Music That Resists An Audience

Since my previous post, reflecting on a simple reason why audiences are so small for new music concerts, I’ve had a wave of comment come my way, either directly on the blog (you can read for yourself) or via twitter or rebloggings or facebook sharings, even emails sent directly to me.

It was fascinating to see the kaleidoscope of angles taken when referring to the piece. To some it was a piece about the fragmentation of audiences in the 21st century; to others it was about what a venue/artist partnership looks like; to others it was a checklist of great ideas for audience building. And the post has been shared by visual artists, choreographers, jazz musicians and pop producers.

Amongst the positive responses are lines like “I’d kiss you. But then people would talk.” (thanks Rebekah!) and “Well written punchy piece by @ElissaMilne delivers knockout blow to new music narcissism then picks it up off the mat.” (thanks Séan). And “What she said”, “Wow. Yes.”, “This.”, “Just read this.”, and “Duh!” and so forth (thanks to all for your endorsements).

But it’s the people who don’t quite agree, or who profoundly disagree whose comments prompt further teasing out of the issues in any debate; in this case, of the issues implicit in any examination of the slender appeal of new music concerts.

The first such issue to get my attention was this idea that some music resists an audience. Music that’s hard to hear. Complicated. The stuff admired for not rewarding a half-listening listener.

The fundamental idea here being that it’s the audiences that new music rejects that makes it the best.

I’m assuming this is what we’re supposed to leap-frog into understanding through this rhetoric: that some music is so muscular it just won’t cozy up with you on the couch, so serious it can’t have a laugh, and so ascetic it eats its gruel in private.

The irony being that music is anthropomorphised for the very purpose of stating its antipathy to people. And the raising of a discursive eyebrow is always in order when for-purposes-other-than-poetry anthropomorphising is in action.

See, it’s not music that resists audience at all. It’s artists.

One of my favourite stories about how music in and of itself is ever-willing to find an audience, if only the artist will allow it, is the story of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Only, it wasn’t called that to start with. It was called 8’37″. But when the composer heard the work he decided to abandon his Cage-like (or possibly Cage-homage) title in favour of something that communicated the human meanings Penderecki experienced on first hearing the work performed. Finally he settled on “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and dedicated the work to those victims. But the music was not composed for that purpose; the composer found this purpose in the music he had already composed, and then presented his work to his audiences with this narrative and framing attached.

If the artist had wanted his music to resist an audience he would have refused to share his emotional insights and connections with others. But why would you want your music to resist an audience? (ah, that will be the topic of my next post, I believe…)

New art music, notoriously, has its largest audience amongst contemporary dance audiences. Not that the audiences for contemporary dance are massive; but they are gargantuan in comparison to the bedraggled twos and threes who gather in the name of contemporary classical music. The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.

Yep. Bodies.

I know it goes against all classical musicians believe in when they are on stage, but bodies are where it’s at. Bodies tell truths and lies and share stories and reveal secrets.

And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear. “Just listen”, is the mantra, as if the eye is the doorway to aesthetic damnation, as if the music were only about the experience of the ear. Dame Evelyn Glennie would call you on that.

Performers don’t look at each other (often because they don’t dare look up from the score). The stage is a ramshackle of music stands and extra chairs, abandoned instruments from the last piece and with the instruments for the current piece all set at angles that make it hard for the audience to see what’s going on. Alternatively, the layout is the same as you’d expect for music written in the late 1700s. And if anyone talks it’s either in an unrehearsed mumble or in a haze of faux self-deprecation.

One of the best moments I’ve had as an audience member for a new music concert took place during one of the ISCM World New Music Days concerts held in Sydney in 2010. It’s a concert I loved for so many reasons I blogged about it. It was an Ensemble Offspring concert, and the overworked ensemble were performing an astonishing amount of new music within a week – it was just staggering seeing how much of the performing load they were carrying. This concert featured some of the younger composers selected for the festival, and even when works weren’t completely convincing they really did feel ‘fresh’, which was fabulous.

One of the works really wasn’t resonating with me at all, however, and I was making notes to that effect when the music trailed off; Roland Peelman, the conductor, had dramatically called a halt to proceedings and turned to the audience and apologised with words along the lines of “That was terrible, we’re starting again”, an apology that was met with gasps from the audience and a stentorian “Oh, ROLAND” from Geoffrey Gartner, the group’s cellist. It was funny, and it was honest, and it made the audience sit up and listen to the second play through. And that second play through was a revelation; the same composition, played well, spoke the volumes it had failed to communicate the first time around.

Here’s the thing… The conductor spoke clearly, directly, and almost conspiratorially with the audience: we were part of the success of this work! The performance had gone haywire somewhere along the way and that less-than-well-performed music had begun to resist the audience. The conductor had the courage to identify AND rectify the problem; and the cellist had also communicated a truth of the performance: the work was hard (especially in the context of so many performances, day after day)! And the performers had another gig to get to later that evening! It was context, framing, narrative that cleared the path for that music to be heard well. Nothing to do with quiet or small audiences; everything to do with a desire to connect.

Again, it’s not music that resists an audience; it’s artists who do. Are they shy? Are they unsocialised? Are they high functioning autistics? Are they so focussed on the values of the century that brought us high fidelity that anything that isn’t picked up by the grammaphone needle is considered extraneous? It’s the 20th century equivalent of Brahms saying he’d rather stay home and read the score than go to a (contaminated by humans) concert.

The Bible tells the story of Jonah, sent to Ninevah (reluctantly, and therefore via a whale) to tell its inhabitants to repent. He despises the people, preaches in a cursory manner, and is then disgusted when they all start worshipping his god.

I kind of get the feeling that’s how it would be for some contemporary art music practitioners if they looked up from their music stands and saw the great unwashed taking an interest…

A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts

Discussions about the small audiences new music attracts have been a constant of my life as a musician since I first entered university as a 16 year old to study composition.

I have to confess I’m getting a bit sick of the topic, mostly because there’s no mystery to these matters whatsoever, and the whole ‘debate’ ends up in the field of deliberate self-delusion almost as soon as it begins.

Last night someone said to me that audiences are small for ‘this kind of thing’ because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”.

Something in my head finally broke after all the years, and I found myself struggling to hold back the waves of derision engulfing me. I may not have won that struggle.

I’m not going to waste my breath explaining the multitude of ways in which Australia fails to demonstrate backwardness. And before I don’t do that I’m not going to waste my time deconstructing the idea of backwardness itself. Instead, let’s begin from the beginning.

Of all the possible reasons for a concert to have a microscopic audience the most likely of them all is this one: the music has no fans.

Live concerts (or any live events) are built on a fan-base, so if you have no fans you have a limited chance of attracting an audience. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience.

Now I do appreciate that there has been an aesthetic of writing with no thought for connection with listeners, but seriously people, if you write with no consideration of how you are building your audience you can hardly be surprised when you don’t have one.

And yeah, it’s your audience. It’s not the audience for “new music” or “experimental music” or “art music”. It’s the group of people in your neighbourhood, community, workplace, internet forums, facebook groups and twitterfeed who are interested in what you do. That’s what an audience is: it’s a bunch of people who care about your work so much that they want to participate. By being there. By being close to the action. By giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.

For about 8 months in pre-social media days I once programmed cabaret for a new, small but growing-in-prominence Sydney music/art venue. We had some of Australia’s finest musical theatre and cabaret talent on that fabulous, small stage, and the experience got me wised up to some fundamental truths about audiences.

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

Even with advertisements in the right places at the right times (including feature stories, sometimes, in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro section), the audiences for these uniformly stunning performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare.

Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the city/region/state/country. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is the detail. The performer has to persuade the RSL to host the performance, not the audience to attend. And so the performer experiences the delusion that the public at the RSL is ‘general’, when in fact it has been carefully inculcated over many years.

This is what a festival can bring to a performer/composer – a focussed, committed audience that is engaged in participating in the event of the festival primarily, and interested in the performer/composer as a by-product of that primary engagement.

Established venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) have in the past decade or so attempted to build this same kind of audience loyalty and invested-ness.

But the best way for an exponent of new music to ensure there is an audience for their music is to take responsibility themselves, particularly as festivals and venues who work hard at building their audiences will want to see a partnership with an artist as being mutually advantageous. And that means the performer needs to attract an audience. And if the performer can’t attract an audience without the festival/venue, then…. You see the circularity we’re dealing with here.

What can new art music musicians do? Try these seven suggestions for a start:

  1. Stop blaming the people who stay away. If there’s no one in Australia ‘forward’ enough for your music then travel until you find a sympathetic community in which you can thrive.
  2. Start thinking about who you want to connect with from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90 minute work about sewer pipes – who might find that interesting? Why are you wanting to compose a work about sewer pipes? Why do you think people will be interested for 90 minutes? Answering questions of this ilk will improve your composing. It helps you edit, to synthesise. But it also helps you gear up for connecting with your audience right from the get-go.
  3. Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. If you’re talking to thin air then you’re talking to thin air. If that’s your point, that’s sensational, but no one is hearing your point, so your artistic practice is probably more like a spiritual or psychological praxis. Which is fine. But now you’re not being an artist, you’re just engaging in growth. And no one other than your family and close friends care about that. See what I did there?
  4. Stop being a narcissist. Seriously, you think random strangers care about your personal growth?
  5. Start connecting with people. Whether you have a concert coming up or not. Connect via conversation, shared interests, real life dilemmas. Connect by sharing recipes, local knowledge, book recommendations, travel tips. For one thing, having people in your life who trust you and feel connected to you will be incredibly life-enhancing no matter what, but you’ll also start building an audience who really *are* interested in your discoveries and performances. Because they know you and they trust you.
  6. Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you – get on twitter, set up a facebook page, make a video blog. The gatekeepers of culture are no more. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
  7. Know who you are. Easier said than done. And really hard when ethical artistic engagement involves change as much as it does consistency. But the more you know who you are the more clarity you will have in shaping engaging music/performances and in building an audience for your work. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.

Having something to say is somewhere between unsatisfying and stultifying without having someone who wants to hear it. Stop composing, rehearsing and performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.

A small rant about diagrammatic illiteracy in the Arts Curriculum draft document

This has been my longest ever break in blogging since I began nearly three years ago. Family matters have been very pressing, and I ended up shutting down all my projects until things were on a more even keel.

During this time, however, I’ve either tried or wanted to blog about any number of things: the Steve Reich retrospective held at the Sydney Opera House at the end of April, the value of learning the melodic minor scale, background information on my piece Vendetta which is currently on the Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 piano syllabus, a post on how I’ve let a student down by not teaching her to read chord charts before now, a review of the Nico Muhly/Sufjan Stevens/Bryce Dressner collaboration “Planetarium” as performed here in Sydney at the end of May, a Top 5 Things Parents Need to Know Once Their Child Starts Taking Piano Lessons list, as well as a discussion of the value and challenge of playing on the black keys in the very first lessons, a discussion of the new-look and hopelessly fuddy-duddy Limelight magazine, and looking at piano lessons through the lens of gifted education.

But I have a new topic to add to the blog-post-wish-list: the latest Arts Curriculum draft document from ACARA. About 18 months ago I blogged (relentlessly) about the buried misconceptions about music education in the previous draft document, and I’ve taken a quick look at this new draft and felt my spirits sink as I see a whole new batch of blind spots, insufficiencies and outmoded assumptions.

For now, however, let me simply draw your attention to Figure 1 on page 5. This is a diagram of such woeful conception that it calls into question the general literacy of the authors of the draft. I know it’s a tad old-fashioned of me, but I do expect that educators understand basic concepts as what a Venn diagram is for and when not to use one. The most generous interpretation I can put on the inclusion of this poorly conceived figure is that the writers of the curriculum have just discovered the possibilities of SmartArt in their Word program. Which begs many questions about their capacity to author the Media Arts section of the curriculum document.

But, you know, if it’s good enough for a US presidential candidate, right?

Is the Study of Piano Declining in the United States of America?

This topic in the Tuesday afternoon line-up of MTNA Conference presentations seemed almost arcane on the page of the conference booklet, especially by way of comparison to other topics with immediate practical application in the 30 minute piano lesson. And the question seemed one of those asked-and-answered types: is the study of piano in decline? Hell, yeah. Who doesn’t know that, right?

But I’m an arcane-topic kind of chick, so I bounded with enthusiasm into this panel presentation-discussion. It was already impressive just checking out who was in the panel: Peter Jutras, who is the editor of the wonderful Clavier Companion; E.L. Lancaster, who is both Vice President and Keyboard-Editor-in-Chief of Alfred Publishing; Brian Chung, Vice President of the Kawai Corporation; Gary Ingle, CEO of MTNA; Mike Bates, Senior Member of the Institutional Solutions Group, Keyboard Division, Yamaha Corporation of America; and Sharon Girard, NCTM, a private piano teacher since 1976 in Connecticut.

To begin: college-level study (and beyond). The raw number of students taking piano as their major for the undergraduate degrees in the United States has increased significantly over the past twenty years (roughly a 25% increase), numbers for masters have increased slightly (currently around the 1000 mark)  and numbers of students enrolled in doctoral programs with a piano major have increased astronomically (currently around 1000, up from only about 400 less than ten years ago). But these raw figures don’t tell the complete story. More and more piano majors (all levels) are international students (so these figures don’t reflect piano learning activity in the US in any case); there are more options for students to choose from when selecting their music major (so students who might previously have taken piano are now specialising in some other aspect of music); there are more students studying music (so the proportion of students piano majors  in comparison to the entire student population cannot be inferred from the raw data).

What are piano teachers in the suburbs, cities and small towns noticing? An increase in adult students and in very young beginners (4 and 5 year olds) and a sharp decline in beginners aged 9 and 10. The GFC seems to have had a pronounced (negative) impact on enrollments, but further to this there seems to be a decline in the value parents in 2012 ascribe to piano lessons in the broad education of their children. From my Australian perspective I was also fascinated to learn that school teachers are drivers of enrollments in piano lessons! In Australia school teachers have absolutely no impact on the propensity of a child to begin lessons – and if anything, their neutral impact skews slightly negative. But in the US many children learn band instruments through the school, and so children can still have an instrumental education without taking private piano lessons. Apparently it’s the band teachers who promote piano to some large degree, and when those teachers don’t encourage piano lesson enrollment a sharp decline can be seen.

Next: sales of educational and classical print music. These sales have declined since 2006, but only slightly (4%), and it’s hard to see that as anything other than a ripple-on effect of the GFC. The breakdown of print music sales in the US works out at something like 19% Classical Music, 19% Christian Music and 13% piano methods, with the bulk of the remainder being taken up by pop titles. This proportion appears to have held steady. In any case, print music sales are a poor indicator of piano study, because younger siblings often use the print music older siblings used before them, and it’s entirely possible that in a climate of financial restraint parents are more likely to seek these kinds of economies.

We move on to sales of instruments: grand pianos, uprights, digital pianos and keyboards. There has been a massive decline in sales of grand pianos since 2005 – down from 35,000 then to around 12,000 now. Seeing as most new grand pianos are purchased by institutions and very rich people it’s possible to infer that the rich people are being careful and the institutions have had their budgets slashed – neither of which reflects on the current number of piano students in the US. It’s when we get to the other categories that we see some interesting trends. Upright acoustic piano sales are also consistently down, as are sales of digital pianos. The category that is doing just fine (although not increasing, particularly) is the under $200 keyboard. These instruments are purchased by parents who want to invest the bare minimum to afford their children access to music education, with the intention to trade up if their child demonstrates prolonged interest and/or aptitude. In the US roughly 1,000,000 units of this kind of keyboard has been sold every year for the past decade. Do the instruments live in the back of cupboards? Who knows! This statistic is as enigmatic as the numbers on grand piano sales in terms of establishing a trend of piano study decline in the United States (although it potentially reflects an opportunity).

Meantime, the percentage of MTNA members who teach the piano has been increasing. Again, this fact doesn’t really tell us anything: are memberships of MTNA in decline or are they increasing? Has there been a recent trend of the teachers of particular instrument families to not sign up to the Music Teachers Associations? Has the MTNA been catering very well for piano teachers of late, and dropping the ball as regards the other instruments?

One comment was made by a panelist that I found very interesting: “we live in a culture of deflection and distraction”, a comment intended to speak to a broad trend away from educational practice that engaged students in critical thinking and practical skill acquisition. I tend to take the view that gaming cultures are educationally preferable (in so very many ways) to traditional classroom practices, and I further take the view that learning the piano is much more like a game than it is like a traditional school classroom learning experience. But I suspect this comment reflects some things that are particularly true not of Western culture but of American culture.

Comments were opened to the audience, and one emerging theme (reflecting comments also made by panellists) was the tension between sport and piano in the broad culture of childhood in the US – this idea that you either play soccer or you learn the piano, the idea that promising students find themselves pressured into team sport participation that then compromises their musical education, and so forth. Implicit in this theme was the notion that parents these days just don’t get what piano lessons are for (as touched on above), that soccer and team sports are widely seen to provide benefits for children while piano lessons do not.

Another theme (again, reflecting comments already made by panelists) was that piano teachers are not very marketing savvy, and that they are not very technology savvy. Sometimes these two lacks merge into one big piano teacher fail, with piano teachers not taking advantage of the internet to reinforce community awareness of their services and not taking advantage of social media to communicate with current and prospective students. There was an implicit sense that piano teachers do not look at their teaching as being a business (much in this theme was not unpacked, but, I think, broadly understood by the audience).

A third theme was that piano teachers are often quite rigid in their idea about what they do; instead of looking at their available skill set and thinking about a range of services they can provide to the community, teachers imagine that their real job is to provide the same kind of piano lessons as those they received, last century. Some comments from the floor detailed the wide ranging activities some exception-to-the-rule teachers engage in in order to have a solid business model.

In short, I felt as if this session were the first two pages of an introduction to a 350 page book on the topic; we just began to frame the conversation when it came to an end. And as fascinating as what was said was what was not. What about socio-economics? Are there some parts of the United States where piano study is thriving? Some cities that are doing significantly better than others? [I can't imagine piano lessons are as common as they used to be in Detroit, for example.] Are language issues an impediment to piano study? [The paucity of Spanish-language piano methods, for instance, as compared to Spanish-speaking population in the US surely indicates a swathe of the population disengaged from piano study.] How about the decline of the use of the acoustic piano in churches and other worship settings? [Once upon a time many not-wealthy churches would have a good, mid-range grand piano in addition to an organ.]

The panel mentioned the rise of online, do-it-yourself-by-watching-videos-and-buying-the-book piano study, and this touches on another aspect of this topic. It could be that piano/keyboard study by volume has seen no significant decline, but there’s every chance that the national pianistic skill set is in decline.

It’s a fascinating time in the United States, a time of substantial cultural reframing and contention. The study of the piano could well be a case study for this rethinking of what it means to be an American with an education (even if you never did make it to college)….

The Making of Lists: An Alternative 100

This is a post about lists, and it’s going to get specific about making lists about music. If you are not of the High Fidelity school of music discourse this post may irritate. Discontinue use if irritation persists.

Lists reflect those who make them, but they also reflect the list-making process. A To-Do list might be broken down into things to do before lunchtime, things to do before the weekend and things to do before Christmas, as a way of managing different priorities. A shopping list might be organised according to retail establishments, or even by way of supermarket aisles. Even books list contents by chapter, by title, alphabetically or by author name. There are all kinds of ways of organising the lists we make.

A radio station I rarely listen to recently compiled a list, as voted by its listeners (and me), of the 20th century pieces of classical music most cherished by its listeners (and me).

The enthusiasm for lists seeming to be universal, particularly amongst readers of blogs and consumers of music (see High Fidelity link above, and cf Rage programming, any hit parade/countdown music presentation format, and hints for bloggers), this appears to be a winner of a broadcasting idea. Lists are a starting point for debate and discussion, and all curation is (at heart) sophisticated list-making, so there seems little to lose in such an endeavour.

But a great list needs clear definition. Favourite Compositions for Viola in Quintuple Time. Favourite Compositions for Piano by South American-born-and-raised composers. Favourite Art Music Compositions for non-orchestral instruments composed 1996-2000. And so forth. Generally speaking, the more specific the confines of the list the more intriguing the results.

And this ABC Classic FM top 100 20th century classical music pieces featured an unhelpful looseness of definition in two key ways.

1. Time Constraints. So the 20th century either began on January 1, 1900, or on January 1, 1901. Decide which and be brutal at excluding works not within the arbitrarily decided starting point. Yes, this means that works composed in 1899 were not, in fact, 20th century works at all. And a century lasts 100 years, not 110 or 111. So works composed after December 31, 1999, or after December 31, 2000 (keep it consistent with the decided-upon starting date) shouldn’t have been included either. Unless you change the name of the list.

2. Intention/Reception/Production. The 20th century saw a diffusion of musical styles and consumption, and the term ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ has come to represent a particular subset of styles and consumption models. The final list included works composed for film/performed by orchestra: an interesting cross-roads of what constitutes classical music. Brilliant and demonstrably popular film scores were not included, one assumes because of their unsymphonic approach. TV themes of similar popularity and interest also went unnominated. Musical theatre entries told the same story, the scored-for-symphonic-orchestra-and-composed-by-legitimate-classical-conductor West Side Story featured in the list, but nothing else from this genre. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that if it’s symphonic in ambition it probably counts as classical music in this list-making process.

So what if we made some different parameters for the construction of a 20th Century Classic 100? What if we broke it down a little in the voting process, and then compiled an über-list from the results?

How about this: vote for up to 3 in each of the following categories; the same composition can be included in as many categories as you please; dates of composition are strictly from January 1, 1901 through to December 31, 2000.

1. Astonishing

2. Beautiful

3. Ground-breaking

4. Orchestral for the Concert Hall

5. Small Ensemble/Chamber

6. Non-orchestral instrumentation/forces/media

7. Keyboard

8. Opera/Music Theatre

9. Film/TV/Games

10. Vocal/Choral

You can vote for as few pieces as you like, or for as many as 30. The most voted-for pieces will make it into the top 100, irrespective of category.

Who’s in?


Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Fabulous concept, fabulous consequences: you’re a radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively and you ask your listeners to vote on their absolute favourite classical pieces from the 20th century. Each listener gets 10 votes and they can nominate whichever piece of music they fancy. The top 100 pieces are then broadcast over the space of a week, concluding with a concert featuring the top 5 pieces, live-broadcast to conclude the event. And since it’s 2011, the whole broadcast event comes replete with facebook discussions and a twitter hashtag. Go.

The countdown began at number 100, naturally, and John Adam’s The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China seemed about right. But over the course of the next 10 or so entries things began to unravel. Schmaltzy and ersatz contributions were mixing it with works commonly regarded as masterworks, and straight-out film scores even got a look-in. We all knew this was a popularity contest, but even so it felt as if voters hadn’t known the rules (even though there actually weren’t any rules, apart from the oddity of ABC Classic FM declaring the 20th century to have lasted til 2010).

Social media and outrage make excellent companions, and it didn’t take more than a day for the ABC Classic FM facebook page to feature a post requesting that those contributing to the debate take a positive tone; in addition, facebook’s quirks meant that some posts were marked as spam and required moderation to be included, so there was some confusion regarding exactly what was being moderated away.

Listeners could also call a talk-back line to pre-record their responses to the broadcasts, and the choices of listeners in the countdown. This was the most amusing aspect of the week-long broadcast. Many positive comments along the lines of “I’m hearing so much wonderful music I’ve never heard before” were interspersed with “this rubbish is a disgrace”, this negative comment uttered as frequently about the schmaltzy works as it was about the inclusions that were distinctly ’20th century’ in their aesthetic. Contributing to the entertainment was the experience of hearing the accents and intonations of Classic FM’s listenership, then inferring the listening demographic from phonetics alone.

Twitter is, of course, beyond moderation, so comments posted there were both pithy and unforgiving, and tended toward a more academic conception of the 20th Century: the notion that the century should last only 100 years and not include works originating in 1899 or post-2000, for instance, was taken for granted; the inclusion of works composed outside an art music intention was poorly received, and the inclusion of works that were largely lifted from the 19th century (whether we are talking late-century plagiarism or composers in the earliest parts of the century composing in anachronistic musical languages) met with broad disdain.

Particularly fascinating was the way the ABC Classic FM broadcasting team dealt with these various kinds of feedback: pre-recorded phone messages were regularly played, representing a wide spectrum of views; facebook comments were increasingly incorporated into the broadcast as the week went on; the twitter conversation went almost entirely unreported, and only tweets free of critique made it into the broadcast hours I heard. Many broadcasters were clearly unfamiliar with the whole concept of social media, another interesting demographic reality.

Those of us conversing via #classic100 on twitter found ourselves quite dispirited by the time we came to the final 20. It was clear that important works weren’t going to make it onto the list at all, and many immensely popular composers from the past few decades were also going without representation.

In a superb stroke of programming the concert broadcast of the top 5 pieces was immediately followed by a two hour broadcast discussing some of the works that didn’t make the top 100, but were in the 101-200 tranche of nominations/votes. This was beautifully done, and many listeners commented via facebook that they enjoyed this broadcast even more than they’d enjoyed the concert prior. Of course, this review of what wasn’t included had the benefit of curation in a way that the listener/voter-determined top 100 had not; the two hour broadcast was able to highlight ideas, genres, and stylistic directions from the 100 pieces in such a way as to tell a story, and this narrative arc contributed to the sensation that the post-countdown show was (in many ways) the best part of the whole week of 20th century broadcasting.

Musicians from outside Australia following my conversations about this #classic100 countdown via twitter were able to stream the radio broadcast via the net, so I ended up having fascinating conversations about this music with listeners in the Americas. They were amazed to see the final list; the inclusion of Australian composers they’d barely heard of and the dominance of English composers from the earliest reaches of the century being the most remarked-upon features of the countdown.This turned into a social history of Australia lesson for them, and a reminder to me that ‘classical music’ in Australia skews Anglo in ways that are unsustainable and undesirable.

One of my favourite tweeps, @gigglyfriday, did a running score of the Classic 100 countdown – by country. She hashtagged this #liketheOlympics, and right from the start those of us on twitter discussed the chances of the Russians taking out more places than the Brits. We thought the Brits would punch above their weight, but many of us were genuinely astonished to see the final countdown having Russia in 2nd place. I mean, even with just Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff you’d think the Russians would have it in the bag. But no, Britannia ruled.

Someone on twitter objected to the #liketheOlympics hashtag on the basis that if this were truly like the Olympics the Chinese would be in serious contention, and of course not a Chinese composer was within cooee of this list. It reminded me of a concert I attended in 2002 – a prominent Chinese orchestra was playing the Sydney Opera House, with something from the orchestral canon, a few pieces from Chinese composers, and something commissioned especially for the tour from an Australian composer. It was a great night out, but startling to me: the Opera House Concert Hall was filled with Australians of Chinese heritage, a demographic I’d never seen in any numbers at orchestral concerts before. That event, and the omission of particular kinds of musical voices from this countdown, remind me that our society is much broader than the pop v art music debates often allow.

Did I agree with the top 100 20th century pieces as voted by ABC Classic FM’s listeners? Well, no. But I absolutely agree with making 2oth century music something that is listened to and talked about, and not just in enclaves of aficionados (most of us with some kind of tertiary training in music), and not just within the narrow confines of self-defined classical music lovers or Classic FM listeners. A list such as this top 20th Century countdown provides a starting point – a place for disagreement, debate, delight and discovery, and from this point of view I agree very heartily indeed. May the conversations long continue….

Music and Mathematics Part 1

The past year or so seems to have hosted a steady trickle of articles, blog posts and public debates about the connection (or, more usually, the lack thereof) between music and maths.

Discussions involving mathematics bring on a sense of alienation/torpor to many in the general public, but I’m one of those who find mathematical thinking exciting, exacting, exhilarating. And as music is (really quite literally) on my mind all the time, I am deeply interested in the assertions of others regarding the links (or lack thereof) between these two (musical and mathematical) aspects of organisational thought and expression.

It turns out that many of those who spend time disputing the existence of links between music and mathematics go on to reveal that they were never that good at maths. In fact, they confess that they’ve failed key mathematical assessments throughout their schooling. What they don’t acknowledge is that they have a vested interest in denying connections between mathematical and musical thinking, and no one seems to think it worth mentioning that someone who is no good at maths probably won’t have a very nuanced idea as to what mathematics actually is [and therefore is probably not best equipped to detail how unconnected music and maths might be].

Along these lines, if you think that mathematics is just a fancy word for “counting” the argument will go something like this: maths and music are linked because in music you do counting (of beats and intervals). That’s it. As soon as we notice that music is more than counting (either beats or intervals) it’s no great stretch to be convinced the hoopla about maths and music having all that much in common must be based on a trite understanding of what music is.

The problem is that the trite understanding isn’t of music so much as it is of mathematics. Mathematical thinking does involve quantity (which concept does involve, amongst many other things, “counting”), but it also necessarily involves spatial thinking/awareness as well as pattern recognition, two substantial non-counting aspects of how to think in and about the world.

But even within the confines of “quantity” we find ourselves in a world of relationship: “this is bigger than that” might not sound particularly profound, but a lot about our experience of music can be described within this single concept of quantity. No matter which way we hear it, louder, longer, faster, further, more (and their corresponding softer, shorter, slower, closer, less) describe nearly everything that can happen in music.

Stephen Hough makes a quite convincing case that it is the ambiguities of music that make it wildly different to mathematics, that mathematics is about stasis and containment while music is about flow and escape. But this argument only convincing as long as you buy into its proposed divide before you debate the possible connections; if you see pattern as being the apparatus through which emotion/heart is experienced (and expressed) in music, then a head/heart divide doesn’t make much sense, for example. And where Stephen Hough’s sees the experience of rhythmic ‘irregularity’ as taking music away from any connection or analogy with mathematics, I suspect a mathematician might immediately think of prime numbers, and other ‘irregular’ or singular mathematical entities.  And the notion of ‘unexpected’ reflects pattern-spotting competencies and experientially or culturally based perceptual expectations rather than anything intrinsically structural. Saying that music is nothing like maths because it includes unexpected developments is like saying a list of numbers is not mathematical simply because you can’t figure out (or predict) the next number in the sequence.

Say we were to ask ourselves what links between music and mathematics we could find, rather than the ways in which we could refute possible links, I think we would quickly establish that playing a musical instrument involves an exceptional degree of mathematical thinking. From spatial thinking (up, down, high, low, near, far, close, beside, under, above, and all manner of prepositional variations of ways we map and describe spatial relationships) through to fractional thinking (subdividing) through to symbolic representation of relationship, shape and direction and garden-variety counting: even when a musician is completely focussed on an emotional journey or an artistic truth, the expression of that journey and truth can take place without the aid of mathematical thinking.

So how do a significant number of musicians manage to persuade themselves that their music has no relationship to mathematics (if we accept that the two are deeply linked)? My first instinct and considered judgment is to blame it on poor mathematics education in primary and early secondary schools; if you don’t understand what maths is then you are unlikely to credit it as being much use or relevance to the things that define your identity.

I’ve been fascinated to learn this week that the mathematical knowledge that a preschooler brings to their first year of primary schooling is by far the strongest “predictor of a host of social-emotional skills” (see Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: learning trajectories for young children, p.6).

I mean, wow.

I’ve not explored the research or analysis of that finding (what is it about early acquisition of mathematical skills and concepts that facilitates enhanced social and emotional skills?, is this a causal or a casual link?, etc.), but the idea that mathematical skillfulness has emotional and social benefits surely challenges every cliché that exists in the western educational model about maths and the limits of its purpose in education.

So far I am deeply persuaded that music and mathematics have complex connections, overlaps, correspondences and links, and the fact that we debate the existence of those links is mostly a sign of how little western culture understands what mathematics is.

To be continued….

Issues emerging from Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk

A summary of the issues, as compared to the exploration of the talk itself.

1. The need for a definition of ‘properly taught music’ if this is to be put forward as a “right of every child in every circumstance”.

Richard Gill gave anecdotal examples of music education experiences he has facilitated, but his talk did not outline what he believed ‘properly taught music’ would look like in the classrooms of the future. Does it involve individualised instrumental tuition for every student? Does it involve every child in Australia learning to read music notation? Does it involve students developing a social understanding of music, studying it as another ‘text’ that is presented to them in 21st century life? And Richard Gill was keen on singing – how does that fit in? Is group performance important for every child too? And what about composing music and writing songs?

2. An urgent need to recognise that asserting the intrinsic meaningless of music is not a winning strategy for music education advocacy. 

I can’t really figure out why it was popular to assert that music didn’t mean anything, but really, people, we know music communicates emotional meaning and identity meaning as well as changing our perception of time. And that’s why it’s good to learn and to learn about!

3. The need for music educators to understand how music works as a meaning-making process.

If music teachers have no awareness of music as an act of communication then it is unlikely that they will be providing particularly insightful music education. This really is a litmus test for all music teachers – if you don’t understand that music is for communication then get out of the profession.

4. The need for music educators to recognise the depth and breadth of musical experience that students bring into the classroom prior to formal music classes.

This, rather than thinking that “the child’s first aural experience” takes place in the classroom. The classroom is the extension of the child’s experience, not the other way around.

5. The need for music educators to mobilise and facilitate the transformative power of music in the lives of every student.

Music classes that don’t have as their foundation this transformative power of music are merely babysitting sessions, not music education. Music education should always be creating opportunities for students to understand themselves, their communities and their world a little better.

Are there other issues that struck you while watching Richard Gill’s TEDxSYDNEY talk?

Richard Gill at TEDxSYDNEY 2011

Warning: this post is a detailed analysis that goes for nearly 5000 words. Excerpts from this analysis – covering specific issues in advocating for music education and in talking about how music works – will be posted in the blog separately over the next few days, but this analysis is included here in full for those who might be interested in reading it in its entirety.

TEDxSYDNEY is had its second outing this last weekend, and I was rather late to the party. The Sydney Morning Herald guide to TEDxSYDNEY the day or two before was my first notice that it was on. Glancing through the lineup of speakers I was thrilled to see that Richard Gill was featured in the second session of the day.

Richard Gill is a champion of music education in Australia, and he is a voice of reason in many a public debate about the arts. Richard Gill’s contributions to musical life in Australia range from leading the Victorian Opera as well as conducting and commissioning new works all the way through to working in classrooms with young children. He is much respected and, I think it is no exaggeration to say, beloved! His inclusion as a speaker at TEDxSYDNEY 2011 was both a no-brainer and a great surprise.

And this was his presentation:

The crowd loved it, and the response on twitter was fanatical! Richard Gill’s talk was universally acclaimed as one of the stand-out moments of the TEDxSYDNEY 2011 day.

So I felt a mixture of disloyalty and dismay to respond quite differently. My first reaction was one of immense disappointment; I felt that this amazing opportunity to instigate a change in the way people perceive the value of music education had been wasted, that the argument was not persuasively put.

Yet, since Twitter was thick with rave reviews, and the YouTube feed had a steady and exuberant stream of Richard Gill fan mail, ‘wasted opportunity’ seemed to be a substantial misreading of the situation. And people were saying to each other “music education is important”. Even if they couldn’t articulate why, for this week anyway everyone who saw this presentation has/had been persuaded.

The thing is I’m certain that after a week or so this idea worth spreading (that music education is important) will have stopped spreading. And that’s because Richard Gill’s talk was really a series of motherhood statements about music (and about children) juxtaposed with a selection of amusing anecdotes from the classroom. More than this, it was a description of how music education has been delivered in the past rather than a vision for what music education could become in the future.

It’s not fair to transcribe a live presentation and deconstruct it as if it were an essay – a great live presentation will be responsive to the audience, and a degree of non sequitur is discursively tolerable (even welcome) so long as the speaker does not deviate from his/her subject too far (or for too long).

But this proviso (that spoken presentations engage an audience in ways that are hard to communicate through a transcription) does not put a talk or lecture beyond analysis or critique. And with the greatest respect to both the audience who loved his presentation and to Richard Gill himself, who is an ongoing inspiration in engaging audiences with music, I want to analyse exactly what it was that Richard Gill put to us at TEDxSYDNEY this last weekend and to explore the implications of these statements and then the underlying view of the world and of music that buttresses these statements.

The main ‘idea worth spreading’ in Richard Gill’s talk was presented early: “Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught music in the hands of a properly taught teacher.” And that “all of that creativity you saw on the stage today is the right of every child no matter where and no matter what the circumstance.”

My first quibble is whether this is actually an idea at all, because to me it sounds more like an assertion that could be as easily applied to any other subject as it is to music education (“Every child, I believe, should have access to properly taught woodwork/biology/algebra/Mandarin/cake-making in the hands of a properly taught teacher.”). And I’m not sure that the guy who believes that every child should have access to properly taught woodwork is going to get a look-in at next year’s TEDxSYDNEY.

So Richard Gill’s task at this point was to persuade us that access to properly taught music is of particular value, an especial case that makes this idea worthy first of examination and then of a commitment to its realisation. Other angles on his assertion really didn’t need exploring; no one is going to be so undemocratic as to argue that only well-off children should have access to properly taught subjects, even if in the case of music that is currently the status quo as a rule (and with some exceptions); no one is going to argue that children ought to be improperly taught any subject at all, and everyone hopes/assumes that all teaching is been done by properly taught teachers.

As it turns out these ‘unarguable’ aspects of Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading are actually the most challenging to current educational practice, where music is extremely poorly taught in most schools and done so by teachers who will be the first to tell you they have had inadequate to nil training in teaching music.

In a way Richard Gill’s idea worth spreading was that in Australia we should no longer accept generalist teaching for all subjects in primary schools, for that is absolutely the content of his message; but this core component of his idea was left undeveloped in his short talk.

So, on to Richard Gill’s task of persuading us that music, properly taught by properly trained teachers, ought to be part of every child’s education. He began by stating that “when the musical imagination is ignited in a group circumstance we have the most extraordinary power to change lives with music and to involve people with music” but then did not go on to provide examples of how lives have been changed with music. He also did not bother to explain why an individual circumstance might not lead to powerful change once the musical imagination is ignited without the presence of others, even though his statement seemed to exclude individual imaginative engagement with music as part of the transformative benefits music can provide.

His next statement, again without evidence or direct anecdote, was that “it should start with very, very, very young children – not teenagers”. This statement borders on a motherhood statement (what monster or moron would deny music to very, very, very young children?), but regardless of its apparent self-evidence this statement needs back-up if monumental change in the delivery of education in Australia is going to be achieved. Why should it not start with teenagers? Don’t we know that music education can be transformative for adolescents who find themselves at odds with their families and their communities? Don Spencer’s Australian Children’s Music Foundation (for example) will provide example after example of teenagers who have found their way through music; amazing, real, contemporary stories of kids in detention centres and in Australia’s least resourced communities whose lives take on a sense of purpose once they have the chance to make their own music and whose ability to communicate with their peers and their families is transformed once making music is part of their everyday life.

Richard Gill really made no case for why we shouldn’t leave it til adolescence to introduce music making to children. Instead he began to explain to us how music education (presumably in the hands of a properly trained teacher) actually works. “With children we begin with imitation – the most powerful way of teaching.” And he went on to ask the audience to sing back a phrase that he had just sung. “When you do that with children you’re engaging them in their first aural experience – they need to listen and as a result of the listening they repeat. And it requires focus…. And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital.”

Well, for starters, if being asked to sing back a melodic fragment in a classroom is a child’s first aural experience then the health system is letting down the kids of Australia rather badly. Because it beggars belief to think that a mother who never sings to her child also has no access to a radio, television, mp3 player, CD player, cassette tape player, the internet, the movies, DVDs, never takes her child into shopping centres or other public venues where music (OK, muzak) is played and never has spent any time in any one else’s home where recorded music of any kind has been present. The only possible reason that a classroom singing exercise would be a child’s first aural experience is if they just had a cochlear implant and decided that this was the moment to switch it on.

Much more accurately, when a teacher asks students to sing back a phrase they might be engaging the child in their first ever formal music learning experience, but the child is bringing into this classroom/learning environment four or five years of intense listening and an immense repertoire of songs and musical listening experiences.

If we look at the constituent parts of this aural experience that Richard Gill describes (the children need to listen + they repeat) it’s clear that any child who has learned to talk has been having aural experiences for some years prior to this classroom activity. “It requires focus” is true of everything a child does for the first three years of their lives, whether it’s feeding, crawling, learning to bring their fingers to their mouths or pulling up a zip. Focus is not so much what is needed in early childhood as it is its modus operandi.

Possibly the major challenge of the education system is to bring that focus to the subjects it wishes children to focus on, and I think that what Richard Gill was getting at (ever so obliquely) here is that children naturally do focus – they do engage that attentiveness that is so vital for learning anything – when musical activity is involved. This (that music delivers focus and engagement) is a massive reason why music should be integrated into all early learning experiences – and this goes far beyond Richard Gill’s quite modest idea of every child having access to properly taught music by properly trained teachers.

The last sentence I quoted above (“And with children the idea that repetition and putting them into the circumstance of offering ideas is vital”) was made with no supporting evidence or anecdote as to why it might be vital to put students into the circumstance of offering ideas or to engage them in repetition. Is it vital for the student? Is it vital for the future of their education? Is it vital for classroom management? What?

Richard Gill’s next point did come with some support, however, in the form of three pieces of music that referenced the idea of ‘night’. That point was that “Music is important for the following reasons: It is abstract. It doesn’t mean anything outside itself. So when we play a sound you can interpret that sound as you wish.”

Having said this Richard played a teensy excerpt from Clair de Lune, A Little Night Music and the Moonlight Sonata. These were evidence that the music had nothing to do with the night, and therefore proved his point. Only his point wasn’t that music was abstract, but rather that music’s not meaning anything outside itself was why it was important.

These musical excerpts did nothing to bolster that particular claim, and I would also argue they didn’t even prove that music is abstract.

Hell, let’s lose the subjunctive – I will now argue that these musical excerpts do not prove that music is abstract. Firstly, it was a false premise to say they are ‘about’ night. Two of the works are not about night at all, they are about the light of the moon, and that’s a far more specific thing to be about than simply the part of the day when you can’t see the sun, and then we should note that Beethoven’s sonata didn’t get called “The Moonlight Sonata” til 31 years after it was composed, and then not by the composer (who had already been deceased for five years). So we have a work by Mozart designed to be played as music at an evening social function, a sonata by Beethoven designed to communicate the longing of unrequited love, and a piece by Debussy designed to depict the light of the moon in music in an analogous manner to the impressionist (non-realist) painters who were his contemporaries.

If you want to say that these three works all are ‘about’ night and then play three different sounding works to prove that they are not about night at all (when none of them actually are about night) then that’s fine so long as you are presenting to an audience with limited musical knowledge/powers of logic. What the Moonlight Sonata is about is longing, longing that will never be fulfilled. What A Little Night Music is about is small talk, flirting and having a pleasant night out. What Clair de Lune is about is the elusive and recurrent nature of moonlight. But we can’t ‘hear’ these examples as evidence of abstraction because each one of them has been used in so many other contexts that we hear them not as signifiers but as symbols – maybe as symbols for a motor vehicle the music has advertised, maybe as symbols of a particular approach to love, but none-the-less they come so loaded with meaning that we cannot possibly hear this particular music as meaning nothing.

Richard Gill’s real point – that music’s abstraction renders it important in a child’s education – did get another look in when he said “in each person that sort of music, any music, will evoke a different response” and “music opens up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”. These are both comments alluding to the openness of musical texts to meaning: music that reminds you of happy times might bring tears to the eyes of someone else; music that makes you think of elephants might make someone else think of economics.

But this is a somewhat dated way of thinking about meaning, and it’s not over-controversial these days to look at any text as possessing considerable openness, and this is a change from the days when authorial intent was not just a small part but rather the main focus of the study of works of aesthetic consideration. Roland Barthes’s acknowledgement that the author is pretty much the least of our worries (that is, that the author is dead) was the moment the argument that musical texts hold a privileged space due to their semiotic malleability lost its currency.

Even if these new ideas about how meaning is made and how meaning comes to be made were not part and parcel of contemporary thinking, Richard Gill’s point still fails: whether you can second-guess the composer’s idea of what the music is about is not the proof of the value of music in the education system, and it’s also not the proof that music is abstract. In The Carnival of the Animals Saint-Saens is superficially writing about a swan and elephants and so forth, but in each case his real subject is the qualities of these creatures in our imaginations – so The Swan is about gliding and about grace and about the appearance of effortlessness, while the elephants in the carnival are about heaviness and about humour, and the music for both these well-known works references cultural loadings Europe has given to the meaning of these creatures.

So maybe in arguing this I am supporting the idea that music is abstract, in the sense that qualities and words that have –ness as their suffix are not concrete. But I am certainly not supporting the idea, Richard Gill’s assertion, that music doesn’t mean anything outside itself. If music truly did not mean anything outside itself then it would have absolutely no value in the curriculum; arguing that something utterly self-referential is the right of every child in every circumstance seems completely daft if you don’t know that you’re talking about music. And that’s because we all know how deeply meaningful music is, and we might accept as a philosophical conceit that music doesn’t mean anything other than itself, but none of us take it seriously for a moment.

I suspect that Richard Gill is mistaking one part of the semiotic process for the other, and I’m going to refer to de Saussure’s ideas about how a word works by way of explanation.

De Saussure revolutionised thinking about language when he broke words down into different functions: he described a word as a sign made up of a signifier and signified. The signifier might be the sound “tree”, but what that sound signifies will alter depending on which language you are speaking. In other words, the sounds don’t mean anything outside themselves – the speaker and the listener bring their own arbitrary (but, if they speak the same language, shared) meanings to the sound “tree”. So just because a German speaker doesn’t think of branches and leaves and a trunk when they hear the sound “tree” doesn’t imply that the sound “tree” is without meaning beyond itself. Context (language being spoken, position in a sentence, accent of the speaker, etc.) will modify the possible meanings the listener attributes to the sound “tree”, but that doesn’t mean that the sound lacks meaning beyond its own expression.

Richard Gill demonstrated individual pitches on a keyboard to support his assertion that music was abstract. He played a sequence of single notes not belonging to the same scale pattern and without any rhythmic or dynamic shaping. This is the equivalent to proving that language has no meaning beyond itself by pronouncing phonemes like “ffff” “ga” “sss” “ch” and then saying “see?”, and to me it was a proof that he had not thought through how it is that music creates meaning, how it is combination that creates the opportunity for meaning to be communicated in language as in music as in art as in anything, how context renders everything comprehensible, and without considering the fundamental meaningfulness of timbre (amongst a host of musical meaning-making dimensions).

A big reason why music education is vital for children is because music is the most direct means of emotional, qualitative, connecting communication humans have ever developed. Music can make a room full of people burst out laughing and it can bring a room full of people to tears, music changes our perception of time – and there’s no magic in it at all if you know how music creates and communicates those meanings. And that’s because it isn’t magic – it’s music! It feels like magic, but so does literacy to a tribe without it (and let’s be honest, so does a microwave to the tribes of us with them). Stuff we don’t understand feels like magic. Finding out how stuff works is a major part of the miracle of education, whether it’s learning the rules of a team sport, how to divide multiple digit numbers, or what photosynthesis is. And if we are going to argue for music education then we need to argue that it’s important to find out how music works, how it accomplishes its acts of communication and involvement.

Richard Gill made the interesting observation that the title is ‘the way in’ rather than having anything to do with the music. Now, I disagree with this, in that I do think the title is very much to do with the music, but I also agree that the title is ‘the way in’. The title is a part of the communicative enterprise that is musical writing. Composers aren’t always very good at this part of the communicative enterprise, and that’s why so many compositions end up getting nicknames assigned by other people (critics, performers, impresarios, teachers) years after the composer has died. And these nicknames stick because the words allude to the truths in the music, the words capture something of the essence of what the music means. That is to say, the title is a fleeting conjunction between the parallel worlds of music and language, where two monumental human meaning-making processes touch fingertips for the merest moment.

Richard Gill twice said in his TEDxSYDNEY talk that music evokes, and I don’t disagree with that – music is not a transcription of linguistically communicable meaning; music can only evoke what language can say. But it works the other way, too: language can only (and only rarely) evoke what music can say. Language can only ever allude to the deep and direct meanings that music communicates. A failure to be able to be translated is not the same thing as a failure to mean. Richard Gill’s flawed insistence that music means nothing beyond itself is built on the premise that the proof of meaningfulness is the capacity to be translated, a premise that is not sustainable.

But Richard Gill’s notion that music allows children to enter into a really special way of thinking is spot on. And it’s spot on exactly because music is about things other than itself – it’s about the things that language struggles to communicate.

So when we withhold music education from children we deny them access to fluency in this second and almost certainly more primal meaning system: music, where entrainment means that we experience togetherness and community when we make music together, where identity formation is most potently realised and expressed, and through which emotional reality is most directly communicated.

When we withhold music education from children we deny them a whole layer of what it is to communicate as a human being. And we deny them the one human activity that mobilises pretty much every part of the human brain, and denying holistic neurological activity seems like a fairly ridiculous choice for an education system to make.

Music does “open up the mind of a child in an extraordinary way”, but it’s not because music is abstract – it’s because music connects emotional and sensory experience, and because it is a vehicle for expressing clearly things that children (and adults, for that matter) struggle to articulate in any other way.

Richard Gill mentioned that “the neurological evidence for music is in in a big way”, but he didn’t dwell on it. The neurological evidence for music (and music education, as a result) is really one of the most substantial ideas to emerge in relation to music in countless centuries. What was anecdotal about musical activity is now scientific; what we suspected we now know; what used to be written off as feely-touchy, namby-pamby can now be measured and quantified and analysed within the realm of science. And it turns out that our suspicions and anecdotes were just scratching the surface. Musical meaning is made throughout our whole brain, not primarily in one hemisphere or the other, not just where language gets processed – but everywhere. This is an idea of indescribable proportions, and this idea should be changing the way we approach education full-stop, not just how we mandate an hour a week, if we’re lucky, to teaching music.

Richard Gill’s point, reiterated throughout his talk, that children must make music, that they must make their own music, is well supported by this avalanche of neurological evidence. Richard Gill didn’t bother to articulate why children should (or must) make their own music – apparently this was a self-evident truth, or a position to be accepted on faith – but if one does look for support or evidence, there is plenty. It’s in the making of music that children become fluent in it as a meaning system, and the making of music (even someone else’s, as it turns out) changes children’s brains and increases their IQ. There, I said it. Making music makes you smarter. And it absolutely does, as long as you keep on making music. Stop playing your instrument and your IQ goes right back to where nature intended it be….

Richard Gill did say that children make music best through singing, although he provides no support for this assertion. It might depend what you mean by ‘making music best’ as to whether you’ll agree that happens via singing; but any musician will tell you that vocalising musical ideas is an integral aspect of developing the ability to audiate (hear music in your imagination), and audiating is key to musical creativity. So it doesn’t really matter which way you approach it, singing is foundational to musical education (whether or not you think it is the best way for children to make music). Further, singing is accessible to every child without needing to spend a cent – every single child is born with this particular musical instrument as part of their physical apparatus.

A story was shared in the talk about how singing is used in music education with young children, and I don’t know that it really communicated Richard Gill’s point: that singing is an embodied (and therefore all-engaging) means of experiencing music and of developing a range of musical literacies and understandings. But that’s what the anecdote about the child knowing about crotchets and quavers was supposed to express (even if the story ended up illustrating the challenges of managing a mixed-knowledge class of young children).

Then Richard Gill went out on a limb: “music, in my view, is at the top of the food chain” after noting that “there was a movement which said all the arts work the same way…. That is simply not true, the arts function in different ways.” For those not in the education sector you really have no idea how much this would have pissed off the visual arts teachers.

There are all kinds of reasons why visual literacies are vital/essential, and maybe one day the neurological evidence will be in for the visual arts the way it is already in for music, but in 2011 I’m happy to agree with Richard Gill’s bold assertion that the world is not flat. Music does stuff the other arts only do in part, it works bits of the brain -  including emotional zones and areas of self-control – that the other arts don’t trigger, and it is a sphere of meaning that invites the other arts in – music is endlessly collaborative and ceaselessly cross-disciplinary. But maybe it’s not at the top of the food chain – it’s at the bottom: it feeds absolutely every other art form, and without it they cannot flourish. Just putting that thought out there – I’ve got nothing to back myself on this one, other than the vibe of the thing.

I’m going to quote the ending of Richard Gill’s talk verbatim:

“But what I want to say is that the power of the creative thought transferred from music to all other areas of learning is hugely potent. The evidence – the neurological evidence for music is in in a spectacular way. That’s a bonus. Music is worth teaching for its own sake. It’s worth teaching because it is good. It is worth teaching because it is unique. It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly.”

I’ve already explained why and how I disagree that music is worth teaching for its own sake, and I can’t understand why anyone would try to argue this point. It’s worth teaching because it makes life so freaking wonderful; your brain works better, you have a better understanding of yourself and your emotions, you create community when you play or sing with others, it gives you an alternative to words for when you have something to say, and it’s a way of connecting with others not just across cultures but across time as well. This list is impressive and important.

“It’s worth teaching because it’s good”, as already noted above (only Richard Gill didn’t explain what it is that makes it good or in any way persuade that music is, in fact, good – beyond the questionable goodness of its abstraction). “It is worth teaching because it is unique”, an argument that falls apart the moment you think about the unique things you wouldn’t like to see in the curriculum.

But then the crux of the matter: “It is worth teaching because it empowers children spectacularly”.

That it does.

And this one reason is why Richard Gill’s idea is really worth spreading.

Talking About Music….

You know the line “talking about music is like dancing about architecture“? It’s true: talking about music is a little like dancing about architecture (or singing about economics, if you prefer that version of the line), but I make this claim as someone who loves to sing about economics and who constantly dances about architecture.

Talking about music is one of my favourite things to do. I’m both fascinated by the way music works and astonished at its power to unite and divide, to motivate and to soothe. I think about music nearly all the time; admittedly, this is my ‘job’ as a composer, music educator, music publisher and marketer, but I’m certain that my musical jobs are the result of my thinking about music nearly all the time, rather than the other way around.

Mostly, I like to think and talk about the way music makes us feel.

This makes me a tad unusual in academic and art music circles, where a commonly held view is that “talking about how music makes you feel isn’t really talking about music at all” (Andrew Ford, Meet the Music mid-concert talk, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, October 21, 2010).

My view is the complete reverse: unless we are talking about how music makes us feel (in the sense of describing our feelings and in the sense of exploring how music elicits these emotional responses) we aren’t really talking about music at all.

All the chatter we can engage in regarding compositional devices and timbral effects really only makes sense when we apply that analysis to how these devices and effects change our physical and emotional worlds, whether we are performers or listeners, or both.

All this is by way of prefacing some recent talking about music that I’ve been engaging in.

Yvonne Frindle, the publications editor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, contacted me a couple of months ago about trying my hand at writing a program note for Matthew Hindson’s yet-to-be-premiered double piano concerto. Of course I jumped at the chance, and was soon collecting the score and some scraps of interviews and quotes in order to create the note.

I’m looking at scores all the time in my role as a composer and as an print music editor, but working through a full orchestral score is something I’ve not done for many a year, I realised wryly as I began to read through page after page. This is a BIG work by contemporary standards, where commissions are usually so modest that a new orchestral piece might only last for 12 minutes or so. At 25 minutes, roughly, this is a very substantial work. On top of this, having two pianists soloing against the orchestra creates new levels of compositional intrigue!

The first thing to strike me about the work was the emotional kaleidoscope Matthew Hindson has applied to his subject matter (the concerto is a commission to celebrate the marriage of the two pianist-soloists!) – the music really does explore what ‘marriage’ is about from a number of angles, rather than just paying lip service to the circumstances of the commission.

Now, I find this ‘first thing to strike me’ very interesting: it wasn’t any of Hindson’s compositional effects or devices that caught my attention, but rather the way the music was (is!) going to make the audience feel from one moment in the composition to the next.

After getting a sense of the emotional content of the work I went back and started looking at exactly what the audience would be hearing from a technical point of view: the melody in this instrument or that, the arpeggiated figures in this or that register, which particular interplays between ensemble and soloists. It was at this point that I noticed the very many ways in which Hindson has created bell-effects throughout the work.

I then went through the work again, this time with an ear for formal properties and an eye for traditional ways of explaining/analysing the construction of the work.

And then it was time to start writing: you can read the program note that ensued here.

One of the aspects of the composition that was most important in generating an emotional response from the audience was the use of the Lydian mode. In the program note you can see the breakout box we made explaining what the Lydian mode is, how it differs from the major scale, and so forth. Yvonne then asked me to create an audio feature for the SSO website, as a further means of explaining how the use of this mode works to create this emotional response.

Now while my singing about economics is rare, and my dancing about architecture rarely witnessed, my talking about music is now very much on the public record. And rather than being an irrelevant and tangental self-indulgence, talking about music is as much a part of musical culture as tuning a guitar before a jam-session or choosing just the right mix for a personalised playlist. Talking about music is about sharing our enthusiasms and our insights, and just as conversation makes people feel included and valued, so talking about music demonstrates the value music brings to our lives.

Talking about this particular new orchestral work has been a delight, and even more delightful is hearing back from people who’ve listened to the audio feature and have then gone and booked tickets to one of the concerts. Conversation creates community: long may we dance about architecture.