(Managing for better outcomes in a digital diaspora)
The Peggy Glanville Hicks Address, November 2017
I pay my respects to any indigenous Australians here today and to Aboriginal Elders past and present of those indigenous communities on whose land audiences are gathering to hear this address this week.
I also take this moment to acknowledge the diverse peoples and cultures who have been welcomed to this nation. Finally, I recognise our shared freedoms and responsibilities, inherited from Magna Carta and on through the common law. All these three elements frame modern Australia and its political and creative possibilities.
As an Australian I value the opportunity to acknowledge country as a simple act of reconciliation. I trust that the acknowledgement and respect it invokes resonates with many here today.
I also increasingly feel compelled to recognise the many peoples, ethnicities and faiths which comprise our nation, given the never ending assault on difference which too often permeates society today. In my view cultural diversity is central to any conceptualisation of modern Australian directions. The indigenous heart of the nation must also, always beat strongly.
The common rights we all enjoy at law also need to be recalled and defended relentlessly in providing the solid bedrock to our future. Those foundations are increasingly fragile and demand vigilant defence.
History matters. Symbols matter. Rights matter.
Australian creative voice also matters, deeply.
In a globalised world Australian voices in the humanities and sciences either mean nothing, or everything, depending on perspective.
For me diverse Australian voices have never mattered more, nor been more vulnerable.
Today I want to propose a view as to the status of the artist, creativity and intellectual endeavour in our society.
The role and secure place of creators in Australia today frankly troubles me. I want to offer matters for consideration as to context; digital futures; and how we might improve present settings.
Creative expression gives voice to us all; as citizens.
Creative voice challenges perceptions and helps us see and understand the world. It also provides focus drawn from the imaginations of others.
At times it results in moments of precious, even exquisite revelation and sometimes regrettably in dreary, or worse, experience.
Understanding the differences matters in an era where quantity of output and availability so often exceeds focus – on quality and inherent creative strength.
I will start with a couple of stories. Hopefully ones which explain my own perspective.
The opportunity to give the 2017 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address fills me with trepidation as I knew Peggy. Not as well as many of my friends and colleagues back at that time from 1976 when she returned and remained until her death in 1990, but well enough for her to have shared freely and vigorously, as she did, of her views about music, conversation and people including me, in what can only be described as being indelibly memorable ways.
If there is a god or one of the many Greek gods that Peggy was remarkably well informed about, then I had better tread with some care!
I first met Peggy when she returned to Australia for the performance of her opera the Transposed Heads in 1970.
It was performed in an Australian premiere by the then University of NSW Opera under music direction from that remarkable figure in modern Australian music life – Roger Covell. Someone who should always be held high in the evolution of Australian music culture including criticism and scholarship generally. I digress, as those at the cusp of very late middle age, do.
Anyway I met Peggy in Peter Sculthorpe’s humble little office at the then Music Department at the University of Sydney.
Peter and Peggy clearly ‘hit it off’ well. They had much in common including having studied with Egon Wellesz, the Schoeberg pupil and Viennese contemporary of Berg and Webern. Peggy had an energetic background with close friendships and working relationships with key figures in twentieth century artistic life. That exhaustive list included many.
People such as the poet Robert Graves, the powerful music critic at the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson and his subordinate – the legendary writer, musician and drug fiend Paul Bowles (of Sheltering Sky fame); from whom Peggy inherited his critic’s position.
Peggy was that rare thing – a women composer. Shamefully music all too often remains as a last bastion of misogyny.
Needless to say to this then hapless 18-year-old, Peggy was a formidable woman.
To deliver a lecture named to honour her memory and legacy provides an opportunity for reference points; and to recall my friend and one-time mentor Peter Sculthorpe.
As many of you will recall, having been very ill for an extended time, Peter died on 8 August 2014. On that day I made contact with the principal news media confirming his passing and I also phoned the then Minister responsible for the Arts, Senator George Brandis.
I advised him that, in the absence of Prime Minister Abbott, who was overseas dealing with the issues following from the MH 17 downing over the Ukraine, that I thought an official State Memorial Service was not only appropriate but also obligatory.
I reminded him of Peter Sculthorpe’s status. He thanked me for the call, and for the advice; then said it was not his gift but rather one in the sole domain of Prime Minister. I said I knew that but was hoping, in the PM’s absence, he would ensure it was dealt with expeditiously and positively.
The following Friday I was walking to Peter’s house in Woollahra where there was to be a small final gathering of friends and family to farewell him. The coffin was there around which some musical tributes were paid before Peter was taken to his final resting.
On the way to this occasion of respect, love and friendship I called the Minister and asked for any advice as to progress with the State Memorial. He said “not yet” and that he would get back to me as soon as he knew. I asked him to hurry it along.
The following week Minister Brandis phoned to advise me that the Prime Minister had declined my request as Peter Sculthorpe was not a person of sufficient high standing and I quote, “like Dame Joan Sutherland”.
I made some peremptory remarks of unusually stern character as to it being the wrong decision and that Prime Ministers should be protected from such silly, thoughtless decisions. The call ended, somewhat abruptly.
In my initial fury with the injustice of the decision I set to work to ensure state recognition was forthcoming. Thanks to a coalition of splendid people, the then Premier of NSW, Mike Baird announced that a formal NSW State celebration of Peter Sculthorpe’s life would be held. Further the Premier happily announced that a perpetual biennial Fellowship for an outstanding performer or composer worth $30,000 would be created and named in his honour.
That experience of having the Prime Minister reject the state service for Peter Sculthorpe has sat uncomfortably with me for three years. It feels every bit as outrageous now as it did in its initial delivery.
The capacity for the State’s generosity of spirit and reflection on those things that matter in our society in the cavalcade of human experience in a relatively young nation, politically at least, matters, profoundly.
History matters. Symbols matter.
The decision of Tony Abbott to deny that ceremony was wrong on many, counts. At the time I did not want to taint the memory of Peter Sculthorpe with that brutish shadow. Now, having regard to the legacy of Peter and Peggy too, I feel compelled to raise it and reflect on what matters in our nation and its creative direction.
I assume that Senator Brandis, in conveying the PM’s message, had invoked Dame Joan because Julia Gillard as Prime Minister had accorded Dame Joan the honour of a State Memorial in November of 2010. It was held at the Sydney Opera House, when I was its then chair.
In preparing this address I have been reflecting on the issues of the status of the artist in our society. Frankly, celebrity aside, I think that whilst we have made much progress since the Commonwealth Literary Fund was founded in 1908, initially to care for destitute writers, the progress in recent years has been retrograde.
It is interesting to see the range of Commonwealth actions affecting the arts since the Commonwealth Literary Fund’s creation. The Art Advisory Board followed when established in 1912.
Matters affecting music saw the ABC Symphony Orchestras being established from the 1930s onwards until their eventual release to independence in the 1990s. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust came next when H C Coombs persuaded Robert Menzies to secure Royal assent for it in 1954. National opera and ballet companies were the direct result.
The Advisory Board, Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers followed in 1967 and 1968 saw the establishment of the Australian Council for the Arts which became the Australia Council with its legislative launch as a statutory body in 1974. Most recently the Australian National Academy of Music was created in 1994 following prior Commonwealth training initiatives for drama, ballet and film, TV and radio from the 1960s.
So where do we stand?
Well in terms of support there has undoubtedly been a steady improvement in some structural settings offering the hope of continuity and security that can underpin creators, the performing arts and new work. But let us be realistic, support to creators has diminished.
Critically for new music and musicians the situation at least from a funding perspective is not nearly as encouraging as it was for example, in the 1990s with the Creative Nation funding injections or for that matter the 1970s which saw some remarkable initiatives for creators in all disciplines and dedicated funding for new music ensembles and profuse commissions.
Clearly if the most famous composer of art music in the country, indeed in the country’s history, can die with no sense of responsible obligation on the part of a grateful nation to honour him and what he had done for our country and its international creative standing, then something is seriously wrong.
When Brandis laid before me the odious and unfair comparison with Dame Joan – unfair for both of them as great Australians I hasten to say – I indicated to him that obituaries had been published for Peter across the planet including major newspapers and journals in too many jurisdictions to mention.
One struck me in particular – that from the New Yorker published within hours of Peter’s death by Teju Cole who said, and here I quote:
“No wonder, then, that Sculthorpe’s music was so adored in Australia. That it was not better known internationally is evidence, yet again, of how poorly contemporary classical music, like contemporary poetry, travels. In a 1999 radio interview, Sculthorpe mentioned the particular honor he felt when, following the death of notable Australians, the obituary features on television would feature fragments of his music. It made him feel like he had become part of the culture in some essential way. All day yesterday, I listened to Peter Sculthorpe. Today, far from Australia, I will again.” From the New Yorker 8 August 2014
Here was someone writing in heartfelt terms about an Australian artist of distinction in a tender and caring way which made me wonder as to what is happening with our domestic polity and its arts settings especially in what might be broadly called the digital diaspora.
Theatre gets top marks – often for vibrant connected audiences. Museums and galleries also show solid public attendances. The visual arts market is alive and healthy, if volatile and often hard to read.
But in undertaking a review of where we in music stand, international touring rock bands and a raft of popular music to one side, all is not as it seems.
Composers and writers do not receive the support they once did back in the 70’s through the 90’s. Simple statement of fact.
I am distressed also about writing, but sadly cannot address literature today. Nevertheless, support to primary creators is in never ending contraction.
I share the view from a previous speaker – my friend, Richard Gill that it is fascinating to see “classical music” separated in many major festival programs from “music”. It confirms something obvious, rarely discussed.
Whilst real funding may be static or in varying degrees of severe to perilous decline, the audience and education outlook is discouraging – or provides definite opportunities for improvement, if we are to embrace the imperative to euphemism which governs Australia today – digital media rage excluded. The imperative to optimism which lies at the heart of meaningful change must be maintained – it is after all the Australian way! It seems to me, things must change.
It is always too easy to see the past with a rosy glow and to invoke long disbanded bodies like the Seymour Group, the Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble – ACME as it was known; or avant garde groups like AZ Music and many, many others.
Those ensembles were very much from a different era and had a different aura having inherited a vital contemporary landscape from the old International Society of Contemporary Music – which Egon Wellecz , Peter’s and Peggy’s sometime, onetime teacher – had created with other Schoenberg students in 1922. It was a kind of expansive tolerance music festival that brought contemporary composers from all different corners of the globe together, after the horror of WW1.
The ISCM, which in the 50s become affiliated to UNESCO, was a vigorous body in Australia in the 60s and early 70s, although it did have its World Music Days in Sydney back in 2010.
I remember the ISCM well as its organiser in the early 70’s. In the 60s and 70s, UNESCO was a very much more active coordinating body before digital technologies supplanted so much institutional formality in exchanges and organisations – not to mention reliability of those old networks also.
So what I wonder about is how we give effect to a healthy life for contemporary art music culture which embraces many of the imperatives that have driven success in the past? How do we connect with past knowledge, respect for elders and the heritage from many battles, hard fought at times, which were won convincingly with governments, music establishments and yes, with audiences also?
If we are to make a better stronger cultural connection with today’s public and create a more vibrant landscape for composers and performers and the reception of and response to their music, then we need to change the way the policy process works currently. We need to revisit the goals and intended outcomes vigorously.
Another musician I once knew very well died about five weeks after Peter Sculthorpe – the musician and scholar Christopher Hogwood. He established the Academy of Ancient Music forty-four years ago in 1973. The reason Christopher gave it that name was recalled from a group from the 17th century which played music from a period usually from twenty years before its time and occasionally, at a stretch, a century.
Personally I think it is way overdue that a vital ‘New Academy of Ancient Music’ is created. One which plays nothing earlier than the Rite of Spring, perhaps with special dispensations for Ives, Satie and just possibly for those arch radicals Gesualdo, Rameau, Beethoven and Biber!
Any review of the New Music Network website reveals a vibrant body of ensembles and activity out there but I wonder if there cannot be a more effective connection between that activity and audiences.
I go to a large number of concerts annually, of all kinds and all forms. Frankly I am too often disappointed at the poor turnout of audiences which seem, if not to age before my eyes, to diminish to a size worthy of Swift’s Lilliputians. I volunteer there are some noble exceptions.
The diminution is evident across the spectrum from really ancient music through the ‘very recently ancient’, using Christopher’s definition of twent year’s old. Something is wrong and it has to be addressed.
Whilst I accept that art music has always fluctuated in support bases and that there are many variables in modern life, the audience sizes we see increasingly make pain in many a creative heart.
I think now is the time that we must think about renewal in purpose. Purpose in the service of music sensibility, creativity and connection. And that means a lot more time and effort needs to be invested in renewing audience relationships; their cultivation and activation. A lot.
Real meaningful purpose underlies all successful human endeavour, provided of course, that it is matched with an overwhelming sense of adherence to standards in performance delivery.
I wonder as I wander in the digital diaspora in which I am, like many of you, a keen adventurer, as to how the diverse strands of modern creativity break out in creating sustainable audience connections here and elsewhere. Connections which secure music’s creation and the sharing inherent to it, in anything approaching a state of organic viability.
There is a very real challenge here, living in and living with the vast digital diaspora, where evidence of extinction threats are abundant.
We all experience confrontational elements from the velocity and pervasive nature of change on a daily basis. These elements invariably arise from digital technologies and the changed behaviours and expectations which follow from their application. It requires adaptive ingenuity and openness to change, in order to maintain relevant connection and real understanding in a transformed landscape.
I described in my MUP book from 2014, Rules of Engagement, that my relationship to music was as core to my being as breathing. It worries me that art music is becoming irrelevant to far too many.
As a result of many of the technology and allied behavioural changes which we are all experiencing policy and even moral and ethical priorities have changed markedly. As has that which constitutes effective leadership.
These forces are not subtle, indeed they are immutable and unstoppable and have an almost ‘tectonic’ force.
I think to put it politely, that Australia is not managing the change as well as it could. From digital technology many old paradigms and power constructs are breaking down, or are already broken.
The internet has no respect for the establishment in and of itself and is a furiously strong levelling agent, where new models in all things are becoming commonplace.
Nothing and no-one is safe. Merit, ingenuity, speed, flexibility and the quality of one’s performance increasingly rule the day. From a distanced perspective, this is a fascinating force. A power for good or bad in equal measure.
But one thing is very clear – the unparalleled empowerment to invention and creativity, with the release of entirely new ways of working and connecting.
None of us really yet know how it will unfurl and where the impacts will repose, but the journey is the most confronting in human experience. It represents danger and opportunity in polarised measure.
Some of these digital forces have profoundly destructive elements and their influence is often beyond old types of direct management, political or regulatory control. Never has creativity been so unencumbered, nor have audiences.
We all need to reflect long and hard on the implications of this new operating landscape. It is profoundly important to the future of humanity and its aspirations. It is also of course, central to the future of the arts generally. Specifically, it impacts music and the way in which it is imagined, created, explored, shared and received. And it is fundamental to future sustainable audience relationships.
Please let us not be romantic about it – a permanent danger with technology in Australia with a deep, often dark and tiring history attaching to it.
One thing is abundantly clear every single day. We have all witnessed and are now living through the largest single transfer of power in modern human experience – from producers to consumers, or as I prefer, citizens. How Australia responds will define our modern nation.
How artists, scientists, teachers and their interlocutors in the many diverse areas of intellectual and creative devotion, manage this transition will define Australia’s social and cultural destiny.
The outlook is unclear but there are danger signs aplenty as to poor attention to detail with much flawed thinking.
This power transfer is the largest citizen empowerment change ever seen, and it has happened almost entirely from technology. The impact on citizens’ behaviours and more importantly, on expectations has been overwhelming – a true game changer. The significance of this shift is difficult to exaggerate. Impossible to stop.
These forceful changes require adaptive ingenuity and the need to change cultural perspective dramatically in order to sustain real understanding if close connection is to work effectively with the many communities at large; whether as a politician, a teacher, an artist or anyone else in the business of communication.
People often say the world is changing. This wholly misses the point. The world is not changing – it has changed. Forever.
All strands of endeavour are seeing unprecedented turbulence. The effect on politics and direction of governments is presently unclear, although on most available indications it is troubling. There is marked evidence that politics is finding it increasingly difficult to digest the settings and provide relevant responses.
Dramatic change is everywhere, reflected in wholly different operating models and responses. The game has changed.
The future is for most, an increasingly scary place. Making future predictions is always a risky business. The famous futurist George Gilder, in the 1990s, predicted the death of television before the start of the 21st Century. A bold effort with a messy outcome for him. But all he really did was get the timing wrong – TV as we know it is rapidly changing and over the next decade, will be unrecognisable from even the last ten years. No doubt about it. It is happening now.
So at the risk of getting the timing or other elements wrong, here are just some of my personal observations as to central elements in the digitally empowered future and the impact from just some of these change forces. This context from my digital wanderings and wonderings, provides elements of policy challenge to all creativity and music specifically.
It offers a territory rich with paradox. Is it a potential empowered paradise or a descent into purgatory?
Let me commence the recital of core elements which I see:-
- The strong trend in power transfer to citizens will accelerate.
- They will continue to channel trust to friends and online communities of complete strangers before they trust traditional authorities, leaders and commentators or well established brands and concepts. Often the notion of ‘truth’ itself will be under ferocious attack in this process.
- Fragmentation and new fusions in many things will accelerate. The outcomes will be unpredictable – the only constant will be the necessity or inevitability of dramatic change.
- With so few barriers to entry in a digital world the cost of innovation, never lower, will continue to decline. This is crucial, representing a massive change especially for incumbent enterprises as previous protection benefits from wealth and scale progressively vanish.
- Many sustainable commercial models are either unresolved or still shaky. However, as they are worked out, much commercial carnage will follow, ensuring these will continue as choppy, uncertain times. Indeed digital models almost always tend to be really quite destructive of existing structures and modalities.
- Which means that the turbulence and speed of change, the disruption and breakup central to digital life is going to be with citizens, their governments, business, artist and other arenas for a long time; because upheaval and all its, in many ways, messy impacts has only just begun. This will require creativity and agility to respond well – both with the broad community and with the myriad niches in society.
- As part of this turbulent process technology will continue to become an almost genetic extension of ourselves. Touch, gesture and voice commands are all becoming second nature in modern product constructs embedding technology patterns and personalities from the youngest age. The technology is now an embedded part of most of us and for the young almost core to their being.
- The new cultural paradigm is that if I can imagine it, it simply has to be there – I just have to find it (or invent it myself). A weighty reset in thinking!
- We will continue to see increasing consolidation in markets and fiercely heightened competition internationally where technology smarts define both the field of battle and success on it
- Large international software players, who innovate for a living, will offer a stunningly wider range of content, products and services, through worldwide distribution management where geographic separation will become ever less relevant.
- Nations and their legal frameworks over time, will be substantially bypassed in this process. The impact of this huge disintermediation has not yet been examined or really understood by governments. With political parties it is almost entirely ignored. Take copyright as a pertinent example of an area under relentless attack.
- Network speeds and the ubiquitous connectivity from wireline and wireless technologies will increase relentlessly. Huge network speed and capacity expansion will be matched with ever more sophisticated software tools empowering astonishing change in the way in which we produce, manage, store, deliver and consume information and use new digital products. The dramatic implications for creators are obvious.
- Something on which there can be little debate is that mobile technology will continue to rise and rule, ensuring ubiquitous software as the dominant change force.
- Consumers now expect mobile devices to become the central controllers for other devices and services in their lives. The handy ‘computer in your pocket’ will rule the day with ever better functionality.
- Consumers will demand that a wider variety of devices work together harmoniously and seamlessly. Moreover, they will want them to work together in ways that change fundamentally how they consume and interact with content and a vast array of services. Many now expect the technology to know them and anticipate their wants and needs.
- New players and on-line providers will continue to grow and enter the Australian marketplace which will be remarkably vulnerable if it doesn’t change the current operational game. We attach too much virtue and benefit to incumbency , where many large players are unusually vulnerable because they have the wrong cultural settings often drawn from protection and an incapacity to respond swiftly with requisite dexterity.
- In this connected world societies which don’t achieve consistent innovation and productivity improvement will experience unusually harsh declines in living standards with competitive advantage vanishing quite quickly.
- The nature of work will change profoundly. People will experience much longer working lives and need regularly refreshed training.
- On all available evidence employment levels will decline. On the one hand automation will assert itself ever more aggressively and on the other there will be widespread fresh collaborative models and cross border alliances.
- Cities will continue to grow and will depend on the quality of their distributed technology and services sophistication to maintain agreeable, competitive amenity, central to efficient work and social harmony. Great cities will have networks of deployed smart hubs with little relationship to current nineteenth century organisational principles.
- Education, which has to date been one of the slowest respondents to change, will be revolutionised. Parents will demand new performance and efficient delivery standards in schools. The flow of talent and teaching around the world will quicken as will tough comparisons. Tertiary institutions will be judged ruthlessly across geographies with striking force by students, employers and commentators equally.
- Opportunities for artists in this digital vortex of deep community and education change will abound but only if they become energetic self-promoters and accept they have to be the drivers of their own future opportunity.
- The digital divide will be very real and will expand with the fresh irony that the wonder of all that is available will also see a new information ‘dark age’ for many who will be locked out.
- Without determined action by informed governments, cohorts of education advantage and disadvantage will expand with severe consequences as to equity, aspiration and direction.
- There will be a lightning speed in uptake of increasingly intelligent software tools with advanced learning capacity and omnipotent automation. Machine to machine conversations already central to society will expand.
- The advances in data science and analysis by statisticians will continue to prove astounding. Developments in data collection, storage and analysis – known collectively as ‘big data’ – will transform business and consumer horizons with the best known use being in ever better refined search, intelligent learning software and new flexible stacked organisation frameworks. Presently the primary laggard in this space is government itself.
- The autonomous autarchies already enabled from internet search algorithms will continue to provide one of the most independent potent forces into unpredictable territory. It will be a force for good and bad equally, substantially outside supervision controls of governments.
- The application of search in all things from jokes to physics; real estate to recipes; employment to games and virtually all areas of human endeavour means that people will think and react very differently. Algorithm has after all, become part of daily vocabulary.
- Enhanced reality and its devices are becoming second nature to millennials and their children and will have explosive force over the next decade.
- Fundamentally central to this new world is the augmented power of social media, based increasingly on mobility extending into active consumer directives with everything from opinions to products and services. Trust is the primary currency here and established notions of truth may well be the main victims.
- Time is the other great currency of the era we are entering and technology is central to managing it. Technologies we have even yet to know we want will rise powerfully and be adopted or discarded rapidly. Remember that American millennials already spend over 5 ½ hours with social media daily. They check their phones at least 50 times a day and 82% sleep with their phones on!
- And therefore of course, that ‘instant expert’, now an established part of digital social life, will become ever more irksomely pervasive!
- The interconnected nature of that generation arising from social media and constant digital engagement will see travel increase powerfully with huge social impacts in many countries affecting life partnerships, immigration, health, infrastructure, education, security and in countless other ways.
- The implications for defence priorities in military deployment and technology potentials will be in a realm which would make H G Wells, John Le Carre and Neal Stevenson gasp in disbelief. The rise of the modern ‘militarized economy’ as William Fulbright described the USA decades ago will, regrettably continue inexorably – seen particularly in the United States, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. The consequences for clear thinking and informed decisions are pretty frightening.
- On the brighter side personalised medicine and the field of genomics mapping from birth will be matter of fact realities transforming healthcare delivery. Healthcare will see a flip where it will become more about wellness management than sickness care. Electroceuticals will change forever therapeutic approaches to many things. Thank goodness as we are all going to live a heck of a lot longer!
- The consequences for such issues as sustained peace, sustainable environment approaches, and common life issues from education through the retirement age and future lifecare are only now starting to be seriously discussed. The intergenerational issues which arise are inevitably complex and costly.
- Equally importantly, notwithstanding the unpredictability and insecurity such turbulent change and consolidation generates, the opportunities will be on a very large scale and, one hopes given that so much of it is still a reflection of human creativity, compelling.
- Change is a given but the liberation to human ingenuity with this era of inventiveness unleashed and the opportunities it affords, is central to our future but only if creators and imagineers can manage a pretty dramatic transition.
- From all of this transformation we will continue to see change in our political systems and the way we relate to each other as fellow citizens.
Who knows where that will take us all culturally but the implications are quite mind shifting, going into completely unchartered territory because this journey is still in its infancy.
However, it seems clear that politicians and their parties are insufficiently engaged with these change processes and their profound implications.
Does it all reflect a strange amalgam between the writings of J G Ballard, Phillip K Dick, Ursula le Guin, Aldous Huxley, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and George Orwell? Does this all seem remarkably dystopian or will it offer new horizons of wonder, optimism and social improvement?
Is there a destiny to digital paradox? Where the balances between notions of new found paradise rich with creative opportunities for connection and invention are matched with a purgatory, where descent into heightened narcissism and discrete echo chambers distanced from listening to anything, other than parodies of one’s own tastes and prejudices, is an inevitable new norm.
Truthfully the answers are probably yes and no in equal parts. But it is obvious that disengagement is not a realistic option. After all, these things are happening or will do so. We have commenced a fascinating, albeit compulsory, ride. One which will have ever increasing speed with the necessity of adjustment to extreme digital disruption at its centre.
So from that digital wandering what does it all mean for music and better opportunities for creators and performers?
How will close alignment with engaged, responsive audiences reflecting respect and understanding between the artists and those to whom they are presenting, be fortified?
Clearly developments from the time of the Walkman in the last quarter of the twentieth century through to live streaming now have changed the nature of music reception and experience. Walking around with headphones is becoming prosaically pervasive. Ironically the experience of music in its extreme personalisation is being relegated to public silence. In an era of sensory enhancement and expansive notions of theatrical presentation the plain old fashioned concert has to reinvent the experience in a wide variety of ways if it is to have a meaningful future.
There are many temptations in this process to resort to the prevalent political simplification into binary divisions of ‘this or that’. One which abandons a nuanced, more sophisticated approach. One which recognises that we all enjoy adventure, evolution and revelation. We need better engagement and comprehension of audiences to secure the future, of which there seems too little reflected in most new music environments.
We also need to have a sense that we have to be responsible for our own future and increasingly step up and be counted as constructive advocates and guides as to ways to ensure opportunities for artists and creativity in a landscape where work, community and communication is in a period of unparalleled change.
I have observed on many occasions, that the arts in this country have a tough time. There is not enough money, the market is tough and the activity expensive because of the nature of Australia’s demography and geography; the uneven skills distribution and richly colourful opinion landscape. Nevertheless, our creators have achieved much.
However, I believe we have reached a new nadir in domestic public policy and program delivery. I would observe from my experience that Australians – whether they are artists or not – have unusual difficulty in receiving criticism. It is a national weakness which is matched with a flawed ability to provide critical feedback in a caring, nourishing and constructive way, aimed to assist and improve. As a nation it is a problem we must all confront if real dialogue about the national future is to be possible.
After forty-five active years around the cultural fabric in universities, performing arts companies, government, media, major commercial and public enterprises, I am quite certain artists in Australia, let alone composers and musicians, still have no real position of substance where creativity is seen as being central to a good society. A position valued by those in power, devoted to caring and promoting intellectual and imaginative life.
When I reflect on the why and how of the Australia I fervently believe we all deserve, I have this developing pit in my stomach.
I want to be a part of a nation which is passionately committed to talent. A society with an expansive energetic cultural promise governed by a devotion to curiosity, generosity in knowledge, judgement and perspective. One which has grace, standards, courage and fairness in its underpinnings; where excellence in intellectual, scientific and creative life is celebrated as absolutely core to the national future.
When one confronts the reality of current political policy settings, aside from the ALP, there is either nothing or only modest almost telegrammatic contributions from other parties on arts and culture policy.
Similarly, much of the detail in the school education curricula requires careful review – it is positively alarming in its simple minded endeavour to avoid conflict as it tries to accommodate all views, often verging on gibberish.
In the tertiary sector with a few remarkable exceptions we have seen a once splendid set of specialist institutions for advanced music tuition essentially diminished at best, or decimated at worst as seen with the shocking outcomes for the Canberra School of Music.
Frankly to put it mildly, we hover on the precipice of a unique Australian mediocrity. It demands fresh responses. After so many years, so many reports and so much talk there is still relentless decline.
We must address it.
I take it as a given that the dimension of the agenda requiring attention has expanded and the quality of the current output in work, funding and policy has waned.
A cycle of review and change in policy settings will be with us all ever more – at least as long as there is a dependence on regulatory obligations on the one hand and subsidies from the Commonwealth and States in various forms for creative work on the other. It is the norm in the rural economy with its various assistance settings and with all manner of other industry assistance programs, so naturally of course, it applies equally to cultural support.
Support has parallel requirements – an articulated rationale; accountability as to benefits; and, actual outcomes. Only good work; strong thoughtful argument with real results that reflect community connection will go the distance.
Many old models don’t work as well as they once did – we need to think and behave differently. Personally I believe that in an era where the settings change daily and where the ‘internet of things’ will see over 75 billion connected devices by 2020, it is an immediate necessity to recalibrate for this century.
It is imperative that across the arts, stakeholders themselves work together on how to fashion a fresh positively integrated approach which recognises the radically changed operating environment we all work in.
The creative community should seize the day and itself drive a program for relevant reform which actually addresses the issues holistically and doesn’t repeat the present cycle of tired twentieth century policy recitals condemned to incremental change, often mired in a dogmatic past.
The evident current failure of political agendas in creative life is, I suggest, our collective failure. The absence of fresh compelling approaches reflects a failure to renovate thinking over the last two decades. It is a disturbing example of a vacuum in effective action. Australian complacency writ large. We in the creative community must not descend into that vortex of despair all too often evident in dispersed communities.
It would seem to me that many of the working settings we have are in a time capsule – frozen from long ago in terms of the policy, regulatory, financial and industrial frameworks. Let alone letting audiences and their changed behaviours into the policy room as an important governing objective. We all know of the conflicts and assorted conundrums in policy life but we have to rebuild hope and purpose to make art music matter afresh.
Our contemporary descent into on the one hand a triumph of process over outcomes; or on the other one an ‘emperor’s pleasure’ model as with George Brandis a few years ago, serves no purpose and offers no hope.
We need policies which inspire and facilitate creative innovation. A view which lies at the core of any successful national future. For music we must build a promise for a resilient, dynamic creative future.
I don’t have time today to offer assurance on delivered solutions beyond a strong plea to work together as a committed community of musicians and music lovers. We must refashion directions and priorities on common recognition that present policy travels poorly and demands change in the light of the digital paradox before us.
I offer a fresh performance mantra for consideration.
One which I suggest is relevant for a globally connected Australia in this century –
Do Not Be Bland!
Make a difference! Banish the bland!
It has been too prominent in our past and should have no place in our future.
We need to……. Back The Bold!!
We must strive for a voice that renews the reasons to celebrate creativity and intellectual courage.
Reasons to win national respect and political commitment.
Reasons to renew many specialist depleted training institutions.
Reasons to revitalise curiosity, creative originality and drive innovation fearlessly in our art music culture.
Reasons to speak out making sustainable connection with new and old audiences.
We need to back, defend and promote that which is about fresh Australian creative adventure and to know and honour our creative past. Peter, Peggy and countless others must never be our strangers.
May a New Academy of Ancient Australian Music flourish and have many busy effective satellites.
These are confronting times. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the bywords for modern world settings.
Current times do not allow for that which is insipid. And yet in Australia today there is often, I fear, a disconnectedness from ideas that produce great, compelling work.
Too often the public says no thanks and we say… ok. That’s not the spirit! Almost all successful creative work has a mainspring from originality and is rooted in a nation’s stories – things of enduring value. They are the products of real risk taking.
Nothing good ever eventuates from creative caution.
There is no point in in the 21st century as a small population that speaks English, at the “bottom of the planet” in a digitally literate world, in being bland.
We all need to have our feet on the ground and to be utterly realistic, recognising these societal changes are fundamental. Art music is under threat. Standing still is not an option. Confronting these potent forces is not easy. We have a fundamental duty to music and its state of health.
It is fashionable today to defend music by saying that it assists students in other skills such as language, mathematics and the other sciences. And that is all undoubtedly true. After all it activates more neural pathways than any other human activity as demonstrated in various studies, making the brain come alive as nothing else.
We should use all available arguments to defend and promote the fundamental need for formal and comprehensive music education from the commencement of primary education by specialist teachers.
But I have to tell you that it saddens me to see that in the 21st century we are increasingly compelled to defend music – old and new – by reference to other impacts rather than to reference music itself.
Because music is good for one. Period.
The feelings released by music and the devotion to beauty and pure creativity it represents are amongst the most positive, noble, life affirming outcomes in the diversity of all human activity.
Notwithstanding the many societal verities that attach to music – the discipline and capacity to listen and learn that flows from it – music is an end in and of itself, of special qualities that are ineffably precious.
We must all defend and promote substantial creative policy renewal for new music afresh, with conviction and all our collective being, because music really matters!
Relevant responses with open minds are essential if we are to drive a sustainable connected future for Australia itself let alone for our artists, scientists and intellectuals, where they are not left behind dragging the chain, pining for distant comfortable memories of an orderly past.
This is truly a digital diaspora – a phenomenon of staggeringly wide technology and behavioural dispersion which affects everything as we know it. If we don’t act, music will lose.
We should all challenge ourselves as to whether our society is arming itself creatively and resourcefully to manage these processes well.
We need to strive for a refreshed view of our nation where Peggy Glanville Hicks and Peter Sculthorpe are valued artistic elders, central to a sense of Australian self. One where the critical place for artists in a confident nation is implicit and properly celebrated.
Let me finish with the reminder from Gareth Evans’ recent book Incorrigible Optimist and the self-reinforcing quality of focus. The book ended referencing Joe Hill, the American political martyr a century ago, who said to his followers about his impending death:- “don’t waste time mourning – organise!”
Thank you for exercising music’s loveliest attribute – listening.
Kim Williams AM