A couple of weeks ago – along with 6,000 others, including 4,200 teenagers – I sat in a giant marquee just outside Mt Gambier. Together we listened to the indefatigable James Morrison coax and inspire a handful of incredible young musicians in the art of jazz soloing. Each performer was under the age of 18, and each displayed a technical facility and musical nous way beyond their years, as they egged each other on, soloing their way to ever-greater displays of musical daring.
In February, as the Tropfest carnival engulfed Sydney’s Centennial Park, the more modest Tropfest Jr competition – for filmmakers under the age of 16 – played out in the background. The winning Tropfest Jr film was ‘Chess People’, a superb claymation, meticulously crafted by a 15-year old by locking himself away in his Preston bedroom for 16 hours a day for two weeks to make his piece. ‘Chess People’ was as full of heart and soul as it was marked by an impressive technical prowess.
And whilst these performances and showings fill us with wonder and with confidence for the future health of the country’s creative life, I fear for these things, and for the creative lives of those young people who commit themselves to their making.
It seems that the unrestrained joy of their phenomenal work – created through years of devoted application and practice – is increasingly being smothered by the deafening silence that leaches out of Canberra, wheezing from the mouths of our national leaders and public commentators.
Last year, in a cold disused warehouse in North Melbourne, I experienced a remarkable performance by the young dancers of the Yellow Wheel contemporary dance company. Brave, fearless and full of grace, these dancers put everything they had on the line, performing a handful of new pieces including work that had been created by some of the young people in the company themselves.
Very special young people making very special things for us all.
Next month 120 members of the Australian Youth Orchestra, the youngest being just 15 years of age, will perform the music of Mahler in concerts across Europe and Asia, including in halls in which Mahler himself had conducted. These young musicians’ exuberant music making will no doubt, as always, be met with loud cheers and standing ovations.
And no-one who visits the annual Top Arts exhibition now showing at the NGV Australia Gallery, showcasing the best work of the preceding year’s VCE visual arts students, can fail to be astounded by the maturity, wisdom and technical sophistication of these young artists.
The absence of the arts from the tabling of – and media scrutiny that followed – this year’s Federal Budget is as invidious as it is dispiriting. We can assume that the ‘A’ word will not pass the lips of any of our political leaders over the coming weeks, certainly not if their polling masters have their way. And it is not surprising that, amongst the many policies that the ABC’s Vote Compass asks us to consider, an arts policy is not one of them.
That’s because there isn’t one: this space is wrapped in a fog of silence.
Silence, of course, until last week, when the damage of last year’s Budget, with its assault on the Australia Council, came home to roost.
To so painstakingly dismantle the ‘small-to-medium sector’ bridge that helps these young artists along their way toward the profession (a most precarious destination on the best of days) is as profound a disservice to these young artists as it is to the future national imagination. The nonsensical notion that the country can even have a life of the imagination without tending the soil that nourishes that life is both shortsighted and reckless.
What will become of these kids as they move into their twenties?
We are significantly impoverished by the loss of their talent and dreaming from the community, and by the loss of the things that they make from our public consciousness and spaces.
Of course, had the 19-year old Melbourne girl playing her first concert in the double bass section of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin a couple of years ago, been a swimmer, we would all know her name (Phoebe Russell, by the way). Unfortunately, those of us who have the privilege of working with these supremely gifted young Australians know this insipid silence too well.
The incessant crap and clamour that careers across the internet and media, with its insatiable appetite for immediate gratification, does not easily accommodate the quiet, considered, carefully crafted piece. The challenging work, that demands a second or third encounter, has barely commenced its first play before the new-media circus, with it’s political followers in tow, has trended off.
The overt message being delivered to those young people who labour hard at their craft is ‘we don’t have a place for you here; try plying your trade elsewhere’. Unfortunately, those that don’t abandon it often do.
However, the profound silence that followed the music of the North American maverick George Crumb as performed by a gifted 20-year old pianist to a large and enraptured audience in the South Melbourne Town Hall last Friday, is louder and richer in meaning than that other, political silence.
Hard and long though the labour is, the incandescent beauty that it brings about will endure and prevail.
Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM)
(image by Pia Johnson)