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 Due to some disagreements on content, the article will not be published, but I thought I would post it here in case it is of any use.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.


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