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Why are we here? Looking back and looking forward 

Seminal musician and video artist Tom Ellard of Severed Heads recently marked a 30th anniversary of the groups music with a special performance at the 2010 Sydney Festival. Accompanying the performance was a presentation given by Tom entitled Why Are We Here? Both a self effacing question from the ever humble Tom about why people would come to see Severed Heads after so many years and, at the same time, a deeply thoughtful question on the nature of exploration in music and art, the impact of nostalgia and the notion of ‘looking forward’.

The complete slides and notes are availible online with the slide images being hillarious compositions in their own right and the ‘notes’ amounting to a sincerly thoughtful essay on the nature of progressive art.

“Despite the revolutions to and fro we continue to look backwards for authority and approval. Nothing has changed except we have a whole new layer of language that marginalises creativity. Rather than record an album we ‘examine the idea of recording an album’. We review, revise, we analyse, we do everything through safety glass and avoid responsibility for the creative act as if it were pornographic. Art has fallen into a passive language that once typified the physical sciences.

I am disturbed by the fear implied by this kind of language. I hear people denying that they do anything. They are not making music, it’s non notational, it’s random, it’s all about process. This fear also means keeping to a comfort zone where need approval from the past while hiding behind fake irony.”


In particular i was struck by the powerful simplicty of Tom’s manifesto regarding music but which can easlly be expanded for all arts. (in particular the 2nd point which seems wholly applicable to digital filmmakers who measure their creations by the tools they used and are more articulate in discussing their editing software than they are their ideas…)

  • We’ve had 40 years of post everything. Stop with the passive language. Stop analysing. Publish and be damned. Progress is pornographic,  but that’s not a bad thing.
  • Music is not research, it’s not measured in milligrams. I don’t want to told how many speakers you used, whether it was MaxMSP, whether you used a Wiimote. It’s not to be metricised. To hell with funding as the score and festivals as the new concept album. We need people to make music that’s intangible, loud, tiny, ridiculous and in every way metaphysical. Music that’s brave and foolish.
  • Stop seeking approval from the past, seek community, seek experience, seek humour. But the whole ‘golden age / end times’ argument has got to go. It belongs in the 1800’s.
  • I am not afraid of pop music, of pubs, of top 40. I make things. I make chairs, I make myself useful. Milton Babbit asked Who Cares If You Listen? I do.
  • Reclaim randomness. Randomness is an energy source, infinite opportunity. It is not shuffle, it’s not a nihilistic everything is the same as everything else. Difference is an energy that can lead us onward.

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