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31 July 2007

Telling It As It Is

Richard Gill on Presenting New Music

Richard Gill in full flight conducting an opera rehearsal Image: Richard Gill in full flight conducting an opera rehearsal  
© Bridget Elliot

A strong advocate for music education, Richard Gill has built an international reputation for his work in creating opportunities for aspiring musicians, nurturing their abilities and presenting music to audiences in unique ways. He has held many positions in the Australian music community including: Adviser for the Musica Viva In Schools program and Artistic Director of the Education Program for the Sydney Symphony. He is currently Artistic Director of Victorian Opera. Danielle Carey and Rhiannon Cook chat to Richard Gill about advocating new music and his role in its presentation.

Danielle Carey/ Rhiannon Cook: As an advocate for new music, you’ve put lots of energy into helping people find a ‘way in’ to this music. Projects such as the Sydney Symphony’s Adult Themes concerts, and the Methodist Ladies College Australian Music Days, where you broke down the music and analysed it in front of the audience, have met with enormous success. Why do you think this is?

People want to learn, curiosity is a natural condition of the human mind and we need to constantly arouse that curiosity.Richard Gill: People enjoy learning about music when it is presented as if they are meant to understand it. In other words, there is no dumbing down, no ‘music made easy’ but a fairly simple and direct approach to analysing the composer’s intentions based on the evidence as presented by the score. People want to learn, curiosity is a natural condition of the human mind and we need to constantly arouse that curiosity.

DC/RC: So what are some of the responsibilities/challenges of your role?

RG: Not to play down to audiences; not to make it seem as if I know all the answers, because I don’t; not to make it seem that they, the audience, can’t grasp with deep musical fact; to keep to the musical truth as far as possible; and not to try and make the music mean anything other than what it says itself.

DC/RC: Pre-concert talks are becoming a popular method of communicating with the audience and guiding their listening. Why do you think this is? What can these talks achieve?

RG: Precisely what you said in the question: the talks can guide the listening, focus the listener, help the concentration, and make sense of the unknown.

DC/RC: And what impact do you think the increasing availability of information about music, through means such as the Internet, might have on the way the audience consumes new music?

RG: Too hard to say. The Internet is terrifying in its scope.

DC/RC: Well, the Internet is perpetuating a democratic approach to documentation, and we are seeing more and more user-generated content across many music sites. Do you think this is beneficial? How and why/why not?

Speaking generally to an audience one needs to find a way which communicates clearly and without patronising.RG: Given the content has any worth then I don’t have a problem with that, but I have seen many sites which are pure rubbish, contain errors of fact, are misleading and simply badly put together...this is where students need guidance. Teaching is not about democracy...hasn’t anyone noticed??????

DC/RC: So as more and more [Internet] users are empowered to voice their opinions regardless of their knowledge, what do you believe the role of the specialist is today?

RG: The ignoramus has always been a species which has managed to reproduce itself effortlessly in spite of any age or stage. Children need people who know their stuff thoroughly and who can teach it properly, gimmick free, no touchy-feely feel-good crap but serious, ‘meat and potatoes’ music teaching.

Let’s rush back to those days and let’s stop the rot of all opinions are equal and all carry the same weight. It wouldn’t work in sport or medicine but it’s fine in music... not!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

DC/RC: So with major changes in the ways in which music is being documented, has your role as an educator changed over the last ten years? If so, how?

RG: I have become more aggressive and determined to wipe out the mediocrity and the vulgar dumbing down of education generally. It is a tragic mistake to present to children only music which is perceived to be liked by children... Arrogance is mind numbing in its stupidity. It says: children, you are too dumb to understand the great musical literature and the great heritage of Western Art music and the great wealth of ethnic music because that would require hard work and brains and you are all stupid so you can only have the music you already like and can access any time of the night or day... how disgusting to think like that.

DC/RC: But currently there is a limited audience for new music, and the majority of people are out-of-touch with this kind of music and its associated vocabularies. Can words alone help bridge this gap? How? What else needs to happen?

RG: Children need to hear new music regularly. Australia is currently living in a cultural desert in every sense...drama, visual arts and especially music... This is because we have adopted holus bolus American culture, that is American popular culture, and frankly yoghurt has more culture than most American examples of culture. Children have become isolated in one sense and the minute they put a set of ear phones on their heads they have lost touch with the world. Not a bad thing in itself but potentially very dangerous.

Until we get primary education right in this country; until we get children singing a huge repertoire of music; until we teach teachers of music how to teach we will remain, in spite of words and help, forever backwards and a bit of a laughing stock. Sad, but true.

DC/RC: Does a specialist music vocabulary enable people to understand music on a deeper level? How do you get around this problem when communicating ideas to people who don’t have any kind of musical background?

RG: Speaking generally to an audience one needs to find a way which communicates clearly and without patronising the audience. Once the audience realises that the ultimate greatness of great music relies in its multi-layered construction – that there are many layers of listening – an audience will have access to a huge repertoire of music...it requires work and hard listening...anything worth having is not won easily...we need to work to listen and that’s ok.

Danielle Carey is a freelance writer and currently works as Publications Coordinator at the Australian Music Centre. She is a musicology graduate from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has also worked as a piano teacher for the last 10 years.

Rhiannon Cook has been involved in the new music community as a composer, teacher and writer. Now working in community development, she continues to contribute as a freelance writer.


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