New music has always been a source of fear and confusion, but is that any reason not to programme it?

This year, four young Australian composers will have new works premiered as part of a new music day to be held at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield. Holly Harrison, Anastasia Pahos, Alex Pozniak and Nicholas Vines, have written works for specific professional ensembles intended to serve as examples to numbers of high school music students attending a composition workshop. On the same day, some of these high school students will have an opportunity to have their own works tried out by members of the ensembles and receive immediate feedback.

Fifty years ago in this country a circumstance of this nature was unthinkable. However, it should be understood that a great deal of the push and shove associated with creating performance opportunities for new Australian music is coming from schools. There is a plethora of new music being written in these institutions and it is producing a plethora of students who want to study composition at the tertiary level. Gondwana Voices, for example, has a very special track record of commissioning new Australian work and it is sung, essentially, by children who lap it up as if to the manner born.

“The best way to get audiences not to come to new music is not to programme it”

 We have come an incredibly long way with new music in Australia, but there is still much to be done. The network orchestras programme what they consider to be a reasonable amount of new music, but many Australian composers think it is way too little. It stems from a view commonly held on the subject of new music that audiences won’t come if you programme new works. In fact, the best way to get audiences not to come to new music is not to programme it.

Here is a view on new music from a composer, quoted verbatim:

“Some people will perhaps wonder why I have undertaken to write about music, there being so many works by outstanding men who have treated the subject most thoroughly and learnedly; and more especially, why I should be doing so just at this time when music has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself.”

However, my efforts do not tend – nor do I credit myself with the strength – to stem the course of a torrent rushing precipitously beyond its bounds. I do not believe that I can call back composers from the unrestrained insanity of their writing to normal standards.

So wrote Johann Jospeh Fux in his text-book on counterpoint, Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus). The text, written in Vienna in 1725,  was known by Leopold Mozart who used it when teaching his son. Haydn is said to have worked out all the exercises and Beethoven was familiar with its contents. 

The question is: who were these unrestrained insane composers referred to in his book? Fux was born in 1660 and died in 1741 so he lived through the late Baroque and may have experienced some of the music of the early Mannheim school. However, his reaction is not dissimilar to many reactions we hear today towards new music. I do not mean by this the reactions of members of the general public and concertgoers but the reactions of certain musicians themselves who openly criticise new music from the standpoint of taste and personal reaction.

New music champions Ensemble Offspring

The argument often promoted is: if you have to explain new music then it can’t be any good because music should speak to you immediately. There is no comeback to that sort of statement other than to describe such thinking as woolly and confused.

All of the music that is now standard repertoire was new once. Much of it was roundly criticised, described as unplayable, horrendous, offensive and so on. Unless we continue to commission and play new music we will be neglecting the development of our culture and depriving our audiences of new, challenging and arresting aural expriences.

If you can, do be there at the concert on July 26 at Santa Sabina and hear four world premieres. You will not regret it – and there is a strong possibility that you will add something rich to your life. The music may even be insanely unrestrained! 

Richard’s Australian Composition Seminar will take place at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, Sydney on July 26