21 November 2016

a New Zealand composer at Darmstadt

Deep in amongst the riches of our cultural archives, there’s a wonderful recorded interview between two New Zealand composers: Jack Body and Douglas Lilburn. They’re by no means household names, and yet they are arguably two of the most important and influential musical figures in our cultural landscape. Part of their conversation goes something like this.

Jack Body: Can you tell me, when you have to fill in your tax form, under occupation, do you put “composer”?
Douglas Lilburn: No in fact I don’t. I would use a word like musician, which seems to have a general coverage of what I do, and the word’s readily understandable to anybody, even tax collectors.
JB: Have you never used the term composer?
DL: Oh yes I’m sure I did, especially in early years, because when one’s young one takes oneself much more seriously, and it seemed quite a natural thing to do then.
JB: Did you find at any point that you felt that had to assert yourself as a composer, as a valid profession?
DL: It was perhaps a bit of a strange occupation when I began it, here, but on the other hand, as a student in London it seemed a perfectly natural thing to be, and later in Christchurch there was a large group of people who took themselves quite seriously as painters, as writers, as poets, and musicians, and so it seemed to me quite a natural thing to set up business as a composer. I mean all those writers and painters I knew listened readily to music and could talk very intelligently about it, in fact they gave me a lot of encouragement at that time. And of course I was learning a tremendous amount from them too.

I think Lilburn’s deflection here is telling. Whether or not he asserted himself as a composer is to him beside the point: he simply did the “perfectly natural thing”, and went about the business of being a composer.

Perhaps I’m one of those younger people Lilburn mentions, taking themselves rather (too?) seriously. I’ve started putting “composer” on my arrival and departure cards. (Whether anyone actually reads those, I’m not sure). I do feel it’s important to assert myself as a composer, however silly or peripheral it might seem to others, or whether it’s readily understandable to tax collectors. Our work in the arts is valuable, but we have to remind ourselves of this, to assert that value. As a composing community we’ve inherited Lilburn’s generosity of spirit, Body’s fostering of artistic networks, the friendliness and respect they both had for peers and students. But we’ve also inherited their humility and Lilburn’s reticence. We’re reluctant to trumpet our own, even each other’s, achievements; we tend to see ourselves as cultural outsiders; we’re not effusive in writing or talking about music, in documenting our cultural heritage.

So as much as I’m interested in pursuing a career as a composer, I’m also interested in developing the discourse around music here. We ought to take Jack Body’s lead above and ask each other questions about what we do and why we do it. Writing and talking about music is a way of sharing experiences, but also of articulating our strengths and weaknesses, how we might develop and celebrate our art. Mostly I think of it as a crucial supporting infrastructure: it’s difficult to imagine New Zealand literature without Landfall, or New Zealand music without the Nelson Composers Workshop.

In this spirit I found myself signing up for a music journalism course at Darmstadt, one of the biggest new-music festivals in Europe, and the home of the post-war Avant-Garde. In two and a half weeks we created screeds of content, from reviews, interviews and op-eds to producing and presenting full-length radio shows, with guests from Brian Ferneyhough to Jennifer Walshe. As well as the intensive writing and radio workshop, my days were filled with a plethora of weird and wonderful concerts, lectures and discussions, not to mention all the brainy people I met and the unusual performances I got roped into (think group Tai Chi with theramins, disco balls and birdcallers).

One of the composers I interviewed was Klaus Lang, who spoke not only about his relationship to musical time and notation, but also about composers as a community. He said that we tend to think of composers as these individual creators, but that actually we’re all sharing the same questions and as a community working towards answers to those questions. The composer, the artist, is not a lone wolf, but a product of the times and the community. This is an extract from his lecture “Love and Notation.”

“If we read War and Peace by Tolstoy, he elaborates on one basic idea: he says that it’s not the great individual, not the solitary genius that directs the masses and creates history, but on the contrary, like a surfer, he or she is riding on the wave of history. he is not leading, but is driven; he is not creating history, but he is a creature made by history. The individual is like a focal point in which the effort of many is concentrated.
[…] The ideology of competition has become the dominating theoretical model to be applied to all areas of our lives. Competition makes us dependent on other people and their judgment, and forces us to see ourselves and other human beings in a very narrowly restricted way, as competitors. In this ideology there is no mutual help or support, no solidarity. Human beings are seen as solitary fighters that fight for themselves in a hostile environment.
This pop-Darwinism, which is one of many possible worldviews, is being propagated to be the only true and scientific one. More than a hundred years ago, Mr. Kropotkin proposed a completely different and much more humane worldview. According to him, improvements are based on the principles of co-operation and mutual support. For him the fundamental values are love and empathy and caring, and not competition and aggression.
It is absolutely absurd for me to think a composer should try to compose better than his colleagues. Whenever one composers, one tries to give one’s best, and tries to do his work as well as possible, and should not be distracted by the thought of competition. Quality lies always in the thing itself.”

In a place of such conviction and intensity, and a fair amount of self-righteousness, it was striking how humble Lang was, how much he valued and learned from the exchange between teacher and student, how much he cared about the wellbeing of the wider community (certainly in the abstract sense). And it reminded me of the specialness of our scene here in New Zealand, where everyone knows everyone, and (mostly) we all get along.  Witness the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, New Zealand’s premiere composition prize. This year the three finalists have been announced, and 22-year-old Salina Fisher is up against two of her former composition teachers, Chris Cree Brown and Ken Young. And regardless of who wins, everyone will be happy about it.

No matter how well or poorly connected you think you are, there’s never more than a couple of degrees of separation, and always a sense that we’re all part of it together. You can rock up to the Nelson Workshop as an undergraduate and on the first evening find yourself sharing a bottle of wine with Chris Gendall and talking shop with Eve de Castro-Robinson over dinner.

We’re quietly proud of this. Visiting composers often comment on how friendly we are with one another, how the competitiveness you find rampant in European countries or in the States is almost completely absent here.

It's important that we support each other, in a wider music community where being a composer sometimes feels like being at the bottom of the food chain. But the flipside to a tight, friendly community is the difficulty (or perceived difficulty) of critique. We’re protective (understandably!) of our patch, and the people in it. It’s hard to take criticism at the best of times, let alone from a friend or colleague, or indeed to give criticism to someone whose work you respect and whom you know personally. But I would say it’s too easy, and in the end a bit stultifying, to sit together in a bubble patting each other on the back, retelling the same stories, simply because it feels good to do so. And I would also say that mutual support and criticism and discovery are not in fact at odds with one another, that they are in fact synergistic.

But it’s a difficult balance. To compare music with rugby might seem perverse, but I found myself very much relating to a recent Spinoff interview with rugby columnist Chris Rattue, who said:

“New Zealanders are quite insecure about the national identity. They get very defensive about anything they feel is sort of non-patriotic. On one side, we have this overly patriotic ‘can’t criticise New Zealand’ crowd, then on the other side you have someone like me, who people deem to be overly critical. We’ve never been strong in that middle ground of putting ourselves into perspective without using a sledgehammer.”

Klaus Lang had reminded me of New Zealand but his comments had also pointed to the importance of questioning and reflection. What was refreshing (and a little bit scary) about Darmstadt was that the questions were being asked, shared even, and that the community seemed genuinely interested in dissenting voices. For example, there was a huge push (led by composer Ashley Fure) to re-evaluate the canon of the European Avant-Garde from a feminist perspective. Perhaps inevitably this ruffled a few feathers, in a historically male-dominated and conservative institution like Darmstadt. But the response to the GRID project (Gender Relations in Darmstadt) was overwhelmingly positive, and it showed a real willingness, particularly from younger generations of all genders, to critique the status quo.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being at Darmstadt was being part of that culture of questioning. I asked my own questions. Or rather we did, myself and fellow New Zealand composer Celeste Oram. It was obvious from the GRID project research that Darmstadt had been dominated by a handful of mostly European luminaries – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, John Cage – but where did New Zealand fit in? Did people care?

There’s that slightly awkward moment when you introduce yourself to someone overseas, at a festival or whatever, and when you say you’re from New Zealand there’s usually first some surprise and curiosity. And then, understandably, some attempt to pin New Zealand to a European thing, a canon tradition that they know: “where are you studying?” “somewhere in Europe, no?” “Is there much of a scene down there?” “Oh, Liza Lim’s from Australia isn’t she!”
In an interview with the Lumiere Reader’s Joan Fleming, Eleanor Catton expresses a similar thought:

“People generally seem surprised that I live there, as though New Zealand is a place to be from rather than a place to be. They ask if I’m moving to New York or London soon. But there’s rarely a sense of connecting my work to the work of other New Zealand writers, or placing me in the context of a tradition. I’m not sure if there is a very real sense, overseas, of what New Zealand literature comprises.”

Part critique and part celebration, part history and part hoax, was our show “The Unauthorised History of New Zealand Music”. In our own imperfect and highly personal way, we tried to join some dots, and to give Darmstadt folks an idea of our particular corner of history, a sense of what New Zealand music might comprise. We were interested in how New Zealand composers and their music had intersected with each other, with Darmstadt, and with the wider world; variously rejected, ignored, met with curiosity, warmth, acclaim, alarm.

Cliques had already formed at Darmstadt: by language, instrument, country of residence, tastes. The Italian guitarists raved about Lachenmann; the American West Coast composers dug Takasugi and Walshe, who exhorted you to “find your tribe.” My tribe, as I saw it, was tiny: the New Zealand contingent. Apart from relatively brief though memorable visits from Sheffield-based composer Dorothy Ker and Berlin-based composer Antonia Barnett-Macintosh, the New Zealand contingent was two-strong. Myself, feeling initially a bit like an impostor - a not-very-avant-garde composer here ostensibly as a journalist and trying to fake his way through making radio and practising Tai Chi – and Celeste Oram, who when not undertaking her composition PhD in San Diego makes an excellent partner in crime.

It’s quite possible Celeste and I could be taken to task for crimes against New Zealand music with our fast and loose take on “history”. In which: Aaron Copland calls Lilburn’s music “stodgy”, Jack Body and Ross Harris argue, Pierre Boulez gets drunk on New Zealand Pinot, Annea Lockwood and Pauline Oliveros plan ‘female chauvinist’ concerts, Jenny McLeod throws a harmony textbook overboard on her way to study with Messiaen. And much more of course. Perhaps this was our own quasi-mythology to sit alongside the more established myth of the reticent Man Alone New Zealand Composer: our own way to get a few dissenting voices at the table.

It’s probably a little self-indulgent to say so, but there was something special about presenting a New Zealand Music History, however partial, at Darmstadt. It was a way to say, this is our tribe. We’re still discovering it: there’s so much to be found if you go looking. 


This article was written for the Arts Foundation's Applause magazine in September.