Transcript for Rules of Engagement author talk
Speakers: Kim Williams (K)
Location: National Library of Australia
K: I have described my recently released book Rules of Engagement as a ‘lifescape.’ It is about numerous experiences, observations, enthusiasms and passions in an Australian life – one which has been full of opportunity, good fortune and a rich diversity of outcomes.
I am an adult child of the 70’s which means that the territory ranges from the indulgent to the serious; through the preposterous and funny; and on into what I trust constitutes the genuinely compelling.
Whatever - I hope it makes for a jolly good read.
The chapters cover diverse territory in thought and experience snapshots. There is one about my mum; one about sport; one about education balanced with offerings on my constant companions – reading, music and cinema.
There is something on friendship and one on the increasingly challenged art of listening. There is a material from the rich experience of an arts life which has provided a central continuity to my view of the world.
The chapter on cinema has the most dangerous of all things – a list of films you must see. And then there are the obligatory inclusions of television, politics and media – each of which has been core to my professional working life over many decades.
Finally there are some, hopefully non ponderous, observations on management and leadership backed up with offerings on the fun of wine and the serendipity which governs all well enjoyed travel.
Today I want to speak to you about those part of the book which are devoted to reading, music and listening. First let me turn to reading.
Books have shaped my life and my discovery of the world from when I was a kid. I have always loved libraries and so in this great library I thought I would speak a little on literary adventures as an addicted reader, drawing from parts of the book itself.
Since I was young I have never been a good sleeper and my mother encouraged me to put the light on and read. With that free pass in hand, I did, and discovered a new, ever-expanding world.
Fiction was an early winner and I had read all of Dickens by the age of ten or eleven.
History was a close follower and my enthusiasm for history and biography is almost without limit.
Anything that interests me is something on which I will inevitably end up collecting a large number of books. I have a huge number of books on matters as diverse as music, politics, art, cinema, science, wine, history, biography, book collecting itself and a number of reference books about usage and words, ranging from dictionaries through abstruse areas of language miscellany. I used to have dictionaries in every major room in our house to facilitate easy reference but now I have several on my phone and tablet. They are used frequently.
I have grazed across myriad writers and subjects, having read thousands of volumes over the years. I have a large personal library and the collecting bug for certain interests. In recent years I have been able to acquire some good first editions, a few going back to the eighteenth century and some more than a century old, which are carrying their lives with increasing strain.
I like first editions not for snobby reasons but because they take you back to the time of the publication. They put you in the mindset and temperament of the time and place when the book was first published. The design, the typography, the conventions, such as the strong cursive oversize S in the eighteenth century that signified a double ‘s’ for example. The spirit of the era when the book was first released comes through first editions so clearly. Books are an experience—the appearance and feel is important to them. Some books are very beautiful objects, with ornate bindings and exquisite illustrations. Some are works of art in their layout that dismay and delight. The book has many personalities and they are all there to be savoured and cherished.
Of course I also have a Kindle—in fact I have three. I will often buy both the Kindle and the physical edition of a book so that it can travel with me in the Kindle while the original is safely at home and will be used as a reference thereafter. The physical print edition is still a wonderful form of 'random-access memory' in contemporary parlance and is a pleasing user-friendly technology— there is much life left in it yet.
My interests range in dedicated areas—certain writers for whom I have a particular connection and subjects with which I am endlessly fascinated—books about Antarctica and its exploration being one of many examples. Individuals also capture my attention—I am always up for anything on or about Lincoln, have a healthy interest in great leaders like Churchill, and am in awe of people like the nineteenth-century titan Sir Richard Burton and his prodigious capacity for language, exploration and cultural discovery. I have deep affection for highly original characters.
Naturally Australians or people with a close contact with the growth and development of Australia also figure at the top of my pile, from James Cook onwards. I have a fine copy of the first edition of his A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Around the World, published in 1777.
It has always surprised me how much better known and revered Cook is outside Australia than he is here. He was an astonishing human being— brave, far-sighted, courageous, kind, moral and one of the greatest navigators ever. He should be someone whom we all celebrate and understand well.
I love modern historians like Fernand Braudel, Richard Holmes, Doris Kearns Godwin, Barbara Tuchman, the brave Tony Judt, Robert A. Caro, John Julius Norwich and Antony Beevor. Of course I have a healthy appetite for Australian history across the spectrum of writers from Clark and Blainey through Day and Kelly and the vast diaspora of dedicated scholars. I have also spent many happy days with the great classics.
Most of my reading has been developed from a process of self discovery, with various prompts from friends and colleagues, but above all through insatiable curiosity. Reading feeds curiosity and drives you to learn ever more, even if in my own instance that has undoubtedly been haphazard and at times, like any committed reader, rather, or even highly, convoluted.
Most of my reading in the last couple of decades is focussed on nonfiction although from time to time I make myself stay up to date with new (and old) Australian fiction, including Christina Stead, Ruth Park, Helen Garner, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey and Patrick White, among many others.
I also am a fan of Jane Austen, Mark Twain, the great J.G.’s—Farrell and Ballard—and countless other novelists along the way, from Dickens and Elliot to DeLillo, Kundera and Joyce. They have all been absorbing companions.
Reading has taught me to think, to learn, to question, to investigate, to invent and to create. From reading I have learned about things I would never in a million years have come across—such as exploration in its many manifestations from pre-Christian-era times through the endless variants seen in European efforts to that of Asian and Polynesian communities in our part of the world.
I began collecting books in my early teens and still have many volumes I purchased as a school child. The pleasure in buying an early leather bound compendium of exploration titles from Heron Books—I think it may have been one of Paul Hamlyn’s imprints—is with me still. It included volumes of Cook’s Voyages, Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Livingstone’s Travels, and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. Each of the books was a revelation for me - especially the Cook and Harrer volumes.
My fascination with the Antarctic follows from my first reading of the Voyages volume by Cook and the second of his journeys with the two relatively small vessels—the Resolution and Adventure (such wonderful strong confident British names)—towards the South Pole.
I was completely caught up with the humble Yorkshire man and the way in which he faithfully maintained the daily discipline in keeping his journal and log book. Written personally in long hand with pencil, the ‘Account’ of the voyage states with an arch minimalism the events that had occurred on any one day. It notes various occurrences with splendid lucidity. I was captivated by his careful, closely detailed narration and the lack of adornment in the prose. I also have to say I love his long sentences as I have always been criticised for my own!
The resourcefulness and care of Cook and his striking leadership shine through the text. His concern for his men and for their wellbeing shines throughout the pages—and by all accounts they trusted him implicitly and loved him dearly, as the accounts of his death in the third voyage in Hawaii are profoundly moving. Even as I reread these volumes now— 237 years since they were published—I get a shiver up my spine. It provides one of the many core thrills in reading: being there by proxy.
I suppose in many ways Cook is a true role model for me in the sense of connectedness with his ‘workforce’, his attention to detail, his lack of airs and graces, his humility and his boundless energy and curiosity. He was a thoroughly modern man. A man of the west! A spirit of all the good that has come from the west which is seen in that terrific endlessly interesting book that surveys so much of the west’s achievements in an arresting way: Ian Morris’s Why the West Rules for Now. Strongly recommended.
Almost fifty years after I first encountered Cook’s Voyages I acquired that good copy of the two volumes that comprise the first edition of that amazing journey towards the South Pole published in 1777. I have trekked far over that time and owe much to Cook, who inspired me to find out ‘stuff ’
Exploration is probably the word that would summarise my approach to reading, whether of fiction, essays, history or specialist subjects like music, art, philosophy, wine, science and also biography. I am often happiest alone with a book and a spare day (or one hopes more) to devote to it. Like many addicted readers I am hopelessly behind in what I am consuming. My unread pile probably comprises a backlog of more than 150 titles. But can I resist buying new things? Of course not!
The pleasure of reading is as much about the pleasure of anticipation, I almost have a sense of envy when someone else is about to read something I have read and loved. I wish I could experience the exhilaration of that experience anew.
For decades the only things I have given colleagues on major personal occasions and at year-end are books, ones chosen with a care that reflects what I think may interest or stimulate them. I have given many hundreds, indeed probably thousands, of books away over the years.
I never buy with a deliberate intention for the shelf. Everything I buy is with a view to reading, to consuming these nourishing, written and designed creations or to simply have fun and escape.
In reality there is never enough time to read and learn and it drives me mad. For me reading is almost a visceral pleasure and when a book has enveloped me I am lost to its world and hostage to the writer, unable to hear things out- side the pages, much to the irritation of others. My mother had me tested for deafness at least three times as a kid as she simply couldn’t believe that books could so hold me in absolute concentration.
One of my favourite historians, the French scholar Fernand Braudel, ignited me with his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and in his Civilisation and Capitalism. I love the way in which he describes the evolution of European civilisation from an erudite international perspective, informed from wide reading and deep thinking, that describes from geographical characteristics the transport and market systems fundamental to human and societal evolution, and from that the development of communication, diplomacy, finance and the desire for extended power. He speaks about the fortunes of society through ingenuity and venality, religion and commerce, conflict and resolution, with marked perception.
Braudel writes history you can almost smell! I admire his writing because he liberates a uniquely human view as to the chemistry and thought process that informed the economic and social order and its changing power constructs from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries so that it is not a mere recital of events but rich with real life. His perspective is from an analytical distance informed by enthusiasm and passion for the subject—meat and drink to me, from someone from whom I have derived much knowledge and stimulation.
Barbara Tuchman offers similar personal value — history that drives one to learn and understand. A Distant Mirror, Sand Against the Wind, Bible and Sword, The First Salute and August 1914 each stand for me as completely captivating pieces of history, designed to ensure the reader is taken with her, almost as if she is a Pied Piper saying ‘come with me.’
IT is in The March of Folly - From Troy to Vietnam (1984) that one experiences Tuchman at the zenith of her intellect and originality. Her observation as to the often inevitable phenomenon of governments acting against their own self-interest is coherent and convincing. You almost feel like saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ from time to time.
She opens in the first paragraph with the pithy, ‘Mankind makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.’ Then she moves into the most eloquent and practical definition of wisdom I have ever read - one which draws on a really thoughtful appraisal of the past: ‘In this sphere, wisdom which may be defined as the exercise of judgement acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.’ From that sentence I knew I was in for a treat of exposition and discovery from the downfall of Troy through the Renaissance Papacy and the rise of Protestantism to the American War of Independence and the copybook foolishness of the British, and then to the ultimate betrayal of ideals and reason with America and Vietnam. She explores central questions as to, ‘Why do the holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggest? Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function?’
Tuchman observes that greatness is rare and often transitory in the affairs of the world and that as John Adams said, government has made little progress in the last three or four thousand years and that therefore improvement in its process and practise is slow: ‘We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavour and shadow.’ In the book I continue referencIng my personal reading adventures and passions for biography, science and a number of other subject domains.
Books have always been my key learning tool beyond the asking of endless questions, which I do without fear or favour. I don’t mind if people think I am an ignorant fool provided they don’t mind me asking lots of questions - and that they answer them!
When I learned to swim properly at the age of thirty, I read a book. Most of my wine knowledge has grown from marrying wine tasting with books that help you learn and understand. All of my sense of understanding politics and history is built on observation, discussion and books. I only know science to the limited extent I do from books. While I have travelled widely in Australia my knowledge of it is principally taken from books. And the best form of escape is still with me like nothing else .......books.
Books and the knowledge they impart have provided a constant source of personal renewal and energy. I can’t stand to be uninformed and books unite me with answers and tell me of questions and conundrums which we all share through time.
At times of the most intense and unreasonable pressure, books have kept me sane. They have provided guilty pleasure in pure escapism and then they have reminded me of the important things in life - again and again.
Music is every bit as important to me. Up until seven or eight years ago when I gave a large speech about the personal impact of music, I had not previously ever really sat back and thought about the way in which music has influenced my development pervasively.
In Rules of Engagement I mention that in April 2014 I was the keynote speaker at the inaugural Asia Pacific Music Summit in April. At that time I spoke about leadership in an age of digital disruption to the directors and deans of the leading tertiary music education institutions from the co-hosts Sydney and Beijing and eight other major music schools from Asia through Australia and on to California.
I said that in this time of immense change there must be a solid commitment to the music educator’s need to shape and adapt to the nonlinear modalities of modern students which is the opposite to the rather linear world of the ‘traditional academy’, and to offer better defences and positive positioning for music as a bedrock to good thinking. This is because music does more to activate the brain than anything else and that, I think, needs to be one of the primary defences for music education in the modern world.
One of the supremely practical benefits from learning music is that it makes you listen!
Sit up and listen.
Even indulge in listening.
Nearly all of the time, most people today are not listening to what is being directed to them. The cacophony that regularly surrounds us makes people metaphorically switch off. They stop hearing. They don’t listen. People in the west and a huge part of the east have become poor listeners. Ironic, because listening has never been more important in the new digitally empowered world in which we live.
Music teaches us the discipline to listen, closely and well, to concentrate and understand, and to learn from connecting the dots from the aural to the neural. It’s natural, even if we have to learn how to do it now. But it is fun!
Many things follow from close listening - tolerance, respect, patience, thinking, discipline, order and when well-managed, a better sense of perspective and insight. Watch as you listen to, say, a great string quartet on a stage (Think the Guarneri or Amadeus or our own Goldner) and you see the power of connected listening between the players at work. And then from the players it transmits itself across the audience. When the audience is really connected it can be almost an almost mystical experience and very precious.
The story is always the same. Great performances are built on trust, complete connection, and above all close listening. The same is true of the best rock and jazz musicians:- Clapton at his zenith, Miles Davis or the revelatory Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker are great examples of how this can happen. Listening, always listening.
Or think of the seeming impossibility of a huge hundred-piece symphony orchestra at full tilt in one of the Mahler symphonies, and the impossible happens like magic, revealed as if straight from heaven, all thanks to focussed listening.
Listening is our least developed skill and yet the world is dependent on it. On one of those many flights of fancy that the internet enables, I discovered the US academic Ralph Nichols whose unusual career was devoted to the study of listening. He established an International Listening Association.
He said, ‘The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.’ I would add that music is the vital key. The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu urged audiences to listen with ‘clean ears’. It is great counsel for everyone.
In the book I describe my circuitous route to playing the clarinet and composing my own works, by way of the flugelhorn, and before that the banjo and how from the outset my curiosity about and eagerness to learn music was firmly established.
Music has pervasively influenced my development. It is well established that an early music and arts training has a profound effect on a person’s character and outlook. This manifests itself in a variety of ways which have been described by many others. Music provides discipline, which is all too absent in many world settings; it clears the mind; exercises the imagination; helps in conflict resolution; develops integrity; and refines a person’s capacity to foresee the consequences of action or decision. As I said before nothing affects the brain more pervasively than music. We now know this from numerous objective studies where MRIs prove that music activates more neural pathways than anything else.
Music has been fundamental to my view of the world and the enjoyment of it, providing almost a natural prism through which I observe and perceive things so that I never really stand back and think about it deductively or didactically. I always have music in my head.
Music is, I believe, fundamental not just to a well-rounded education but also to an expansive worldview for many reasons. Music teaches us about things that are not discussed or emphasised in our lives generally or sufficiently. It teaches us about beauty and the enduring value of human creativity in a way that we respond to instinctively and spontaneously.
I regard it as a lost part of growing up in the modern world. Music, painting, writing, history, politics, philosophy and even mathematics and science are all intertwined and have vital connections that liberate understanding when studying as a young person, if those connections are identified and given life.
Music, like all the arts, provides us with emotional nourishment. And while there is no contest with the other arts, music for me is unique because it is not primarily about our physical world; it is about another psychological and emotional experience. It so often is not about words or images of our earthly world but rather about invoking deep inner feelings, something connected with primal nascent needs in us all. Music matters deeply and that needs to be reflected in the teaching priorities of the nation.
Music is at the very core of all human experience and expression. It is one of the most aspirational and inspirational phenomena across the planet, providing deep satisfaction through singing, playing, composing, dancing or pleasurable listening. It is fabulously portable and now, through digital technologies, it is pervasively available. Music also provides a creative partnership to lift excitement, atmosphere and intensity of meaning in other areas of human creativity, such as the theatre or film or television.
And as I mentioned at that summit earlier this year for me what is fundamentally important about music is that it is about using the sense from which, in the experience of life we have become most desensitised — our hearing.
Sight, taste, touch and smell are all senses that we can switch off. We can elect not to experience any particular one of them easily. We can’t switch off our hearing with the same facility.
Therefore we generally have much less awareness of and sensitivity to our hearing and the aural universe, so often a cacophony, that surrounds us. Life noise has become an atmospheric accompaniment that we have grown inured to, resulting in the outcome that all too often we are poor listeners, to speech or music. There are constant reminders in the workplace as to just how often most people are not paying particular attention to what is being said. People frequently simply don’t listen. They have lost the art of concentrated hearing which is so fundamental to real human connection. Music restores the capacity to concentrate and liberate your brain to really listen and enjoy the process of engaged hearing.
In a related arena music is also good for building skills in constructive criticism. I have always been open to professional feedback and criticism and similarly have never been fearful to provide it. There can be no doubt that quality follows from the rigorous standards that applied in my music experiences, where criticism and critical engagement is part of the profession. The notion of absolute standards is central to mainstream western music cultures, not only in classical music but also in jazz, rock and roll and popular light music.
In contemporary Australia, outside of the pathetically narrow confines of the so-called ‘culture wars’ we have lost the art and focus to offer criticism in a pure sense. There is too much concern with what others may think or about potential personal paybacks that limits our ability to reflect a mature and considered perspective informed with no other motive than the health of creative output and considered review of its content.
The current environment is inconsistent with our past academic, artistic and political origins, where critical review and at times charged debate were invariably central to creative, social and intellectual life.
It has always been my view that Australians generally do not receive criticism well. however our inability to receive criticism is matched only by our inability to give criticism in a manner that is thoughtful, caring, constructive and nourishing. In music, the situation is different because music is built on layers of disciplined study that not only welcomes criticism but actively seeks it out. Music and its health, like many of the arts, are dependent on a fairly forensic approach to review and assessment. There are no short cuts. It is hard work and requires a lot of effort and a consistent quest for knowledge. You simply have to learn the repertoire. There is no way to avoid it.
Music study, practice, rehearsal, focussed effort on composition, intense concentration over many hours all provided life skills that have stayed with me ever after. They are invaluable and have been central to my work ethic.
In Rules of Engagement I describe many of the involvements I have had the privilege to experience across a broad career including in managing a variety of events, festivals and arts organisations through to other music experiences.
I don’t think you can ever convey just how expansive the experience of arts management is generally, and in particular how very demanding it was in Australia back in the 1970s. You had to be a jack-of-all-trades. I learned to be the programmer and planner, do budgets, negotiate contracts, manage foreign currency, advocate sponsorship, develop marketing campaigns and execute all the advertising, as well as writing ads and press kits. It was a do-it-yourself era. We worked hard and learned quickly. There was a wonderfully generous camaraderie during that period across the diverse companies and many of us from that time remain firm friends today.
The 1970s and early ’80s were a particular time in Australian creative life and saw a welter of possibilities liberated and driven by a restless energy to celebrate original Australian work, whether it was in music, film, theatre, art or literature. It was about Australian artists and their audiences creating fresh work and telling new stories. The energy was tangible and it was as profound in music as it was in the more publicly obvious manifestations of literature, theatre, film, television and the visual arts. We had huge audiences for contemporary music then and the audiences were much more diverse in age and social composition.
Over the years I have enjoyed expanding my engagement with the arts and became a substantial direct donor in a variety of areas – to companies, ensembles and individuals through commissions and scholarships. I believe very strongly that there is a responsibility to support the arts and creative endeavour personally and directly.
The arts in our country are all too often under a cloud for a variety of reasons, not least of which is an almost magnetic attraction from many commentators and decision-makers to rank philistinism high, and, in fairness, the arts community is often less than helpful in providing coherent convincing countervailing advocacy.
Throughout my life I have felt as if I am in a time warp with a creeping sequence of déja vu moments, where the same attacks against the arts and creative life are made and the recital of well-rehearsed defences are (hopefully) offered. It happens again and again with a sense that the arts community is seen as being ‘ungrateful and ungracious’ by those with power, and in response it is matched by the arts community seeing most decision-makers—politicians, commentators, bureaucrats and the like— as being far distant from understanding creative life and therefore their responses can become cartoon-like and really very petty.
From an early career in music I have gone on to have an extended commercial career in film, television and the media. The nature of my commercial work is and has always been very demanding while offering enormous satisfaction. I firmly believe that many of my leadership, management and to the extent I have them, skills of persuasion are directly attributable to the discipline and experience of my music life in all its strands. It was in the arts that I learned to never give up and to keep on trying, approaching a problem from a variety of angles until a solution is found.
Most recently I was the Chairman of the Sydney Opera House Trust until the end of last year. It was a singular privilege. There can be little doubt that it would be highly unlikely the Sydney Opera House would ever either be chosen or built in Australia today. I find it near impossible to conceive of any politician or media body in Australia enthusiastically and forthrightly defending and selling the construction of such a bold conception. The story of the competition is rich with serendipity, especially in Aero Saarinen being included in the judging panel and then having arrived late for the judging, retrieving the Utzon designs from the reject pile. The rest is, as they say, history.
Our contemporary descent into the triumph of process over outcomes probably guarantees such moments rarely recur. It represents anything other than progress. I find it quite depressing, and I am a natural optimist. It works against the bold products of competition and innovation which lie at the core of our nation’s future – one which will secure a resilient and dynamic life for our people.
The Sydney Opera House stands as a testament to a bold vision, trust in competition and to having the courage to be true to convictions and see something through. All of which are values I inherited from my music life.
Music is still the great energiser for me. It provides a balance in life that for me is as central to survival as breathing. And we should use each and every available argument to defend and promote the fundamental need for formal and comprehensive music education from the commencement of school for all the reasons I have spoken about.
But I have to tell you, that it saddens me to think that notwithstanding the myriad benefits derived from music, we are increasingly compelled to defend music by reference to other impacts rather than to reference music itself.
Because music is good for us. Period.
Music reinforces our capacity to feel and understand in ways that are equally mysterious and divine.
The feelings released by music and the devotion to beauty it represents are probably some of the most noble, positive, life-affirming outcomes in the diversity of all human activity. At its most simple I can’t imagine life without it.
Books and music are two sides of the same coin in my life – they have made me who I am.