Quadrant Music

The Frontlines of Battle

After the previous issue of Quadrant Music, which commemorated the life and work of Larry Sitsky upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday—an issue which, I am pleased to report, has been well received throughout musical quarters—it almost seems a shame to return to the frontlines of battle. There is, after all, so much worth celebrating in this country, and yet the great successes of innovative, authentic Australian thinkers are constantly overshadowed by the malicious actions of a loud, dangerous minority. The horror stories recounted in Quadrant‘s current edition by teacher Luke Maffeo are as good a reminder as any that if we do not work hard to preserve Western culture then it will disintegrate around us. And it is because this sublime corpus of achievement is so worth defending that we should all don our armour, raise our standards and charge the enemy. I welcome the fight, since the fight must be had.

Readers may recall that my December column,“Orana to Christmas Dystopia”, aired concerns that Labor’s new national cultural plan, Revive: A Place for Every Story, a Story for Every Place, ultimately restricts artistic freedom. The plan seeks to “introduce stand-alone legislation to protect First Nations knowledge and cultural expressions, including to address the harm caused by fake art, merchandise, and souvenirs”. In addition, the 2023-24 Budget allocates $13.4 million over five years “to protect First Nations traditional knowledge and cultural expression and First Nations artists and related workers through the introduction of stand-alone legislation and artist mentorship and training programs”. My fear is that this “stand-alone legislation” will extend the functions of copyright law to control the production of work on Aboriginal themes. For example, if Keith Windschuttle were to write a new critical tract on Aboriginal history and radical Aboriginal activists were to take issue with his research, then, under the legislation that Revive hopes to implement, could legal proceedings be launched against him? In December, I insisted that this question be asked loudly. So, I decided to ask it. I now detail my inquiry and its findings exclusively for Quadrant.

With the generous assistance of Senator Gerard Rennick and his office, I was fortunate to present, on notice, a series of questions to the Department of Arts. Robert Menzies once wrote and spoke extensively of the Australian artist, and so it is a great comfort to me when Liberal Party politicians take a genuine interest in arts policy. Senator Rennick and his team are to be commended for their efforts.

The following questions were put to the Department:

What is “fake art”?

Is it the government’s intention to expand copy­right laws, via “stand-alone legislation”, so as to criminalise the misuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage? If so, how does the government intend to define “misuse”? And will the government adopt in this “stand-alone legislation” the definition of heritage as detailed by the Our Culture, Our Future report?

If a critical tract concerning Aboriginal history were written—perhaps by Geoffrey Blainey or Keith Windschuttle—and it was received poorly by Aboriginal interest groups then, under any new “stand-alone legislation”, could those interest groups take legal action?

Is the government, through this “stand-alone legislation”, attempting to control the art produced by Australian artists for ideological purposes?

Could this “stand-alone legislation” be inverted, and would it consider Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu “fake art”, considering Professor Pascoe’s claims to be of Aboriginal descent?

Similarly, does the government intend to pursue legislation that would protect general Australian knowledge and cultural expressions and prevent the revision of Australian history by interest groups, and safeguard the Australian public from “fake [Australian] art” and history?

How will the $13.4 million be allocated between wages and other spending?

These questions, even the broader among them, are tightly crafted and thus warrant tightly-crafted responses. If the Department had been prepared to engage in good faith, its answers would have addressed my specific contentions. Instead, Senator Rennick’s office received—after the appointed deadline, I should note; no explanation was provided for this tardiness—a general retort that, seemingly by design, was vague and obstructive:

As outlined by the Productivity Commission, more than half of all purchased merchandise and souvenirs with First Nations art and designs are inauthentic or are made without permission from Traditional Owners to use Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property.

The abundance of fake or inauthentic “Aboriginal-style” arts and crafts available in shops causes harm to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as it misappropriates and exploits the stories, imagery, knowledge and heritage embodied in authentic works.

The announcement in Revive commits to develop new standalone legislation to protect First Nations knowledge and cultural expressions, including to address the harm caused by fake art, merchandise and souvenirs. This will be guided by a First Nations expert working group.

The funding of $13.4 million over five years will assist with protecting First Nations traditional knowledge and cultural expression, and First Nations artists and related workers including through the introduction of stand-alone legislation, and artist mentorship and training program [sic].

Readers can see that the Department made no reasonable attempt to answer the posed questions. That a federal senator’s office could receive such deflective gibberish is an indictment against the Commonwealth.

For a Quadrant Music article, the word music might seem to be starkly lacking. But whilst I have largely approached this fiasco as if I were a repressed historian, there certainly exist circumstances in which both Australian musicians and Australian art music are impacted if Labor’s stand-alone legislation is enacted. Ironically, a serious boon stands to break through the clouds. Even in the last five years, there has been a pernicious rise in the employ of orchestrators by those composers who are unable to independently complete their scores. Frankly, I am reluctant to term these individuals composers. Not time but skill eludes them. There are high-profile concert hall composers in this country who receive commissions worth tens of thousands of dollars, often courtesy of the taxpayer, but who can barely read music. Their names are known in circles, and the orchestrators who maintain their facade are also known. Regrettably—because it is actually regrettable that, through the fraudulent behaviours of a few, a stereotype now tarnishes the collective—a number of them are Aboriginal.

Maybe those who are prepared to tokenise Aboriginal Australians hold a less regretful view. In any case, if no one assisted Havergal Brian to co-write The Gothic, and if Brian Ferneyhough can complete the complexities of his music without significant aid, I fail to see how any Australian concert hall composer, Aboriginal or otherwise, could mount, with integrity, an argument justifying their employ of an orchestrator. Of course, I specify concert hall composer because those writing for the screen are bound by very different circumstances. The successful partnership between John Williams and Herbert W. Spencer, two men of extraordinary talent who together created the sound worlds of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, demonstrates just what a composer and his orchestrator can achieve. But, in the concert hall, the orchestrator leaves a repugnant stench, simply because he is primarily a beast conceived to service commercial considerations, not anything artistic.

Stand-alone legislation combatting “the harm caused by fake art” might, if it were allowed to, serve to put an end to the orchestrator’s ghostly reign. This fake art—fake in the sense that those who predominantly create it are not predominantly credited—is harming the musical ecosystem. Our understanding of just what a composer is and does has been muddied. Commissioning forces, too, be they established institutions or private benefactors, now fund two fees. Offending composers demand greater remuneration from their patrons, knowing that with this they can secretly hire an orchestrator. In theory, commissioners could be using the same sum of money to fund one meritorious Aboriginal composer’s creation of two works, or two meritorious Aboriginal composers of no relation. With respected patron and composer Kim Williams now the Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, perhaps these considerations can be given the weight they deserve by at least one organisation.

More than likely, however, stand-alone legislation would serve not as a boon but as a hindrance. Take, for example, Christopher Sainsbury’s new opera, The Visitors, which premiered last October in a production by Victorian Opera. The work reimagines the landing of the First Fleet from “the First Nations perspective”. (That perspective’s implied uniformity is a discussion for another time.) In developing the opera, librettist Jane Harrison consulted British primary source material. “I wanted to use their words and their observations as much as I could, and then read between the lines and write my reimagined Aboriginal characters.” Admittedly, when I wrote the libretto to my chamber opera, Edward and Richard: The True Story of the Princes in the Tower, I drew fictitious conclusions from various historical ambiguities. But whether The Visitors is taken as historically factual or not is a separate issue. Both Sainsbury and Harrison are Aboriginal Australians. If the opera had been written from a British perspective, by a non-Aboriginal composer and a non-Aboriginal librettist, the latter of whom had seen fit to create Aboriginal characters, how might—to quote directly from those questions submitted to the Department of Arts—“Aboriginal interests groups” react? If they felt culturally misrepresented by the work, insofar as one can precisely define cultural misrepresentation, could stand-alone legislation provide them with legal recourse? Because of the Department’s reticent behaviour, we are no closer to answering this question.

The next step, therefore, is one taken sitting down. With the Albanese government not guaranteed a second term in office, it could be that Arts Minister Tony Burke intends to table Revive’s policy objectives in the form of a bill sooner rather than later. When our stand-alone legislation does eventually come before the House of Representatives, we shall eagerly scrutinise its contents. 

One brief, albeit alarming, point before I conclude. To quote Paul Keating, a man with whom I would not normally find common ground, “The state of the arts in a country goes to the heart of what a nation is.” That Australia’s arts are so encumbered by questions of identity at the expense of quality and authenticity would suggest that our nation is not at all in such a good way. Yet our arts are not yet as ideologically defiled as those of the United Kingdom. The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Composers program achieves new, abominable heights. This was an opportunity I had intended to apply for, but I resolved not to after reviewing the application form. The form requires applicants to answer this question: “Please think about the parent or other caregiver who was the highest income earner in your house when you were around fourteen years old. What kind of work did they do?” Applicants are also required to provide their sexuality, gender and ethnicity, as well as their family’s general level of education. All questions are compulsory, and there is no indication that they are for statistical purposes only. What any of this has to do with an applicant’s compositional abilities, I have no idea. This discrimination is egregious; young, aspirational Australian composers must never, ever be exposed to such in their own country.

In this issue of Quadrant Music, we welcome the inaugural contribution of Lucinda Moon. Among the many attainments of her career, Ms Moon served as concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra from 1995 to 2008. Writing for Quadrant, her insights into Heinrich Biber’s revolutionary but neglected Mystery Sonatas are both philosophical and accessible. With the occurrence of Easter at the end of this month, the Mystery Sonatas, works which I was not previously familiar with but which I now adore, offer both beauty and introspection. Biber’s music is worth exploring. Take it from me that his Battalia—literally, his battle music—provides a rousing soundtrack for even the most belligerent of composers.  

Alexander Voltz is a composer and founding editor of Quadrant Music: alexandervoltz@quadrant.org.au

15 thoughts on “The Frontlines of Battle

  • Daffy says:

    I’d like to know why a government thinks the ‘arts’ are its business, apart from buying its products to decorate Parliament House and various (ministerial) offices. The only ‘business’ the government might have is means tested vouchers for the impecunious to spend on exhibitions at public art galleries or concert venues. ( I calculated this idea for all citizens of voting age and it amounted to let than a h’penny” apiece. Admittedly what much art is actually worth). This would, of course mean closing down the Arts Council and similar indulgent wastes of public money.

    • ARyan says:

      Patronage is a double edged sword. Our Government is now our primary Arts patron. Our arts organisations are dependent on Government funding. From competent amateurs, all the way up to professionals in their field who, using singers as an example, have to work for nothing in various high-end chamber music ensembles – even having to pay a fee to participate. These accomplished performers may well hold other jobs in the music industry that pay them, but concert hall choirs in particular are fast fading and ageing, and increasingly dependent on Government funding for their conductors, orchestras and soloists. Their paying audiences are ageing along with them, as our young ones prefer to immersed themselves in the electronic arts. Resident choirs may get a good audience if performing the big traditional European works, but are now having to deal with another beast altogether – policies of inclusion. This brings us to the crux of the article above – our local composers and arrangers, inclusion of their works/commissions into classical performances, and appreciation (or lack of) for their efforts. And the funding load that accompanies them. Perpetuated by growing and altruistic requirements of our Government funding bodies to include in classical/community performance repertoires and thereby gain acceptance into the classical/concert hall canon. This article pointedly focuses on the possibly more recent works of our Indigenous artists, a persistent and implicit quirk of Quadrant but nevertheless representing a wider problem with locally commissioned works – particularly for paying audiences. Just on the point of the undeserved focus of Quadrant on certain cultures, the poet Judith Wright had a very early comment that is so poignant yet never addressed, except no doubt echoed in current Government funding chambers in the form of the patronising meme “inclusion”. It was in response to negative critical responses to Indigenous literature, but is also relevant here. Buried deep in some academic articles not easily accessible today, she addressed negative critical response to literary works published by Aboriginal writers. One of her great concerns was lack of voice. Unable to locate the actual quote after so many years, it went roughly like this: keep criticising and comparing with our cultural expectations and they will disappear – the works and eventually the people too.

  • David Isaac says:

    Thank you for this piece Mr Voltz.
    If politics are downstram from culture, then culture is downstream from art. If the art is degenerate and ugly, which so much of our art clearly is, whether it be sculpture, pictoral, literature, popular and elite music, film or even billboards, then that ugliness coarsens everyone since there is only ugliness to work with in social interactions. This leads to societal breakdown. The communists knew this very well when they started to uglify art with Dada in the 1910s. Picasso too was a communist and his art became determinedly ugly.Stalin understood the effects so well he wouldn’t allow Picassos to be exhibited in the USSR, much as Hitler did in Germany, with the exception of the famous ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ in Munich in 1937.
    Things only deteriorated from there. Every single one of our art forms is now rife with sexual perversion, ugliness and dishonesty. This is bad news. i would say healing the art of the Western world ought to be top of the agenda at the next G20 meeting and every one thereafter.

  • pmprociv says:

    The idiocy motivating the Albanese administration knows no bounds, and indeed is burgeoning. While its ideological basis is hard to pin down, the flavour is definitely Orwellian. Its plan to “introduce stand-alone legislation to protect First Nations knowledge and cultural expressions” completely fails to recognise that cultures (including knowledge) are dynamic, changing constantly according to both internal and external influences. Of course, some change faster than others (“longest living, unchanged, continuous” and all that), but modern-day Aboriginal cultures are nothing like their pre-1788 versions. Their painting, and music, have completely absorbed Western influences, especially the technology, and now can even have a strongly commercial basis. How traditional is their current performance, or recording and distribution (both in written and electronic forms)?

    It seems that “cultural misappropriation”, just like “racism”, can work in only one direction. If a person of mixed ancestry incorporates “indigenous motifs” in their artwork, utilising all the latest technology, it’s perfectly OK (and still “indigenous culture”), but for a whitefella, it becomes a serious transgression.

    From a broader perspective, what’s the point of “multiculturalism”, other than ghettoisation? This is truly bizarre, and creates yet more bonanzas for our legal fraternity. Our present government wastes so much time and energy on this rubbish, at the cost of neglecting truly serious matters of global importance. “Art” should be left to evolve according to its creators’ imaginations, free of Stalinist control and manipulation.

    • ARyan says:

      I believe it was a Liberal Government initiative to reduce funding for the Arts in Australia. Ensuing Labor Governments bewailed this fact, which only highlighted the sad fact that even the most high-end music organisations and the professionals that work within are dependent on Government funding to exist.

  • NarelleG says:

    Alexander – facebook will lot let me share using the pic – ‘against community standards.’

    I am trying to come up with another.

    We are friend on Facebook – so if you could message me one that can reflect the paper – otherwise I will just share with the quadrant logo.

  • GG says:

    When you contemplate all of the great art in history, whether visual, literary, sculptural, musical or performance – you realise that none of it, not one example, came as a result of government largesse. It all came from self-motivated, talented individuals. Whether it’s Bernini or Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky or Monet or Gershwin or a hundred others, it always has nothing to do with any government policy or practice. Defund the arts then watch them flourish.

  • jbhackett says:

    So, for example, Albert Namatjira’s works should be banned? He painted wonderful landscapes in the ‘western’ style, using ‘western paints and techniques. CULTURAL – HORROR. How dare he. What a lot of codswallop.

  • lhackett01 says:

    Posted above under jbhackett by mistake. Again, with a correction: So, for example, Albert Namatjira’s works should be banned? He painted wonderful landscapes in the ‘western’ style, using ‘western paints and techniques. CULTURAL APPROPRIATION– HORROR. How dare he. What a lot of codswallop.

  • lbloveday says:

    “To quote Paul Keating, a man with whom I would not normally find common ground…”
    The Australian rejected my comment quoting Keating as recorded in Hansard:
    In 1986 Tuckey taunted the then Labor Treasurer, Paul Keating, in Parliament about a former girlfriend called “Christine,” leading Keating to call him “a piece of criminal garbage”. In one exchange, Tuckey told Keating: “You are an idiot, you are a hopeless nong”, to which Keating replied: “Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig … Why do you not shut up, you clown?
    Which I wrote in response to Henry Ergas writing of Sam Kerr::
    ” her conduct, and the torrent of commentators exonerating it, epitomise the broader de-civilising process that is currently underway”.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Alexander, keep it up though I must admit I cringe everytime I read or hear this most untrue and ridiculous expression “first nation”.
    They should give it up , whatever it is they’re trying to prove, because it just ‘ain’t workin’.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Government funding for the arts produces, inevitably, public arts commissars. It also results in the funding of rubbish (whether ‘fake’ or not). Better to abolish government funding. It has always, historically ‘sink or swim’ in music. Bach had a church music director’s salary. Other great composers have relied on wealthy private patrons (as did Bach for a time). Retrospectively, it would appear that church or private patronage are best for supporting great composers and musicians.
    The argument for government subsidies for good classical music seems to be that big orchestras and opera companies cannot survive without subsidies, However that does not necessarily mean that opera and symphony orchestras could not survive without government money. There was opera in Australia long before government support.
    The argument against subsidies is that they are wasteful. They enable the survival of mediocre music and vanity projects that would otherwise perish and not be missed. In addition, unsubsidised music – based on the principle of ‘sink or swim’ – will force artists to find ways of producing shows that the private patrons and/or the general public will pay for. This might not be a bad thing.

  • David Isaac says:

    This is well said. Private funding might end up making apparent who sponsors politicised or degenerate art. I can see banks and hedge funds queuing up to take up the slack from government though, to make sure we’re still fed the same slop.

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