28 August 2018
2018 Art Music Awards: Robyn Holmes (presentation speeches)
© APRA AMCOS / Tegan Louise
The most poignant and uplifting moments of Art Music Awards ceremonies, over many years, have all had to do with acknowledging the unique, long-term contributions of some of the most treasured and respected members of our art music community. In 2018, the Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music - our equivalent of a Hall of Fame - was presented to senior curator, academic and musicologist Robyn Holmes.
> For more information about Robyn Holmes and her career, see this earlier article on Resonate. For a list of all recipients of the Distinguished Services Award see the AMC website (from 2011) and until 2009 (as part of the Classical Music Awards). For information about other 2018 winners, see this news article on Resonate.
The following two speeches were delivered at the Art Music Awards ceremony in Melbourne on 21 August 2018.
Tonight, I have the great honour of presenting the 2018 Distinguished Services to Australian Music Award to Robyn Holmes. I am greatly challenged by this task, challenged by how to construct a tribute that appropriately captures the scale and scope of this person and her work. I have worked with Robyn in various contexts for almost 25 years. We have been collaborators in many projects, colleagues in music, often we have been co-conspirators. She is a trusted advisor and counsellor, who has helped to shape my thinking. She is someone who has great capacity to bring clarity to and reach conclusions from 'the overview' - something that we all need to constantly work on, in these rapidly changing times. Equally, Robyn is also compelled to be fully aware of the underlying detail, and goes to some lengths to achieve this.
Our paths don't cross that often, perhaps twice a year at most, but over these almost 25 years, a relationship has evolved that I value enormously: one of great trust. Our infrequent conversations, often brief, are always of substance, and always include both the big picture, and the minutiae; the individual, and the collective; the universal, and the personal. And always with artists and music at the core. I know that I am not alone in enjoying the privilege of knowing Robyn in this way - she has a wide network of people who do the same, and there are several here in this room tonight.
I want to go beyond the list of roles, milestones and achievements that mark her career - shortly you'll see a summary of this in the AV presentation. But such lists don't capture the human element, they don't reveal the person, the relationships, the accumulated knowledge, and the understanding.
Culture is the repertoire of collected habits of thinking and acting that give particular meaning to existence.
These words are from Donald Horne. Robyn paraphrased them in outlining a rationale for a project she was planning - I don't recall the details of the project now, it was possibly 20 years ago, and there have been so many projects! But in using these words, she highlighted so eloquently how music was an essential ingredient in this definition of culture, and the imperative not only to acknowledge and express our culture in music, but also to participate and experience, to examine and learn, collect and preserve, to reveal and tell the stories about it, and its reach.
Robyn was always thinking big, and long-term, about building capacity in our sector, how to build a national infrastructure that enabled access to collections of, and content relating to, Australian music that resided in various parts of the country. By the mid-1990s, AMC had already been involved as a partner in Series III of the ANU's Anthology of Australian Music on Disc, co-releasing a number of recordings of Australian repertoire.
Around 1996 Robyn stitched together a complex project involving seven institutional partners, to undertake the development of NFRAM - the Networked Facility for Research in Australian Music - with ANU partners (CSM and ACAT), AMC, Monash and La Trobe Universities, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the National Library of Australia. We all contributed to developing a prototype that demonstrated how diverse Australian music content in different locations could come together in the online environment, and how users might interact with it. It was a highly complex project, and it was Robyn's focus and drive that enabled us to navigate through the many obstacles and hurdles that emerged as the project unfolded. The project was certainly a milestone, and it certainly conceptually informed the AMC's online facility, which emerged a decade later.
It also established principles and concepts that informed and shaped the NLA's 'Music Australia' project, which ran for over 10 years, and was subsequently incorporated into Trove, but it provided a valuable precursor and model for Music Australia's architecture and interactive services. And remarkably (remember, this was in the 1990s, and the web was still new), those principles and concepts have stood the test of time, and rapidly changing technologies, and they still remain relevant today.
The repertoire of our collected habits of thinking and acting...
I want to share with you a few parts of the farewell speech that Robyn delivered last year prior to her retirement, words that I think reveal much about her. She spoke about how her appointment as the inaugural Curator of Music at the NLA in 2000 was significant. It marked a distinct shift in library culture that was looking forward and outward, at national collaboration, user-centred thinking, and the public expression of the Library's role as intrinsic to Australian culture. It was about connecting the library much more with the wider network of musicians, scholars, industry, and organisations across Australia.
I remember her calling me, at the time, to express some reservation about leaving academia, and her uncertainty about putting her hand up for the role. I told her it was made for her. Her own repertoire of accumulated habits of thinking and action, every professional experience, every musical experience, had led her to that point.
The rest is history. As she demonstrated over her many years there, she was the ideal person to take on such a role. There are countless examples of why. And here's a particularly good one, which I'll tell very briefly.
Robyn had been working on Richard Meale for a long time to acquire his personal papers for the Library. Richard resisted, claiming that he had kept almost nothing, and that he didn't want anything to be on the public record. Robyn was persistent (what a surprise) and, in 2004, Richard finally relented. So they travelled together to Richard's abandoned house in the rainforest near Mullumbimby and, over several days, they sorted through what was there. The story of what they found there is very exciting, and moving - uncovering things forgotten, or half-remembered, treasures revealed, the tangible physical evidence of a creative life imbued with much intent and meaning. And it forms a great collection at the National Library, one that is regularly being used for serious research.
Only last week, Robyn was recording an extended oral history interview with Roger Woodward (whose papers were recently acquired by the National Library). After the interview, Robyn showed Roger some of the materials in Richard's collection, including sketches for an uncompleted piano concerto that had been commissioned for Roger. Roger was overwhelmed, believing that Richard had destroyed the sketches, and realised that he could reconstruct the sketches for performance. Another project born.
Back in 2009, as Richard was dying, Robyn visited him. Richard thanked her, and told her that she had understood his inner need, so long denied, for his music to live on, that he had entrusted her, and the Library, with the only thing that mattered to his soul. As Robyn states, in a life, such moments are few, and are bigger than us all. Such trust. Building trust is an essential part of what Robyn has always done.
As Robyn has written, it's a strong reminder that the value of documentation lies not just in what collections hold, but in the human endeavour that they represent: the human value of the creative process; the human activity of what and how collections are acquired, collected, organised and made available; the human value in how they are used, experienced and understood. And what stories they tell about us, and our culture.
Culture as the repertoire of our collected habits, and thoughts, and actions that give particular meaning to existence.
So what's in Robyn's repertoire? More than anybody can know, but certainly these qualities: the great collaborator; the advocate, the influencer; the forensic researcher and grand planner; the communicator; the builder of relationships, builder of trust, and respect. And above all, a true and distinguished champion of Australian music.
Thank you so much, John, and I am truly humbled by your words. When I stood here three years ago, presenting the Distinguished Services award to Larry Sitsky, I was struck by what a special honour this was for the senior creative artists who have always received it. And here I am, honoured for what has been a lifelong vocation behind the creative frontline, as it were.
John, you epitomise the essence of what 'service' to Australian music means, with your passion, dedication and integrity. I know we share the same ideals and values, and I stand beside you with the greatest of respect. Thank you, Dean, Genevieve and John, such a formidable team at the helm of APRA AMCOS and the Australian Music Centre, for supporting these Art Music Awards and the creative life of so many.
What drives me most is my determination to promote, preserve and communicate the significance and value of Australia's music while treasuring the work of the artists who make and play it. Envisioning and building the infrastructure and collecting the resources for Australian music has inspired me. We have had to articulate on a broader front why our music matters; to be bold and courageous to cut through political paradigms and social attitudes that dominate public and populist perceptions of culture; and to maximise the use of limited funding and resources, whether public or private, for the good of the whole.
I had a traditional music education and was fortunate to commence my academic career during a period of exceptional arts leadership. Under the patronage of Don Dunstan in South Australia, creative and educational opportunities opened up commissions, venues, performances and scholarship. In Adelaide and Canberra, I learned on the job, working alongside composers, mentors and colleagues to whom I am deeply indebted.
In other words, mentorship, artistic leadership and a politically attuned and charged environment are all essential ingredients for the kind of vibrant culture in which we can nurture and support creative individuals. This has never been more important than right now, and I do not speak here of left or right wing politics. Music and the arts transcend the political sphere. Yet we must engage with it, act as ambassadors and unite to cultivate a strong, coherent and meaningful voice.
I offer three examples that set alight my passion to do something that mattered for Australian music, something that might impact future generations.
In the mid 1980s, I was commissioned to write a short history of opera in South Australia. I found almost no historical or contemporary sources preserved in institutions, and almost nothing written that included musical culture as anything but peripheral to the mainstream narrative. How was this possible? It was a light-bulb moment: it was then I discovered the importance of archives, documentation, tools to support access, and the value of community.
Another light bulb flashed over a decade later in Europe in the late 1990s, where I was presenting Australia's case for hosting the five-year musicological World Congress on music. Except that we did not win on the floor of 1500 international delegates. Their prevailing, disparaging view? Australia was too far away, and our music not rich enough to compete on the world stage. My indignation fired a 'we'll show you!' moment: it drove home to me that only we Australians would, and could, look after and value our own culture.
Another occurred at the Garma Festival in 2004, when I was part of a team of experts invited by Dr Mandawuy Yunipingu. On the last evening, Yothu Yindi played their hit Treaty under the stars. I had never so clearly understood its meaning and significance: that this contemporary music dress was just as powerfully rooted in its landscape, language, knowledge structure and sound as the traditional Yolgnu ceremony performed only an hour before, embracing 60,000 years of living history. This was a uniquely Australian experience. And I suddenly felt immensely proud of Australia's musical diversity and inclusivity, the depth of Indigenous and immigrant traditions, and our openness and transparency: values highly resonant today.
Such epiphanies led me to the National Library in 2000. Jan Fullerton, Director-General, welcomed me with her words of 'Now, first I want you to THINK, and to think big, not about tomorrow, or next year, but about 10 years' time and then 100 years' time… when you have a plan for developing Australian music, we will somehow find some resources… Whatever we do, it has to be for the nation as a whole.' Now that is what I call 'good cultural citizenship'! Belief, joy and passion will succeed if properly supported by vision, planning and strategy that will persuade others and create change and opportunity.
I have sought to create a rich living archive of Australian composers, performers and organisations. A music archive documents the past and allows our music to be recreated, re-experienced and honoured into the future, to be understood and valued as part of the broader culture, and to take its place in the mainstream public narrative, both national and international. I have had life-enhancing experiences, working closely with Australia's leading creators, and I value every rich moment of the intense, meaningful and, at times, very intimate human and musical relationships that have evolved.
This has all been possible for me because it has been an ensemble activity! I have had the fortune to work in and with great national institutions, and with wonderful knowledgeable colleagues. There are many people to acknowledge in a career of collaboration but I must particularly honour the commitment of the National Library to Australian music, and its partnership with organisations, such as the AMC and APRA-AMCOS, to digitally project Australian music to the world.
I hope that this award will inspire future generations to lead 'behind the scenes' with expertise, courage, enthusiasm, persistence and grit - and with loud and articulate voices for the love of music. My deepest thanks and I look forward to imagining another 100 years hence.
> Art Music Awards (AMC Online)
© Australian Music Centre (2018) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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