Seeing the Trees from the Wood: models in sustainability for new, experimental, and ‘other’ music performance

Jon Rose

National Sawdust, New York

National Sawdust, New York

National Sawdust, New York

Last month Jon Rose was invited to be one of the curators in launching New York’s new ‘new music’ space National Sawdust with his Interactive Sonic Ball project and to undertake a 12-concert residency at The Stone performing with John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Mark Dresser, Shelley Hirsch, Elliott Sharpe, John Medeski, Sylvie Courvoisier, Peter Evans, Cyro Baptista, Chuck Bettis, Ned Rothenberg, Ikue Mori, Okkyung Lee, Francesco Mela, Ches Smith, Miya Masaoka, David Watson, Eyal Moaz, Lucas Ligeti, Andrew Drury, Annie Gosfield, Olga Bell, and Anthony Pateras. His experience of National Sawdust and The Stone has inspired Rose to imagine a model for a sustainable music culture in Sydney against the odds of power and property values if without optimism about Australian arts philanthropy and state arts funding. Eds

The composer & the philanthropist

I’m the last one to suggest any arts practice in Australia copies, or tries to emulate, an overseas model; our recent history is littered with cringing attempts at that. But occasionally something pops up elsewhere that is extraordinary, and we would do well to examine what has taken place and see if it is relevant (or not) to our local predicament.

Paola Prestini is an Italian-born, award-winning composer who has just presented those in New York who are interested in new music with an ultimatum (she doesn’t put it like that, but I do). The message is simple: in a world where performed music has lost nearly all its value and function, if we want live new music, then those who can afford to need to put their philanthropic best foot forward—and now.

Kevin Dolon is a tax lawyer and amateur musician; he wanted to do something about the state of new music in New York. Kevin is not your usual New York megaphone conversationalist; he is quiet and thoughtful and makes his way around on bicycle. He found a building that was literally the ruined shell of the National Sawdust Company in Williamsburg and persuaded other well-resourced businessmen to put up $6 million. Paola Prestini raised $6 million to match it—a composer and musician did that! With a final cost of around $16 million, another 50 donors chipped in too. Total running costs are $2 million annually.

In the US, there is always a clear bottom line, and in a place like New York even performing in poverty is expensive; in this respect Sydney is fast achieving parity. National Sawdust has five years to make itself into a going concern: the rent is free, the sponsors own the building. If the whole enterprise falls over, the owners can sell the building for a fortune. Since it’s on prime real estate in New York they cannot lose, but in the meantime they can create something exciting, unique and worthwhile—something they are proud to attach their names to.

It has to be said Paola Prestini has no intention of failing at anything. Her talent is aligned with a practicality and a relentless determination; she is also a top composer. The vibe in the opening month of National Sawdust is one of excitement and of generating a brave new performance option in a cultural environment and malaise that is drifting or even speeding in the opposite direction. The music in the opening weeks was a hard core of genres from modernist chamber music to 1990s rock, from free improvisation to electronica, from small scale music theatre to solo mandolin or oud virtuosity, from maximalists (John Zorn) to minimalists (Terry Riley), and just about every style of singing under the sun. It was inclusive, and nothing had been watered down for ease of consumption.

The building itself is state of the art. The actual performance space sits on huge springs that insulate it from the noisy streets and nearby subway. This I am critical of, as I would prefer to play in a space or place with specific resonance, not avoid the uniqueness of given sonic characteristics. The ubiquitous black box performance spaces dotted around the world are mostly interchangeable. One night down at The Stone (where I was doing another residency) the neighbouring sound world took its place in the band: the road adjacent was being resurfaced by giant noise-wielding machines, and we were taken to the world of high decibel industrial music (clearly audible in the club) whether we liked it or not—we went with it.


The situation for National Sawdust requires another operational aesthetic; it’s sitting on very expensive and escalating real estate. Paola will have to hire the space out to just about any kind of commercially viable event that involves music if NS is to survive. She looks at me sternly and says, “We won’t do weddings.” So there is a line, a line I crossed many times in the days when I was a professional musician—I once even played a divorce party on a fat cat yacht on Sydney Harbour.

My first glance at National Sawdust brings amazement and a feeling that this is not built for the use of humble musicians but for the enjoyment of architects. However, from the point of view of Paola’s long-term plan, she needs a performance space that can also be a recording studio for an 80-piece orchestra playing Hollywood film scores or TV shows, bringing in the mega sums of loot that will keep this place going. The location is also significant with respect to demography. The restaurants and bars in the nearby streets are packed out with 25-35 year olds wielding trust funds—if you are up and partying at two o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday night, it’s unlikely you have a real job to go to at eight the next day. The National Sawdust needs and wants their money to make itself sustainable. The multi-purpose character of NS has it fitted out with one of the best sound systems that these ears have ever heard—a paradigm of sound reinforcement as opposed to amplification. The smallest grains of sand falling on a table…a cranked up DJ—I heard both extremes and everything in between in the main auditorium.

But Paola’s passion remains for the new and the experimental; there will be no fewer than 500 concerts a year. All her methodology, planning and process runs at hyper speeds with this one aim in mind—the popular supporting the less popular or even the unpopular (likely to be the most interesting). The bottom line always looming. The financial support she has made available to musicians such as myself also goes beyond the accepted terms of engagement and generosity—my residency at The Stone was in fact made possible by National Sawdust.

A model for Sydney?

In the 1970s I had a choice of over 15 free venues in Sydney that were amenable to new and experimental music (galleries mostly, but also some jazz and rock clubs). Crushed by land speculation and basic greed, this option for performed new music has pretty well collapsed. The best venue in town for improvised music is now a private house holding 50-90 persons; entrance is by donation (it would be illegal to charge an entrance fee), and it is not on social media. The punters are, in the main, generous—they know the tenuous state of affairs for musicians. The People’s Republic in Camperdown is already a model for the performance of music, but obviously you can’t put a PA and a rock band in there.

So, what other kind of model could work in Sydney? Clearly, the few philanthropists who support music are going to stick with handing over their loot to those who already have the bulk of government funding—ie the models of late 19th century opera, orchestras playing largely classical music, or the use of celebrities who might make Mozart look a bit hipper (although the more Australian classical musicians try to act groovy, the straighter they tend to look).

Scale and appropriate use of resources are two factors that need to be addressed. The aesthetics and grandiose power displays of European empire in the late 19th century surely have no place in the 21st century. The Sydney Opera House is a black hole into which money is poured with little significant cultural return. Can’t we just sell it off to the Chinese and use the cash to promote musical activities that have some use and benefit to society? (The façade of the SOH stays of course, generating the tourist dollars—job security!) It would be cheaper anyway to send those who can’t live without Puccini or Wagner on a package holiday to Milan or Bayreuth where they can catch the real thing, rather than indulge their expensive taxpayer-funded fantasy in Australia. The capacity of National Sawdust in New York is 175 seated and 320 standing. The Stone is legally limited to 75. These are appropriate-sized venues for a city characterized nowadays (as are the metropolises of Australia) by a plethora of niche musics.

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) Andy Akiho (steel drum/ composer) & Roger Bonair-Agard (Beat poet), Opening Night, National Sawdust

We have become such a controlled society that it is very hard to know where or how to operate as a musician and also quite challenging not to get depressed about the whole business. We all work for free, providing unimaginable amounts of wealth via our data to Google, Apple, Facebook, the government and the rest of them. Taking back control of our lives might be a start, but is that just too difficult?

At root cause, it comes down to the ownership of (once stolen) land. The Australian Opera says its tickets are under $100 a seat, but that is horse manure; the real costs of subsidising a building like the Opera House in Sydney’s bubbling real estate market are astronomical. If you want the proof, I suggest putting it on the market with plans to turn it into the usual apartments and restaurants (like “the toaster” next door)—it would be worth billions in seconds. Hey, why not add a casino as well?

Historically, non-classical music (what the Germans call Unterhaltungsmusik—music for entertainment) has been partnered with booze, drugs and, more recently, food. On the positive side, you could say the music was functional; on the negative, the music itself didn’t pay the bills—or enough for an entrepreneur to want to start up a club. John Zorn’s approach to The Stone club in New York City is reductive—no bar, no food, no drugs—just the music. The aesthetic shows off his puritanical side, but with audiences drawn from a population base of 20 million, it can work. It’s low-level street capitalism taking a small bite out of The Big Apple. There are other examples, but most come and go, run out of steam or money or get moved on. The Stone is still there after 10 years. To play at The Stone, you have to be invited by its owner—the club is booked for up to two years in advance—a two-year wait to play for the door! Every month there is a rent gig where Zorn’s own celebrity status ensures a full house. Despite the $25 entrance fee, I suspect the Doyen of Downtown music puts a lot of his money into the place as well.

You don’t have to wait two years to play in Sydney; there is not yet the population pressure, but give it a few years. Even if you do get to play in Sydney at a club or pub, the chances of earning an ‘adult wage’ without a subsidy are remote. Meanwhile, with the rationale of a third world dictatorship, extreme perversions of power are staged here. The previous Minister for Bullying putting his hand in the Australia Council till and walked off with 28% of it for his own slush fund in possibly the most blatant abuse of democracy ever to happen in the arts since federation—even New Yorkers are shocked by that! Similarly, the quarantining of the bulk of Australia Council funds for the benefit of a few reactionary institutions, which are never tested with any peer review, is a continuing profligacy—a casual insult by the powerful to the democratic process.

So, short of returning the favour and directly stealing from the rich and powerful, what’s to be done? To quote George Orwell, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”; that could be a useful start but would be considered too hazardous by most musicians. Biting the hand that feeds you is a tasty but tough ask.

Can a society with a limited funded sector organise itself better than we currently seem capable of? This probe goes right to the heart of the way in which power is organised in Australia and the few who use it—and use it only for their advantage, to protect their privilege and status.

Just after returning from New York, I heard a philanthropist on Radio National promoting her new concert hall at the Ngeringa Cultural Centre near Adelaide. Great, I thought. Australia is on the move. But then after the listener’s hopes are raised comes the reality check—some 19th century notions that hardly seem possible in a 21st century modern state—”bringing culture to nature” (in other words, human exceptionalism is something that nature can’t do without; nature has to be improved by human intervention) and “the perfect acoustic” (in other words, Vivaldi in Venice). So, despite the best intentions of putting money into the arts, it’s the colonial mindset that continues to dominate in Australia.

The crowdfunding solution?

Ah, but what about the wonders of crowdfunding? There are but a handful of successes, and those are in the realm of pop music. Well, you might expect that, as popular music assumes the hierarchy of popularity rather than an innovative and flourishing musical culture. Even organisations with clout like The New York City Opera couldn’t do more than raise $301,000 of a targeted $1 million in their quest to avoid collapse. Random generosity is a rare quality in our species; the chances are that those who want to support an organisation are already familiar with it and probably handing over their pennies. Crowdfunding doesn’t appear to cut it.

Survival and sustainability

Anyone who dares predict the future is likely to end up with egg on his face. But I do believe performed music will survive, and I think it will thrive, especially as the myth and delusion of continual economic growth (on a planet with diminishing resources) evaporates. The scale will be small, personal, and community orientated (that’s a hard one for most of Sydney), and it will have to be supported by those lucky enough to own property or other resources and willing to share on a regular basis. It will come down to personal relationships and a desire to contribute. The performance of music has always mirrored the great heaves of economies, the ebb and flow of migration, the collapse of empires; there is no reason to think that our time is any different. The cultural paradigms of post-WW2 are not quite gone with a bang, but they are whimpering.

In the past few years, under the guidance of Lord Mayor Clover Moore (who posed the question—what the hell happened to all the live music and venues of her youth?) the City of Sydney has made attempts to reclaim its live music culture. This is a Herculean task, but there are some results (The Tempe Jets practice space for musicians being one example). I think an integrated holistic town plan that involves the practice of music along with bicycle lanes, urban greening, the installing of car-free pedestrian zones etc is certainly a key to any sustainable quality of life in a big town. And if the citizenry can persuade the “big end of town” that such a process benefits them as well, we will by default have more options for the practice of music. The only problem with this officially granted approach is that we may end up with the clean, saccharin culture of a Singapore. One integral aspect of live music performance has always been the temporary loss of control—the access to another reality.

In this country there are many small organisations doing a great job (NowNow, Make It Up Club, Sound Out, Tura, Sound Stream, Clocked Out, Ensemble Offspring, Speak Percussion, Decibel, BIFEM etc) but all are to some degree dependent on diminishing government funding. This exacerbates the precipitous state of affairs, even defining the kind of music that must be squeezed out of the communal funding bottle—the last drops of the 20th century model. Even the hugely versatile MONA FOMA, supported by the gambling largesse of David Walsh, is underwritten up to 50% by the Tasmanian taxpayer. Australian corporate wealth tends to end up offshore, and it is highly unlikely to ever enter the philanthropic world on the side of the local, the appropriate, and the challenging.

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

Interactive Sonic Ball project of Jon Rose at National Sawdust Community Day

In Sydney, millionaire Judith Neilson seems set to outspend Walsh with her new Phoenix gallery in Chippendale—there will be space for performance, but I cannot see new music being a priority. This is visual art: a world dominated by money and fashion where there is a toxic mix of dubious philanthropy and the use of taxpayer’s funding to support the visiting superstar of vacuity.

Maybe money is not the base problem or solution; perhaps it is one of time and commitment and a move away from the overpriced centres of our cities? Music was one of the first professions to be hollowed out by the digital revolution; to that extent, musicians are in the vanguard. There are no illusions, and the hardcore practitioners of new, improvised and experimental music have been writing the self-reliance manual since the advent of musician-run record companies and festivals in the 1970s. (The use of the word “experimental” is problematic, as words associated with creativity have been devoured and neutred by mainstream capitalism. If the Australian Chamber Orchestra professes to promote the “experimental”, you know the word is now meaningless. But I can’t think of a relevant replacement; “exploratory music” or “new music” have the same problems; this is why I used “other” in the title of this proposal.)

Australia will finally be a republic and have a non-colonial flag long before a group of millionaires come to the aid of “other” music as I witnessed in New York; we musicians will have to do it ourselves.

A proposal

My proposal is that Sydney develops its own network of say 10 musician/artist run spaces using The People’s Republic in Camperdown as a model. Despite an aging population, it is vital for the future of music performance that such a network be initiated by the young (and not established middle-aged musicians) and that the spaces (front rooms, garages etc) belong to them (or more likely their parents) and that they set the agenda. A monthly concert in a private space—it can’t be that hard, can it? If there were 10 such spaces (all distinctively different), that would provide 120 concerts a year, constituting an appropriate minimum-sized pool of musical creativity for a town such as Sydney. I did suggest such an idea to The City of Sydney when they were canvassing ideas for the rejuvenation of live music two years ago, but the terms of reference were limited to rock bands, singer-songwriters, and DJs—it’s as if most of the innovative music of the 20th century had gone missing or never happened.

In the 1980s and 90s, I lived in and helped run Die Küche (the Kitchen) in Berlin. There are many places currently in Berlin that follow a similar model. However Berlin remains cheap in comparison to Sydney, and the buildings are bigger—the war-torn history of Berlin still provides cheap unrenovated buildings suitable for live music (hurry, hurry, they are going fast). However, I think the problems of creating new music in a place like New York are more relevant to the contemporary over-priced bubble that is Sydney.

Creating a new reality

Meanwhile back in New York, Paola Prestini and John Zorn are both musicians who realised early in their careers that there are no free lunches, and if they were going to achieve their musical ambitions, they would have to be, by necessity, impresarios. Their visions are very different, but the cause of presenting challenging, live, contemporary music is mutual. Eventually it comes down to individuals sticking their heads up above the parapet of conformity and creating a vision and a reality where there was previously none.

Jon Rose, electric violin, Julia Reidy, electric guitar; plus The Great Fences of Australia multi-media event, Jon Rose, tenor violin The People’s Republic, Camperdown, Sydney, 6 Dec, 7pm; Jon Rose, Julia Reidy; plus book launch, Jon Rose, Rosenberg 3.0—not violin music; The Make It Up Club, Fitzroy, Melbourne, 8 Dec, 8pm

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. web only

© Jon Rose; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 November 2015