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25 February 2009

David Chesworth: I still struggle with descriptions

extract from David Bennett's book Sounding Postmodernism

David Chesworth Image: David Chesworth  

The following interview with David Chesworth forms part of a recent AMC publication: David Bennett's Sounding Postmodernism - Sampling Australian Composers, Sound Artists and Music Critics.

Sounding Postmodernism is a long-awaited publication that brings together an impressive amount of theory, debate and analysis on the topic of postmodernism and music. While postmodernism as such has been discussed in copious monographs over the years, overviews of postmodernism as it applies to music are surprisingly rare. In Sounding Postmodernism, Bennett's extensive survey of the thories and debates on postmodernism is accompanied by 36 interviews with Australian composers, sound artists and critics. To take advantage of our special offer for resonate readers (only $32 - RRP $42), make sure you order your copy from the AMC Shop before 31 March.

David Bennett
Sounding Postmodernism - Sampling Australian Composers, Sound Artists and Music Critics
- interview with David Chesworth


David Chesworth's practice involves several diverse areas of music and installation art. In the late seventies and early eighties he co-ordinated the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne, a venue for new and experimental music. He is also known by some for his early work with seminal post-punk experimental group Essendon Airport and his Lo-fi album 50 Synthesizer Greats. For over 15 years he has been director of the eight-piece David Chesworth Ensemble which has released three CDs and regularly performs in Australia and internationally. David Chesworth has received several contemporary opera commissions from Chamber Made Opera and Opera Australia for works that include the acclaimed Recital and recently, Cosmonaut.

Together with artist Sonia Leber, Chesworth creates challenging large-scale sound installations in the public domain, including 5000 Calls commissioned for the surrounds of Sydney Olympic stadium. In 2007, they were recipients of the Helen MacPherson Smith Art Commission which resulted in Almost Always Everywhere Apparent installed at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. David Chesworth is currently working on new pieces for his ensemble and a new installation work with Sonia Leber for Conical Galley in Melbourne. This interview with David Chesworth was conducted in October 2005.

Can you recall when and where you first encountered the term ‘postmodernism’? What associations did it have for you then? What kinds of aesthetic or cultural tendencies did you assume it described?

DAVID CHESWORTH: My early practice and that of my associates was, in hindsight, all about exploring what lay beyond modernism. Interestingly, as students at La Trobe University in the late 1970s, we were receiving contrasting versions of what modernism in music was. We were being introduced to music from the European modernist traditions—Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and later serialists—and the American and English minimalist and experimental music traditions. Then, for some of us, there was the whole punk-initiated cultural reassessment taking place at the same time, beyond the university walls. I distinctly remember that the main dilemma for me was trying to figure out what kind of music I should write. There seemed to be a range of correct ways to do it, which the teaching staff encouraged, as well as more exciting ‘incorrect’ ways, which the staff didn’t understand. It was the unknown beyond the constraints of modernism that allowed me, and others, room to explore what it meant to be a composer: ideas about musical gesture, orchestrating context and exploring new relationships with audiences. These became compositional tasks in themselves—we were more concerned about how music related to other structures than we were with inner compositional structure.

On reflection, much of what we did musically had its modernist precedents, but we applied ourselves differently and very self-consciously. We placed inverted commas around much of what we did. Investigations into internal musical structure had become exhausted. It felt like we were being stifled. Our anti-modernist approach to things felt like the only positive way forward. It was through the act of exploring musical gesture, rather than just structure, that I realised that I might also be a composer. I think I and my associates (including some of the musicians performing at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, plus other artists involved with the Popism exhibition, curated by Paul Taylor at the National Gallery of Victoria) were well involved in postmodernism in the mid- to late-1970s, way before we’d heard of the term.

Did the tendencies identified with this concept conflict with how you had been encouraged to think about the aesthetics of composition as a music student? Would you say that you were schooled/trained in ‘modernist’ musical values? If so, how would you define those values?

DC: We were basically being taught a mixture of late modernism and post-Cageian ideas, as well as experimental music that was certainly exploring new territories and was starting to challenge, or operate on, models a little contrary to grand modernist ideas. Modernism in music was predominantly concerned with the aesthetics derived as a by-product of inner musical structures, whereas we were increasingly interested in how external cultural forces could affect how we listened to, and interpreted, sound and all kinds of (mainly Western) music. This affected how we composed.

How about now: has your understanding or usage of the term ‘postmodernism’ changed over the last ten or so years? If so, in what ways? Do you feel that reviewers or critics in Australia, or elsewhere, now use it differently, that its connotations have changed—for better or worse—over the past decade or so?

DC: It has become a bit of a generalised and slightly dismissive label, used as a catch-all for work that is still not understood by some critics. Postmodernism has lost its power as a confronting ideology in itself. I think it was most relevant when it was an emerging idea, challenging and antagonising audiences and other practitioners who still had modernism as their reference point. Postmodernism really needed its audience to be implicated in the work whereas modernism didn’t. Postmodernism in music could only exist when it confronted an audience.

Do you agree with Chris Latham, who formerly represented Faber and other European publishers in Australia, when he identifies a ‘new generation of artists who are shaking off the hangover of modernism, which left audiences bemused and a little scared of modern music’?

DC: Yes, it’s an obvious statement to make, and hopefully it is an old quote, as we’ve been doing what he says for at least twenty-five years. I think we have moved on, and that emerging artists no longer have modernism as something to shake off. It is now a historical reference point along with others. Modernism is perhaps appreciated on the surface but many of its underpinning ideas are ignored or not comprehended.

Do you consider ‘postmodern’ a fair description of (any of) your own musical values? If so, in what ways? If not, are there other descriptive terms you would be more inclined to ‘own’?

DC: I still struggle with descriptions of my own practice. If I knew what it was I did, then I’d probably stop doing it. I would like to think that my work is always actively evolving and is always slightly ahead of a personal definition. In retrospect I see that I was a postmodernist, but I think that had all ended as an overt activity by the mid-1980s. My work has moved on, and it is up to others to say whether I’m still operating as a postmodernist—perhaps I still am.

While there is no shortage of new books with the ‘p’ word in their title still rolling off the academic presses today, some cultural gatekeepers regard postmodernism as a passé concept, naming a debate whose heyday was in the 1980s, and they insist that the important issues in cultural practice and interpretation go by other names today. Do you agree?

DC: Pretty much, yes.

From your own perspective as a practitioner, what would you say have been the main trends in music culture, whether nationally or internationally, that have influenced your sense of the possibilities and value of art music or concert music—and its relation to popular music—during the past ten years or so? Are there specific trends that you regret and resist, and are there others that you welcome and promote?

DC: Even though I operate in the concert-music area, I don’t have any sense of what concert music really is. However, I think it is defined by audiences, as I have already suggested. My ensemble music works just as well, although differently, in clubs and bars as it does in concert halls. I have played in bars where you could hear a pin drop because the audience was tuned in as if they were in a concert hall. Perhaps it has to do with the level and kind of audience engagement with the live musical performance. Other than the physical design of the performance space, which is a major factor, I think the more the audience engages cerebrally with the music, the more concert-like the performance experience.

Do you regard your musical practices (composing/performing/reviewing etc.) as having a calculated ideological or political dimension?

DC: Yes, very much so. Music still operates as a form of social engagement, which, in my opinion, is one of its enduring strengths as an art form. In my practice, music and performance always take into account the materials I choose to present and how people might engage and interact with the artwork, even if this is only through my choice of title. There must always be a challenge to listener expectations.

Do you think there are feminine and masculine sensibilities in composing? Are there other ways in which sexuality significantly influences composition and/or reception of music?

DC: Some music sounds masculine and some feminine, that’s for sure. I’m not even sure if my assumptions correspond with the reality of which gender actually did the composing. It doesn’t influence me in what I do at all.

How would you characterise your relationship with European and American musical traditions and how important to your own musical practices or interests would you say Australian Indigenous and/or ‘regional’ Pacific cultural influences have been?

DC: American minimalism, Cage and English experimental music, and early twentieth-century European music were all-important, initially. Local and regional influences were less important, at first, but I now have an increasing interest in local and regional music and, of course, I am always interested in what local composers are doing.

In this era of globalisation, is it important for you to reflect or assert a sense of ‘Australianness’ in your work, or do you feel that cultural nationalism is passé or irrelevant to your work? How do you regard the concept of ‘world music’?

DC: I’d like to think there was an Australian sound, but I doubt it. There might be an Australian approach to creating and making music, though—perhaps it’s in the way we collaborate. World music is usually a term for ethnic music that is palatable while still sounding exotic to the Western ear. The term doesn’t interest me.

Caitlin Rowley (2000), reporting on 2MBS-FM on her interviews with five young Australian composers, observed that they were ambivalent about the idea of an ‘Australian sound’ and also that some composers were strongly in favour of a change of terminology, from pop-versus-classical styles to pop-versus-classical contexts or situations. Whatever the reference, there still seems to be an overall distinction between pop music and pop-influenced classical music, albeit with a grey area between the two. What would you say are the different values and expectations associated with pop and classical ‘contexts or situations’? Are they, for example, associated with different kinds of listening?

DC: I agree with the composers interviewed, although, from my experience, I think there are some styles of music you really can’t get away with performing in certain situations. Many years ago I played a tape piece, a very nonclassical work, at an Astra concert in Melbourne. It appeared to cause great embarrassment in the audience because it sounded like popular music, even though the structural ideas underpinning the work were as interesting or complex to me as any of the classical or correct contemporary electronic work that was also presented. That was my point in playing it, but the point being made was not picked up, except by composer Jeff Pressing. I recently played 50 Synthesizer Greats tunes at an experimental music concert. Some of the quaint, filtered synth sounds I played sounded quite pleasingly out of place in the increasingly rarefied concert-like experimental/improvisational context.

Is your music usually performed on the concert platform or in other spaces? What important differences do you note between different performance spaces?

DC: My music is performed in a range of different spaces, and I do this because it allows audiences to engage differently with my work. The installation work I make with Sonia Leber is created in public spaces where an artistic event is always unexpected. We create audio situations which place the unprepared listener in a situation they must respond to and engage with. To some degree, audiences are put on the spot, but they can still control certain aspects of these listening experiences. The event space can be explored and mapped freely and the listener may leave at any time. There’s also a degree of ambiguity in the materials presented in these pieces that allows the work to be experienced, processed and interpreted differently by different audiences.

In your view, is there (as the late American composer and musicologist, Jonathan Kramer, argued) a ‘postmodern’ mode of listening? How do you conceive of the role of the listener in your compositional approach?

DC: For me, the listener is the most important person in the whole transaction. He or she is the final assembler of the work. The work is a collection of materials with various intentions and, when my job as a composer is finished, the work is still open to further interpretations, filterings and cognitive evaluation by the listener. This is what I like to think happens, anyway. I am always pleasantly surprised when people talk to me about my music and make comments and observations about aspects of the music that I had not even thought of. An early performance work of mine called Industry and Leisure was all about this way of presenting work. I like to think that I am creating sonic maps for audiences to explore, each in their own way. Very Deleuzian, you might say. I do prefer postmodernist audiences.

It is an orthodoxy of modernist criticism that ‘high art’ provides some kind of critical reflection—if only implicitly—on mass culture. Does this correspond, in any degree, to your sense of the differences between concert and popular music?

DC: Sorry, I don’t understand the question. I’m not sure in what way ‘high art’ does this.

In your opinion, are there any distinctively ‘postmodernist’ ways in which the respective roles and interrelationships of the composer, the performer and the listener might have been changing in recent concert music?

DC: One thing that is happening is that contemporary music that used to be performed solely in the concert hall is now increasingly being performed at nightclubs and alternative lounge-like venues—in Melbourne anyway. Also, the musicians that perform concert music are just as likely to be the leading lights in the experimental/improvisational scene or jazz scene. The performers—and composers, for that matter—are now multidisciplined. This has had the effect of bringing disparate contemporary music practices together. I wouldn’t call this ‘postmodern’ but it has, perhaps, happened as a consequence of postmodernism.

How important to you is the idea of ‘authorial’ individuality, originality and control, or do you believe that composition/authorship is always in some sense collaborative?

DC: In my work there’s often a collaborative process involved. In my opinion, both the performers and the audience are collaborators, along with the composer. Individuality and originality are equally important but can coexist with collaboration.

John Zorn has said: ‘My musical world is like a little prism. You look through it and it goes off in a million different directions. Since every genre is the same, all musicians should be equally respected. It doesn’t matter if it’s jazz, blues, or classical. They’re all the same’ (Maykrantz). Does this correspond with your own view of music, or do you still perceive significant differences, even hierarchies of value, among genres?

DC: I agree with that statement, but it should also be said that some musicians are better than others and some have more useful abilities than others. I have had a few disappointing experiences with musicians in the past who, it turns out, just don’t understand what music is or the creative process that they’re involved with. Take away the manuscript and ask them to make-up some musical phrases, and some musicians won’t know what to do. I’m not sure they should be equally respected.

Do you have any strong views about the role of quotation or pastiche in contemporary art music?

DC: I used this technique a lot in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it was a powerful tool in postmodernism, but I hardly ever use it now in such an overt way. Use of quotation in an ironic way can give music a short shelf life. It all depends on what culture you’re quoting from—whether you’re quoting popular music or the Western musical canon. Some music, when it is used ironically and therefore depends on ‘second-degree’ readings, can become confused over time as the larger social context shifts and audience understandings of meanings shift with it. The listener might no longer hear a musical quote as being ironic, as was originally intended by the composer, but instead as a first-degree gesture. The inverted commas have been lost. The effectiveness of the music is then compromised.

Have you made forays into music that is not score-based? If so, what does this open up for you aesthetically?

DC: This question implies that my work is primarily score-based and that non-score-based work is some kind of alternative. For me the opposite is true. Most of my work is non-score-based but I make forays into score-based work when writing for my ensemble and opera. Even then, my work is a combination of traditional and non-traditional forms of notation. However, working outside traditional forms of notation is a hopeless exercise unless you work with suitable musicians who have a grasp of the potentials and strengths of different approaches to notation and making music.

Would you say there is anything distinctively ‘postmodernist’ about the ways that technologies—of sound production, synthesis, recording, amplification, distortion, broadcasting etc.—are being used in contemporary music?

DC: A structure can become reduced to an effect or preset.

Do you make use of digital technology and/or the Web in composition (other than notation software)?

DC: Yes.

One of the ways in which postmodernism in fields such as literature, architecture, philosophy and the visual arts has been understood is as a movement to dismantle—for better or worse—certain oppositions that were fundamental to ‘modern’ thought and art. Would you say this is also true in music in relation to such oppositions as music/noise, melody/texture, tonality/atonality, design/chance, composer/audience?

DC: Initially, yes, there was some breakdown but, as the world has also become more conservative, these binary oppositions have re-emerged. Perhaps what has changed is the relationship between music’s inner and outer structures. The transient surface of the music (texture)—how music hits the ear and what a sound sounds like—has now greater prominence than the inner compositional structures, such as that found in serial music. Music has become mostly tactile, gestural and descriptive. The digital era has enabled a constant stream of new sound palettes to be created and fed to the listener, but structurally I think we might have regressed, as many structural ideas that are presented as new are, in fact, reiterations of modernist ideas. That might be postmodernism, I’m not sure.

What do you understand to be the main precepts of musical modernism, and do you regard them as central or marginal to either compositional practice or music education today?

DC: This is too hard a question to answer unless I quote Wikipedia, or maybe it’s a cop-out on my part—I’m not doing a thesis! It is extremely important that today’s musical practitioners know modernism’s concepts and ideologies. It is boring to see the wheel reinvented time and time again by those ignorant of the past.

To what aspects of your music do reviewers seem to react most strongly? Do you believe that reviewers generally ‘understand’ your work?

DC: Some understand it well. Others haven’t a clue and respond to it as though it exists in a single dimension only. Those who do understand know that my music can be multilayered in its meanings. I like to orchestrate context, which is why I enjoy writing opera. It provides much more to play with than sound and inner structure alone. My approach to composing music is that music is never experienced in isolation; it is always part of a larger experiential context. It always acknowledges the world that surrounds it. Some reviewers pick up on this, no problem, whereas some older, more naive or more conservative ones don’t.

In a 1988 New York Times article entitled ‘Hip-Deep in Post-modernism’, Todd Gitlin summarised Fredric Jameson’s influential argument concerning the stylistic eclecticism and pastiche typical of postmodernism: High-consumption capitalism requires a ceaseless transformation in style, a connoisseurship of surface, an emphasis on packaging and reproducibility: post-modernist art echoes the truth that the arts have become auxiliary to sales. In order to adapt, consumers are pried away from traditions, their selves become ‘decentered’ … Even ‘life styles’ become commodities to be marketed. In effect, post-modernism expresses the spiritless spirit of a global class linked via borderless mass media with mass culture, omnivorous consumption and easy travel. Their experience denies the continuity of history; they live in a perpetual present garnished by nostalgia binges. … In the global shopping center … local traditions have been swamped by the workings of the market; anything can be bought, and to speak of intrinsic value is mere sentimentality. (Gitlin 1988, 35)

Gitlin describes this argument as at once ‘impressive’ and ‘too sweeping’ since ‘it glides over actual artists and the relation between specific experience and artistic choices’. Do you have any responses to offer to Jameson’s generalisations about postmodernism as what he famously termed ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’?

DC: When I walk around and superficially engage with the world of ‘late capitalism’, this is what I see, too. But when I engage with emerging artists who, by ‘virtue’ of poverty, are removed from the late capitalistic experience, then I see a kind of creative cynicism that is actually underpinned by some serious ideas. Many of these ideas bypass the concerns and attitude alluded to in the statement. I think the older generations are too self-occupied with the problems of late capitalism, and what it has meant to them, to see that there will always be space for meaningful work to be created although appreciative audiences who value this work are small.

(Interview conducted in 2005)

Further links

Subjects discussed by this article:

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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