Monthly Archives: July 2018
Review: A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia by Michael Atherton
In his recent book, A Coveted Possession, Michael Atherton traces the history of the piano in Australia. The book’s cover seems almost intent on giving the story away, informing us that its pages chart the instrument’s “rise and fall”.
As Atherton, an emeritus professor from Western Sydney University, explains, the story of the piano in Australia begins with the First Fleet, namely a small instrument brought from England on the Sirius in 1788, by George Worgan. A short preliminary chapter sets out the prior development of the instrument, from the “plucked” action of the older harpsichord to the felt-covered hammers used in later pianos. This information will be useful for readers with little background knowledge.
Yet, as the author reminds us, the piano has been more than a musical instrument or a finely crafted piece of furniture; he refers to it as “a machine that conveyed socially constructed meanings”. In this regard, the book is rich in subtext. Two dominant undercurrents emerge: that the possession of a piano (and the skill to play it) signified status; and that the Australian “cultural cringe” led to preferences for foreign-made instruments.
The first piano believed to have been built in Australia dated from 1834 and was constructed by an English emigrant named John Benham. As Atherton tells us, native timbers proved highly adaptable to piano manufacture, both in terms of their outer casework and, more importantly, the soundboard within.
An example of a Benham piano is housed in the archives of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. It’s one of many instruments stored in the shed-like building next to the main exhibition spaces, which are rarely viewed by anybody, let alone heard. If ever there was a counter-argument for keeping the Powerhouse where it is and opening satellite venues such as at Parramatta so as to allow for the greater display of items, surely this is one.
Atherton provides a brief but concise history of the early builders of pianos in Australia, before moving to the more substantial manufacturers, Jabez Carnegie, Octavius Beale and Hugo Wertheim. For a period, it was a burgeoning and profitable business, complementing the homegrown production and sale of printed music, and the promotion of local virtuoso performers, such as Percy Grainger.
Yet lasting success proved elusive. As a pianist, I have promoted modern Australian pianos in concerts and recordings, and, sadly, Atherton’s pages detailing the decline of Beale’s factory in Sydney’s Annandale and Wertheim’s in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond were almost predictable. Those who profited from importing instruments from overseas (sometimes with quite inferior products) argued powerfully to remove tariffs and, aligned with the interruption of the second world war, “market forces” ultimately brought about the industry’s demise.
Changes in entertainment technologies – such as the development of the radio and the gramophone – also played their part in that process. But despite the decline in the popularity of the “goanna” (rhyming slang for the instrument), Atherton is highly informative when recounting its role as a social healer. Many pianos were donated to so-called “Cheer-Up Huts”, where they were played to boost the spirits of those returning injured from war.
Particularly fascinating is the story of the “Changi” piano, an instrument that brought happiness to countless POWs. It is now housed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Other instruments made it as far as battle front lines where, as Atherton observes, their playing represented order among the “anarchic, chaotic and destructive sounds of war”.
Atherton can write with an enthralling sense of narrative, which is perhaps most evident in the final part of the book. Here he recounts the role of pianos in various post-modern creative projects.
Noting his own participation in what could be termed “pianofortecide”, these endeavours involved the ritualistic destruction and burning of old and unwanted instruments, all in the name of art. Aptly, the chapter is titled “Where do old pianos go to die?”. It provides a sobering, realistic glimpse of the fate of pianos that were once treated with love, care and respect. More often than not old pianos are dumped unceremoniously at the tip.
Wayne Stuart and Ron Overs have both, in their own ways, worked in recent years to establish locally made piano businesses, although their efforts seem somewhat in vain. Atherton, who has advocated strongly for Stuart’s instruments, asks some pointed questions:
Has Stuart been given a short life as a piano builder because most concert pianists do not wish to move out of their comfort zone? Have conventional sounds, conservatism in music and economics, and also, possibly, Australian tall poppy syndrome damaged the longevity of the piano, not to mention the ongoing vested interests and monopolies courted by local organisations and promoters?
The same could be asked of the never-ending stream of imported pianists who perform with our major orchestras on a weekly basis, while the wealth of talented Australian artists is fairly much ignored!
At times, A Coveted Possession is marred by insufficient attention in the proof-reading stage. And it feels as if the researcher’s bullet-point notes have been fleshed out rather casually in early chapters recounting historical developments, where a deeper sense of narrative would have satisfied more.
But for those who are interested in the history of the piano in Australia (and music in general), the book has much to offer. Despite the foretelling of the instrument’s demise on the cover, Atherton’s book ends on a high note: “The ‘goanna’ will still be sounding at the end of the century.”
What can we possibly learn from the archaeological study of a World War I battle tank? Quite a lot, it turns out, when the attention is devoted to a rare German-built A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank known as Mephisto.
The tank was originally collected as a war trophy by a Queensland based battalion in July 1918, brought to Brisbane the following year and now held by Queensland Museum. One hundred years to the month since its recovery, it is the last of its kind in the world.
On close inspection it is clear that this metallic monster is in far from pristine condition and covered in battle damage. Mephisto saw a lot of action during the battle for Villers-Bretonneux in northern France a century ago.
Investigation of war relic
The story of the tank is now told in a new publication, Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, that recounts its history and technological development, and places it in the context of the so-called “War to end all wars”.
Together with our colleagues, we have attempted to reconstruct something of Mephisto’s role in its final battle.
To make sense of various gunshot and shrapnel impacts, the Queensland Police and Ballistic Bomb Blast Unit and the Defence Science & Technology Group (DSTG) provided their technical skills to help explain the damage to the tank.
It became clear that a large amount of small arms fire was thrown at the vehicle in an attempt to halt its advance. There is evidence of very close-quarter fighting, with several attempts to disable the vehicle.
The QP Ballistics team identified a .303 armour piercing round wedged in the armour next to a machine gun port. It seems that a soldier was attempting to disable one of Mephisto’s eight machine guns by shooting its water jacket.
A series of well-aimed, short machine gun bursts were fired at one of the tank’s exhaust ports. Much of the damage occurred on the left side of the tank which from reconnaissance photos taken after the battle show the position of the allied trenches located parallel to the tank.
There is also evidence of a larger-calibre weapon that was brought into use against the tank, perhaps a French 37mm weapon, which simply ricocheted off Mephisto’s thick armour.
Further research is required to clarify the exact meaning of the use of this larger-calibre weapon. Initial work by DSTG has reconstructed the angle the tank rested in when it finally became stuck when it ran into a shell crater.
Close combat with a tank
Very close fighting was associated with the vehicle, and the battle damage reveals something of the terror that the defending English soldiers must have endured on the morning of April 24, 1918.
The destruction of the vehicle was revealed by QP bomb blast experts. Two different explosions were recorded in the twisted armour of the forward compartment of the tank.
Historical evidence has suggested that the German crew set off a charge to disable their vehicle, but the primary impact appears to have burst through the roof, the force bending the heavy steel support beams downward.
This blast created something of a chain reaction, and would have generated a temperature of between 3,000℃ and 4,000℃. It initiated a further explosion by igniting any munitions still within the tank.
The perfect impression of one of Mephisto’s own 57mm shells is blasted through the floor plating next to the main forward gun.
In turn, this projectile hit the ground beneath Mephisto, sending shrapnel back up through the plating on the underside of the tank. This generated several impacts in the metal directed back inside the forward compartment.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that a fusillade of small arms fire was hurled at Mephisto as it trundled, at speeds never more than 6–8mph (9-13kmh), towards the Allied positions at Villers-Bretonneux and Monument Wood.
As much of the damage is recorded on the left side of the tank it is probable that most of the impacts occurred during this final assault and not at its previous action at St Quentin. The tank sat for three months in No Man’s Land and continued to receive small arms and shrapnel damage while it was disabled.
A lasting legacy of war
A study such as this by no means rewrites our understanding of the conflict, but as the sole surviving A7V, this battered artefact does provide unique insights into the events that took place on the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago.
Investigating artefacts in this manner transforms them. They become something more than just a curious object from the past, and indeed can emerge as an important, silent witness to historic events.
A tangible object such as Mephisto, in trying to make sense of the battle damage to the vehicle, transcends the insights revealed in the pages of written history.
It highlights the horror of trench warfare and provides first-hand accounts of how the British infantry tried to stop an enemy tank.
Mephisto is a rare and important example of developing military technology in the early 20th century. As the last surviving German tank from the First World War it will once again be on display at Queensland Museum from November 11, 2018.
Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance, written by Greg Czechura and Jeff Hopkins-Weise, published by Queensland Museum. Price A$59.95
Underpants. We tend not to talk about them but they are a fact of life (unless you go commando). Briefs have a fascinating history and are now being transformed by technology, with high-performance undies that claim to do everything from filtering flatulence to emitting soothing vibrations.
The first type of underpant was the loincloth worn by ancient Egyptians. Known as a schenti, it was made from woven materials, commonly cotton and flax, kept in place with a belt. The lower classes and slaves were almost naked, so technically this loincloth was often “outerwear”. But Egyptian art from 1189 BC to 1077 BC in the Valley of the Queens shows pharaohs wearing sheer outer garments, rendering the loincloth a type of underpant.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD), underwear consisted of a shirt made of fine linen or cotton for both men and women. A form of underpant returned during the 15th and 16th centuries, when men’s leg-hose were bifurcated (split in two).
To provide extra protection for the male genitalia, a padded codpiece was added. The codpiece also served as a symbol of sexual energy, designed to enhance rather than conceal the genital area.
The arrival of drawers
In the early to mid 19th century, both men and women wore bifurcated drawers with separate legs – a loose type of knee-length trousers suspended from the waist. This simple style of underpant made relieving oneself more manageable, especially if several layers of petticoats or breeches were worn.
Closed crotched underpants for women (pantalettes) emerged in the mid to late 19th century. In 1882, dress reformer Dr Gustave Jaeger argued that wearing natural woollen fibres next to the skin would help disperse bodily poisons by allowing the skin to breathe. He also felt the elasticised qualities of knitted garments were more likely to promote exercise.
Also in the 19th century, the popularity of long-legged trousers for men led to a change in men’s underpants, with hose (long johns) extending to the ankle. These were made of silk for the wealthy and flannel, or later wool, for the masses.
For women in the early 1900s, getting dressed involved multiple layers of undergarments including chemise and drawers followed by a constrictive corset. During the first world war more women undertook physical labour in factories, mines and farms, and thus needed utilitarian garments. The silhouette of outerwear such as loose trousers and boiler suits paved the way for knickers, which women began wearing from around 1916. From the 1920s, the corset was gradually replaced by less restrictive elasticated versions such as the girdle and “step-ins” gradually replaced the corset.
Latex, a rubber yarn introduced in 1930, allowed stretch undergarments to become more figure-hugging. These eventually evolved into underpant styles similar to those worn today. In 1938, after the invention of the synthetic fibre nylon, lightweight easy-to-launder underwear started to appear.
Shorter, crotch-length underpants or trunks for men appeared after 1945. In 1959, a new man-made elastomeric fibre called Lycra™ was invented. Combined with cotton or nylon, it was strong, stretchable and recovered well. The result was more body-conscious underpants for men and women.
In the more permissive 1960s, underpants became briefer for both sexes and the Y-front was largely eliminated from men’s undies. By the 1970s, underpants were virtually seamless. (The thong, or G-string, I would argue, is hard to define as an underpant – its chief popularity seems to be that it offers wearers an invisible pant line.)
With advancements in fibre technologies and knitting manufacturing, underpants today can be as unassuming as a pair of Aussie Bonds briefs, or high-tech with the inclusion of haptic communication.
For instance, Sydney-born, NY-based company Wearable-X has teamed with condom manufacturer Durex to create interactive underwear called Fundawear. Fundawear has a “vibrating touch” that can be transferred from anywhere in the world through a smartphone app. The underwear contains actuators (which are similar to the devices that make smart phones vibrate). Couples wearing it converse via the app, transferring sensations to each other’s undergarments.
Meanwhile, brands Modibodi and Thinx have developed reusable underpants for women menstruating or experiencing incontinence. Manufactured from bamboo, merino wool and microfibre fabrics, the breathable and moisture-wicking layers draw fluids away from the body, securing them in a waterproof outer layer. The fabric technology allows the underpants to be rinsed in cold water, machine-washed and, once dry, ready for reuse. Since launching in 2014, Modibodi has become an Australian market leader for reusable period underwear.
UK brand Shreddies has even developed “flatulence-filtering” underwear for men and women using carbon-absorbing cloth. According to its website, the underwear uses “the same activated carbon material used in chemical warfare suits”. Which is good to know.
Medical underwear for postoperative and postnatal patients is also widely available in Western hospitals providing infection control and wound care.
Advances in material manufacturing, additive fabric coatings and body-centred smart textile applications have the ability to monitor patient physiological conditions and offer personalised care and direct user feedback to medical specialists. Researchers at the University of California have developed a textile-based, printable electrochemical sensor, which has the capacity to be used for a variety of medical and safety applications. The flexible textile sensors, for example, when printed onto the elastic waistband of underpants, can recognise chemical substances secreting from the skin.
Science is adding functions to underwear that could scarcely have been envisaged 50 years ago. The loincloth has come a long way.
Truganini’s death in Hobart in May 1876 attracted worldwide attention. She was widely, but wrongly, believed to have been the last Aboriginal person to have survived the Tasmanian genocide. Her demise symbolised the devastating impacts of British imperialism on Indigenous peoples.
Yet Tasmanian Aboriginal people continue to live on the Bass Strait Islands, in rural and urban Tasmania and elsewhere. Their culture, although severely disrupted by the British invasion, persists. Part of this survival is the resurrection of a language, palawa kani, that is used by some Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Recently there have been calls to use the Aboriginal name nipaluna for Hobart, and other places are already using dual names.
Across Australia, an estimated 250 Indigenous Australian languages and hundreds more dialects were spoken before the British arrived. The cultural disruption caused by invasion has resulted in more than half of these languages vanishing.
In parts of the country, Aboriginal people and linguists have been working to preserve and restore some of the country’s original languages. In this wider context of language preservation and renewal, a reconstructed Tasmanian Aboriginal language has recently emerged. Palawa kani (“Tasmanian Aboriginal people speak”), is based on surviving spoken and written remnants of the island’s original languages. The written form of palawa kani has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals.
In 1981, linguists Terry Crowley and Robert Dixon estimated that between eight and 12 different languages, some mutually unintelligible, were spoken by Tasmanian Aboriginal people prior to invasion. They used a variety of colonial records to arrive at this estimate.
Maritime explorers, missionaries and colonial officials wrote Tasmanian Aboriginal words and phrases in their journals. Some, like botanist Allan Cunningham, jotted down lists of words. Others, such as Quaker missionaries James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, also wrote down the lyrics to Tasmanian Aboriginal songs.
Between 1829 and 1834, the Conciliator of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, travelled the island with an entourage of Aboriginal people, including Truganini, and white servants. They aimed to capture Tasmanian Aboriginal people who had survived the Vandemonian War, which had been fought between Aboriginal people and the British colonists. Robinson relied on interpreters, but he and his white companions learned some Tasmanian Aboriginal languages. Robinson wrote down over 4,500 Tasmanian Aboriginal words. His white servant, James Gravenor, later spoke some words in Truganini’s Aboriginal language at her burial.
Many Tasmanian Aboriginal words continued to be used by those living on the Bass Strait islands. Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Ronnie Summers grew up on Cape Barren Island. He has written, for example, about how “yolla” is an Aboriginal word for short-tailed shearwaters.
South of Hobart, Fanny Cochrane Smith continued to use some of her Tasmanian Aboriginal language. Famously, in 1899 and 1903, she was recorded singing several songs and speaking in this language.
Since the 1990s, Tasmanian Aboriginal people including Theresa Sainty, Jenny Longey and June Sculthorpe have worked to restore language to their community. palawa kani has been built from words and songs passed down Aboriginal families as well as phrases and words recorded in colonial documents. It is a composite language that has been embraced by some, but not all, Tasmanian Aboriginal people.
Today, Tasmanian Aboriginal people are using palawa kani in different contexts. These include educational settings, during ceremonies and at official functions. Digital materials, posters and flash cards have been produced. People are encouraged to use palawa kani in their homes. Language learning is also supported by palawa kani being used in the award-winning animated television series Little J and Big Cuz.
Gradually people living in and beyond the wider Tasmanian community are becoming used to hearing or seeing palawa kani. In 2014, Tasmanian Aboriginal musician Dewayne Everettsmith’s debut album Surrender included melaythina, the first song released in palawa kani. More recently, in April 2018, the oratorio A Tasmanian Requiem premiered in Hobart. It included palawa kani, English and Latin. On approaching the ningina tunipri Tasmanian Aboriginal gallery at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, visitors hear palawa kani.
Around Tasmania, some national parks and other significant landmarks now have dual names. Examples include Mt Wellington, near Hobart, which is also known by its Aboriginal name kunanyi and Asbestos Range National Park in the north of the state. The latter was renamed Narawntapu National Park in 2000, prior to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre discontinuing the use of upper case letters in palawa kani.
The word nipaluna, for Hobart, came from a word recorded by Robinson on 16 January 1830. The Conciliator wrote in his journal that his Aboriginal informant Woorrady (Wooreddy) told him Hobart was called nib.ber.loon.ne. On 11 July, Robinson recorded the name for Hobart as niberlooner. Different spellings were common in the 19th century for Aboriginal and English words. Those working on palawa kani have had to take these variations into account.
Present day use of palawa kani goes beyond dual place naming. It is also being used as a language of protest. Earlier this year, in February 2018, a television advertisement spoken in palawa kani went to air to protest against the Tasmanian Government’s plans to reopen some four-wheel drive tracks in the remote Arthur Pieman Conservation Area in Tasmania’s north west.
Despite not all Tasmanian Aboriginal people embracing palawa kani, the reemergence of an Aboriginal language in Tasmania is providing the island’s first peoples with a culturally distinctive, unique voice.