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sound art and the extended university

julian knowles on survival in a harsh climate

Julian Knowles is a composer/performer and media artist. He is a Professor of Music and a Head of School in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT.


As federal funding to universities has decreased in real terms and pressure has been put on universities to differentiate themselves and compete, most Vice-Chancellors have paid very close attention to the discipline mixes on offer in their institution and have made substantial moves to reduce the mix and to focus resources on their perceived strengths in the market for which they are seeing high demand. In the final analysis, this strategy has posed the major background threat to the arts in the university sector over the past decade.

Beyond a vice chancellor’s overall strategy for a university, a major driver behind these reviews has been an assessment of the ‘viability’ and ‘sustainability’ of any particular discipline in economic terms, and the arts are particularly vulnerable in this kind of analysis. Domestic student income is derived from the Department of Education, Science & Training (DEST) cluster funding model, which delivers a unit of funding per student according to the discipline cluster in which they are situated. Unfortunately for sound and for all of the visual and performing arts, we are deemed to be ‘mid-cost’ by DEST, which isn’t an accurate reflection of the true cost of delivering an ideal practical experience to students.

the cluster problem

There are serious inequities in the cluster funding model, where lecture and tutorial disciplines are funded at the same level as intensive, high contact-hour, resource-intensive disciplines like Sound. DEST does not require universities to pass on the cluster differentials in their internal funding models, but the reality is that very few universities have provided internal funding above clusters, due to their overall efforts to stay afloat financially. Other sources of income are fee-paying courses and research. These are complex areas and, in this field, neither has proven to be profitable enough to fully compensate for the comparatively low level of DEST cluster funding, leaving many courses cash-strapped. The fact of the matter is that, to this writer’s knowledge, no Sound discipline has successfully argued for an increase to its funding base in the last decade.

That being the case, the most obvious way for high-cost disciplines to survive is by being part of a much larger discipline cluster which includes lower-cost disciplines (to free up some extra funding), or if they take on substantial low-cost service teaching roles in other programs. The issue here is the critical mass of the program. Any program, which is both small and high-cost is extremely vulnerable in the current environment and we have seen a number of closures over the last few years as evidence of this. The lesson here is to keep your stakeholders many and varied and your overall student load up as high as possible.

more flexible flagships

A rare possibility for survival is to be seen as an expensive, but valuable flagship. The difficulty for sound art and experimental music is that it is difficult to be seen as a flagship unless you’re hanging onto the coat-tails of a more institutionally powerful discipline, such as the broader discipline of Music. There are a number of flagships in the music area, but these are mostly conservatoria, devoted to training in classical music (ironically itself a niche genre from an audience perspective). As such, their programs are based on a western classical music paradigm, so even if sound art is co-located in that cluster, it can be difficult to shape an appropriate program within the program core or have your voice sufficiently heard. I believe it is high time for that to change and that the adoption of a broader church and more flexible course structures would be of great benefit to the sector, and is long overdue. Many of the flagships, however, are constrained by their histories and their community stakeholders who, ironically, are also their champions and protectors. Catch-22 anyone?

un-nurtured grass-roots

At the grass-roots of the discipline, I and many of my colleagues have advocated for a more contemporary approach to teaching in schools, which provides students with the opportunity to appropriately engage with contemporary approaches to the creation of sound and music. Although the federal government’s National Review of School Music Education emphasised the need for students to engage with sound and music technologies, the Minister’s response to that review to date has been to directly allocate $1m to Music Viva, an entrepreneur of ‘fine ensemble music’ who will deliver educational packages and “professional development courses centred around voice, percussion and improvisation” and a further $600,000 to the Australian Children’s Music Foundation to deliver workshops to disadvantaged kids. Whilst both of these organisations may be worthy in their fields, the funding shows complete blindness at ministerial level to the reality that in 2007, the computer is, for many young people their primary means of consuming and creating sound and music, often in the presence of their social and creative networks. Will we see another $1.6 million allocated in recognition of this glaring reality? I suspect not. All of this is particularly unhelpful in growing a platform to develop talent at the grass-roots. This blindness must be cured if we are to have a robust talent development pathway from the school system.

beyond the walls

Clearly there are major environmental challenges to this discipline, deeply rooted in institutional and federal politics. So what about the good news? It is clear that a few institutions have stood by their commitment to sound and electronic music. The surviving departments have managed to retain the support of their managers and have often found creative methods to sustain themselves and provide opportunities to students within the current funding climate by working beyond the walls of the university. The staff who work at these institutions, though now small in numbers, are often highly active as practitioners in the field with substantial profiles. They are also active as organisers of events and festivals that provide both a modest infrastructure for established and emerging practitioners and an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the exceptionally rich and diverse sound culture in Australia. It’s not without its problems, and critics in the field argue that this creates a kind of closed-shop system and skews programming in events, or that it can limit the range of aesthetic approaches to practice. Others argue that this has resulted in too much focus on early career or student practitioners (the policy obsession of the 90s) and not enough on established practitioners.


Whatever position one takes, these academic/practitioners and their networks of guest lecturers have become important points of connection to the field of practice for their students. Academic staff, graduates and senior students from RMIT, UWS, QUT, UTS, ANU and WAAPA have worked as organisers for the major festivals in this field, including Liquid Architecture, What Is Music?, Totally Huge New Music Festival and Electrofringe. They have worked as organisers for key series such as impermanent audio, Small Black Box, the NowNow and Disorientation. Despite unreliable, and in some cases without, funding, this network of events and series has formed the backbone of the incredibly vibrant experimental sound scene from the late 1990s to the present day.

This suggests that one of the ways in which university sound art areas have been able to cope with the climate has been by taking the learning off campus into the real world, almost always without direct financial support of their institution. Ironically many of these ‘real world’ contexts are illegal venues and artist run spaces, especially in states such as NSW, where there is little or no support for the practice from the major presentation organisations. It’s both a way of enriching the environment for students in a climate of constrained resources and a vehicle for the staff to undertake research and creative practice. A common remark made about audiences for sound art and experimental music events is that they are predominantly young and it is a fact that many are students who have found their way to these events through their lecturers. A certain proportion of the audience is aspiring or student practitioners, so these events also operate as performance labs to provide a critical forum to extend the learning process. Indeed it has been common practice to provide some of the more capable students with support slots on the bill in these events as a way of testing their work on an audience, or team them with a more experienced practitioner in an improvisation.

fruitful if fragile

For institutions who have limited space or capacity for practical training in the field, these performance networks provide the only real opportunities for students to present and test work in front of an audience. For institutions with a stronger practical base, they extend opportunities beyond those available on campus. Whatever the context, it is clear that, despite its fragility, the contemporary sound and experimental music performance scene is significantly intertwined with the small network of university departments who embrace this area of practice and that the best students have developed into exceptional practitioners through this informal collaborative network. If you want good reasons to attend university, then this track record has got to be one of them. On the other hand, the lack of infrastructure to support this practice is a matter of great concern, as the training and development pathways are currently constructed on a very fragile and under-funded base where there is the constant risk that it might disappear. The current political climate is not encouraging, and both sides of politics seem to be strongly focused on heritage arts to the exclusion of contemporary practices.

Julian Knowles is a composer/performer and media artist. He is a Professor of Music and a Head of School in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 24

© Julian Knowles; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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