The last few weeks have seen the announcement of some of the most important prizes in Australian Contemporary Music.

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, was the Australian Classical Music Awards. A full list of winners can be found here, and it was both nice to see awards going to, in some cases, the ‘right’ people (Southern Cross Soloists, George Lentz), rather than the politically expedient people.

A method other than performance activity, though, needs to be come up with in order to determine the ‘work of the year’ prizes. For instance, it’s utterly unsurprising that the work of Lyn Williams was more performed than any other vocal work of 2008. It would be nice for all of the winners of those prizes, surely, to be able to claim that the prize had been won on merit, rather than statistics.

The second is the Ian Potter Composer Fellowships. These have, for over a decade, been one of the great bastions of composer support in this country, and provide an established composer with $80,000 over two years, and an emerging one with $20,000. This is the last year that this prize is being offered for composition (they’re moving on to an as-yet-undisclosed other artform as of 2011), and so of course every man and his dog entered (including moi, naturally…).

I was expecting to be writing here that the recipients were utterly undeserving, to rail against the triumph of mediocrity. I was prepared to attribute it to the questionable politics of the jury (cue rant about postmodernist hegemony, or some-such). Or perhaps chalk it up to karmic necessity after their having got it so absolutely right last time around.

But it turns out the prizes went to Gordon Kerry and Iain Grandage. Now, I’m not really familiar with any of Grandage’s music, although his name has been one that crops up increasingly frequently of late, and I’m sure that such a grant will allow us all a better opportunity to engage with his work. Gordon Kerry, on the other hand, is right up there, in my opinion, with a small handful of composers who are so deserving of, and yet so infrequently receive, such honours that it’s almost criminal.

The jury also made an exceptional grant of $8,000 to Damien Ricketson. Good on them.

Not bad for a jury that knows absolutely nothing about contemporary music.

(Resonate coverage to be found here).

The third is the announcement of finalists for the Paul Lowin prizes. List of finalists can found here.

It’s a great shame that Carl Vine’s Symphony No 7 looks like the most serious contender for the orchestral prize. While it’s a work that clearly demonstrates a formidable orchestral technique, and an obviously musical mind, I just kinda feel that the piece would have been more interesting had it been written by Carl Vine, rather than cobbled together out of clearly recognisable trinkets nicked, sans context, from Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams and, especially, Stravinsky (like, seriously, it could be re-branded as a concerto for Petroushka and orchestra…). Bitchy sniping aside, though, the two performances I’ve heard of it now (on radio) have been bloody good, and anybody that thinks that either WASO or ASO can’t play need to start paying closer attention…

On the other hand, the Song Cycle category has three very strong contenders indeed, and my preferences there tend more towards stylistic predilections, rather than actual opinion, and it seems a shame not to be able to recognise three such worthy candidates equally.

(Also, does anybody find it weird that the press release doesn’t mention the pieces by name?)


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.