Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A digital trobairitz: musical chivalry in the cyberspace age

This post is the abstract for my paper at the Annual Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia in December 2012

Recent tectonic shifts in the economics of music (and by extension, its political economy) have generated unprecedented challenges: for the music industries; for those concerned with defining and applying musical intellectual property; for the technologies of the production and distribution of music, both live and recorded;  and for the artists themselves.  It is hard to believe that it has only been a decade since Napster first made headlines as a threat to the hegemony of the CD-based recording industry.  Ten years on, not only is the music CD in the last yards of its journey towards obsolescence, it is more-or-less accepted that the battle to control (and sell) the intellectual property of recorded music as a commodity has been lost.  Social media are rapidly challenging mainstream media as the conduit for distributing, accessing, discussing, marketing and discovering music and musicians.  Recorded music is now, to all intents and purposes, free.

Photo by Brian Adams, http://baphotos.com.
Marian Call is an Alaskan singer-songwriter who is one of a cohort of emerging musicians building a career and a creative oeuvre within these new realities.  Classically trained and university educated  (she is a composition graduate from Stanford), she writes and performs songs that span genres from medieval, classical, jazz, folk/acoustic and many others.  She eschews contracts and labels - her audience base is entirely self-generated through social media and a frenetic touring schedule.  On tour she prefers house concerts to traditional venues – she will typically crowdsource venues via Twitter in advance of a tour, and rely on her supporters and followers on social media to publicize the event locally.  She is currently (Oct. ’12) touring Europe on this basis – a major logistic collaboration between Call and her supporters that she describes as “like a barn-raising”. Audiences at concerts are encouraged, but not required, to make a donation; similarly, her music is freely streamed online, and payment for the recordings are essentially a matter of honour.

Essentially, Call’s artistic and business practice diminishes or removes the notion of music as a commodity, an object of transaction. Instead, the emphasis is placed on relationships, or community – she has critiques the description of her as an indie or independent artist, suggesting that a better term is an “interdependent” artist.  In this paper I argue that this shift from music as commercial commodity to music as community catalyst has profound implications not just for the business  models of music, but for its aesthetics and semantics.  Call’s authorial voice within her music speaks and sings to and with her audience on a number of levels – literally, in the case of “Good Morning Moon” in which she sourced the chorus in the song as sound files individually submitted by her supporters.  Her music has an authenticity of expression and an imaginative range that, I argue, stems from its basis in a communicative premise that is, at root, ethical in nature – a code of musical chivalry that underpins the virtual and actual encounters on her journey as a modern-day trobairitz.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A sonnet for Alan Jones

Some have said Jones' fall from grace is almost Shakespearean. So here goes:
When I have seen by silly cows defaced
The rich, proud pomp of righteous, right wing rage;
When lofty Liberal Members are down-razed
By Helen Razer writing in The Age;
When I have seen queue-jumping darkies gain
The cushy jobs real Aussies had before,
And middle-eastern youths have clearly lain,
With nice white girls from the upper North Shore;
When I have seen that Bligh bird screw her state,
And JuLiar find ways to make us pay:
I'd go on air, spray and pontificate -
And now they've come to take my merc away.
Oh, I am such a goose - and here's the point:
My own big mouth in fact destroyed the joint.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Universities and the Domino's Effect

How can the university sector best respond to the rise of online learning, and what will be the impact on teaching, learning, the student experience and the physical infrastructure of university campuses?

By and large, the rise of online learning has caught universities woefully unprepared. The "flipped" classroom, massive online courses, open educational resources, private-sector online commercial providers - at an institutional level these are all seen as recent threats to a university sector struggling to respond to a new reality. At the individual level, lecturers often seem to be fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of their students - dropping attendances at lectures, a reliance on recordings and online notes in lieu of face-to-face engagement; I have more than once seen lecturers vainly request for the university wireless network to be turned off during lectures to prevent the students logging into Facebook when they should be attending to the sage on the stage.

But this is curious. As research-intensive instituions, universities typically are among the first to embrace new technologies that support academic work - from the first electronic library catalogues, through discipline-based newsgroups and email lists, to online journals, new technologies have happily and quickly been embraced by the research community. So why have we as a sector so clumsily and cantankerously engaged with new technologies for teaching and learning?

The answer is simple: it's because education is not pizza.

Since the 1980s we have seen four factors working together to fundamentally shift the way we think about and organise higher education. A rapid increase in the percentage of the population which attends university has led to a "mass-production" model of teaching. University managers can now talk about "efficient mechanisms for content delivery" with straight faces - ignoring the fact that there is nothing actually delivered during learning; nothing changes hands. Second, the increasing cost to the student since the introduction of HECS has resulted in a far more transactional model of education: what do students "get" for their money? Thirdly, partly as a consequence of both students and the Government wanting to know exactly what they are paying for, we have seen increasingly prescriptive requirement for univesities and teachers to spell out exactly what students need to do, what they will learn, and how this will be assessed. Opportunities for learning to be subjective, to be about personal growth and the serendipity of epiphany, are squeezed out in favour mundane learning outcomes that can be measurably demonstrated by the majority of a student cohort. Finally, a much larger university population, with very diverse aspirations and equally diverse levels of ability, all of whom are paying substantial sums for their courses, has led to degree structures and options dominated by the market: students choose their courses from a menu available, and only popular choices are sustainable within an increasingly tight resource environment.

Attending a modern university is uncomfortably like placing an order with Domino's: choose your options online from what's available and affordable, and the university will attempt to deliver your educational content as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rarely will you have your content delivered by a pimply-faced youth on a motor scooter; more usually you will be placed in a lecture theatre with 400 other people and have your content delivered by a lecturer who for two hours bravely wades upstream through a river of facts. But the business model is the same.

Now, before you write me off as an old fogey pining for the bygone golden age of education (i.e. whenever I happened to do my own undergraduate degree), let me say that I am in complete support of the four factors I have identified. I believe Australia needs mass participation in higher education, which therefore needs to be sustainable, accountable, and demonstrate value for money. I also am in favour of student choice, as the research evidence suggests (unsurprisingly) that students learn better if they are studying a subject that interests them. However I believe that the factors dominating recent trends in HE have led universities to a model of education that is wrong-headed: one that sees education as about the "delivery" of "content".

Early misadventures in online learning enthusiastically embraced the notion of "content delivery". Put the content online for the students to download themselves and you don't even need to pay for the lecturer! How efficient a mechanism for delivery. But the experience of the last decade as shown us how educationally undernourished this leaves the students. Learning by absorbing content simply doesn't work very well, and the new online environments merely reinforce this point. Interestingly, the history of the internet parallels the history of online learning. The late 1990s and early 200s was the era of Web 1.0 - static online content: company web pages and large slabs of course content. The commercial and social web has moved on to 2.0 and beyond. The educational web hasn't, quite.

Educational theory and research-based practice is at odds with the "content delivery" model. Learning is fundamentally a social activity - it happens when your ideas are challenged or put to the test by others: teachers, tutors, authors, peers, even your own students. Ultimately we can never measure how much "content" has been absorbed by a student; we can't know what they know. We can only watch what they do - what they say, write, paint, play ... The origin of universities themselves stems from this recognition that learning comes through interaction, challenge and debate. Plato's Academy was founded on this principle that one learns though dialogue. The "colleges" of mediaeval Oxford and Cambridge were spaces in which intellectual fellow-travellers, "colleagues", came to learn from each other. Curricula are all well and good, but a good deal of research shows that a great deal of learning - perhaps the majority - occurs in the extra- and intra-curricular spaces where students, teachers and colleagues interact spontaneously and creatively.

The point many universities still miss is that online technologies are radical in that they connect people dialogically like never before. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed virtual colleges - communities of like-minded individuals - to spring up regardless of geographic and institutional borders. If I want to find something out, nowadays I'll go online and ask an expert. If I say something stupid, chances are I'll say it online and get called on it by a collegue in Newcaste-on-Tyne or Accra or Alaska (to think of three examples from last week). And I'll probably learn something as a result. As a music and education academic, I have two distinct professional and disciplinary spaces online. Even more interesting, the social community from which I learned the most - a multi-disiplinary gaggle of individuals who were my student colleagues at Magdalen College, Oxford, twenty years ago - has reconstituted itself online in recent years, and has resumed being one of the (now virtual) places where I learn. Not formally; but very deeply.

The pianist Arthur Schnabel once said this of his ability to perform profound and moving music: "I don't think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the spaces between the notes - ah, there is where the artistry lies!". I could paraphrase this for education - "The content of university degrees is nowadays much of a muchness. But the spaces between the content - ah, that's where the learning happens!". Those spaces are increasingly online. And unless universities are able to rethink the fundamental paradigm and business model they use to manage education, from one predicated on "content delivery" back to one predicated on dialogue and communication, they will find that they will be increasingly on the margins of where the educational action is in the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Music and physics – the connections aren't trivial

My ANU colleague John Rayner’s excellent recent article on the physics of music seemed to touch a nerve with the readership of The Conversation.

Although beautifully framed by the personal and anecdotal – John’s piece was subtitled “a love song” – the issues he explores about the relationship between music and physics go back to the ancient Greeks, and are as old as the disciplines themselves.

It certainly inspired me – a musicologist – to write something from the other side, to meet my scientific colleague in the middle in a speculative conversation about the parallels between our two worlds.

Musical meaning is tantalising and elusive. For most of us, music has the power to reach us profoundly and directly. The temptation is to speak of music as a language: the notion of music as a kind of “language of the emotions” is pervasive, centuries old, and nowadays has some limited empirical experimental support.

Most theoretical work now done on musical semiotics treats music as just another flavour of discourse, another language of signs; albeit one with its own special characteristics.

But this runs against an age-old notion: that music is a natural law. The medieval concept of “music of the spheres” held that the movement of the celestial bodies – what we now describe as astrophysics – was, at root, musical: the planets move in the heavens according to principles of harmony and resonance, with a set of common Pythagorean ratios governing both music and cosmology.

Indeed, we music academics are rather nostalgic for the time (in medieval universities) in which music was considered one of the four core disciplines alongside astronomy, geometry and arithmetic, and we held pride of place above the three lesser (hence “trivial”) language-based disciplines of logic, grammar and rhetoric.

Highs and lows

Physics permeates the language we use to describe music, and the concepts we use to understand it. For instance we talk about “high” and “low” musical pitch, perhaps without realising how deeply metaphorical this is.

There is no altitude to musical pitch: “high” pitches are caused by faster vibrations than “low” pitches. But we don’t talk about “fast” and “slow” music with reference to pitch (we use those metaphors for something else entirely).

And yet, the notion of musical altitude makes sense if we think about the energy states of the music. If, as in the excerpt below from Puccini’s opera Tosca, we listen to a soprano sustain a top B flat (as at 2:40 into the recording below), we are aware that she is sustaining a high-energy state, which must eventually relax.

The pitch seems invested with the kinetic energy required to produce it (of course, in Tosca’s case she has a literal encounter with the force of gravity, but that’s quite another story).

Singers, wind and brass players expend energy to reach “altitude”, while string players, keyboardists, guitarists and all the rest work no harder for the high notes than the low.

Yet, perhaps because of the centrality of the human voice to all music, this idea of fighting against musical “gravity” is ubiquitous, whether in a Paganini violin concerto or a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, as per the video below. In music, as in physics, what goes up must come down.

And it doesn’t come down just anywhere. Most systems of musical organisation have a fixed point of reference – a pitch that functions as an attractor, pulling the music towards it.

In Western music, we call this the “tonic”, and most people, regardless of their level of formal musical training, can hear and sing the note to which the music is “pulling”. This idea of gravitational or magnetic attraction to a pitch was arguably the single most important characteristic of Western music between 1600 and 1900, and much music thereafter.

This may be a characteristic of Western music, but in other cultures' musics, the idea of a point of attraction is often even more powerful, as in the example below from Classical Indian music.

Not all music has a tonic, a fixed point of reference – in 1908 in Vienna Arnold Schoenberg famously departed from the principle with the “atonal” concluding movement of his second string quartet (as per the video below), thereby heralding a new and controversial musical age.

By coincidence, three years earlier, across the border in Switzerland, Albert Einstein had thrown the world of physics into disarray by similarly demolishing the idea of a fixed point of reference, in a paper on electromagnetism that described what later would become known as the Special Theory of Relativity.

Questions and answers

It’s worth observing that language has nothing resembling this notion of gravity or attraction: to understand this principle in music the metaphors must come from physics.

There are other concepts that bridge the disciplines in the same way. Balance and symmetry are also ideas that are fundamental to musical structure, and that seem to have more of a physical than a linguistic origin.

In classical music, perhaps the most common phrase structure is often described informally (and somewhat puzzlingly, to me) as “question and answer” – or more formally, as “antecedent-consequent” – two phrases that complement each other structurally, as in two phrases that make up just the opening eights seconds of Mozart’s Sonata in C KV545 (below).

There’s no question that rhetoric plays a role in shaping the way in which these two phrases echo each other. But on a structural level, there is an identity that seems almost mathematical in nature.

The two phrases are in balance: their (gentle) energies are complementary; their shapes are an image of each other; they are like two sides of an equation.

Time and memory

For me, the most important parallels between music and physics happen on a more philosophical level.

The late musicologist Jonathan Kramer started his book The Time of Music with the observation that small children play with blocks and toys to learn the fundamental concepts of space; by contrast, by singing and clapping, they play with music to learn about time.

There is something profound about the way in which music can accelerate, retard, bend and colour our sense of time’s passing. We can sit in a concert hall or opera theatre for an hour and hear 90 different people make thousands of noises on bits of wood, metal and flesh, and yet walk away with the impression we have heard one thing – a symphony, or an opera.

Music joins up time, and allows us to hear time as patterned and organised. These patterns allow us to predict the future – we listen in anticipation: that a melody will come to rest, or a harmony will move in ways that make sense to us, wordlessly.

Music is also a powerful stimulus of memory – overhearing a piece of remembered music can instantly rekindle long-forgotten memories.

It is much easier for most of us to memorise a song (words and all) than it is to memorise a poem. Music is a tool for grasping the order and sense between what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future.

And to me, that sounds suspiciously like a definition of physics.

Threat and survival

Sadly, there is one last way in which music and physics are currently bedfellows. Worldwide, both disciplines are under threat at universities. In America and the UK, several physics departments have closed or are in danger.

Music education no longer receives government funding at UK universities, and in Australia recent controversies at ANU and Edith Cowan are symptomatic of the fact government funding for music is problematic.


And the provision and quality of music and physics education in our secondary schools, crucial to support and enable undergraduate study, are always competing with the demands for more and more literacy and numeracy in the curriculum.

There is not yet a crisis – at least, not at the high end: it remains, at least for the moment, sexy enough in policy terms to fund the elite practitioners.

The select few physics virtuosi who will discover whatever comes after the Higgs boson, or their musical equivalents who will perform the Queen of the Night aria at the Sydney Opera house or Covent Garden, still capture both the public imagination and the public purse.

But the opportunities for students to study fundamental and abstract ideas – such as music and physics – as part of a liberal arts education that supports a civilised and educated society are becoming fewer and fewer.

John Rayner was right to call the relationship between music and physics a love song. Let us just hope it’s not also a swansong.

Further reading: This is a love song: the physics of music and the music of physics

Jonathan Powles does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Musicians need to keep in time

This post was written as an opinion piece for The Conversation.

The current crisis at the ANU School of Music has widely been reported as being, fundamentally, about money.  The ANU VC has cut ten academic and two general staff positions to address an operating deficit at the School of nearly $3 million per annum.  This is the fourth review of the School in twelve years, and by far the most drastic.  The resultant outrage in the community has been swift and vociferous: a largely middle-class Canberra population has reacted angrily to what it perceives as an assault on high culture.  Almost all the reporting of the story has focused on a very simple black-and-white opposition: the profound and inestimable value and deeply humanizing practice of arts in general and music in particular, versus a corporate culture of management, bureaucracy and bean-counting.

But are things really that simple?

Nearly all music schools in Australia are in financial crisis.  The ANU has made headlines simply because its response has been swift and uncompromising.  But all seven of the nation’s traditional conservatoires are struggling to make ends meet.   Many have blamed the level of Federal Government funding for music as inadequate, and indeed the 2011 Lomax-Smith review of university funding found this to be the case.  But the situation is the same or worse overseas: music schools are operating in increasingly straitened circumstances, and their graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to get employment in the area of elite classical music performance in which they are being trained.

But this is all very curious, because the arts themselves, and the creative industries, are booming.  A 2010 report by the Australia Council, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts found that Australians’ engagement with the arts, both as creators and consumers, was increasing.  Young people especially were becoming more engaged with the art and music, and across the population there was a growing sense of the importance of the arts to society’s wellbeing.  Importantly, the internet was identified as an increasingly important means of engaging with the arts, with one in three Australians already using the internet to engage with art in some form.  These statistics are borne out by the economic figures.  A 2009 economic analysis of the creative industries in Australia found that the creative industries (including music) contributed around 3% to our GDP (more than the agriculture or energy industries), and moreover over ten years was growing at 5.8% p.a. -  nearly twice the rate of the economy as a whole.  It’s a good news story of flourishing artistic practice and community engagement that is increasingly bringing both social benefits and hard cash to the Australian people.

So why are all our music schools going broke?

The issue is one of relevance.  

Looking at the history of music, we see that quite regularly, there are moments of tectonic shift in the styles, economics and technologies that underpin music-making.  In the 1920s in Australia there were thousands of freelance professional musicians in Australia – more than four thousand in Sydney alone - earning their keep performing in cafes, music halls, theatres, and movie theatres, playing to accompany silent films.  That all changed in the space of five years.  The invention of the ‘talkie’ – the film with sound – spelled an end to the movie-house orchestra.  The rapid spread of radio, and the foundation of the ABC in 1932, saw professional music-making start shift out of the cafe and music hall and into the studio.  The Depression accelerated the changes – why would a cash-strapped restauranteur hire a dance band every night when he could buy a radio?  

This led to the institutionalisation of classical music in Australia.  Under the aegis of the ABC, by 1960 there was a much smaller number of elite performers, mainly comprising the orchestras in each state capital.  Each capital had a music school with a curriculum designed to produce players to support that orchestra .  The curriculum included rigorous performance training in the classical tradition; aural skills and theory for sight-reading; a survey-style overview of classical music history.
Astonishingly, more than fifty years later, this same curriculum either still exists, or has existed quite recently, in Australian music schools.  Yet almost every other aspect of music-making has changed.

The modern music professional needs to be fluent in a wide variety of styles – classical, jazz, contemporary and cross-cultural.  He or she needs to be familiar with a quickly changing range of technologies for the creation, notation, recording, manipulation and dissemination of music.  He or she needs to understand the shifting nature of the music business, requiring a single individual to at different times (or simultaneously) play the role of performer, educator, entrepreneur, and producer, and take advantage of music-making opportunities far beyond the concert hall, but in schools, community groups, studios, art galleries, hospitals, and increasingly online, in computer games and other applications.  Above all, as modern and younger Australians engage with the arts as participants not just passive “consumers”, the modern professional musician needs to be able to facilitate the music-making of others , at a whole range of standards, not just be an expert practitioner themselves.

There are some shining examples in Australia of curricula that have arisen to meet the needs of the modern world – those at QUT, the University of Newcastle, and the University of South Australia spring to mind.  But the old, traditional conservatoires have struggled to keep up.  Unless they do, I fear the agonies of cuts and forced restructure currently being visited on ANU School of Music are bound to be repeated elsewhere.