Professor Alistair Noble will join UNE’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences as the new Head of School from 3 August. A composer, musician and academic, and recent Executive Dean of the Australian Institute of Music, Alistair is passionate about the arts in the broadest sense, what they offer contemporary society, and the exciting careers these disciplines can lead to. He’s looking forward to joining the faculty and getting a feel for the local music scene.
I understand you are a musician – tell me a bit about what you do and how this led to an interest and roles in academia.
After high school I did a degree in piano performance, which maybe doesn’t sound very academic… but in fact the higher-level study of any creative or performance art-form always demands deep understanding, good scholarship, and critical analysis. I think we often underestimate—and under-value—what artists do, because much of their intellectual work, like the hours of practice, takes place “behind the scenes”.
As a student, I also discovered that I could access elective subjects in the wider university. While music was very much the primary focus, I was fortunate to have opportunities to study with some great teachers in fields like Medieval Studies, and Art History. I’m still in touch with some of those people today, and what I learn from them informs a great deal of my thinking and continues to evolve.
What have been some professional highlights?
Having this opportunity to work at UNE is a career highlight, for me. I’m especially excited to be working with all the staff and students in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, as these represent a range of disciplines that I believe are of critical importance in the contemporary world.
My previous role as Dean of the Australian Institute of Music, Australia’s largest music school, has also been full of great experiences. I’ve made many friends among the staff and students of the Institute, and these talented people are an ongoing source of inspiration.
What do you enjoy about working in the university environment?
One of the wonderful things about a university environment is that we encounter people (faculty and students) working in a wide variety of very specialised fields—in other words, people who think differently from ourselves. In the process, we learn what is distinctive about each person’s particular discipline and also to find areas of common interest. The true function of a university, perhaps, is to foster both these aspects: the focused study of a particular field, and the capacity to take a larger view that rises above disciplines. In both aspects, the ultimate purpose is to contribute to making the world a better place through empirical analysis, deep reflection, creative thinking, debate, and communication. The balance of research, teaching, and learning is what brings all this together in the ideal sense of a university as an environment that fosters higher study to benefit all.
For those of us who are artists, we often encounter the view that creative practice and academic work are somehow separated. Personally, I find this very strange. As an academic, a composer, a pianist, and a manager, I find that these different areas of focus inform each other. I refuse to draw a firm boundary between any of these things in my work.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for the arts and how can artists/academics respond to these?
I think of ‘the arts’ in a broad sense, rather like the great Liberal Arts tradition that is such a strong feature of UNE. We sometimes have a sense that these disciplines are not very popular with those who decide on funding models in Higher Education but the same can often be argued for many other areas of study, including STEM disciplines. Some of the challenges we face now are arguably best met by the university as a whole (inclusive of us all) rather than allowing a ‘divide and conquer’ situation to pull institutions in different, counter-productive directions.
We do need to promote public understanding of graduate outcomes for HASS students. These fields can lead students towards good careers and richly fulfilled lives. Our Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences disciplines carry powerful bodies of knowledge and also incisive, creative methods for shaping society’s understanding of the world around us. There is a great strength in the work we do, and it is critically important, now more than ever, for the ongoing viability of human cultures and arguably even life on this planet. We need to sustain our dedication to the work in the face of challenges, and alongside this we can also cultivate better ways of communicating with the wider world.
What are you looking forward to bringing to the role of Head of School for the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at UNE?
Over time, I hope to bring to the School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at UNE a growing sense of common purpose, and also of empowerment for staff and students in these important disciplines. I’m very much looking forward to working with Professor Michael Wilmore and the faculty team to further the development of the School of HASS, and to collaboration with staff and students in pursuing our shared aspirations.
What style of music do you love to play and compose?
My own music is motivated by people I know; I like to have a personal connection with the performer. In recent times, some wonderful friends such as Edward Neeman, Michael Kieran Harvey, Tim Phillips, Arcko Symphonic, The Piano Mill team, Phoebe Green and Leah Scholes have played my music. These people are all artists I love and respect, so it is such a great experience to hear them bring my compositions to life.
Likewise, as a performer, I love to play music composed by people I’ve met. I have a new project in mind that would bring together some music by Moya Henderson from the 1960s with more recent work by Rohan Philips. These two composers have produced work that has fascinated me for a long time, and they both certainly deserve more attention. I think they have something important to say to us as Australians in the present situation.
As a listener, I have very eclectic taste. My recent listening has included Josh Kyle’s wonderful ‘Trombone Song Cycle’, and the Greg Coffin Trio album ‘The Key is the Colour’. I also love 17th-century music – in my car I’m listening to music by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, performed by the violinist David Irving and an extravagant group of Australian musicians. The newest addition to my listening playlist is Fovndlings from Walcha, recommended by a friend in Armidale.
Is this the first time you’ll be living in a regional area? What are you looking forward to about this and how do you hope to get involved in the local arts scene?
It’s not my first time living in regional Australia. Although I was born in Sydney, I grew up in the Hunter Valley and in regional Queensland. I also lived for several years in Glen Innes, so I know the New England area quite well and especially love the landscapes and natural environment of the district. There’s a very particular spot driving north on the highway where I always feel that I’ve come home!
My initial involvement with the local arts scene will be to watch, listen, and learn. I want to understand and appreciate the work that people are doing in the region today. I will also be offering support wherever I can, building relationships between the many great arts practitioners around New England and the university. Ultimately, as we get to know each other better, I hope there will be space for me to engage with local creators in collaboration of some kind.
Welcome to the school, Alistair. Thanks for your introduction – it was great to read of your experiences and insights into the role of creative arts in academia. As an artist and novelist working in Peace Studies, I look forward to meeting and working with you.