Posted by Ruth Thomas
Friday 15th January, 2016
2016 AYO National Music Camp: Blog 6

Early in the morning we hear the news: Pierre Boulez is dead.

In Llewellyn Hall a group of musicians gather on the stage and prepare to play. What are they playing? New music. And when I say 'New', I mean it. These musicians aren't about to play Boulez, nor are they about to play Ives, or Glass, or even Gyger - such music is already old and familiar. I know what Adams' Scheherazade.2, written only last year, sounds like. Here in Llewellyn Hall no one knows what the music about to be played will sound like - no one knows exactly what to expect. What these musicians are about to play is completely new - music that has never before been played, or heard, by anyone. In short, music that does not yet exist. The downbeat is given and the rehearsal begins.

The four works that are being rehearsed belong to four young composers who have each, over the past few months, prepared a work for a chamber ensemble of tutors at the AYO National Music Camp to rehearse, workshop, and perform. The composers are all well seasoned in the experience of creating and rehearsing new works, so the process itself is familiar. Still, this moment at the beginning of the first rehearsal has an electric feel to it, and there's a touch of anxiety for good measure; see the composer sitting side of stage, shuffling his score and avoiding eye contact with the ensemble.

From nothing at all the first sounds emerge - so softly in the violins it starts and creeps outwards and from the edge of hearing it slowly grows. The musicians handle each sound with great care as they take in the feel of each phrase. Their playing is almost timid, and has nothing of the certainty and familiarity that you'd hear in the first rehearsal of a Beethoven symphony. This is the first encounter with an alien species - so clearly music, but not quite like any one sound you've heard before. Be gentle.

Slight fumbles in the violins and then in the oboe, both accompanied by quick apologies, as the musicians find their way through the music. The piece ends. The composer answers some questions, and in the second run-through something clicks and suddenly it all takes off. The musicians know where they are going and this is the magical moment where the notes on the page make sense as sound - this is the first hearing of new music. Then the 15 minute session is over and it's time to move onto the next piece.

I'm sitting in the stalls (third row from the front) and enjoying being a voyeur to the birth of this music, and what strikes me most is the musicians' love and commitment  to realizing, as precisely as possible, the composer's intent. There's a deep respect for the work of these young composers, and the musicians' approach is beyond professional and closer to devotion. This is the future of music; these musicians know it, and they welcome it with open arms. This is where music begins.

Behind me Monica Curro sits and listens. She founded Plexus, a new music ensemble, in 2014 and has commissioned works from over 100 composers. I wonder if she is scouting for new recruits, and if she has been impressed by any of these composers. It's early days, and with another week of rehearsals ahead it's almost unfair to think of judging these new works before they are fully realised in concert. Still, for me, the chance to step behind the curtain and watch this moment unfold is too rare an opportunity to pass on. So I sit and listen.

I think it's fair enough to say that new music exists almost exclusively in the underground contemporary music sub-scene of classical music. The super new music of local composers who are not yet dead is (tragically IMO) not on the radar of the six main state orchestras, where you're lucky if you get to hear more than one new commission performed a year. This is completely different to the fresh young ensembles that actively seek out and create new works - groups like Decibel, Kupka's Piano, Synergy Percussion, and the Sydney Chamber Opera. They get it.

I wonder about the composers I know back home in Perth. I know that some of them struggle with finding a space for their music to be heard in, and some end up crossing over to writing for the more lucrative film and gaming industries. The ones who make a living as classical composers are those who have around them a dedicated group of musicians with whom they can collaborate, and who know how to promote their work. At the end of the day composers want their music to be heard and understood, so it’s a shame that the big dominant state ensembles provide such limited assistance. If Boulez were here I know he’d say ‘blow them up!! And make way for the new’ without a second thought for the past.

So why do the big orchestras obsessively avoid engaging with new music? The reason oft cited in support of having consistently conservative programming at the expense of new music is the blind conservatism of audiences. But I seriously doubt that this is true. I cannot believe that an audience would be immune to the excitement that radiates off the musicians at the premiere of a new piece - and I don’t understand how audiences could not be curious and eager to hear more? I think it’s the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy: don’t play new music, then audiences cannot become familiar with it, and then when they do encounter new music it seems a strange and foreign thing.

Maybe it's just me, but I wish that concerts were done in the same way as back in the old days (the days of Beethoven, Debussy, and basically every other composer…) when the majority of concerts were overwhelmingly full of new music, and that was just the norm. Beethoven knew what was needed. Debussy knew what was interesting. New music. They knew what musicians wanted to play and what audiences wanted to hear – they understood new music.

Words About Music participants will be blogging from AYO National Music Camp.

– Ruth Thomas


* The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author