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11 March 2021

Casting pebbles

John Davis Image: John Davis  
© Bridget Elliott

John Davis - AMC's one-time junior Sales Assistant, and, since 1995, our CEO - leaves the organisation on 15 March with the following parting words. The AMC staff takes this opportunity to publicly thank John from the bottom of our hearts for his always good-humoured leadership, his experienced guidance, mentorship and friendship. We wish him well on his new adventures, wherever he decides to go. Read also: Cat Hope's article 'John Davis: A Thank You'.

When casting pebbles into a lake, one can never really know how far the ripples travel, and what impact they have.

I recently had the privilege of visiting my high school music teacher Elizabeth Swain, living on the beautiful NSW North Coast. It had been many years since I last saw her, and given the happenings of the last few months, I had been feeling compelled to reconnect with her, and thank her for the journey that she, perhaps inadvertently, had set me on all these decades ago.

I can't precisely express in words the influence that she has had on my life. There are some teachers, very special ones, like Liz, who make a real difference to the lives of those who they teach. Teachers who exert an influence that lasts for decades, who plant a seed that remains a constant point of reference, and reflection. It's not anything specific. It's an attitude, an enthusiasm, a sense of can-do and possibility, aiming for outcomes at the highest possible level. Liz is a very humble and modest person, and would never claim credit for the amazing impact she has had on so many.

John Davis addressing an audience at the AMC's premises
at The Rocks during the 2010 ISCM World New Music Days.

There have been so many others who have exerted an influence on me, listing names would be an impossible task. My personal and professional lives have been blessed by many - teachers, artists, colleagues close and distant, friends and acquaintances. I have been fortunate to find myself in a role where I have had the privilege of hearing a plethora of voices and perspectives that have expanded my knowledge and shaped my thinking, enabling and empowering me to develop something of an overview. Some people who I have had a long relationship with over time, and some who I have only interacted with briefly - each perspective, however brief, or however profound or mundane, has contributed to shaping my thinking. I carry this with enormous gratitude.

And from time to time this has enabled me to join some of the dots in the musical landscape to share with others, and perhaps assist them in their journeys. I have been inspired, and also challenged, sometimes so enormously that I have seriously doubted my capacity to find a way forward.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, we inherit custodianship of legacies that require nurture and care, knowledge and experience is constantly shared with us, legacies that we are obliged to also share. And obliged to pass on.

I'm so grateful.

I have been deluged with messages of goodwill since my resignation was announced in December, and have been humbled by the words expressed in so many of them, and surprised by many stories that have reminded me of the amazing distance that ripples from a pebble cast into water can travel.

I'm so grateful.

I have resigned because I have differences with the AMC Board about what the AMC is, and how it functions, and we see the AMC's future somewhat differently. No matter. I realise that my decision was sudden, and may have caused some shock (even relief perhaps to some), but I strongly believe it was the right decision, and it was the right time to make it. And I'm very grateful to be able to say that.

I want to emphasise that the AMC's 2021-2024 Strategic Plan which has been supported by the Australia Council through its 4-year Organisation Funding stream, is very sound and most appropriate for these times, and deserves support from the AMC's constituents as the organisation moves forward. I trust that this support will also be provided to the AMC staff, and to my successor.

In some ways the flood of messages received has been a bit like attending my own funeral, and caused me to reflect on all that has transpired in my time at the AMC. I will get to responding to each message, and apologise for the time that it may take. But for now, let me indulge myself in sharing some reflections with you.

My first encounter with the AMC was around 1978, when the then Jazz Officer at AMC, Eric Myers, alerted me to the extensive Australian jazz reel-to-reel tape collection that was archived in the original AMC space in The Rocks. (Eric had given me my first professional gig as a jazz pianist at the Earlwood-Bardwell Park RSL Club Chinese restaurant). I spent many hours listening, and discovering names I knew that I needed to know - and discovering music I never knew existed. It was a revelation, not only the artists and the music, but the idea of collecting such materials together so they could be accessible, and provide a resource to be explored.

Some years later, in the mid-1980s, I enrolled in the Creative Arts degree at Wollongong University, and classes were filled with 'the new', with a strong emphasis on Australian music. I joined the AMC as a member and began to explore the various resources available - scores and recordings, and especially the biographic files of clippings and reviews, which provided access to such rich stories about artists and their work. The AMC became such a strong reference point for me as a hub of knowledge, a path of consciousness to the now, a cartographic tool to the musical landscape. I viewed the organisation and what it did with awe.

After I graduated in late 1988, Andrew Ford suggested that I might go and hassle the AMC's Dick Letts for a job at the AMC. I remember very hesitantly making an appointment and turning up to talk to Dick and Lorna Lander, who was then running the AMC's still new commercial arm. I don't know what I said, I only remember an awkward conversation and my lack of confidence and low self-esteem in such a context. I left the meeting thinking I'd blown it, and that was that. It was some time later in early 1989 that Lorna called me to say that they were seeking to expand sales activities, and to offer me a position as a junior sales assistant. This changed my life. For 32 years.

John Davis in the AMC retail shop in 1992.

The following few years through to 1995 was a series of ups and downs, funding challenges, development challenges, shifting business priorities, and embracing new technologies. Nothing has changed! I remember initially one shared computer in the office, and only a few more added as the library catalogue was shifted from cards to computer (Judith Foster was first employed by the AMC to assist with this task), and accounting software enabling inventory and sales functions was implemented. We prepared extensive word-processed (!) printed sales catalogues, established a separate retail outlet that rapidly grew, and we travelled around the country to conferences and gatherings to spruik AMC's wares. It was exciting to be a part of this dynamic activity.

In 1995 when Dick's successor Cathy Brown-Watt was poached to go to manage the Australia Council's Major Organisations Board, she strongly encouraged me (as then Sales and Marketing Manager) to apply for the General Manager's job. I was very reluctant, such a pathway was never in my sights, I had completed my Master's degree in composition, was still playing music gigs, and was still thinking about pursuing a creative pathway. Anyway, I did apply, and to my astonishment, the then AMC Board appointed me. I thought it was a truly crazy decision, and I hugely doubted my worthiness amongst in the list of previous GMs - Jamie Murdoch, Frank Maietta, Dick Letts, and Cathy Brown-Watt.

So, for those first few years I felt I was fumbling about in the dark, seemingly lurching from one thing to the next, trying to juggle multiple balls and spin plates at the same time - such an essential part of the role. I'm not sure that I ever really learnt how to do this juggling and spinning, and I'm not sure that this feeling of fumbling about in the dark has ever left me…

Over time, and with the passing of my parents in the first decade of this century, I began to ponder on legacies, specifically genetic legacies over generations, and began to see threads of connection between my obsessions, my strengths, and my weaknesses and shortcomings in a different light. My family history has seafarers, orchardists, retailers, and religion/pastoral care. Recognising that the skills I discovered in myself through the AMC role all trace back to the skills represented in these occupations and life paths, recognising the obsessions inherent in these occupations also. I have also come to the realisation that the more personal challenges of emotional health and wellbeing that we all face trace back along these family lines too. I'm grateful that my AMC role has enabled me to navigate and reconcile at least some of these challenges within the context of a bigger picture, seeing self as part of a larger ecosystem rather than an ego separate from it.

How did I survive? A short list:

• Endless mantras and aphorisms. Like water around rocks; like reeds in the wind; eating an elephant one mouthful at a time; reflecting on empty vessels and how they sound (so, shutup and listen and reflect); always embracing the many shades of grey, never the black and white; for every victory there are a thousand defeats; take a breath and count to ten before acting; never press <send> whilst angry (or drunk); keep a box of psychic condoms ever on hand…

But more seriously, I survived by being surrounded by amazing people, within and beyond the AMC.

• Staff who have always been a formidable brains trust, who have always assisted me in a shared decision-making process, and who took on a shared responsibility for well-being and morale within the organisation, and a shared focus on positive external interactions and relationships.

• So many artists, educators, arts workers, and music lovers, many who served on the AMC's board in its various incarnations, whose engagement and willingness to share enriched my capacity and the organisation's capacity to do well. It's difficult to single out individuals, there are so many. Added to this the long-term relationships with institutions such as the National Library of Australia, and the ABC, whose always-incredible staff have embraced what the AMC does, and who have always been open to exploring possibilities for collaboration.

ISCM delegates in Belgium in 2012.
© Anna Dorota Wladyczka

• My engagement with international colleagues through ISCM and IAMIC provided enormous support. It opened up pathways and connections for Australian artists traversing the globe, the role models within these networks provided another brains trust that enriched my capacities to function. And I developed many relationships that I cherish. I am so grateful that I had an opportunity to take on leadership roles in these networks, and make something of a contribution to their development. Hosting the IAMIC conference in 1999 (thanks APRA), and the ISCM World New Music Festival in 2010 (thanks Matthew Hindson, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Aurora Festival, the ABC, APRA and so many others), were such a privilege and pleasure.
And in more recent years, the wonderful partnership with SOUNDS AUSTRALIA (another expert brains trust) that has facilitated and enhanced the Australian presence at Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam, and jazzahead! in Bremen.

• APRA. At every stage of the AMC's evolution since it was founded in 1974, APRA has been present. The AMC's board has always had an APRA person as a Company Director. Every person serving in that role has contributed not only an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise to the organisation, but also enormous practical assistance. And they have imparted much wisdom to me, given their support so generously. The AMC now works with amazing APRA staff in a range of contexts, the most visible being the Art Music Awards, that have evolved into a special gathering and celebration of the community.

• I could not make this list without including Chris Sainsbury and those involved in the ongoing Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers initiative, a project which has had enormous impact. Together with the project partners Moogahlin Performing Arts, ANU School of Music, and Ensemble Offspring, and the incredible participants who have so far taken part in the project, they have all provided an incredible shared, life-changing learning experience.

I'm so grateful.

AMC's staff at The Rocks premises, at a surprise party to celebrate
John's 20 years with the organisation in February 2009.

I never stopped hearing about the dangers of the AMC being able to survive, it has been a constant theme. Or hearing stories of those not so enamoured with what the AMC was doing. I've always tried to reach out and build bridges, sometimes not so successfully, sometimes more so. Some of my strongest relationships have come out of such conflict, differences not necessarily resolved, but in agreeing to disagree, a mutual respect being established. I cherish these relationships. I'm very conscious of and will always grieve about where I've fell short, who I may have let down or offended, of the list of so many things still left undone or incomplete - which is long. But now it's someone else's problem!

What exactly was done over the last 26 years? I can't, and I won't pick out highlights, but see here a timeline that might tell something of a story.

Communities are made up of people, people with desires, hopes, and aspirations, people who want to express themselves and to make a contribution. None more so than this community that the AMC represents, a rich and diverse community that has much to reflect about the world, and this place, and this time. A community that has given me so much, and to whom I am so grateful.

I hope that in my work I, and the AMC more broadly, have only reflected and amplified the desires, hopes and aspirations of this community, things that have become so important in my life. And as the current times dictate for us all, the AMC will continue its work, and focus on important and necessary things to address the challenges the sector faces. And I will move on to quietly focus on the things that are important to me, here in this place, and now at this time, let a future unfold from this, and I trust that such investment in meaningful things will reap a future that is rich and nourishing for us all.


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Heartfelt and Honest

John, is this a "how to" article on 'write your own obituary'?

Your words are so heartfelt, and honest, as you write about the trials of choosing one career pathway over another; the anxiety of trying something new; the learning from other role models; the oh -so human challenges of interacting with people with diverse thoughts, actions, and reactions.

Yet, we know from the other tributes, particularly commenting on how you have made the AMC into what it is today.  You have clearly risen to meet those challenges.

When I first came onto the art music scene 30 years ago, even then the AMC was a go-to place to find out about anything Australian music, and THE trusted source of good music...always the response to my assertion of being a composer was 'are you represented by the AMC?' And here we have the AMC now in 2021 being an even bigger player and collaborator in advancing the cause of Australian art music and those of us who produce it: composers and performers of many stripes.

Underlined substantially by my own trust in your capacity to courteously respond in small personal interactions, and the steadfast and wonderful service from all the other staff, I have been able to see how wonderful you are at managing all those communication challenges..

May those mantras continue to stand you in good stead, as you go forward into the next phase of being true to yourself.