Music student gives forgotten composer new digital life

Ronan Apcar. Image by Rowan Davie.

In classical music, women composers’ voices are few and too often unheard. That’s in present day. Historically, the situation was even worse. 

Enter ANU music student Ronan Apcar. He has recently released a digital album of four pieces by the late Dulcie Holland (1913-2000). 

If you’ve never heard Dulcie’s music, that would be unsurprising – but it also speaks to a systemic injustice Ronan has sought to address. Despite being one of Australia’s most prolific composers, Dulcie is better known for her contributions to music education. This is how Ronan encountered her. 

In high school, while studying at the Conservatorium High School, Ronan was reviewing the repertoire list for the LMusA (Licentiate in Music, Australia) exam. He was excited to see Dulcie’s Sonata for Piano; but became dismayed that neither a recording or score for it were available.

Ronan recalls this in an op-ed for Music Trust. He quotes Emeritus Professor Larry Sitsky (acclaimed composer and founding member of the ANU School of Music), who described Sonata for Piano as “a landmark work in the Australian oeuvre”.

“Such high praise piqued my interest, yet there were no available recordings or scores,” he says in his op-ed.

“No longer in circulation, scores and recordings were left to fade into oblivion in the archive. This led me to ask: if Holland’s Sonata is one of Australia’s greatest works, then why was it not treated as such? And if a work so highly revered could be forgotten, then what other hidden gems are waiting to be discovered?”

He pursued the answer to this two years into his Bachelor of Music at the ANU School of Music, where he’s majoring in Composition and Performance. Indeed, the ability to major in both these things was one of the reasons he chose the School. Additionally, he was drawn by the scope and flexibility of his degree.

“The type of music that I have studied and played so far ranges from classical to jazz, avant-garde to pop/contemporary, as well as non-Western music from around the world (including Aboriginal),” Ronan says. “I've even had a couple opportunities to collaborate with other artforms like dance and film.”

“To me, it seems there is a lot more engagement with music of today and music by Australians than in other schools, which seem to mostly look at European classical music from a very specific period in history. In short, there is less concern with tradition and more concern with adventure and innovation and 'the new' at the ANU School of Music – and that's important for helping musicians develop a unique skillset that lets them 'find their voice'.”

Last year, for his Music Project course, Ronan began his mission to take Dulcie out of the textbooks and into people’s phones and ears. In studying at the ANU School of Music, Ronan was just a short bicycle trip from the National Library of Australia, where Dulcie’s scores and manuscripts live in its archives. Two of the pieces that feature on his digital album hadn’t been previously published, recorded or performed, and he transcribed these by hand from Dulcie’s manuscript. 

Another benefit of being a student at the School was that Ronan was able to perform and record Dulcie’s works in Llewellyn Hall, and have them produced in the School’s state-of-the-art recording studio by one of its sound engineers. 

Dulcie Holland Crescent features four works by Dulcie – including Sonata for Piano. The album – available for free through all the major streaming platforms – has made its mark, secured attention and airplay through Ronan’s doggedness. After the hard work of making the album, he put in further hard yards to ensure it reached as many listeners as possible.

“It was a lot of cold-calling and -emailing to people,” Ronan says. “I was lucky that some of the people I was contacting responded and they were well-connected themselves and helped me out.”

“It's resulted in tracks from the album being played on ABC Classic & Fine Music several times (ABC Classic made Dulcie Holland Crescent their featured album for a week earlier this month which was super cool!), articles and op-eds, libraries cataloguing the album, and ultimately a wider audience reach.”

On the initiative he took in doing this, he says: “I absolutely think that to be successful in music today, you have to bang some pots and pans!”

“Obviously hard work comes first. But today, I don't think you can rely on solely your ability anymore if you want to be successful. The other side of the coin is being opportunistic which means two things to me: being versatile so that you can take as many opportunities as possible (you have no idea where saying yes will take you!) and being unafraid to make some noise about yourself.”

Ronan is set to graduate this year, and hopes to go on to do Honours, focusing on archival research and bringing forgotten and neglected Australian composers to new audiences – like he did with Dulcie Holland Crescent.

“I have a strong passion for Australian arts and would like to contribute to creating a rich and vibrant arts scene for the community today and those in the future,” he says.

As for his own future beyond Honours, Ronan isn’t entirely sure. But, he does aspire to be a “versatile all-around musician/artist working in as many different mediums and scenes as possible.”

“It's no secret that making a living in music is hard,” he says, “but I know that if I stay as driven and versatile as I've been trying to make myself, I can make it work.”

Listen now to Dulcie Holland Crescent on Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music – and a host of other streaming platforms.

Written by Evana Ho / ANU