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31 October 2014

Warren Burt's PGH Address: wondrous discoveries vs forces of darkness

Warren Burt performing in Melbourne, December 2013 Image: Warren Burt performing in Melbourne, December 2013  
© Catherine Schieve

Warren Burt's Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, presented by the New Music Network and delivered in Sydney and Melbourne this week, draws attention to the 'wondrous discoveries in music', taking place in parallel development with astonishing discoveries in astronomy, biology and medicine. Burt, who, after 46 years of composing, feels 'like I'm just getting started', finds less room for optimism in the current political and economic climate. For sound samples to go with the text, check out Warren Burt's homepage.

'While one segment of humanity is rushing forward into what looks like an amazing future... another segment of humanity is either frantically trying to hold things back, or is actively running away from the many forms of new knowledge, or is distracting themselves to death in wilful ignorance of both the hopeful and the dire developments of the present. Climate change denialism, religious fundamentalism, and the lamentable past 40 years of the absolute rule of economic fundamentalist neo-liberal economics are just a few examples of this', Burt said.

'While the sciences and the arts are expanding human knowledge at an amazing pace, the current political, economic, and let's say "ethical" situation of the human race is completely dire', he continues, and goes on to list 13 developments, mostly to do with current government policies, summarising each one of them with one word: 'awful'.

Burt looks for clues in poetry and science fiction to try to understand or find alternatives to the money-obsessed society we live in. When it comes to funding - or not funding - music, Warren Burt had this to say:

'I only have no problems with self-funding as long as the society is structured in such a way as to make self-funding possible. That is, after a day of work (doing something else) one has enough energy and money left over to indeed do creative things in a rewarding, fulfilling way. At the moment, the situation is not like that.'

Being confined to margins is not necessarily a bad thing, in Burt's view.

'One of the most interesting and positive things about the experimental music scene worldwide is how much it is off society's radar... And politically in Australia, where the media often treats the arts as simply amusement, with the subtext that artists are simply wacky wankers, our obscurity is also a benefit. I was telling students the other day about the troubles Shostakovich had with his boss, Joseph Stalin, and remarked that we don't have that problem in Australia. It's true, I said, that capitalism will probably ignore you to death, but at least we don't have to face the problem of a hostile homicidal boss. Imagine if the right-wing commentariat were to take an interest in our work. If the alternative to being pilloried by shock-jocks (or critics!) is obscurity and small audiences, I'll take the small audiences, thank you.'

Burt went on to give a demonstration of the rich variety of tools currently available for musical application and concluded his address by saying,

'While recognising that the "farces of dorkness" are pulling us backwards, or worse, leading us to oblivion, I feel I should keep my eyes on the expanding potentials of music now so that I can give the best possible gift to the future. If there is to be a future, I want it to have the potential for personally transformative beauty. And even if I disappear, and my work is utterly forgotten, if the spirit of enthusiastic exploration of sound and the uncompromising expansion of the human spirit survives, and even revives, I will feel that my efforts will not have been wasted.'

Further links

New Music Network: Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2015 - full transcript of Burt's address (New Music Network)
Sound samples to go with the PGH Address - Warren Burt's homepage
Warren Burt - AMC profile
'The democratisation of computer music: upsides and downsides' - Warren Burt's keynote address at the 2013 International Computer Music Conference (Resonate 13 December 2013)


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