THE FO­RUM

GOR­DON KERRY ON CLAS­SI­CAL MU­SIC’s PO­LIT­I­CAL PUNCH

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

CHE waged a re­lent­less cam­paign, that’s for sure. It started in first grade and for five long years my boy per­sis­tently put for­ward his re­quest for a dog. Each birth­day wish was for a puppy, each Christ­mas list fea­tured the child­ishly scrawled three-let­ter word ‘‘ dog’’. Just as con­sis­tently I coun­tered with the two-let­ter word ‘‘ no’’ ( oc­ca­sion­ally tem­pered by ‘‘ one day’’). I’m not against pets but my ob­jec­tions were nu­mer­ous. Pets are ex­pen­sive and re­quire a lot of com­mit­ment and up­keep. A dog would be one more un­wanted dis­trac­tion to my chil­dren’s rou­tine.

Stretched to the limit by the day-to-day care of two turbo-charged small boys, not to men­tion the de­mands of em­ploy­ment, I won­dered if I could bear to take on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of one more small, de­pen­dent and ( po­ten­tially) feral crea­ture. I pic­tured my­self har­ried and frus­trated, screech­ing at the kids to get ready for school and screech­ing at the dog to com­ply with my di­rec­tives. The thought of all that screech­ing was, frankly, off-putting.

I rea­soned that my youngest child was not ready for a dog. For cer­tain he would treat it roughly. In re­sponse the dog would be emo­tion­ally scarred and be­haviourally dis­turbed and we’d all end up on a Dr Harry seg­ment, re­gret­ting the day we ever took on the pooch. No, a dog could wait. We could all wait. Ni­cholas LAS­SI­CAL mu­sic, ac­cord­ing to The New Yorker critic Alex Ross, is ‘‘ par­adise for the pas­sive ag­gres­sive’’. Con­certs are highly rit­u­alised, per­form­ers ap­pear in the monochrome of cor­rect evening cos­tume ( though fe­male soloists are per­mit­ted a colour­ful frock) and there is min­i­mal move­ment on stage.

There is a hi­er­ar­chy when it comes to who gets what ap­plause and when; ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion on stage is al­most non-ex­is­tent, and from stage to au­di­to­rium is ideally kept to a min­i­mum. An au­di­ence mem­ber who ap­plauds be­tween move­ments of a sym­phony or string quar­tet will be sub­ject to a with­er­ing pha­lanx of raised eye­brows; cough or drop some­thing and you’ll cre­ate near-fa­tal lev­els of lip-purs­ing. Only at the end of a work may ap­plause be en­thu­si­as­tic, pos­si­bly in­clud­ing a cer­tain amount of whistling, cheer­ing, and even stand­ing, though it ain’t a mosh-pit.

In this coun­try at least, a work that doesn’t go over well still gets brief, po­lite ap­plause — a dev­as­tat­ing sound, let me tell you — rather than any­thing as ex­cit­ing as a boo or the Vi­en­nese spe­cialty of ‘‘ whistling on house keys’’ to sig­nal dis­ap­proval.

Clas­si­cal audiences are, as a gen­eral rule, un­demon­stra­tive. The of­ten al­luded-to riot at the Paris pre­miere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 was as much about the chore­og­ra­phy as the mu­sic, which very soon be­came a con­cert sta­ple.

As long as it’s work­ing, pas­sive ag­gres­sion looks like pas­siv­ity. How­ever, this in­ter­pre­ta­tion can be a trap, as a num­ber of politi­cians have dis­cov­ered in re­cent times when deal­ing with the clas­si­cal mu­sic pro­fes­sion and its au­di­ence. Q& A with, among oth­ers, Coali­tion MP

Most no­table was the re­sponse last Oc­to­ber to Bron­wyn Bishop, who sup­ports the Syd­ney the pro­posal by fed­eral Arts Min­is­ter Peter In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion of Aus­tralia out Gar­rett to close the Aus­tralian Na­tional Acadof her own retic­ule. The con­ver­sa­tion in­evitably emy of Mu­sic in Mel­bourne ( with which I was turned to the hoary old arts v sport de­bate. ( News as­so­ci­ated in 2008) and re­place it, af­ter a sixflash: many peo­ple like both, and clas­si­cal mu­sic month in­ter­reg­num, with some­thing that looked lovers don’t merely clap po­litely if their foot­ball pretty much the same. team wins.) Gar­rett was brusquely dis­mis­sive of

There was clearly a fail­ure of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. the im­por­tance of mu­si­cal com­pe­ti­tions rel­a­tive Gar­rett and his staff be­lieved they had given the to, say, Olympic sport. ( It would be churl­ish to academy fair warn­ing over sev­eral gov­er­nance men­tion that the an­nual cost of the academy is is­sues ear­lier in the year; the academy hadn’t about half the es­ti­mated cost to the tax­payer of in­ter­preted the cor­re­spon­dence the way it a sin­gle Olympic gold medal.) sub­se­quently was said to have been in­tended. But pas­sive ag­gres­sion only looks pas­sive, and

That drama has been fully re­ported in this and the Min­is­ter’s de­ci­sion pro­voked a pub­lic out­cry other news­pa­pers but the point here is that it was that sur­prised even the academy’s sup­port­ers. An al­most cer­tainly as­sumed in Can­berra that the on­line pe­ti­tion gar­nered well in ex­cess of 10,000 academy staff, stu­dents and mem­bers of the sig­na­to­ries, rang­ing from present and for­mer stu­dents’ reg­u­lar au­di­ence would ac­cept a stu­dents ( many from their po­si­tions over­seas) to po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion tamely, and that the me­dia some of the most es­teemed com­posers, con­d­u­cand broader com­mu­nity would take lit­tle if tors and soloists in in­ter­na­tional clas­si­cal mu­sic any no­tice. to­day. Hun­dreds more wrote let­ters to the

This was no sur­prise. Back in Au­gust last year, Min­is­ter and other MPs de­cry­ing the de­ci­sion. Gar­rett had ap­peared on the ABC1 pro­gram Peo­ple turned up in droves to the sev­eral tried a dif­fer­ent tac­tic for his tenth birth­day. How about a tur­tle? He would un­der­take all the care, all the clean­ing. It would be a great les­son in re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The tur­tle idea seemed in­com­pat­i­ble with my screech­ing con­cerns. Who has ever heard of a tur­tle with be­havioural is­sues? The tur­tle idea had some ap­peal. My hus­band sup­ported the tur­tle op­tion too. What the heck, why stop at one? We agreed to the pur­chase of two.

So in a clas­sic case of ‘‘ went to the pet shop to buy some tur­tles and came home with a puppy’’, Lulu, our adorable Jack Rus­sell-poo­dle cross, came into our lives.

Yes, there was an ini­tial ad­just­ment. For those first few nights the neigh­bours cursed us as Lulu howled long and hard and, in a cho­rus of sym­pa­thy, ev­ery other dog in the street joined in. con­certs that the academy con­tin­ued to present each week.

The Op­po­si­tion arts spokesman and sev­eral col­leagues, along with the Greens, raised the is­sue many times in both houses of par­lia­ment. And to make things worse for the Gov­ern­ment, the academy’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Brett Dean, was, in the mid­dle of all this, hon­oured with the world’s most pres­ti­gious prize for com­po­si­tion, the Grawe­meyer Award. The academy may be a small and, gasp, elite in­sti­tu­tion, but its real worth and in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion were be­com­ing abun­dantly clear.

The Coali­tion’s sup­port was most wel­come and may have been spurred by a mem­ory of 2005 when it had com­mis­sioned a re­view into the vi­a­bil­ity of the na­tion’s sym­phony or­ches­tras. Gov­ern­ments have been re­view­ing the or­ches­tras on a be­wil­der­ingly reg­u­lar ba­sis for decades; or­ches­tras are ex­pen­sive to run, of course, but no one has yet worked out how to play a Beethoven sym­phony more ef­fi­ciently in 2009 than in 1802.

The 2005 re­view was headed by for­mer Qan­tas chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer James Strong. ( And why not: Her­bert von Kara­jan pre­sum­ably knew a thing or two about 747s.) Strong’s rec­om­men­da­tion was to trim the size of or­ches­tras in three ( de­mo­graph­i­cally) small states: Tas­ma­nia, South Aus­tralia and West­ern Aus­tralia. The re­sult­ing cham­ber or­ches­tras could en­gage ca­sual play­ers for any­thing larger than a late clas­si­cal-era work.

Good eco­nomics, woe­ful pol­i­tics. Mu­si­cians, nat­u­rally, protested at the threat to their liveli­hood, but the pub­lic also weighed in, along with the likes of broad­caster Alan Jones, in sup­port of the or­ches­tras. And the Gov­ern­ment’s back­benchers from those states felt the heat. The Gov­ern­ment im­ple­mented the re­view only in part ( but that’s an­other story), and the then min­is­ter Rod Kemp an­nounced ad­di­tional fund­ing to se­cure all the or­ches­tras.

Once again, a group thought to be small, tractable and elec­torally neg­li­gi­ble packed an un­ex­pected punch, sug­gest­ing that clas­si­cal mu­sic holds a more im­por­tant place in our cul­ture than some politi­cians may imag­ine. The tens of thou­sands who at­tend free sum­mer sym­phony con­certs don’t all turn into sub­scribers. But they go be­cause such an event is an ex­pected part of cul­tural life, and it’s fun. We ex­pect our cities to have or­ches­tras just as they have gal­leries, li­braries and cricket grounds, and need the best peo­ple to per­form in them. Pub­lic opin­ion — the voice of God — seems to agree. Gor­don Kerry’s New Clas­si­cal Mu­sic: Com­pos­ing Aus­tralia is pub­lished by UNSW Press.

We’re six weeks into this dog own­er­ship thing and guess what? No screech­ing ( not me, not Lulu, not the boys; not even the neigh­bours).

My fears of be­ing driven bark­ing mad were un­founded. In fact, if any­thing, Lulu has ex­erted a calm­ing in­flu­ence on the kids. I’m see­ing this very loving and nur­tur­ing side to them.

The big­gest sur­prise has been the ef­fect of the puppy on me. I thought it would be nice for the boys to have a pet but I vastly un­der­es­ti­mated the de­gree to which my heart could ac­com­mo­date this small, fluffy, to­tally be­witch­ing lit­tle thing. I’m be­sot­ted and my bond with her is as strong as the love I feel for my chil­dren. Her health, well­be­ing and hap­pi­ness are as much my con­cerns as theirs. My emo­tional com­mit­ment to her is ab­so­lute. She’s one ex­tra thing to worry about but it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of worry. I know that no mat­ter what hap­pens she’ll never grow up to ride fast mo­tor­bikes or do drugs.

She’s four months old now so I can look for­ward to years of pet-own­ing plea­sure. Thank good­ness I weak­ened. Some­times when you think with your heart you do make the right de­ci­sion. Isn’t that what a heart is for?

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Saktor

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