Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia
General editors John Whiteoak and Aline Scott-Maxwell
Currency House Inc., $

“In the seventeenth century, the trumpet was in the process of being turned into a musical instrument”, wrote Australian musicologist John Manifold in his 1956 study, The Music in English Drama. Although Manifold is mentioned four times in the Currency Companion, that pinnacle of his scholarship is absent, as are the grace notes of his Augustan prose.

The Companion’s tone is flat, with little dissonance from, still less about, university Music Departments. The documentary film about Sydney’s – Face the Music - is not to be seen. Equally, the turmoil in the Australian Ballet in 1981 and again in 1996 is glided over. Discussion of ‘strikes’ and ‘unions’ is concealed under ‘Industrial Relations’, just as the homo-erotic lurks under the rubric ‘Gender’. The index mentions ‘hoofer’ but not ‘poofter’, which is what every Australian boy studying ballet is called.

The entry on criticism is equally po-faced. None its samples has the zest of the 1910 Daily Telegraph’s account of the second movement of the Ravel string quartet as “a tone picture illustrating an acrimonious debate in a Mongolian legislature under weak presidency”. Elsewhere, the identification of Silverchair as “Nirvana in Pyjamas” has been immortalised. The biggest joke, however, is the claim that disco music can be enjoyed without drugs.

The Companion covers music “in” and not just “of” Australia. The cringer’s whine that there is no Australian culture, only High European Culture in exile, is put to rest. All genres receive equal respect. Currency has provided another companion, not a dictionary or an encyclopedia. The user will need to supplement this indispensable tome with the Oxford Companions to Australian Music, Jazz and Aboriginal art, along with the guides to Rock, Pop and Country.

In a Post-Modern aversion to genius, perhaps even to creativity, the editors have eschewed individuals, though most, but not all (Roland Foster, for instance), can be tracked in the extensive index. The result is that subject entries sag into lists of names, often duplicated, with snap judgements attached.

Extensive essays on Aboriginal music and dance relax the prohibition on individuals. Bob Randall is allowed a column to explain his writing of ‘My brown skin baby’ from 1964, presumably because it foreshadowed the Stolen Generations. Complaints abound about whites using indigenous sounds but the Companion says not a word against blacks’ appropriation of the guitar. Europeans appropriate: Aborigines adapt.

Despite pairing music with dance, and including a disquisition on food, music and drink, the editors have not cast their net widely enough. Although there are entries on sound sculpture and sound poetry, there is not one for poets, such as Peter Porter or Gwen Harwood, for whom music has been the point of stimulus. Nor is there an entry for our musically literate novelists, notably Henry Handel Richardson.

Notwithstanding such lacunae, between entries for Advertising jingles and the Zither, readers will enjoy the turkophone as an ethnically corrected saxophone and Rolf Harris’s audiences in Britain supposing that his wobble-board was a didge.