The presenter of the 2016 Address was clarinettist, interdisciplinary artist and festival director Nicole Canham, whose recent doctorate on the career pathways of Australian classical musicians informed much of her talk.
At a time when the Australian arts scene has been crippled by government funding cuts Canham used the Peggy Glanville-Hicks address to challenge artists to refuse to chase money. She argued that instead of being dependent on commerce as a measure of value, artists should become agents of change able to clearly articulate how the arts will grow our cultural evolution.
Below is an excerpt of her speech, given at the Perth State Library on the 26th October and Carriageworks in Sydney on 31st October is below. She will present the same speech at Federation Square, Melbourne on 3rd November.
Like many of you, I have been a committed musician for much of my life. The story and learnings of that journey, and your own stories of making a life in music, are central to my talk tonight. The ability to recognise how our experiences as artists form part of a positive story of possibility and potential is critical for several reasons. When we understand and know how to share our stories with others, we reinforce our sense of self. We also make it easier for others to really see who we are and to know what we stand for. These are vital anchors at a time when many of our systems of value, along with people’s life and work expectations, are being thrown into disarray through rapid social change.
Four main themes bind my own story together. First, music was a very important part of my childhood. In those early years I formed the powerful impression that musicians are people who make a positive difference to other people’s lives. That belief has sustained my sense of purpose over the last twenty years: my professional activities have provided a framework for exploring various transformative aspects of music and music-making. Second, when I was about 20, I started to feel very strongly that my choices in music should somehow reflect who I am – a female, Australian artist working in the late 20th and early 21st century. That preoccupation has significantly influenced the direction of my creative life. Playing the music of living composers somehow feels more authentically me, and my interest in the compositional process inspires my curatorial work. Third, in the last five years or so, I’ve begun referring to myself as an artist rather than as a musician. It better reflects the range of platforms and roles through which my creativity finds an outlet, and so I use the terms musician and artist interchangeably. And finally, I’m a problem-finder by nature. One of the characteristics of problem-finders is that they ask their own questions – they don’t necessarily try to solve existing problems, or problems presented to them by someone else. A lot of my work has been concerned with creating more genuinely democratic, transformative experiences for people through the arts. So my journey as an artist has really, at its core, been about finding ways to empower myself to answer questions around the nature of the arts experience, and the higher purpose the activity of making art, and making music, serves today.
On that journey, I’ve encountered the same ideas and arguments about why it’s hard for us to think of including everyone in what we do. Or why everyone shouldn’t be included. And where I’m at right now, and what I want to talk about tonight, is the importance of sustaining a bigger vision of our work beyond our own immediate challenges. I’m also going to talk about some of the ideas that have sustained and inspired me to think in terms of alternatives, rather than absolutes. Some of these ideas are conceptual, such as the poetry of the present, the challenge of complexity, the importance of meaning making, and of metaphor, and the nature of independence. There are also practical ideas to be considered too: the benefits versus the cost of public funding, and the ways in which we build community and advocate for ourselves. For me these ideas form the basis of an alternative route through our shared problems, and the inspiration for a host of new solutions.
Peggy Glanville-Hicks drew upon the work of D.H. Lawrence in two of her compositions - the Etruscan Concerto, composed in 1954, and her choral work, This place of fire. So it seems rather fitting that for my address tonight, I was also inspired by D.H. Lawrence.
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.
His essay entitled, The Poetry of the Present, was published in 1919. Lawrence entreated other poets to look to the present in order to create a living form of poetry. In essence, Lawrence was asking us to find new meaning in the present, which we often take for granted. If we substitute the word poetry with the word music, then we encounter two challenges that are salient with respect to making new music today. The first challenge is to keep our focus on “the immediate present” as a source of artistic ideas. Many of us will likely agree with that point. But I think he pushes us further than that, because making the work of the immediate present is about the process of being in the present and seeing what comes out of that, rather than manufacturing a product or running a business.
This makes the second part of Lawrence’s challenge more difficult. In order to fully embrace this present moment as the stimulus for our creative work, our ways of thinking and working must evolve to reflect “that which is at hand.” This requires thinking and working processes that support the ability to respond rapidly to shifting circumstances. But although these processes are vital for artists today, they don’t always come easily. We may find ourselves longing for the way things were, or dreaming of the way we would like them to be. Thinking in this way takes us out of the present moment. Things may seem simpler, solutions more straight forward. But there is one major problem with allowing ourselves this indulgence: the present is not simple, and it is certainly not straight-forward.
We can’t speak about the present time without acknowledging the growing complexity of our environment. Any attempt to tackle our individual, and collective, creative challenges must also address broader themes of complexity and change. Sustainability theories highlight how difficult it is to motivate people to change. Their central tenet is very simple: “All of the problems we face are of our own making” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 2). This is a line of thinking that is very difficult for some people to accept. Yet when we adopt an inappropriate mindset for the problem at hand we perpetuate destructive behaviours instead of finding solutions. The growing imbalances that sustainability theories seek to address aren’t limited to matters of the eco-system; our societies also reflect widening inequality and increasing poverty (Espinosa & Walker, 2010), Australia included (cite report). We can’t fully understand these problems through “individual, institutional or local issues in isolation” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 3). Rather, we need to understand how the whole system works in relation to each of the parts. We also need to understand how “a system governs, or regulates, itself” (Espinosa & Walker, 2010, p. 11), and then we need to be prepared to adapt accordingly, even if we didn’t choose, or initiate, the particular challenges that we face.
Careers scholars have also been working on the problem of complexity as it relates to changing work environments for some time. As whole industries and professions move towards the kinds of work patterns and insecurity that artists have been living with for a long time, the characterisation that what we do is a Peter Pan “lifestyle choice” (cite) is incorrect. We are sentries. We are prophets. A very individually demanding model is emerging in which we are each responsible for managing and developing our professional identities in what are often uncertain and trying circumstances. The challenge now is not to match our skills to the available jobs. This paradigm is dying out. Today, the single-most influential factor in designing a satisfying and sustainable working life in 21st century knowledge societies is the ability to make meaning. [PAUSE] Our perception of our work experiences, including our responses to challenges, transitions, failures and successes, determines how rewarding we find what we do. Pursuing one’s purpose in complex environments involves connecting the personal and the professional in profound ways, rather than adopting inherited, or out-dated stories, about the way our adult lives, or indeed our creative lives, should unfold. Managing career complexity doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to disadvantageous situations. We can change the game entirely, if we are willing to think of ourselves as change agents.
We may experiment in our music making, but how many of us are willing to completely change the game of making music? Although for many artists the act of meaning making is integral to their creative practice, making sense of where one’s artistic work fits in a rapidly changing cultural context isn’t easy. These twin challenges reflect their own distinctive narratives: on one hand we have the tremendous freedom of the agent of change, and on the other hand we frequently find the pain of the misunderstood and undervalued artist. The dissonance between our habits of meaning making and the current circumstances grows. This dissonance also places us in a bind if we leave it unresolved. We may be advocating for the new with out-dated arguments. We may be assessing ours and others’ success through a lens that is no longer appropriate for this time, nor for our field. And the stories we tell about our work may only address half of what is going on. Making new meanings that reflect the possibility of the present becomes a vital skill. Re-thinking and reframing individual and shared stories in these volatile conditions becomes a courageous and necessary act of survival. Crafting new stories of what we do also helps our community, and others, to envision and appreciate the powerful social role that artists will play in healthy 21st century societies. Recent developments around federal arts funding, and the cutting of Government subsidy to mostly arts-related VET courses are two powerful examples of why new stories are needed.
Canham went on to talk about creating structures of our own which other people can't take away, and becoming bigger picture artists who are able to look beyond the business of creating concerts and attracting audiences, to the Zeitgeist of the role of art itself. She cast a compelling vision for creating musical communities which attract audiences keen be involved in every part of a performance: before, during and after.
I appreciated Canham's very grounded style and her wholistic approach to the creative arts. She didn't provide many answers to the current challenges of being a musician (or music journalist!) in Australia, but she did blow the ceiling off the possibilities of being an artist, and the powerful role it can have if we function as a community of truly independent creatives.
For those of you like me who may not know a lot about her, Nicole Canham is a clarinettist and performer on the taragato whose aim is to provide transformative arts experiences and build new audiences for live music. She was the founder of my fave clarinet quartet Clarity, whose albums have become collectors editions! She directed the Canberra International Music Festival from 2005-2008 achieving a ten-fold increase in audience numbers. She also works with a range of artists from outside the world of music, exploring connections with theatre, film, visual art, dance and photography.
The following links provide more information on Canham and her speech: