The International Mosse-Lecture, Humboldt University, Berlin 2011
Playing Music of Fences. The Sound of Politics, Social Control, Economic Exploitation, and History.
now published as Lines in the Red Sand in John Zorn's series Arcana VI:musicians on music.
A Few Neuro Fence Posts.
Descartes articulated the fence formidable with his irreducible separation of mind from matter, subject from object, self from other, and in doing so, arguably set up the major concerns for the Enlightenment. The thinking homo was going to have to spend a lot of energy working through the checks and balances of separation and hierarchy; cementing the consequences of all Abrahamic religions into proof of superiority - us, lording it above, beyond, and over the riff-raff of the evolutionary also-rans, the environmental rest of (Genesis 1:26). Cartesian duality has recently been debunked by a number of philosophers such as John Searle. He argues that consciousness exists in the physical and chemical reality and we should just get on with it. For the irreligious amongst us (and I count myself in), the brain is the bastard child of the body, of all living things from all times - get over it! God the father is not going to help.
But try as some of our species may, duality maintains its grip through a plethora of human perception - scientific method versus artistic practice, heterosexual stereotypes, yin and yang, black and white, the two-sided battle metaphor of team sports, and despite Westminster parliamentary systems, politicians preferring to sit on the fence of public discourse.
Iain McGilchrist goes further, suggesting that the divided brain (the two physically separate hemispheres) is the root cause of the duality problem; it is, in fact, the species problem - the filter through which we perceive and create most artifacts, including the millions of miles of fences erected in the last 150 years. As he points out in the introduction to his book The Master and his Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009), neurologists have yet to understand why the brain evolved in two distinct hemispheres, whether in the bird, beast, or human bastard. The fence, then, is a classic metaphor for all those working at the final frontier - how the brain works and the big question, 'What is consciouness?'. It's also a great musical instrument.
Want to read more? Please buy the book!
The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2007, Sydney.
Listening to history: some proposals for reclaiming the practice of music.
Last year at a Sydney university, a musicologist observed, "Everybody knows that music in Australia didn't really get going until the mid-1960s." Significantly, this gem was spoken at a seminar that featured a film about the Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg, Central Australia. The denial of a vibrant and significant musical history in white as well as indigenous culture has done this country a great disservice.
It may well be the prime reason why none of the twentieth century's great musical forms ever originated in Australia. Bebop, western swing, cajun, tango, and samba (to name but a few) originated in lands also saddled with a colonial history. A tiny country like Jamaica has given birth to no less than calypso, ska, and reggae.
To many, living in our current cut and paste paradise, this probably seems irrelevant and an irritation - why bother with the detailed sonic interconnectivity of the past when you can avoid both past and present by logging into say "second life"? I didn't add 'future' to the list of avoidance, because you can guarantee that the future will be mostly a rehash of the past. It's what we already have in Australia - everything from faithful copies of European Baroque to yet more hip hop, to concerts where almost any plink or plonk from the 20th century is attributed to John Cage.
So first to History. It didn't start off so badly. As Inga Clendinnen recalls in her book Dancing with Strangers, the first hand account of Lieutenant William Bradley's initial contact with Aboriginal people states that "the people mixed with ours and all hands danced together." Other dance events followed, musical gestures of friendship also took place. "The British started to sing. The Aboriginal women in their bark canoes either sung one of their songs, or imitated the sailors, in which they succeeded beyond expectation." Some tunes whistled or sung by the British became favourite items with the expanding indigenous repertoire of borrowed songs. Right there at the start, we have a cultural give and take from both sides.
In the late 18th Century dancing and music - and you couldn't really have one without the other - offered significant levels of communication between indigenous people and the invaders. Dancing was necessary before any exchange of gifts or getting down to the business of how do we steal your land without you getting violent. Aboriginal mimicry (and general piss-taking) of the soldiers parading, bowing, and bellowing at each other, was a method of comprehension, a way of accepting strange behaviour. Dance and music were the live commentary, the literal embodiment of the story. Records recall that Aboriginal peoples were, up to the destruction of their traditional way of life, the masters of tactile learning and the oral transmission of all cultural knowledge.
This early window of cultural opportunity vanished of course when Australia stopped being perceived as a jail and became instead a place of plunder. But this didn't mean that music as a prime tool of communication became redundant. On the contrary, just about all aspects of colonial life are embedded in the musical record if you care to look. It's not easy as, until very recently, few historians ever took the place seriously. From the indigenous point of view, there may be images of whitefella's boats in rock art, but we'll never know what songs were dreamed about the invaders - after initially trying to ignore the crazed strangers, you may be sure that such a catastrophe quickly became part of the oral record - read Allan Marett's Songs, Dreamings, and Ghosts - The Wangga of North Australia if you doubt me - contemporary events are still subject matter for the comparatively few traditional song dreamers that are left.
There is a unique recording made in 1899 of Tasmanian Aboriginal Fanny Cochrane singing into an Edison phonograph machine. The photo is stunning too. But that is all there is until Elkin's first recording in 1949 - as far as I can ascertain. Audio recordings thereafter document almost exclusively the music practice in Arnhem Land.
That recording of Fanny Cochrane is arguably one of the most important 19th century musical artifacts from anywhere in the world - certainly more important than the recording of Brahms playing his piano in the same year - with Johannes we still have the notation, without Fanny's voice there would be nothing. And maybe that's what we have wanted, 'nothing' to connect us to the horrors of Tasmanian history.
Want to read more? PGH address 2007
Donaueschingen Festival 2004: The Karl Sczuka Prize Speech.
The decline of live music and the lack of function for the musician in our society.
In the 1970's, like many musicians, I worked in a variety of clubs, restaurants and bars in and around Sydney playing a variety of popular music - anything from Italian dance music to Jazz standards to Country and Western to Beatles Medleys. It wasn't a bad living and I had a lot of time to spend on my own experimental music, instrument making, composition and improvisation. Most of this live music disappeared in the 1980s with what was then known as 'Disco' - which became 'Techno' and now is known simply as 'Dance' music. The DJ is now king, the simulation of the live musical experience with a laptop computer considered normal. This eradication of the performing musician has been completed within a generation. If this had been any other kind of profession like mobile phone manufacturing for example, I'm sure there would have been strikes and public protests on the streets. But to this day I have never read a single letter in the press complaining about the disappearance of performed music in the public space. It's a fait accomplis.
And then you notice that it is not just popular music or what used to be known as the avant guard, all live music is in decline. Everything from Stadium Rock and Roll to Stockhausen has become some sort of unaffordable rare, even exotic, activity. The European model that previously espoused the notion that 'live music is good for you' is vanishing. At the same time, the sound of music is heard everywhere. It has become a ubiquitous aural wall paper to a degree that the inventors of 'muzak' could never have hoped for in their wildest dreams. Everybody in this room, including myself, hears most of their music as a second hand experience.
This is not an anti technology speech. Music and technology have been functioning hand in hand for 1000s of years - all musical instruments have been technical innovations - from the piano to the Theremin. The invention of recording has contributed to our musical knowledge and our enjoyment. I myself have been involved with interactive digital systems for nearly 20 years. But something has gone wrong with the relationship between musician and the society in which he or she must operate.
In many respects all historical music making has been gebrauchsmusik. Even the 18th and 19th century bourgeois in their powdered wigs accepted that music had a function.
In the last 3 years I have doing more work on my Great Fences project. It has involved travelling over 30,000 Kilometres playing and documenting the fences that divide up the vast continent of Australia. If you like, instead of seeing millions of Kilometres of fence wire, we see millions of kilometres of string instrument waiting to be played with a violin or double bass bow. This project has brought me into close contact with Aboriginal communities, particularly in the north of the country.
Recently, we were invited by the Aboriginal community of Naiuyu to perform at their festival - a very indigenous mixture of arts and sport. It was strange to be invited to play there, after all 'the fence' was the technology by which the Aborigines had been disposed of their land and hunter/gatherer way of life. The contradiction was not lost on the elders and the local school teacher with whom I discussed the role of music in traditional Aboriginal society. Many ancient cultures have no word for music, music exists only as an aid to a specific social function. And almost all functions are accompanied by music as we recognise it. Traditional Aboriginal musicians are thought of as story tellers. An elder pointed out to me that even as late as the 1950s, the most important elder in any tribe was the best story teller - the best musician. He had to have extraordinary technique and memory because he had to carry 40,000 years worth of aural culture. All the tribe's knowledge was transmitted by song - all history, all geography, all religious ceremony, all geneology, all language, and all the song lines - a series of aural maps by which Aboriginies could travel from one side of Australia to the other. Remember there were over 500 distinct language groups in Australia before white man invaded - in a population of maybe 30,000 total - an extraordinarily rich culture of aurality. The head of the tribe had to be the best musician because the very survival of the tribe depended on it. The ultimate gebrauchsmusik. We are talking about a recent time in our life times (I'm 53) when live music was the most powerful medium and the musician the most respected member of society. Every animate and inanimate object had its own song and therefore had to be 'sung up' in order for its existence to continue - to be part of the dreaming. An object without a song was an impossibility; an action without a song was almost unthinkable.
Despite the destruction wrought by white 'civilization', it's not all doom and gloom in Aboriginal society, many aural skills are being re-discovered and some new ones are taking hold. In the town where we played, half the women are now practising painters. In fact three of these artists spontaneously decided to paint the fence posts of our musical fence that we had constructed. The posts were cheap industrial pine logs, quite ugly and poisoned with anti termite solution. The women told me that the fence posts were dead, that they had to be painted with images to bring them back to life for the performance. And so they painted the most beautiful collaborative designs of flora and fauna - you can see a photo of them at work on my website. At the end of the day, many kids came to play the amplified fence and then the posts were auctioned off to the highest art buyer from Sydney. As the women said 'Painted today, sold tomorrow'.