music education: the hunger for critical literacy

matthew lorenzon

Percussion students, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

Percussion students, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

SENIOR LECTURER AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE LINDA KOUVARAS REMEMBERS “A RATHER LEAN COUPLE OF DECADES” WHERE BOOKS ON CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA WERE THIN ON THE GROUND. A RESURGENCE OF INTEREST HAS RECENTLY GRACED LIBRARY SHELVES WITH BOOKS BY DAVID BENNETT (SOUNDING POSTMODERNISM, AUSTRALIAN MUSIC CENTRE, 2008), GORDON KERRY (NEW CLASSICAL MUSIC, UNSW, 2009), GAIL PRIEST (EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC, UNSW PRESS, 2009) AND SALLY MACARTHUR (TOWARDS A TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY FEMINIST POLITICS OF MUSIC, ASHGATE, 2010), WITH WORKS BY OTHER AUTHORS PROJECTED FOR THE NEAR FUTURE.

Though many of those interviewed for this RealTime arts education edition identified a now healthier music book publishing industry, the same was not said of critical writing in journals, magazines and newspapers. The perceived critical vacuum in Australian musical life is seen to negatively impact on the teaching of Australian music in tertiary courses, the vibrancy of Australian musical cultures and students’ preparedness for their careers.

a critical deficit

Executive Director of Performing Arts at Monash University Peter Tregear explains how critical writing feeds into teaching: “As a teacher you don’t just want to show that music exists, you want to show how it exists in context. You want to show students a score, a recording and responses to the music.”

It is not just in the classroom that this scarcity of music writing is felt, but in the lives of practising musicians and sound artists. “Art-making thrives on verbal reflection and magazines/journals provide an essential forum for this,” Kouvaras asserts. Griffith University Lecturer Vanessa Tomlinson believes the value of critical reflection extends from local scenes to the wider musical world, warning of global negligence in the state of Australian music writing.

Forums do exist for critical writing on music in Australia, though a plurality of voices is needed as part of a reflective musical culture. Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide Stephen Whittington regards RealTime as “the only forum for serious critical discussion of contemporary music in Australia,” while Tomlinson regards it as “one of only a few places where people can actually critically engage with an artform.” With a focus on jazz and improvised music, Extempore initially appeared in five print editions providing reviews and feature articles. Material is still published online (www.extempore.com.au), but its print presence will be an annual print anthology from 2012, according to its website. The Music Council of Australia’s quarterly magazine Music Forum publishes album reviews and longer pieces, particularly about music education (www.musicforum.org.au). The Australian Music Centre publishes news, articles and reviews in its online magazine Resonate (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/resonate) and its bi-annual Resonate Journal. Despite the efforts of these platforms, much of the responsibility for publishing concert reviews still falls on newspapers, something that, according to Tomlinson, they “are not doing in any way, shape or form.”

Newspapers publish both reviews and features on music, though they are rarely sufficiently in-depth to include in a tertiary reader. A comprehensive review would follow a piece through a performance, the musical life of a country and the history of Western art music, with an ear to its otherness within these very categories. This is a tall order, but it is also a formula Tregear reads behind the success of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. “You can see how his articles easily spin out into books. Can you imagine a book of Clive O’Connell’s reviews [for The Age]?” he quips, before qualifying: “Now reviewers will say that the papers don’t give them the space to publish more in-depth reviews, and this is true, but it is a vicious circle. The paper thinks music is marginal and irrelevant and [reviewers] write as though it is marginal and irrelevant.”

Public disinterest in art music also forms part of this circle. Whittington, who writes for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, notes that “even when you do write something controversial, as I do from time to time, it is difficult to elicit a response [from readers].”

While the length of columns on the internet is not an issue, the lack of financial incentive and the disparate nature of the blogosphere may explain why this medium is yet to reinvigorate public musical opinion. Tomlinson points out the vast incongruity between the rhetoric of the information age and the dearth of public reflection about music in Australia, a phenomenon that may be explained by Whittington’s remark that cultural flows over the internet tend to be circular. We then have to look to the leadership of publishers, broadcasters, concert organisers and educators to break the cultural deadlock. Amongst concert organisers and broadcasters there have been some promising signs: ABC Classic FM’s continuing commitment to contemporary Australian classical composers and concerts, the East Coast’s growing New Music Network and Perth’s Tura Music, building audiences and helping with the challenges of touring. Educators also acknowledge a commitment to broadening students’ worldviews, striking various balances between local and global content.

ensuring a global perspective

Andy Arthurs, Professor at Queensland University of Technology, agrees that tertiary courses should broaden students’ cultural frames of reference “so you are not following your own little bread crumb route to wherever you want to go next.” Coupled with the melting pot of a campus environment, online media enhances students’ understanding of their global context, of which Australian music forms only a part. “Sometimes the most interesting things happening in the world will be happening in Australia,” Whittington claims. “Sometimes they will be in Shanghai or Sao Paolo.” Likewise, Arthurs finds the distinction between the local and the global to be of little relevance to the contemporary working musician: “I had a conversation a few years ago with some colleagues in Malmö in Sweden and it became apparent that they didn’t really talk about Swedish music. They said ‘we just make music and hope that the rest of the world likes it.’ A little less introspection would probably be a good thing.”

providing local context

Though a global perspective is essential for any aspiring musician, contemporary Australian composers are held up as role models for having locally negotiated similar professional and cultural terrain. Arthurs will teach about relatively younger composers such as Robert Davidson and Matthew Hindson. Tregear believes Elena Kats-Chernin “relates to contemporary culture in a way that hard-edged Australian versions of Darmstadt stuff from the 1960s and 70s didn’t then and certainly don’t now.” Likewise, Whittington will “only very occasionally refer to the older generation, Richard Meale or Peter Sculthorpe,” instead teaching about “composers of [the students’] own generation—like Damien Ricketson and Matthew Shlomowitz.” [Ricketson is currently a lecturer in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and directs Ensemble Offspring whose recent concert, featuring a piece by Matthew Shlomowitz, is reviewed here, Eds.]

The Australian Music Centre is generally accepted to be an indispensable resource for accessing the music of past and present Australian composers. Tomlinson, a former professional associate of the AMC, understands that “whenever there is an agreed upon dearth of information [the AMC] is generally proactive in producing resources.” With an increasing amount of material available online through the AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au) and the Australian Sound Design Project (www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au), and over 17 years of critical material available through the RealTime archive since 1994 (accessible online 2001-present), there has never been a better time to bring contemporary Australian music into lecture halls. Often the resource is standing right in front of the students in the form of the lecturer. All interviewees advocated teachers bringing their creative practice into the classroom, including their passion as scholars and critics.

no practising in the lecture hall

The common requirement for teachers at universities to have PhDs can deprive students of the valuable experience of being taught by a practising musician, argues Arthurs. He claims that if he wrote down 50 of the most interesting musicians in Australia, few of them would be in universities. Snug inside the academy, a professional environment hostile to expensive one-on-one music tuition and proselytising teachers does not promise an edifying educational experience.

To Alistair Noble, Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University, a university culture that devalues pedagogical traditions, including the relationship between instrumental or composition teachers and students regardless of professional qualifications, threatens the quality of both musical and general arts education. “One of the major influences on my thinking was not even in the music department,” Noble reminisces from his armchair, “but was a medieval studies lecturer. It was in those medieval studies classes that I saw first hand what a political engagement could mean in terms of academic study. I remember in that class having guest lecturers from Oxford or Cambridge or somewhere, these die-hard Marxists talking about Byzantine farming methods. There is definitely an attitude now that the idea of passing on a tradition is inappropriate. It does happen, but one isn’t very vocal about it.” Whether helped or hindered by an institution, students will seek out collaborators, mentors and role models wherever they can find them, resulting in ephemeral live music scenes.

Percussion students, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

Percussion students, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

from the local to the global

Outside the lecture hall, or contiguous with it if institutions are functioning properly, students find their musical identity through a complex interplay of local and global influences. In Brisbane, Vanessa Tomlinson finds that “students are most influenced by what they see in the city around them. At the moment that would mean Joel Stern, Lawrence English, Topology, my own work with Clocked Out, and the Viney-Grinberg duo. They are most interested in what they hear live.”

Just as they engage with their immediate surroundings, students will consider themselves in relation to global musical trends. Tomlinson also identifies “probably about three groups of young composers who are working really hard to establish their musical identities in Brisbane and contextualise that within a historical framework—be it European Modernism or contemporary New York minimalism.” Arthurs reinforces this interplay between the local and the global: “musicians in Brisbane, generally, do not interact much with musicians from Sydney or Melbourne. They do need to contextualise their practice, but they do that in relation to music from New York or Hamburg just as well as they could with Perth or Melbourne.”

writing yourself into a music career

In professionally navigating local and global boundaries, critical literacy is again vital. Vanessa Tomlinson explains that “because we have this fairly strong funding system, compared to the US and Asia, but not Europe, a lot of the responsibility for getting music out there falls on the musicians themselves. You have to publicise your gig, get it online, you virtually have to do your own critical writing. This is one of the big responsibilities of education, to train up critical thinkers so that we can have more independent, freelance writing…It is easy to slip into an educational system that is purely skill-based, that makes performers and sends them out into the world. The world is not there to receive them. So critical thinking is not just about reading obscure philosophical texts, it is also about understanding how to engage with the world. The question is ‘how does and can art function in the world in relation to other art forms, philosophy or ecology?’”

With books and online resources on Australian music growing in number, the paucity of music criticism currently stands out as one of the greatest hindrances to the inclusion of Australian works in music education. Critical writing provides vital teaching material, forming a bridge between the ‘outside’ world and the academy. It is the glue of otherwise disparate and alienated music scenes. It should be part of the professional toolbox of every musician, ready to deconstruct their detractors and justify their own glorious existence.

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 43

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 August 2011