Music Australia News

Nicole Canham talks about challenges of the moment in this year’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address

Graham Strahle
| October 25, 2016

In this year’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address Nicole Canham calls for Australian composed music to create a rich ‘experience of community’.

One writer Peggy Glanville-Hicks particularly admired was D.H. Lawrence. She set his words to music on at least two occasions – in her choral piece This place of fire, and in that most jubilant neo-Grecian work of hers, the Etruscan Concerto of 1954. Coincidentally, she even got married some years later in the same place as he did, the Kensington Registry Office – “that quaint office which became a symbol of free-thought” for London’s interwar literati scene, as James Murdoch describes it.

So it makes sense that this year’s Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address by Nicole Canham might start with a reference to D.H. Lawrence. It comes, none too provocatively, from an essay about poetry he wrote for Playboy in 1919, and Canham says it holds equal meaning for musicians:

“Poetry is, as a rule, either the voice of the far future, exquisite and ethereal, or it is the voice of the past, rich, magnificent…. But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present, there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished… The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither.”

All one needs to do is substitute the word ‘poetry’ with the word ‘music’, suggests Canham. Then “one can discover more about how the value of performing music of the present day as a source of meaningful and powerful artistic ideas,” she says.

A clarinettist and performer of the tarogato (a Romanian relative of the same instrument used in folk music), she says: “Playing the music of living composers somehow feels more authentically me”, and explains that as Artistic Director of the Canberra Music Festival from 2005 to 2008, her job was “to drastically increase the amount of new music being programmed and build new audiences”.

So she has had a career-long interest in this ‘living plasmic space’ which we call the present.

But one of the problems she identifies in new music groups is that while they can start out with the bravest and most worthy of intentions, they often fall into the trap of thinking of concerts as “work to be done”. These are setting short-term goals such as advertising a concert, filling the auditorium, and delivering the concert – in other words applying business-type thinking through the whole process of performing.

“In the last five years I’ve come to a more philosophical and reflective stance. One of the main differences in making new work is that we can understandably get stuck in the business of getting our work done. Unfortunately, this overlooks the bigger challenges of thinking coherently and meaningfully about what we are doing, and how market-based systems impact on that,” she says.

nicole-canham“That’s where reflecting on the here and now, looking at the situation more holistically and not just our little part in it, is important – because we are just one part. For instance we need to completely reconfigure what the audience is there to do. They are not there for revenue making. If we want to draw an audience in, we have to create an ‘experience of community’. If we look out into the environment and see what’s out there, we can find that there is much more.”

Musicians invariably turn to social media such as Facebook when they want to tap into communities and create interest, but offering “brilliant artistry” alone is not enough, Canham believes. “How we normally use Facebook means we don’t meet what people are necessarily looking for. It doesn’t tell people about the Zeitgeist of the music. People are craving a new type of connection, and that could involve everything involved in a performance – before, during and after.”

She says that when she was involved in the Canberra Music Festival, she began to appreciate what kinds of experiences people are really looking for. For her as a performer herself it was a paradigm shift, she says. “A lot of other people have been thinking like this and are exploring the possibilities too. For example it could involve not using a formal concert hall but using a different space, or giving concerts at other times of the day than the usual 7 or 8 o’clock. Why not have a 3pm concert for those people with families? It’s about facilitating people’s participation.”

Canham thinks that smaller ensembles and individual musicians are so tied to the business imperatives of concert-giving that that they can no longer think creatively about such questions. “They are so stressed about getting audiences,” she says. One way of overcoming this, she suggests, would be to combine resources so that advertising and marketing can all be done through one channel. “This could free up resources and allow smaller groups to be what they should be: more agile, adaptable and flexible. As it is, lighting people may get paid more in a concert than the artists themselves. I think there’s scope to think smarter.”

A central concern for Canham is sustainability. Concert-giving is an inherently risk prone human activity but not one that needs to drive artists into poverty, she says. “The culture of being an artist is pretty negative. We are a much higher risk population than is generally realised, and the causes relate to a lot of things in our work environment which are not very good for us. But we could also think of what kind of thought leaders we could be.”

“Let’s stop and make sure we can have sustainable ways of doing this. If we are doing this and thinking we are guardians of inherited tradition, we must use our creativity to keep things going. This is the responsibility of our stewardship.”

“One of the most crucial things it that it’s not our fault. Economic thought can be particularly pernicious. We have to work out a different way of dealing with it. If music is just ‘data’ we would simply produce it and buy it. But that is not how we respond to it. I don’t want to be associated with that kind of negative thinking.”

She thinks musicians might need to work harder than ever before in the future, by building a range of income sources around them, but they can do this by drawing on their particular strengths of working collaboratively and making networks.

“So the onus is entirely on the individual,” she says. “Whereas before you just got a job and off you went, now the challenge is ongoing. It involves constantly seeing different things in the environment, taking note of the things that go well and things that don’t go well.

“It calls for a new paradigm. We need to be making careers that provide for a sense of identity and personal development, and build thinking around this. The new language for this is ‘life design’, and it involves the same type of reflection.”

It of course all ties in closely with Glanville-Hicks herself and the world view she created for herself – of being at the vanguard and venturing into territories both new and unknown. “Her expansive vision is one we need to keep alive,” says Canham. “That’s where the challenge lies.”

Canham gives the 2016 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address in three cities under the auspices of New Music Network Australia. First is Perth on 26 October: this takes place at the State Library of Western Australia presented with Tura New Music. Following the address Canham gives the first performance with Decibel of new work by Perth-based cross-disciplinary artist Cissi Tsang.

Hear her address also at the Carriageworks in Sydney on 31 October, and at Federation Square in Melbourne on 3 November. Full details of all three talks here.

Nicole Canham is the Music Australia Councillor for Policy and involved in advocacy and development for the independent and small to medium music sector.

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