In praise of shades of grey…

John DavisPersonal reflections on my engagement with new music

by John Davis. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

I am fortunate to experience many kinds of new musics, and engage with creators and practitioners in a diverse range of contexts, both in Australia and internationally. Through the work we do at the Australian Music Centre, promoting the work of Australian composers, in the AMC’s role as the Australian Member Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and in my role as the current President of the ISCM, I have a particular and privileged perspective on the new music landscape that few others have.

I stress, it is only one perspective, one perspective that is continually revising itself and evolving. There are many other perspectives that can offer alternate views which may be as valid as mine. In outlining some reflections, I feel compelled to highlight the complexities and nuances of what new music is, and how it operates and functions, which are so often over-simplified, and cosmeticized, and politically and aesthetically exploited, until they are devoid of any meaning. It is these complexities and nuances that I feel need to be fully embraced by anyone who recognises the critical importance of ‘the new’ in defining a future for music, beyond what is offered by the museum or popular culture.

It’s about the terminology…

Firstly, I need to make a comment about terminologies, and how they define what I want to write about. It’s important. Bear with me.

In speaking about ‘new music’, I am referring to what in the European context is understood as ‘contemporary music’, meaning contemporary classical, or ‘art’ music. The terminology is awkward, and better understood when contextualised – and in my professional role I generally contextualise by referring to a spectrum of creation in sound, from notated ‘concert’ musics; to the ‘pointy’ end of jazz and a range of other improvisatory practice; to a broad range of experimentation in sound.

Yes, the terminology is awkward, many reading this won’t care, and some involved in particular areas of practice may take issue with how I have expressed this spectrum of music making. I accept this. Definitions can’t be comprehensive, can’t capture every nuance, and in contemporary practice things change more quickly than any terminology attempting to categorise it.

So what I express below in relation to ‘new music’ is framed by what I outline above.

About the work, and why I like it…

I wear several hats, as an administrator and manager in the ‘new music’ world, as an enthusiast and advocate for Australian new music, and as an interested, pretty well-informed, a somewhat educated, and certainly engaged audience member for a broad range of international ‘new musics’.

I do a lot of listening, and am lucky enough to do much of this in a live performance context rather than from recording. I tend to favour listening to music that challenges me, music that makes me think, that makes me ponder on the creative explorations of composers and musicians as they reflect on, respond to, or are inspired by, contemporary life. I love the theatre of performances that challenge. Such listening can sometimes be hard work, but it is also endlessly rewarding, and setting out with the intent to listen hard (and well) will often result in discovering totally unexpected delights.

There are some works that I only get to hear once (usually at a live performance, often a premiere, often unrecorded), and occasionally, making sense of the music and the composer’s intent can be a struggle, but it is a struggle that I find endlessly fascinating. If I do have the opportunity to become familiar with a new work over time, perhaps through a recording, a broadcast, or multiple performances (more unusual), I often find myself discovering new things on each hearing of a piece. This is the kind of music I like best, music that reveals more of itself as it becomes more familiar, the invisible becoming audible, the musical intent becoming tangible, the idea made manifest and communicated with the magic that live performance can create.

I know that in relation to ‘challenging’ music, some of my tastes are not shared by many, and this situation is quite acceptable to me. I advocate, but I don’t evangelise, and I despair at music fundamentalism, and the clashing of those ideologies that consider themselves in opposition. As with other fundamentalisms of our time, the ever-increasing volume of the dogma, the simplification of the discourse to a fundamentalist black and white, is something I have great difficulty in accepting.

Navigating the new music landscape…embracing the niche

I mentioned earlier that much of my involvement in new music relates to what I see as a diverse and complex range of specialist niches, areas of specific contemporary practice, each characterised by a particular aesthetic, or mode of function, even a particular community with its own network of relationships and connections. There is much fluidity across these niches, many interrelationships, individuals who identify with several niches, navigating as their creative expression evolves and develops. Traversing layers and layers of varying shades of grey.

I have had cause in recent weeks and months to explore a range of addresses, blogs and discussion threads, each relating to the state of new music, its relationship to the audience, and (re)interpretations of its history. Some of it is highly critical (either of new music, its perceived audiences, composers, performers, programmers, or other things), some of it is quite perceptive, some highly opinionated, but much of it suffers from oversimplification. Some of it also relies on stereotyping, overgeneralisation, and the expounding of myths to make its point, and whilst in establishing a premise for an argument, the use of such tools are sometimes necessary, there is always the danger that speculation or assumption can be mistaken for fact.

This exploration has caused me yet again to ponder on the imperative in contemporary society to reduce highly complex and nuanced issues (which represent a vast range of shades of grey), to a fundamentalist and simplistic black and white.

Examples of some of the reference points in my recent explorations (there are too many to list them all!) include:

  • Lyndon Terracini’s keynote address at the 2012 MCA Assembly, published in Music Forum;
  • Michael Kieran Harvey’s 2012 Peggy Glanville Hicks Address, presented by the New Music Network, and published on their website;
  • Composer and blogger Elissa Milne outlining ‘a simple reason why new music audiences are so small’, in a recent brief article in Limelight magazine, and (slightly) more extensively on this in her blog ‘ideas about music, and about playing, learning, and teaching the piano…’;
  • US composer Daniel Asia in a Huffington Post blog attacking John Cage, and the torrent of online commentary that resulted from this (type ‘Daniel Asia + John Cage’ in your search engine);
  • Some of the discourse around the 3-part television series recently broadcast in the UK on BBC Four titled The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Music (type ‘the sound and the fury + 20thC music’ in your engine);
  • Recently published research from Melbourne University’s School of Psychological Sciences: ‘…which said that previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony. “Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds,” Associate Professor McLachlan said. “So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or Jazz) sounded like the wailing of cats, it’s simply because you haven’t learnt to listen by their rules.”’ (From their press release)

I have enjoyed a great deal of what I have found in these examples, the opinions being expressed (mostly provocatively, sometimes surprisingly), the criticisms levied, and the attacks and defences mounted. Some of the discourse is intelligent and well-constructed, and cause me to review my thinking on a particular aspect of a topic. Some of the discourse makes less than edifying reading.

It is however fascinating to observe the responses and the views expressed.

I offer one example only of something that nicely captured a viewpoint that I have often heard, and have been disappointed in. It is a generalisation/over-simplification from UK-based musicologist Tim Rutherford-Johnson on his always interesting blog The Rambler, in commentary following his post that responds to the Daniel Asia/John Cage issue:

‘1945 > Cold War > Darmstadt > serialism [etc.] > boo! > minimalism > neotonality/postmodernism > yay!’

Delicious, no? So elegant and precise a summary, and yet so devoid of any meaning. I have heard so many versions of this over many years, to the point that whenever somebody talks in these kinds of terms my ears hurt, more than any extreme noise performance could engender.

I could go on, but life is short, the email inbox over-floweth, and there is more music to hear, more composers and performers and thinkers on new music to engage with.

From all this, I offer the following conclusions:

I know of no composer who wants to write for an empty hall, or to be ‘unfriendly to an audience’. I know of no performer who wants to perform in such a context. I know many composers and performers who recognise that expressing their art (whatever the niche) at the highest level of excellence, with passion and commitment, with imagination and flair, with unapologetic enthusiastic celebratory energy, communicates in an extraordinary way, and creates a momentum that attracts a following. I have seen this in many contexts, in many places, and these musical experiences have been amongst the most profound in my life.

And for those who want to see music develop, who want to participate in the many niches of the new in music, to facilitate its continuing to be an integral part of our musical landscape, let’s stop fearing that some music might be less accessible to the masses than others, and cease the petty bickering. Let’s avoid reducing the discourse to the fundamental, and instead, fully embrace the many shades of grey that make our landscape so rich and fertile. And let’s champion and celebrate great music making that is not a part of the mainstream. Without taking up this challenge, we are much the poorer.


John Davis is CEO of the Australian Music Centre, and is currently serving his second (and final) term as President of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music.