Won’t somebody please think of Boulez?

In 2013, ABC Classic FM ran a series of blog posts to ‘celebrate’ Australian Music Month. Some were surprisingly sour (should they republish Guy Noble’s bizarre rant about composers writing for orchestra, I will address that morsel of deliciousness separately). Since it is Melbourne Cup Day, this is akin to The Age publishing nothing today except horse fatalities and gambling losses and pictures of people holding their shoes throwing up at a tram stop at four o’clock in the afternoon..

For some reason- budget cuts? obnoxious clickbait?- ABC Classic FM are kicking off the 2015 Australian Music Month by repeating one of the more unusual of these blog posts by Huw Humphreys who was the then Artistic Administrator at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and is now at the Barbican.

Rather than perhaps celebrating the Australian work he had seen during his tenure in the country, Humphreys takes some novel approaches in his blog post that is theoretically celebrating Australian Music Month on our nation’s broadcaster who, typically, does sterling work in the promotion of contemporary Australian music (case in point- this remarkable survey of the past 100 years). Firstly, he undertakes some light cardio through moving the strawmen around with the argument that calls for better Australian representation in concert programming are akin to ‘every kid gets a prize’ and should be rebuffed on these grounds.

I agree with Humphreys that a required quota is  probably not the answer (though it’s worth noting that commercial broadcasters are required to air 55% Australian content)- I’ve previously written that I don’t know what this number should look like- but he then hits the nail on the head later on:

Inevitably balance is the key. Just as one cannot cram the richness of the musical world into a single concert season, it is also impossible for any one organisation to support the full breadth of compositional talent in the country.

However unpalatable it may sound, organisations have to make choices about composers and cultivate particular relationships.

I would gamely suggest that balance is not accurately reflected when only 4% of the work on your stage is from the country in which your organisation is based and, through its taxpayers, is funded. I would also propose that nobody is suggesting that one orchestra is responsible for the ‘full breadth of compositional talent in the country’ and to suggest otherwise is a bit disingenuous, particularly when your engagement with that talent could be counted on one hand.  I also absolutely support orchestras cultivating particular relationships and making their own artistic judgements- but Australian composers should be just as much of this mix of relationships as the international soloists and star conductors imported annually.

Interestingly, Humphreys later writes:

The history of musical composition is also indelibly linked to its socio-economic times and we fail to build a future for music responsibly if we ignore our own current climate. This inevitably effects how contemporary music is programmed.

Indeed! But it is strange how Humphreys seems to be particularly keen to exclude national identity or culture from the orchestra’s socio-economic times, or the role of composers in building a future for music (it is a cliche but always worth repeating that all music has been contemporary once). Maybe this is a side-swipe about audience development for contemporary music, which others have addressed far more thoroughly than I’m able to. I’m not underestimating or being glib about the issues therein but I’ve always had issue with the line of thought that because it is harder to sell, subsidised orchestras should get a pass on Australian work.

The second, and far more entertaining, of his arguments is that Pierre Boulez has suffered in MSO programming and that if he had programmed more Australian work Boulez may have continued to be neglected on the Hamer Hall stage.

We should’ve listened to Helen Lovejoy before it was too late.

This is droll on several accounts, but primarily this false equivalency that more Australian work = less Boulez. Curiously, more Boulez =/= less Beethoven or Mahler but instead the ledger has to be balanced by all Australian work. This is made even more hilarious by his connecting, within the same paragraph, of the lack of Boulez with composer training:

Considerable resources are also spent supporting the development of young composers throughout the country each year. This focus, however, has led to some glaring omissions; for example, the MSO had not performed a note of Pierre Boulez’s prior to a performance of Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna in 2008.

Oh yes! All that orchestral composer training is the reason we never hear Boulez! Unpicking this further, it doesn’t seem to occur to Humphreys that training =/= programming (here we must hat-tip to MSO’s brilliant Cybec program for composers under 30 though I admit I draw a blank on how it specifically deprived the orchestra from valuable time that could have been spent on Boulez) and that all the Australian composer orchestral training in the world isn’t that useful if orchestras aren’t performing Australian work.

Finally, he does raise this interesting question:

In a state-funded company, is nationality enough to secure the commissioning and/or performances of a composer’s works?

No, of course not. But I also refuse to accept that there is so little Australian music of quality to justify any Australian orchestra playing only 5 works by Australian composers out of 112 advertised in a season. Imagine if only 5 of the 100 or so players of the MSO (or any of the major orchestras in the country) were Australian. It would be unthinkable.

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