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15 September 2008

Editorial: I am the music I don’t notate

– ideas about what new music is and could be in Australia

Cat Hope Image: Cat Hope  

What a privilege to be involved in a journal about Australian music, let alone one whose core theme hovers around such noble questions as these: What is music in contemporary Australia? What processes do we use to make music? Where does music fit? What makes music new? What makes it of this place?

It has been my intention, when editing the journal, to choose a variety of current practitioners: those moving on the fringes of what could be called 'established' music annals, or those who have contributed to the fabric of Australian musical culture by being something of a maverick – rebelling against their background, experimenting with the new and unfamiliar, and not measuring success by popularity.

As Bill Fontana has said, 'a sound is all the possible ways there are to hear it'. I like to think that 'music is all the possible ways to play it', as well. The contribution of our time to the historic canon of music could be the permission of all sound sources into music practice – tones, noises, sculpted, organised, remixed, performed, disassembled, computerised, left alone, reduced. What comes next is the ability to hear all this as music, talk about it as music, and let all these things be comfortable alongside each other. Are we there yet?

Some artists are pioneering this concept in their very practice – artists such as Anthony Pateras are creating free improvisational noise performances alongside commissions from symphony orchestras. Some tertiary institutions are enabling this by offering courses (in composition, sound art and music technology) that teach electronic music performance and interactivity as a compositional premise, sometimes with the traditional aural and theoretical training. Festivals, too, are eclectic in their programming – the Totally Huge New Music Festival in Western Australia brings together classical art music, sound art installation and bands, all in a single day of the festival.

Yet funding does not reflect this important contribution to new ideas about music. There is the feeling, amongst more innovative or experimental musicians, that one of their projects is more likely to get up in something like a hybrid arts fund rather than a music fund. Sound art continues to float on the outskirts of the visual arts and sculpture, and, if it's lucky, gets funding from a music fund. The much-touted funds handed out to 'contemporary music' from the state government in Western Australia come with a requirement for the music to be 'loosely defined as popular' – what does this mean for creators and performers of new music?

These are difficult times for those wanting to experiment, or to be rewarded as an 'experimenter'. Even federally funded research, though beginning to embrace the arts generally, has been asking for impact measurement, and now, with a proposed new government research framework ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia), intensity. Yet, we jump the hoops. Because art, like all great things, is done by those who can do only it, who have to do it – and we are becoming excellent multi-skillers. Not only do we make a lot of different music, stretching and investigating those boundaries, but we are also managers, publicists, promoters, record labels, web designers, archivists, designers, sound engineers, tour managers and roadies. What impact does this have on final artistic outcomes? Postmodernism has allowed us a certain conceptual freedom over craft – we may design everything from the music 'up'. Are we making better art yet?

Fortunately, much of this music happens outside the academy. In people's homes – shared, broadcast, ripped, sold and gifted over the Internet. And music is more popular than ever – in pubs, somewhere between rock bands and performance art, in galleries within art exhibitions, in rural areas with artefacts of other times, online, in monthly concert programs. Audiences and musicians alike often comment that the best concerts take place in people's homes. Why wait to be programmed in an established music subscription series when you know that these audiences will rarely engage with, appreciate or desire to hear your music, or that the venues would not be likely to provide suitable environments? Too many concerts feel obliged to program 'new Australian music' yet often appear to do everything possible to disguise it, and get it over with.

And so, these articles talk about these things. A common thread is the importance of the performer as composer, and the attempt to understand the unconscious process that allows music to happen. When we choose not to think, or when we choose to only think. Has traditional music notation become so redundant for many composers' ideals, or do they just like to play? Be it the integration of non-idiomatic improvisation, media elements or simple 'ideas', music – or whatever we want to call this most aural of arts – is very definitely alive and kicking in Australia.

I have invited a range of contributors who, some may feel, represent only a small portion of the new music practitioners active in Australia today. I am not a musicologist; I am not interested in a fair representation across the board – of states, genders, styles and ages. Rather than complain about the state of writing about music in Australia according to these parameters, and how limited the area it covers, I'll write myself and encourage those I respect to do the same. Being from Western Australia, I have had to travel to make progress as a performer and composer, and this has provided me with a unique window on other places in addition to a context with which to understand my own. Maybe my years of music practice have led to an exposure, interest and development of a musical flavour in Australia, and that is what I am representing in this edition of the journal.

To conclude, a highlight of editing this journal has been the enthusiasm and energy the writers bring to discussions about music. A love of music and its making seeps out of each paragraph and it is a privilege to share in some of that. I hope you will follow the trail to these contributors' music, if you haven't heard it before, or revisit it with a renewed enthusiasm.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Cat Hope is a sound artist: composer, musician, performance, academic and video artist. She runs the composition, music technology and postgraduate music programs at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University. She is currently working on creating music with low frequency sounds that move around the cusp of audibility.


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