Arts Global

26 November 2008

Peter Tregear on Australian Music Education

Lament for a noted absence

Peter Tregear | November 26, 2008

Article from: The Australian

It is not just Australia's financial institutions that are suffering from a profound crisis of confidence; several of our music institutions also seem unable to extract themselves from ongoing, often internally generated, troubles. The visceral impact on our lives of the former, however, serves only to underline the apparent insignificance of the latter.

No wonder it must have seemed a particularly opportune moment for the federal Government to withdraw support for Australian National Academy of Music. Although it has subsequently been announced that ANAM will be replaced by an Australian Institute of Music Performance, run under the auspices of the University of Melbourne, this prospect has done little to restore the faith of a skeptical music profession. Not only does the plan fail to address legitimate questions about whether the unique, widely praised, character of ANAM can survive inside a sprawling campus, the takeover occurs in the context of a troubled merger between the university's faculty of music and the Victorian College of the Arts.

Approved earlier this year, this merger is advancing without a viable business plan or permanent senior leadership in place to guide it, or even suitable accommodation to house it. For many, the absorption of a free radical institution such as ANAM represents a solution being handed to a problem.

Historically, though, music has always struggled to maintain its place on campus. Although it may have undoubted power to fire the human imagination across time and culture, it is far from being a "universal language" (a naive formulation at best). Rather, it is a inescapably mysterious and capricious language. Unlike the other literary and plastic arts, it does not reflect nature directly or project a stable code of signifiers. "Sonata, what do you want of me?" Fontenelle once famously cried; we can never provide a definitive answer.

The view that music education instead should be essentially professional training is one that is probably shared by most students at the start of their studies. Music academics, however, have seen it as part of their mission to show how music making is improved, if not ultimately sustained, by the ability to reflect on the act of performance and the nature of the music being performed.

A university-based music education can provide students with the analytical tools to help them better understand not just the internal workings of the music they are playing but also the relationship between it and its audience.

Music students can thereby become not just better performers but more effective teachers and cultural leaders.

Cultural leadership is, however, precisely what music faculties seem less able to offer. Twenty years ago, the prospect of a reinvigorated musical culture on campus seemed much better. The rise of the so-called new musicology had offered the promise of a newly invigorated interdisciplinary spirit that, underpinned by post-structuralist discourse, gave the musicologist licence to engage with perspectives from history, sociology, art theory, economics and so on.

Call it the cunning of reason, perhaps, but in this newly liberated scholarly arena the exercise of aesthetic judgment became more, not less, important.

The exercise of precisely such judgment, however, became increasingly difficult at the same time. The theories that liberated the discipline also allowed scholars all too easily to opt out of considering what made music a good, true or simply beautiful thing, inviting instead, as one critic put it, "interpretations of music that bypass the tedium of hard-won training". At the same time, research agendas were increasingly being set by external bodies that had little sense of, or indeed interest in, the questions music scholarship should be asking. And the corporate-culture takeover of university administration heralded a new generation of leaders in music departments who brought with them little record of recent significant international achievement as performers, scholars or teachers.

The loss of professional self-esteem that has followed was perhaps inevitable, but it also has occurred at precisely the moment when the need for a reflective, value-based, critique of musical culture has never been greater. For the first time in history, music inhabits most of our waking hours, through radio, iPods, Muzak, film and in that most underrated of new concert venues, the car. Consequently it has never been more important to understand what all this music means, how it may influence and control our lives, and for whose benefit. It is a field of inquiry that musicians cannot simply abandon to cultural studies, as it is as much a question of aesthetics, of immanent musical value, as it is of uncovering and describing social functions and contexts.

In any case, music aesthetics - as readers of Theodor Adorno know only too well - can be a kind of critical sociology. This is how, for instance, how we may understand Paul Keating's claim (from an address he gave to the University of Sydney in 2006) that he "reformed the Australian economy on Mahler and Bruckner". Later, when newspaper columnists predictably lampooned him, Keating responded: "What really gets up their nose is Bruckner himself. The idea that I could find inspiration in one of those rare mortals gifted enough to remind us through his work of the importance of imagination to the human spirit (and yes, to public policy, too) is beyond them, and so they must sneer at it."

Keating was in fact articulating an idea as ancient as it was profound, that an appreciation of music can condition the sensibility of the subject who listens to it. It requires, however, the cultivation of a critically informed performing and listening public, and this in turn requires music academics who are not just prepared to describe the musical world they find around them but who are prepared to exercise leadership in it.

The mood of bitter resignation that instead inhabits many of our music departments is not helped by the fact that, collectively, our vice-chancellors have an abysmal record of offering any form of principled defence against the decay of the funding base for the study of the humanities. Still, the case for the survival of any humanities discipline first and foremost has to be made by the discipline itself; there is never an innate right to public support. Lest we forget, many of Australia's older music departments came into being though transformative acts of private philanthropy.

These departments would struggle to rearticulate the case for such largesse today; to explain why what they do is of compelling significance in a world with ever-more competing claims for our attention and resources. Instead, music staff seem too exhausted by a growing administrative load, too burdened by growing numbers of under-qualified fee-paying students and too obligated to the narrow demands of centralised research agendas to do much more than keep a failing system ticking over. Is it too much, though, to expect more from our professors of music? Surely they should be employed not just for their administrative competence but for their capacity to be leaders in the community, to be public intellectuals in the best and broadest sense, as much as scholarly entrepreneurs.

What has happened to institutions such as ANAM is lamentable, but it is hardly surprising. The universities should not be the only institutions wherein we may look for leadership, but their failure to offer a compelling vision of quality music training is more than a missed educational opportunity. Whether we are music lovers or not, and whether we live in times of economic crisis or not, we are all eventually the poorer.

Peter Tregear is an honorary research fellow in the faculty of music at the University of Melbourne.

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