Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Reading Anna Goldsworthy's article about the Australian National Academy of Music got me thinking about a great many things, but mostly about scale. It is a beautifully written article that launches itself from something of a default position in matters of Australian excellence  (ie that elite sportsmen are champions whereas elite artists are snobs), toward a stratospheric overview of the heights being scaled in that beleaguered institution I will  henceforth refer to as ANAM. We are a strangely Cartesian country in that regard, both body and mind striving for identity, and all in the great epoch of monumentalism where the deliberate project on all sides of politics has been to dwarf the human, as though if only power could purge itself of the human element it would run as cleanly and smoothly as that famous Pythonesque hospital without any of those mortally sick people in it.

Anna Goldsworthy should write more. I know she is a great musician, but rarely do musicians of any stamp write with such precision in the medium of the tongue laid flat.

Last year, when Peter Garrett announced the withdrawal of funding from the Australian National Academy of Music, he must have been startled by the response.

The usual flat-line tone all editors ask of their novices these days. And so I imagined myself wading through another plaint from the top end of town that is the performing arts in Sydney. Until...

He constructed an arc in loose parallel to Bach's variations, generated by texture and density rather than harmonic progression. His variations were not only polyphonic but polylinguistic........an hour after he sat down, the Town Hall clock chimed eight; he wove these tones into the texture of his improvisation.....

To a sunny exile of the East European defiles of Sydney's Castlecrag, this sings like a scrap of Zbigniew Herbert who witnessed mind and body colliding in a way I never. In other words, tender and thoughtful and unadorned.  

Peter Garrett, for those readers north of the line, is the Australian Federal Minister of the Arts, and the erstwhile lead-singer of the iconic rock band Midnight Oil. He otherwise fits the Westminster bill perfectly in being both bald, middle-aged and proud owner of a law degree. He is also passionate and intelligent and perhaps a little too scrupulous for Australian politics at the highest level. Anyway, as singer of Midnight Oil through that fecund post-punk era from 1978 to 1984 he could not put a foot wrong. As left-wing anti-nuclear activist from 1984 to 1989 ditto. But perhaps like the veterans of all wars, a piece of him misses the action.

I went looking for a war
and the only guns I saw
were never used in anger
- "Armistice Day" Midnight Oil 
The point about Pete Garrett and Midnight Oil, though, was that they somehow managed to bridge that divide between the body and the mind in the Australian polis at the time. Everywhere, from student digs to mechanic's workshop, echoed with the dissonant, rhythmic, strangely polyphonic eloquence of Midnight Oil throughout most of the 1980's. In hindsight, the only anomaly is the stretch it took for Garrett to, well, stretch his arms wide at the ballot box. His Christian proclivities aside, I will state my bias here as an older X-er with an enduring love for the man. I was not alone in finding his announcement regarding the withdrawal of funding from the ANAM a little more than confounding.

Giants are writ large in Occidental Culture, as is perhaps befitting the hemisphere where things are pressed tall only to topple into the dread sea of long memory and the dying sun of the Portugese.

Only giants could have moved such stones, amassed such armies, mustered such goodwill amongst the myriad and single-minded.

Only giants beyond our reckoning now could have mustered the courage to establish the institutions that maintain us. For those who can't live with them, the digital age allows you to live beside them. Not quite body, not quite mind, but a memory none the less.

Anna Goldsworthy brought me away from Ezra Pound's giant-killing, in-human couplets

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

- Ezra Pound "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"

John Cage playing his toy piano snatched a few startled sounds from the last sparrows of WWII. That was not his intention, for he was thinking always with his audience, a war before. We, on the other hand, though still trapped on the same old roller-coaster, seem to have opted for the perennial winter of discontent....

Late the following night.... A small audience had gathered in the darkness to hear Ross Bolleter, co-founder of the World Association of Ruined Piano Studies. "The piano was a great agent of social cohesion.....(it) was home and brought home with it." Were we celebrating or mourning the piano's demise? Was this a wake? Why was it so beautiful? "When a piano was sold or dispensed with, it was proof of imminent ruin and disgrace."

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