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Anita Hustas performing in Melbourne. Phil Bywater, CC BY-NC-ND

Music of our time: let’s embrace experimental music once and for all

Uh Oh. Experimental music. Weird, challenging, complicated, ugly, silly, out of control, academic, or at best – conceptual. Is it even relevant?

Music presents a cultural complexity that is arguably unique in the arts. It is ubiquitous through a complex network that touches different people, cultures and purposes. We all engage with a range of music in some way or another, and it can play a pivotal role in our lives.

Our experience of music is very broad. From bumbling through the Australian anthem before school assembly, to a hymn at church or your footy team song; from TV jingles and Muzak, to stadium bands and orchestras, we live in a world of music.

The very broad appeal of and engagement with music is part of its power. As part of the arts, there is a place for a music that questions the very notion of what it can be. Visual art embraced innovation years ago – pushing abstraction, conceptual and performance art into the mainstream.

Its hard to imagine the Australian music scene without diverse pioneers such as Jim Denley, Carolyn Connors, Lucas Abela, Ros Bandt, Warren Burt or Joyce Hinterding.

Ongoing innovation in all forms of music is essential to ensure music remains relevant to our ever-changing cultural identity. Imported and adopted forms have an established role in our cultural fabric – but should they be the centre of it?

Attempts to make a music that is our own have never been privileged in Australian culture. Gail Priest’s book Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia (2008) was an important step from within the community itself, and when long time violin experimenter Jon Rose deservedly won the most prestigious Australian music award, the Don Banks Award in 2012, it seemed possible there could be change; it seemed innovation and experimentation could be recognised as a central to our musical heritage.

Yet it remains difficult to get experiments of the musical kind out into the public arena in way that is any more than a curiosity or “fringe” activity. When we use the word music, most of us are referring to something that’s made for and played on established musical instruments, with certain “musical” qualities such as melody and harmony.

Anita Hustas performing ‘Reflections of a Teardrop’ at La Mama theatre in May, 2015. Photo by Phil Bywater. Author provided

Music has a role in reflecting contemporary life, our interests and concerns. Experimentation is required to keep this reflection accurate and relevant, and challenging the idea of what is “musical” is an important part of this. We have to push music in unexpected directions.

Unabashed attempts at challenging the status quo struggle for any real public attention, because they break the perceived link between music and entertainment. Yet for experimental music to be relevant, it has to be shared, debated, and subjected to critical review. This requires opportunity.

The infrastructure for music has a challenge ahead in this regard. This too is a complex web of education, facilities and communities. Venues are designed to serve a variety of what our previous art minister referred to as heritage music: orchestras, and recitals – to which I would add bands.

Which is to say: massed audiences ushered into plush seats in darkened wood-lined rooms, crushed with lights in their faces or standing on sticky carpets listening to a bad PA with a beer.

Such venues aren’t generally very conductive to making or experiencing “experiments”. Our future venues need to be more flexible, accessible and adaptable. They need to be “art” venues, not just music venues.

In specialist tertiary music degrees, three to four years is hardly enough to touch on this heritage music, let alone the exploration of new ideas, the range of Australian music, or music of different cultures. Experimentation has become a luxury, and any framework for understanding it is off the agenda.

Music students are the innovators of the future – they need tools to turn their craft into art as they mature and engage with the world beyond the student experience. Artistic research in music offers some hope, as this is adopted across a range of universities, but it is a work in long progress.

But the main obstacle could be cultural respect. Respect for innovation and curiosity, for the ability and necessity to make something that belongs to our time, for us, that’s relevant to our world. With respect comes support. Australians – as a unique mix of people, experience, and place - have the rare opportunity to check the bulk of the heavy baggage of past masters at the door, with respect and gratitude.

We should be forging infrastructure that facilitates and celebrates our attempts at innovation, to enable excitement, challenges, debate and our own version of new. That is the possibility experimental music presents us with, and it needs to be celebrated.

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