By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
Sometime late last year, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a post by Declassify Podcast (a project which bears the fabulous tag line of ‘Challenging classical music through conversation’). The post was promoting an episode featuring composer Ciaran Frame and something called the ‘Living Music Report’. Twenty minutes later, I had gone down an investigation spiral and was trawling through the report itself.
What exactly is The Living Music Report? The report presents a cross-section of statistics relating to the programming decisions of eight Australian orchestras and one performing arts organisation. The data behind the report is comprehensive: Ciaran assembled complete records of the pieces programmed by these organisations in their 2019 and 2020 seasons.
In his own words: “The Living Music Report was prepared as independent quantitative analysis of MPA musical programming in Australia, with a focus on the extent to which it reflects the 21st Century’s cultural landscape of diverse and emerging musical experiences.” The MPAs in question: SSO, MSO, TSO, QSO, WASO, ASO, ACO (Australian Chamber Orchestra), ABO (Australian Brandenburg Orchestra), and Musica Viva.
I was thrilled to see this kind of disciplined research applied to the arts industry. It can be easy to fall into the habit of describing cultural trends with broad, sweeping statements (I include myself in this). But by examining the data, we can draw factual conclusions on where the major players in the Australian performing arts industry are going.
I had the chance to speak to Ciaran on the impetus behind this project, and what he hopes it will achieve in the coming years.
You can download the 2019 edition of the Living Music Report here, and the 2020 edition here. If you would like to download the open data set compiled in the report, you can do so here. You can follow Ciaran’s composition work here.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following piece may contain images of deceased persons.
SJJ: To start us off with context, can you tell us a bit about your background as a composer?
CF: I studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and I had a great time there. It was quite traditional in some ways, but I feel like I got a broad sense of music- but perhaps not the way music functions in real life and the industry.
In terms of a composition background, I am really interested in collaboration and working with people. I guess I don’t see myself as a composer, in the sense that my role as someone who makes music is more someone who works with other musicians, creates musical systems and has a good time!
I think that is a healthy outlook, to want to collaborate and bounce off other people.
I think the role of the composer is disappearing in some ways… in a formal sense at least! Putting notes on a piece of paper and sending it off to a higher entity, is becoming rarer and rarer. Not just for orchestras. That goes for all walks of life: film music, game music, even the concert hall. As we saw during 2020, the concert hall alone is struggling! I think the role of the composer has to adapt.
Particularly with so many online platforms and methods of self-publishing out there.
Gone are the days where an orchestra is your sole employer.
When did you realise you wanted to put together the Living Music Report, to survey the programming decisions of major orchestras?
My initial motivation came from the annual report put together by composer and teacher Ian Whitney. This report looks at Australian music and how often it is programmed.
I thought that was so inspiring. It was that, combined with the fact that there was no evidence base or data out there to support claims I was making. It is very easy to say, ‘Orchestras are playing XYZ’ and it’s very hard to prove it. So that’s where it all started!
What was the process behind putting a report like that together? I can imagine there was a lot of trawling through program notes…
It was a combination of sources; program notes were a massive one. I used composer websites and blogs to keep track of any news with the orchestras. I also made sure to contact the orchestras themselves. I had varying levels of success in terms of response rate, but I think it’s important nonetheless. I’ll definitely continue to contact the orchestras every time I publish the data. Because I am human and I make mistakes!
It’s all open data– anyone can contact me with corrections. I would love to fix up anything I have missed. I want things to be as accurate as possible.
The first edition of the Living Music Report is a full summary of the 2019 seasons. I know it wasn’t planned- but in hindsight you couldn’t have timed that better! With the events of 2020, 2019 is the most standard or “normal” year we have had in recent memory.
When it came to compiling the data for the 2020 edition of the report, did you run into any particular challenges due to the unique online environment created by the pandemic?
Surprisingly, it’s very difficult to keep track of digital concerts. You’d think it would be easier when they are online! I am planning to release a Living Music Report every year, and I have no plans to stop!
The 2020 edition was obviously extremely different, with half the number of concerts from 2019 and wildly different presentations, but I still think it’s important to keep a record every year, no matter how strange a year it is!
What would you love this report to do, if you had to summarise it in a few sentences?
I see the report as a tool for change, but it’s not the report itself that is creating that change. The report is creating the dialogue, the conversations, and a resource for people to look at.
If it is continuing into the future, I’d love for it to be used to document trends, maybe even improvements in the sector. Keeping the conversation going. If we can talk about this every year, I think that is a massive win.
The core purpose of the report is to capture diversity data in the form of lots of different metrics, that reflect who we are. Obviously, it is called the Living Music Report- living composers is a massive one. People think of diversity as this idea of ticking boxes, but there is such a diverse range of music experiences and lived experiences out there. I’m trying to capture that as much as possible.
This is also a massive issue within the opera sector. I knew it was an issue faced by orchestras, but perhaps it is less in-your-face with instrumental music, as there is no accompanying narrative or characters (most of the time, at least). When you listen to a Beethoven symphony, it’s not as blatantly obvious that you’re listening to “a white man’s music”… But when you sit back and look at the data that you’ve drawn up, some of the statistics are pretty laughable.
I totally agree- it is almost comically bad at times. I like telling stories through the data. It’s an objective fact that figures like Bach, Beethoven, were played more than all the female composers combined. That’s not an attack on any orchestras, that’s an objective fact.
Out of every performed work around the country in 2019:
19% were written by living composers
9% were written by Australian composers
3% were written by female composers
0.45% written by CALD Australian composers (CALD = culturally and linguistically diverse)
0.05% were written by First Nations composersThe Living Music Report, 2019
For these major arts organisations who are sitting on this big cushy pad of guaranteed funding- I think it’s irresponsible and almost immoral to not use that opportunity. It’s a waste of the resources they have, to not take some risks.
The government is giving these organisations funding. And I have no problem with that! But in my opinion, that funding is giving them permission to take bigger risks. It is not giving them permission to subsidise ticket holders for a program that doesn’t inspire, doesn’t deal with diverse experiences…
I’m of the somewhat controversial opinion that the lack of diverse musical experiences is mismanagement of the organisation. Not only morally, but from a purely business perspective! I think people forget that is a legitimate argument.
Did you get a noticeable reaction to the release of the 2019 report?
In some senses! The reaction that I wanted to see the most from was from the orchestras, and that was the response I saw the least. I think it is very easy for orchestras to not respond to these things. It’s not in their interests, necessarily, to acknowledge this report exists. And that’s absolutely fine.
The heartening responses I received were from people I really look up to, who are driving the scene in Australia: Deborah Cheetham, Cat Hope… It was so lovely to see engagement on that level and conversations on that level. In my mind, that means it the report was a success. Not to toot my own horn!
It absolutely is a success. Anything that is the result of that much hard work is a success, and it doesn’t really matter how far a reach it has, because that is something independent of the hard work.
A final quote from the Living Music Report:
“While MPAs are guided by well-established musical traditions and audience preferences, a bigger conversation is needed about what role our Major Performing Arts Organisations play in advocating for and providing diverse experiences.
The Living Music Report was created to spark dialogue and provide quantitative evidence for future discussions. It is the start of a conversation that continues with artists, performers, audience and communities. Where will these conversations take music next?”