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10 June 2009

Editorial: Nothing happens in isolation

Nicole Canham Image: Nicole Canham  

Australia’s first multi-purpose arts centre, The Adelaide Arts Centre, was opened the year I was born. So was the Sydney Opera House. That same year, Patrick White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first, and so far only, Australian to do so. 1973 was also the year in which Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells was released, spawning an obsession with an epic piece which defied genre classification. Each example symbolises a level of achievement that has raised these spaces, artists and their works to the level of icon, with a place in our culture well beyond the level of building, book and album.

The Adelaide Arts Centre and Adelaide’s famous arts festival have become a major part of that city’s identity. The Sydney Opera House is an internationally recognised symbol for our nation. Patrick White’s influence extends well beyond literature into music and film and the lives of so many artistically influential Australians of the last few decades. Mike Oldfield has never escaped from the legacy of Tubular Bells – the evidence is like a thread running through his career more than thirty years after its release.

This edition of the Resonate Journal is occupied with notions of sense of place. Music is essentially ephemeral in nature – live performance exists in the moment in which it is created. It may be recorded or captured on film, but as an undertaking music is markedly different from something like visual art, for example. Working in an art form where things are focused around the moments of a performance, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that everything we do is placing us somewhere on a map, or continuum of activity. Nothing that we do exists in isolation. It is all connected to something else, be it a person, an idea, a space, a geographical location.

For me, a sense of place inspires thinking along two distinct lines – the physical/literal sense of place, and the intellectual, emotional and social notions of sense of place. The contributors to this Journal issue write on a range of topics that arise from these thoughts, and I am grateful to each of them for their thought-provoking contributions. Don Aitkin gives a perspective on the role of the concert space, what it used to be like and where we might be headed. Elizabeth Rogers gives us a snapshot on the breadth of artistic activity throughout regional NSW. Helen Lancaster offers some invaluable insights into higher education for musicians. Robert Davidson's and Caroline Stacey’s interviews deal more directly with physical spaces and their role in inspiring work and creating audiences. Vincent Plush reflects on his recent Voss Journey and the enduring legacy and influence of Patrick White. Andrew Ford and Karlin Love provide some wonderful commentary on commissioned works that have sprung directly from relationships with different places. We also publish an edited extract of Robyn Archer’s captivating Manning Clark Lecture which deals with the price of survival for the arts and provides a snapshot of the diverse range of artistic activity in Australia today.

The music we create now and the place that it holds in our lives gives rise to some interesting observations about the place of culture in the national identity of Australians. A concerted effort by many people over the last 50 or 60 years has lead to the creation of many concert halls and a variety of spaces in which to play, perform, entertain and provoke audiences. Audiences have been part of a journey through music, as composers explored ideas through techniques taken from international models of teaching and influence – until things started to become more focused about what was going on in our own backyard, so to speak, including turning an eye and an ear to the music of our closest neighbours in Asia.

Right now, we are in the middle of the global-versus-local dilemma. On the one hand, people have unprecedented access to cultural experiences of all kinds. The artist/audience relationship is changing; audiences curate most of their arts experiences themselves. They can shuffle, remix, download and blog to their heart’s content without the direct input of the artist. Online communities and life online is a reality for many people. Just check out your Facebook page and see the status updates of all your online friends. Initially wondering where people find the time to be constantly updating their status or their photos, I now realise that this is in fact a lifestyle choice. People choose this type of interface over another because of the range of experiences it can offer. It is so rapidly becoming second nature to us that we can forget that this kind of individually tailored lifestyle entertainment simply wasn’t possible a few years ago. Your options were that you could choose to switch the radio on or off, or possibly change to another channel. The simplicity of it meant that you were either on board and involved or you weren’t. Not complicated.

In today's Australia there seems to be a disturbing undercurrent of division – people who hold a different view are classified as 'them' or 'they' rather than part of 'us'. Technology-based access to experiences and on-line communication feeds into this. We have our favourite blogs, we can join groups of like-minded people. We don’t have to see the bigger picture because, in this context, it isn’t necessary, and so we choose not to. Artists and composers have been known to do this, too; do we give a concert together with the audience, and plan it with that notion in mind – or do we hang onto this idea of 'us' and 'them'?

All this can make for a very fractured sense of culture, and, for us working in the arts, a fractured scene. Audiences can access cultural experiences from anywhere in the world on demand. For performers and composers, the essence of the ‘Australian voice’ in our work defies definition because the components that might categorise it are numerous and diverse. How and where we fit into this picture can be baffling for both artist and audience.

The way in which we harness ideas of the connection of music to place, be it geographical or emotional feelings of belonging, is a key to altering and cementing the integral place of culture in contemporary Australia. We need to make it about all of us, rather than about us and them. We encounter this division not only between artists and audiences but also within our own community. There needs to be space for new ideas as well as old/traditional ways of doing things. While, on the surface of it, we may feel as though we draw upon many influences and we can be very global in our outlook, we can still be very isolated and ‘local’ in our thinking.

Take for example our habit of training classical music students in the orchestral tradition, much like bespoke tailors, when the reality is that today’s musician or composer is called upon to be many things – teacher, entrepreneur and small business expert among them. If we abandon the point of view of the individual student or teacher and look at the bigger picture, we are confronted with that other harsh reality; there are very few jobs and many more graduates each year than we need to fill the existing positions. The apparent range of freedom and choice makes it necessary to have more than one tool to do our job as musicians or composers or educators, starting with a healthy, global view of the world.

Seeing our contribution as part of a continuum of activity, both for a nation and for specific geographic locations, enables us to place ourselves and our own work on that continuum in a wonderfully direct way. It is necessary for a few reasons, first and foremost perhaps in that it helps us to make connections between the tangible (a place) and the ephemeral (the performance). This is critical in building and bringing new audiences to the arts. Making the connection to place prevalent in our works of art, be they compositions or concerts or festivals, helps us to make new discoveries for ourselves as artists and to create new transformative experiences for audiences where familiar places have the opportunity to resonate with new sounds and ideas.

In a moment of pre-deadline procrastination, I turn on the television at the start of a program all about gardens of the world. The program begins with the host asking the question, 'Why do we create gardens at all, when our natural environment is so spectacular?' This gets me thinking about our relationship to the place in which we live. Human beings enjoy creating beauty in their own environment, having it with them wherever they go. For every one person who would forgo having a garden but might travel to a spectacular natural location once a year to see some incredibly beautiful landscape, there are thousands who would instead spend their money on pansies and Blood and Bone.

With this view of human nature, when it comes to understanding the role of the arts and culture in our daily life, perhaps it is time to start telling it like it really is. It is the only way we can make any change to the place of the arts in our society, and the role culture plays in our daily life. Whilst most people can fairly easily understand the pleasure in creating a garden, or beautifying one’s environment in some other way, this does not necessarily make us great appreciators of objects of beauty, be they spectacular natural wonders or works of art. The many ways that a  community interacts with and involves  itself in the arts mean that we need to be flexible and virtuosic not just in our own technique as performers, educators and composers, but also in our understanding of community, and the possibilities that exist in common spaces to inspire people to appreciate both the arts and where we live in new ways that resonate long after the actual performance.

Nicole Canham is an independent artist (clarinet) and artistic director specialising in chamber music performance and audience development. She has also worked in theatre, film, new music, improvisation and folk music and built a body of work with colleagues from other art forms. She has worked with The National Library of Australia, The National Gallery of Australia , The National Film and Sound Archive and Old Parliament House to develop site-specific programs and commissioned works. She has performed internationally with the quartet Clarity, an ensemble she co-founded in 1996. As Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, she achieved record attendances and box office during her four-year term (2005 – 2008). In 2009, Nicole is undertaking research into the positive impact of culture in diverse communities in North and South America as a recipient of a Churchill Fellowship.


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