Copyright infringement is bad II

Gapers Block has created a list of seven crimes for which you will receive a more lenient sentence than illegally downloading music from the internet, in a humorous take on the rather extreme sentences handed out in the recent RIAA piracy cases. Read it here.

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Book review: Sounding postmodernism

David Bennett’s Sounding postmodernism (published by the Australian Music Centre) is an attempt to look at Australian composition through the lens of a modern/postmodern dichotomy. Despite the understanding of these particular terms being highly contestable in a musical context (both are very highly politicised, and the claiming of these terms by particular aesthetic/ideological camps renders them almost useless in terms of their actual meaning), this should have been a really interesting contribution to the Australian discussion.

Unfortunately, every time I picked this book up to read it, I started to get really pissed off.

Bennett’s book, rather than surveying a landscape, seems to be an articulate but thinly veiled attempt to propagate the myth that ‘modernism’ is evil and crushes your freedom of expression, while ‘postmodernism’ is free and you can do what you want. I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint (or, rather, I think that talking about a ‘modernist hegemony’ is meaningless, given the extreme variety of different approaches that the book categorises as ‘modernist’ – indeed, it seems to me that the modernists are simply the ones who the ‘postmodernists’ felt were repressing them), that shouldn’t have been a barrier to an interesting publication. As it is, though, Bennett aims to provide a context, rather than an analysis, and to this end quote frequently and selectively from musicians like John Adams and Phillip Glass, without offering much in the way of the countering view. This gives the reader very little option but to accept what Bennett writes wholesale.

I’m too young to remember the ‘modernist hegemony’, and as such am not prepared to challenge the veracity of Bennett’s claims, but he’s done a terribly shabby job of actually proving his point, lending the book a propagandist air, rather than one of scholarly dissection. I’m sure that this is because that is the way that many of Bennett’s interviewees perceived the aesthetico-political status quo at the time they became practitioners, and that’s all well and good, but Bennett’s rhetorical mode gives the sheen of academia to what is essentially a collection of unverified opinion and hearsay.

Furthermore, Bennett seems to take the view (or want his interviewees to take the view) that there is still an institutionalised modernist hegemony, actively repressing freedom of expression.

This is the particular thread of the book that really pissed me off, as it’s laughably inaccurate. One need only point, on one hand, to the chairmanship of Graeme Koehne (and now Matthew Hindson) of the Music Board of the Australia Council, Carl Vine’s directorship of Musica Viva (which has seen a parade of featured composers including Matthew Hindson, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine, Richard Mills, Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe), and the concentration of major performing and recording opportunities such as the ABC Classics CD series of Australian Orchestral works performed by the TSO with Richard Mills (which has included composers such as Graeme Koehne, Richard Mills, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and Brenton Broadstock).

Contrast this with the de-funding of the ELISION ensemble, the exodus of many of the country’s finest contemporary performers and composers (Richard Haynes, Liza Lim, Peter Veale, Carl Rosman, Mark Knoop, the list goes on and on), the rapid growth in Melbourne of a DIY underground contemporary music scene, the continual lack of funding for experimental music (which routinely attracts bigger audiences than many ‘important’ Australian composers) and the sheer impossibility of receiving new-work funding for anything outside the ‘postmodernist hegemony’, and I think the actual picture becomes relatively clear.
For many composers I know, building a career in this country has been a constant struggle absolutely every step of the way against a politically-powerful compositional ‘ruling class’ which is actively antagonistic to anything that might have a dissonance in it (much of this ‘class’ receives a shout-out in the paragraph above, although there are some genuine and remarkable individuals there, too, who I hope won’t be too offended by the proximity).

While obviously well-grounded in twentieth-century critical theory, Bennett doesn’t seem to really know anything about the music he discusses. Any of it. In his discussions of Boulez, for instance, he seems happy to let other people speak for him. I wasn’t left with the impression that he’d heard even a single note of Boulez, and the quoting-from-others approach in this context doesn’t even have the advantage of scholarly rigour, given that no dissenting view is provided, and the quotes are not interrogated.

The interviews that account for a significant portion of the book are rather problematic, too. A series of questions was posed to a wide selection of composers of varying artistic practice across Australia about their relationship with the term ‘postmodernism’ and their attitudes to compositional work. My understanding is that much of this work was undertaken by Dr Linda Kouvaras, to whom props are due, as these are a very interesting series of questions. Transcripts are available on Resonate magazine of the interviews with David Chisholm and David Chesworth.

Unfortunately, many of the interview subjects seem not to really have any idea what ‘postmodernism’ is, or that they’ve even thought about any problems that might relate to mode of musical expression, as related to the nature of the tradition or of audience reception. Frankly, many of these interviews are just embarrassing, and the fact that in most cases the subjects are not aware of the collossal gap between the question being asked and their capacity to respond is even more sad.

With a few notable exceptions, those that write most eloquently on their relationship with postmodernism are those that identify themselves as being more broadly sympathetic to the modernist project, a result that runs the risk of giving the impression that anybody who has actually thought about the issues here doesn’t buy into the postmodern politics.

I’m being, perhaps, overly harsh here, but I can’t help but feel terribly betrayed. This book should have been a great opportunity to further intelligent, articulate discourse on contemporary music in Australia. But, sadly it’s just another propaganda leaflet, aimed at furthering an aesthetic programme of questionable value and taste.

[P.S. Although the praise from the back cover of the book (from Peter Tregear and Susan McClary) is readable on the book’s Amazon page, I can’t find any other reviews of this on the interwebz (yet). If anybody knows of one, or wishes to offer a dissenting view, I’d be very pleased if you could get in touch so that I can either link to or include other views here in the interests of balance.]

[EDIT 18 Jan 2010] I highly, highly recommend that people interested in further reviews of this book make the effort to access Michael Hooper’s excellent review in Cambridge University Press’s TEMPO journal. Unfortunately, this is not available through online databases, but for those not averse to libraries, the bibliographic details for this can be found here, or in Dr Paul Watt’s comment, below. MH draws some rather different conclusions from my own, although I pretty much agree with him point-for-point on the details. He also discusses in more than cursory detail all of the elements of the books that I didn’t.

Basho

Basho

This is a dodgy phone photo of one of the front pages of the copy of Richard David Hames’ Basho lodged in the Lenton Parr Music Library at the Victorian College of the Arts. Upon it, somebody has graffiti’d:

Anyone who plays this is a prick and has no regard for music.

Interestingly, and somewhat appropriately, this is a haiku:

Anyone who plays/
This is a prick and has no/
Regard for music.

Sternum = well-pressed

Last week, the incomparable ELISION ensemble performed in Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium.

Richard Haynes has put together a pretty comprehensive prĂ©cis of what went down on his blog, and I shan’t say too much more about the repertoire itself. A somewhat unsympathetic review can be found on Resonate, too.

[EDIT 11-oct-09: a much more sympathetic review has just appeared on RealTime Arts although, sadly, it doesn’t say anything about the Johnson work.]

Evan Johnson‘s Apostrophe 2: Pressing down on my sternum, for quartertone flugelhorn and alto trombone, though, provoked a few thoughts. The work itself was an extraordinary exercise in suppression. Heavily muted, facing the back wall, as far away from the audience as possible, Tristram Williams and Ben Marks let fly with a blistering performance of some of the quietest music you will ever hear, comprised of instrumental sonorities, vocalisations (the trumpet’s vocal part – terrifyingly – starts on ‘Queen-of-the-night F’) and throat manipulations. Johnson will be familiar to Melbourne audiences from the premiere of his Apostrophe 1: All communication is a form of complaint for two bass clarinets last year, or Hyphen for solo crotales from a performance by Speak Percussion in May.

My first instinct was that the stifling of the performer was so successful that you couldn’t even tell that they were being stifled, and that this might have been mitigated by either losing the mutes or performing facing the audience. But really this depends on where Johnson locates the game – the piece definitely succeeds in creating an atmosphere where the audience itself struggles to relate to the performance (itself a struggle), and it’s perhaps all the more fascinating for that.

From the discussions I’ve had with other audience members (both after the concert and in the intervening weeks), it seems that this work polarised opinion somewhat. Interestingly, the people that seemed to react very well to it tended to be those that are more heavily involved in Melbourne’s experimental music scene, rather than those whose activities are restricted to more conventional new-music concertising. I don’t think this necessarily has any bearing whatsoever on the actual quality of the work, but it certainly does have implications in terms of the development of a context for this music.

This is music which, for better or worse, requires a great deal more from both performer and audience than most, and it’s telling that those audience members that got into it were those with long-standing habits of attempting to engage with foreign musical materials, rather than sitting placidly, passively back and waiting to be ‘wowed’. The strength of Johnson’s music is precisely this – it forces its audience to have a complex reaction (whether positive or negative), rather than simply trying to impress its audience with superficial charms.

But I wonder (and I’m far from the first) if the standard concert format is conducive to this sort of musical engagement? Certainly, I’ve been to concerts where the space and acoustic have permitted an intimate connection with the performance, but most concerts seem to resemble a presentation by a performer to an audience, rather than an interaction between audience and performer.

It’s only natural that, as the repertoire evolves, the concert format needs to evolve in sympathy. This is not necessarily something that needs to be forced, and probably can’t be predetermined. But it’s incredibly exciting to be there, in the front row, as performance practices for the blisteringly new are explored.

Australian Classical Music Awards 2009

The finalists for the Australian Classical Music Awards were released the other day, and can be found here.

I won’t say too much about these (for reasons which may or may not be obvious), but I’m glad to see Jon Rose’s name on the shortlist for Long-term contribution to the advancement of Australian music. About bloody time.

MRC: total f*cking disaster

The story has finally broken:

The Melbourne Recital Centre has, in what amounts to a spectacular failure to recognise its own core strengths and weaknesses, made Artistic Administrator David Barmby redundant, as well as all MRC-generated programming being cut, rendering the MRC essentially an empty hall wot you can hire for a fee. This is due to ‘higher-than-expected’ operating costs.

It’s almost hilarious that an abdication of artistic responsibility to the community can be seen as a viable response to cocking up your budget.

There are clearly management issues that need to be resolved before anything is going to come right here, but in SoundisGrammar’s own limited interactions with the MRC, the Artistic Administration office was the only department that was not a nightmare to deal with.