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Protesters performing in front of the Sydney Opera House. Photography by Glenn Lockitch.

Echoes of Dutch Perseverance in Musical Protest at the Opera House

Ensemble Offspring, together with 417 other arts organisations around the country, recently had their funding submissions to the Australia Council suspended in the wake of the arts budget introduced by Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis. With the future uncertain, composer and co-Artistic Director, Damien Ricketson, examines a recent protest at the Sydney Opera House, explaining why the opening night of Opera Australia’s Turandot was targeted. Drawing upon some Dutch history to provide historical narrative, Ricketson puts out a call-to-action for independent-minded musicians to demand a fair funding future.

Header photograph from June 24 protest by Glenn Lockitch. See more protest photos here

by Damien Ricketson

In November 1969 the ‘Notenkrakersactie’ famously disrupted the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The dissatisfied group of Dutch musicians, led by composer Louis Andriessen, jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, sought fairer representation for new music. They demanded the classical institution be more responsive to the whole community and not just the privileged establishment. These disruptions, together with the formation of ‘loud-sounding’ bands such as De Volharding (Perseverance), sought to carve out a musical environment that nurtured greater artistic opportunity and autonomy.

The historical resonance of these actions echoed loudly outside the Sydney Opera House last Wednesday night as audiences arriving to the opening of Opera Australia’s Turandot were welcomed by the blustering tones of Andriessen. Dodging security guards, a group of highly respected musicians—which included Claire Edwardes (co-Artistic Director) and other Ensemble Offspring musicians, independent jazz and classical performers, and others drawn from within the major arts companies—assembled on the doorsteps of the Opera House to deliver a free and boisterous interpretation of Andriessen’s Workers Union; a raucous work about collective action and independence. The sonic message was clear. Senator Brandis’s funding raid on the Australia Council for the Arts is not going to go down without a fight.

Dressed as the ‘ghosts of Australia’s artistic future’, the protesters’ target was not the operatic form per se, nor the artists delivering it, but the unquestioned privilege it assumes in Australia’s arts industry. The protest was, and is, about fairness.

The relative funding comfort enjoyed by major arts companies such as Opera Australia, when measured against the competitive small-to-medium arts sector, is already a smouldering issue of discontent. Brandis’s redistribution of these meagre funds to further privilege the major arts companies has added fuel to that fire. And the sycophantic silence of the majors in failing to condemn the move has fanned the flames. Hence the “Your Silence is Killing Me” slogans that have begun appearing outside the theatres of major companies around the country.

While artists aren’t entitled to subsidy, we are entitled to an industry structure that is fair. We are entitled to consultation on reform. And we are entitled to defend ourselves when faced with overt loathing from the very man charged with representing us.

Brandis’s funding overhaul lacks evidence and coherency. The announcement runs against the government’s own rhetoric about supporting small business. The duplication of bureaucracy in the ill-defined National Program for Excellence in the Arts oozes government waste. And the ‘ring fencing’ of the majors smacks of anti-competitive protectionism. The only consistency with other government budget announcements is that the big end of town wins at the expense of the little end.

In the first of an ongoing series of protests aimed at major performing arts company events, the loosely aligned cross-section of independent artists seek to draw attention to their contribution to Australian culture. The small-to-medium sector produces more new work, delivers more new ideas, provides more artist opportunities, and reaches broader and more diverse audiences. And they do it for peanuts. At Brandis’s annual rates of $62 million to the Australia Council (left after funding for Major Performing Arts Organisations and program initiatives are allocated), the small-to-medium sector over the entire country and across all artforms, costs about the same as 132 metres of Sydney tollway (based on the $15+ billion price tag of the disputed Westconnex project).

So what did Andriessen and others achieve with their disruptive actions against the Dutch music establishment all those years ago? Presumably they annoyed some people. They also paved the way to develop one of the most lively and diverse independent music scenes that was (until recently at least) lauded by audiences and artists world over—an international mecca of vitality spawning new works, ensembles and a flourishing calendar of events.

The lesson for Australia’s independent musicians and artists is that we do have the power to shape the type of music community we value for the future and the necessary support structures to thrive. But only if we are willing to fight. In the score of Workers Union, performed by musicians on the Opera House forecourt, is a curious inscription from the composer, “Only in the case that every player plays with such an intention that his part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work.”

The action on the 24th June was the beginning. Everyone’s part is an essential one. Lets get to work.

Damien Ricketson studied composition with Andriessen in the mid 90s.

Next action 6pm, 2nd July Sydney: Free the Arts Sydney Forum – Our Future in Our Hands, attend or watch the live stream
Make a Submission to the Senate Inquiry: helpful toolkit to get started here
The draft guidelines for the National Program for Excellence in the Arts was released on July 1. You can read some analysis on the draft on ArtsHub and the NAVA website

Andriessen's Worker's Union written on protest drum
Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union notated on protest drum