Quadrant Music

The Growing Momentum of Anonymity

The fusion of ideology with anonymity creates several interesting scenarios. When their identities are concealed, ideologues can freely broadcast their ideas without concern for personal repercussions. For the authentic ideologue—and, as I have said before, I declare that authenticity is honesty grounded in knowledge—this can be a boon. A whistleblower, for instance, may believe that his effectiveness is determined by how long his operations can remain anonymous. But in most circumstances, if a person believes their discovery productive or their argument sound or their cause righteous, they should not be afraid to put their name to it, especially if their discovery, argument or cause occurs publicly. For the inauthentic ideologue, whose ideas are ill-formed and more often than not the progeny of selfish or malicious intent, anonymity provides an altogether different set of advantages. Those whose identities are unknown cannot be held to account for their actions. This can breed suspicion, and it can also create the perfect precondition for discriminatory behaviour.

The reason I begin with all of this is because it serves to introduce a curious incident involving the Australian Music Centre (AMC). Earlier this year, the AMC held a round of its now-established commissioning opportunity for composers, Momentum. Momentum finds its genesis in 2020, inaugurated so that recipients might “forge forward with the essential work of creating art amidst the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”. In that year, three rounds of the opportunity were offered, and five composers were commissioned. The opportunity returned in 2022 and 2023, commissioning a further two composers in each year. Two commissions were again for the taking in this year’s round. Applicants to Momentum were asked to propose a solo or small ensemble work, expressing an extra-artistic “theme” which resonated with them. Each individual commission was valued at $4000; these were privately sponsored through the generous support of Hendrik Prins. Philanthropists who enable pathways for composers’ work must be commended. Moreover, through the Commonwealth Government’s Australian Cultural Fund, anyone can now make a tax-deductible donation, of whatever value, towards a variety of listed projects run by Australian artists. This mechanism is admirable, and whatever can be done to bring it to greater public awareness should be done.

I submitted an application to Momentum, and my application was unsuccessful. I do not think this should preclude me from critically reflecting upon the opportunity, and it is, of itself, not unsurprising. A composer receives far more rejection letters than commissions. Incidentally, in 1957 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) declined Henry Mancini’s membership application, writing that the composer’s works lacked “revenue-producing possibilities”. Mancini won the Oscar for his score to Breakfast at Tiffany’s only four years later; he died a millionaire, and ASCAP has awarded a scholarship to young film composers in his name since 2001. It is the importance of resilience that serious artists can derive from this anecdote (and an anecdote not at all unique to Mancini). Australian composers should submit to as many commissioning opportunities, calls for scores and composition competitions as they can, especially if these are organised domestically. One never knows what the result might be.

That is not to say, however, that all these initiatives are created equally. Many European composition competitions demand applicants pay eye-watering fees. Piano+, an Australian company emerging from the Sydney International Piano Competition, charges entrants $110 to submit new piano music for adjudication to its Composing the Future project. In contrast, Momentum costs nothing—although only composers who are financial members of the AMC are eligible for it. But Piano+’s Composing the Future is, at least, as transparent an opportunity as it can be, and for a very simple reason: it details the names of those musicians who serve on its judging panel. Whereas Momentum did announce those who served to judge its three 2020 rounds, it ceased this transparency in 2022.  

Having resolved to take a greater interest in such things, I wrote to the AMC, asking if they would detail for me Momentum’s adjudicators. I received the following response:

An external panel of four Australian composers were engaged to assess this round of Momentum. The panellists are highly regarded and experienced within the chamber music community, as well as exhibiting experience in assessment. Further, the panel was chaired by an external third party to the AMC. The assessors’ anonymity is at their request for reasons we have respected.

To the layman’s eye, this may be all very well. But it does prompt a critical line of inquiry, and for reasons not grounded in conspiracy but practicality. By obscuring the identities of these four judges, it prevents applying composers from making any observations as to their assessors’ craft, style, quality and authenticity. These parameters frequently recur in these music pages, and I intend to investigate them further this year. Craft denotes the technical, style denotes the aesthetic, quality is the synthesis of these two concepts, and authenticity addresses an artist’s motivations. In the case of an anonymously judged composition opportunity, concern develops chiefly around style. How can an applicant composer know if the style of their music is to the liking of the adjudicators if they are not told who those adjudicators are? In competitive settings, panels usually and understandably favour submitted works that reflect styles they are familiar with. Rare indeed is a scenario in which, for instance, a disciple of New Complexity awards first prize to a composer whose work is tonal and melodious. Further, Momentum required its applicants to propose a work on a particular resonant “theme”. What extra-artistic themes might appeal to these four mysterious judges?

Perhaps now readers are beginning to comprehend the extent of this difficult situation. Of these anonymous adjudicators, not only are their professional credentials and musical tastes unknown, so are their personalities, their backgrounds, their interests and their objectives. How can one guess what extra-artistic thing might grasp their attention when anonymity caters to all conceivable possibilities?

The “third party” which chaired Momentum’s panel, too, creates questions. Was this party another composer, or a broader musician, or someone of no musical training at all? Did they represent themselves or an institution? Perhaps this party was Mr Prins, ensuring that the panel’s decision satisfied the intentions of his gift and satisfied him personally. We just cannot be sure. The admission that this third party was “external” suggests that the four composers were closely related to the AMC, or to Momentum. They may be employees of the centre, or they may have adjudicated the opportunity in the past; again, we just cannot be sure. In any case, why uphold the anonymity of all those involved? These “highly regarded and experienced” composers must surely be confident enough in their collective decision to identify themselves. I cannot understand why they would “request” to remain nameless. 

Answers may be—there is no way of knowing for certain, and the following is not at all to predict anything about the quality of the music that will be written—found in those two composers whose proposals were awarded this year’s Momentum commissions: Christine Pan and Aaron Wyatt. Pan, whose pronouns are “she/they”, will write a work that “draw[s] inspiration from current research data” and “explor[es] bioacoustics and the impact of noise pollution on birdlife”. Wyatt, “a person of Noongar, Yamatji, and Wongi heritage”, will write a work that “explor[es] themes of reconciliation and Indigenous identity in light of the recent referendum defeat”. The AMC promises that his piece will “interrogate what it means to be Australian in the modern era, and how Australia can confront the demons of our [its] colonial past”. These two composers and their respective proposals would seem, as some have been known to mutter, to tick certain boxes. Pan is a pronoun-identifying person whose new work will deal in environmental matters—a kind of post-Lumsdaine intersection between music and ornithology. Wyatt is an Aboriginal man who, in the words of Limelight, “made history as the first Indigenous conductor of a state orchestra”, and his chosen extra-musical theme perpetuates what Keith Windschuttle would certainly deem a fabrication of history. Even more significant is the fact that Wyatt served as one of Momentum’s judges in 2020. As the adjudicators of the 2022 and 2023 iterations were kept anonymous, he may have judged these as well.  

The overarching point is this: in music, there is much that can be suggested but very little that can be explored. Music is not, at its core, a research-based discipline. It is practice-based; composition is achieved through a composer’s mastery of craft and style, not their learnt approaches to academic analysis. That such weight is placed on music research, at least in this country, is a direct result of the Dawkins Revolution. My position is that those reforms, which among other things forced the integration of Australia’s independent conservatoriums and art colleges into the universities, have proved tragic. Others seemingly agree. Associate Professor Michael Halliwell has noted that, in tertiary music education, “elite standards of performance training have deteriorated over the last ten to fifteen years”. He admits that, at the time of John Dawkins’s whitepaper, the “focus on performance-based research … wasn’t on the horizon” and that, today, that focus is “vastly increased”. Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Caban agrees, writing:

The emphasis on research and publication in universities, and the still inadequate opportunities to substitute creative work, have produced some scholarship that assists the creative arts, but also a lot that is fairly useless.

Contemporary art music composers are now bearing the burden of this counterproductive emphasis. After decades of research-driven creative practice, there is a real inference that purely musical arguments are insufficient. The D Minor Toccata and Fugue, K 466 and K 488, Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Mahler’s Seventh, Shostakovich’s Eighth—all this great music would struggle to achieve distinction if it were premiered today. In fact, it does not even seem enough for music to employ narratives, as operas or tone poems might. According to Dr Caitlin Vincent of the University of Melbourne, “racist and misogynistic elements” permeate throughout the Western operatic canon. For her, Carmen and Tosca employ “gendered violence”, anti-Semitism is “lightly-veiled” in Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Lakmé embraces “ethnic exoticism”.

All this is very sad. Quavers and treble clefs have no interest in racism or sexism. But today, even The Rite of Spring would never succeed anew. For its primitive depiction of ancient Russian pagans, the ballet would be deemed a work of cultural appropriation, shafted from the world’s theatres, and reduced to a case study for grievance academics. Yes, this is the reality: today’s art music must possess some kind of overbearing extra-artistic theme, must champion some political or pseudo-moral cause if it is to be viewed as relevant. And composers must conform to this expectation, itself the product of too much research and too little music. Momentum’s 2024 round would seem to demonstrate this.  

The very best composition opportunities are those which are credible and result in tangible benefits, which are inexpensive to apply for, which require the applicant to submit samples of their work to a credentialled panel, and which advertise the identities of that panel. Whether an opportunity is privately sponsored or publicly funded, there seems no excuse to alter this optimised methodology. Anonymity cannot be allowed to defeat transparency. The Australian music community must take a stand against anonymous orchestrators surreptitiously completing the scores of celebrity-type concert hall composers, as well as anonymous judging panels whose objectives may not be wholly musical. 

In this issue of Quadrant Music, Catherine Broadstock argues for the importance of sight-reading. Longtime and beloved Quadrant contributor Tony Thomas fires his first broadside in these pages, taking aim at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (and, in the end, congratulating its historical maturity). If you should like to write for Quadrant Music, please do not hesitate to contact me. 

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


2 thoughts on “The Growing Momentum of Anonymity

  • Paul.Harrison says:

    I enjoy music. I do not enjoy noise. Noise disguised as music is used to convey some inadequate persons need to express those inadequacies in music. Listening to birds chirp, whales mating voices, the waves coming ashore, wind in the willows, etc is not and never will be music. I have never known of this particular long march through the arts, but I have much enjoyed being made aware of it, and, as in every other attack on our society, I find I am yet again disgusted at their arrogance. Case in point: I note that a woman has recently won an award for her book, whatever title it was, The cash splash accompanying the award was something like $8K. I have no hesitation in observing that to purchase the book expecting some type of value in the reading would be a complete waste of time and money, for almost certainly, she was awarded because she is a woman, not because she is good at her art. After reading this sad news concerning music, I shall again draw in my boundaries around the music I love, and the music written by the inadequate people who have been chosen for the competiion will forever remain outside those boundaries.

  • GG says:

    Almost all arts grants and award grants have become a parody of their original intent. They are welfare payments in fancy-dress, where talent and merit play no part.
    Before the Australia Council blocked the public from downloading the spreadsheet of its welfare-in-fancy-dress payments, it made revealing reading.
    One that I had for a specific financial year showed 317 grant payments, of which 294 went to Aboriginal or sexual identity individuals and groups.
    92.7% to box-tickers. Think about that.

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