involving some of Australia’s leading performers and composers and sometimes international guests such as Daniel Matej (2012) and Alvin Curran (2013).

As well as bringing to Adelaide the best in Australian and international contemporary composition, Smart is particularly concerned to commission new work and encourage young composers. The fifth Soundstream Emerging Composers Forum is scheduled for December 2016 and Australian composers are invited to submit new work, with substantial prizes on offer.


Gabriella Smart has been a champion of contemporary music nationally for over 20 years

In 2015, Soundstream staged two remarkable concerts: Music for a Summer Evening, featuring the little-heard Makrokosmos III of US composer George Crumb, together with works by James Rushford, Soundstream emerging composer Samuel Smith and Tristram Cary; and Silence Augmenteth Grief, an audio-visual presentation staged in cooperation with the Samstag Museum and featuring the compositions of Liza Lim, Jon Rose, Stuart Greenbaum and Soundstream emerging composer Daniel Portelli.

Smart’s collaboration extends beyond music to other art forms, notably architecture. Working with the Australian Institute of Architects, she has staged a series of events entitled Music in Great Spaces, combining the musical recital with discussion of the relationship between the venue’s architecture and its sonic characteristics. Hidden Sounds from the Z Ward, a collaboration with artist Rod McRae scheduled for 9 March 2016, will invite listeners to explore the now-closed ward for the criminally insane at the former Glenside Hospital to the music of local and international composers including Steve Reich, Curran, Erik Griswold and Adelaide’s Christopher Williams.

Stephen Whittington, Photo: courtesy the artist

Stephen Whittington, Photo: courtesy the artist


Stephen Whittington

Composer, performer, critic and lecturer Stephen Whittington, who has his own You Tube channel, frequently brings us the music of often underperformed composers such as Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Kurtag and Charles-Valentin Alkan. His John Cage Day (2012) was a program of the music and ideas of Cage mounted to celebrate the centenary of the composer’s birth.

Whittington is keenly interested in visual art, working with artists such as Domenico De Clario and staging concerts in the Art Gallery of SA. Whittington’s concert The Music of Light (2011) explored the relationship between sound and light, and his performance accompanied screenings of the films of legendary experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage.


Whittington’s compositional output is substantial and eclectic

Whittington’s compositional output is substantial and eclectic. He draws heavily on Chinese and Japanese traditions as well as Western contemporary music traditions and is a great exponent of the work of Erik Satie, having written a homage to Satie, le Tombeau de Satie. He has even transcribed Beatles songs. No single composition entirely characterises his oeuvre, but each seems to be a unique and exquisite masterpiece.


Electronic Music Unit

Whittington is key staff member of the University of Adelaide’s Electronic Music Unit, whose staff, students and graduates individually and collectively contribute significantly to Adelaide’s contemporary music scene. Lecturers Sebastian Tomczak, Luke Harrald and Christian Haines and graduates Daniel Thorpe and Iran Sanadzadeh are among the most prominent. In 2011, EMU staff and students staged Psychedelic Rays of Sound at the Art Gallery of South Australia including several works commissioned in response to the touring Saatchi Gallery art exhibition British Art Now.

At EMU, Whittington provides important performance opportunities for his students in the University of Adelaide’s Sonic Arts program. The most recent student concert, in 2015, involved a lap-top orchestra of 65 performers, likely a world first.


Zephyr Quartet

Describing themselves as an indie-classical string quartet, Zephyr Quartet has a pivotal role in Adelaide’s contemporary music scene, performing, commissioning and writing new work. Arguably Australia’s most lateral thinking and inventive ensemble, as their You Tube channel attests, their Music for Strings and iThings concert in December 2014 was a landmark event for which new compositions by local composers were invited. This concert especially featured cellist Hilary Kleinig’s For those who’ve come across the seas for string quartet and audience, in which the audience participates by playing aloud through their smart phones their choice of three musical elements they download from Soundcloud. This profound work highlighted the situation of asylum seekers, symbolically engaging the audience in their plight.

indie-classical string quartet, Zephyr Quartet has a pivotal role in Adelaide’s contemporary music scene

Zephyr work extensively with other musicians and composers, including JG Thirlwell, Kronos Quartet and Demdike Stare for the 2013 Adelaide Festival of Arts, and most recently with Adelaide-based theatre company Brink Productions in its adaptation for stage of the Patrick White short story The Aspirations of Daise Morrow, writing and performing the extraordinary music that ran throughout. Zephyr have also performed Whittington’s …from a Thatched Hut, which muses on Chinese philosophy, and his delightful and much acclaimed Music for Airport Furniture (2011), that references the music of both Satie and Brian Eno. In the 2016 Adelaide Festival, Zephyr will stage Exquisite Corpse, working with numerous composers, including Thirlwell, and referring to the drawing game of that name to create compositions in which each element is unseen by the other participating composers.


The Firm

The Firm is an ensemble of composers directed by two of its founding members, Quentin Grant and Raymond Chapman Smith. Their approach in recent years has been to stage concerts of music written by themselves and other younger composers, together with the music of one or more usually posthumous ‘composers in residence’. The music of these ‘resident’ composers provides a musical focus for each concert and inspires the development of Firm members’ own work. Their comprehensive archive states that since 1996 they have presented “110 concerts with more than 600 works, including 282 first performances, by 94 different composers and featuring 97 performers.” Such a sustained contribution forms one of Adelaide’s principal musical pillars.

By juxtaposing the contemporary with the historical, Firm concerts bring new insights to music and its social and intellectual environment. The Firm’s concert program notes include biographical details of the deceased composers’ lives that provide insights into the inspiration for their work and sometimes commentaries by critics or other writers of the era. Firm concerts are thus journeys into the minds of current and deceased composers, into the nature of music and how musical character is developed.  They work closely with their performers, so that the performers’ interpretations form part of this deeply engaging picture.

The result is highly evocative as well as educational. To take one example, their 8 August 2014 concert included works by resident posthumous composer Franz Schubert, by Alfred Schnittke and Erich Korngold (also both deceased but not at that time in residence), as well as by Chapman-Smith and Grant. There were texts in the program by Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878-1956) and Grant and Chapman-Smith’s compositions added a new focus to the character of these artists’ works, creating an enchanting and deeply philosophical gestalt. Schnittke has been promoted to resident posthumous composer for the 2016 season, together with Domenico Scarlatti, which should inspire some extraordinary new work by the Firm composers.

The Firm also encourages younger local composers, for example Jacob Jankowski, whose fine Invocation for piano quintet was performed at the Firm’s 5 October 2015 concert. Other composers who work with or have worked with the Firm include Anna Cawrse, Luke Altmann, and Firm co-founder John Polglase, all of whom have well-established reputations. Importantly, secondary and tertiary music students are admitted free of charge to Firm concerts, providing significant educational outreach.

Another former Firm member and co-founder is David Kotlowy, whose work is strongly imbued with Asian influences, such as his exquisite Lagu Cinta (2013). Kotlowy frequently works in collaboration with dancers and artists, as in his In lieu, produced jointly with Indonesian dancer and choreographer Ade Suharto for the 2011 OzAsia Festival.


More Electronic Music

The rapidly accelerating trend towards the composition of music expressly for delivery through internet-based platforms, particularly electronic music, is evident in the work not only of EMU students and graduates but also in the work of two of Adelaide’s most innovative composers, Jason Sweeney and Christopher Williams.

Composer and sound designer Jason Sweeney produces recordings of his compositions for download and also composes extensively for the theatre, for example providing the sound for the State Theatre Company’s riveting production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 2015. He also participated in the Performance & Art Development Agency’s ground-breaking collaborative production Near and Far in 2014.

Sweeney creates sound installations that involve active audience participation on an individual basis and which induce the listener to enter a heightened state of awareness. He is concerned to raise awareness of sound generally, particularly ambient sound, as exemplified by his Stereopublic (ongoing since 2012) which invites listeners to download an app to access sound recordings and to navigate a city’s quieter spaces. This extraordinary work has been realised in many of the world’s major cities, including London and New York.

Christopher Williams is a composer of electronic music and a sound engineer and is an exponent particularly of acousmatic music. His extensive electronic music oeuvre opens a magical sound universe to the listener, full of drama, texture and dissonance, in which sounds emerge and float off in all directions. Given the unlimited sonic potential of electronic instrumentation, the creation of a coherent and engaging electronic composition requires great technical skill as well as the utmost musical understanding.

Christopher Williams… extensive electronic music oeuvre opens a magical sound universe to the listener

Williams’s Sympathy for the Devil, to be performed later this year, is an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, involving an immersive sound environment created by a multi-speaker array. The actors are hidden from view while speaking their lines to focus the audience’s attention on the sound to the exclusion of other stimuli.

Williams also works with his partner, visual artist Therese Williams, and together they collaborated on Soundings, currently showing at Praxis Artspace, involving sound recordings that accompany visual imagery.

the passion, determination and inventiveness of Adelaide’s composers and performers has established a deeply engaging musical environment

This brief summary highlights some of the leaders of Adelaide’s contemporary music scene, but there are many other contributors. Despite limited funding, the passion, determination and inventiveness of Adelaide’s composers and performers has established a deeply engaging musical environment, characterised by high quality performance, innovative cross-art form collaboration, responsiveness to current issues and thoughtful experimentation. It’s an environment that has spawned significant cultural development in South Australia and beyond.


  1. Susan Pierotti

    Great to hear of what is happening in the contemporary art music scene across the border. A pity that those intangible borders seem strong enough to inhibit interstate performances. how about collaborating in arranging and funding cross-border tours, for instance, the Zephyr Quartet in Victoria, Arcko Ensemble in South Australia?

    1. Rosemary Beal - Radio Adelaide

      Dear Susan
      Just read your 2016 comments.
      I am a concert sound recordist in Adelaide and I’m working with UNI SA in developing a website to encompass all genres of music but with a particular emphasis on classical/fusion contemporary. I want it to be a platform for all established & emerging Adelaide musicians, performances & expat Adelaide artists. I need to convince the Uni that this site will be more comprehensive than sites eg Music SA. Are you interested in contacting me? Mobile 0415722170

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