WISDOM: A PORTRAIT SERIES
B E N M A R S H A L L
HEAD OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE + VIVID LIVE
Photograph by Peter Plozza
I. I’m married to an incredible woman and have two gorgeous boys who are five and nearly two. Holding work down with family is a strain and I can only do it because Clare is astonishing and nothing is left unspoken between us – everything gets dragged into the light and nothing’s ever left to fester when the pressure hits. Anything good that comes my way from work is equally due to her.
II. The last year has been a mammoth one for me professionally: I took on the role of Festival Director of Vivid Live, our big annual music festival and brought back Graphic - our festival of comics, animation, illustration and music after a year’s absence. These two festivals are in addition to the year-round music program we present at the Opera House. When programming a successful festival that celebrates ambitious contemporary music like Vivid Live, the challenge is to get to grips with what makes it special and ask what can you add? For me the key thing was the idea that this festival is the only time we get to completely take over the Opera House with one art form, contemporary music in this case. Chasing down acts like Morrissey, Sufjan, Flume, Royal Headache, The Preatures and TV On The Radio was essential but to also make sure there’s more going inside the Opera House on than just the performances on the stages – we needed to properly take over the space. Universal Everything did an incredible job lighting the Opera House sails, we converted the northern foyer into a proper bar, had a kids festival take over one of the big rooms, did a series of artist in-conversations, threw an outdoor party on the northern point, brought projections inside the building and filmed a videoclip for Flume inside the Opera House. The joy is in finding new and interesting ways to present this incredible building to the world and to program work that does the place justice.
III. Brian Eno curated the first Vivid Live in 2009 (then called Luminous) and when I started programming the festival I went back to Brian Eno’s writing for some inspiration. I discovered his incredible out-of-print diary “A Year With Swollen Appendices” and at the back were two amazing passages on why art is important that are worth sharing. The first reason he gives is that a major component of what makes human beings unique is the ability to cooperate – everything that resembles civilization comes from people interacting to do more than they could on their own. And art is one of the primary ways we rehearse seeing the world through another’s eyes – every film you watch, book you read or song you listen to gives you a window to another’s view of the world. The second reason Eno gives is that art also exists to rehearse us in various forms of cognitive uncertainty. Things happen to us that have no neat solutions, like the death of loved ones or the breakdown in relationships. Part of art’s job is to be a place where you can go to sit with mystery and be confronted by things that are just for contemplation and experiencing and have no neat cognitive outcomes.
IV. I think what makes the music industry different from selling toothpaste - with all the branding, digital strategy, new markets and career development all business entails – is at least as interesting as where music overlaps with industry.
V. I think we need to talk more about music as art. It’s not a conversation that’s easy to have when you’re on the commercial side of the fence and I know I’m in a privileged position and so I feel a responsibility to talk about contemporary music as art and why art is important. I genuinely think the work of Nick Cave stands up next to traditional art forms for example. Why it works at the Opera House is because it sits next to the Nederlands Dans Theatre and Opera Australia and Bell Shakespeare – it’s part of the same creative arc to me.
VI. I am for treating music as an art form as well as an industry, while trying to sell all the tickets as honourably as I can.