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15 January 2010

11th Annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2009

Robyn Archer Image: Robyn Archer  

The 11th annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address was delivered by Robyn Archer on 1 September 2009 at The Mint, Sydney, and repeated three days later in Melbourne. The transcript extract below is published here with the kind permission of the New Music Network, with special thanks to Robyn Archer. You can read the speech in its entirety - including the missing first third of the text - on the New Music Network website.


Is it that we have been guilty of pitching certain musical arts to the wrong audience? Have we unrealistically demanded or expected that large audiences would be as excited about new adventures in music as we as artists are? Should we just 'face the music' and accept that the frontier of new ideas in any shape or form is a tough, lonely and dangerous place, and only those with the best-honed survival skills should go there, knowing that comfort and reward will almost surely not be theirs, in their own lifetime, but that what they do may come to be important in years to come?

This is perhaps the best base from which to argue subsidy or patronage. I think we could certainly say that, precisely because of a mildly hostile or simply dismissive environment for new (contemporary classical) music, and the ongoing need for a composer's basic survival, there has been a flight to melody and harmony again. We are most certainly not now in the harsher aural world of Stockhausen or even Tristram Cary. The experiments in electronic music have been absorbed into forms from contemporary classical to pop, the Western ear has become more attuned to electronics, as well as the diverse harmonies of other global cultures because of 'First assaulted by experimentation, and critical of its makers, our ears take time to assimilate - fifty or eighty years on, we are surprised how accustomed we have become to hearing those sounds.'the wider dissemination of so-called world music. All this is fine, and as it should be. First assaulted by experimentation, and critical of its makers, our ears take time to assimilate - fifty or eighty years on, we are surprised how accustomed we have become to hearing those sounds.

My sense is that experimentation is now happening more in the field of hybrid and cross-artform than in pure sound. Interactive possibilities are exciting a wide range of artists, often in collaboration, and this offers multiple opportunities for the composer.

The piece I brought to Federation Square for The Light in Winter this year is a good example. VOLUME is the creation of the UK's United Visual Artists. It is a forest of 47 LED columns, and each column has its own small speaker on top. A remote camera tracks the movements of a maximum of 12 visitors at a time and both light and sound on the columns are activated by this movement. Each speaker has a different component of the soundtrack composed by Massive Attack's Neil Davidge and Robert Del Naja. By moving between columns you activate a different piece of the soundtrack. You play with it - standing quietly by one column (many children embraced them - it was an amazing kid-calmer), or skipping between many, finding that your ear would hold one piece of the soundtrack and simultaneously pick up others as you walked past. It's an entrancing piece and over four weeks, some 50,000 Melburnians stepped in to play.

They're pretty good numbers for a composer - and it had played three major locations before that (the V&A which commissioned it, Southbank, Taipei and Hong Kong), though these composers operate in world of large numbers anyway - and that's an interesting comparison between those who compose in the compositional isolation of 'serious' music, and those who are out there in the world of trip-hop.

Is it better that composers move away from the concert stage for the carriage of their music into the much more popular, appealing or at least lively forms of film, music theatre, opera, dance, installation, or do we still need the full frontal assault of formal stages?

One interesting example was Liza Lim's work last year, The Navigator. Liza expressed to me high and passionate hopes, many years ago, about the content of this work - an exploration of passion which burns so hot that it destroys. Having seen a shorter work of Liza's at its premiere in the Cité de la musique in Paris even earlier, I was interested to see how The Navigator was building musically on the same explorations of vocal pyrotechnics that I'd heard from Deb Kayser in that earlier work. In The Navigator there were now four voices being used as flexible and virtuosic instruments, set against the contrasts of baroque instruments and electric guitar.

The problem was that Barrie (Kosky), by his own admission, had been confounded by the work - and it showed. I felt that the staged form actually got in the way of both the music and the composer's intent, and that the piece might have been more dramatic had we been able just to see the music being made in front of us - the fiery clash of instrumentation and the incredible virtuosity of those voices.

It was an instance in which the very thing which should have animated the composer's work, that is, the collaboration with a brilliant and highly musically literate stage director, seemed to get in the way. I recalled with affection the work I had seen in an Adelaide Festival many years ago, way before I knew anything much about art and music - George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, sung by Jan de Gaetani and her son, with Crumb in the audience at the Adelaide Town Hall. It was so simply staged, with such deft movements by musicians and singers alike - yet all the drama was present. I have longed for performances to take this direction ever since, and wish that more companies would adopt the less is more approach. I think we might have gotten more out of The Navigator this way.

And I could almost say the same, heresy though this may be in this gathering tonight, of State Opera SA's first Ring cycle. The choice of such a minimal production allowed me to experience Wagner, in the operatic form, for the first time away from the laughable clichés of horns on head, and I could at last divorce what had become the Wagnerian farce from Wagner's compositional and dramatic intent which then became a revelation to me in that production.

But this is the fate of composers - either to be hitched forever to something they may never have intended, to be forgotten entirely even though the music survives, or, in the very best outcome, both their complete oeuvre and their intent is preserved intact. While the latter is true of Elgar for music buffs, the fact is that his name is synonymous with Empire in millions of minds and memories - and something which he despised. Clearly we have no control over history, and no way of predicting how a public will respond. I imagine most composers are happier when not forgotten, when their work is loved and lasting, but how strange to have them remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Everywhere we go, there's music - and apart from those ancient forms which have evolved beyond the trace of composition, someone composed the musics we hear daily: an artist, known as composer, dreamt it and wrote it down and had interpretative artists play it. Many people think they have nothing to do with the arts, yet it is scarcely possible on any day for anyone to avoid experiencing something that a composer or songsmith has worked to create - and not a thought will go to that creator. This is what I mean about the products of composers, the music, being universally adored but the creators being unequivocally abused.

Their product is taken out of context, the creator's wishes or original thoughts ignored, the music frequently reinterpreted - new settings, reinterpretations, words set to themes never meant to bear words. How interesting is this development compared to other works of art. Instead of being used and reused, certain utilitarian objects can gradually become so highly valued as to become untouchable. The work of a nameless artisan suddenly sits as a priceless object, surrounded by laser beam security; paintings on rock, which were never meant to be preserved but to be drawn over, are fenced in. The fact is graffiti artists in some places are historically legitimate (this to the horror of those bent on preservation).

Is the very differing fate of music an indicator of its ephemeral form? Of course there is a whole stream of music also rendered untouchable in purist spheres, its legitimate interpretation seriously contested throughout the world - whole lives and careers hingeing on, for instance, questions about early music's tempo and tone, and original instruments or no.

But music is at the same time very open to annexation and reinterpretation. Apart from changed useage, as in the case of Elgar being annexed for Empire, or Rod Stewart for the British Navy, there are much more outlandish examples - the classical tune, for instance, transformed to pop song. Many would consider this practice the pinnacle of abuse.

I can understand that, yet I have a perverse delight in these hybrids, indeed I am a serial abuser - and I fully intend to do a touring concert, hopefully orchestral, of a gaggle of them - who can resist Brecht's original version of:
'The Benares Song' (There is a Tavern in the Town/One Fine Day)
'Don't You Know' (Della Reese - Puccini)
'Ma Riviere' (Frida Boccara - Smetana)
'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows' (Perry Como - Chopin)
'Take my Hand, I'm a Stranger in Paradise' (Four Aces - Borodin)

To say nothing of the parodical paradise of AFL team songs which mostly have the decency to raid old popular tunes: 'We're the Navy Blues' ('Lily of Laguna')
'Oh we're from Tigerland' ('And then he'd row row row') but do get a bit close to the bone of beloved Americana with: 'We're the mighty team from Hawthorn' ('Yankee Doodle Dandy') and honestly, shouldn't there actually be a law against ...

We are the pride of Brisbane town
We wear maroon, blue and gold
We will always fight for victory
Like Fitzroy and Bears of old
All for one and one for all
We will answer to the call
Go Lions, Brisbane Lions
We'll kick the winning score
You'll hear our mighty roar!

Imagine when the new clubs are introduced in 2012:

Australians let us all rejoice the boys from West Sydney


Gold Coast is our new team
Gold Coast will live the dream
Long Live Gold Coast

[possibly even more memorable, the boys' likely rendition]

You see, I even have a certain sympathy with the BBC which for a long time banned anything that came from a classic. Well, I would never ban it, but I understand where the sentiment comes from. But clearly composers, even whole nation states, have no control over the fates that eventually befall their beloved tunes.

Countless existing tunes are used for commercials. Wouldn't it actually be more refreshing for tunesmiths to write new tunes for such purposes, and there's a nice little livelihood on the side - but the thing is, what humans seem to want is something familiar - and there's the rub.

It's something to which the cabarettist Tristan Tsara refers in his Memoirs of Dadaism. He describes the various components of a 'programme for a grand Evening - performed by the Paris Dadas at the Salle Berlioz, 55 Rue de Clichy on Sat 27th March 1920'. The second half of this entertainment opened in blackness, with the poet Andre Breton wearing a sandwich board which read:

'For you to like something it's necessary for you to have seen and heard it for a long time you pile of idiots'.

By way of note, this was followed by his thunderous rendition of Francis Picabia's Cannibal Manifesto. Surprising really that Dada lasted in Paris little more than this one evening.

On the other hand, let's face it, brand new music in the purist sphere can sometimes be annoying - it's sometimes less about music than about pure sound, and sometimes less about sound, even, than about pure ideas. Uncomfortable as that might be to the ears from time to time, it's no reason to put the boot in. We're not babies, we don't actually need art always to be cosy and comfortable. Who was it that first put the mozz on art by equating it principally with pleasure?

Part of the difficulty is something I have been talking about recently - and that is our broad lack of appreciation of the new, and especially the ephemeral and the intangible. There must be ways to foster excitement in new adventures in music, to feel excitement rather than fear when what we hear is unfamiliar. Is it possible to reach beyond the basic human instinct of instant sensual gratification? When we build a new house, or a new public building, we don't expect it to look pretty from the start - we know there will be excavations, months of delays, a hole, and mess and inconvenience and expense, but we go with the process.

In arts other than architecture there is so much focus on product, and so little on process and the necessity for experiment in all forms, that a new work's outing, if not instantly ringing popular and familiar bells, is rejected perhaps never to be played again - and often without the background of ideas that the composer may have been playing with. There's so little room anywhere for the composer to talk about the nature of the experiment and the reasons for why it seems and sounds as it is.

Or is it just that the vanguard of any branch of new ideas is in for the same uphill battle. I don't expect all people to love all things, not at all, there's some new music that 'I want to see composers of weird stuff, as well as those who create popular and well-paid stuff , to be recognised as valuable contributors to our world.'will bore me to my aching legs and drive me straight to a meat pie and a footy match. But I defend to the end the existence and resourcing of that patch of creativity which devotes itself to experiments in new music. I want to see composers of weird stuff, as well as those who create popular and well-paid stuff , to be recognised as valuable contributors to our world.

Clearly the profile of composer has changed since Peggy's days - the salon, real or virtual, in which Peggy Glanville-Hicks mixed with Virgil Thompson and Paul Bowles, no longer exists. The excesses of the Paris effete in the 1920s would be howled down today as a repository of, politely, those who indulge in sexual self-gratification. In a world where so much subsidised art has to be linked with social outcomes on the one hand, and in times when outcomes must be so inextricably bound with the financial bottom line, the fostering of elites in art has been discredited and therefore abandoned. It's difficult to argue, these days, for the constructs, physical and financial, which provide unusual and rare intellects with the time and space to ponder, experiment, and talk amongst themselves in a rarefied atmosphere which many of us would find difficult to comprehend.

The composer has in many spheres again become utilitarian - there's work to be had as long as you are happy to use your skills for the commercial or the mass-produced. In one way that's not such a bad thing. As I said before, our museums are packed with products which were produced by nameless artisans and are now regarded as priceless treasures.

But is it fair to use the products of composers without proper recompense, without ensuring that they at least have a decent living like others who serve our societies? And at the other end, are we missing out when we so deride elitism in the arts while encouraging it in sports?

I've heard claims that much of the most interesting music in Australia is made by people who have been living close to the poverty line all their lives - is that fair? I am all for the support of the young hormone-imbued inventions which populate so-called contemporary music - the stuff which is filled with fun and sex (with another), pleasure and often great intelligence and hard work. These days they also tend to be linked with the very best of visual intelligence via so-called video clips. Overnight on RAGE can be an incredible adventure in brilliant visual stimuli as well as an insight into what young people listen to. These musical forms are also very consciously linked to people at the start of careers which they hope to be commercially successful - they at least have a crack at something that might sustain them, even if the strike rate is incredibly low and the downside extremely steep. Supporting contemporary music of the potentially commercial type is a perfectly justifiable investment in creative industry.

But what of those who, properly supported, might still pursue with all their intelligence and might, things which at the very start they know will never ever yield even a basic income? Should we abandon research to part-time status, to those who must go out and earn a living and do the smart stuff on their own time. Some universities do take up this slack, though for '...are we missing out when we so deride elitism in the arts while encouraging it in sports?'composers I'm guessing that universities outside Australia do better at this than their counterparts here. Thanks be to Huddersfield for allowing Liza Lim to think and write and experiment for five years. Are we doing the same? Are our universities and research grants giving music its due?

And what of those composers and experiments that don't fit within academe? We are in the midst of a very interesting debate sparked off by the tensions around changes at the VCA [Victorian College of the Arts] in Melbourne. Few people have yet commented on whether any arts training institution, as opposed to the academic study of the arts, makes a good fit within a university unless it has a high degree of independence. I think that, perhaps with the exception of the kind of acting which requires a high degree of verbal literacy, and composition or architecture which both require a high degree of numerate literacy, the rest of arts training is a better fit inside institutions dedicated to training and the master/apprentice model. And even then, an actor has to be much more than bookish - her reading is the backdrop for hard physical work on body and voice. Geoffrey Rush was right to point to the difference between study study study and train train train.

Were it not for the ascendancy of the value of a 'degree' (despite the fact that there are now so many of them that they themselves have been brutally devalued) and the stigma attached to TAFE, then it's likely that TAFE and other technical training institutes would make better fits for the arts which are rigorous, muscular and require a high degree of one-to-one instruction by a master. In most cases, apprentices to the arts must rigorously acquire basic skills so as not to hurt themselves (bodies, voices, muscles) before they start to develop the individual creative voice.

Writing a song, as I well know, doesn't require a degree. It may well be the same for writing advertising jingles, or successful musicals, or soundtracks for docos or independent features. But the kind of composition which emerges original and away from all that has gone before is perhaps most likely to come from someone who knows what has gone before - that is, has studied musical form and has the kind of mathematical ability to compose independently of the desire to be popular and to be loved by the masses. It is an elite activity which operates in the realm of ideas. It has, in fact, little to do with the way we normally think about 'music'.

But as an incubator and experimentation in ideas (the very stuff on which any state builds its reputation as a genuinely clever country), such activity deserves support. I believe that the most extreme and apparently remote ideas, if they're good ones, do eventually filter down. Much of Schoenberg now sounds familiar and comfortable. What Stockhausen was doing with helicopters might now seem tame to the average big event producer. We musn't expect large audience numbers to love the stuff that is so ahead of its time, nor can the bravest experimenters demand love and glory in their lifetime.

But as sophisticated beings we ought to be able to encompass the bigger and longer picture within our gaze. Experiment and originality in art, as in all things, deserves the support of a civilised society. A few noted private patrons have always come forward to commission composers, and some even seem content with composition as an idea rather than as something to please: they have been forgiving of the composer who fails to deliver a piece they may be proud and excited to have their name on.

Corporations are probably slightly less forgiving of the determinedly atonal, arhythmic adventurer as they would at least like something that makes the staff feel good and pleases the clients.

There are some limited structures which maintain consistency of programming - conservatoria present professional and student renditions of works which have recent historical interest and every now and then student and other new composition, and jazz clubs and festivals can support a small degree of true originality: but in both cases budgets and audiences are small.

In the realm of public monies there are major festivals which have the budgets and audiences for adventure, but their content depends on the taste of individual artistic directors, and these too come in all shapes and sizes, from the perceptively adventurous to the faddishly populist: a local composer could wait very many years for a commission in their '...a local composer could wait very many years for a commission in their most proximate festival'most proximate festival. And then the amount of public money available for composition through other avenues is very small - and equally small is that for music theatre, and yet in music and music theatre I believe we have remarkable abilities and a sensational record, something in fact akin to the way we punch above our weight in sport.

Innovation is a much touted, much publicly funded sphere. If we believe that experiments in ideas, whatever they are, and innovation in form, are important for us as civilised societies and as a species still evolving the brain, then composition is worth investing in. And I have been painting only the most severe picture. Some of the music that arises from the most rigorous experimental processes will have at least a small audience, and every now and then something with impeccable intellectual and musicological credentials will also grab the imagination of a large public.

If resources for composition and musical innovation have remained small, then some of the responsibility for that rests with us as artists. We have to argue composition as a vital arm of innovation and creative stimulation for all. It is part of the inchoate foment of creative activity which eventually feeds by mysterious ways into broader and broader (by then without the imprint of authorship) public and populous spheres. Many ideas, bred in the rarefied atmosphere of wholly out-there experimentation in sound, have the peculiar gift of eventually landing on more earthbound operators, who then disseminate the ideas in more accessible forms to very large audiences. It starts with the original seed, and we do ourselves a lot of damage by not nurturing the seed, no matter how remote and unpromising it may seem at the outset.

It also rests with us, composers, supporters of new music, its perhaps small audiences, you here tonight, to put greater energies into persuading private, corporate and public supporters to a much heartier engagement with the new - just for its own sake. Not the new as potential big hit, not the new as boasting rights, not the new as a contributor to the cultural cache of the commissioner who has managed to secure something new from the latest pin-up composer, but the new as an adventure in itself - one which may not live up to expectations, one which may feel bloody awful or for which the creator themselves admits a degree of failure - but one which contributes to the idea that invention and experiment is a necessary ingredient to a healthy and expansive society.

I do get terribly itchy when I'm bored. I am the worst person to sit next to in a theatre or concert hall. My wriggling and ankle rotations, my almost invisible pelvic floor exercises and obvious attempts to rectify shoulder slump all point to the fact that I would rather be on the couch in some dull hotel room watching Guthy-Renker than here. I never want a composer to put me through that again.

But I repeat that I defend to my last breath the legitimacy of their endeavour within the human framework and our duty as lucky members of it to support such odd pursuits.

We don't need to sell the worth of composed music as entertainment or passion, as comfort for the very old, stimulation for the very young and therapy for the ill- these are well known and funded. But we do have to find some fighting words for the stuff whose value is less obvious - the cooler stuff of intellectual experiment, the hotter stuff of improvisational jazz with no known antecedents.

Patrons, private philanthropists, whatever you have to spare (like the spare foreign coins you drop in the little Qantas packets) may well make a difference to composers who spend whole lifetimes on the breadline - or worse, give up altogether in order to have some quality and security of life. Our collective loss through such attrition is immeasurable.

Corporations, think of commissioned music not as the soft-sell cocktail party, but as part and parcel of your core business - the need to innovate or die.

Major cultural institutions of all genres, whether walled, such as arts centres and museums, or ephemeral such as festivals, join the fight for a love of the new, even for its own sake. I can safely say that I shall do my bit as Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra. Expect fanfares, and the rest, for our national capital in 2013: if we need to reignite pride, how better than with music? Perhaps new music may bring us to what Nehru described at the opening of Chandigarh which 'expressed the nation's faith in its future'.

I have often said that heritage in all forms is important - we need to know where art came from, we need to be aware of what has come and gone before - but the historical backfill should never be at the expense of the new. We must get the balance right.

Because it is a simple truth that for every, no matter how splendid and enjoyable, reinterpretation of a popular existing work, we lose the opportunity to resuscitate something played only ever once or twice or to commission something brand new. We should not be embarrassed when those things don't satisfy us at every level. Wriggle in our seats we may, but that should never put us off the general governing principle of enabling new works.

And those institutions, the houses and the companies, and the programs for public support of the arts, must ensure that composers are acknowledged, supported and encouraged as vital contributors to the creative aspirations of a creative nation. It just takes careful thought - every time music is needed, why not think think new and Australian first, and go to the old and offshore as a last resort.

I know that willing souls such as Richard Tognetti and David McAllister would support more new Australian works, in a healthier balance of old and new, were it not for the financial bottom line. Audiences are inclined to stay away from new Australian works - it's wild isn't it? But I feel sure that with formal guarantees against those losses and a refining of the balance, then after some years of healthy doses of Australian fare, audiences (of which many of the more conservative sectors would have by then moved on in any case) would protest should that Australian quota be removed.

I know that, with age, we cleave more dearly to the order of earlier musics, as a barrier against the onslaught of so much which is new in our worlds - Bach or Barnesy rather than Young or Blok Party.

I don't set out to deprive the ageing of their twilight pleasures, but in the limited opportunities we have to hear the real thing, this does seem to me one very clear example of the ageing being only too happy to go on taking more than their fair share of resources for their pleasure and thereby disadvantaging the potential excitement and expansion of the new. I think many of the accusations levelled at baby boomers are thinly argued, and I suspect that this kind of musical selfishness is common to all ageing power groups, whenever they were born, but this imbalance needs fixing.

Music may be the most ephemeral of artistic transactions - but composition is more solid than that - and, remarkably, like a play written down, it can be reawakened - and every time be something new. The work of our composers could so easily be dispersed throughout the world, to be played by the hundreds of thousands of orchestras and bands and musical collectives which exist across the globe. It is perhaps the single most financially effective tool of soft diplomacy we have - and its range and quality is tremendous.

What is required is first the acknowledgement of this extraordinary canon, and then the energy to disseminate it. We have the stuff from the past, we should ensure that new stuff keeps getting written, we should ensure that the composers can have a reasonable quality of life instead of the beg and scratch they frequently experience their whole lives, and we should take their works and see that the world plays them.

It's worth stomaching the pretty poor movie My Life in Ruins just to confirm for yourselves that the unfortunate Australian stereotype still exists. Let's get our music out there - let it speak for us, and not just the popular bands, but also the music that can inhabit concert halls and festivals, to show that we pride ourselves on intellect and a sophisticated aesthetic every much as we enjoy our image as happy ratbags.

Let's ensure that when the next Baz Luhrmann makes the next Australia, the ultimate emotional moment at the end of the film can allow an Australian music to sing our heart and pride and passion, and that no director would ever again so abandon our composers to allow Elgar's 'Nimrod' variation, love it though we do, to take the carriage of that climax, and all that it implies for black and white Australia.

It's true, I know, as Andrew Ford and others have commented, that for many cinema viewers it didn't/doesn't matter, because they don't know who wrote it, don't know Elgar, and they just hear the music - and it pushes their buttons as the director knew it would. Universally adored, unequivocally abused…

But you see, I know….. and as a matter of principle - one which can have a huge bearing on the way we view, nurture and promote living composers - it matters.

Robyn Archer
Canberra, Adelaide August 31st 2009

Copyright and intellectual property rights in all works created by Robyn Archer are and will remain the sole property of Robyn Archer. You are not granted any implied license to use the works created by her without prior permission.

Further links

Robyn Archer online (http://www.robynarcher.com.au)
The New Music Network (http://www.newmusicnetwork.com.au)
Full address on the NMN website (http://www.newmusicnetwork.com.au/pgh.html)
'The Price of Survival' - an extract of Archer's Manning Clark lecture on Resonate Journal # 4
Sandy Evans: 10th annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address (2008) on Resonate
Jon Rose: 9th annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks address (2007) - extract on Resonate

Robyn Archer is a singer, writer and Artistic Director who has performed throughout Australia and the world. She is an exponent and a champion of music theatre and the classic European cabaret tradition, and is always writing in various forms, from songs to shows to essays, articles, speeches and verse. Her many assignments as Artistic Director have included the Adelaide Festival in 1998 and 2000 and the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2002, 2003  and 2004. For full career details and current activities, go to The depArcher Lounge.


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