On 20 May, Limelight ran an article written for us by Ciaran Frame about his 2020 Living Music Report, in which he surveyed last year’s musical offerings by the country’s Major Performing Arts Organisations.
An image from the Living Music Report
Frame’s Living Music Report is an annual analysis of Australian orchestral programming, examining whether the composers, whose works were performed around the country, adequately reflects the Australian identity and our gender, cultural and First Nations diversity. Coining a phrase used by the Australia Council, the article was called Do Our Arts Reflect Us?. Frame found that in 2020 the answer was “not yet” although the trajectory is headed in the right direction.
Phillip Scott has responded to that article with the following letter.
Do our arts reflect us?
I would say they do, with increasing relevance, in drama – theatre, film and television – and in literature. Places where specific stories in a relatable social setting can be told.
Orchestral music is a different case. I’m totally in favour of our symphony orchestras premiering contemporary and Australian works – even though this is not the music subscribers pay to hear. (Not a minor consideration.)
An orchestra’s role in my view is not primarily to reflect contemporary society. Rather, it is to dip into a rich, stylistically diverse, and historically important tradition, to recreate the great music – well known and unknown – that exists within that tradition. Most classical music lovers today turn to this vast repertoire not to have our society reflected back at us, but to escape it!
The Western classical music tradition is skewed heavily towards compositions by European male composers. Women were discouraged, except as performers. So while there are some excellent female composers – more now than ever before – the overwhelming bulk of the classical tradition was created by men. Programming can’t help but reflect that fact, particularly if we want to listen to the best out of 400 years or so of written musical repertoire.
It took most of the 20th century for Australian composers to find an individual voice, one that did not simply imitate Anglo-European styles but reflected at least something of the continent’s spaciousness and distinctive environment. By the end of the century, though, and today, a nationalistic approach is well and truly a thing of the past. Our ability to digitally communicate with every part of the world has made that mindset redundant. A composer anywhere is able to absorb influences from whatever appeals to him or her, and work with that material. The late Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe was fascinated by traditional Japanese music (as is the American Robert Carl, and others). The German composer Enjott Schneider wrote an opera in Mandarin on a traditional Chinese theme. The Swede Christian Lindberg wrote a piece called Waves of Wollongong. Sculthorpe also turned to Indigenous Australian music and ideas for inspiration. This is not “cultural appropriation”, it is the freedom of the creative mind to shape sound into something personal.
My main point concerns the orchestral canon. There is no question that orchestral programming could be broader and less repetitive, but it very much has to depend on what a conductor or soloist is prepared to play. We get plenty of German and Russian music – though too often the same pieces repeated – but very little French, Spanish, English, American or Scandinavian. There are thousands of masterpieces we never hear live, and doubtless never will.
Some people ask, why not ditch all that and concentrate on reflecting the diversity and gender balance of our own time and place. (It is a question of making room: a piece of music can go for an hour – so when we add, we also have to subtract.)
I would answer this way:
Orchestral music is an absolute art form. It exists on a plane removed from the everyday. While you might identify 19th-century hymn tunes in Charles Ives, or 1920s jazz harmonies in Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde, you don’t need to understand the social connotations of the period to appreciate the music. Music speaks to us on an emotional or subconscious level, as well as an analytical, intellectual level. The greatest music has survived the era in which it was written; it has transcended its time. So to simply look at programming through the prism of early 21st-century ideas of diversity and gender equality is to drive a nail into the coffin of this art form. Let’s be blunt: as good as that new music may be on its own terms, it’s not going to replace Bach or Beethoven or Mahler or Sibelius or Debussy or Mozart or Stravinsky.