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26 June 2013

In praise of shades of grey

Personal reflections on my engagement with new music

John Davis Image: John Davis  

A shorter version of this article by the AMC's CEO John Davis was first published in the May 2013 issue of Music Forum journal of the Music Council of Australia.

I am fortunate to experience many kinds of new musics, and engage with creators and practitioners in a diverse range of contexts, both in Australia and internationally. Through the work we do at the Australian Music Centre, promoting the work of Australian composers, through the AMC's role as the Australian Member Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), and in my role as the current President of the ISCM, I have a particular and privileged perspective on the new music landscape that few others have.

I stress, it is only one perspective, one perspective that is continually revising itself and evolving. There are many other perspectives that can offer alternate views which may be as valid as mine. In outlining some reflections, I feel compelled to highlight the complexities and nuances of what new music is, and how it operates and functions. It is these complexities and nuances - so often over-simplified, and cosmeticised, and politically and aesthetically exploited until they are devoid of any meaning - that I feel need to be fully embraced by anyone who recognises the critical importance of 'the new' in defining a future for music, beyond what is offered by the museum, or by popular culture.

It's about the terminology

Firstly, I need to make a comment about terminologies, and how they define what I want to write about. It's important. Bear with me.

In speaking about new music' I am referring to what in the European context is understood as 'contemporary music', meaning contemporary classical, or 'art' music. The terminology is awkward, and better understood when contextualised - and in my professional role I generally contextualise by referring to a spectrum of creation in sound, from notated 'concert' musics; to the 'pointy' end of jazz and a range of other improvisatory practice; to a broad range of experimentation in sound, including via technology, site specific work and soundscape, and what is broadly known as 'sound art'.

It is music made with a particular intent, with an intended utility in particular contexts, music that is not exclusively commercial, or purely for entertainment - although it has the possibility of also being so. (And in saying this I am not suggesting that music made with the intent of being commercial, or for entertainment, can't also be 'art music').

At the Australian Music Centre, our current representation policy speaks of 'supporting a very wide range of composition in sound, be it in real-time or by means of prolonged elaboration and definition'. As in most things, difficult to describe can best be described by saying what they are not. AMC 'can not presently support popular and rock music, especially of commercial importance, and folk and traditional musics.' Although this might sound a little awkward, I think it defines the AMC's historic and current focus appropriately, embracing the nuances of contemporary practice from the more traditional to the adventurous.

Yes, the terminology is awkward, many reading this won't care, and some involved in particular areas of practice may take issue with how I have expressed this spectrum of music making. I accept this. Definitions can't be comprehensive, and in contemporary practice things change more quickly than any terminology attempting to categorise it. Mapping a landscape and defining its features in detail is a constant process, and attempting to capture each nuance of difference between one thing and another is an essential exercise, if we are to develop and maintain an understanding of what the new music world is, and what it expresses and represents.

So what I express below in relation to 'new music' is framed by what I outline above.

Are you still with me?

About the work, and why I like it…

I wear several hats, as an administrator and manager in the 'new music' world, as an enthusiast and advocate for Australian new music, and as an interested, pretty well-informed, a somewhat educated, and engaged audience member for a broad range of international 'new musics'. My life has had many incarnations - as a performer, a composer, a jazz and a rock musician, in addition to extended periods in my younger years, waiting tables and tending bars. I have tended to wait rather more than I intended, although the skills I developed I still employ to this day - the people skills, the glass polishing skills, balancing a stack of plates on one arm or juggling a fistful of wine glasses (metaphorically), tolerance, resilience, providing a service, and of course, a capacity to wait (some concerts are very long…).

I do a lot of listening, and am lucky enough to do much of this at live performances rather than from recording. I tend to favour listening to music that challenges me, music that makes me think, that makes me ponder on the creative explorations of composers and musicians as they reflect on, respond to, or are inspired by, contemporary life. I love the theatre of challenging live performance. Such listening can sometimes be hard work, but it is also endlessly rewarding, and setting out with the intent to listen hard (and well) will often result in discovering unexpected delights.

There are some things that I only get to hear once (usually at a live performance, often a premiere, often unrecorded). Occasionally, making sense of the music and the composer's intent can be a struggle, but it is a struggle that I find fascinating. If I do have the opportunity to become familiar with a new work over time, perhaps through a recording, a broadcast, or multiple performances (more unusual), I often find myself discovering new things on each hearing. This is the kind of music I like best, music that reveals more of itself as it becomes more familiar, the invisible becoming audible, the musical intent becoming tangible, the idea made manifest and communicated with the magic that live performance can create.

Of course my listening also extends beyond this, and I am always open to hearing much from the classical canon, when time permits, and I have been known on occasion to (even) dip into music of popular culture/s.

I know that in relation to 'challenging' music, some of my tastes are not shared by many, and this situation is quite acceptable to me. I advocate, but I don't evangelise, and I despair at music fundamentalism, and the clashing of those ideologies that consider themselves in opposition. As with other fundamentalisms of our time, the ever-increasing volume of the dogma, the simplification of the discourse to a fundamentalist black and white is something I have great difficulty in accepting.

It's about the work… a perspective on the international context

In my role as President of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), I am part of a team of custodians for an international network of some 60 member organisations from 56 countries, active in promoting contemporary music in their local contexts. ISCM was formed in 1922, at a meeting at the Café Bazar in Salzburg that included composers Paul Hindemith, Anton Webern, Egon Wellesz, Ethel Smyth, and others. Over the 90 years since then, what ISCM represents has musically evolved several universes away from where it began. In recent years ISCM has been moving slightly away from a UNESCO-like model of 'national' representation in its membership, towards a more open and diverse membership of organisations representing geographic regions, or specific areas of contemporary practice.

In the 21st century what happens within the ISCM network is formally articulated in its statutes as being 'without prejudice on differences in musical expressions, styles, genres or media; nor regarding race, religion or politics'.

How each ISCM World (New) Music Days festival embraces these ideals varies greatly from one festival host to another. Sometimes (for examples the festivals hosted in Hong Kong in 2002 and 2007, and Vilnius in Lithuania in 2008) an eclectic festival program was presented featuring musics of many styles and genres; and in other contexts (such as the 2005 festival in Stuttgart) a more euro-modernist-focussed contemporary music program was considered appropriate by the hosts. The obligation (taking effect from the 2011 ISCM WMD Festival in Zagreb, although embraced by several festivals immediately prior to this, including in Sydney in 2010 and Sweden in 2009) for a festival host to program at least one work from each ISCM member has tended to break down festival programs dominated by a specific aesthetic, however a counter-argument to this is that ISCM festivals now tend to be 'showcases' of what is happening in contemporary music around the world, rather than artistically driven by a particular perspective, and as a result the 'quality' can be compromised. This debate about the resulting quality of programs continues within ISCM, as it has since at least the early 1960s, evidenced by the ISCM General Assembly minutes and other reports over the years.

I am not at all troubled by this debate, and indeed I see this ongoing re-examination as essential. Assessing the contemporary and its possible place in history, its direction, potential impact and influence, is an imprecise art. None of us can see the future, and the best we can do is to attempt to find in the contemporary whatever threads of connection we can, to the past (immediate and more distant), and across the contemporary landscape, tracing lines of influence, reference, connection, or similarity of approach. Contextualising and re-contextualising is necessarily essential; mapping and remapping the landscape, and continually encouraging, and questioning, diverse interpretations of it.

For ISCM, its history over 90 years speaks for itself, with many works initially premiered at ISCM festivals, often to less than positive initial responses, finding a place in the core repertoire. The ISCM festival program in Manchester in 1998, celebrating 75 years of ISCM festivals, featured works premiered in early ISCM festivals that have become key works in the repertoire, including by Ravel and Boulez, Walton and Britten, Stravinsky and de Falla, Copland and Gershwin, Webern and Berg.

Certainly the festival remains a platform that provides a stepping-stone for an emerging composer first finding their feet in an international context; or an 'emerged' composer establishing a reputation; or a more established composer making their mark; or even a senior composer being paid homage. Some composers whose names I first encountered attending my first ISCM WMD Festival in Copenhagen in 1996 have gone on to develop their careers, some impressively, and there are names in every ISCM festival that will fade into oblivion. Similarly for performers, ISCM festivals have provided a platform for reputations to be made, or maintained, both for specialist new music performers (yes, there are many!), and those for whom new music is only a part of what they do.

What attracts me most about ISCM is that whilst it is somewhat unwieldy and cumbersome, and perhaps burdened by its 'distinguished' history, and by the layers of nuances in attitude and approach that its diverse members represent (from the most conservative to the most adventurous), it is still the largest international network of organisations involved in promoting the creation and presentation new music, and so provides an excellent global viewpoint for observing how new music is flourishing in different ways, in different places. This provides a considerable advantage in contextualising the work we do at AMC in documenting and promoting the creation and presentation of Australian new music.

Navigating the new music landscape…embracing the niche

I mentioned earlier that much of what I am involved in new music relates to what I see as a diverse and complex range of specialist niches, areas of specific contemporary practice, each characterised by a particular aesthetic, or mode of function, even a particular community with its own network of relationships and connections. There is much fluidity across these niches, many interrelationships, individuals who identify with several niches, navigating as their creative expression evolves and develops. Layers and layers of varying shades of grey.

I have had cause in recent weeks and months to explore a range of addresses, blogs and discussion threads, each relating to the state of new music, its relationship to the audience, and (re)interpretations of its history. Some of it is highly critical (either of new music, its perceived audiences, composers, performers, programmers), some of it is quite perceptive, some highly opinionated, but much of it suffers from oversimplification. Some of it also relies on stereotyping, overgeneralisation, and the expounding of myths to make its point. Whilst in establishing a premise for an argument, the use of such tools are sometimes necessary, there is always the danger that speculation or assumption can be mistaken for fact.

This exploration has caused me yet again to ponder on the imperative in contemporary society to reduce highly complex and nuanced issues (which represent a vast range of shades of grey), to a fundamentalist and simplistic black and white.

Examples of some of the reference points in my recent explorations (there are too many to list them all!) include:

  • Lyndon Terracini's keynote address at the 2012 MCA Assembly, published in Music Forum;
  • Michael Kieran Harvey's 2012 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address, presented by the New Music Network, and published on their website;
  • Composer and blogger Elissa Milne outlining 'a simple reason why new music audiences are so small', in a recent brief article in Limelight magazine, and (slightly) more extensively on her blog 'ideas about music, and about playing, learning, and teaching the piano…'
  • US composer Daniel Asia in a Huffington Post blog attacking John Cage, and the torrent of online commentary that resulted from this (type 'Daniel Asia + John Cage' in your search engine).
  • Some of the discourse around the 3-part television series recently broadcast in the UK on BBC Four titled The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Music (type 'the sound and the fury + 20thC music' in your engine)
  • A recent interview with Paul Keating where he speaks eloquently about the arts, in particular, music (Youtube)
  • Recently published research from Melbourne University's School of Psychological Sciences which said that previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony: 'Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds,' Associate Professor McLachlan said. 'So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or Jazz) sounded like the wailing of cats, it's simply because you haven't learnt to listen by their rules.' (See: the press release)

I have enjoyed a great deal of what I have found in these examples, the opinions being expressed (mostly provocatively, sometimes surprisingly), the criticisms levied, and the attacks and defences mounted. Some of the discourse is intelligent and well-constructed, and causes me to review my thinking on a particular aspect of a topic. Some of the discourse, particularly some of the Daniel Asia/John Cage discourse, makes less than edifying reading. Some of the participants in the discourse seem so contrary they could start an argument in an empty room.

It is however fascinating to observe the responses and the views expressed.

I offer one example of something that nicely captured a viewpoint that I have often heard. It is a generalisation/over-simplification from UK-based musicologist Tim Rutherford-Johnson on his always interesting blog The Rambler, in commentary following his post that responds to the Daniel Asia/John Cage issue:

1945 > Cold War > Darmstadt > serialism [etc.] > boo! > minimalism > neotonality/postmodernism > yay!

Delicious, no? So elegant and precise a summary, and yet so devoid of any meaning. I have heard so many versions of this over many years, to the point that whenever somebody talks in these kinds of terms my ears hurt, more than after any extreme noise performance.

I could go on, but life is short, the email inbox over-floweth, and there is more music to hear, more composers and performers and thinkers on new music to engage with.

From all this, I offer the following conclusions:

I know of no composer who wants to write for an empty hall, or to be 'unfriendly to an audience'. I know of no performer who wants to perform in such a context. I know many composers and performers who recognise that expressing their art (whatever the niche) at the highest level, with passion and commitment, with imagination and flair, with unapologetic enthusiastic celebratory energy, communicates in an extraordinary way, and creates a momentum that attracts a following. I have seen this in many contexts, in many places, and these experiences have been amongst the most profound in my life.

And for those who want to see music develop, who want to participate in the many niches of the new in music, to facilitate its continuing to be an integral part of our musical landscape, let's stop fearing that some music that might be less accessible to the masses, and cease the petty bickering. Let's avoid reducing the discourse to the fundamental, and instead fully embrace the many shades of grey that make our landscape so rich and fertile. And let's champion great music making that is not a part of the mainstream. Without taking up this challenge, we are much the poorer.

John Davis is CEO of the Australian Music Centre, and is currently serving his second (and final) term as President of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM).


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