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From: Head of the Utopian School of Music

Matthew Lorenzon: Music

Is there an alternative to institutional flexibility in music education that is not simple conservatism? Such ideas abound in other fields, from slow food to renewable energy to sustainable manufacturing. What might ‘slow music’ sound like and what shift in values would have to come about for it to be taught?

The heads of Australian tertiary music departments interviewed in researching this article overwhelmingly advocated for the flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural landscape and job market. We may read under “flexibility” the changes that the 400-year-old conservatorium system has undergone in the past three decades, including the introduction of courses in professional practice, the move away from core courses in history, aural studies and music theory, the broadening of the range of musics taught and the appearance of courses in music technology. Conservatoria have always changed with the times and today’s students are hardly the least likely to find a job. The first students were orphans (the “conservatori”) for whom music was a way out of the orphanage in the arms of someone willing to pay. Composer Ernst Krenek (1900-91) remembered the enormous body of casual Privatdozenten at the School of Music of the University of Vienna in 1919 who were paid only from the fees of the students who registered for their courses and who had only the vaguest hopes of achieving stable employment. Still, hoping that the utopian exercise might highlight some educational priorities that could serve as guides no matter what the circumstances, I decided to answer the survey myself as the imaginary Head of the Utopian School of Music.

Long-term into the future

Firstly, the USoM would trade a short-term conception of music’s economic value for a long-term one. With the chances of permanent employment as a musician currently diminishing, music schools are increasingly preparing students for portfolio careers. Such an approach promotes music’s short-term, bread-and-butter economic value. Short-term musical value is produced by the musician who sells works or performances within a particular genre. The professional songwriter, the band and the film-music composer can sell their work for a fee, seemingly creating value out of thin air and making them the darlings of the creative class. Long-term musical value is to be found in the paradigm-changing moments in music that produce their own music industries. Consider the numbers of musicians, administrators, institutions and related industries that have grown out of the introduction of the interval of a third in the Renaissance, figured bass in the Baroque, the 12-bar blues, innumerable traditional song forms or even the explosion of post-WW1 serial techniques. These are enabling moments in music akin to the invention of arithmetic or the formalisation of computation in science. They come about not once every career, but once or twice a century, historically.

Music’s paradigm-changing moments occur in an environment of diverse, parallel musical paradigms and among the short-term production of musical works. At the USoM short-term musical production would be balanced with an overarching view of Western and non-Western music history, theory and performance practice to nurture the next “big bang.” A 13-century student frustrated with the monotony of rhythmic modes would be able to develop proportional notation; we would finally be able to ask a medieval Troubadour whether they sang in multiple parts and Monteverdi would scandalously add chromatic decoration into his madrigals.

Flexibility of human encounters

Secondly, the USoM would trade institutional flexibility for the flexibility of human encounters. As well as existing in a formal community of works, paradigm-changing moments in music rarely occur in social isolation. As contact hours at university decrease, students are discovering that the medium is indeed the message. Even theory and analysis teachers do not just deliver content, but demonstrate how it is navigated, how one thinks in real time. At the USoM Iannis Xenakis would still be able to approach Olivier Messiaen in person and receive that life-changing advice, “you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music.”

Teachers of all genres and disciplines have this capacity to encourage and inspire while communicating technical nuts and bolts. In my experience they have also been the most flexible part of the educational enterprise. Fifteen years ago my ideal music institution was one where somebody suggested I take up an instrument. Ten years ago it was one in which somebody told me to loosen my right thumb. Five years ago it was one where somebody suggested I trade the library for the archive. One year ago it was one where somebody taught me to program. Last week it was one in which somebody told me about a particular book on music analysis. In some of those cases I was able to be that ‘somebody,’ but in most I was not and relied on the intervention of that most flexible of resources, the human teacher working in a dynamic face-to-face learning environment.

Most importantly, disadvantaged students would be included in the intensive, personalised teaching program of the institution. Just as providing access to information is no longer the task of any educational institution, providing access to information to disadvantaged students is no longer an adequate access strategy. Participation is key. It is only when such students are engaging in music at a high level that measures to increase access will be successful. This means actively teaching and engaging with them from an early age.

Appropriate use of technology

Thirdly, The USoM would trade the buzzwords “innovative use of technology” for “appropriate use of technology.” We are only now, after many expensive failures, learning what technology can and can’t do in education. At the USoM Students would download their textbooks but attend lectures in person, the electronic music students would know when a visual mapping of audio data looked naff and arbitrary, teleconferencing suites would not substitute for studio teachers but be reserved for masterclasses, and interactive performance technology would be developed with musical ends in mind. Tom Dowd would record the first albums onto four-track tape and Elisha Gray would invent the musical bathtub.

A product of one’s own

Yes, a modern musician must have business acumen, but they must also have a specialised product to distinguish them from others. The USoM would nurture a culture of distinct musicians between the globe-trotting musathletes and the community orchestra enthusiasts, a level akin to German Mittelstand businesses that have proven resilient to competition and a changing economy through specialised manufacturing processes. Can we incorporate a long-term view of musical value, social flexibility and the appropriate use of technology into today’s mercurial funding environment? Thankfully the USoM exists in a utopia of unlimited funding where Messiaen and Monteverdi stalk the halls, but as a student in a world flooded with capable performers and easily accessible information, there are definitely reasons to choose a school that offers an intensive, face-to-face and rewardingly high-tech learning environment.

Matthew Lorenzon hosts the Partial Durations new music blog. He is currently completing a PhD in musicology on the rapport of music and philosophy in the works of the philosopher Alain Badiou and the composer François Nicolas.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 10

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to

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