Classical Music, Politics and Creative Alchemy

Tamar Iveri. I feel a bit sorry for her and what’s happened to her career of late. I’m sorry that she married a homophobic man. I’m sorry that she hasn’t the guts to stand up to him. I’m sorry that she entrusted him with the password to their joint Facebook account.  Maybe in her culture, she is the ideal Obedient Wife, saying yes-sir-no-sir to everything her husband ever says? In Western culture, we call those people Enablers.

Enablers are not well respected. The Australian example that springs to mind is a woman called Jackie O. No, not Jackie Onassis. For those privileged enough not to know about her, our Jackie O is a vacuous D-List commercial radio presenter who is paired with one of the most overtly misogynistic and homophobic public figures in the country, Kyle Sandilands. She appalls me. They both do. And I put Iveri and her husband in the same category. (Yes, I’m lesbian and biased against her, but I challenge you to try to be nice to someone who calls you a piece of “faecal matter”).

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the relationship between politics and classical music. Am coming to the conclusion that it’s really an odd relationship. The issues that seem to get the most attention are about arch conservatives of the classical world making outrageous statements of homophobia or misogyny etc, followed by the rest of the sector coming down on them pretty hard.  Tamar Iveri, of course. Or Russian conductor Valery Gergiev publicly voicing support for Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws. Or classical music critics in the UK reviewing the shape of Tara Erraught’s body instead of her actual performance in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. All horrible things against which we must protest. There’s a great deal of talking and clicktivism, but no artworks in response. Yet.

Where in all these dramas are the actual creatives? Not the performers, but the composers and writers? There are some really good examples of political statement through music happening locally, and I wish they were getting half as much media traction!!  In 2013, the Song Company and the Canberra International Music Festival commissioned a wonderful piece of massed choral political satire by composer Tim Hansen and writer Hal Judge called Howls in the House all about our Parliamentary system and how it works (or doesn’t work!). There’s the upcoming premiere of Paul Stanhope’s new work Jandamarra for the Sydney Symphony with Gondwana Choirs and performers from the Kimberley, the Bunuba people, telling an important indigenous story that Australians really should know about, but mostly don’t. That’s what makes it political. And I’m quite proud of my own contribution to this genre, my eco-allegory This Paradise Now for Leichhardt Espresso chorus, inspired by our Prime Minister Abbott attempting to ignore the World Heritage Listing on those Tasmanian forests. Since I wrote that piece, he has failed in his attempts to destroy said forest. Ha.

All the works I’ve just mentioned are choral works. I’m inclined to think this is not a coincidence. I think it’s got to do with the genre and the kind of people who get involved in it. There’s a genuine sense of community about singing in a choir at any level, professional or amateur, that I suspect you are less likely to get in an opera company. Opera types will argue with me about that, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. In my experience of going through music school with opera singers, their training is mostly geared toward preparing them to perform solo roles. The educational emphasis is very much against giving them tools to work well in ensemble like sightsinging, aural skills, harmony and counterpoint. They are trained to be soloists and that’s what they desire and consistently work very hard towards achieving. And after all, what use are good ensemble skills to a future Diva?? As a consequence, very few work well or truly happily in ensemble (unless they’ve had a good deal of choral experience).  On the other hand, choristers are necessarily about supporting each other and working as a team - good reading, theoretical knowledge, aural skills are central to creating that uniquely powerful unanimity of expression. Can you tell I’m biased? Haha.

Choirs are very much leading the way in that relevance that other classical music organisations are always rabbiting on about, that they think is so elusive. It’s not elusive. It’s in your face, peoples!  It’s right in front of every director of a musical ensemble.  Every ensemble is made up of real people and those real people have had real lives and have real stories to tell. All you need to do is extract those stories from your people and make a new piece of art from what you get.  I did it by asking the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus what thing was happening in the world about which they were the most upset which turned out to be the attempted destruction of Tasmanian forests. It wasn’t hard to get people to write things about which they feel very strongly. In fact, they gave me enough material for at least six similarly sized allegorical cantatas!

Imagine if every classical music ensemble did this? In my own private Utopia, I imagine that all kinds of people would see us telling real stories and would be able to really connect to us. It’s so personal and immediate, much more like working in a rock band I guess. Now I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I love Beethoven and Stravinsky as much as the next classical nerd. But a genuine commitment to telling our own stories rather than a tokenistic nod to new music in order to get funding… well, that’d be keepin’ it real.

Recently, I presented some composition workshops for the Australian National Choral Association, at their Queensland Choral Convention. It was held on the Gold Coast, a place for which I now have a strange affection. It’s an affection for the way the coast used to be before the developers arrived and built their towers literally in the sand. Upon arrival, I stepped out onto my hotel room balcony, and saw some earth moving machinery moving down toward the beach. I felt a pang of fear. A day later, on my morning walk, I discovered that these machines were destined for something called ‘seawall investigation’, assessing the performance and condition of the seawall so all those towers don’t just tumble into the ocean one day. Eek! It did little to assuage my fear.

So I channelled the fear into writing a song about it with the folks in my composition workshops. Isn’t composition a strange kind of alchemy…!? Anyway, in my mind’s ear I hear a bunch of 8 year olds from the Gold Coast singing it. Here’s the solo part…

Sally Whitwell - Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI:49 - II. Adagio e cantabile

279 plays

I am feeling that there is a whole lot to be angry about in the world at the moment (principally for me, rampant misogyny and a government whose priorities are, to put it mildly, questionable).

This piece of Haydn sums up what I’m feeling today, this minute, about the world. I see things of great beauty and fragility that fill me with awe, and then see how humans are destroying it and each other. This piece displays both great beauty and passionate anger and summaries pretty much exactly how conflicted I feel.

Stating my opinions in a public space on various issues has burnt a few bridges for me in the last few days… but should I feel sad about that? Do I want to stay friends with people who truly believe in the #NotAllMen thing? With people who support the destruction of our natural environment against the express advice of UNESCO? With people who think “You’re a classical musician, and your art is not in any way enmeshed with politics”?

Haydn says it better than I do.

Creatives care
The attempts by our current government to de-list so much of the currently World Heritage Listed Tasmanian forests is beyond awful. How they think they can blithely ignore the advisory bodies to UNESCO is beyond my comprehension. Even Terry Edwards, the head honcho of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, has been quoted as saying “We don’t support any or all exceptions to the world heritage area”. Clearly, nobody wants this.And so I wrote some songs. That’s the skill I have to offer the world, a political statement of support in the form of an artwork. How is this helping? For me, art provokes thought and discussion, it both entertains and enlightens, it allows us a space to react emotionally to things we feel strongly about and perhaps then make the decision to act upon those feelings by exercising our democratic right to disagree publicly with the powers that be. Some people write subversive and witty signs and post photos on the internet of themselves marching the streets with them. I write songs instead.It’s not only the political message I wish to communicate by composing these songs. It’s to show that the classical music world cares too. We are human beings who live in the real world and have strong opinions about things and given that we’re in the arts, you’d think that we’d be all over it, taking our opinions to audiences everywhere. Some are, many are not. The classical music world is always talking about how to increase our ‘relevance’ to the modern world, particularly with younger audiences. I dislike the use of the word ‘relevant’ in this context. I prefer ‘meaningful’ and ‘immediate’. Those classical musicians who spend at least a portion of their musical life making the effort to tell contemporary stories through the medium are the ones who are making a real difference. Other classical performers will of course have a harder time of it. Beethoven symphonies and Rossini operas are wonderful but are often too far away from the lives of your average Joe to be meaningful to very many people. The universal themes presented in classical music, those of conflict and resolution in whatever guise they take, abstract or narrative, operas or symphonies, chamber music or recitals; these things are in fact very now. We just need to learn to communicate it with people. Therein lies the challenge.For myself, it’s a little contemporary eco-allegorical choral work that I’m contributing to both causes. It was commissioned by an amateur community choir the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus directed by Michelle Leonard one of the most adventurous classical music professionals I know, so it’s breaking down the barriers again between ordinary folks and classical music folks. And it’s an issue about which we all care very deeply. I’m pretty frickin’ proud of that.
Classical music, feminism and the media.
Let’s face it, there are not very many ways that these three things intersect. I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve done it with my series In Her Shoes - music by women composers. My press release was focused enough on the feminist angle to get me some pretty great media - this feature piece in Limelight Magazine, Australia’s best known classical music magazine, and a really nice review from a classical music novice in a women’s magazine Her Canberra. The latter in particular really meant a great deal to me, that I was able to attract a new audience by simply focusing in on a slightly different angle, what makes my concert series unique. Feeling pretty chuffed about that!Some friends of mine, the remarkable musicians of Halcyon, recently presented a concert similarly dedicated to the work of women composers Women’s Work. I was originally meant to play in this concert but couldn’t because during the rehearsal period I was in Los Angeles playing with Philip Glass! Bad timing!! And then I was working on the night of their performance too. Even worse timing!!! As you can imagine, I was therefore champing at the bit to hear about how it went, perhaps see some photos or video or audio evidence? Disappointingly none of that kind of self-generated content was anywhere to be found on the interwebs. So I went looking for reviews or media features to satisfy my appetite. I found three ‘articles’ in online classical music magazines here, here, and here which I must assume are word-for-word sharing of their press release because the wording was identical! There’s no mention in said press release of the feminist angle or why it’s so politically important that concerts like this are presented, it’s more about how Halcyon is 15 years old which is nice and everything but… Aren’t we missing out on a huge audience here, not just for women’s music but for classical music more broadly? With online projects like Everyday Sexism taking the interwebs by storm, it seems short sighted not to attempt to engage with the smart sassy feminists out there in the tone of the press release. I longed for something a bit more, um, bolshy. Haha.The one review that I have found to date happily does make mention of the feminist thing, but then lapses back into the familiar slightly jargon-filled tone of your typical classical music review. This is a really great read for someone like me with an education in classical music and fairly detailed knowledge of all the composers represented on the program. But for an average feminist out there in the world, the audience that I feel we should be targeting, it does little to stoke the fire. I’m sure the concert was totally amazing (Halcyon concerts always are!) but I think we could be more effective at communicating how amazing they are. 
Thence I find myself wondering about the purpose of reviews  - I hope that reviews of my recordings and concerts would encourage as many people as possible to engage with my work. Writing about classical music in the old fashioned way doesn’t work so well these days, it just serves to make us seem more ivory-tower, further out of reach than ever. I am attempting to learn how to reach beyond these spheres and I think it’s just starting to work. I have so much more to learn, and I hope some more classical musos will join me on this journey.

How is it possible that I’m overwhelmed and underwhelmed by something at the same time?!?!

They want to grow the youth audience for classical music so juxtapose the music with a youth pop culture reference. OK, I get it. But I do often wonder exactly why initiatives such as these seem to want to target the kind of youth audience that watches/listens to Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. I suspect that they are too tough a market to crack. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly educated, intelligent, curious people out there who are not classical music fans but they listen to the smarter end of pop music… like, I dunno, London Grammar or Bjork or Rufus Wainright. Now, I am convinced that if classical music world learnt to effectively communicate with those people, we would increase our audience. Music videos don’t have to be so highly sexualised and vaguely exploitative to be popular. (Gotye+Kimbra anyone?)

Also, it is not only young people who are not listening to classical music. There are plenty of older folk who prefer Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles or Pink Floyd or y’know, the music of their own youth to Beethoven and Mozart. Are those people won over by classical music + soft porn? Only as far as the porn itself. I doubt they’re rushing out to buy Dvorak.

This week, I got my very favourite review I’ve ever received and it was from a self professed “musical novice”. Generally when you’re a classical performer, the reviews you get are from specialist classical music writers. This is all well and good but there is a certain sense of preaching-to-the-converted about it. After all, who’s going to read those reviews? Only people already interested in classical music which doesn’t give much help to those performers like myself who are keen to expand our audience further.So I was pretty chuffed when this review appeared. After I read the review, I immediately backtracked. What were the things that I said in my publicity materials and in my press release to garner the interest of a ‘novice’? Basically it was two very simple things.1. I framed the event in terms of something that means a great deal to at least 50% of the population - feminism.2. I spoke in a vernacular kind of way, without the use of musical jargon.And it worked! It made me smile all over my face to read the words she used to describe the music (“Uplifting, complex, intriguing”) and also my presentation (“Articulate, charming, passionate”). It meant much more to me than a musicology-trained critic’s analysis.I want all the world to know how great classical music is, how great classical music by women composers is. It’s all about communication, speaking to those who’ve never had a classical music experience in a language they can understand. This does not mean ‘dumbing down’, as there are plenty of smart, educated, curious people out there who are not classical music fans. It means classical music world making connections with these people. Classical musicians need to respect the tastes, the experiences, the intelligence of those from ‘outside’ and invite them into the experience. That’s gotta help expand our audience.
Classical music isn’t dead. It’s dead cool!
Design by my friend Andrew of New United Artists
Thanks mate, I love this!!
Classical Music is Dead.
Mark Vanhoenacker thinks so, but is cautiously optimistic…? “Myself, I cling to the forlorn hope that classical music has been down for so long, it must somehow be due for a comeback.”
Claire Chase sees an opportunity instead… “Yes, she said, we read daily about the implosion of orchestras, the winnowing number of jobs for an expanding work force. But, far from dying, classical music is “just being born,” Ms. Chase said, with “new performance practices that put creators, interpreters, historians, educators, theorists in the same entrepreneurial spaces.”
Whatevs. It’s not dead to me. I just composed a new piano piece :D

Live Music Matters: Live Music and Performance Action Plan

I’m off to a meeting this afternoon at City of Sydney where they’ll be discussing their “Live Music Matters: Live Music and Performance Action Plan”.  Classical music has been notably absent from this conversation in the media, because the whole debate is somewhat predictably centred around the bar/pub music scene and the accompanying issues of entertainment/alcohol licensing and noise pollution.  

It is time to make our voices heard, classical fans!!!!

I have a suggestion.  What about more non-amplified music in existing council venues with naturally resonant acoustics?  Orchestras, choirs and chamber music groups are much lower impact in terms of noise.  A good mix of both professional and amateur classical music events, concerts and rehearsals in venues like the beautifully newly refurbished Glebe Town Hall, for instance, would create vibrant creative hubs for music makers of all levels of experience and would inject some life back into the music scene.  How? When you get people involved in music creation, they become good audiences too.  Just take a look at Moorambilla Festival for a shining example of that!  It’s starting to happen e.g. the lovely folks of the Glebe Salon Orchestra already rehearse in Glebe Town Hall, but a whole lot more of that kind of thing would be great.  Further to that, shouldn’t Sydney’s flagship classical music organisations (Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Children’s Choir and Sydney Youth Orchestra) all have a regular and visible presence in their own city’s council venues?

The only catch is this: there would need to be top quality grand pianos in these venues.  Spend the money on that instead of trouble-creating amplification systems. That’s what I say.

Read a few words from the City of Sydney Live Music and Performance Taskforce here

Music bosses remain deaf to distortion that gender discrimination creates on stage
Moya Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 2013.
"If Australia’s major music organisations have displayed a marked tendency to commission and perform compositions by men on this country’s main stages, can it be explained as unconscious bias? What I hear, from female composer colleagues and others, indicates they believe the discrimination is deliberate.
The experience of women as second-class citizens throughout history is no different in music. And what else should we infer about the ranking of women composers when, year after year, Musica Viva Australia, for example, commissions music for its main stage that includes scarcely a note written by a woman? Other major organisations are resolute in displaying a similar preference for music written by men. Is that how deeply entrenched women’s ”second-class” status is?
There are long-time patrons of Musica Viva who remember an earlier, more egalitarian era. They have sought to promote women’s music to Musica Viva only to be told there are no decent women composers.
When society fails to register how few female composers get a hearing on Australia’s main stages, the stigma of sexism besmirches all women. Is women’s music still to be regarded as less worthy of being commissioned, performed, professionally recorded and broadcast? Both genders, and all sides of politics, acknowledge the elevation of just one woman to the new federal Liberal government cabinet is unacceptable. Many of us were appalled at the way Julia Gillard was treated when she was Australia’s first female prime minister. Women are finally registering the unendurable inequity of this state of affairs.
In her blog, ABC Radio presenter Emma Ayres recently decried the fact there are so few compositions by women listed for her to broadcast. Is this because the ABC music programmers cannot find women’s music to play? Is it because the ABC does not want to pay performers for unlimited broadcast rights on older recordings? I am told that lobbying for airplay on ABC-FM is intense; I believe women composers need to clamour more vociferously for a hearing.
It is time women, and men who appreciate the talent of women, combined their power to overhaul the situation. If people want to hear women’s music, then more of those in power will consider commissioning it. They could also offer financial assistance to women composers to create high-standard performances and recordings. Relying on the ABC to do this is not working. As far as art music is concerned, the ABC neutered itself when it allowed the state orchestras to be removed from its influence. It’s a tragedy there isn’t one ABC orchestra left. Women, too, must leave bequests for women’s music to be written and performed. It is not fair to leave all the philanthropy to men.
The Australia Council for the Arts should have at its disposal an information infrastructure that enables staff to notice when a pattern of bias emerges. In the case of Musica Viva, it should have been picked up sooner that no women composers have been among the ”featured” composers commissioned and performed from 2000 onwards. This state of affairs distorts appreciation for the complete canon of Australian music.
“When exactly did classical performers stop being that — i.e. performers? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for some time now. I can’t count how many classical musicians I’ve seen shuffle, wander, or slouch onto stage in an uninspired fashion. Either that or be so tense and uptight and wrapped up in the traditions (or habits) of classical concert etiquette that they stop looking human at all.”
Sally Whitwell (me!!)
I’m proud to be a guest blogger for Greg Sandow’s blog on the future of classical music. Exciting times! Click on the source for more…


Max Hole, the new head of Universal’s classical music label, has this to say about how classical musicians need to reinvent.   As usual, the journalist and the online commenters focus on how alienating the traditions are, that you have to dress up properly and know not to clap between movements etc. Whatevs.

If I could say one thing to my orchestral colleagues on this matter, it would be this - I want to see them communicate their joy in playing classical music.  Classical performance should be a real event!  As an audient, I should be feeling a kind of tangible, visceral excitement at seeing 100 musicians on the stage united toward a common goal.  I certainly feel it as soon as the music starts, but before then…

I’ve been to major symphony orchestra concerts where I felt like I wasn’t meant to be there. I felt that my presence went unacknowledged and they couldn’t have cared less that the people out there had paid good money to come and hear them and feel the energy and excitement of live performance.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this - musicians shuffling onto stage in dribs and drabs over a period of about 20 mins, not necessarily to warm up their instruments but to have a chat with their colleagues, as you might in a rehearsal situation.  Some of the ladies even bring their handbags on stage and put them under their seats. Wtf. I’m sure there’s a locker backstage somewhere.  Anyway they’re just lounging around, all laid back and casual and it hasn’t any sense of occasion.  

If I want a room full of casual, laid back people in formal dress with some classical music attached somewhere, I will pay to go to some pretentious charity ball - at least then I’ll know that my money is going to some noble cause and not to the salaries of a bunch of musicians who, judging by the way they come on stage, look like they don’t give a rat’s arse about classical music.  

But here’s the rub; I know for a fact that these colleagues of mine care a great deal about their music and they play it extraordinarily well.  But until they can communicate that effectively not only in their playing, but in their performance attitude, on social media, in the way they speak to regular non-musician people about it, nothing will change.  Regular folk will continue to think (wrongly!) that classical music is stuffy and elitist and doesn’t speak to them.

I’m doing my best to change the state of play through the way that I perform, but I am only one person.  How else is the industry to reignite the fire?

Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop in Hardcore 2

These guys do a nice thing recontextualising their performances of abstract instrumental music.  They’re here for the Sydney Festival, and I’m disappointed that I’ll miss them (*sad face*)

I love a little instrumental theatre like this, though I prefer a more absurdist Mauricio Kagel style.  This is just a little too serious too much of the time… but still totes brilliant!