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Beyond the performance of noise;
New music, social class ontologies, and living up to the implicit premises of our political turn
by James Hazel
[First published in Resonate Magazine AMC, 2021]
Currently, there are numerous social-justice oriented composition and instrumental programs and commissions being rapidly established to counter the colonial and patriarchal baggage of new-music culture and history. These crucial developments can be characterised as a recent political turn within the institutions associated with new-music culture in Australia, defined by an urgent and apparent concern with structural and representational inequities in terms of participation and historical (dis)inclusion. In this space, there is very good work undertaken and achieved, and there is reason to be optimistic. Yet, to draw attention to any limitations within the institutional structures promoting this turn, poses no risk of raining on the parade - doing so supplements it, as intersectionality1 ought to do; and, as such, we should not be afraid of going this far.
In this spirit, the focus of this article is to draw attention to the distinct lack of a recognition of social class as an important, or even legitimate, political ontology within the politics proper of Australian, new-music spheres. This gap might lead one to believe that working and under-class people do not participate in new-music culture (nor want to, due to culturally specific patterns, habitus etc.); however, this assumption is simply not well founded. For, in bypassing the urgent issue of class-based exclusion, we are at serious risk of excluding those few emerging/established practitioners (or any altogether) from these backgrounds. Due to the increasingly tenuous socioeconomic situation of neo-liberalism, it is becoming a reality whereby only the privileged few can literally afford the mobility, flexibility, and leisure time required to practice high-art forms such as new music. This issue is complicated within the arts sector which is, in parallel, desperately under-supported socially, financially, and governmentally. Yet, by over focusing on this 'precariousness' of our arts cultures and institutions, we have continually failed to enable a socially reflective cross-section of participants across the socioeconomic stratum, who not only experience precarity socioeconomically, but existentially as well.
Considering this political turn (within new music affiliated institutions and organisations) in Australia,2 there is still some ongoing and necessary skepticism: for while our established institutional proponents of new music desperately desire to embrace the pluralist, and the associated socialist, values of postmodern artistic praxis, there are some clear epistemological delimitations at play, despite the appearances of progressivism in some cases. This is partially because programs, individuals, and organisations are still largely enmeshed with institutionally situated, Romantic and modernist value systems, which valorise elite ideals such as able-body oriented virtuosity, individuated (and self-sufficient) mastery, and technical innovation, while perpetuating archetypal models of cis-male genius, all of which, by their rigid codification, rule out exploratory and unique sonic practices (and ontologies) that do not necessarily conform within these bounds - or arise in spite of them. Despite the best intentions of the political turn, and as a result of not actively scrutinising implicit and explicit elite value systems, we are at risk of reiterating and re-enabling some of the attendant issues (such as colonialism, classism etc.) associated with the old classical-music culture in subtle ways, while cherry-picking the elite baggage we propound to want to undermine. Not to mention the fact that politically oriented programs often benefit the institutions just as much as (and sometimes more than) the program participants themselves.
Within my personal and research experience of the manifestations of this political turn (the myriad seminars, workshops, articles, and commissioning opportunities etc.), the topic of class-based exclusion, and discrimination in new-music culture and institutions is so glaringly absent, one might suspect we have good grounding to commence articulating a conspiracy theory here. I say this in jest; yet we really are at a loss in establishing, in a really integrated way, pedagogical and inclusive arts programs that address assisting and enabling those who have experienced socioeconomic, structural, and/or educational disadvantage. We haven't even arrived at a relative position of having a simple and frank discussion about this - not because the discussion of social class is innately flawed, essentialist, naïve, or critically problematic - but, rather, due to the fact that we haven't unpacked what this means within our lexicon.3 In other words, we lack a contemporary language to begin to articulate these complex and nuanced issues - particularly within our new-music/arts institutions. Due to this and other reasons, it is much more comfortable for us to circumnavigate the class issue altogether.
What are the ramifications for this? Well, by neglecting class as a critical category (and associated precarious ontologies by proxy), the political turn has delimited the set of politically egalitarian possibilities; and performed its inclusive progressivism, to a degree. In this way, the political turn will continue to, consciously or unconsciously, neutralise, and naturalise, its bourgeois subjectivity (and attendant preclusive structural preconditions), because, to recognise social-class inequities invalidates the very neo-liberal ideology that unequally enables and rewards the distribution of education, capital, and success in the high arts, and its institutions. Indeed, the naturalisation of class-based, structural biases are no more apparent than within the mechanisms, apparatuses, and instruments of the neo-liberal arts university, and arts-funding bodies, and established, large arts organisations, all of which have a general predilection for esotericism, rigidly codified speech and linguistic expression, hyper-professionalism, quantified-qualification, and middle-class specific requirements of mobility, education, and capital (social and financial). To acknowledge the class-exclusive structures in these domains is to draw attention to the fragile claims underpinning particular manifestations of 'inclusive' politics within Australian new music's institutionally led political turn, as well as the cryptic and invisibilised capital which facilitates the conditions wherein creative works are produced, the social spaces in which they are performed - as well as the range of what practitioners and audiences look and/or sound like.
All in all, the scope of the political turn is still largely predetermined within the distribution of rather conservative, acceptable and sensible thresholds - to follow philosopher Jacques Ranciere - as related to the tacit distribution of 'the system of self-evident facts of sense perception' that designates which individuals/groups may participate and who may not, in terms of politics that 'determines the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and in what ways various individuals have a part in this distribution'.4
So, by only enacting a partial intersectionality; and continuing our bourgeois modalities of being, doing, and making, with people that look, dress, speak and/or act within a similar, upper-social and educational milieu - and not actively questioning neo-liberal institutional imperatives and limit - we have neglected to discuss and pragmatically extrapolate the attendant aspects of social class within our supposedly progressive new-music spaces; and, unfortunately, within high-art spheres, socioeconomic disparity is amplified. This is the rhetorical and discursive threshold within our so-called political aspirations for the new-music political turn, manifest within its desires and programs, discussions, and aspirations.
Any program or organisation that purports to actually care about political progress but neglects to consider the ongoing impact of class disadvantage (a phenomenon that is inexorably linked to forms of race and gender-based discrimination and disadvantage) is at risk of being about as politically effective as any centrist, liberal identity politics. This is a partial solution that will ensure a particular, familiar and historically enabled socioeconomic strata is enabled and reproduced ad nauseam; while those who cannot afford to practice and participate are left at the bottom (or excluded altogether); while the mobile and/or savvy few (who are typically white, and middle-class) are squeezed through the ever-tightening bottle-neck of a high-classed 'shared social space […] constituted by what Bourdieu calls "a structure of affinity and aversion between [individuals]" that draws them together or apart'.5
For how can we deny all of the preclusive requirements that are not necessarily available to precarious/working-class artists, that take place a priori, before one even begins to practice, or become 'established', as a new-musician? Why do we continually invisibilise and naturalise the attendant privileges resultant from receiving private education and/or private music lessons from a young age? Or the exorbitant costs required to purchase necessary computer and music technologies (an important aspect of new music production)? What about the background, family-provided financial support, and nepotism that characterises middle and upper-middle-class dominated networks? In addition, how can we expect precarious artists to fulfil the 'industry' demand to travel internationally and participate in further education and professional development opportunities? Not to mention the untenable cost of living in major cities where universities and high-arts cultures are concentrated; or the increasing cost of university degrees, in tandem with lack of public university funding; as well as the ongoing deregulation of equitable public arts funding; the increasingly incredulous hoops required to practise within a professional sphere; and the damaging mythologies of innate 'talent', and the meritocracy etc. etc. etc. To begin to even unpack these background privileges and class barriers (among others) would actually render transparent, and indeed question, the very ontological contingencies of practicing/making new music in this way in Australia.
To commence countering class-based exclusion, we have to practice active interpersonal and structural efforts to support (and not merely ventriloquise) working/under class identities in the field - through a wholly intersectional prism; indeed, the working and underclasses are just as culturally, linguistically and gender diverse as the middle/upper-middle classes. In this capacity, we also really ought to move beyond the realm of merely signifying difference; of performative subversion; or surrogate working-class 'transgression'- i.e. signifying working and under-class stories and identities, only in their absence, or abstraction: for how many lad-luxe6 fashion appropriations do we encounter in high-art spaces? Or what about the many new-music performances in working-class historical and/or community spaces (such as factories etc.) that not only contribute to gentrification, but take place with no consideration of the broader historical and community connections? Or the myriad middle-class appropriations of underground, street, and urban cultural practices, and other forms of poverty-mining? Not to mention the history of Australian composers' general penchant for haphazard and awkward attempts to include marginalised folks and their stories, not as co-collaborators, but as resources for content or thematic material. All of which are at risk of merely translating to aesthetically inflected poverty/subaltern porn for middle and upper-middle-class audiences, instead of any meaningful socially inclusive practice.
In this capacity, it is crucial to distinguish between those who sequester the concept of precarity and the actually precarious - particularly those who perform this by co-opting working/under-class aesthetic signifiers of adversity, struggle and subversion. In this way, we have to straightforwardly distinguish between those with incomes/ongoing financial support and those without - to ascertain who has the luxury to work for free; as well as render a clear distinction between those emerging and supported; those with more of a funding record and those without; and those who are visible and who are not. These measures are not suggested to be divisive, but to actually grapple with what limited institutional and/or funding resources are available, and then we can commence really distributing the necessary support according to critical and caring needs. This has the potential to contribute to the pursuit of equitable standards of participation. Bemoaning a lack of resources does not achieve much, if we continue to compete as per usual, which is the expectation of socialisation in a capitalist, Western society.
To recognise and validate the issue of class is to move beyond the erasure of uncomfortable social noise; of the political performative; of the institutional favouritism and cherry-picking - into a conscious space where there is support, radical care and representation for those on the socioeconomic margins of our arts cultures, and beyond the horizons of our arts institutions - all the while acknowledging how heavily race, and gender-based issues intersect with class, and not sterilising these entanglements for our own congratulatory delusions, our university propagandas, and our own psychological, and sociological blind spots (both culturally and discursively). We also cannot afford to continue avoiding difficult topics, in trepidation that it may upset and unsettle the brittle institutional facade encasing the supposedly 'neutral' politics of agents involved in the means of new-music production.
If we are really a community of peers then let's act like one. The task is to live up to our end of the bargain; the ethics we espouse; our political premises (and promises). For, if we actually are concerned about inclusion, and the reform of this so-called new music, then we should actually take inspiration from the vectors of our sonic methodologies, and go to the very structural extremes of what is possible - not merely perform progress through sonic manipulations, and hope that liberated aesthetics will transpose to social liberalisation. In an increasingly crisis-ridden, precarious world, weird and wacky sounds, technical innovation, and novel, pseudo-progressive grant-catching concepts are not merely enough to affect change, nor is the detachment of art music from the deep and thick concerns of the socio-political. These are not plausible excuses, they really never were.
All in all, there is much labour to be shared and undertaken to work towards recognising class as a critical politico-identity category, not only in new music, but Australian arts cultures, and society in general. For without a concerted and strategic intersectional shift of consciousness,7 the new-music world will continue to have its noise-ridden cake and eat it too: and, by extension, continue onwards in an unchecked, haphazard, and covert way, in preserving and maintaining some of the very privileged values and structures it seeks to reconfigure and undermine - and in this respect, there is, quite frankly, nothing 'new' about it.
This article is an excerpt from an experimental workshop and lecture series entitled: 'Precarious Scoring/Scoring Precarity,' which will be facilitated in 2022.
Thank you to Sonya Holowell whose many conversations with me about this topic have inspired me to take the next leap with these ideas. Thank you also to John Davis, and 'Resonate' for providing the space for this essay.
1 For a definition of this term, Brittany Cooper summarises: 'Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the term intersectionality has become the key analytic framework through which feminist scholars in various fields talk about the structural identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality'. Brittney Cooper, 'Intersectionality', in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, ed. Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. (Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 2016), abstract.
2 The term new music is primarily employed here to encompass the more institutionally led 'new music' culture as it is increasingly becoming known, domestically and internationally, due to its reliance and dependence on the structural, financial and cultural stability connected to universities; arts institutions; public and private funding bodies.
3 Class is an important critical prism with which to understand issues such as: the socio-economic stratification of people, identities, bodies and spaces, as affected by the temporality and flow of capital; understanding why some are more socio-economically mobile than others; the factors involved in facilitating access to positive health determinants; the bio-politics that delimitate how bodies subsist and live; and how capitalist structures impact people on psychological, and physiological levels.
4 According to Ranciere: 'Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.' Jacques Rancière, The politics of aesthetics (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), 7-8.
5 Pierre Bourdieu, 'What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups', Berkeley journal of sociology 32 (1987), 6-7 quoted in Anna Bull, ''Everyone Here Is Going to Have Bright Futures'': Capitalizing on Musical Standard', in Class, Control, and Classical Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 59.
6 Jerico Mandybur, 'Lad Luxe: The Fetishisation of the Working Class in Fashion is the Height of Snobbery', The Guardian, 28 October 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/-sp-lad-luxe-the-fetishisation-of-the-working-class-in-fashion-is-the-height-of-snobbery
7 It is important to qualify that there are, of course, others who have been very vocal about these and other related issues.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1987) 'What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups'. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32 (1987): 1-17.
Bull, Anna (2019) '''Everyone Here Is Going to Have Bright Futures'': Capitalizing on Musical Standard.' In Class, Control, and Classical Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2019. doi: 10.1093/oso/9780190844356.003.0003.
Cooper, Brittney (2016) 'Intersectionality'. In The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, edited by Lisa Disch and Mary Hawkesworth. Oxford University Press USA - OSO: 385-406
Mandybur, Jerico (2014) 'Lad Luxe: The Fetishisation of the Working Class in Fashion is the Height of Snobbery'. The Guardian, 28 October. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/28/-sp-lad-luxe-the-fetishisation-of-the-working-class-in-fashion-is-the-height-of-snobbery
Rancière, Jacques (2013) The politics of aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing.
© Australian Music Centre (2020) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.