Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe in his Sydney home.

Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe in his Sydney home. Photo: Steven Siewert

In 1955 a young Peter Sculthorpe hiked up Mount Ainslie and, awed by the panorama, traced a 360-degree graph of the horizon.

From these chromatic contours he later fashioned a piece of music - entitled Irkanda I for Solo Violin - which was his first published composition to be inspired by the Australian landscape. Canberra has remained close to his heart ever since. But it's much more than just the light and the landscape, he says.

''I'm a passionate Australian and it is our national capital.''

He's given lectures here, attended performances of his music and been a guest of many of the national cultural institutions, especially the National Library where many of his papers are held. In recent years he's also been a prominent figure in the Canberra International Music Festival - whether as muse, composer-in-residence or composer laureate.

All of which makes his inability, due to a bout of illness, to attend this year's festival, to be held from May 10 to 19, the more disappointing. Nonetheless, Sculthorpe's personality - especially a generosity of spirit and openness to new ideas - seems almost to pervade the festival program.

The other two composers-in-residence during the festival, American Paul Dresher and Englishman Gavin Bryars, share his conviction that music should appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

One of the highlights of this year's festival will be a performance of Sculthorpe's oratorio The Great South Land at the Albert Hall on May 11 at 8pm. It's a reworking of his 1982 television opera Quiros, originally written to celebrate the ABC's then-50th anniversary.

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros (1565-1614) was a Portuguese-born naval explorer who sailed under the flag of the Spanish King, Philip III, pursuing a popular belief in a great southern continent. In May 1606, Quiros landed on a large island, what is now the New Hebrides, which he mistook to be part of this continent. He named it Austrialia [sic] Espiritu Sanctu, with a vision of it becoming a society founded on just and humane principles.

Manning Clark called Quiros ''the mythical prophet of Australia'' and James McAuley celebrated him in his epic poem Captain Quiros (1964). Meanwhile ''Nugget'' Coombs, chairman of the Australian Council for the Arts, suggested Quiros to Sculthorpe as a possible subject for a musical work.

Sculthorpe was attracted, not just by Quiros's vision but by the idea of noble failure.

''In Australia we have developed almost a mythology of people - from Burke and Wills to Ned Kelly and the Anzacs at Gallipoli - who fail but whose failures become entwined with our psyche,'' he says.

Since its 1982 television broadcast, the opera has not been revived, although Sculthorpe rearranged it several years ago as an orchestral suite. Now, in 2013, it has been substantially reworked as a dramatic oratorio, with narration, to be performed by four soloists and accompanied by the ANU School of Music Chamber Choir, the Oriana Chorale, Canberra Choral Society and the Canberra Festival Orchestra.

''I feel that the Quiros story relates to my own search for Australia,'' Sculthorpe says, ''for Australian-ness, to the seeking within all of us.''

The other two festival composers-in-residence for 2013 - Dresher and Bryars - although writing in a different style to Sculthorpe, share a similar accessibility with audiences.

Dresher, a California-based composer, will be leading his ensemble Double Duo during the festival. His music reflects a variety of influences: his beginnings as a rock guitarist and his studies of Ghanaian drumming, Hindustani classical music, and Balinese and Javanese music.

Fusing computer technology and the electric guitar tradition, his music carries intimations of both popular American culture and the musical traditions of Asia.

''Although most critics describe my music as 'post-minimalist', I sometimes counter by suggesting it's 'pre-maximalist','' he says. ''It's a kind of joke but also an attempt to say that my music is not about where I'm coming from, but where I'm going to.''

Where many young people studying classical music in the 1960s were unaffected by the popular music revolution going on around them, Dresher's frame of reference managed to combine both.

''When I was a teenager, I just wanted to play all kinds of music,'' he says, ''popular music, world music, traditional music and classical music … I didn't see any reason why I had to choose one over the other. I wanted to absorb every possible world of sound.''

That same rationale has impelled him to create new musical instruments. ''It starts with a curiosity about what sounds are possible. Many composers have that curiosity but I like to interact with the physical material world. I get great pleasure from walking into the workshop, thinking of a musical idea and trying to realise that in a physical object.''

One of these is the quadrachord, a 4.6-metre-long instrument with four long strings that can either be plucked like a guitar, bowed like a cello or thumped like a percussion instrument. He'll be playing the quadrachord in several works during the festival, including In the Name(less) at the Australian Academy of Science at noon on May 16 and Glimpsed from Afar at the Albert Hall at 4.30pm on May 18.

Dresher's home studio is in Mendocino County, California, an area which was a mecca for hippie culture in the late 1960s.

Nearby is now Silicon Valley, a place also associated with value-breaking, re-inventing oneself and not being beholden to traditional ways of thinking.

''I can't say that Silicon Valley has directly influenced me - although I certainly use many of the tools it has created - but I also use tools that are hundreds of years old. I think that different tools - whether computers or sanding blocks - are each useful for different tasks.''

His ensemble Double Duo includes Joel Davel on percussion and electronic marimba lumina, Karen Bentley Pollick on violin and Canberra-born pianist Lisa Moore.

Like Dresher, Englishman Gavin Bryars' invitation to be a composer-in-residence for this year's festival is owed to the extensive networks festival director Chris Latham developed during his time as a professional musician and while working for the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes.

Bryars, who turned 70 this year, has composed for a bewildering range of idioms: opera, theatre, dance, chamber and vocal music, including works for the Hilliard Ensemble. He has also taught music and art history at tertiary level. Novelist Michael Ondaatje once observed that Bryars ''allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle. With a third ear maybe.''

Bryars grew up in post-war Yorkshire, where the fading English musical landscape of Britten and Walton was no match for his interest in early rock'n'roll and, especially, jazz. He studied philosophy at university while working as a jazz bass player, being drawn to the improvisation style of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

In the mid-1960s he was exposed to the ground-breaking work of avant-garde composer John Cage, being ''struck by the lightness and physical agility'' of his compositions.

Although his first major work as a composer was the free form The Sinking of the Titanic (1969), his best-known composition is his arrangement of Jesus Blood Never Failed Me (1971), based around a recording of a London tramp singing an anonymous hymn. Bryars made a taped loop of 26 seconds of the man's vocals, and added an orchestral accompaniment, which gradually increased in intensity before fading away. An abbreviated version of the work rose to the top of the music charts in Britain in 1993.

A presentation of Jesus Blood, performed by the Canberra Festival Camerata, the Canberra Choral Society and the ANU School of Music faculty and students - directed by Bryars - will be a highlight of a concert celebrating the composer's work on May 18 at 1pm at the Albert Hall.

In exploring different musical idioms, Bryars has never forgotten the need to engage with his audiences. ''There was a period in contemporary music when a lot of what was being written was better suited for an academic environment rather than for the general listening public,'' he says. ''[French composer and conductor] Pierre Boulez used to talk about 'infinite progress through complexity' and I think that turned a lot of audiences away.

''There are three partners in a piece of music: the composer, the performer and the audience. Each of those has to be actively involved in the process for the thing to exist at all. I always remember [French-American artist and writer] Marcel Duchamp saying that 'the creative act is not formed by the artist alone'. Until a work of art is experienced, it does not exist. For me, it's the listener who completes the triangle.''

His fellow composers Peter Sculthorpe and Paul Dresher would not disagree.

The Canberra International Music Festival from May 10 to 19. Phone 6230 5880. Full program and booking details at cimf.org.au.

Friday, May 10

Opening Gala: The Summoning

The festival starts with work from William Barton, Arvo Part and Elena Kats-Chernin.

8pm, Albert Hall, Yarralumla. $60-$65.

Saturday, May 11

Rhapsody in Red, White and Blue

George Gershwin's Rhapsody, Percy Grainger's variation on Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.

1pm, Albert Hall, Yarralumla. $45-$50.

The Shimmering City

An evocation of Canberra in light and sound.

10.30pm, ARC Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Acton.

Monday, May 13

Sounding the Arboretum

Exploring architecture and landscape through music at the Arboretum, with pieces including John Cage's Trio (seven wood blocks) and Igor Stravinsky's 3 Pieces for Clarinet. National Arboretum, Yarralumla. $45-$50. Tickets from the Australian Institute of Architects on 6121 2000.

Friday, May 17

Double Duo

Paul Dresher and his ensemble sound the Pacific Rim.

6pm, Albert Hall, Yarralumla. $35-$40.

Saturday, May 18

Jesus Blood

A portrait of composer-in-residence Gavin Bryars.

1pm, Albert Hall, Yarralumla. $35-$40.

Sunday, May 19

In Praise of Creative Women

Works by female composers, including Rebecca Clarke and Lili Boulanger. 4pm, Albert Hall, Yarralumla. $35-40.

Tickets from canberraticketing.com.au or 6275 2700. For more information, see cimf.org.au.