Forgive me if this sounds like an ego trip in la-ti-do land even though I intend to speak more about other musicians. You see, I don’t really make my own music. For a number of reasons (lack of confidence, drive, role models, or possibly all three) I abandoned all my early attempts to seriously write music, or write serious music, whichever way you look at it. This wasn’t a very conscious decision, I might add, but a result of circumstances which I have rarely pondered: my rather haphazard beginnings in a family without musicians (not even remotely), the boringly conservative strictures of the Belgian music education system, forever in lockstep with the French Napoleonic system, the parallel universe of post WWII modernism which was inordinately more attractive and invigorating, particularly as it struggled to be accepted within the Flemish official institutions [i], my juvenile dabbling in pop music (don’t ask) [ii], and arguably the most important factor: the sheer abundance of opportunities to do things, make music, explore new opportunities with other people, at all times a far more exciting prospect than locking myself up in a room with a blank sheet of paper.
This I did ponder though: the sullen loneliness and poor rewards of a life lived as a composer. Perhaps I saw too many examples of potential unfulfilled, original ideas crushed or compromised and the ‘realpolitik’ of building a viable career as a composer. I ended up dealing with other people’s music rather and, in doing so, have found great satisfaction and reward. Many composers I count amongst my best friends – no small reward indeed – and I feel greatly enriched by their close contact and trust, both of the established ones who generally know what they want and of the young composers who are still working it out. Not that I want to overlook the dead ones who probably taught me most things, but I can’t claim any personal links there. Besides, we know that the so-called personal affinity with a particular composer or repertoire probably comes down to cultural and genetic factors, as well as a good mix of coincidence and choice. Not even the likes and dislikes of modern postings could possibly convey my relationship with extant repertoire (OK, try me!). Music however, in its baffling level of abstraction as a construct in time, remains utterly and inevitably ephemeral, fit for any purpose and forever meaning different things to different ears.
My ears too have evolved, picking up details of sound and proportion I may not have noticed years ago, relishing certain chords or clusters differently now and definitely more forgiving of the simple modest gestures that I once would have judged naïve. I am glad to say that, provided I haven’t heard it before, I’d be happy to sit through almost any type of music these days, and with genuine interest, be it hip-hop or late-medieval Notre Dame. I am not ashamed to admit that nowadays I can even enjoy Mendelssohn or Fauré to whose musings I was long allergic. [iii]
So then, let’s talk about the living composers and that delicate balance that exists between performer, composer and audience, so acutely felt at the moment a new work is baptised, rarely without some frisson from all parties. Having presented, assisted or attended so many first performances in Australia and overseas, I am still amazed at the complexity of the undertaking. What does constitute a successful first performance? A faithful committed performance by the musicians? A satisfied composer? A cheering crowd? The work being re-programmed, perhaps even toured within its initial years? Or a succès de scandale à la Rite of Spring, 1913 Paris? Mind you, back then, 17 full rehearsals with Pierre Monteux would have prepared the musicians infinitely better than what most premieres receive these days, but the cabal in the audience obliterated so much of the music that Nijinsky was forced to gesticulate madly from the wings to keep the dancers in time.[iv]. Even progressive Holland – and for different reasons – staged its own little scandal for the Dutch premiere of Stockhausen’s Stimmung [v]. Both pieces are now commonly considered seminal works of the 20th century. In risk-averse Australia and in the absence of any sort of modernist tradition, what might have turned out to be scandals or at least provocative statements are generally scuppered by forces of normality. [vi]
People have often heard me say that on opening night either the musicians don’t know what the piece is (through lack of rehearsal time or variations on such a theme), or the audience doesn’t know what it’s hearing (through lack of reference points or lack of interest or lack of persuasion from the performers – see above), or the composer doesn’t yet know what he/she has written (notation either lacking or not commensurate with the musical idea or, most commonly, the sheer fact that there can be a significant jump from an initial compositional idea to the notation of that idea -its coding as it were-, and the sonic realisation of that idea using the written code as a starting point).
Besides, whilst it is a pleasure to work with a composer who knows exactly what is on the page, how it must be realised and what it should sound like, I find it just as rewarding and effective to work with composers who adopt less prescriptive notation, leaving room for imagination and the opportunity to explore the material in different ways. In all this, the point should be made that the closer a composer stays to accepted notational norms, either consciously or subconsciously, the more predictable the whole process becomes, the less scope for misunderstanding on all parts. I hope that readers can easily surmise both the rewards and the creative pitfalls of such an approach. Whilst the notion of what counts as ‘new’ might be described these days as a wide fluid spectrum, for the purpose of this exercise we might assume that a modicum of novelty is part of any first performance. It could be as a reformulation of an existing model in the age old Chinese tradition[vii] or as a work recomposed from existing material [viii] or even through the recurring formulas of film music and the way they are subtly applied or subverted. The more a work deviates from the accepted aesthetic norm in any given environment (concert hall, jazz club, movie theatre etc), or the accepted notational system, the more likely the ‘disturbance’ will be.
Organisations in poorly subsidised countries have compelling economic reasons to shun any form of such disturbance. Organisations in countries with a long history of arts subsidy and sturdy modernist traditions tend to embrace the disturbance as an essential tool and measure for growth.[ix] So much so that a certain level of disturbance becomes part of the expected, at which point a different type of innovation needs to disturb the disturbance. [x] Some will argue that this is disturbance for disturbance’s sake and turns creative endeavour into hollow posturing. It has given many a temple of culture easy excuses to retreat in abject conservatism – but on a more positive note, it has also kept progressive musicians on their toes.
But back to ears. Don’t we all long to be seduced by a new sound, a new gesture, or a new experience that opens up a tiny window in our mind? Ultimately, we humans are pleasure seekers no different from our four-footed pets. Aren’t we lucky we can play music rather than just ‘making’ it. Improvisation surely must be the most direct route to ready satisfaction, composer, performer and audience alike letting go of the here and now, losing themselves, and in the process becoming one and the same: creator, performer and ‘knowing’ listener. An improviser may know what he/she wants, but too much knowing and the free flow of improvising becomes stale. By comparison, the greatest classical artists play music in such a way that we believe it is being invented before our eyes and ears, even if we know it was composed three hundred years ago. Great improvisers find ways to escape the constraints of predictable structures whilst great classical artists can bring poise and balance to the wildest utterances. As for ‘classical’ performances, I must confess that I have sat through many hopelessly derivative, aimlessly meandering feats of self-indulgence. Yet when the right sparks fly, boy oh boy, our beliefs in creative power of the human mind are reinforced as never before. That such feats often happen as a result of fortuitous human interaction is not just an added bonus but also a telling one. All the individual brilliance in the world cannot disguise the fact that musical creation is rarely less than the sum of its parts – any parts.
Finally, since we are passing through a period of self-correction in the socio-political arena, propagated and derided with equal passion, I wish to touch upon some very personal choices. Walk into any serious bookshop or contemporary art gallery and you can expect to find a fairly equal balance of male and female authors. Yet, the contemporary music world limps behind, and the classical scene remains miles away. We may dismiss or explain the problem away pointing at the essential inter-dependent culture of music making. But the historically male musical bastions have had their power and influence entrenched for too long. I pay tribute here to the women composers who have made such a difference without much reward in the past and those who are currently stepping up to the challenge.
I wish I could do more for some of my equally deserving white male friends, but it is a small price to pay if we are ever to arrive at a more equitable and defendable landscape. In the same vein, indigenous voices have never felt welcomed or supported by the established structures of the music industry. Yet some of the most profound musical experiences in my life involved Indigenous musicians. More than anything else, these encounters have given meaning to my years in Australia, far beyond career considerations. They deserve a kind of open space that is not modelled on western patterns of behaviour and expectation. [xi]
This inevitable period of adjustment, hard won on the back of historic injustice and prejudice will enrich us all. The new world that is staring us in the face may be just as messy or imperfect as the old world, but its fresh energy will create new narratives, new ways of thinking and new ways of listening. If you watch out, you can hear it already.
[i] Yes, there was a Belgian serialist/post-serialist school, with Henri Pousseur (1919-2009) and Karel Goeyvaerts (1923-1993) as central figures. The latter notably had been a hot shot in the early Darmstadt years (both his Number 1 and Number 2 are contenders for the first total serialist composition) until he fell out with Stockhausen and Boulez and took a job at the Belgian airlines (Sabena, now defunct) to purge himself of the whole experience. The former’s output broadened serialist thinking beyond the usual parameters and rarely flinched from the impossible in major works such as Votre Faust and Die Erprobungen des Peter Hebraicus. He maintained a warm relationship with Boulez and Lachenman and notably welcomed Fredric Rzewski into the Belgian fold.
[ii] Pop music is the first thing I remember hearing, whatever my mother had playing on the wireless in the early 60s, probably healthy doses of Doris Day with Paul Anka thrown in for good measure. Popular music remains of great interest to me, although I fail to keep abreast of everything that happens, let alone plug all the historic holes in my education.
[iii] I thought their music was unvaried and insipid at worst. As they say, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
[iv] Different accounts exist as to what actually happened that night. After its initial season and brief tour, a full decade passed before the work was performed again. World War I and overall scarcity of resources offer a simple explanation. It is also well-known fact that after Sacre Stravinsky abandoned the large orchestral splurges that gained him his first following and concentrated on smaller, terser forms of expression. Rite of Spring easily took on a life of its own. It stands as one of the most performed works of the 20th century, and a touchstone, a rite of passage even, for orchestras globally.
[v] Again, different accounts surround the Dutch premiere of Stimmung in Holland’s most hallowed hall, the Concertgebouw, June 22 1969. About twenty minutes into the performance some audience members started participating. Stockhausen intervened and brought the thing to an end. He thought some crazy left wing composers were voicing their protest, whereas some wayward hippies simply got carried away. The left wing composers amidst the audience (Andriessen, Schat etc..) disapproved of what happened.
[vi] Australia witnessed a sorry case of near-scandal during the 1986 Adelaide Festival. A bitter and legal stand-off between creators and producers of Boojum had many tails wagging, including her Majesty the Queen. SSO’s initial cancelling of Smetanin’s Black Snow will go down in history as one of those missed moments, and we will never know what we missed. On a similar note, Peter Sellars was equally denied to present his anti-festival in Adelaide 2004.
[vii] Julian Yu’s compositional style embraces ‘ornamentation’ of a model composition, often by Bach. In this he follows age-old traditions prevalent in Chinese calligraphy and painting.
[viii] Max Richter’s Vivaldi exploration is a recent success story, but composers have always revisited their own material for artistic or pragmatic reasons, from J.S. Bach to Ross Edwards
[ix] The history of arts funding in the Netherlands over the last 20 years tell a complicated but telling story.
[x] Long live the great musical mavericks of our age: Ross Bolleter, Jon Rose, Martin Wesley-Smith to name a few.
[xi] Dr Chris Sainsbury valiantly steers the Ngarra-Burria project from his ANU basis with help of the Australian Music Centre and Moogahlin Performing Arts. It was a great privilege to be part of it during 2018 and in particular, to support Brenda Gifford, a gifted Yuin woman, in her first commissions.