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Musicians tackle the challenges of making art in ‘narcissitic’ Sydney

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In the past two weeks Daily Review has published transcripts from a conversation among musicians at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Sydney on October 13. (Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here).

The invitees represented the area of new, exploratory, and improvised musics – from concerts and productions that are government and privately funded to performance series and festivals that exist largely without any financial backing at all.

Those taking part were: Stephen Adams (composer and ABC broadcaster, New Waves), Elaine Chia (CEO, City Recital Hall, Angel Place), Jim Denley(musician and organiser of West Head project, Machine for Making Sense), Andree Greenwell (composer, organiser of Green Room Music, teacher), Cat Hope (composer, bass player, leader of Decibel, academic), Zubin Kanga (pianist, member of Ensemble Offspring), Lisa McCowage(clarinetist and co-organiser of La La La), Kaylie Melville(speak Percussion and New Music Network), Damien Ricketson(composer, ex- co-artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, and academic), Freya Schack-Arnott (cellist, co-organiser of Opus Now), David Sharpe (strategic and business adviser for creative industries) Gabriella Smart (pianist, head of Soundstream), Clayton Thomas (double bass player and organiser of the NOWnow festival and series), Erkki Veltheim (violinist, composer), Jon Rose (musician, organiser of Evenings@Peggy’s, convener of this meeting) and Paul Mason (Director of Music, Australia Council, observer at this meeting).

Jon Rose made a written text and precis, based on a three-hour audio recording. He has mixed the direct quotes and observations in a conversational narrative where the speakers are not identified (indeed some speakers might wish on reflection to be un-identified!). Some of those taking part sent additional material to him post-meeting, and he has included what they sent.


Institutional policy that is biased against freelance artists is a natural consequence of the degradation of arts culture in Australia and internationally. I believe that this bias exists simply because of Darwinian law – when the going gets tough, conservatism prevails, freedom of expression and its various avenues are tightened, the stronger powers close ranks to look after their own (large organisations) and leave the less politically and materially powerful (small to medium organisations and freelancers) to sink or swim.

In many countries – Finland, Holland, France – there are substantial thre-year fellowships which roll over for another three years for the artist to create. The reason there was so much activity in the ’80s and ’90s was that the dole was enough to live on and provided security, and the artists worked within a community, built a community, were valued by a community. Now the dole is not enough and there is pressure to take any job.

“Funding agencies are much more comfortable giving money to other administrators.”

That also leads to the idea of a basic wage for all, no more jobs – sorry, Australia Council, you’d be out of work. Great, no more writing tedious ministerial briefings! Such a society would overthrow the entire Judaeo-Christian ethic that has dominated our culture for 2,000 years – we are supposed to work and suffer!

The fellowship is the most transformational act we do at the Australia Council. I’d be happy to make it all that we do; fellowships for established artists and early career artists. The reason this doesn’t happen is that funding agencies are much more comfortable giving money to other administrators. We trust other administrators, we prefer to give money to somebody who looks like us, there is a natural distrust of giving money to artists. So we encourage artists to form organisations with administrators, and the glittering prize is to become a major performing arts company. We have $200 million at the Australia Council which is not a bad amount, but $110 million of that is locked up to fund 28 companies – and that’s a problem.

The Myer Fellowship in Melbourne is way too much money for way too few people to be used in way too little time. (Much laughter)

In improvised music, the historical precedent lies with musicians taking all the responsibility into their own hands since the 1970s. If what is suggested was enacted – perhaps 400, two-year fellowships awarded every year, instead of the piecemeal mess that we presently have – that would be an extraordinary transformation of culture in this country. Add to that the notion that the Australia Council can approach city councils and deal with them in a way that musicians cannot – that’s a case where institutionalised power can help individual musicians who live outside of it.

Bureaucrats could avoid all the bullshit rules and regulations because they’re the ones who made them up in the first place. This would be transformative in a way that a festival is not. It used to be that in Europe a festival was a special event, different to all the gigs that went on all year, but now there are pretty well only festivals, no more regular concerts – another collapse of language.

New Music Network has talked about trying to become a body that lobbies. What’s the situation there?

I’m relatively new to my role, but there are completely new faces involved in it since the beginning of the year and we are assessing what we should be doing. I think there are changes ahead.

“And someone should point out to the ABC that smothering an FM network in Eurocentric classical music is a form of cultural bleaching.”

Can I put a massive spanner in the works? We’ve been talking about buildings and organisations in a country which until 230 years ago had a great indigenous music culture with none of this infrastructure. For all the earnest work that’s been going on in New Music, it’s taken the public’s imagination nowhere. We are all to blame for that.

Isn’t the public an ideological construct? We all have our public, our community – you choose your community. If the SSO was a free improvisation ensemble, we might all be playing Haydn quartets as a counter-cultural activity. Jon Rose might not be playing improvised music on the violin, but Beethoven.

There is this constant unease – a disease – about us even being here in this place, and high art is particularly clumsy at dealing with this – John Anthill’s Corroboree, Sculthorpe’s Kakadu, the Jedda film. I’m uninterested in guilt and the cultural cringe, but deeply concerned with our sonic abilities to ‘be here’. This involves complex issues around acoustemology – our knowing and being in the world through sound. Almost all the technologies we use in ‘serious music’ in this country are acoustemologically foreign. Hence the clumsiness. It is right to point out the naming temerity of the 1788 Orchestra (now politely called The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra), but they are being bluntly honest – I prefer it to Sculthorpe’s Kakadu hypocrisy.

They were probably pumped up with ‘Hey, what an audacious name for an audacious group!’ – thinking with their feet and stumbling ashore in wet military boots.

What we do in music may be done well, but it is largely out of place. And if you want society to value our work, then we need it to be relevant. That’s our No 1 job – get that right and everything else might flow (more money and buildings). We are discussing real estate and other contested spaces, like radio airwaves, but ownership of land and buildings is a really problematic area in a postcolonial musicscape. Plonking recital halls in our cities and giving Eurocentric traditions access to them isn’t even post-colonial, it’s just colonial.

And someone should point out to the ABC that smothering an FM network in Eurocentric classical music is a form of cultural bleaching.

Positive steps to addressing these issues might be:

Australian music studies in all music institutions employing indigenous singers and musicians to teach (not ethnomusicologists to analyse).

Before a note of Mozart, Boulez, Coltrane or Snoop Dogg is heard we should be singing songs from this place.

Then artist residencies should relocate from Paris or New York to Arnhem Land, or Mungo National Park, or Middle Head, or Kangaroo Island, etc.

Let’s take Germaine Greer seriously when she wrote ‘If we climbed out of the recreational vehicle and sat on the ground, we might begin to get the message that we can’t afford to hear, the message that, since contact, Aborigines have never stopped transmitting. The land is the source of everything…’

“You need people like me who can put it into a language that bureaucrats and business people understand – notions like ‘return on investment’.”

We might be asking artists to solve the impossible here – the massive issue of the Australian psyche (whilst earning a living). We are not mature enough as a country and artists will never be trusted to create the kind of appropriate art that will demonstrate that maturity.

Why do we wait for the public? We can lead by example. Reverse mentoring, anybody?

I don’t have a solution. But there are priorities. The benefits of bringing people together in a place like Sydney. People are putting in, and we benefit from that. Why are we artists? I get value from what I do. I earn my money doing other things. When I fill in a grant application for a project, I feel compromised, boxed in, because I have to tick boxes.

If the Australia Council changed its funding model from projects to a whole bunch of fellowships, then you are able to do important gigs for no money and you can spend time worrying about the philosophical implications of music-making here in Australia.

Maybe the Australia Council is a wrong model. It should be a company with salaried employees who deliver cultural impact rather than grants because the public thinks they’re just handouts to artists. It might be intangible, but such an organisation would be offering a return to the country.

It would have to prove it or go bust?

Social Impact Bonds would save the government money in the long term, e.g. money goes to the Uniting Church as a non-profit which develops solutions for homelessness. After five years they can prove that they have made an impact and saved the government money. Could we apply this to the arts?

Unfortunately you need people like me who can put it into a language that bureaucrats and business people understand – notions like ‘return on investment’. These people understand risk but it has to be presented in a way they understand. I get between three and 10 proposals a week, I have to make a call. I like a group of artists coming to me with a strong idea; let’s sit down and see how we are going to do it.

Focus is important. If you have a strong story, you don’t need to change the idea to fit the protocols of bureaucracy, but you have to use their language to speak to them.

We, my team, are nothing without the artists. I’m interested in audiences. If I can’t put you in front of an audience, I have nothing. It costs $1 million a year just to open the doors of City Recital Hall. The old model was transactional – we put on an artist, people buy tickets. The new model is that we open our doors and see what happens, so we run this series downstairs in the foyer, we don’t have to open the whole space, and we make our money from the bar, but we still lose money all up. For an arts administrator like me there is a balance, we figure it all out through the 240 events we put on throughout the year, but what gets me to work in the morning is the creativity of artists, the creativity that I don’t have. The festival Unashamedly Original lost a bucketload of money, but each ensemble was paid $5,000 because that’s what other artists are paid. That’s the level we have to work through because that’s the value you bring to us. We have database of 45,000. This is the music they need to hear – they hear enough Beethoven already.

“We seek the transformation of a narcissistic, property-obsessed population into one that values New Music, but that will take education and time.”

Whether it be The NOWnow or City Recital Hall, we’re all doing the same thing in the sense that we are building a community, a network, that comes together.

And it’s a skill set that can be applied – my job is to convert your creativity into a viable outcome. There is a line in the sand. I will not go to the Australia Council and compete against the artists who I’m trying to put on. That would be nonsense.

Sydney has a population of over five million. Have we done the work developing audiences?

I’m optimistic that we have a small but developing audience. It’s important to develop the multiple artform connection, bring in the visual arts, dance, the tech thing, together with music (it’s where the digital age is situated). We seek the transformation of a narcissistic, property-obsessed population into one that values New Music, but that will take education and time.

There are many occasions where people are assembled and something of interest is going on (that’s why I choose to play a fence, a large interactive ball, or a car wreck) – people with little or no prior knowledge of the more adventurous aspects of 20th century music will still engage. We can also get them there under false pretences – free beer, porn, lotto, TAB, betting, something for nothing, a new gold rush. It’s about creating New Music without the audience feeling that it is not for them, it’s for the elite (even if they are a very poor elite).

Or as Belgian composer Annelies van Parys put it: ‘We need to infect our audiences so that they are inspired by New Music without even knowing it’.

It’s interesting to note that the youngest producers in the room are very optimistic about the future.


Looking to the future when a host of industries will have been hollowed out (law, medicine, retail, insurance, stock exchange, coding itself) – will live music make a strong comeback? Significantly, no one in the meeting addressed the demise of the musician in terms of the David Cope futuristic ’Emily Howell’ persona – new music(s) generated from a massive database.

Most of it does pass the Turing test and would be acceptable as generic music in specific styles to many people’s ears. Even composers who (maybe deludedly) think they have an original style will be able to load up all their compositions and influences into a program and churn out a new work.

In some ways we are already doing this if you use Sibelius or Finale by cutting, copying and pasting – it’s using algorithms to shift data around. AI and AR are here and now (that is very different to consciousness and we won’t get past that until we have at least a general theory of cognition). Collaboration in defiance is the only way forward. It’s possible soon that you may not be able to use any digital network to compose without the ‘permission’ of one of these metadata empires (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc) as computation and storage become controlled closed systems for the few and the powerful. But remember, with improvisation, they can’t really touch us!

Goethe Institute-sponsored composers like Johannes Kreidler may traverse the world showing off how they outsourced a commission (‘I received €1500 for my commission, whereas to my workers in Asia who wrote the score I only had to pay $150’) but our discussion at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House didn’t have the time to deal with all the perversions of our digital world..

One response to “Musicians tackle the challenges of making art in ‘narcissitic’ Sydney

  1. Australians love to moan about their country and Australian artists moan more then most. Australians constantly want more government handouts for their pet projects and Australian musicians want more – fellowships so they can worry about the philosophical implications of music – indigenous or ethnocentric.
    Who cares really – not me, I care about the amount of tax I pay that is wasted on this nonsense. I pay to go to concerts that I like and I expect to pay musicians that I like enough to make it worth their while. If you cannot make it pay, it is a good indication that it shouldn’t be happening – not an excuse to ask for a handout.
    Stop moaning, start performing stuff that us prols want to hear.

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