Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sketching Impressions on 3MBS

I recently took part in a 3MBS Radio panel discussion about teaching Music Composition, chaired by Thomas Reiner.  The other panelists were Dindy Vaughan, Marc Hannaford and Russell Goodwin.Here are some of my thoughts on the questions Thomas gave us as a starting point for the discussion. 
(The show will air on 3MBS digital on Tuesday 20 November at 7pm AEST

Tertiary Music Composition Interview Questions 

What are the main challenges?
For me as a teacher – The students’ varying levels of technical skill; different expectations; different styles and idioms.  Generally, the need to foster high standards of creative curiosity and engagement; to encourage students to find their own voice as composers and to challenge them to move outside of their comfort zone. 

What purpose or relevance?
Art is always relevant and always has a purpose – this is how our culture develops and evolves and reflects who we are. In terms of the relevance within a University setting; Composition is a high level intellectual discipline, integrating a range of technical and theoretical skills.  Teaching composition at a tertiary level is ONE way of emphasizing the importance of intellectual rigour in the discipline. 

 How important are philosophy and critical theory?
It’s all about context – essential that young composers have an understanding of WHY they are doing what the do and HOW it relates to the broader context of our culture and society.  Art is never created in a vacuum and students need to reflect on where their work is coming from, what informs it, what they are aiming to reflect on and achieve in their work. 

 How important are specific skills and what are they?
If students are working in notated music: the hardest thing is to capture a sonic idea and express it in notated form – so an understanding and technical proficiency with notation and how to capture and express all the subtleties and shapes of sound. In electronic music: proficiency with software so that it is a TOOL not a master – so that the technology allows them to articulate their ideas rather than the technology determining how those ideas are shaped.In either domain: an understanding of how music works in TIME and SPACE: Dramatic pacing, shape and structure, how to unfold and develop a musical idea through TIME.  And also the ability to analyze one’s own work as well as the work of others – to find out how it (the music) works.

Exercises in technique or project-based learning?
A bit of both but this should definitely be driven by the student’s own interests and creative approach. Technical exercises work best when they clearly relate to the student’s creative goals, when they have a clear relevance to a particular creative work.  

Reflective practice: the ability to think and write about your compositional work.
It is very important to be able to interrogate your own work – question your motivation, intention and method.  Again, all about context and being aware of where your work sits in the scheme of things, what it is attempting to say, reflect on.  Why you are doing it. I also think it is really important for artists in all disciplines to be articulate about their own work.  Contemporary Music doesn’t have to be a mystery – we should all be able to discuss our work and explain something of our approach and creative intentions to a wider, non-specialist, audience. 

When does music composition become a form of research?
Practice lead and practice based research is a valid approach – there is increasing interest in cross-disciplinary research at University where Art and Theory can be explored simultaneously. Art can be a reflexive process where the making and the writing about the making inform each other.There is plenty of scope for music composition to be understood as research.  My PhD was entirely by portfolio – the music composition WAS the research.  But I also think some form of analysis and critique of one’s own work can enhance the ‘research’ outcomes. 

Art music vs industry-based composition.
I don’t like the word INDUSTRY.  I think education is about learning the skills and developing the students’ ability to articulate their ideas.  Once they have those skills, they can use them however the want to.  I feel very uncomfortable when people start talking about music as a product or something with a commercial value – that is not what I teach and it is not what I value, personally, in music.  If I can help students to develop their skills and technical proficiency, then they can write music for whatever context interest them.  Writing music for ipad apps or computer games or film or tv or theatre – these are specific skills but you have to have the basics first.  But an understanding of how music functions in time and space is relevant to all these ‘uses’ of music, as well as the more purely ‘art music’ approach.

 Do we still express human emotion and experience?
I like the philosopher Susanne Langer’s description – Music as Symbolic Form.   Through its structure and use of material music can function as a SYMBOL for all kinds of experiences and emotions.  And reflecting on and evoking human experience and emotion is still a really central part of why many of us choose to create, to make ART.  But there are obviously many other motivating factors – music can be just as engaging and aesthetically appealing when it focuses on purely formal and structural concepts.  Fractals, proportions, processes – all can still result in music that is satisfying and enriching to listen to.But then, that has always been the case – a Bach Fugue is just as beautiful to me as a Mahler song.  

What are the key issues for the future?
Don’t lose sight of the musical past and encourage an understanding of how music has got to where it is and WHY is still really important.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

No Alarms and No Surprises

I first listened to Radiohead’s OK Computer in my friend Alyson’s flat in Anniesland, Glasgow, in 1997, not long after I had moved there from Melbourne.  It was evening, we’d had a few drinks and were listening to this strange music in a darkened room.  The impact of that first listening stayed with me.  I can remember buying a copy of the CD somewhere in Sauchiehall Street soon after and listening to it over and over again alone in my crazy third floor tenement flat in Dennistoun.  I listened to it all through that Glasgow winter with the wind howling through the gaps in my bedroom window, with the calor gas heater valiantly trying to fend off the icy dampness that Scotland does so well.  My memories of this time in my life are still clearly etched; I was quite lonely, living in a not particularly lively part of town, not knowing many people, spending a lot of time by myself, in my own head, writing music, listening to Radiohead, eating oatcakes and drinking whisky.  It was a very intense time and sometimes my more maudlin tendencies would come to the fore, particularly under the influence Radiohead’s strange introspective soundworld.  My life was opening into a new and unknown phase in a different country, a long way from home.

Today I am listening to Radiohead while I cook dinner for my family; the cat is sitting on a kitchen chair keeping me company while our two children rampage around the house.  I’m looking out at a very green and slightly overgrown garden, tucked away in a quiet street in Melbourne’s Northern suburbs.  I am far from lonely or alone -  I am in a place that feels very much like home.  There is no time for the self-indulgent introspection of the younger me and the maudlin me of the late 90s has been superseded by a reasonably happy and well adjusted version.  So it is all the more disconcerting to listen to this music that powerfully transports me back to another time and place, when I was in many ways a different person.  The music evokes the sense of a particular time and place more powerfully than mere recollection.  If I close my eyes I could almost be back there, nearly 15 years ago, with the very particular smells and sounds and sensations that surrounded me then.  I’m not sure that any other art form or medium can evoke our personal pasts with such directness.  Another reminder of the power music has in our lives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Paths to Portraiture

Irina Baronova (handing on the baton)
by Jenny Sages
image - Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I recently watched a fantastic documentary about Australian Artist Jenny Sages, Jenny Sages - Paths to Portraiture, on ABC iview. I don't think I have seen Sages' work before so it was a revelation.  Her portraits in particular just glow from the canvas.  In describing her own response to Sages' portrait of her, writer Helen Garner spoke of the portrait as revealing something akin to a 'psychic connection' between the artist and the subject.  Sages scratches and scours into the canvas as she builds up the painting - so much detail on the surface of the work, which makes the sheer scale of her portraits all the more impressive. The documentary was extremely moving and beautifully made, revealing much about the artist and her life and how she choses to make her work.  I was deeply inspired by this woman who found her real creative path at the age of 50, after a career as an illustrator and raising a family. The subjects of her portraits are people she has a close connection with or respect for and this may be the reason why these works are so compelling.  Her self portraits are intense and revealing and the portrait of her husband captures all the wisdom and grace of old age as well as her love for him.  Her portrait of Irina Baronova is stunning in the way it captures the intense gaze of the subject and again, the wisdom of age.  Jenny Sages has been an Archibald Prize finalist TWENTY times.  I am in awe of her talent.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Caoineadh (keen)

 (Bridget Mullin singing)

In the 1950s an American ethnomusicologist, Sidney Robertson Cowell, traveled to Ireland to record some of the traditional Gaelic music of the West of Ireland.  (Sidney Cowell was married to pioneering American composer Henry Cowell.)  She recorded various types of traditional songs preserved in the isolation of the isles of Aran – lullabies, weaving songs and folk songs.  She also recorded several examples of the Caoine or Caoineadh (keen) – the traditional mourning song practiced in Gaelic speaking Ireland and Scotland. 

The Caoineadh is distinct from the more poetic and personalized form of mourning song, the Lament.  A Caoineadh is a ritualized wailing, the melodic contour generally starting high and descending in pitch, the words usually a repeated phrase such as ‘Och, Ochone’ (Woe, Woe) or similar, often more spoken than sung.  In the notes that accompany Cowell’s recordings she describes the Caoineadh as “a ritual (and tearless) crying-out against grief and death in the world, and it goes back into time as far as anything we know.” (Cowell, 1957)  The people of this part of Ireland were no strangers to grief, the great famine of the 1840s having decimated their population.  According to Cowell, half the population of the western isles starved to death and half of the surviving islanders migrated. 

One of the singers recorded by Cowell in the 1950s was a woman called Bridget Mullin who was born in 1868 and was described as “the leading professional keening woman of the islands.” (Cowell, 1957).  The Caoineadh was traditionally sung by family members at the time of the loved one’s death but later, as the body left the house for the last time, professional wailing women took up the Caoineadh.  There is another recorded example of a Caoineadh, sung by a woman who didn’t want her name to be known in case her relatives heard that she had agreed to perform this very powerful song at random.  Cowell describes how the woman, on agreeing to sing for her, “went around the house to peer up and down the road, and then she barred the door against unexpected callers, before sitting down at the hearth.” (ibid)  When Sidney Cowell played these recordings to a gathering in New York, several people were overcome by the intense and intimate quality of the recordings and Cowell herself questioned whether in fact these songs were too private to be released as a commercial recording.  She was eventually convinced of the need for these songs to be heard, as a document and a relic of a fading cultural practice.  This was over 50 years ago and I wonder is these songs are still sung at all.

The power of these women’s voices is compelling.  You can hear the remembered emotion summoned by the singing of these songs: the remembered mourning of dead parents, husbands and children.  These recordings are remarkable in that they capture a vocal tradition that, even at the time of recording, was dying out.  And more remarkable, I can hear these women’s voices today, long after their voices have stopped, thousands of miles away.  It also makes me wonder if at some time in my family’s past, my own great great grandmothers may have sung these songs at the time of someone’s passing. 

I wish this tradition was alive still, that today we had such clear rituals to follow that allowed us to really voice our grief.  In many cultures wailing is still part of grieving but in our polite modern Australian society there is little room for this kind of behavior.  What a relief to wail out all the sadness, albeit in a controlled ritualized way, but one filled with emotion and outward expression of inner grief.  How empowering it would be to put that into song, to follow the traditional form as a guide but to infuse it with your own personal grief and emotion.  I think I may be past the point where wailing will help express my grief but I am very drawn to this ancient musical form. 

Ethnic Folkways Library Album No. FE 4002
Copyright 1957 Folkways Records & Service Corp.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Written in the past tense

(photo of Elizabeth Harrower, by Jon Reid)

I found this article by Gay Alcorn  in The Age this morning.  I don't think I had heard of Elizabeth Harrower  or The Watch Tower (1966) but I am so glad this book has been re-published by Text Publishing and I will make a point of reading it.  I remember being surprised that Sumner Locke Elliot's beautiful book Careful, He Might Hear You (1963) was out of print and was so glad that Text Publishing planned to re-publish it.  I can remember reading and re-reading Careful, He Might Hear You as a teenager and being completely entranced by it.  These books are from another time but part of their appeal for me is that they capture something of our culture that is only just passed - something within the lifetime of my parents' generation, that is fading from our collective memory.  And how wonderful that these books are coming back into publication and that for Elizabeth Harrower at least, there will be a new wave of recognition for the author while she is still with us.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An alternative reading of Anzac day

“This was our first act of nationhood in the eyes of a watching world” – Julia Gillard, Anzac Day Address, 2012

Was Anzac Day, as Julia Gillard put it, “our first act of nationhood” or a catastrophe for a young nation, one that would take us decades to recover from?

I was very interested to see Tony Jones’ interview with Australian Historian Ross McMullin on ABC’s Lateline on Anzac Day.  McMullin’s book Farewell, Dear People: Biographies Of Australia’s Lost Generation (Scribe, 2012) tells the stories of some of those who didn’t come back from WW1 and reflects on the outstanding potential that was lost to Australia and the world.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I will.  In his interview on Lateline it really seemed that a different reading of Anzac day was being proposed – perhaps a less idealistic and romanticized one than the version we are regularly fed by the media and our politicians. 

The 25th of April, 1915 wasn’t the day that forged our national identity – it was a day when Australia’s potential was diminished, followed by many other days when even more of our youngest and brightest were killed, their potential ended and the potential of Australia as a young nation went with them.

If all those thousands of young men had not been slaughtered, if they had been allowed to live out their lives and reach their potential, can you imagine the society that they would have contributed to?  What would our society, our national identity, be like today?  In many ways Australia punches above its weight in various arenas, despite the decimation of our population in the early 20th century.  Imagine what we might have achieved had these men grown to old age.  Would we have the chip on our shoulder, the tall poppy syndrome and the various other characteristics we have come to equate with our national identity?

I hope that by the time we get to the centenary of Anzac day that we as a nation might start to re-think this national trope of Australian Character forged on the battlefields of WW1, a sign of our warrior nationhood.  After 100 years, and still sending our youngest and brightest to war, maybe we can rethink how a war nearly 100 years ago shaped us as a Nation.  Perhaps we accept the reality that rather than strengthening and galvanizing us as a nation, that it actually damaged us as a country, crippled and brutalized and traumatised thousands and thousands of people, in addition to those that died, stripped us of much of the potential of the young century and set us back decades in terms of what we might, as a nation, have achieved. 

As Ross McMullin puts it, before WW1, “…we were on the way to establishing in Australia an advanced, progressive society that was seen widely elsewhere as an advanced social laboratory […] for other people to come, as they often did, from overseas, they crossed the globe to look at, scrutinise, assess, this advanced social laboratory. And the war blew all that away, and after the war we were no longer seen as an advanced social laboratory and there were no more such visitors.” (transcript of Interview with Tony Jones, Lateline)

The significance of our ‘National’ days has never sat well with me.  Australia day – the start of an ongoing disaster for Australia’s first people.  Anzac Day – a commemoration of brutal and arguably pointless slaughter.  Yet we chose to mark these days as days of celebration and commemoration.  I say this as the daughter of an army man.  My father was a career soldier;  the army gave him many opportunities and the chance at an alternative life to that of a poor, under educated dairy farmer.  But my father never joined the RSL, never in my living memory went on an Anzac day march.  Although it was never said aloud, war was not something to celebrate or commemorate – but rather something to try and move on from.  Not to forget, but not to remember either.  War is a truly terrible thing.  My father was deeply scarred and traumatised by his experiences in battle.  Having to kill someone is not something that would be easy to live with.  I remember my mother telling me about my father’s nightmares – 20, 30 years after he returned from active service he was still re-living the horror in his dreams. 

Nietzsche may have observed “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” but if it kills your sons and your brothers and your fathers and your uncles and decimates your community - only an incredibly over optimistic reading can make that in any way positive.   I am not proposing that we should all wallow in national self-pity for what might have been.  But perhaps on Anzac Day we can at least be honest and open about what we have lost.  And what we continue to lose every time some young, talented, loved son or daughter dies because of a war.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Symptomatic Creativity. And Sleep.

(illustration by Robin Cowcher)

Jonah Lehrer

I found this article in The Age very interesting and also quite moving.  It reminded me how fleeting and precious creativity is - and life in general. And it also reminded me how important sleeping is... maybe that's why I feel that I have never had enough sleep?  Or maybe it's just because I HAVEN'T HAD ENOUGH SLEEP.