New music in Sydney: a lively corpse?

Harriet Cunningham

Wednesday. Gotta start my RealTime article. Working title: The demise of New Music in Sydney, or possibly New Music is Dead. Where to begin?

Thursday. Still gotta start that article. Saved by a phone call from the Sydney Morning Herald asking me to attend a concert. Just Aark bills itself as “not quite classical, not quite pop, something a bit different.” Sounds like new music to me.

Friday. Tried to get to Lindy (the new Moya Henderson-Judith Rodriguez opera about the Lindy Chamberlain case) but the traffic on the Bridge was solid. Hopefully they were all going to the Opera House.

Saturday. Off to the Conservatorium for the Song Company’s Six Hermits. The 6 singers were joined by the Chinese Virtuosi, 5 musicians on traditional Chinese instruments, playing new commissions. Some of it I found totally unfathomable and some immediately fascinating. All of it I’d like to hear again.

Sunday. Won’t start my article today. Every writer needs a rest.

Monday. Off to the New Music Network’s annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Memorial Address.

Never-ending challenges of inadequate funding, inappropriate venues and indifferent audiences—that’s the common perception of new music in Sydney. But a quick scan of the Sydney concert calendar in October 2002 suggests a buoyant, even heady environment: mainstream chamber music groups such as the Australia Ensemble and the Australian String Quartet have new, old, Australian and international repertoires. There are newbies: Aark Ensemble with their first concert, the Song Company with an extraordinary Chinese collaboration, and the Chinese National Orchestra touring a program of music all composed in the last 50 years and a piece by Australian Constantine Koukias. And as for the big end of town, cosy Musica Viva presents Ensemble Absolute, complete with sampler and backbeat and Opera Australia is finally giving the world premiere of a new Australian commission.

And yet, something’s missing in this feast of the new: what has happened to the black-clad, cash-strapped musicians of specialist ensembles such as the Seymour Group, Sydney Alpha Ensemble and austraLYSIS, who dominated new music in the 90s? It depends who you ask.

Mark Summerbell, artistic director of one of Sydney’s oldest dedicated new music ensembles, the Seymour Group, says, “I find it interesting…that Australia is in the grip of a massive drought and is swept with duststorms because it seems to be an analogy of almost biblical proportions to the other unspoken of drought, ie that which is occurring in the arts. Australia is a cultural wasteland at the moment, at least in the small to medium arts sector, especially in music.”

He cites the introduction of the Australia Council’s triennial funding as a defining moment for small to medium arts organisations. Implemented in 1997, the program gave a few companies guaranteed funding for 3 years, allowing them a degree of financial security. However, fewer, larger grants inevitably meant more competition and more artists turned away empty-handed. You were either in, or out.

Of the 12 founding members of the Sydney New Music Network (as it was known in 1997), only Synergy and the Song Company were granted triennial funding. Since then, austraLYSIS and ELISION have also been favoured. However, others continue to lurch from project to project or, in the case of Sydney Alpha Ensemble, have packed up and gone home.

Roland Peelman, Vice-President of the New Music Network and Artistic Director of the Song Company, is circumspect. Like Summerbell, he acknowledges the recent dearth of activity and the loss of some long-standing contributors. He agrees inadequate funding is an ongoing problem but identifies several other factors: “…the context for new music changes. And perceptions and attitudes continue to change. Pursuing a London Sinfonietta model…established in Europe in the 1970s, is not the way to go in a different culture 30 years later. It was a lofty ideal, but an outdated model. [The] new music scene is not the privilege of the old guard. Room has been made for new blood.”

So what is the reality? Feast, famine or re-birth? Themes begin to emerge.

Everyone agrees funding challenges are here to stay. Money is tight and will stay so in the current political climate, forcing artists across the spectrum to fund their activities in increasingly inventive ways. Traditional concerts, presented by an independent ensemble with its own core audience, are out. Collaborations and contracts are in.

This could mean hitching your overheads to a larger entity: the Seymour Group for example has a partnership with the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music and Elision has a similar arrangement with the University of Queensland. It could also mean programs are built around festival appearances (such as the Seymour Group’s Bach Project, part of the 2002 Gay Games, or Elision’s programs for Totally Huge and Agora). Indeed, many groups fund hometown activities, including ongoing artistic development, by seeking lucrative contract performances overseas, which pay fees in US dollars.

Sydney cannot support the diverse activity it once had. Whether it’s to follow the dollar, chase the audience or simply see the world, the groups surviving are those who are prepared to move. Roland Peelman alludes to this when he singles out two Brisbane-based ensembles, Elision and Topology, as successful models. “Elision has had to come to terms [with the domestic funding situation] and has evolved. It has very successfully reidentified itself as a relevant player on an international level and within [the] Asia Pacific context. It has incorporated improvisation and radical, innovative elements…backed up by serious thinking.”

ABC music broadcaster, Andrew Ford, observes that the 2002 glossy brochures from the major players (Sydney Symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Musica Viva and Opera Australia) reveal a lively menu of commissions and 20th century standards among the mainstream repertoire. He writes, “there is every sign that most of our state orchestras are taking new and local music very seriously indeed” (Sydney Morning Herald, December 2001). A quick scan of concert programs in Sydney in October 2002 confirms this.

Peelman concurs; “Sometimes it can seem tokenistic, but overall they are quite genuine. For example, the SSO has harnessed the Synergy buzz; they have hired the Song Company. And it’s typical of the big players to harness ideas produced in smaller companies.”

Whether this is happenstance or a genuine trend remains to be seen, particularly with the imminent change in leadership at the SSO and the unfortunate slam-dunking of Simone Young at Opera Australia. Likewise, economic realities decree that choices of repertoire are likely to be more conservative and less relentlessly confronting. However, it seems the gap created by a decline in independently produced homegrown new music is being partially filled by major organisations.

So is it a case of new music is dead—long live new music? Certainly, in this funding climate semi-permanent ensembles presenting their own concert series are largely gone. Special events, projects, collaborations, festivals and informal happenings are the norm. However, the good news is that most agree the new model, while financially and personally draining, can work artistically. Musicians talk with pride about their excursions outside Sydney’s limited venues and of complex, intensive collaborations. Of Six Hermits Peelman says, “Projects like that change…our outlook and change the way we make music.”

And what of the newest players? On October 24 this year Sydney’s new group Aark Ensemble took to the stage with Just Aark. Founded by Jeremy Barnett, Matthew Bieniek and Paul Smith, Aark is a loose collective of mostly recent graduates from the Conservatorium, formed initially to make music but more importantly, to explore new modes of presentation. According to Bieniek the aim “…is not just to put concerts on. We want to build awareness and credentials. We want to get out of the music ghetto and try and embrace new audiences.”

To a hoary old arts journo it sounds suspiciously familiar: Just Aark? Just another student ensemble trying to reinvent the wheel? From the evidence of their concert, the jury is out: no radical experiments, but lively, challenging music for a surprisingly large and receptive audience. Despite a collaborative, everyone-gets-a-go approach, the energy and quality were consistently high and James Nightingale’s Bo for solo saxophone was spectacular: an affirmation of the power of new sounds to reach out and grab the senses.

If new music in Sydney is dead, it’s a very lively corpse

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 37

© Harriet Cunningham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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