Review by Warren Burt
Ashgate Publishers, UK, 2013 ISBN 9781409441564
The product of more than 20 years research, Linda Kouvaras’ new book is an in-depth investigation into the many strands of experimental music in Australia and how these relate to contemporary ideas in critical theory. Sometimes the theory explains the works, and sometimes the works are well in advance of the theory, which leads the theorist to expand the bounds of the theory. It’s a very good book, well worth reading. I may be biased – Linda has used several of my works as examples in the book – but on reading her descriptions with a hyper-critical eye, I can say that I think she’s understood the inner workings of those works very well, showing how the theory behind the works has evolved over the years. It’s nice to be the poster-boy for an advancing set of ideas, and to have someone understand how those ideas are used, and that they ARE advancing.
Linda has done an enormous range of research, finding out all sorts of things that weren’t previously in her normal range of experience. Reading the book, my mind boggled at the range of areas and interests and technologies that are encompassed in the broad range of experimental music today. I say this as one who is immersed in the scene up to my earlobes. On reading the book, I was realizing the enormous task Linda had set herself- even just on the technological level. Linda is not a composer or musicologist who is deeply immersed in technology – she says so herself – and so the learning curve dealing with just the many different technologies used today, from lo-tech to computers, from interactive systems to stomp boxes, is enormous and daunting. And she’s scaled that curve very well.
What’s also impressive is the range of the book. In a scene as diverse as Australia’s, the temptation would be to concentrate on one group of composers or another. What is lovely here is that she manages to show the overarching theoretical concerns of musical experimentalism also apply to more “establishment” composers such as Gerard Brophy and Brenton Broadstock. I remember, a couple of years ago, hearing Ross Edwards in a radio interview describing some of his compositional processes and thinking, “but that’s exactly what I do. Why do people think we’re in two different camps (or scenes or whatever)?” Linda’s book ranges across a large swathe of contemporary Australian art music, showing commonalities and theoretical consistencies where people might have thought there were none.
One of the things that occurred in the last few decades is the enormous proliferation of types of new music activities. This work, taken as a whole, is a real challenge hurled at the dialectically oriented view of theory. Fortunately Linda’s book addresses that. So much music today is AND stuff. Both pop AND classic. Both tonal AND atonal. Both socially concerned AND formalistically tight. Coming to terms with the fact that the world is no-longer exclusively viewable as dialogical opposites is one of the challenges theory itself is currently facing. That is, contemporary critical theory is now in a position where it has to follow artistic practice.
Works that deal with the ideas of the modern, the post-modern and the post-post-modern are all dealt with, as are works that deal with ideas of feminism, personal liberation, and environmental concerns. Seeing how works that deal with acoustic ecology ideas fit in within the larger scene of contemporary music is one of the real plusses of the book. So many books about music just deal with the music from a descriptive point of view. Similarly, a lot of books that deal with contemporary theory seem detached from the day-to-day dirty business of music making. Rare are the books that can deal with both, and Linda’s is one of them.
She can’t cover everything, of course, but the range of work she does deal with is enormous. As a good survey of works and ideas from the last 30 years of Australian music, I recommend this book highly. Ashgate has set the price of the book fairly high, so what I recommend is that those of you who have access to a library tell your librarians that they really need to order a copy of this book.