On Hip-hOpera, the Glitter Gang, Humberrants, and becoming Senior in 2017

You’ve probably noticed that my blogging rate has somewhat spiked in the past couple of days. As 2016 creaked to its end, and I realised that it was less than 11 months since I was in Oxford giving my TEDx talk, I was rather astonished to think about everything that happened this year in my professional life. Having not blogged at any length about much of it, I decided I’d do that, but subjects such as my MOOC, published on Coursera in April, and that TEDxOxford talk, deserved their own blogs first.


So. What a stupid year 2016 was. Stupidly successful for me, but just depressingly stupid for the world in so many ways. Naturally we musicians were extremely upset by the passing of so many icons of our world, and in my case, especially Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and Prince. I saw Prince on his Batman tour at the Wembley Arena in 1990. At the time we regretted that it hadn’t been the Lovesexy or Sign o the Times tours (check out the musicianship in his rhythm and horn section, let alone his own musicianship in this clip), both of which were filmed and outrageously superb – but it’s still an amazing musical memory to have.

Combatting insularity in creative projects

One of the things I’m proudest of this year was the message of inclusiveness and humanitarianism that was such a part of Odysseus : Live, the classical-hip hop-spoken word cross-genre, cross-arts piece that we presented at the Sydney Conservatorium in June (click here for the SBS World News feature on it),  because it spoke volumes about the tensions that tore the world apart in 2016 and which are, sadly, exemplified in the depressingly politically-bipartisan, insular, and narrow minded approach to important issues such as our treatment of asylum seekers and equal human rights here in Australia. (We’d recently got another new PM thanks another bipartisan policy – that of political in-fighting – and this time one who’d spoken out on human rights and the environment in the past … but it has turned out he’s another fizza. Whoops. I digress.)

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When poet/rapper Luka Lesson, producer Jordan Thomas Mitchell, cinematographer Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore and I began creating the words, music, and imagery for our modern interpretation of Homer’s epic in late 2015, we had no idea that a year later Brexit and Trump would have happened, and that modern wars, including Syria, would displace so many more families. Or that, despite a movingly compassionate response in many quarters, whole nations would vote to build walls or leave cross-border communities. As Luka wrote:

And now from Turkey to Greece
they accomplish the same feat
and it’s a new type of boat
but it sinks in the same sea
and it’s a new kind of war
but it’s the same reason to flee
and it’s a new enemy
but it’s the same Odyssey

And yet we’re calling that a classic
and we’re calling this an act
like we can’t fathom what is happening until long after the fact
will it take 3,000 years to see that history plays back
and it don’t matter if Odysseus is Greek or if he’s Black
and will it take more
to see we started the wars
and so we’re part of the cause
we’ve got them caught in the perfect storm


And it looks like Odysseus : Live will be successful, with several of Australia’s symphony orchestras and festivals currently negotiating its first fully professional premieres. Exciting stuff.

Producing 100 minutes of fully orchestrated theatre pushed back my other main creative project in 2016 – Homesong, a song cycle commissioned by Paul Scott-Williams and the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, with support from Canberra’s The Street Theatre. The powerful libretto was written by Nigel Featherstone in 2015 and presents 14 songs connected by narratives revolving around an Australian soldier returning from Afghanistan. It’s difficult but beautiful material, and I was lucky enough to spend a day at The Street Theatre with Nigel and Paul, accompanied by Alan Hicks and with insightful feedback on the two-thirds written work provided by mezzo soprano Christina Wilson and theatre’s Artistic Director/CEO Caroline Stacey. We won’t premiere the work until late next 2017, but I plan to complete a full first draft in the next 6 weeks so that we can workshop it again several times over the coming months.

Paul Scott-Williams workshopping Homesong with Alan Hicks

Halfway through the year I was also rather pleased to make my debut as an electronics performer, with Ensemble Offspring at the Australian National Maritime Museum. We performed a live version of my Noise Husbandry – the music I composed over 2014-2015 for the new Action Stations installation on Darling Harbour, which is permanently playing on board HMAS Onslow and HMAS Vampire and open to the public every day. The scores have many open sections for interpretation, so getting to perform it live was pretty special. You can buy copies at the Australian Music Centre, who also have a copy of the CD on loan (it still hasn’t been commercially released, I’m afraid).

Public speaking and publishing through to Academia

So a great creative year, with lots more to come, and some pretty public teaching and speaking events, including the MOOC and TEDxOxford. Added to the latter were a bunch of other keynotes and workshops, including a DAYTiME conference keynote in my own city for a change, the Raising the Bar public lecture that I blogged about last month, and a composition focus day for ASME here in NSW.

None of those things count for “research output” in the academic world (and research output = keeping one’s job at the minimum, and getting promoted at best!), but there was time to keep working on some traditional research outputs in addition to the NTRO (non-traditional research outputs – the creative works). My masters student Rebecca Ly and I presented a paper at the ISME conference in Glasgow in July in which we presented a software content analysis of software for BYOD programs in music education. In more practical terms, it’s a what-works-on-what device/OS and how can it be used for teaching & learning in music. We’re hoping to work it into a full journal article over the summer break, and also to share all of the data with teachers working in BYOD schools via an online database.

Malcolm Williamson, soon-to-become Master of the Queen’s Music(k), playing silly buggers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 1973

Earlier in the year a paper that Dr Carolyn Philpott and I co-authored, The Glitter Gang (1973–74): A Microcosm of Malcolm Williamson’s Views on Social Inclusivity and His Australian Identity”, expanded on aspects of both of our PhD research (Carolyn’s had looked at Williamson’s Australian identity, while mine had looked at his cassations – mini-operas for musically-untrained children, of which The Glitter Gang is one) and was published in Musicology Australia. We have a second, a partner paper, planned on a more bombastic cassation called The Stone Wall which was commissioned for and premiered at the last night of the proms in The Albert Hall – very much part of Williamson’s British (Master of Music(k) and all that) identity …

And rounding off my recent or upcoming research output is the short chapter I wrote two years ago for OUP’s Handbook of Technology and Music Education, which has had a jolly long editorial process and hopefully won’t be too out of date by the time it’s in print around the middle of 2017.

Looking forward

In the last year I kicked off a public “About Music Education” lecture series, with the support of the Sydney Conservatorium. You can see many of the public lectures and also the Teach Meet presentations on our YouTube playlist. My ambition for this series is to open up “the Con”, as we affectionately call it, as a hub for the Australian music education community to come and share, debate, and be inspired by the very latest research and practice in music education (just as I’ve tried to expose in my MOOC). I want our students (pre-service music educators) to get to meet experienced teachers more often than “just” on their prac, and to really have a sense that they’ve been trained to be leaders in their future profession – not “just” teachers. Here’s one of our short (10 min) Teach Meet presentations, by AIM/Berklee’s Keppie Coutts – “Psychology and Lyric Writing”:

I begin 2017 with the terrific support of my colleagues and the leadership at the Con to run the lecture series again, and with some added responsibilities of my own. Not only do I become a Senior Lecturer as 2017 rolls in, but following some restructuring, I’ll take over as Program Leader of Music Education, and for the first semester will also be seconded to help review the whole institution’s curriculum in regards to the most recent University innovations. These are wonderful opportunities that I hope to convert to more exposure for our students, a more public understanding of the importance of music – and the arts more broadly – in education and society, and the power we have at such a brilliant institution to impact on the culture of our city and our country. To lead as an inclusive and open institution that embraces critical thinking, artistic freedom of expression, human empathy, and equality. Yep: I’m rested, and raring to go.

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