St Kilda: site of music originality and innovation

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By Andrea Baker


Music has been a defining element of St Kilda since time immemorial.

At last month’s inaugural Australian symposium about music cities, held at the Melbourne Town Hall, a key question on the agenda was what makes a successful music city?

The term ‘music city’ has recently penetrated the global consciousness because it “delivers significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits”. The Mastering of a Music City report released on 2 June 2015 confirmed this.

Compiled by Music Canada, the report examined twenty-seven music cities (including Melbourne) from around the globe and offered a “tool kit” about how to succeed in the commercial, contemporary live music industry.

As Amy Terrill, co-author of Mastering of a Music City, who gave a keynote at the symposium said, “There is growing recognition among governments and other stakeholders (that) music cities can deliver significant benefits…Quite suddenly there is a lot of interest in becoming a music city and how to make one succeed”.

Touted as the Music Capital of Australia, Melbourne seems to have the winning formulae. It is home to renowned musicians and has a thriving music scene across a diverse range of venues. The city also has a receptive, engaged (and even activist) music audience, many indie record labels and other music-related businesses.

In August 2014, after lobbying by community and advocacy groups (including from the St Kilda Live Music Community) the State Labour Government supported the world’s first Agent of Change legislation, which required parties to adopt noise mitigation measures in situations of mixed land use. The State Government’s Creative Industries department has also pledged millions to the music sector.

While the benefits of the Melbourne music city is well documented and plans are in place to ensure its global visibility, there is still an elephant in the room. Why did Melbourne become a music city in the first place? It’s all about nurturing a music scene. If a music scene is judged on its heritage, originality and innovation, then St Kilda, the bourgeois and cultural heartland of colonial Melbourne, comes up trumps.

During the 1800s and 1900s this infant city was up there alongside other superstar music cities such as London, Paris, New York and Berlin. It still is today, in part, because of St Kilda’s cultural history.

As historian Kristen Otto noted in her book, Capital: Melbourne when it was the capital of Australia, 1901-27, “If we define the social capital of a city as its people and the working capital of its people as their ideas, then Melbourne was a small town where extraordinary people did amazing things”.

Australia’s first international music star, opera diva Madame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell) was born in Melbourne in 1861 and mastered her craft in the various music venues in St Kilda. Taking the pseudonym Melba (from Melbourne), she went on to become a successful soprano in the opera houses of Europe and one of the most famous singers of the Victorian era and early 20th century. Melba is a brand and in 1999 local opera singer Maria Vandamme founded Melba Recordings, “a label of fragrant distinction” from her heritage-listed house in St Kilda, to bring global recognition to Australian music.

 In 2002 Vandamme established the Melba Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in St Kilda that raises funds for musicians from donors and governments.According to the Melba Recordings website, “Melba Recordings has recorded 66 CDs, including many world premiere releases designed specifically to interest the international market”.

The child prodigy and classic music composer, Percy Grainger was also born in Melbourne in 1882 and, like Melba, became a megastar overseas. “Percy Grainger is a builder of Australian art. In my own way I aim to be one, too”, Melba said.

Grainger was Australia’s first world-renowned composer and a champion of the free music style, which he had first observed in the wave forms shaped on Albert Park Lake.

“My music should be fierce and wildly performed, rather than in staid and modest manner. My musical creed (to which I do not consistently live up) is musical democracy’, my definition of ‘democracy’ being ‘a chance for all to shine in a starry whole’,” Grainger said.

Grainger believed that such music needs to be played by purpose built, delicately controlled machines, which later became known as one of the first synthesisers to foreground electronic music. Since 1938 these “machines” have been nested in the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne.

These are just some of the ‘world firsts’ in the history of Marvellous Melbourne’s music scene, emerging from St Kilda.

The quotes from Grainger and Melba are derived from historian Kristen Otto’s book, “Capital: Melbourne when it was the capital of Australia, 1901-27” (Text Publishing).


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