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Sonic Broom: 
The Composers Talk Back!

When Jack Body contacted me a while ago to ask if I would participate in this weekend, I made the fatal mistake of allowing our conversation to get further than the initial 'Hello'. I should have known that the only way to stop being ensnared was to terminate the discussion before it began. But I listened, and thinking the task did not seem too onerous, I later sat down to write my simple little ten-minute talk.

However, on examining the brief which he supplied, I was forced to confront difficult sociological, philosophical and ethical questions . . . . ones which I have not thought about for a while.

As I struggled to clarify my thoughts on topics such as: relevant issues and themes, concerns in life and work, the role of the New Zealand composer in the here and now, ideal scenarios, future dreams etc., etc. . . . . at first only a faintly audible mantra began sounding in my head. As it insisted more and more, I recognised those infamous lines from Greg McGee's Foreskin's Lament


And, as I listened even more closely, a derisive echo like a ghost repercussion (couched in appropriate vernacular) became audible . . .


No matter how hard I tried, I could not ignore this accusation. It became such an aggressive roar in my head that all rational thought was impossible. It seemed the only way to mute the mantra was to tackle it head on.

Today's honest and open social environment has given us permission to acknowledge publicly, certain, previously unmentionable aspects of human nature and behaviour. For instance it is now not only OK, but desirable for men to cry in public, and for women to play rugby football. We are much more tolerant now of various behaviours which, not so long ago, we would not have accepted.

It is clear that we have arrived at an enlightened age in which local, national, and even international communities feel moved to share, and attempt to understand, the innermost thoughts and feelings of others. For example, it is regarded as perfectly acceptable in contemporary New Zealand society, to 'come out' regarding one's sexual orientation. More and more New Zealanders are publicly identifying themselves as gay or lesbian. 'Coming out' does not now refer solely to the glittering social occasion of a debutante's ball. 

It is now OK for one to not only admit to, but be proud of personal characteristics which not so long ago would have meant social exclusion or worse.  This is the reason I felt it appropriate and safe, to address the question carried by that previously mentioned, irresistible mantra . . . 


wanker: Taboo slang. noun. a worthless or stupid person.
wank: Taboo slang. verb( of a man) to masturbate. noun. an instance of masturbation
Collins English Dictionary 

Although we have become much more liberal in many of our attitudes, perhaps the public airing of this particular topic still makes us a little uncomfortable. The term wanker carries with it a complex set of meanings which resonate from within the still difficult category of male sexuality.  Masturbation is something which most boys and men have experienced. Usually surreptitiously, and often in a state of denial, even when committing the act itself. The 'This can't possibly be happening to me' syndrome. The 'Once it is over, pretend it never happened' syndrome.

The pleasurable physical sensations produced by the act, are spiced by the social disgrace which would accompany discovery, or disclosure. All those who indulge exhibit a lack of moral fibre. They give in to temptation by committing the ultimate self-indulgence. Of course, in the virile world of good old-fashioned heterosexual conquest, 'self-abuse' is an obvious admission of a wimpish lack of success.

To be identified as a wanker, casts one into the bottomless pit reserved for the very worst of sinful pleasure-seekers. People such as these cannot be expected to take up a proper, adult role in society. They are forever cursed with a fundamental weakness. They are flawed individuals, incapable of the self-discipline exhibited by useful, well-balanced social contributers. They are the prisoners of their own appetites.

Of course, the term 'wanker' (as we discover from the dictionary) carries far more serious accusations than solely that of one prone to sexual self-stimulation. If the wanker himself is stupid and worthless, then what he does and how he lives his life is similarly denigrated. The term is the ultimate put-down. It implies that the person and everything associated with them, have no relevance to 'the real world' of authentic social interaction. Their myopic, inward looking, insulated and isolated sensibility , dispossesses them of any credibility with the broader collective. They risk becoming cross-eyed through constant self-gratification. They are marginalised, and refused the mana bestowed by the social majority.

So, even although I know that I am at present speaking to a mutually supportive group of people, I am still nervously reluctant to stand before you and admit, that . . . I am . . . a composer and teacher working in a University.!! O the relief of finally 'outing' myself on this matter . . . . because, as you all know, 'institutionalised' composers invariably fall into the 'wanker' category. They sit in their ivory towers, protected from the cut and thrust of the real world, funded by the public purse to rummage around in their own navels.

It is common knowledge that they are a bunch of drones, carrying out irrelevant tasks, and most dastardly of all, being paid for their sloth. They are not just wankers, they are professional wankers.  They fit perfectly the old saying: 'Those who can do, those who can't teach'.

Remarks made in an article by Robin Maconie, published in an open letter to New Zealand composers in a recent issue of CANZONA, carry this inference of University Music Departments (and I assume the composers within them) as being self- serving and irrelevant:

There is a case for abolishing university music departments in their present form. They do not prepare graduates for a career in classical music because the only careers in classical music are in the universities and they are not going to give up their careers for anyone else.
. . . . and,later in the same article: 
What you don't need (in university music departments) is a moribund academic body with jobs for life who get in the way of a professional education in real world classical music .
Perhaps I should continue to hang my head in shame at my profession, and skulk on the periphery of society, hoping no one will put me on the spot regarding what I do for a living. Or, perhaps now, in this newly supportive age of understanding, I can trust that the true value of wanking will be recognised, and I can hold my head high, and be accepted back into the collective bosom of society as a valuable, nay, indispensable contributor to the culture.
Perhaps the derision will turn to acceptance, when it is seen that professional wanking is not the sinecure it is cracked up to be. Wanking arises from a self-driven, internally motivated need. It is a good example of 'doing something for its own sake'.

Doing something for its own sake, is of course an essential and accepted aspect of some forms of social behaviour. All sport and recreation is a wank. All sports people who earn a living from their activities are therefore, by definition, professional wankers.  What could be more self-defeating and indulgent than chasing a small quaintly shaped ball around a paddock for 80 minutes?

And of course, any pure research is a wank.  Investigating an idea for its own sake, just to see where it leads, solely in the cause of intellectual and human curiosity, must surely be an indulgent waste of resources, unconnected as it is to the real world of commercial application.

Research, both pure and applied, along with teaching, forms the dual mandate of an academic. This is designed to encourage research informed teaching, and teaching informed research. It has a long history as a successful educational method.  It has, over the past century in New Zealand, produced resourceful and imaginative graduates, many of whom have been encouraged and supported by their teachers, whose obsession with the subject for its own sake, has inspired in their students a similar commitment. 

The positive effects on society at large of our community of teachers and researchers within the universities and other institutions, is undeniable. Just think of the body of vibrant, original musical works produced by university based composers over the last fifty years or more. This does not take into account a host of other contributions in the area of scholarship and broader cultural initiatives. The freedom to'follow your bliss' (whether it is comercially viable or not) is surely still a valid aspiration for a creative artist within our present culture?

The fact that it is more and more under threat from the 'quality assessors' and the' accountability police' surprises me in this newly enlightened age.  Of course there is no reason why industry and commerce should not include music as a commodity, but I hope composers who for various reasons are unsuited to this arena are not invalidated (as are an increasing number of academics presently engaged in pure, rather than applied research in the universities).  So . . . I, for one, stand up to be counted amongst the wankers.

Long may the habit of obsessively self-driven, work for its own sake, pure research-oriented effort, be encouraged and fostered where ever it takes root.
Then maybe the next time I sit down to contemplate these difficult questions, that aggressive mantra I mentioned earlier, may be transformed into a more optimistic one:

May my ears remain young. May my brain remain lucid. May my heart remain full.

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