Publishing the Debate

Rainer Linz

The documentation of Australian music has been and is relatively poor when measured against other artforms such as the visual arts or literature. The documentation that does exist is mostly of an ephemeral or transitory nature, and the discussion of musical issues is by and large not a mainstream activity. There is a view that music must speak for itself and needs no additional explanation. Yet for a community of composers and musicians involved in experimental activity, as well as for the audiences of this work, the opportunity for discourse can be a motivating force.

It is against this background that NMA magazine was first published in 1982 with the aim of promoting new music by featuring articles written by musicians and composers about their own work. A cassette with music by the authors was released with each issue, in this way creating a relationship between the musical work and a written elaboration of it. A vehicle had thus been established to formalise the connection between theory and practice. Given the limited publishing resources available at the time, the magazine / tape combination still holds as a reasonable documentation of over a decade of new and experimental music, principally between the years 1982-92. Looking back over this period of ten years, what is immediately apparent is the enormous variety of musical approaches that can be found.

Bringing together a musical work and an elaboration of it in text form raises the question of the composer, and correspondingly the aims, intentions and approaches to a work. It was essential that composers themselves contributed to the discussion of their work rather than leave it solely to the critics, and fittingly the first issue of NMA magazine contained a number of perspectives on the composer. In hindsight, it is possible to refer to a process of redefinition of what it means to be a composer, an ongoing discussion that accounts in large part for the remarkable diversity of Australian music. An outcome of this discussion is that one needs to be careful who one calls a composer (or not) in Australia. In his 1982 article "How to be a Great Composer" Warren Burt wrote "This blind, unquestioning faith that to write for orchestra, opera, string quartet etc is the noble, laudable, desirable and god-ordained way to extend the history of music strikes me as pathetically naïve." And from an interview with Jon Rose: "Q. I've often heard people call you a composer. What do you say about that? Jon Rose: I've had worse insults."

Published elsewhere in the first issue were two short piano pieces, having been improvised freely by a non-pianist, transcribed and notated in score form, played from the score by an experienced pianist and recorded for the accompanying tape. Here there is also an implicit questioning of the role of the composer and the mechanics of musical production. The ongoing nature of this discussion is reflected in more recently published comments, by even well established composers such as Keith Humble (1989) "What is really involved? What is involved is self-aggrandisement: 'look, I'm a composer'. It doesn't sound so bad in French, but which I am embarrassed about in English. Composer – a 'poser' – that's the point, pretending to be a creator!" These – and similar – views of the role and function of the composer pervade much experimental musical production over the last three decades.

The continuation of the publishing project resulted in a number of artwork 'pages' being commissioned, for unmediated inclusion in the magazine. In this way a direct connection between music and the printing process is established. Among these pages was a portrait by Ernie Althoff of his music machines, (see illustration) constructed from domestic appliances and found objects, machines which have been described elsewhere as 'sentient' percussion instruments. The unusual presentation of this artwork material highlighted once again the primacy of the creator as the source of information about the work.

The use of 'low tech' solutions to musical problems became for a time a marked feature of the musical environment, particularly in Melbourne where a great many performances involved the use of handheld cassette recorders and other domestic technology. Implicit was the idea that 'anyone can do it'; that the creation of music did not require a formal musical education and to some extent was also independent of historical practice. Given that Australian (Western) society is a relatively young one, it should not be surprising to find ambivalence toward older – which is to say European – cultures. Rather, the impetus for musical creation has been found elsewhere.

Chris Mann has contended that because of the unique features of the Australian environment the sound, like the light, is different. It therefore stands to reason that Australian music should have its own sound. In his "Rationales" published in 1986 he writes: "An Australian is someone who when asked 'Can you play the piano?' says "Dunno I never tried'. In the 19th Century Australia imported 700,000 pianos."

Here is an acknowledgement that nothing is necessarily a foregone conclusion: that what is most relevant is the attempt to achieve a result. This notion of attempt - of 'having a go' – reaches in one important respect to the roots of Australian culture and its recognition of democratic fair play. The application of low technology solutions to musical problems can thus be seen in a local cultural context, and applies as much to improvisational practice as to formal composition. In light of the above, we can discern an uneasy relationship emerging between composition and improvisation, with an emphasis on the 'doing' or 'attempting' of a work a number of fundamental contradictions appear.

The question of a cultural context is a vexing one and it would be fair to say that for each composer or musician actively concerned with it, there is at least one who dismisses it out of hand. Nevertheless the question of music and society is worth consideration. Accordingly a number of issues of NMA magazine were devoted to this relationship. In particular the emergence of a popular culture, concerned largely with critical practice, provided fertile ground for hybrid forms of work. Richard Vella's "Lookin for the Beat" (1984) opens with the lines: "The piano is a metaphor for a productive process that can subvert… the exploitation of desires… and patriarchy. No! …that can subvert patriarchy… and the exploitation of desires. Enter the piano!"

This attempt to redefine one of the ubiquitous icons of 'art' music can be seen as an attempt to shift the nature of musical debate away from historical imperatives and ground it firmly in a more modern – and some would say relevant – context. Reception of these ideas by a bewildered mainstream press also provided a focus for debate. The complaints of critics who claimed they could not understand the work became something of a cliché, to be enjoyed as a comedy were it not for the serious implications of their denunciations. Consequently Stan Anson, in his article "Old whines in new Battles, or 20th Century Music and 18th Century Reviewers" (1989) referred to the 'deaf' critic – whose critical apparatus consists of "a range of empty critical adjectives whose significance is not technical but normative, which refer not to properties of the music, but to properties of the critic's subjectivity… The critic claims the right to say what is not real music, real theatre, a real composer, but feels no responsibility to identify what... it is that makes real music real." That the ground for musical debate had shifted could be seen in the fact that at least one prominent music critic has refused to review performances of modern music since around this time. We see in this a tacit acknowledgement of the legitimacy of emerging ideas.

Most of the initiatives referred to above took place outside of any institutional context. By and large the music schools and universities at this time did not acknowledge current work in the field, and still placed a strong emphasis on traditional technique and international models of composition. Nevertheless a movement away from the institutions could be discerned, with a number of prominent, active composers claiming no formal music training whatsoever. Where the institutions came into their own was in the supply of resources, most notably the establishment of electronic and computer music facilities. There is a large and active group of composers concerned with computer music, but it seems that the link to institutional bases and the correspondingly closed nature of the debate serves to limit any broader public discussion of this work. There is also a large body of work created on personal computer workstations, realised and performed outside of an institutional context, and once again scantily documented.

The establishment of a cultural debate, as alluded to above, is difficult without reference to contemporary documentation of events. Part of the NMA project was to make available for the first time this type of historical background, and so to provide a revised context for current musical practice. Consequently in 1989 an overview of experimental music activity in Australia, from the early part of the century to the present day, was published. This overview began with Percy Grainger whose "free music", conceived in the latter part of the 19th Century, remains a seminal influence on a number of Australian composers. Other initiatives, such as the AZ music group in Sydney, the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide or the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne, serve as a historical reference point for a range of experimental music activity.

If there was anything radical about the NMA magazine project, it was an inclusive approach that brought together composers, musicians, sound artists and poets from the most diverse backgrounds. To maintain this diversity a number of guest editors were drawn into the project, who over the years included myself, Richard Vella, Graeme Gerrard, Aline Scott-Maxwell, Alistair Riddell, Fran Dyson and Ross Bolleter. The open approach runs counter to that of many magazine publications before or since, which can be overly pre- or proscriptive. NMA was for some years the only magazine of its type in Australia and remains one of the few primary sources on experimental music in the country. Additional background on the project can be found on the web at

First published in Urban + Aboriginals X catalogue, Freunde Guter Musik e.V. Berlin 1995.
© 1995 NMA Publications and Rainer Linz

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