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17 August 2007

Activism, New Music and a Strong Stomach to Deal With It

Swiss Performance artist Dave Phillips's work Image: Swiss Performance artist Dave Phillips's work  
© Shannon O'Neill

Pain, anguish and anger were the last things I expected to feel during the Sydney gigs of the Liquid Architecture Festival a few months back. Yet the stomach-wrenching imagery and torturous sounds of Swiss performance artist Dave Phillips left me wishing I hadn’t hurriedly scoffed a handful of sushi rolls before the gig. In a world so desensitised to violence and abuse, I was impressed to discover that art can still shock. And shock it did. A raw, blatant message against animal cruelty, Phillips projected in-your-face images (many from the activist group: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA), along with written messages questioning the audiences’ responsibility towards this morbid reality.

The sampled squeals, screeches and animal noises, along with the live feed of Phillips’s breathing, moaning and ‘singing’ and the manipulation of a rubber balloon were layered, looped and maneuvered; the interrelationship between sound and image was intense. Squirming in our seats, we watched and listened in horror – some of us walked out.

Aside from reinforcing my own already established veganism, it got me thinking: how are Australian composers and sound artists engaging with the current political and social climate? Is there a strong activist voice in our new music community?

While the term activism may conjure up stereotypical images of tofu eating, dumpster diving hippies fighting against consumerism and global warming, or guerrilla terrorists at war with capitalism, it is actually a diverse concept, and over the course of history, art-based music practice has been a powerful medium for artists to speak out against political and social issues.

So who is getting political in Australian new music at present?

Earlier this year Martin Wesley Smith’s politically driven Papua Merdeka was dropped from the Asia Pacific Festival program after pressure from the Indonesian Embassy in Wellington. It seems a pity. What better place to perform a work speaking out against the suffering of West Papuan people than at a festival devoted to Asia Pacific Cultures? In the end – against the desires of the conveners – Wesley-Smith presented the work in a paper he gave at the Festival. Ironically, the work probably received more media attention in the end anyway!

A month later the work was performed at the 2007 Totally Huge New Music Festival in Perth in a concert specifically devoted to this politically active composer. The program also included a performance of his music documentary Quito performed by The Song Company, while clarinetist Ros Dunlop performed Wesley-Smith’s Weapons of Mass Distortion, which explores the propaganda and deceit that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Colin Bright is another composer in our community actively driven by socio-political issues. Many of his works – using sampled voices (politicians, writers etc.) integrated with sounds – comment on the psychological state of our society. The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior is probably his best-known work and provides commentary on the bombing of the Greenpeace Vessel (the Rainbow Warrior) in 1985. An opera in 6 parts, it incorporates direct quotations from political speeches, activist rhetoric, and law transcriptions and testimonies with mythical and poetical elements.

Political activism wasn’t an initial consideration when Jon Rose first began his Fence Project, which, over the last 20 years, has explored the sonic possibilities of fences all over the world. It started out as an experimental project with purely musical motivations, but eventually Rose came to see the fence as the ‘ultimate statement of alienation: them and us’. His recent trip to Israel – where he played a total of eight fences – saw Rose attempt to play the separation fence to support the plight of Palestinians on whose land it is built.

Without question, these sparse examples show composers who are actively engaging politically. And many others are engaging with additional social issues such as cultural boundaries (eg. Liza Lim), Indigenous issues (eg. Iain Grandage) as well as issues within music itself (eg. Warren Burt).

But what actually defines a political work? It’s not such an easy question to answer. The political/social climate of the day surely influences the meaning we construct for a piece of music – this context being a vital aspect.

A work like Larry Sitsky’s The Way of the Seeker is a good example of this. In this virtuosic piano work, Sitksy explores the mystical journey towards enlightenment, drawing on direct quotations from 11th century Persian Sufi poetic texts. While this is a theme common in many of his works, the choice of text amongst the turmoil of government propaganda about the ‘war on terror’ is poignant. I don’t think this work is overtly political, but it does provide subtle comment because of the context in which it was created; it’s a positive celebration of an abused culture.

Of course the meaning we derive from a piece of music isn’t solely dependent on the composer’s intentions either; the listeners’ perceptions are also important – continuously influenced by the baggage they bring to a piece of music. An example: I was listening to Ros Bandt’s electroacoustic work Stacks a while ago with some friends and we all had very different ideas about its meaning.

The work explored the sonic potential of the massive chimneystack designed to extract fumes from the CityLink tunnel in Melbourne’s underground. Some of us suggested that – given the controversy surrounding the construction of the stack – the work attempts to reclaim the public space taken from Melbourne residents; the social activists amongst us heard it as a commentary on the ugliness of industrialisation and a stance against environmental impact; others disagreed, hearing the non-violent, ethereal sounds as an embracement of industrialisation; others yet again simply heard the piece as an exploration of unusual sounds.

So many ways to listen, so many directions for creativity…

But ultimately, I wonder if composers and sound artists should bear some responsibility here. Is the ability to speak out against the atrocities of governments, social ideologies and cultural biases an opportunity or a responsibility? Should creative artists be taking advantage of their public voice and offer a fresh perspective to the issues surrounding us? Or will their works speak for themselves as a natural reflection on the political/social climate in which they were constructed? Either way, art is a powerful tool. It can help bring about change – it inspires, motivates and challenges. Sometimes, it just makes us want to throw up.

Danielle Carey is a musicologist, writer, and musician. A graduate from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, she writes for various national music publications and is editor of resonate - the Australian Music Centre's new web magazine.


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Crash through or crash

Strange there is no mention of The Whitlam Rags or The Keating Tangoes. Perhaps these clearly polemical collections (created in the time of the great anti-intellectual gorgon, John Winston Howard) are too subtle?

not too subtle at all

Thanks for pointing this out Mundo!

Two very significant works.

Didn't Russell Gilmour, Raffaele Marcellino and Ian Munro pick up the 2004 Tasmanian State award for Best Composition at the Classical Music Awards for The Whitlam Rags. I wonder if they'll compose something about Howard in the lead up to this year's election? I'd love to see it!

Activism smorgasbord

Is activism in the eye of the beholder?

The examples given here of new music involved in various degrees of political engagement provide a helpful illustration of the range of approaches in which the uncomfortable yet essential nexus between art and politics can uneasily exist.

The question as to whether the privileged position of the composer or sound artist with an audience breeds Opportunity or Responsibility seems as perennial as it is unanswerable - must they necessarily lay claim to a political patch of turf on which likeminded souls can join them on their gingham rug and picnic on choc-chip-on-the-shoulder muffins, or is the creative and artistic process already and always valid enough as an end in itself?

Even the most professedly apolitical art-fer-art's-sakers would still value their art as collaboration with the audience - art as conversation, dialogue and negotiation.

In this sense, it can't avoid politics, for reasons quite eloquently outlined in the David Chisholm interview elsewhere on this site.

In response, Matthew Hindson asks David to describe the qualities of "queer", "postcolonial" and "hetero-normative" music, mistakenly looking to the music rather than the circumstances of its creation.

While Matthew may not actively explore such positionality in his own writing, that's not to say it doesn't exist and inform both his work and our reception of it. We don't need to fetishise the author (who may or may not be dead in the Barthesian sense) to discuss the performance of a work as more than simply dots made sounds.

As far as a conscious and deliberate activism goes, no single approach can or should lay claim to being the most appropriate or effective - there are as many different ways to tackle this as there are composers and sound-artists. Martin Wesley Smith’s polemics will not necessarily be any more influential on their interpretation by any given audience as the Ros Bandt work cited.

As pointed out, the 'baggage' or existing world view or positionality of the listener will bring to bear a whole host of influences that are well beyond the composer's control. They may certainly endeavour to 'steer' as to their preferred reading, but this will only ever occur with a limited level of success.

There need be no contradiction in this - weight must be given to what we know of a work's genesis, the content of the work itself, its manner of reception and the way the audience in turn makes use of it. This ‘elevation’ of the political to the visible does not require the extinction of music as an aesthetic artefact - it can exist as a layer to enhance rather than detract from engagement, a further level of meaning to unpack.

The beauty is that those who are yet to be convinced that these are stairs worth climbing are still more than welcome to travel up and down the Graeme Koehne elevator in blissful perpetuity - fourth floor: men’s wear, pretty things.

That all said, it seems apparent that in terms of overtly political 'activism' as an intention of the composer/artist (and despite the examples to the contrary given in this piece), it is more difficult to find clear-cut examples in the new music community than in forms such as theatre or video art.

Why that is the case is well worth considering further to determine its causes and effects, whether it reflects an active decision by composers to steer clear of politics, or has more to do with perceived audience expectations of just what they should ‘get’ from their music. Or whether it is something more structural – teachings in educational institutions or the type of pieces composers think are more or less likely to be programmed, to have performers play.

The 'opportunity' for activism, then, appears there to for the taking. The 'responsibility' should be seen not so much a requirement towards overt political activism (by all means take it if willing), but at minimum an intellectual honesty and reflective awareness by composers/artists of their own political standing and world view.



a weakness in the battle station

Well Mundo, it's kind of like this.

The Empire doesn't consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they'd have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station. But the approach will not be easy. You are required to manoeuvre straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is only two metres wide. It's a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you'll have to use proton torpedoes.

no time for apathy

I agree that myriad layers of meaning around a piece of music enhance rather than detract from our engagement with it – they don’t contradict; they deepen our understanding. And ‘beauty’ certainly has its place (it points, at times, to a particular political stance anyway).

But I don’t have much time for apathy. So I’m much more interested in music that as you say bears an “intellectual honesty and reflective awareness” of the politics and world view of any given composer or sound artist. I don’t care what the views are or the nature of them (political, social, purely musical); I just want to be challenged or inspired by these views.

Yet that said, my frustration with apathy does lead me to think artists should be exploiting the powerful tool they have at their feet. With so much chaos, disaster and deceit happening around us, it seems more important than ever before to be voicing our opinions – government policy and social behaviour will never change until we do. Tori Amos said in a recent interview: “if musicians fail to mention the war [on terror] they are letting a whole nation down”. Surely we need to mention much more?

All shaft and no torpedo

I thought so.

surely you could lend us some?

Well, Sir Mundo, I'm sure if anyone could fire some proton torpedoes it would be you! ... come on, you know you want to...

Good artists are not necessarily good analysts on world problems

Great article!

Considering your last comment - i.e. vomiting - it would have been great to have mentioned Gurglestock and Rundelstein who of course in the same concert as Dave Brown focused literally, and liberally, on said reflex.

A few thoughts:

1. Political art: opportunity or responsibility? Definitely the former, in my opinion. All people respond to the world around them in their own unique way, therefore any artist will have their own interpretation of social and political situations. Composer A might be appalled by low-paid sweatshop workers, composer B might happily wear their designer sneakers. Also, the reasons for art vary - in buying an album I might want to radically change my perceptions of the world, whereas my partner might simply want something nice to listen to whilst washing up.

2. I feel a bit sus about trusting artists to have the answers to social/political problems anyway. If I was concerned about third-world living conditions and how to solve them then I'm not sure why I'd turn to a 24-year old who's just spent the last 5 years in an art school learning about painting in preference to a seasoned aid-worker or analyst. (Of course, this isn't to say it's only 24-year olds - or painters - who make political art! That's just to prove a point. What I'm saying is that artists are trained in making sound, making pictures, making films or whatever, not necessarily expending time and energy on creating working solutions to world problems. In fact if anything I'd imagine artists to be more biased than most in their viewpoints, willing simply to react against perceived injustices as opposed to analyse what's actually needed to solve them - partly because of the often insular, cushioned art world. Of course you could also argue that art's role is more to highlight those injustices, not to solve them).

holding a magnifying glass to the world

Gosh don’t get me started about G&R and his vomiting rampage... you saw how fired up I got at the gig! Arghh!

In my original rant I didn’t really intend to imply that artists who choose to actively engage with political/social issues should be solving the world’s problems (we’ve got little Johnnie for that!). Political art holds a magnifying glass over issues the artist believes are important – it draws our attention to aspects of the world we often choose to ignore and challenges us to think for ourselves about them.

Oh, and I wouldn’t necessarily trust an aid worker’s opinion over a composer’s – I’ve met some incredibly ignorant aid workers in my travels… probably best not to generalise about such things…

authenticity and the political artist

In regards to the aid-worker in opposition to the composer, composition can be a tool by some to provide aid in many forms: public-exposure of an issue; directly raising fundraising for a certain cause; representing a particular perspective and so forth.

I think there is an importance as to how 'authentic' the composer is percieved to be in relation to these issues. No-one would doubt the importance of, say, Martin Wesley-Smith and David Bridie's artistic work in raising awareness of political issues in West Papua as they as both men are percieved to be authentically involved in such political campaigns. Both have had long-term involvement in such issues, and have done direct work to support communities affected. This credibility from their involvement hence justifies in the public their political art. Hence the distinction between an aid worker and a composer can at times be broken down.

It is in similar circumstances that Daniel Barenboin's political message which accompanies him where ever he goes(whether intentionally or not) is generally accepted. I think there needs to be a distinction drawn between political artists who have some degree of 'authenticity', and artists who are merely getting on their soapbox (although one can lead to the other). Obviously, such authenticity is a subjective judgement, but nonetheless is an important criteria in how the work an overtly political work is percieved as justifiably political.

Worried that I'm not authentic enough

Ok. What if the aid worker also composes.

the ultimate statement of alienation

speaking of ultimate statements of alienation... Jon, you should come and play the hideous APEC fence the government have constructed! (Hardly a symbol of democracy... )

music on the sydney fence

Musical activism is happening here and now in Sydney.

Not since 1788 has such a dangerous bunch of Homo sapiens been sent to Sydney. In fact, the 21 hardened criminals presently locked up behind a 2.8-meter high, five-kilometer long fence clearly have much worse records than any of the small time, half-starved, pickpockets in the first fleet. Amongst this new lot of undesirables are killers responsible for body counts rising into hundreds of thousands; others steal from the poor and powerless on a global scale; others sadly just seem to suffer from lack of equipment – commonly known as the small member syndrome; and worst of all, some are communists! Sentenced to hard labour, eventually they will all be sent to Western Australia to dig big holes in the ground, but before that happens, they must be restrained in a holding pen.

Luckily we have a government that cares about security, so the taxpayers of this country are more than happy to have spent $190 million dollars locking these illegal immigrants and their 5000 underlings up in a way they can understand – an impenetrable prison, a fence formidable. We have been assured by the authorities that none shall escape.

However, for the local population with a taste for style, an artefact of wonder has entered our consciousness. We must give thanks that our rulers have such aesthetic flare and imagination.

The Sydney Fence has been designed and elegantly crafted by our specialist fence artworkers. Do we notice a certain classical sense of proportion as the silver glitters through the evidently dull and uninteresting Botanical Gardens? A Dorian perspective at dawn, a touch of Phrygian in the evening air, perhaps?

But it is to the sonic wonders of the Sydney Fence that we must turn. A symphony of wondrous tones emanate forth when once its delicate metal strands are stroked by bow. Not by chance does this desirable musical instrument wend its way past the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. One notices that under supervision of our vigilant police forces, Federal on the inside, State on the outside, a select number of professional musicians have taken great pleasure in performing on the Sydney Fence.


sssh, the little ones are sleeping.

It's gone awfully quiet in here.

Artistic responsibility

Thanks for waking us up Zelig!

Mel, I think a panel discussion is a great idea. It would be fascinating hearing artists discuss the conceptual basis of their works – from R&G through to Natasha Anderson or even Wade Marynowsky. This is something I feel was lacking in an otherwise brilliant festival. (Of course, this could be simply because I’m personally curious about such things!)

With a performance like R&G’s, I believe it is reasonable to expect an explanation. Artistic responsibility is important here. I was confused by R&G’s disinterest in discussing his performance. On one hand he admitted that he was aiming to provoke – he wanted a reaction from the audience. Yet on the other hand, he made it quite clear that my reaction wasn’t valid. As a friend at the gig argued: Is it really possible to recontextualise a ghastly truth that still exists in our society and call it ‘art’? But even worse, refuse to talk about it?

What do others think?

the politicization of music

From the words of Mikis Theodorakis, who, perhaps more effectively than anyone else was able to "speak out against the atrocities of governments, social ideologies and cultural biases":

"Search as one may in the poetic texts that I have used, one will not find any political slogans. One will find neither obvious no hidden propoganda concerning specific political viewpoints. Consequently, the politicization of my art is exclusively the result of two causes: (a) its forthrigthness, and (b) my personal commitment. This is the consequence and the cost that springs forth from my basic principle - that art ought to communicate at every moment with the people"

And then he goes on in words which cannot fail to stir the creative spirit:

"Today, the mediocrity of the establishment takes its revenge on the liberal, irrepressible originality, leading humanity to the edge of despair. Man, however, with his faultless instinct of creativity guiding him on, slowly but steadily turns his face towards the creators and waits for their voice, in order to be armed, to survive, and to win. For there is no greater armour than the Word, the Colour, and the Sound."