(Photo above by Hollis Taylor)
Gebrauchsmusik must be as old as the human species itself, certainly older than the values that imbue the Enlightenment. Utility before genius! We have only to look at our own indigenous culture, where music used to supply the functionality for existence. Didn’t know the right survival song? You’d likely come to an end up shit creek. My work bears this out. Some performance situations in my career have made abundantly clear that I am playing the wrong song in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such showdowns range from having abuse, cups, and cutlery thrown at me at a Sydney University lunchtime concert, to being apprehended by the IDF at the Separation Fence in the occupied territories of Palestine, to misunderstandings with a security guard while playing the violin in front of the Sydney Opera House.
Conversely, when interrupted by police in South Australia when coaxing the 4,500 km Dog Fence to sing, they were immediately intrigued and suggested I try the fence around the abandoned USA surveillance base at Nurrungar – good tip, as the ex-military installation had a great sounding perimeter fence.
In 2014 I sent off an email to musicians I knew around the world, asking them to define music in the 21st century for a book of allegorical cultural criticism. My expectations were low. We musicians tend to avoid making definitive statements about our profession. So, I was surprised by the responses, and from whom they came, receiving 126 replies in the space of a few weeks. Some musicians actually tried to define music, a feat well-nigh impossible after Cage and hip hop, some spiky and incisive comments were fired, and I was relieved no one regurgitated the ‘universal language’ nonsense.
Although many tried to identify a relationship to aspects of philosophy, politics, social interaction, or wellbeing, none specifically predicted the raging fires in Australia followed hot on their heels by the most disruptive pandemic since 1918. The plague currently being transmitted around our world has changed the very basis of music practice (at the time of writing), such that it cannot be performed before a live audience (although it can still be simulated in isolation). Some may argue that music without an audience is how the vast majority of the art form is heard these days anyway – as the ubiquitous digital download. So, I guess film and game music composers just carry on as before, pop celebrity can satisfy their adoring fans through social media, and the French National Orchestra can repackage yet another interminable version of Ravel’s Bolero as a Zoom spectacular.
However, most of the musicians that I know – those exploring the front line of sonic possibility – are truly devastated by the turn of events. Commentators point out the financial ramifications of lost gigs. and this is true for those involved with large-scale populist productions like heritage opera or stadium rock. For those struggling on the edges in front of small but inquisitive audiences, the difference between not much and nothing at all is critical. The Australia Council’s response to Covid-19 is couched in relief terminology, but the amounts being offered are derisible and have been largely appropriated from small-scale grants set in place to support individuals. The Major Performing Arts organisations’ subsidy remains untouchable and quarantined, of course. This century’s Ozco cuts require a change of attitude and action on behalf of practitioners; prescient signs tell us that it’s only going to get worse. Concepts such as a universal living wage for musicians will never get up in a place like Australia. I also suspect that when the bill comes in from the Covid-19 saga, it might be an excuse to finally dismantle the Australia Council in its present form, direct fund the opera and the orchestras, and give up all pretence of supporting an exploratory and questioning contemporary culture. We’ll see.
The USA solution for a non-subsidised challenging music sector is either you start out with wealthy parents, or you grab an academic job, or you give up on new music and sell yourself as a pop star (none applicable to me, BTW). There are exceptions, but really there are not many survival options in between. And Australia, after decades of slashing and burning, has moved from earlier post-WWII European-funded models to the threshold of Reagan’s destruction of the National Endowment for the Arts. The thing to take on board about most of the dull ‘pub test’ politicians in any post-Whitlam government is that they actually detest new music. It took me a long time to realise that, because I forever hang on to the forlorn hope that a relatively new nation state must of necessity require new music (as opposed to inordinate amounts of copying of overseas models).
So, what makes the musicians out on the edges of survival creating ‘unpopular music’ so gutted? For many, the notion of music that could be unpopular is beyond comprehension. Why would you do it then? I think the answer to the plague-induced confidence buster that we find ourselves in is social function, the usefulness of the most intangible art form we have – music. The Coronavirus has eviscerated the careers of the touring musician (from which I have also benefited). All vanished in the twitch of an ear. As the gathering of community around a concert was pronounced illegal (!), even popular music becomes, as live human spectacle, unpopular. With amusing irony, we find ourselves as outsider musicians even more redundant to society than we thought we were already. In a time of crisis, the last thing anyone wants is challenging music; people understandably want old favourites to cuddle.
This rave is supposed to be a look inside what makes a musician tick, and the above critical stances have been part of my practice ever since I was an awkward 15-year-old – that was 1966, the year I gave up formal lessons on the violin. It took me 10 years as a flailing and failing multitasker to discover how I could mobilise my abilities. Firstly, I had to physically leave London to find out how to incorporate the full range of my skill base. I had the itch for change. You can browse Memoire 3 at http://www.jonroseweb.com/a_jonrose_memoires.php to find out what I left behind: a Kafka-esque existence as recording engineer at The Royal Academy of Music, London. The memoire reads like comedy, but it wasn’t; the job and the place had me stuck, cornered. When I flew into Sydney in 1976 over several hours of red desert, although I didn’t fully realise it at the time, I had fallen in love with the place on first glimpse. Another immigrant in a land of immigrants.
One side of my output involves building a total art from around the violin: to put it simply, everything on, about, and with this iconic instrument that my imagination can fire and that I can physically, with limited resources, manifest. This has led to an impermanent museum (http://jonroseweb.com/g_rosenberg_the_museum_goes_live_2016.php) of 1,000+ artefacts, oddities, and historical perversities, most of which are currently housed in cardboard boxes in my garage along with uninvited wildlife.
Investigation at the edges of violin extremes constitutes not much of a career path, so to make ends meet, I have concentrated on a portolio career. Like the piano, the violin must take its place as an instrument most certainly not designed for Australian climatic and cultural conditions. The realisation has led me to some sonic practices that make perfect sense to me, although most violinists would think them preposterous (The Relative Violins). The wheeling violin, for example, preferences the parameter of distance into a performance as opposed to just time
Unarguably, Australia has an abundance of distance – mostly I get agreement on that, if not the rest of the implications! Once an instrument like a violin is subjected to the outback, other logical propositions start to crop up. After experimenting with longer and longer strings and building the instruments required to support them, it becomes apparent that the entire continent of Australia is covered with a gigantic network of string instrument. It’s just that others call them fences. A key impetus to return to Australia full time in 2002 was to expand such conceits into multimedia projects.
As my partner Hollis Taylor and I surveyed and played the Great Fences of Australia (http://jonroseweb.com/f_projects_great_fences.php), I started to photograph the numerous car wrecks that inhabit the landscape. These are receptacles holding very human stories as they rust away into entropic nothingness. The resulting project celebrates one of the main sculptural features of the outback, the history of Australian transportation, turning the very colour of the outback itself – stranded and defeated. Wrecks also make fine resonators and the resulting performances reached noisy excess typical of DB drag racing. Certainly the indigenous communities of the Kimberley where this project has recently migrated seem to have no problem with this kind of recycling (http://jonroseweb.com/f_projects_wreck.php). These two projects are indeed examples of Gebrauchsmusik – music that is viable, useful even.
Other activities situated in the nexus between sport and music also set out to engage the general public and not just contemporary music nerds. These use interactive systems to create data-driven music from the physical activities of ball games, skating, kite flying, badminton, kayaking, cycling (which incorporated bicycle-propelled acoustic instruments as well as digital coding). In general, the sport object (e.g. Ball) is wired up; the musical structures can be derived from game rules or physical space (e.g. a netball court or a cycling track). I’ve written at length on this in Blowing the Whistle: Experimental Music, Sport, Technology (Contemporary Music Review 37, 2018). With the Sonic Ball, I initially got stuck in concept land when I should have just let the ball bounce away with itself and have fun. The audience thought they were playing ball; I thought they were playing electronic music
The cultural history of Australia since white settlement can read like an impossible collection of non sequiturs. This century we are living through the last gasps of government-funded radio, previously a conduit for my activities that could integrate all sonic material, anything that makes a sound. Radio as an experimental medium has been eradicated by economic rationalists both here and overseas, but radiophonic activity continues to live on in the internet with a full cohort of practitioners – now unpaid, needless to say.
I’ve been hooked on radio since I was a child and find the medium a perfect vehicle for what I call interventions into music history. Relatively free of censorship and management control, the medium was cheap to produce: I could compose the music, play the music, write scripts, record, produce, and edit. Pure indulgence! I could probe the political paradoxes that intrigue me, from often obscure parts of cultural history, violin history, or Australian history – both the official record and what might have been, or possibly happened (who’s to say it didn’t?). For instance, in Ghan Tracks, the train to the desert wheezes through a meditation on the notion of progress that underscores the Australian story with all its assumptions, miscomprehension, failures, and optimism (http://jonroseweb.com/f_projects_ghan_tracks.php). This typifies my approach in that the project exists in multiple forms as performance, radio (http://jonroseweb.com/h_radio_ghan_stories.php), text, and installation.
The violin remains central to all this interference into the official historical record; in my experience, very few events or stories lack a violin reference or analogue. Nero didn’t fiddle, as the violin hadn’t been invented yet, but in the devastating fires of last summer, I nevertheless thought of him (as stand in for all of us fiddling away the chance to act on climate change).
Some observations: capitalism cannot be sustained on a finite planet with diminishing resources; human redundancy is upon us. Our inability to face up to and comprehend the place in which we live (The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd, Penguin, 1963) is part of the broader problem of climate change, collapse of biodiversity, etc. But let’s stick with music. Boyd’s book articulates the problem with the notion of featurism – the use of harmless decoration and functionless design to remind the inhabitant of somewhere else. In cultural terms, this seeming harmlessness (e.g. retrofitting an impressionist orchestra piece with a didgeridoo) is quite the opposite – it’s extremely harmful and undermines the development of music with pertinent agency. Granted, kitsch can point to more serious issues other than what the surface indicates. In the early years of this century, I undertook a survey of the wild, the weird, and the vernacular in Australian music for the ABC – aware that the DIY music culture was disappearing fast. I called it Australia Ad Lib after the extraordinary book by John Whiteoak Playing Ad Lib: Improvisatory Music in Australia 1836-1970 (Sydney: Currency Press, 1999). I wanted to see what remained.
Quite a lot as it turned out, but you really had to dig deep. The main characteristic of this other music was a rawness and unfiltered sense of place (or at least a sense of having arrived) – the powerful female aboriginal gum leaf player in the embodiment of Roseina Boston; Michael A. Greene, who could simultaneously hum and whistle different tunes at the same time and even at different speeds (reminding me of Paul Hindemith’s killer book Elementary Training – anything but elementary); the whip-cracking sonic sensation Ashley Brophy; Leslie Clark, who could click the pitches of well-known tunes on his fingers (you serious?); Dinky ,the singing dingo (a contralto to bring tears to your eyes); the melismatic lines of the Hermannsburg Women’s Choir singing Lutheran hymns in swaying Arrernte; the minimalist shopkeeper Andreas Hadjisavvas and his thank you very much song, and on the list went (http://jonroseweb.com/archive/f_projects_australia_ad_lib.html). Is there any prescient message in all this other than Einstein’s observation that after the third World war (high tech), the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones (low tech). Well, music will continue to be practiced whatever the mess, even if electricity gets de-invented (literally a new Dark Ages). Having said that, I have spent a great deal of time addressing the issue of interfacing the violin with digital technology (http://jonroseweb.com/e_vworld_hyperstring.php) – more specifically, creating an interactive violin bow, the bow being suitably both ancient (a weapon) and modern (musical artefact).
Bow Wow traces the relationship of technology to music and a belief that experimentation is the natural state of bowed string music (http://www.jonroseweb.com/docs/e_vworld_bow_wow.pdf). But the darker aspects of the ubiquitous binary world disturb me rather more than the opportunities afforded.
My John Le Carré experiences in the former East Germany were both informative and educational; Memoire 7 awaits the reader: (http://jonroseweb.com/a_jonrose_memoires.php). However, the former GDR Stasis have been left for dead as a surveillance and sinister hegemony by the likes of Amazon and FaceBook. No longer fiddling for the capricious dukes and kings of Europe, instead the new feudal musicians work for the likes of a few Jeff Bezos’es – the emperors of the new all-seeing and -hearing pervasive networks. Curiously, the ‘Communist’ authorities in the GDR supported new and experimental music (well paid, too), a creative loophole left wide open in the system, music articulating freedom in a place that western propaganda would have us believe was pure evil. I am sobered by the story that when J. S. Bach went to resign and get a new position, he was locked up in prison by his employer, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, and then fired on release.
I’ve run nearly to the end of this rave without mentioning improvisation, the impulse that informs everything I do whether it be playing the violin with other improvising colleagues, composing written music, making musical instruments, or playing objets trouvés (fences, wrecks, discarded furniture, or pianos and electric organs abandoned on the street). The word improvisation has become in recent decades something of an Alice in Wonderland word, meaning just about anything to anybody. Perhaps it has lost its usefulness. But there is not much sonic phenomenon on this planet that does not have, given a context, its own music. I find that improvisation does describe the most direct path in the adventure I’ve set myself …the music discovered is never in a finished state …just temporarily put on hold until the next occasion calls.
Patently clear: there will always be (human) music as long as there are humans, and despite the endless recycling aided and abetted by the internet, there will always be the edges of acceptability. The practitioners of ‘other’ music will also continue feeding the broader culture; it was always thus. Dr. Hollis Taylor’s treatise, Is Birdsong Music? (Indiana University Press, 2017), dismantles, one by one, all the arguments for human exceptionalism as it examines one of this continent’s oldest musical dynasties – the pied butcherbird – a music some 13 million years in the making. I think that puts what we do in some perspective. Even without us, music in some form will continue. Covid-19 has given us a sneak look at what ‘without us’ might mean if the cruise ships sink without trace, and jet planes and traffic jams conjure up only the past – city air becomes breathable, and new species start to evolve. It’s remarkable how nature quickly gets on with it given a chance, although when I contacted Alan Weisman (author of another great read, The World without Us, St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne Books, 2007) to congratulate him on his provocative book, he claimed my misanthropy had gone too far.
Jim Denley’s contribution to Definitions of Music in the 21st Century concurs with this idea that we’ve lost the plot, pointing out the evidence but seldom referenced knowledge from our own continent: ‘(Music) It’s vanity publishing for our species. The culture that made no distinction between themselves and the world, the Australian Indigenous peoples, had few instruments and no word for music in their languages.’
Erkki Veltheim’s Definition takes on the self-deceiving ‘music industry’ (the presumption by the media of a functioning Industry, makes me laugh out loud): ‘Music in the 21st Century is in a subprime crisis; it aspires to ownership, but borrows a lot more than it can pay back. As an investment (economic, cultural, personal) it has junk status, because it can never be a thing.’
Musician and cultural commentator, Bob Ostertag puts technology front and centre in his definition: ‘Music in the 21st century is an automated procedure for eliminating silence.’
Eugene Ughetti came close to predicting how we all will operate in the time of the plague: ‘21st-century music is like pornography; it’s consumed in private, usually online, through ear buds or in front of a screen, exists in a digital form, treated like product, ghettoized by sophisticated software and fanatics.’
The late Richard Toop’s definition put his finger on the popular/unpopular button and deals with the bland and unhelpful ‘music is whatever I say it is’: ‘At a personal level, music is anything you wish to perceive as music: right you are if you think so. For it to have any social meaning, as performance or listening, this perception must be shared by others!’
As the evidence mounts, many scientists consider ‘culture’ present across species (trees and plants are now being accepted as having a sense of communality), and in the indigenous story – part of a cosmology. Not all nonhuman culture exhibits music as we understand it, but then lumbered with Abrahamic religions, we haven’t been searching that hard. Whatever form these musics take, they are starting to be found, comprehended, and experienced. As to the future of human music, I am reminded of a seemingly well-heeled Conservatorium student (all of about 12) back in the late 1970s, who was standing hands on hips in the Con’s canteen. As she studied one of my concert posters depicting a deconstructed violin with way too many strings, she exclaimed, ‘Well, whatever next!’