James Nightingale celebrates the legacy of a trailblazer

Born in October 1923, Don Banks grew up in a family surrounded by musical instruments and jazz. His father played in bands with jazz legends Roger and Graeme Bell, the same bands that he would himself play in as he grew up. This beginning to his musical education established the pattern of curiosity and experimentation that would be central to his work.

The Second World War saw him serve in the Medical Corps but allowed enough time for him to take private tuition in composition. Following the war, he studied in Melbourne with Dorian Le Gallienne, but it was his studies in Europe with prominent figures in the avant-garde of music, including Matyas Seiber, Milton Babbitt, Luigi Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono, that set the tone of much of his fully composed works.

Alongside his investigation of the latest trends in music composition, Banks was involved in electronic music, and part of his legacy was his work helping to establish electronic music studios at the Canberra School of Music and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in the 1970s.

These three strands of musical investigation are easy to identify if one studies Banks’ music. Amongst his most popular works is the Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two for clarinet and piano, a set of pieces for young clarinettists that introduces modern musical concepts in the first two pieces before exploding into a bluesy, joyful drama. Interplay between the two instruments is rewarding to explore for the players.

At the other end of the spectrum is Banks’ String Quartet, a work written in 1975 and based on strict rules of serial composition. This piece is an homage to two figures from Banks’ formative years in Europe: Luigi Dallapicolla, who died in 1975, and Roberto Gerhard, who passed in 1970. This work is difficult and intricate for the players and the audience, the serialism governing not just note choices but also rhythmic values, at least to some degree. This piece is a challenge and very much of its time.

Bringing together several streams of Banks’ work is his orchestral piece, Trilogy. Composed in 1977, the title refers to the three movements of the work which are linked by thematic material. Throughout the work, the balance of solo sections against the power of the orchestral tutti is a notable feature. The opening movement is characterised by dark sounds of timpani and piano, while the second is a strong contrast with the tinkling of vibraphone, celeste and harp being most prominent. The last movement swings between solos, aleatoric sections and tutti chords, which alternate until broken by a jazz-like finale in which the clarinet is prominent.

Much of Banks’ music is not yet recorded, and this is especially the case for his electronic works – music that pre-dates computer technologies, a fact that no doubt makes it even more difficult to care for. The spirit of experimentation and improvisation that underlies the ethos of Banks’ electronic work is also difficult to convey in audio recording, or to replicate in modern performance.

Banks’ legacy is strongest in the lineage of Australian composers who cite his influence upon their music making. Banks died very young in 1980, just a few weeks before his 57th birthday and less than ten years after his return from Europe. His impact on the scene, through his stewardship of the Australia Council Music Board, is remembered in the music award that bears his name – the richest musical award offered annually in Australia.