According to the Oxford English Dictionary, music is the art of combining sounds of voices or instruments to achieve beauty of form and expression of emotion. One of the aims of this talk will be to explore whether or not that definition stands up and what we can learn about alternative definitions of music. One thing that I believe about music is that is most definitely a language, if by language, again returning to the Concise Oxford we mean a vocabulary and a way of using it. Like the English language, music has evolved in ways that centuries ago would have been inconceivable. And recently it has been at the centre of the culture war surrounding education syllabuses in some Australian schools. A proposed curriculum out of Perth felt that computers and turntables were musical instruments in their own right and could be studied on their own terms. A howl of protest ensued, letters and articles appeared in the national press and the proposed curriculum with its seeming disregard for the fundamentals of music making was consigned to the wastepaper basket by no less than the premier of Western Australia, citing his own daughter’s violin lessons as an example of the kind of music education he saw as appropriate. Now let’s try and put this into an historical and cultural context.
The history of Western Music usually starts with the emergence of Gregorian chant in the monasteries of the dark ages, through the development of a system of notation attributed to one Guido of Arezzo in the 11th Century, the systematic rising of vocal polyphony during the high Middle Ages, resulting in works of tremendous complexity and artifice, the troubadour ballads and love songs, and their accompanying instrumental counterparts, all eventually leading to such High Renaissance masters as Dufay, Gabrieli and finally Monteverdi who gave us what is regarded as the first real opera, Orfeo in 1607. This thoroughly imprecise overview serves a particular purpose. During that whole period, a thousand years really, a central fact of musical life as we know it did not exist: the tempered scale, which divides the octave into twelve equal parts.
We all know what a piano keyboard looks like, with its peculiar layout of black and white keys. Well that concept only emerged during the early 18th Century, the result of experimentation by the great organ builders of Northern Germany. For the first time, composers and players were free to modulate freely into more and more remote keys. We now arrive at a language of music with structures in which keys, and the material which define them, namely the organisation of multiple voices into harmonies, dominate the musical narrative. And indeed the whole idea of narrative, in which music starts to tell a story which the listener has to imagine as the sounds float past, is a fairly recent invention, some two hundred odd years old. So wheras five hundred years ago a composer might build elaborate and arcane number symbolism into a capella vocal music in order to embed a religious message, we now had Wagner using sweeping orchestration played by technologically sophisticated instruments grouped in that quintessential parergon of the industrial era, the orchestra.
So really, what we have come to think of as the standard by which music is defined as a noble pursuit, morally and ethically uplifting, and making us more rounded citizens of democracy, is not that old. It is the product of changes, historical and especially technological. Valves on brass instruments and complex keyed systems on woodwinds are 19th century innovations, and they continue to be developed now.
So why am I telling you all this? Because I dispute totally the idea that a computer or turntable is not a musical instrument worthy of study. The first electronic instruments started to appear during the 1920’s. The theremin, which dominated B movie soundtracks during the 50’s made a splash when it first appeared. It attempted to imitate the sound of the human voice, something to which I shall return a little later, and was soon succeeded by the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument great for swooping glissandi, and finally by the synthesizer. The first synths were megaliths. Future archaeologists may think, like Vico that the world was once populated by giants as they unearth the early electronic music studios in Cologne and Princeton, where pioneers like Stockhausen and Babbitt were handcrafting new sounds out of individual sine waves, the very stuff of sound itself. I once visited the great Stockhausen at the famous studio, where his assistant proudly showed me the bakerlite knob that once controlled the voltage to a 1950’s oscillator as if it were the holy grail. Bob Moog patented a synth small enough to be sold commercially during the mid 60’s, and the emergence of digital technology in the 80’s has proven to be the cause of a musical revolution as great in its implications as the emergence of the tempered scale.
Now I want to ask the question again: what is music? We’ve looked at Western Music so far, and most people’s experience of the particular tradition will involve music written between 1750 and say 1950. That is if they happen to be concertgoers. If they go to the movies, they will experience contemporary orchestral music that sometimes openly plagiarises various 20th century composers, and sometimes speaks with originality, when it is not buried in a sonic barrage of effects, as seems to be increasingly the case. But because it is a film they are watching, in most cases, unless they have a particular interest in film music, it will pass them by without them knowing nor caring what the sources and inspirations may have been.
The career path of the classically trained musician leads to very few outcomes. Most will end up being teachers themselves, a few might luck out and land a gig in a symphony orchestra, where tenure is now largely a thing of the past, a precious few might try their luck as soloists, where their chances of hitting the world circuit are more remote than playing professional golf or tennis. The language of Western music in the sense of classical music, simply is not enough to create the well rounded musician of the 21st century, a time in which the paradigms which have dominated music education for the last few generations no longer apply.
Lets now take a look at alternative musical languages and where they begin to impact on the question of what music is. The first and dearest to my heart is the dynamic music we call jazz. A child of many parents, born out of wedlock, one would have to say, jazz is redolent with irony. In his book Blues People, LeRoi Jones talks about the psychological reality of being a slave in the Americas during the first half of the 19th century. A slave was a chattel in the eyes of the state, not a human being. A nothing, born to work until death with no sense of the basic things we take for granted like dignity, self worth, freedom. It is sobering to think that while Liszt was wowing them on the concert stages of Europe, many of those brand new venues were a product of economies which depended on slavery, whether we are talking textiles, tobacco or sugar. So, with Brahms busily at work on his first Symphony, America drowned in blood for a few years, and the slaves were freed. But not for long, or not really. Other kinds of slavery took over, as their rights were revoked and institutionalised racism led to an urban and rural underclass, or segregated communities with their own social mobility.
This was certainly the case in New Orleans where under the catholic inheritance of French speaking culture, far more had been preserved of African tradition for far longer than in the more conservative, protestant puritan north where anything remotely pagan was ruthlessly suppressed. All of which should be painfully familiar to indigenous Australians and Pacific Islanders. Jazz was the counterattack of the black American, with its off beat rhythms, its brass band instrumentation poking fun at the four squareness of the military, its exotic language of smears, growls and percussion devices leading to the overt sexuality of swing. Swing is what happens when one rhythmic layer exists with another one in a simmering tension of give and take. The bottom end wants to push and the top end wants to lay back, but only a little bit each way, enough for the music to feel good. Now there’s a new concept: feel. You don’t hear Chopin enthusiasts talking about it, because of course the eros of Chopin has far more to do with the head than the body, wheras the eros of jazz involves the sensuality of the dance, that great human mating ritual. Now this Dionysian force was accompanied by the other radical innovation of 20th century music, the gramophone, just as well really, because of the third piece of the equation. Without the gramophone, we wouldn’t have recorded the uniqueness of the great jazz performances containing as they do improvisation.
What had happened to improvisation? Well it depends where you look, because of of course it had been happening, one assumes, forever on the undocumented level of folk music. In fact, apart from the sanitised idea of folk tunes and rhythms that we hear from time to time in composers like Beethoven and Haydn, it took the gramophone to show us what that folk music actually sounded like when composers like Bartok and Grainger went around collecting songs and recording the people who sang and played them. Improvisation used to be a central part of performance practice until at least the late 18th century. JS Bach and his sons, particularly the unfortunate Wilhelm Friedrich were wonderfully gifted improvisers, and Mozart would routinely improvise on themes suggested to him by audience members at recitals. But it disappeared pretty much entirely from music education during the 19th and 20th centuries, except it you were trained as an organist, where improvised counterpoint was still on the agenda.
Not surprisingly, classical purists are still inclined to look down their noses at jazz. Now why do we think this is? What is it about the language of jazz that gets up their noses? Is it the preponderence of Saxophones and brass? Is it the seeming formlessness of a music that often relies on the repetition of structures of relatively short duration at a constant tempo, or the torrents of notes that seem to pour mercilessly from great soloists. Is it the wildness, the spontaneity, the urgency, the vitality , the joy? I know from some lovers of rock that they find it all too note-heavy and serious. Too intellectual. That they don’t get it. Which can only mean they don’t listen. Jazz, an utterly romantic form, pitting as it does the artist/hero in a titanic struggle with his or her own ego, is the great night music, the music of neon, of the city, of Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Henry Miller, of Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai and of course New York. Lately its spread its wings to become the brooding lay of the fjords, the cry of the polish soul, and , indeed, the expression of the vast space and dryness of Australia, as well. This music, the marrying of intellect with passion, which spins on the pinhead of real time, the result of untold billions of spontaneous decisions, is the metaphor for the life force itself. Its lessons are legion, but the biggest one is about the connection of the player to the instrument, that in order to be able to really do it, the player and the instrument must become one.
Then there is the supple relationship that the jazz musician has to rhythm, the feeling of a music not based on the barline, but on pulse, a music in constant forward momentum, in which ravishing harmony, not necessarily subservient to any grand scheme, is enjoyed for its own sake , simply as sound. This is the great achievement of Black America, a music born out of synthesis, which continues to morph into various versions of itself wherever it puts down roots, a music of process, the music closest to human speech in its asymmetrical phrasing. And now a music which involves turntablists and computer players.
Why the particular venom towards the turntable? The first practitioners were working in Paris in the early 50’s, collecting found sounds, and creating collages with them, so called “musique concrete”. Black culture discovered the joys of the turntable in the 70’s when Jamaican toastmasters used them for improvised performances of street poetry, the origin of rap music. So, like computer music there is a history, often surprising, and there are acknowledged masters of the form. The turntable, a wonderful tool for referencing all kinds of things in a post-modern sense, is of course related to the sampler, an instrument whose ability to be all things to all people is both its strength and its weakness. But surely the well tempered keyboard must have looked like that in 1720. It’s not the box, but the brain that controls it that matters. But given that we have a musical history involving electronica and sampling technologies that goes back eighty years, it seems absurd to me that these things should be not considered musical instruments. By what criteria are these claims made? The hydraulic organ must have seemed strange in Ancient Rome, the theorbo in Mantua, the serpent in London and the ophicleide in Paris. Just because you can’t play a scale on a computer doesn’t make it a lesser being than a violin. You can create an infinite number of scales with every conceivable type of tuning, there are various types of synthesis of varying degrees of complexity. It is all a matter of what is taught, and allowing for a degree of historical contextualisation.
In the 1950’s having studied with a Japanese Zen master, the American composer John Cage composed the notorious 4’33” for solo piano, During the piece the pianist is told not to play, but has to give the impression of there being three movements. This is often achieved by opening and closing the keyboard lid. What is Cage telling us about music? That it is a conscious application of the act of listening which constitutes a musical experience. That music is at least partially the result of a conscious act of engagement by the listener. Now this is far way from the Concise Oxford definition. It talks about an act. This most extreme of positions is about a renunciation, a giving over to space itself. Stravinsky famously said, on being told of 4’33” that he looked forward to works of major length from Mr Cage. But what it does suggest is that there are many ways of looking at music, and that therefore there can be many ways of talking about it.
In recent times I have begun a journey of discovery into the musical processes of a particular clan in Ngukurr in South Eastern Arnhem Land. The way this happened is itself an indication of the power of music to connect people. I received a call out of the blue a couple of years ago from a man who had been an ex-student of mine at the Victorian College of the Arts. He was about to commence a Masters programme in Jazz piano, and was interested in having me supervise his studies. Now the idea of travelling from Melbourne to Darwin to teach piano didn’t exactly appeal, so I wanted to know more about what a student of jazz was doing there at all, where there are virtually no jazz musicians. As it turned out this bloke, whose name is Steve Teakle, aka ‘Stretch’ was far more than an aspiring jazz musician. A natural musician in many styles, he has played with all kinds of bands, including Warumpi, Deborah Conway and Ruby Hunter. He had been running TAFE courses in remote communities in NT, places like Kintore and Ngukurr, in which he would arrive with instruments and recording equipment, and work with bands in these communities, sometimes touring with them, certainly spending months with them, often in the company of his wife and young children. This last fact is particularly significant in the degree to which he was able to establish a large degree of trust between himself and the people in the community. So I agreed to teach him jazz piano if he would take me somewhere where I might make contact with some players of traditional music. He suggested Ngukurr, a traditional meeting place of the surrounding nations, who had been murderously treated by whites, particularly in association with the huge stock drives which would pass through that country. Contemporary music has played an important role in that community for many years. A particular band, the Yugul blues band, has been together with some of its original members, since 1968. Ngukurr also boasts one of the most interesting and diverse visual arts cultures in Australia, and was the home of the great painter Ginger Riley.
We drove down there at the end of the wet season. Ngukurr is on the mighty Roper River, and the road in was still cut, so we entered the town by barge, black cockatoos all around us. Within a few minutes of arriving, during a stroll through the town, I met a young man by the name of Benjamin Wilfred, a songman, dancer and didj player. I explained that I was a musician, and that I wanted to talk about the music of his clan tradition. He was pleased to talk about this, as he takes particular pride in ceremony, and in his role as a musician. His clan totem, wamut, is a particular type of water bird. The next day, he turned up with an old man called Roy. Roy is an elder, and therefore the holder of knowledge which will be passed in stages on to Benjamin. We sat for a while, and I told them about some of the things that I do. I had recently made a recording of some of my compositions in New York with the great Australian trumpeter Scott Tinkler and some American jazz luminaries including Branford Marsalis. I had brought it along, and the music poured out of a ghetto blaster. It felt strange to be listening to that music in such a non-jazz environment. Benjamin then remarked that in fact he had been to New York not that long ago as part of a traditional dance group, so already my assumptions were coming undone. In fact I think they really enjoyed the spirit of the music, because after politely listening to it, they began to teach me a song. I didn’t realize that that was what was happening at the time, it was only on my return to the community that it was clear to me that the process had begun. Roy would sing a phrase accompanied by Benjamin, and then Benjamin would show me the action which would normally accompany the song. This particular one was a hunting sequence, involving preparing a spear thrower, aiming and throwing a spear. Simple enough you might think, until you start to realize that in Australian indigenous culture, there are numerous song cycles involving numerous people and places, actions both mythic and historical, or something in between. In fact, you come to realize that virtually everything can be, and is, sung into existence.
This is a difficult thing to grasp in a society in which music, like everything else , is either made or consumed. We have forgotten the original purpose of music, which has something to do with expressing the continuous act of creation which is the meaning of life. The sense that the Creation is ever present, that the infinite past is implicit in the present, and that the present is already both past and future. Thus music is a way of changing the mode of one’s relationship with one’s surroundings into a let’s say mythical mode, in which the eternal past lives anew. No wonder, then that it is tied up with magic, and with healing. I have sat with my skin father, a man called Kevin Rogers, as he sings of his ancestor, and the force of intense identification achieved with that being through the song is something to be marvelled at. That was in a motel room in Darwin. Imagine then what it is like out in country, because the other great fact about this music is that it is inextricably linked with place. That the song cycle maps a place, that the heightened sense of language which song provides imbues the words with power. In the beginning was the Word says the Gospel of John. No wonder the Gnostics write of God singing the universe into being, because that is the power behind indigenous music. There is something that happens in these songs, which repeat verses for a while before the next begins, and somehow the pitch world of the melody seems to be rising, as does the intensity. At the end of the line, which is never too long, the melody trails off in a descending melismatic cascade of great beauty and soul, and depending on how many voices are taking part, the result can be this kind of non synchronous unison, many voices singing together, but with each slightly different. And then there is the quality of the voices, with a yearning powerful sense of summoning up time itself to open up, to translate us into that mythic mode of which I spoke earlier.
So while beauty of form and expression of emotion are undoubtedly two things that might help to describe music, its power to express the ineffable would have to be another.
After my first visit, some time elapsed. My next opportunity to travel to Ngukurr came almost a year ago, when, after performances of our show “Ruby’s Story” at the Queensland Music Festival, we had the opportunity to travel with the Australian Art Orchestra and the great indigenous singer/songwriters Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, to Ngukurr. We set up camp on some sand next to the town’s swimming pool, and things started to happen. Benjamin assembled a group of people to work with our musicians, and the exchange was extraordinary. It might now be the right time at this point to talk a little about the AAO.
Back in 1993, I had assembled a body of work for large jazz ensemble as the result of two commissions from a German group called the Conference. The works consisted of reworkings, or deconstructions if you like, of European popular songs of the 1930’s and 40’s. Songs associated with Piaf, Dietrich, even Vera Lynn gets a look in. I went with this concept to the late Richard Wherrett, then director of the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, and he agreed to put it on. I assembled a band of some of my favourite musicians from around the country, including two from Brisbane, violinist John Rodgers and saxophonist Elliot Dalgleish, and the results were so pleasing that I set about seeing how I could make such a thing permanent. Well twelve tears later, we have just completed our latest collaboration, with Paul Kelly and Vika and Linda Bull, a collection of Kelly songs on Biblical themes called “Meet Me in the Middle of the Air”. You will notice that I used the word collaboration. That notion is at the heart of my concept of music as language, and it is in the spirit of collaboration that the AAO has worked in recent years with musicians from different musical language groups, from Bali, from South India, with classical musicians and musicians from pop and rock, and increasingly with musicians from our indigenous communities. The reason why I believe our collaborations are successful is the rigorous way we go about them. One example I like to relate involves our work with the great South Indian mridangam virtuoso Karaikudi R Mani. He is without doubt one of the great musicians of our world, a master of a music so difficult to play that everyone who does it is a master on some level, so he is a master of masters, and a legend in India. South Indian music is based on the idea of subdivision of pulse. If you can imagine a metronome beating at a constant rate, but with the number of beats occurring within each movement of the pendulum moving from 4 to 5 to 6 and so on up to 9 and that in addition to that, various groupings of beats are taking place within those subdivisions, so that for example phrases of 8 beats are being played in a subdivision of 7 or of 5 beats in 9 then you get an idea of the complex nature of this music. No wonder that Indians are so sought after in the world of IT. It is an enormous undertaking to get into the intricacies of this music, but we were determined to make the collaboration a success. One of our musicians, Adrian Sherriff, is the type of polymath I point to as what one should expect from the musician of the future. A virtuoso bass trombonist, he also plays, among many things, the mridangam, shakuhachi, various Sumatran and Balinese instruments and so on and so on. He arranged a piece of Mani’s for the Orchestra in the upbeat and happy melodic style of that music, incorporating improvised solos for various AAO members, and culminating in a display of rhythmic fireworks from the Indian maestros, pretty much following the structure of a typical South Indian performance. John Rodgers, on the other hand took a different tack. He transcribed and analysed a drum solo of mani’s, no small feat in itself, then layed out that solo in all of its complexity across the band, turning the 19-member AAO into a giant drum. Every note of this was notated, and for me it will always remain the most challenging thing we have done. Mani was delighted. “No-one has shown this before” was his verdict, a beaming smile expressing the pleasure of the master.
So it is with this spirit of serous collaboration that we went to Ngukurr. Benjamin, Roy and the others sat down with our ensemble of violin, soprano sax, trombone, trumpet, bass clarinet, guitar, drums and double bass. They began to sing, and explained that this was the song “Black Crow”. Our musicians asked to listen to it a number of times, and then played it back to them. This was a moment etched in my memory for ever. The look of surprise, and delight on the faces of our hosts, the fact that here were whitefellas sitting at their feet wanting to learn their music, and actually making a version of it which they recognised as being close in spirit to what they actually do, not some Western version of it with all the microtonal inflections and gritty textures removed. Now could musicians who are only raised within traditional Western paradigms achieve this level of communication? I greatly doubt it. For a start, most of them never learn to play in tune let alone out of tune with a purpose in mind. To locate microtones on an instrument you have to have a pretty damned good idea of where all the notes on your instrument are and where they sit in relation to other instruments. Every instrument has its own internal logic as far as tuning goes, keys that are naturally resonant and keys that aren’t. This is the basis of a philosophy called harmolodics, the invention of the great philosopher king of contemporary improvisation Ornette Coleman, but that would have to be the subject of a separate lecture.
So great was the enthusiasm of the wamut mob that the senior songman was summoned, and he too gave his approval. We were then told we had all become Wamut, and that our responsibilities to that status would begin forthwith. We were taught some dance steps and ordered to perform in a bungul, and everyone did it without question. This was all part of the collaboration. Since that time we have had Benjamin in Melbourne, where we have thrown him into a contemporary improvising situation. He responded not just through playing – he actually took control of the process, bringing musicians in and out of the conversational flow. Music as communication.
Tuning is an interesting example of an idea which can have totally different meanings in different musical cultures, even within them. I talked earlier about the development of the equally tempered scale, and how it allowed instruments to play in all twelve keys. So the idea of F#Major didn’t exist before the early 18th century, pretty much because it would have sounded very weird. Intervals played in pre-modern times were ‘true’, ie based on natural laws of vibrations in air, wheras the intervals we use in our chromatic scale have been adjusted. So our thirds would have sounded out of tune to the ears of earlier ages. Tuning is all about relativity. In jazz, there are some great soloists who choose to play slightly sharp in order to really cut above the band, to brighten their sound. Orchestras often tune higher than the standard concert A of 440 hz, again to brighten the sound. Early Music ensembles on the other hand might go the other way, where A might be 430 hz or even lower. Relativity. In Balinese music, tuning is incredibly important, but in a way which would send the door bitches of classical music education into paroxysms of wrath. Every village in Bali has a gamelan, which is an orchestra made up of various instruments. Many of them are mallet percussion instruments, arranged in pairs which face each other. They are made of a particular alloy which gives them a clangorous sound, which can travel long distances over the gorgeous paddies and valleys of that island. The musical ability of these ensembles is legendary. In Bali, where the gamelan style called kebyar is often fast and furious, passages of intricate melodic construction are created out of the interlocking of instruments playing different parts, one on the beat and one off. This technique, once an inspiration to an earlier generation of American Composers like Colin McPhee, John Cage and Lou Harrison, later went on to influence the American minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The issue of Balinese tuning is this. The two instruments facing each other must be out of tune in order to create that rich clash of overtones so characteristic of music throughout South East Asia. In fact Balinese people can recognise the distinctive character of particular village groups due to the particular out-of-tuneness of the gamelan.
So you can imagine what a business it is to combine western and Balinese instruments, a challenge I had to overcome with my collaborator, the enfant terrible of Balinese music I Wayan Yudana. Again, an ensemble was chosen that could adapt. Trombone, with its slide, violin and guitar with their tunable strings, saxophone with its alternative fingerings. It took a whole week before we were able to say that the combination of 5 Balinese and 6 Western musicians had found their common ground. But once they did, the results were miraculous, and again proof that music is able to overcome these seemingly impossible barriers. In fact so used did we become to this unique sound world we were living in that when I came around to listening to a wonderful classical orchestra playing some masterpiece of the canon it sounded incredibly bland, because of the straightjacketed tuning. You see tuning can become an expressive device in itself, as demonstrated by the village gamelan syndrome, or by a band such as Sonic Youth which routinely employs detuning of its guitars to great expressive effect.
The story behind that particular collaboration is this: Back in 2000, the Director Nigel Jamieson and I devised a theatrical piece called “The Theft of Sita”. It retells a story famous throughout India and South east Asia of the kidnapping of the Beautiful Princess Sita by the evil Ravana, king of Lanka, and her rescue by the brave king Rama aided by the monkey king Hanuman. It was told through the medium of shadow puppetry, known in Bali as Wayang Kulit, and was performed by a combined cast of Balinese and Australian puppeteers and musicians. Full of humour and good old fashioned stage wizardry, as well as some high -tech tricks, it was loved by audiences all over the world.
Finally the invitation came to put on a New York season at the famed Brooklyn Academy of Music, better known as BAM, where black-clad groovers from the downtown Manhattan scene, people like Lou Reed, Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson strut their latest stuff.
We were to open in late September 2001. Then disaster struck on a scale none of us will ever forget, and thousands of innocents perished. We fully expected our show to be cancelled, indeed some of the company were anxious about travelling into the scene of the nightmare. But the opposite was the case. BAM pleaded with us to come, and come we did. The twin towers site was a smoking ruin, an indescribable smell hung in the air, and Brooklyn itself was in deepest mourning. Many of the fire crews who died were from Brooklyn, and emotions were raw. Little makeshift altars were set up along the boardwalk looking across to Manhattan and a particular image which has never left me was a photo of a firetruck racing across the Brooklyn Bridge on its final mission towards the blazing towers. I cannot help but wonder what was in the minds of that crew. We do not possess the vocabulary to describe such bravery.
Anyway, our show opened, and was sold out every night. People were grateful that we had journeyed so far to help to restore some sense of normalcy to people’s lives, and we felt proud to have been able to share in this most difficult of circumstances.
This is another of music’s functions: healing. Difficult to prove, I grant you, but it’s in there somewhere.
We show scant regard for music in the way in which we use it. In our shopping malls, restaurants and at our sporting events we generally show off our philistinism with aplomb. Why anyone would want to add the insult of the instore selection of hits and memories to the mind-numbing absurdity of supermarket shopping is a mystery to me. Maybe they just want us in and out in the quickest possible time. Hospitals are an interesting case in point. During a recent period during which I had a very sick son, I had occasion to spend more time than I would ever wish at the royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the ambient sounds of that environment, largely dominated by kiddie television unsurprisingly, and figured that there is much to be done towards the creation of benign ambience in places where stress reigns, and I don’t mean through the hovering presence of some synthesizer accompanied by birdsong and running water. There is an extraordinary doctor in Melbourne called Catherine Crock who has begun a series of recordings featuring mainly classical music which she plays in rooms where medical procedures are performed, to help create a reassuring feeling. I met her, and she asked if I would like to be involved. It immediately occurred to me that a type of jazz music is far more likely to succeed in creating the atmosphere she was looking for. It’s something to do with the air in the music, and its light tripping rhythms, the elegant combination of high register piano with supply dancing bass. Anyway, I wrote a suite of twelve pieces with these notions in mind, and it turns out that this is the music that people most often want played in these situations. Who would have thought that jazz would have made this transition from the brothels of New Orleans to the wards of a children’s hospital. But there you go: music defies expectations, bridges cultures, defines spaces. It articulates time and space, it tells stories, elevates language empowers listeners and players alike.
Music never lies. One thing that musicians have to learn is to understand and own their process. As improvisers we learn to speak a language and hone it until it becomes a powerful expressive tool. It is rather like being a composer, but in real time. That process only starts to reveal itself in hindsight, and over a considerable period of time. There was a time in my mid twenties when I would record every performance I did. Listening back at first was agony. All I could hear was how little I sounded like my heroes, in spite of what I thought were my best endeavours. It finally dawned on me that what I was in fact hearing was the emergence of my own voice, and that I had to start listening quite differently to it: that I had to accept it for what it was, and identify what I wanted to work on in order to strengthen it. From that time on, practice became a different set of challenges, actually far preferable. Because it was all my own, not somebody else’s. This is also a challenge facing classical musicians: how to break through the tyranny of text to the point where the performance, not the work, is the thing. This is where Glenn Gould and Casals got to with Bach, or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with Debussy, but many would argue that it is the text, or the work which must always win. Interesting, because such a wide gulf separates various interpretations of Beethoven, between say the broad tempi of Furtwangler with the Berlin Phil and John Eliot Gardiner with his period instrument performances and much faster tempi. Being a fan of the new old approach, the traditionalists sound plodding to my ears, but that really says more about my own listening experiences and tastes than it does about the performances or the music.
So there you are, then. Music is an experience shared between player and listener, or between composer and listener via the player who in many cases will be the composer of an experience only ever to be heard once in that form. You know, not even a recording can change that, because every time you listen to the same recording, no matter how many times you hear it, it will always be different, dependant as it is on your state of mind, age, location etc
Music reflects who we are, what we aspire to, our limitations, and our boundless capacity for abstract thought. At its best it posits a better world, at its worst it provides banality, even brutality with a fitting soundtrack. It is limitless, it is ever-changing, it is only ever going to be what people are, and therefore we should do everything within our power to make it both available and integrated into our lives. I can’t help saying these things: I didn’t say a word until I was 2, and then it was “Craven A Filter Michael”. He was my brother, 16 years older and a musician. He would give me 78 shellac records as presents and I would try and wipe the scratches off them with soap and water. I was never going to be anything else, so I guess the idea of music as a language rings true to me, as I believe it is the language I speak, and, as I have hopefully shown tonight, have spoken across cultural and social divides. I have seen its power at work, and I believe in that power.