What is ‘accessible’ music anyway?

I was recently asked to write a short article for the ANU Reporter. Due to some disagreements on content, the article will not be published, but I thought I would post it here in case it is of any use.

What is ‘accessible’ music anyway?

During my current collaboration with artist Mike Parr at the NGA I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to pick his brain about form and content, aesthetics, politics, and most recently about ‘accessibility’ and how we as artists interact with the audience. While we’re both concerned with making our work accessible to the public, neither of us is interested in compromising content to suit unpredictable and diverse audience tastes.

If you’re not going to compromise content to answer the accessibility problem, it makes sense (to us anyway) to question the ways in which art is presented to the public.

In addition to the (sometimes extremely prohibitive) cost of tickets and the general cultural barriers put up around opera, ballet, and concert music in general, we in the industry have convinced most of the population that art music is terribly complicated, and if you don’t ‘get it’ you missed the point – and you just might be an uncultured idiot.

The course some of us follow is to try to convince listeners that there might not be anything to get – and if you do possess specialist knowledge, your experience is different, but no more comprehensive or valid than any one else’s. I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘not getting’ Beyoncé’s music the same way they might talk about Schoenberg.

Those of us making art for the public (and often using their/our funds to do so) should probably ask ourselves: What’s the point of making art if you are going to consistently exclude such a huge part of society from engaging with it?

These are a couple of the ways I’ve found to start breaking down these barriers to the accessibility of art:

  1. Remove art from the contexts which hold the most historical baggage – Let’s find alternatives to Steinways in concert halls filled with wealthy, well-dressed people. Let’s take our performances out of the gallery and into a car park.
  2. Engage with the audience on some personal level. Talk before or after a work. Hand out some sort of explanatory notes – an invitation to enjoy interpretive freedom – an assurance that there is no right way to experience the work. If there is nothing to ‘get’, there is no way to feel like you haven’t got it.

With stories about cuts in arts funding coming through practically daily, maybe it’s time we stop relying on the old models of exclusion and start taking matters into our own hands.


music for The Sixth Mass Extinction (2017)

I’m currently working on the music for a new multimedia collaboration with ANU Climate Change Institute’s, Ngaio Fitzpatrick, to be premiered at the Fitters Workshop on 27 January.
More info soon, but for now, here are some words from Ngaio:
The Sixth Mass Extinction
The project is a live multi-disciplinary performance encompassing video, architectural intervention, experimental / improvised music, industrial glass, and audience engagement. The intention is to communicate and question human disconnection from the natural environment and complicity in driving Climate Change through silent acceptance of the status quo.
The Performance will be delivered as a free public event in the evening (to enhance dramatic potential) in the Fitters Workshop on the Kingston Foreshore.
The audience will enter the Fitters workshop, a remnant industrial building eminently suitable for the themes underpinning this work and will be shown to their seats to the accompaniment of live experimental music, a harbinger of an unusual event about to unfold. The audience will be presented with a small gift and by accepting it, will become participants in the performance by implication. At the Foreshore end of the building, an installation consisting of 6 large sheets of curved glass ( redundant and destined for the tip ) are suspended from a scaffolding structure lit from below enhancing an other worldly appearance. The area will be filled with a soft fog produced by smoke machines representing the difficulty of seeing abstract issues surrounding climate change. The artist will provide a short reading explaining the meaning of the performance. The reading is followed by a brief period of silence and then musical accompaniment interacting with the installation, providing another sensory layer, generating a growing sense of anticipation and suspense .The panels of glass will then be released in delayed sonic sequence to fall to the ground, the fate of the last and remaining panel will lie in the hands of the spectators. The sheets of toughened glass will disintegrate into small pieces, approximately 10mm x 10mm as they fall.
A real time recording of events plays on a screen above the installation during the performance; we are being entertained as a catastrophe unfolds. The purpose of an audience (or spectators) is twofold; to witness the event and also to draw attention to the dilemma of stasis common to us all. We are ‘witnesses to our own destruction within an industrial-spectacle-death complex’ to quote media lecturer Ari Mattes.