Crrritic II – distance and dialogue

I’d been meaning for a while to write something about music criticism, and the increasing role of bloggers and online communities in its changing face.  Completely fortuitously, a bunch of stuff has popped up in the last couple of weeks:

Firstly, a chatter post on NewMusicBox by Alexandra Gardner on the merits of newspaper reviews in light of two reviews in the same paper of the same concert (scroll down for some interesting responses in the comments).

Secondly, an interesting-ish fifteen-minute-ish video on blogging and music journalism (via Rouge’s Foam) here, in which I was really struck by this comment from Dr Grant Black (professor and author):

When you associate […] too closely with the product that you review, it becomes very hard to maintain an independent perspective.  […] One of the cardinal rules about criticism is maintaining some sense of distance.   That you have to maintain a sense of distance to have some perspective on the music.

I sorta think that one of the bigger problems evident in classical- and new-music criticism is just this distance of association.  Everywhere in the printed press we see lack of engagement with the material masquerading as independent and impartial perspective.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a review of a live performance that has done little more than list the programme, describe the playing as competent (or not), and perhaps mention whether the rest of the audience liked it or not.
On the other hand, one very seldom reads reviews – even of new music – where one gets the sense that the critic has actually really listened to the piece.

Now, to be fair, critics writing for newspapers are under some pretty dire restrictions in terms of things like word count – Charles T. Downey spells some of these out in his response to Alexandra Gardner’s post – and I do believe it does critics a disservice to overlook these limitations of the medium.  But the question remains as to what the actual value of a review written under these conditions actually serves.

And perhaps this is also partly a side-effect of money being involved.  Black suggests that, as a rule, when you take money out of the equation, the quality drops.  And maybe it’s partially true – if you’re paying somebody, you’re probably going to decide to pay somebody that can string a good sentence together.  Contrariwise, I’d like to suggest that when you remove money, the people still involved in musical criticism are the ones that really care about contributing to the discourse.  While Schumann and Berlioz’s activities as musical critics were certainly lucrative for them, they were fundamentally motivated by a love of and investment in a field in which they were themselves practitioners – the validity of the perspective they brought to their criticism was manifest in the nuance and subtlety of their (at times highly impassioned) commentary, rather than by pretending that there’s some kind of distance.

Ultimately, is there really a sensible criterion of ‘distance’?  Doesn’t that suggest some sort of objectivity?  I don’t really believe in objectivity, and I don’t think that criticism is something where objective distance is a meaningful thing to talk about.  I do believe in authority, and readers can make their own decisions about whom they trust to talk about the music that they love.

Black seems to assume that criticism is the same sort of reporting as news reporting.  It’s not.  If it were, it would be difficult to put a review together that consists of anything more than a list of factual information about the pieces themselves.  Music is a cultural artefact arising from, and produced for the consumption of, communities of listeners who share similar tastes and auditory interests.  It stands in dialogue with other music produced under similar (and different!) conditions.  There is no such thing as ‘The’ audience, just as there is no such thing as a set of objectively justified/justifiable criteria for what makes a piece ‘great’.  As such, criticism should ideally constitute an engagement with the material that reflects the subcultural priorities to which the critic subscribes.

The medium of blogging permits this.  There’s plenty of dross, to be sure, and the kind of soapboxing that I’m indulging in right now (the downside of internet democracy is internet democracy, it turns out…), but the open-ness of the interwebz permits highly engaged listeners to offer an individual, nuanced and informed view that responds to these priorities, without the limitations imposed by the print media.  They are better able to serve the needs of their potential readership, and, perhaps more importantly, better placed to enact this in the spirit of cultural dialogue, rather than cultural catalogue.

Hardcore 2: the hardening

Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop performing "Dialoge 09" at the Neues Museum, Berlin. Still hardcore.

The subtitle is my own, of course, but Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop’s performance last Friday of Hardcore 2 was, well, pretty hardcore.

The first thing you notice about Hardcore 2 is that it features what, on paper, just looks like a hardcore weird programme. It went like this:

Enno Poppe: 17 Etüden für die Violine (1993) 2. Heft
Ludwig van Beethoven: Große Fuge, op. 133 (1825/26) (arr. for string orchestra)
George Brecht: Symphony No 2 (1962)
Georg Philipp Telemann: Fantasie für Viola solo (1735)
James Tenney: For 12 Strings (rising) (1971)
Henry Purcell: Fantasia Nr 2 für 3 Streicher (1680)
Marc Sabat: Everlasting sweet peas für 3 Violinen (1998) Tarantella – Saraband – Menuet – Ricercar – Anglaise – Courante
George Brecht: Solo for Violin, Viola or Contrabass (1962)
Iannis Xenakis: ST/4-1,080262 (1962)
György Ligeti: Ramifications für 12 Solostreicher (1967–69)

The second thing you notice is that this is framed within a choreography by Aliénor Dauchez. This choreography was non-intrusive and non-illustrative, remaining more in the spirit of providing connections in space between the works, as a kind of breathing installation. For the most part this was extremely successful, although there were one or two moments that jolted me out of the immersion a bit. The most problematic of these, for me, was during Xenakis’s ST/4-1,080262, where the entire ensemble (other than the quartet) was engaged in what appeared to be arbitrary/abstract arm gestures vaguely reminiscent of ballet (or the Village People) unfolding very slowly over time. I’m sure there must have been more to it than that, but for me this unfortunately detracted from the music, appearing, simply through proximity and juxtaposition in space, to forcibly locate therein a context for the music that simply isn’t there. One of the great strengths of Xenakis’s music is precisely the fact that it outright refuses to submit to its context, and it was a shame to see this boldly uncompromising music somehow pacified here.

But this is really a terribly minor gripe. On the whole the dramaturgy worked extremely well. Furthermore, such devices invite the audience to focus more closely on the pieces themselves by presenting them as essentially a single, unbroken, span of music. This prompts the audience to consider the links between different pieces on the programme, and subtly foregrounds the art of programming itself in a way that a more typical ‘stand-and-play’ approach does not.

And the programming here, for all it’s apparent weirdness, was shockingly good.

As an example, the juxtaposition of Poppe and Beethoven, as the first two pieces, was to pretty much set the scene for what was going to unfold for the rest of the night. The jarring, self-correcting, self-analytical language of Poppe’s work, trying as it does to almost learn itself, to feel its way through and create meaning out of its own syntax, amplifies the almost schizophrenic thematic discourse of Beethoven’s late masterpiece, while the historically-informed-practice-meets-Sex-Pistols-bravura performance of LvB rewrought it into something exhilaratingly new, something capable of contextualising (and even combatting) the twentieth century.

Also from "Dialoge 09"

Works often balanced and reinterpreted one another in surprising and remarkable ways. James Tenney’s Music for 12 strings (rising) seemed a slightly bold departure from the sound world of the rest of the programme, only to be lovingly drawn into the fold conceptually, cognitively and aurally by the final work, Ligeti’s Ramifications.

But such prodgious programming comes at a cost. The most recent work on the programme was Sabat’s, written in 1998, and it’s difficult to imagine such a perfect balance arising from a concert featuring multiple world premières, where the unknowability of the precise qualities of the works involved beforehand is such a factor in programming balance.

And so onto the playing itself. These guys played the shit out of this repertoire. The playing was an utterly bewitching combination of passion, precision, energy, wit, daring and, perhaps most importantly, a deep love for the music. Kaleidoskop, as ensemble and as a collection of soloists, displays a deep sensitivity and commitment to this music that was an utter pleasure to behold.

It’s hard to pinpoint with precision exactly what was hardcore about this concert. Maybe it was the bold combination of old and new, and its subsequent transformation into the Very New. Maybe it was level of player commitment, which rolled over the audience in palpable waves. Maybe it was the dramaturgical installation-ness of it. But I suspect that hardcoritude is something a bit more indefinable. Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop are hardcore in the Jarvis Cocker sense – you may not be able to tell exactly why it’s hardcore, but you’re 100% certain that it is.

Videos of previous Kaleidoskop performances (including the original Hardcore) are available on Kaleidoskop TV.

EDIT: Just stumbled across this interesting, if brief, interview with the Kaleidoskop’s artistc director Michael Rauter, and managing director Volker Hormann (in German).

“It is necessary to insist”

In late March, Klang ist Grammatik had the good fortune to be able to attend a bunch of stuff at Berlin’s Märzmusik festival.

One of the most inspiring events, however, was the pair of remarkable artist talks. The second was with Salvatore Sciarrino (whose German is pretty basic, which was great for me because it meant that I could understand him…) and Beat Furrer (who’s German is understandably a lot better, and he’s a bit of a mumbler, really. He said something about Tristan, and narrative, and  a boat). The first, and by far the most interesting, though, was with Lucia Ronchetti, whose Musiktheater work Der Sonne entgegen was premiered at the festival, and Nicola Sani, an Italian composer and (until very recently) the artistic director of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Sani described a paradoxical situation in Italy whereby, despite there being a network of 42 major opera houses, one must travel to Berlin, or to Salzburg, Vienna or Paris, in order to hear new opera by important Italian composers such as Ronchetti or Sciarrino. Which means, he suggests, that the system doesn’t work.

Now, in reality, of course things are much more complicated than this. There are a wide range of different considerations and factors at play. But the more one focuses on the myriad complications, and on tweaks to existing systems aimed at mitigating liabilities, the more one is distracted from the fundamental fact that the system doesn’t work. The system of live operatic (and, by extention, musical) dissemination is manifestly unsuited to bringing new work to it’s target audiences.

I found the black-and-whiteness of this view refreshing, and utterly beguiling.

The statement that I was most taken by, however, was Sani’s declaration that “it is necessary to insist”, effectively calling for a restoration of faith by practitioners in the value and validity, indeed the necessity of contemporary art. An end to the almost apologetic stance contemporary art so frequently takes in relation to broader cultural activity. This is an inspirationally positivist call-to-arms that is impossible to resist.

Ideally, these two strands will meet in the middle somewhere. A fully reconsidered system of artistic dissemination that intrinsically values the media it is charged with disseminating and speaks to relevant audiences. It’s possible, even necessary that such changes occur. I insist.

ELISION, Ferneyhough, “Terrain”, and the performative tradition of complexity

One of the advantages of having my CD player back is that I can listen, over and over again, to this new release from ELISION ensemble of the music of Brian Ferneyhough on Kairos.

Now, the disclaimer here is that Terrain is pretty much a precision-targeted, Soundisgrammar-seeking love bomb. This is some of my favourite music in the world, performed by some of my favourite performers in the world, and there was pretty much no chance at all that I was going to dislike this disc. But that aside:

It’s amazing.

Apart from being a collection of utterly brilliant, lucid, aggressively argued performances, this disc very much heralds the beginning of a new era in the performance of this music. A coming of age, as it were, of the performance tradition of the new complexity.

I’ve alluded before on these pages to the excitement of being at the coalface of developing performance practices for new music, and Ferneyhough himself has spoken often and eloquently on the subject of interpretation and performance practice in his own music. Here is a lengthy, but representative, example from an interview with James Boros:

In previous ages it was never performances which survived, but scores, notated music. If all the information necessary to a correct interpretation is not contained in a score, it is practically impossible to reconstruct original intentions with any degree of certainty. Only tradition can provide some sort of tenuous continuity in this respect. If you play a Beethoven sonata, you’re not interpreting the notes on the page, you’re interpreting many generations of interpretation, an entire corpus of slowly evolving conventions. Contemporary music has little of this sense of self-reflexive tradition, partly for the obvious reason of being new, but also because of the extreme fragmentation of stylistic continuity so characteristic of the present day. This results in a sort of institutionalized deracination where the performer is all too often reduced to putting the right notes in the right place with little sense of the larger perspective which would make it all make sense to him. If one considers interpretation as the art of meaningful deviation from the text, one will be saddened to hear music played (and – mutatis mutandis – composed and listened to) in this reductive manner. In terms of my own work, I employ what some consider to be over-definition of the musical image as a path to suggesting what might come to replace this interpretive overview. Composers who tend to restrict their notational specifications to a bare minimum end up getting one-dimensional representations of a possible sound-world rather than entering into that world’s inner workings.

What I find particularly compelling about this statement generally, and in connection with this recent release in particular, is the subjective, qualitative difference in performance practice Ferneyhough draws between musics with lengthy traditions and those without (in this case, essentially ‘old’ vs ‘new’ musics). But what are the implications of the presence (or absence) or such performative tradition?

The first is the degree to which what is on the page is able to be regarded as intrinsically valid as a prescription of performative or sonic action. The complexity of Ferneyhough’s notation has been the source of much verbiage in journals, interviews (there’s scarcely an interview with BF that doesn’t at some point include a question to the effect of “So… your notation is super tricky. What’s that all about?”), programme notes, liner notes, etc. I think it’s fair to say that Ferneyhough’s notational practices have taken on an almost mythical aura of complexity, a sort of in-built notational polemicism that, for my money, has very little to do with the musical content of his scores.

Related to this is the perception of virtuosity. Now, I don’t believe anyone would go so far as to suggest that the music of Brian Ferneyhough is anything but virtuosic, but once again, the discourse on this music is dominated by this almost polemical aura of virtuosity. One has the sense that for nearly fifty years, now, the battle in performing this music has been solely one of mustering the necessary technique to jump the performative hurdles that Ferneyhough has laid down.

The absence of tradition in both of these instances results in an unnecessary and undesirable foregrounding of these superficial extramusical qualities. The constellation of sundry issues relating to the music’s presentation, appearance, and learning is forced into a position of prominence that effectively obscures the underlying musical and expressive elements. The presence of a tradition, on the other hand, results in the progressive perspectivisation of these sundry elements in relation to the music. By interpreting an existing tradition, the notes on the page are imbued with a de facto underlying validity, empowering performers  to ‘speak’ from the base of, interpret and amplify (for example) a highly charged rhythmic scheme, rather than fight their way through a tangled and impenetrable rhythmic web.

Graeme Jennings, apparently not breaking a sweat...

This is not to say that we’ve made a simple step from an absence of tradition to that tradition’s presence. Rather, tradition is a constantly evolving body of communal knowledge, propagated and augmented by the act of performance, an act which unavoidably takes place in dialogue with tradition, however limited that tradition may be. The present recording is a watershed in the discography not because it heralds the sudden arrival of a meaningful tradition, but rather because it presents us with by far the most cohesive document yet of that tradition’s evolution. Obviously, this is very difficult music, but ELISION’s players chew this up seemingly without breaking a sweat (or, at least, they’re sweating Good Sweat). These revelatory performances amplify the tensions and lines of force embedded in the score without undue focus on the perceived ‘difficulty’ of this music.

It may seem that, due to the nature of the praise I’m heaping on this disc, that I am, by default, rubbishing every previous recording of Ferneyhough. I’m not. Indeed, there are parts of the Ferneyhough discography which have been almost life-altering in their significance for me. But this really is a blindingly amazing CD, and is without a doubt the finest set of performance of Ferneyhough’s music available by quite a large margin. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s one of the finest discs of new music around.

Period.

Tracy’O

A locally-renowned Melbourne classical music critic once said that the difference between classical and popular music criticism is that popular music criticism always relies on describing things viscerally (e.g. “Beyoncé’s latest spine-chilling release brutalises you in the skull like a bowl of porridge”), whereas classical music criticism relies on more objective/descriptive means (e.g. “This performance of Schubert’s Trio in Bb major was adequately-named, featuring three instruments which often played together, although sometimes splitting into smaller configurations. The work took place after the interval, an analysis with which I’m sure the audience would have concurred”). I think he was meaning to imply that popular music criticism is somehow vaguely fraudulent. Which is funny, because that’s the way I feel about most music criticism regardless of genre.

I like the idea that criticism might actually be able to subjectively discuss the sorts of questions a performance raises, and provide a space in which to echo and amplify the provocations of the music, rather than simply providing an account of what happened. Either way, the above generalisation doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that SoundisGrammar can feasibly leave uninterrogated.

So today I’m making a brief foray into the beer-soaked, drug-fueled, tragi-glamorous world of rock journalism by telling you about how, last week, I went to see Berlin-based Parisian duo Tracy’O.

The first thing one notices about Tracy’O is their attractiveness the limited sonic materials at play. Comprising Dell (voice) and Bert (guitar), this is no simple voice-with-guitar-accompaniment walk in the musical park. The sense of material limitation is made potently present by the music’s constant desire to transcend those limitations.

This leads to some fascinating solutions: Bert’s guitar riffs are looped and overlaid on top of each other, resulting in intricate walls of textured sound. At the same time, though, the necessity of building up such a texture bit-by-bit, or at the very least out of previously-used material, forcibly breaks the architecture out of a more normal verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook-whatever type song structure. Rather, the music resembles a continuous musical strand, the self-similarity of which produces structural cohesion.

The loop-based strategies employed in the musical materials are mirrored in Dell’s lyrical materials. Featuring frequent, although irregular, repetitions, the lyrics are at times hypnotic, neurotic, pathological. The irregularity of the repetitive structures, frequently divorced from changes in musical texture, convey a ‘sense’ of a hook, or a hook-like structural unit, without providing the security or formal definitiveness that a textbook hook would provide. The lyrics consist of highly direct statements, with each song seeming to limit its own vocabulary – there is never a sense of getting to know or understand the narrator. The narrative voice is curiously guarded, only permitting us highly restricted glimpses into the psychology (pathology?) behind the words. Given that lyrics are so often expected to provide a sense of emotional or psychological ‘truth’, the lack of context with which we’re able to gauge the veracity of the narrator is starkly terrifying.

The music of Tracy’O, then, despite it’s apparently simple means, is about ambiguity. It asks far more questions than it answers. The music of Tracy’O is also about multiple forms of constraint. The construction of the songs naturally reflects certain constraints (some voluntary, some not), while the lyrics similarly demonstrate strategies of extreme limitation – a violence enacted upon the potentiality of the text. The music of Tracy’O, despite it’s sense of volume and catharsis, is somehow caged, bristling at its confines. Implicit in this music is the question of what the object would look like if it were freed from these constraints.

Tracy’O’s MySpace page can be found here. However, this really is a band to be experienced live: the sounds on MySpace sadly have a very different quality from the sounds produced live and is, to my ears, significantly less provocative (the best thing there is probably this handheld live video in gloriously distorted sound). Something remarkable happens on stage. And I promise it’s not just the beer-soaked, drug-fueled tragi-glamour talking.

Invisibility

On 8th of February at King’s Place, London, the ELISION ensemble gave their first concert of 2010. Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s review of this can be found in Musical Pointers.

I wrote last year about Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) when it was premiered in Melbourne. At that time, I found it highly thought-provoking, but my mental jury was out. The performers were seated so far from the audience as to be almost inaudible in a boomy acoustic that eradicated detail and was unflattering to the larger shapes. Since then, I’d heard both the ABC radio broadcast (electrifying) and the studio recording made at Radio Bremen in September (about fifty times more so). But while these documents represent a fascinating aural experience, there is a live-performance aspect missing that is, I feel, fairly integral to the piece. When such recorded detail is so conveniently presented on a nice silver disc, the sense of cognitive struggle in performance that Johnson’s work embraces is simply absent.

So it was with great delight that I witnessed the extraordinary alchemy of Tristram Williams and Benjamin Marks, in the idiosyncratic acoustic of King’s Place, reveal this work as a masterpiece. Firstly, this performance was a great deal more polished than the Melbourne one. Gone were the deafeningly loud page turns, and gone was the frantic struggle of just trying to get through it. This was replaced with a tight focus, an utterly thrilling sense of danger and, of course, about a truckload of physical effort.

The acoustic of King’s Place does wonderful things to quiet dynamics. The finer degree of detailing in dynamic shapes are retained with great fidelity. The listening experience of Apostrophe 2 this time was one in which the islands of barely audible, barely stable sonorities violating the peripheries of perception was maintained, but with an endlessly fascinating, multifaceted sonic outcome. It’s a shame that the physical demands of such a work mean that it will never be more than niche repertoire, as this is music-making of the first order.

Liza Lim’s Invisibility for solo cello (here lovingly communicated by Séverine Ballon) also benefitted a great deal from the acoustic. The myriad different flavours of sonic fracture accessed through the use of the guiro bow took on an almost larger-than-life character. The semantic import of melodic and textural shapes seemed almost devastatingly potent. I first heard this piece at HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. My recollection is that the performance in Huddersfield seemed more precise, but this performance provided an astonishingly profound inner journey. And I certainly wasn’t the only audience member to think so.

The other really notable piece on this programme was Timothy McCormack’s Disfix. This is an important work by a very important (although still emerging) composer. Again, I heard this work for the first time at HCMF, where the sheer violence and force of this work were nearly overwhelming. Unfortunately this was a case wherein the acoustic of King’s Place was deeply unflattering, with the energy seeming somehow insulated from the sonic force.

Here is a video, available on YouTube, of the HCMF performance of Disfix. Turn your speakers right up.

The ink-still-wet-on-the-page Aurora, by long-time ELISION collaborator Richard Barrett was a bit of a disappointment. While there were some very striking moments, the piece as a whole just seemed to not quite work. However, as TR-J’s review rather diplomatically puts it, this could be for any number of reasons. Sharing an instrumentation with the Johnson, the work was clearly less played-in, and this may also have contributed. I’d really like to hear a second performance of this piece, though. Perhaps more time with this piece will reveal things that were missed the first time around.

The concert also featured the premiere of Roger Redgate’s Tehom, Klaus K. Hübler’s 1983 trombone solo CERCAR, a beautiful performance of James Dillon’s Crossing over by Richard Haynes, and the premiere of the eleventh installment in Richard Barrett’s ongoing Codex series of pieces.

In the coming weeks, I will put up some more in-depth looks at the work of both Evan Johnson and Timothy McCormack, as well as, hopefully (and at the risk of this space becoming little more than a paean to ELISION) some material related to ELISION’s March concert in King’s Place.

Golden Fur in Sydney

Here is a really weird review by Rachel Orzech of the concert Golden Fur did for New Music Network in Sydney last weekend, containing music by Liza Lim, Kate Neal, Alvin Lucier, Jaap Blonk and Marco Fusinato. It’s weird in the sense that Orzech seems fairly confident in her assertions of what the ‘average listener’ would like to have been done differently, but doesn’t criticise the musicianship in any way whatsoever. In my experience, the ‘average listener’ at a concert of this sort of repertoire is there to, er, listen. Maybe they know what a pure wave oscillator is, and maybe they don’t, but ultimately this is utterly irrelevant to the success or otherwise of the work.

In the case of the Marco Fusinato piece, while it might be both interesting and informative to see the artworks that constitue the score, having these visible during the performance of the work would, I think, prove overly limiting in terms of how the audience is then invited to interact with the sounds themselves. The audience would effectively be encouraged to listen for a 1:1 relationship between image and sound, which is never a constructive way to listen to a performance, regardless of the work.

I don’t know. Maybe things like emphasising concert structure, or explaining how a piece works are actually important. But they can’t possibly be remotely so important as the sounds themselves. And, as I said at the start, I just find Orzech’s almost myopic focus on issues such as lack of eye contact or explanatory verbiage really… weird.

Golden Fur is something to experience with your ears and your mind. Everything else is sundry. And I wish I’d been there.

Quiver

Aaaaaaaaages ago, on the 31st of July, there was a concert at the Richmond Uniting Church given by Quiver, a newly formed contemporary music ensemble. Anthony Lyons has reviewed the concert for Resonate magazine, but it (undeservedly) completely slipped SoundisGrammar’s mind.

I don’t have too much to add to the linked review, except to say that one of the great strengths of the concert was its extreme diversity. The composers on the program are all from utterly different worlds, and rather than seeming like a disconnected mess like many such concerts are, the superb musicianship of Quiver was able to not only transcend these differences, but capitalise on them. The differences between the works were sometimes exaggerated, sometimes elided, commonalities were found, illuminated and explored, discrepancies were collided. In short, the program resulted in a sensational play of resonance between remarkably different sounding bodies.

Luke Paulding’s work, her sparkling flesh in a saecular ecstasy, is also deserving of comment. I didn’t, perhaps, like it quite so much as Anthony Lyons did. I wasn’t convinced by it architecturally, and thought that some of the sounds (or rather, their mode of production) seemed to err towards calculated sensationalism, rather than sonic or semantic meaning. But this was a very, very strong work, of the sort that I would have sold my soul several times over to have been writing music this interesting when I was in my early twenties (or even now, in my late twenties…), and it seems clear to me that …saecular ecstasy heralds the arrival of what promises to be major new voice in the Australian compositional landscape.

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.

Sternum = well-pressed

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

Richard Haynes has put together a pretty comprehensive précis 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.