Raising the Bar – article for Australian Music Month

A blog article for ABC Classic FM’s Australian Music Month in which I argue for the importance of investing in long-term results in order to create better Australian music.

In this Australian Music Month, it’s entirely appropriate and justifiable to celebrate the standard of Australian music. Australian music is now of a quality that is higher than ever.

It’s extremely diverse, with musicians increasingly taking a professional and individual approach with music that engages with contemporary Australian society and attitudes, rather than those of Europe or the USA. In many cases, Australian music is now being taken to the world, and the export possibilities for musicians’ careers are tremendously exciting.

Just to be clear: I’m not really thinking, here, of Australian contemporary classical music and its performance.

Classical music is an immensely privileged artform in this country. Those of us who are intimately involved in it need to remember that it is supported more than any other type of music making, both in terms of government funding (especially direct government funding) and institutional backing provided by universities, cultural institutions and private schools.

Musicians in non-classical genres have every right to question this inherited status quo, particularly as excellence is by no means found exclusively in classical music. In fact, after assessing over 1500 applications over the past four years in my role as Chair of the Music Board of the Australia Council, I can say for a fact that a majority of the most exciting, engaging, innovative and extraordinary music making and presentation is coming from non-classical genres.

No-one owes Australian classical music a living. As someone who does make his living in the classical music sector, I know full well the inherent value of a new choral piece. But for other Australians who are more deeply engaged with the music of Adalita rather than Antill, why should they pay for the artistic preferences of a small minority?

The response from the classical music sector in Australia must surely be to continually improve the standard of Australian classical music, and its performance. We have to keep raising the bar. We must strive to improve what we do, year in, year out, never taking our privileged position for granted. We need to be able to demonstrate that we are an integral part of Australian society, and not just because we might be able to play Mahler to a good standard. An arts centre might attract 200 people to a new music concert, but in a city of 4 million people, is that actually a good result?

For Australian composers, musical improvements can arise through hearing the extraordinary work of a peer. I was blown away after hearing Paul Stanhope’s String Quartet No. 2 on ABC Classic FM. A new composition benchmark was now set for me to reach in writing my own string quartet earlier this year.

Competition works. The drive from every composer to have their music performed to the highest standard, and heard by large audiences is certainly helpful in ensuring high quality music. Performers are not interested in playing rubbish. Audiences don’t want to listen to it.

But how else can the classical music sector help to facilitate excellent new music?

Long term investment in Australian music by performing and presenting organisations is essential, and I would suggest, largely missing from the current landscape.

Reliance on sheer talent – waiting for the next child prodigy a la Mozart or Mendelssohn or Thomas Ades to appear – is one approach. We don’t have the population to expect this to occur regularly, and it’s not a basis for long-term artistic planning. (Imagine if other industries such as accountancy took the same approach.)

What is required is for our publically funded classical music organisations, both large and small, to make significant and sustained investments in composers and their music. For example, an orchestra could have a ‘trainee composer’ on staff for a three year period, in a similar way to the Associate Conductor roles in existence at the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony Orchestras.

Imagine a composer who ends up writing everything from a concerto for a member of the orchestra, to string arrangements of Daft Punk for a regional education tour, to writing a brass fanfare for the orchestra’s website launch. The composer would get to know the musicians extremely well, and vice versa. The music at the end of such a sustained residency would be of a much higher standard than at its beginning.

Classical music in Australia requires visionary schemes such as this for its continued survival and invigoration. Such schemes may be risky, but can pay off in spades. My own development as a composer followed a similar path, with residencies with the Sydney Symphony, the Sydney Youth Orchestra, Musica Viva Australia and the Queensland Orchestra. Without these opportunities, and willingness to look outside the classical music sector for musical approaches, there is no way that I could write music in a technically proficient manner, even if I had musical things to say.

It’s not just up to the presenting institutions. There’s a frustratingly tangible lack of ambition and willingness on the part of emerging composers to make bold, individual, ‘out-there’ musical statements. We may live in largely conservative times, but why aren’t emerging composers willing to put themselves out there?

I believe it is due to a culture of reducing risk. Composers should be able to try their new ideas, and fail knowing that it won’t be their composition career down the toilet. Emerging composers should be embracing contemporary approaches and relating more broadly to contemporary Australian society. But if they’re not in a supportive environment, the temptation to fall back on conservative 1960s European-derived models will be too strong – and the music will not be as good as a result. No-one wins.

Organisations outside classical music are embracing new models of thinking. The Melbourne Theatre Company, for example, has instigated outstanding long-term projects to foster the work of Australian female directors and playwrights, moving their institutional focus from Southbank in Melbourne to the wider Melbourne community. This has the potential to be integral to theatre practice in Australia. Where are the similar projects in our major music organisations?

Let’s hope that visionary, long-term investments in Australian music can yield similar results for our composers, performers and audiences for classical music. If we continue with the status quo, I fear we will fall behind, and our existence will be imperilled or even worse, irrelevant.

Competing artforms have embraced change, with strong results: witness contemporary US longform TV drama. The next time someone in Hobart has $40 to spend, will they go to a concert featuring Australian music, or stay at home and buy the next season of Breaking Bad?

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