New music, new realities

Michael Hannan

A focus on the performance of “contemporary classical” or any other kind of current music is not something one generally associates with the major music schools in Australia, some of which still use the label “Conservatorium” to describe themselves. This term implies an agenda of conserving the repertoire of western classical music, principally of the 18th and 19th centuries. Noble as this aim is, the contemporary reality means new approaches to preparing music professionals are being sought across the sector. Professor Nicolette Fraillon, Director of the Canberra School of Music (and now the newly appointed Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Australian Ballet) notes that because “traditional performance jobs are still being reduced in terms of funding and the sizes of orchestras, (graduates) need to be really prepared and creative in a variety of ways in order to support themselves.”
The traditional preparation of a classical music performer is a long and rigorous process. It requires considerably more dedication if you add the skills associated with a variety of contemporary music practices such as the ability to play complex rhythms, to use non-traditional techniques and music technology, to improvise and even to engage with movement and acting. Musical genres are constantly blurring and mutating so it is difficult to know what approach can be adopted to provide the best kind of grounding for the modern musician.

The traditional music school has been forced to reconsider its offerings as the contemporary musical landscape has changed and the relevance of music degrees has come into question from the wider music industry. At the core of the problem is the traditional curriculum. According to Dr Tony Gould, Head of the School of Music at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), “the curriculum hasn’t changed much since I was a student more than 30 years ago.” In the same period, however, the repertoire and required skills have expanded greatly. Gould questions the deeply held notion in the Conservatorium culture that one has to have mastered Mozart and Beethoven before attempting the contemporary repertoire. Stephen Whittington, Senior Lecturer at the Elder School of Music in Adelaide, also believes the curriculum needs to be more flexible and that more interaction should formally occur between the various streams in a typical music school (eg composition, music technology, classical music performance and jazz performance), streams that have been traditionally segregated from one another. For Whittington the undergraduate curriculum is full of subjects that music academics steadfastly believe are core requirements for training a musician. Consequently there is no room to add new subjects such as multimedia as they come into the picture. Whittington asks: “Can you do multimedia if you can’t write a fugue?” The answer is obvious, but the reluctance to let go of archaic fields of study still represents a stumbling block in curriculum reform.

One modernisation strategy gaining momentum is the incorporation of compulsory improvisation training for all students at undergraduate level. Queensland Conservatorium and the University of Western Sydney (UWS) have done this already and, according to Professor Sharman Pretty, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music is poised to follow. Pretty explains that this will be one of the likely outcomes of a large development project at the Sydney Conservatorium in the field of “performance and communication”, a project that “aims to find ways for mainstream classical musicians to break out of the mould and to interface better with the broader community.”

Major music schools have always had to balance their focus of training elite musicians with providing a general training and performance service to the community, but in the current climate the need seems more pressing than ever. A greater responsiveness to the music industry and to other industries being served is also an urgent matter.

For example, Professor Robert Constable at Newcastle Conservatorium reports that there has been demand from the students doing the Church Music strand of the Bachelor of Music degree to incorporate contemporary gospel composition and performance training into the curriculum. Newcastle Conservatorium has also successfully introduced a suite of online postgraduate music technology courses that have mostly attracted school teachers seeking to upgrade their professional skills.

It has perhaps been easier for the small music schools to take a more radical approach to the problem of the contemporary relevance of their courses. At Southern Cross University in Lismore NSW we have completely broken with the classical music tradition in favour of training musicians and audio engineers for the contemporary popular music industry. In this specialist area there is arguably even more pressure to remain relevant to the industry, so we constantly struggle with the appearances of new musical genres and ever-advancing technologies. A few institutions, notably the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and UWS have chosen to embrace the contemporary in a more global sense, combining a range of contemporary styles including the popular. According to QUT’s Associate Professor Andy Arthurs, “there is no one way to play or compose music.” Thus at QUT experimentalism and a diversity of contemporary stylistic performance and creative practices are encouraged. At UWS, Dr Jim Franklin describes a more radical approach insisting that students broaden their stylistic palette. If they come in as rock musicians, for example, they will be expected to engage also with a contrasting tradition such as classical performance, and vice versa. All performance students, even classical specialists, are also required to incorporate sound and/or visual technology into their performance exam projects in a substantial way.

Even within the conservatorium, mandatory engagement with the contemporary is a strategic option. At the VCA, Tony Gould is deeply committed to “correcting the balance between the old and the new.” However, in programming recent Australian works for all student orchestra concerts he expects significant opposition from conservative elements within the school.

In many senses the rise of computer music technology has changed the ball game forever for music schools. Most of the sounds now heard on radio, television and interactive multimedia are predominantly electronic. In much pop music, the only thing that isn’t electronic is the voice. In the nightclub scene people dance almost exclusively to electronic beats. So while the majority of music students are performers it is arguable that the most vital work being done in music schools is in the recording studios and computer workstation labs. Activities range from the production of audio and multimedia artworks to the invention of new methods of digital arts creation and manipulation. Traditional music schools such as the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Canberra School of Music have led the way in the creation of software instruments in Australia, and have been joined in recent years by QUT, UWS and a few others. There is understandably more activity in this area going on at postgraduate level where the curriculum is much more flexible.

Despite these advances in the modernisation of curriculum and research there are continual challenges as the technological revolution grinds on. Stephen Whittington notes that at the Elder School of Music there is a new type of composition student who is not concerned with live performance outcomes and often not competent in, or even interested in, music notation. Working with sound entirely in the digital domain is fast becoming the norm in creative music. Whereas a decade or two ago there was a concern that the so-called “musically illiterate” rock guitarist or drummer was not being catered for in the tertiary music education system, we are now faced with a new set of creative practices that bypass the performer altogether. Another anomaly is that no tertiary music institution seems to have seriously engaged with DJing. The DJ is arguably a performer and an improviser but it is difficult to envisage a performance major being created to cover this ubiquitous performance practice.

Although it is impossible to imagine that the music performer will disappear from the musical industry landscape, it is clear that a different breed of musician is likely to emerge who combines a broader range of performance techniques with skills in composition, communication, multimedia and niche marketing.

With the increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of contemporary arts practice, music and other single-artform schools and their host institutions are also being forced to confront their artform ghettoisation tendencies. There have been a number of ways forward including the trend to establish digital arts degrees in institutions that have both visual arts and music programs. This is more viable when the contributing disciplines are in the same location and when strategic decisions to focus on multi-arts and technology collaboration have been made. In recent times the most spectacular example of this phenomenon has been the formation of QUT’s Faculty of Creative Industries.

How music as a discipline fares in these cross-disciplinary conglomerates remains to be seen. At the core of music is live performance, whether it is a string quartet, a jazz ensemble, or a contemporary pop band. Maintaining the performance tradition in the face of the digital arts revolution will be one of the great challenges of music and music education in the future.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 4

© Michael Hannan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002