The role of an orchestra is not above all to reflect contemporary society
May 20, Spotlight published an article written for us by Ciaran Frame on his Live Music Report 2020, in which he reviewed last year’s musical offerings from the nation’s leading performing arts organizations.
An image from the Living Music Report
Frame’s Living Music Report is an annual analysis of Australian orchestral programming, which examines whether the composers, whose works have been performed across the country, adequately reflect Australian identity and our gender, cultural and First Nations diversity. Inventing a phrase used by the Australian Council, the article was titled Do Our Arts Reflect Us ?. Frame found that in 2020 the answer was ‘not yet’, although the trajectory is heading in the right direction.
Phillip scott replied to this article with the following letter.
Do our arts reflect us?
I would say they do, with increasing relevance, in theater – theater, film and television – and in literature. Places where specific stories in a relatable social setting can be told.
Orchestral music is a different case. I am totally in favor of our symphony orchestras which create contemporary and Australian works – even if that is not the music that subscribers pay to hear. (Not a minor consideration.)
In my opinion, the role of an orchestra is not above all to reflect contemporary society. Rather, it is about delving into a rich, stylistically diverse and historically significant tradition, to recreate the great music – well known and unknown – that exists in that tradition. Most classical music lovers today turn to this vast repertoire not to make us think about our society, but to escape it!
The tradition of Western classical music is strongly oriented towards the compositions of European male composers. Women were discouraged, except as artists. So although there are excellent female composers – more than ever before – most of the classical tradition has been created by men. The programming cannot help but reflect this fact, especially if we are to listen to the best of some 400 years of written musical repertoire.
It took most of the 20th century for Australian composers to find an individual voice, which does not simply mimic Anglo-European styles, but at least reflects something of the continent’s distinctive space and environment. At the turn of the century, however, and today, a nationalist approach is well and truly a thing of the past. Our ability to communicate digitally with every part of the world has made this mindset redundant. A composer anywhere is able to absorb the influences of whatever pleases him and to work with that material. The late Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe was fascinated by traditional Japanese music (as was the American Robert Carl and others). German composer Enjott Schneider wrote an opera in Mandarin on a traditional Chinese theme. Swedish Christian Lindberg wrote a piece called Waves of Wollongong. Sculthorpe also turned to native Australian music and its ideas for inspiration. It is not “cultural appropriation”, it is the freedom of the creative mind to transform sound into something personal.
My main point concerns the orchestral cannon. There is no doubt that the orchestral lineup could be larger and less repetitive, but that depends a lot on what a conductor or soloist is willing to play. We receive a lot of German and Russian music – although too often the same songs are repeated – but very little French, Spanish, English, American or Scandinavian music. There are thousands of masterpieces that we never hear live and probably never will.
Some people ask why not just drop all of that and focus on reflecting the diversity and gender balance of our time and place. (It’s about making space: a piece of music can last an hour – so when you add, you also have to subtract.)
I would answer this way:
Orchestral music is an absolute art form. He exists in a plane far removed from everyday life. While you might identify 19th century hymn melodies from Charles Ives or 1920s jazz harmonies from Darius Milhaud Creation of the world, you don’t need to understand the social connotations of the times to enjoy music. Music speaks to us on an emotional or subconscious level, as well as on an analytical and intellectual level. The greatest music has survived the time it was written; he transcended his time. So to simply look at programming through the prism of early 21st century ideas about diversity and gender equality is to drive a nail into the coffin of this art form. Let’s be frank: as good as this new music may be on its own terms, it won’t replace Bach or Beethoven or Mahler or Sibelius or Debussy or Mozart or Stravinsky.