Australian Biography: Peter Sculthorpe
Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) was born in Launceston, Tasmania.
In this interview he describes the way in which Australian history and landscape have influenced him and tells of the emotionally significant events in his life which have found expression in his music.
He also explains, with warmth and eloquence, the nature of his endless journey to try to create the perfect work of art – a journey that continued to motivate his work until his death.
He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1998.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
My very earliest memory is of the day that my mother brought my younger brother home from hospital after he was born, so I would have been three years old. And I was so furious about this situation. I can see it now. I actually stood on the couch and threw the cushions onto the floor and I sort of found my way about the house and kept throwing cushions on the floor. That's my earliest memory and then I can't remember anything until I was probably about five or six. So clearly this brother of mine was a real intrusion in my life at that time because it didn't take long before I loved him dearly and we've been very close, very dear friends all our lives in fact. But that - it is a very clear memory.
Yes, there were just two of us in the family.
I think they probably let me go. I don't think they would've tried to restrain me. They were - well I know everybody thinks their parents are special but I think my parents were very special because they did give us a lot of rope in a way. On the other hand they were also very strict. You know later when I was a little older if I didn't wind the hose up after watering the garden - that was one of my jobs - and if I didn't wind it up properly, well I'd have to go without dinner that night. You know, it was very simple. So one soon learnt that there's a place for everything and everything in its place.
Yes that's right. Like, when you speak to somebody, look into their eyes. There were a lot of rules that we had and I value that. Also my mother had been a school teacher and she'd been headmistress of an infant school and so I think she was fairly good at handling these two fairly wild boys that she had. Dad used to thrash us with his razor strap when we were naughty, but in fact it was Mum's tongue that we both found more painful than Dad's razor strap because she always knew exactly what to say that was going to make us feel really bad.
Guilty and realise that we'd done wrong. But with a beating from Dad that was just temporary pain but with Mum it tended to last longer.
Well a very simple example of that is that when we were in our early teens, Mum and Dad said if we wanted to smoke that's all right but do it in front of them, don't go and hide behind bushes and do it. And so therefore we didn't want to smoke, that I think was their approach to bringing us up. But actually what I treasure more than anything is the fact that my mother encouraged my love for literature, for reading and so by the time I was in my early teens I'd read almost all the great books. And she'd give me certain books to read and then, after a few weeks, or at the end of the month, I had to report to her on the books and discuss them with her and I've treasured that, that she did that all my life really. Because it gave me a lifelong love of books and certain writers in particular became very special to me.
I was born in Launceston in 1929 during the Great Depression. There was also the great flood, I think, just before I was born. But I was rowed to safety in my mother's womb and then my parents later bought a small business. They had a general store. Well, my father had a job and then there was the Depression. He worked in a hardware business. Dad, he lost his job so my mother said, 'Well, what about selling the motorbike and sidecar and buying a little business.' And so they bought the little business in Launceston and what was very interesting is that Dad loved fishing and shooting, and they found that during the Depression they did very well with fishing and shooting gear because men would go out to find their own food, fish for it or shoot it. And the business actually flourished, as much as anything, because of the fishing and shooting gear that they sold. And then they bought a little business in St Leonards which was outside Launceston and moved there and that's where I grew up in fact.
Yes I grew to love the bush and loved really more wandering on my own. I always, always liked my own company, I mean I love other people's company too. But I was never lonely. I think it's because at an early age instinctively I wanted to conserve time. For instance, I once heard my father say to my mother, 'What's he doing inside writing music all the time. Why isn't he outside playing football with the other boys?' And I remember my mother said, 'Well Jos,' she said, 'You know, there are thousands of boys out there playing football, there's only one of them inside writing music.' Which was a pretty good answer. But I wanted to please my father and therefore at quite an early age I decided that I would take up sports, because he loved sport, but sports that depended only upon me. While our school preached teamwork I was against that and I decided therefore that I'd take up running and jumping and swimming, and those sports where one depended only upon oneself. I also decided that as my father at one time, his sister at another time, had been champion swimmers of Tasmania that I too wouldn't stop until I was as well, because I knew that would please my father. And it did.
Because I could swim in my own time, I could train in my own time, but when other people were involved, there were set times. It wasn't in my time and it took more time and so therefore it was really about preserving one's time. At school, teachers would always say, 'Well here we go again, everybody in the battalion out of step except Sculthorpe.' And I actually thought that was true and I believed that everyone was out of step because I wouldn't follow the pattern. It didn't worry me that fact. It's just that at quite an early age I decided that I wanted to be a composer, although that wasn't any good because everyone said that all the composers were dead. Or a writer or a painter, and therefore I wanted to get on with these. I needed time for these pursuits.
My earliest musical memory is [that] once a week Dad would go to a Chinese market garden and they had a lot of musical instruments in this garden and as I got to know them, the Chinese, I'd talk them into playing them and then as time passed they'd play more of their music to me, and that I found really thrilling. I mean I've often talked about how, when I was much older, I went to my first orchestral concert in the National Theatre in Launceston and how I looked forward to hearing my first Beethoven symphony, and how pallid it sounded in this enclosed theatre after this wonderful vibrant Chinese music in the open. I treasure then my first musical experience.
I started to learn music ... we've lost track of this a little bit because somehow I've got to try to pin it down. Because in my own memory, and from what I read [that] people have written, it varies from six to eight. It was probably about seven actually when I went to my first music lesson. And I went to have lessons in painting also. I was learning to paint, and so I went to my first music lesson and naturally assumed that I was to learn to write music. And so ...
Well, because Mum was always very busy in the shop, I mean she worked from six in the morning until well into the evening. And she brought us up to invent and create our own games in a way. And she looked after me with my writing, I used to write poetry, and she sent me to painting lessons, so I painted. So I just assumed that when you go to a music lesson, you go to learn to write music. I mean, it seemed to be obvious. I can't explain, rather stupid of me looking back.
No, she was furious and she hit me across the knuckles with the cane end of a feather duster so I couldn't even play the piano, and she assured me that all the composers were dead and that I was wasting my time. So I then had to practise the piano, and I wrote music under the bedclothes with a torch for a year or so until my parents discovered me. And I think this is what I mean about my parents being very good and very liberal. They didn't carry on and say, 'Oh, isn't he fantastic, isn't he wonderful', or they didn't say, 'You shouldn't be doing it.' They just said, 'Alright, if that's what you want to do, fine but you don't have to do it under the bedclothes with a torch.' They didn't make me feel either bad or guilty or special. They just took it for granted, or just in the day's flow of things really.
Now that's such a good story and I came at it from slightly the wrong angle, so I'm going to ask a very open question and get you to tell that whole story straight. I'll ask you again, what happened when you went to your first music lesson, did it go well?
When I went to my first music lesson, oh, sorry no ... I'm lost.
No, I went to my first music lesson, and it was to do with the piano and to do with theory and then I went home. So it was really my second music lesson that I took all the music that I'd written and that is when my teacher was furious. I am telling all this wrong.
No that's right, it's fine, it's fine. So you discovered that you could write music and your parents were pleased with what you'd done, and so, did that then make you decide that you would be a composer or was that later?
I think the general impression was that all the composers were dead and I think Mum and Dad probably thought it's nice for him to be doing what he wants to do.
With your creativity that your mother clearly encouraged right across the board - the painting, the literature, the music - do you think she was encouraging that because she saw creativity in you, or was it a reflection of her own hopes for you?
I would say it may well have been a reflection of her own hopes. I think that the power of women is incredibly strong, or the energy. Maybe I had a few gifts but no, I think also she was hoping through me to realise some of the things that she didn't realise. Because when she was one of the first women to study at the University of Tasmania a visiting theatre company came to Hobart, and she decided to audition, and they wanted her to join the company, to leave the University and travel with them. And when she plucked up the courage to tell her parents they were horrified, you know, 'But what have you done!' because only wicked women go on the stage. I think she maybe would have liked to have been on the stage, or liked to have done other things, but was unable to and therefore she was realising a lot of this through me.
Well, my brother, because Mum and Dad treated us the same, had to have music lessons too. So he learned the violin, and used to play (not very well) little pieces, and whenever we played together at the piano, me at the piano and him at the violin, he would always end before I did. I would race to catch up with him, to try to end at the same time, and this went on for a while. And then it turned out that he thought that the whole idea of it, when you play violin and piano, was a race and whoever got to the end first won. And the moment I pointed out to him that it's not a race, you have to play together, he lost all interest and I had to go to Mum and Dad to ask them if he could stop having lessons. So it was fairly obvious that he was going to be into sport and of course inevitably he had a sports shop in Launceston, still does. A gun shop actually, in Tasmania. I think because of me and music he had to find his own, his world, and as we grew older, into our teens and I said, 'I'm going to be the most famous composer in Tasmania,' he used to say, 'Well I'm going to have the best gun collection in Tasmania,' and even before he left school, he had probably the best collection in Tasmania including weapons that had belonged to Wild Bill Hickok, and has still got them and [INTERRUPTION]
Well he decided that he was going to have the best gun collection in Tasmania. If I was going to be the best composer, he was going to have the best gun collection, and even before he left school he had, he did have the best, including some weapons that belonged to Wild Bill Hickok and so on. Looking back, I don't know how our friendship survived because as time passed, I mean naturally, my parents would trot me out to play my latest little composition to visitors and Roger, my brother, would leave the room. And it attests to what a wonderful person he is that he didn't ever grow to resent me and to resent what I was doing. As the years passed we just became closer really. So he is a very special person.
No, not at all, not at all. But I think, because he was three years younger and as when you're young that's quite a lot, I'm sure my parents were, and did all they could to manoeuvre things, events around this. But looking back it suddenly occurred to me that he tended to take to pieces anything that I had. Like I'd get a new bike and then I'd come home and he would have taken a lot of it to pieces, and lost a lot of the nuts and bolts and we couldn't get it back together again. That might have been some self-conscious thing driving that, although I've always thought that it was his natural curiosity because he's got a fairly curious brain. He's into mechanical matters.
I loved school. I went first of all to St Leonards State School. It was my first school and I think because it was about learning I loved it, and I remember when I was quite young, I fell in love with Miss Sleeth, who was [my first teacher and] the policeman's daughter in our village. I was going to marry her when I grew up. And my teachers always meant a great deal to me. I did find at an early age that I tended to have to prove myself as far as catching a ball was concerned or in athletics. If I was able to prove myself in that area then it was all right for me to be writing music or doing whatever I was doing. That wasn't so evident at the state school but it was when I went to Grammar School. My father wanted us to go to - well we call them public schools in Tasmania, but private schools - Launceston Grammar. My mother wanted us to go to the state school in Launceston and it must be one of the few arguments that my father won. Because we ended up going to Grammar and I think that was because he felt that living in a small island like Tasmania it's like a club and going to Grammar would open doors for the two of us, particularly if we were to go into business. Mum, on the other hand, had wanted us to be better educated and certainly education in those days was better at the state schools, but we went to Grammar where team work was emphasised so I had really to work harder on swimming and athletics there. But I really loved every moment of my school days and I was very lucky because there were some teachers who became very important to my life. One was Wilfred Teniswood who had gone to school with my mother and he was walking past the music room one day and I heard him come trotting back, and he said, 'Oh, who wrote that music?' And I said, 'I did, of course,' and he was rather surprised. He had been Head of Talks on ABC Radio in Hobart and so he organised for me to go and play my music on the ABC before I'd reached my teens in fact. And so therefore while the other boys were doing their homework - it was boarding school - I'd trot off to the ABC in the city to play my pieces. I suppose I was sort of tolerated by the other boys in a rather curious way. Wilfred was a friend to me all his life, and also - we used to call him 'Yak' - Harry, Mr Harry our Latin teacher was very crucial because I used to go to his place often in the afternoon just to sit in the garden and we'd read Latin together and he was just special in my life.
At the time I don't think I looked at it that way, but when he was opening up to me all this wonderful language, the story of Dido and Aeneas in Carthage, I mean it was a whole wonderful world that he was showing me and I think I was just responding to a wonderful human being actually.
My poetry was very heavily influenced by French symbolists, impressionists, in particular Verlaine and Baudelaire. Looking back I find it a bit ridiculous that here is a young schoolboy writing second-hand poetry about evenings rose and grey, about this decadent world inhabited by those people. It had nothing to do with my own experience, but it gave me a lot pleasure.
Well, I would say, again just off the top of my head, looking back it was probably the musicality of the language of the poetry. Perhaps I was drawn to some of the sentiments because I remember when I was quite young I wrote a poem about autumn leaves and I think it ended with something like, 'autumn leaves, autumn leaves'... sorry ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, I remember that I did write a poem and I sent it to the Bulletin and it was published and the last verse of the poem went something like, 'Autumn leaves, autumn leaves are strewn about my feet, Their smell of death tonight is faintly sweet.' And then a few weeks later somebody wrote a letter to the editor saying how could a mere schoolboy understand these matters or know anything about death. I was actually very wounded by that, maybe it was to be the first criticism of anything that I created. The first of many throughout my life. But in fact I did know about death because my next-door neighbour, Ian, was one of my best friends, [and] used to climb over the fence in St Leonards when we were very young and there were lots of boxes in the backyard because of Dad's business. We used to build castles and great buildings out of all the boxes. And one day Ian came over the fence and caught his foot in a rusty nail and got tetanus, and the last I saw of him in hospital he was almost like in a little ball. It was terrible. And he died of course. And his parents blamed me for it and never spoke to me again. And because I didn't want to cause trouble between the families I found I couldn't tell my own parents and I couldn't share it with my brother because he was too young being three years younger. And so, I had to somehow come to grips with that at ... really. I could look it up I suppose but I was quite young and certainly before I wrote that poem about the smell of autumn leaves. So I had come across death in fact.
Well no, my painting lessons came to an abrupt end because, I had private tuition and my teacher was very beautiful and she thought I should paint from real life. And so she started to take her clothes off and I used to have to draw her and paint her, and I remember she used to get me to put my hand in certain places and she used to say, 'But you must never tell your parents,' and, 'Don't show these to your parents.' And after a while I thought, well mother has always brought me up ... because I'd have Reubens paintings around my bed which I pulled out of the old Lilliput magazine. Mum ... Dad would say, 'That's dreadful, a young boy shouldn't have things like that around his bed' and Mum would say, 'Jos it's art for art's sake,' and so on. And so, I thought to myself it's all art for art's sake and I was dying to show my parents the paintings of my teacher that I had done. Certainly I discovered it wasn't art for art's sake any longer and painting lessons were stopped very abruptly. And there we are. But I still kept painting.
I think that I was slightly affected but I didn't quite understand. I used to look forward to going to my lessons, I know that.
Well, I always thought Mum and Dad know best. I couldn't quite reconcile it with art for art's sake. That always remained with me really. But in the meantime, I was encouraged by my teacher - I was also rather into cubism. As I was attracted to impressionism in literature so it was cubism in painting. And I used to put my paintings and drawings in for prizes and I'd be very lucky if I'd get commended, but usually I'd be told that it was rubbish and I didn't feel very encouraged.
So here is this boy who was painting, who was getting his poetry published, was playing his own music on the ABC. How did that go down with the other boys, despite the fact that you were swimming and so on, were you seen as a bit of a sissy?
I had to go to some lengths to really ... basically to beat them (laughs) and that soon put a stop to that. Looking back and knowing the attitudes of the time, I'm surprised that I wasn't given a bad time, but I wasn't in fact.
So you had all these creative activities. You were involved in music, and playing your own music on the ABC, you were writing poetry and getting it published. What was the attitude of the other boys to this in Tasmania in the '40s, well the '30s and '40s. How did they regard that sort of activity?
Well, looking back and knowing how attitudes were then, it surprises me that I didn't get a really rough time. But it's possible that because Dad always taught us to stand up for our beliefs and our rights, and he taught us to fight, that I never minded being in a fight or standing up for what I believed. I mean I remember when I was a day boy and my brother was coming to the big school, he was about nine, and some of the boys at school said, 'Oh we're going to tell him where babies come from.' And I couldn't think of anything worse. Oh no sorry, I'm telling the story wrong. They couldn't wait for him to come to the big school to bash him up, you know, give him a hard [time], really initiate him and bash him up. I got into a lot of fights over that. So I think they then decided, well no that wasn't what to do. So then they said, 'We're going to tell him where babies come from.' And that seemed to me to be a terrible thing and it's not something you fight over, so I didn't know how to handle it. It was a 14 mile bike ride to school and so I decided that on the way I'd tell my brother where babies come from. And he laughed all the way to the school and didn't believe a word of it, and so when the time came that they told him, it didn't matter because he didn't believe them. So I suppose it was partly ... sorry, I've told that story wrongly, what I was trying to say is that in the first place, because I fought for my brother then they didn't want to, even if I'd probably lost, they didn't want to fool around with me in that way. But also because Dad taught us to stand up for rights. I remember when I was a bit older I was in charge of the dormitory at school and I had to look after all the little boys and we had to have a cold shower every morning except when the taps froze, and there was one master who used to come around every morning and hold some of the little boys under the shower, and just hold them under this freezing cold water. Also hit them with a cane at the same time. And I went to him to try to get him to stop and he laughed at me and I went to the Headmaster and didn't do any good. And so one night - this was later when I was a boarder - I got out of bed and gouged this master's name out of the honour roll. It was in gold letters on the honour roll at school. And next morning at breakfast the Headmaster was saying grace, and suddenly he stopped and looked and there was this sort of name gouged out and he said, 'What skunk did this?' And I said, 'I did it sir but I am no skunk.' And so he took me (laughs) up to the master's table and took my pants down and caned me. And I think it's probably because I used to stand up for other people's rights in this way that I didn't get a bad time from a lot of the boys. They probably thought I was bit strange but they were my friends and many of them still are actually. So school was good.
Well, we persevered with her for a while but it did get to a point where I was not going to piano lessons, which it was called and not music lessons. And I remember on one birthday, it was my first slightly bigger two-wheeler bike. I got home, and Mum and Dad were giving it to me for my birthday and that happened by coincidence to be the day that my teacher phoned to say that I hadn't been for a lesson for a month. So they said, 'Well, you're not going to get the bike now unless you start to show some interest.' And so I didn't get the bike for some weeks. But I think they realised it wasn't a good thing to persevere with this teacher and they found a wonderful teacher for me, a Mrs Myer who really gave music to me, because we used to listen to recordings and she used to talk about music and related matters, and lessons with her were a real joy. But unfortunately she didn't give me much technique, she just let me play whatever I wanted to play and it was clear that if I was going to compete in the world I had to be able to play the piano better than I did. And so, eventually I went to another teacher, Marjorie Allen, who helped give me the technique. Mrs Myer was fantastic because she gave me music. On the other hand for many years after, my first teacher, her name was Clara B. Doodie, whenever my mother would bump into her in the street, she'd say, 'Edna, it's the foundation that counts!' She always took pride in me as, being her first, I was first with her.
Well, it probably didn't affect my musical development a great deal but it helped my career because she entered me in piano competitions, and I managed to do quite well in piano exams and in fact, I did win a scholarship to Trinity College, a scholarship to go to London, but it was felt that I was too young. And she introduced me to people in the professional world of music, all of which was very helpful to my career. She was interested in my compositions but not so very interested. I mean her mission really was to get me playing the piano better.
And for you as someone who was creative, who had been allowed a lot of freedom with your previous teacher to explore your own musical ideas and so on, what did it feel like to be back, as it were, in harness, having to practise for exams and so on? How did you feel about practising?
I think I've always responded to mentors in whom I have belief, and I believed in Marjorie Allen. And my parents believed that she was right for me and that was enough. I was happy to follow the path that was being shown to me. It was no big task, I mean it was a pleasure really.
Well that's interesting because Mozart is always a great test. You could hear a truly great conductor conduct Mozart and it can be dreadful, even a great pianist, I mean Mozart is so exposed in a way. I don't enjoy listening, say, to a Mozart piano sonata, or I don't enjoy it very much, but I used to love playing Mozart piano sonatas, so ...
I think it's trying to play the music, never really quite succeeding, the way one knows it should be. It's because of involvement really. Whereas to sit back and listen to somebody else playing is for me ... well I'm just not involved really. It's just trying to play. It's possible to play Mozart to perfection, few can, and it was aiming to give a perfect Mozart performance.
Yes, this was quite a problem because I had my teachers at school wanting me to be a writer. I had my father ... poor Dad [thought] well, if he has got to be one of these he might as well be an artist; at least he can be a commercial artist, and then he'll earn some money and survive. So he was pushing for that. And my teachers were pushing for me to be a writer and my mother, being a mother, wanted me to do just whatever made me happy. So ultimately it came down to me and when I thought about it, I thought that my poetry is really my second-hand experience of other people's poetry, my painting is my second-hand experience of other people's painting, but my music is just about me. It was only in my music that I was expressing my own feelings about, well, about anything, expressing myself. So it seemed to be very clear to me that music was what I should do.
Recently, for the last CD of the Goldner String Quartet, I rescued a few early pieces and one piece, which was the slow movement of my first string quartet written at about this time of the year, in April 1944, yes, written before my fifteenth birthday, and I'm amazed, it's really, really beauti ... it's rather sad but it's ... I think it still stands up today. In fact, last year I was at Wigmore Hall and the Goldner Quartet was giving a concert and then at the very end they suddenly decided to play the little song that I'd written. It had its first performance, written in 1944, it had its first performance in 1997 in the Wigmore Hall in London as an encore at a concert, and I nearly cried. It was a big thrill.
It wasn't a slow movement from a string quartet, because the violin line follows some words of a poem, I called it Little Song actually. It's about the churchyard at Longford, the church at Longford in Tasmania. And just how I felt about the Tasmanian countryside.
How would you characterise the sound of the music you were writing when young? I'm asking this because you say that it was an expression of you and that it was your music, but you must have derived your ideas from somewhere.
Absolutely, and if anything, I was able to get hold of a little bit of the music of Delius, and this was partly through the Sunday morning programs of Neville Cardus The Enjoyment of Music. And he, through this program on the ABC, introduced me to much, well most of the music that I knew at that time. And I was able to get a few scores and somehow, because of Delius and the English countryside, I related through his music to the Tasmanian countryside because in a way from the early days, early settlers were trying to recreate a little England in Tasmania, so it wasn't difficult to transfer from one to the other.
Well, Delius was very important. Another composer who was very important to me was Ernest Bloch. Now he's a composer who is almost forgotten today, but in the 30s there were Bloch societies in almost every big city in the world, and he was one of the few living composers whose music one could obtain. I mean one couldn't even buy the music of Debussy, long dead, but one could buy Bloch. Therefore quite early on he became a very strong influence. He was a Jewish composer and I'm not, I adapted. Some of his music flowed so strongly into mine, that people often actually thought I was Jewish because of it, but it was just simply the influence of Bloch. And the influence is still there, very much.
Oh no, not at all.
Well, basically nineteenth-century German music. Which is fine but I still can't relate to it very well. It doesn't ...
Well, basically, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart.
No, because I didn't relate to them or to what the music was about really. It seemed to be music that was very rooted to its place and its period, really. I still have trouble with Mozart because, for me, only in a few works does Mozart transcend the period. I have no interest in the architecture or the garden landscaping or the writing or anything of that particular period, and so, of Mozart's, so why should I care for the music as well?
Given that it was so accepted at the time that this was really the best music available and it was presented to you that way, in retrospect what do you think gave you the confidence as a young boy to hold out against what you were being told to believe about music?
Oh, because I simply went with what I believed, with my feelings, I think. What other people might have said, might have written, wasn't really important.
I think about most things. Yes.
It wouldn't have come from my father's attitude because he was very conservative, but it certainly would have come from my mother because she was always questioning, and brought us up to question everything. Yes. I keep saying how fortunate I was in my parents. They ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, again through Marjorie Allen, my music teacher, I met different examiners; they would come to Launceston. One in particular, J. A. Steele, Jimmy Steele, who was a modest composer and an examiner for the AMEB. And he really liked my music and he wanted me to come to study in Melbourne, and we, over a few years, became so friendly that he sometimes stayed with us, with my family, and he more or less convinced my father, that's what I should do. On the other hand, my father desperately wanted me to stay home. We had a great relationship and he wanted me to go into business, as a father thinking of my security and on and on, and finally in desperation - I loved cars, and because we used to drive in our village long before we needed to have a licence, because the local policeman shut his eyes anyway, and I dreamt of owning wonderful sports cars and so on - he promised me that if I stayed home I could have any sports car that I wanted. I don't know how he would have paid for it but he would have beggared himself I think, if I had stayed home. And I just looked at him, and I said, 'I love cars but a car is only a car and music is my life.' And somehow that seemed to convince him, he was a very practical man. And from that time he was right behind me really. And even though I won scholarships, when I was living in Melbourne, I used to work in Myer's hardware department in vacations and then I used to work in haystacks in somewhere in Tasmania, to earn money. I still couldn't have managed without my father's financial help really and he didn't ever stint.
So, I went to study at the University Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne. In those days Bernard Heinze was Professor. It was also just after the war and we had all the rehabilitation students, an influx in universities throughout the country. So here were men and women who'd been to war, taken some part in the war and had never been able to afford to do what they really wanted to do and the government was now paying for them. So we had older men and women at the Conservatorium doing music because they had the chance. Therefore they were totally committed, they weren't just doing it for fun or whatever and Bernard Heinz used to refer to those years as the 'golden years' because they were. The excitement in the place, the passion, the commitment, I was so lucky to be there at that time. And so many of my friends from that period went on to become distinguished in many, many different ways throughout the world.
I made a lot of good friends, I was desperate to have a decent composition teacher. Jimmy Steele was a wonderful human being and he had a marvellous collection of Australian painting and I learned a great deal about Australian painting from him, but not a great deal about composition. My counterpoint teacher, A. H. Nickson, Nicky, was a great philosopher and, sitting in his garden often, talking about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Hegel, and so on, I learned a great deal about philosophy. But I think when it comes down to music, in those days the course structure was so rigid and so much based upon English models that it didn't really have very much to offer me. But I learnt other things and I made lifelong friends.
Well I think that was my first lesson, really. It made me realise that they are more important in fact. And so as a teacher today, I think it's more important for my students to know who won the tennis yesterday, or the footy or what went on in parliament last night, not that it's worth it half the time, to know about books, to know about everything. I think ultimately a musical composition is just like an outer shell and one can learn the technique to make a piece of music but unless one has all, a broad education and a broad view of the world to inform what is inside, then it will be pretty empty.
No. I wasn't, and I was desperate.
Because also in those days it was very hard to buy books giving the technique. I did have a friend who was stationed in the army in England and I got him to send me books about Schoenberg and twelve-note technique and so on but ...
Out of a book. Yes, but somehow it's not living and that's probably why I rejected it during those student years. The fact that it was almost banned, that kind of music should have been enough to make me want to continue with it, but it didn't have a meaning for me, out of a book.
That is a strange question because I don't think we were aware of avant-garde composers. I mean we were lucky to hear Debussy and Ravel, long dead, in a concert. But on the other hand it was Sir Bernard who one day said that he wanted me to give a concert of my own music and he encouraged me to, so I did have a lot of encouragement as far as my own music was concerned.
Well, the next step was a job, so I ended up in Tasmania teaching in an area school, that's like a farm school in the country where all the children are bussed in, and teaching for adult education. Then, finally my brother had always dreamed of owning a sports shop, and he first of all became apprenticed to the local sports shop, and then later set up his own business. It was just a little hole in the wall, really. And we decided that I should go into partnership with him in the business. I spent a good four years in partnership with my brother.
I was writing music for the Launceston Players, that is, theatrical productions but writing less and less, and I remember on the night of my 25th birthday, you know at the age of 25 most composers have been getting on with their work, but I sat on my parents' bed and burst into tears and I said, 'Do you realise I am a quarter of a century old and I've achieved nothing.' And because to be a composer had been my dream, we then decided that I would work just part-time in the business and get on with writing music. And then the first piece that I wrote after that time I entered for an ABC competition for a piano sonatina and it was rejected with a rude note saying they couldn't take the work seriously. And I was so annoyed I sent it off to the International Society for Contemporary Music and they decided to include it in their festival in - I think it was 1954. And that fact even though I'd been rejected here, to be accepted in Europe made us feel that we were on the right track. It was still not easy to write music and earn a living. I went to live in Canberra for a time and stayed with Anne Godfrey Smith, who had gone to Canberra to direct the Canberra Players, [which] became The Playhouse and I wrote music for her. We wrote a musical together, and it was really rather good fun, a bit of a romp.
It was called Ulterior Motives and it was about somebody stealing a red shower curtain from a government hostel which was clearly a communist plot, because it was a red shower curtain, and it was a sort of farce, really.
Very Canberra based. In fact Doc Evatt used to bring people to nearly every performance of it. He was a great supporter.
I think it was too Canberra oriented. But we wanted to take it to Sydney and so Anne phoned Bill Orr at the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney and Bill came down to Canberra to have a look, and he liked it but it was clear that it wouldn't travel. He particularly liked the music and so he asked me to come to Sydney and I wrote music for some of the early Phillip Street Theatre revues, [such as] Cross Section. In other words I was writing for Gordon Chater, June Salter, and Reg Livermore's first big stage appearances, [and] Max Oldaker. They were good days in Sydney.
Well, I'd hoped that by writing light music, I could earn money to live and get on with my so-called serious music, but it was very clear, very clear, that the two worlds don't mix and the light music world was pretty time consuming and exhausting and the last thing I wanted to do when I finished in that area was to get on with writing music. And it was fairly clear that that was not my future.
Oh, next to nothing. Just enough to get by. I can't remember, but it was barely a living.
It was a lot of fun, yes.
Yes, I mean I would still love to write another opera, but again, it's the time that it takes, just fashioning a libretto and so on. I think most composers are attracted to the theatre.
I didn't have a choice, really. It was either stay here in Sydney or go back to my brother Roger and the gun shop in Launceston. So I stuck it out here. Then suddenly, out of the blue I was offered a Lizette Bentwich fellowship, scholarship, I've forgotten now.
It was money. And she must have been an extraordinary woman, Lizette Bentwich. She died in the year that I was born and she left money to the University of Melbourne for a scholarship for students to go abroad to study, but it wasn't fixed. It was very loose in requirements. And the will didn't get sorted out until that very year, about 1955 or 1956. It took all that time.
It was waiting for me, because I was the first recipient of it. And this meant that I had money to leave Australia and do whatever I wanted to do. I mean they would have been perfectly happy for me to have a musical sightseeing tour of the world in other words.
Well I decided that ...
Well, it wasn't very hard because my father, who'd been been such a wonderful support to me, emotionally as well as financially, but didn't understand a thing about what I was on about, or my music, and I thought to myself if I could get an Oxford doctorate that's something he really would understand, so I decided to go to Oxford and to get a PhD in music. And so I set out. Went off to Oxford. The only time I ever saw my father cry was on the wharf at Melbourne as the ship drew out and the streamers broke. In fact I've got a photograph of it. So ...
Oh, miserable, but on the other hand looking forward, to feeling that I was behind because I was a little later in my 20s, and that my life as a composer in the real sense was only just beginning. So I felt excited because I felt it was all ahead of me.
Well, at first, I really didn't like Oxford. I had always had a dream of it, an Oxford of dreaming spires, as in Matthew Arnold and I'd imagined it was going to be grandly and beautifully laid out, and I actually found all these different kinds of architectures, huddling against each other, actually found it offensive when I first arrived.
Visually, yes. And maybe because it didn't fit in with my dream of Oxford, I decided I would stay with some dear friends in Birmingham, of all places, and commute.
Well, my friends lived in quite a grand Victorian, Edwardian terrace which, of its kind was a gem architecturally, and Oxford won me over, of course, eventually. It was just the initial shock and so I'm glad that I did live in Birmingham because my tutor, Egon Wellesz, had had a very brilliant student, Wilfrid Mellers, who lived in Birmingham and he said, 'You must meet Wilfrid.' And so I began what has been a lifelong friendship in Birmingham at the time with Wilfrid. Eventually I moved back towards Oxford. I stayed in my college for a time, but there was only one other PhD student there, in music that is, [and] we both found that undergraduates were coming to us expecting pearls of wisdom from us, and drinking our coffee, sherry - yes, maybe we could afford a bit better than they could. And I said to Robert, 'Why don't we find a place outside Oxford?' So we found a place that had been an old pub called the Old Crown at Thame and we lived at Thame for several years. Eventually Robert Henderson finished his degree and went back to London and I then moved into Oxford. It took a long time.
Oxford gave me the realisation that nobody can give me the key to writing music. My first composition teacher was Edmund Rubbra, a wonderful man, much respected; but he didn't really teach me composition, but he became a wonderful friend. Unfortunately Egon Wellesz was very much the world's authority on Byzantine music and a great scholar, good composer. He would wait for me in the passage after I'd had a lesson with Edmund Rubbra and then he'd take me to his rather grand Georgian house in Woodstock Road and pour sherry into me, and poison my ears about everybody and tell me how I should come to him. And I thought, what is this great man, why is he taking such an interest in little me? And I was very flattered. It wasn't until after I left Rubbra, which was a very unhappy time for me ...
I was seduced by Egon and I then discovered that he had converted Edmund Rubbra to Catholicism and a little before I arrived in Oxford, Edmund had left the Catholic Church and become Buddhist, and that I was really just a part of Egon's revenge. Egon also wanted to take over the reins of the music department there and I was also a pawn in that. And yes I was seduced, and it was not good. I also realised that as long as I was with Egon I would never get a PhD what's more.
Because he was so hard on students. And so my world was crumbling a little bit. I would perhaps have gotten an MPhil, Master of Philosophy, but not a PhD. Also because he wanted me to write my thesis on his music and I didn't go all the way or halfway round the world to write on a composer like Egon. So there was a great deal of tension.
Well, that's very interesting. What I wanted to write on was certain aspects of rhythm in twentieth-century music. Now, of all aspects of music, rhythm is the area that has been the most developed, that the twentieth century has concentrated upon above all else. I mean when you think about it all that German music is basically either a march or a waltz, is in four/four or in three/four time, or six/eight, whereas in the twentieth century there's rhythm. Also because popular music has been brought into so-called serious music. Anyway, so when my topic went to the Board it was decided that I should write on musical form in the twentieth century, with a small chapter on rhythm (laughs) which is ridiculous because you could write books and books on nothing but rhythm and I think that demonstrated the old-fashioned thinking of Oxford at that time. So therefore I wasn't especially happy from the academic point of view. But I loved the life and Oxford did win me over and I think my stay there was one of the happiest times of my life.
Well yes I bought every possible score and book that I could afford and soaked it up and I think eventually what I learned was that everything must come from within me, and must be concerned with what I am concerned with. I was very friendly with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies and at that time I was wildly enthusiastic about Japanese music. When I mentioned it to Max he couldn't care less and, in fact, nobody that I knew could care about Japanese music but I did. So I thought well, that's what I'm on about as an Australian and therefore it helped strengthen my own beliefs. A very good example of this is that Egon Wellesz my tutor had just edited the first volume of the Oxford History of Music. The first volume is called Primitive and Oriental Music, and in the book there's not one mention, not even in a footnote, of Aboriginal music and when I brought this up with him, he said, 'but, Aboriginal music is not important.' Well to me it was important. So, nothing he could say would convince me otherwise. In that volume Western, is always spelt - we're talking of the Western world - is always spelt with a capital w, Eastern in lower case (laughs). And so I quickly came to feel that this Eurocentric view of the world was not for me.
Yes the late '50s.
Well, I think, I mean it probably goes back to childhood, when [clears throat], excuse me, some business friends of my uncle's would go to Japan every year and they'd bring back wonderful presents for my cousins. And I had this early contact with Japanese cardboard cut-out castles, Tales of the Genji, and at an early age I began collecting Buddhas for some reason or other, and therefore Asia became very important to my life quite early on.
And Chinese music is the first music that I ever heard.
Yes, that's right. I don't think that at that time that I brought the two together, like the Chinese music and the market garden and the Japanese presents. I don't think I actually pulled all those together in my mind. It was only later. But by the early 60s I had come to feel very strongly that Australia's ... that our next hundred years would be Asian in some way, and I still believe that.
Wilfrid introduced me to much music, particularly American music that was hard to find on recording. Music that I had read about and dreamed about, music written by composers who had been in a similar situation to me. In other words they weren't European and therefore on the outside. I think probably above all while he was quite a bit older, almost 20 years separates us, he made me feel like an equal, he treated me as an important up-and-coming young composer and made me feel good. I suppose in a way he was my real composition teacher, just sitting talking with him and spending time with his family.
He was overjoyed with it. I think this is what he loved actually. Maybe it was because he felt I was a bit exotic. Who knows! But he loved the fact that I was wanting to relate to my own country. I mean he later wrote a book called Music in a New Found Land and that was music about the United States covering so-called serious music, jazz and all kinds of music. That is still the seminal book, and in fact, on the strength of that he was invited to be Andrew Mellon Professor of Music at Pittsburgh. So in the time that I knew him in England he rose from being a humble, extramural lecturer in Birmingham to the highest paid professor of music in the world.
And a lot of artists who went to England at that time felt a great need to become, as it were, part of their environment and in fact it seems that you, in going to England, became much more aware that you were Australian.
Absolutely, but I mean it was my real moment of truth. Going to England at that time was perhaps one of the most important things that ever happened to me. The realisation that maybe because ... oh, I was going to say the world is more of a global village now. It's not really, thank goodness. I mean when it is, we'll have to fly off to the moon or somewhere. Communication might be easier today but the differences in thinking were so clear to me then, that I realised, that either I could ... As Malcolm Williamson the composer said to me 'How could you could go back to Australia,' and, 'How could you, because there is nothing there for you.' And I said, 'Well I could only live where I'm happy' and he said, 'Well, I can only live where I'm successful and maybe if you ...' [INTERUPPTION]
Well, that was my first real moment of truth because it made me realise, simply realise how Australian I am, how that I think in a different way from these people in England even though my mother was born in England. And so I had the opportunity then of deciding whether or not to stay and adapt my way to their way or whether to return home and be what I felt I was, and of course there was no choice. The composer Malcolm Williamson once said, 'How can you go back to Australia, there is nothing there you know for a composer?' And I said, 'Well, I can only live in a place where I'm happy,' and he said, 'Well I can only live in a place where I'm successful.' And at that time I think I could have had success in England because different opportunities certainly came up. I was also writing a good deal of music for the theatre in Oxford and there were more possibilities there than at home. But, I mean, I'm Australian, there wasn't a choice really.
So what, how would you characterise those qualities that you felt were different about you, especially in relation to your music as an Australian? Were you seen to be different from the English around you?
That's a very hard question to answer, but I can perhaps express it like this. Egon, my tutor [clears throat] excuse me, [clears throat].
That's a very hard question to answer. But I will try to put [it] in a nutshell with a little story. Egon, my tutor, felt that I should go to the summer school of music at Darmstadt in Germany. At that [time] in the 50s and 60s Darmstadt was the centre in the world for all contemporary music and it was European and German orientated. So Egon organised a scholarship for me from the German government to go and everyone was so excited. A lot of my friends were so envious because this was the Mecca, and then suddenly I thought summer's coming, we've got vacation, what am I doing going to Germany? I should stay in Thame and write music. And so I decided not to go to Germany and everybody round me thought I was crazy but [you've got] finance, you've got money to go to the home of it all and I said, 'but writing music is more important for me.' Egon was of course mortified. I stayed home in Thame and wrote music and that was, I think, 1959 and the piece that I wrote, the Sonata for viola and percussion, is still going strong today. And looking back not one work that was played at the Darmstadt Festival is now being performed, I think, because it was passing fashion. That's why it was the centre at the time and people were excited. I'm veering from your question ...
This is, it is a different way of thinking. To me it wasn't important as it was to my colleagues, going to Germany. I think I probably didn't understand the ramifications of just how important it was. I do know that writing music seemed to me to be more important.
That's right, which if I had been English I simply wouldn't, well, I wouldn't have wanted to anyway. But I was fortunate in being Australian. So I think that sums up the differences between us.
That's very sad and rather ironic. I was very lucky at Oxford - I'm going to do a bit of a preamble here. I was lucky enough to have a kind of patron or patroness. A woman in her late 80s called Jessie Drummond-Hay and she was Scotland's first lioness of the keyboard and she'd studied with Godowsky in New York and then she married Sir Robert Drummond-Hay, a very wealthy diplomat. I think he was British Ambassador in Egypt at the time of the Suez Canal. He was outrageously unfaithful to her and so one day she just packed up her bag and her young son Robin and went off to New York and lived with the Godowskys. By the time I got to Oxford many years later, it is too long a story to tell how our friendship began, but she became like my patron and she had a house full of wonderful grand pianos that had been given to her as presents. And she wanted [me to] leave Thame and live in Oxford and come to her house to write music at any time. And scholarships are never enough money of course to live on, so I was a barman at a so-called gentlemen's club in North Oxford. And I remember one night I'd closed the bar and then went to Jessie's place and Jessie said, 'your mother phoned from Tasmania,' and I thought that's strange because in those one only every phoned at Christmas, not even on birthdays. We sent cards for birthdays. And so I phoned my mother back and my father had cancer and they'd kept it from me for some time hoping that he'd be all right but things were not good and so that meant of course that there was no question that I should return home. It was a very sad leave taking because the morning that I left to take a train to London, I went back to Jessie's house to say goodbye to her. And her companion came to the door and said that Jessie's unwell and I couldn't see her. And knowing that I would never see her again because I didn't think I would ever return to Oxford, even though at the club most of the members ... sorry I'm rambling, most of the members of the club worked for Morris-Cowley, executives at Morris-Cowley motor works and they were going to give me a Mini Minor and I was going to drive back to Australia, and we spent a lot of our time planning my trip, you know the itinerary, where I would be driving and so on, and that was really exciting. And, saying goodbye to all those men was pretty difficult because I knew I wouldn't be back and I wouldn't be taking that drive.
Yes that's right.
Oh, I will never forget seeing my mother's face at the airport and my brother and his wife. My father didn't have long to live. We were able to get him home from hospital for a short time while I was there. In those days you know, it's so ridiculous, his doctor said that he hadn't told Dad that he had cancer and that we must never mention it, never mention a word. So we knew and I assume my father knew but weren't able to talk about it - just seems awful not to be able to have total honesty in relationships. Anyway, so Dad died and after he died I thought, well Oxford's a long way. It was then, and I only wanted a doctorate for him but I didn't want it for me, so it didn't seem worth going back for it, and all the problems with Egon. But I then wrote a piece in his memory. Do we have room for a slightly longer story to do with Wilfrid Mellers because it is quite an important story. I wrote a piece in my father's memory and I'd like to give you the background. Wilfrid Mellers had been made professor of music in Pittsburgh, the highest paid professorial job in the world. When it came time to fill out the forms, there was the question, have you (are you) been communist? His wife, after the war had joined the Communist Party as many young people in England did at the time, and she lost interest and didn't bother defecting. She didn't defect till many years later when a friend of hers kept pestering her to go back. So they had to be honest about the answer and she was told that either an Act of Congress would prove that she was no longer an enemy of the United States of America, or if she had a child born in the States then automatically her enmity would be cancelled out. It so happened that she was pregnant and I went and saw them off at Heathrow and was so excited because this meant living in the States, on a great salary and so on. Then just after that I went home and I'd been to see my father in hospital and I knew there wasn't long. So I came home from hospital and there was a letter from Wilfrid saying that for one day we were not enemies of the United States, and we had a child and it died. And I was so moved by that and the knowledge of my father's impending death. I had written a song cycle for Wilfrid and his wife Peggy, she was a singer, and one of the songs to D. H. Lawrence words I wasn't really happy with, and I just sat down at the piano and played the song. Somehow all the song just fitted into place and then I realised that this is going to be a work in memory of my father. And it became Irkanda IV, and it was the first work that I'd ever written that sustained applause and rapturous reviews from critics. It was like the landmark work in my life. It's so ironic that it had to be written upon the death of my father who never heard it, and Wilfrid and Peggy's baby. It is probably still one of my best works and it's certainly still having many performances, and when I recently arranged it for the Kronos Quartet, I dedicated it to Wilfrid because he is so much a part of it really. He's long since parted from his first wife actually.
Absolutely, I think in fact that's how it came about because for the first time in my life I experienced real, well, not just suffering, I mean a link in the family was broken and for me it was devastating. And so out of it, I'm not saying that one should suffer to write music, but out of the depth of feeling that I had, if I hadn't written a good piece I probably should have given up I suppose. I had to write a good piece.
I think because I'd proved myself to Dad in sport at any early age, we didn't ever have any real conflict the way many fathers and sons do. We had a very, very close bond, all throughout his life. Whereas my brother, even at the time of his death, he and Dad were still bickering over things they hadn't resolved, the conflict between them. But mine was just [a] very warm loving relationship. I still do dream about him. He died in 1961, so ...
Oh I think it was his forthrightness, his honesty, his sense of justice and fair play, his - I was going to say his love for my mother. This is another story, slightly different but it says something about both my parents I think. I remember when we were very little crossing a road and thinking to myself if a bus came tearing along, and my father, or my mother had the opportunity to save one person only, only one, who would they save? I thought a lot about it; I probably got it wrong. When I thought about it, I decided that Dad would save Mum and she would save Dad. And that was very important to me, because it made me feel sort of strong in their love. In fact I would say that Dad would have saved Mum, and Mum would have tried to save both Roger and me, and probably not saved any of us, being a mother. But his love for his wife and his family was so great that I did respond to ...
Yes, yes. I think if I'd felt that one of them had wanted to save me I would have thought that wasn't fair to my brother, or to another one, but it just seemed to be right. As I say I was probably wrong, but as long as I believed that, it was important, and therefore growing up in their love was important to me.
No, I decided that definitely my future was here because ...
Malcolm Williamson had said he couldn't live anywhere [where] he wasn't going to be a success and you had replied that you wanted to live where you were going to be happy, what made you so confident that you would be happier living in Australia than in England?
Who knows, it may be deep inside me. I was insecure and felt that I had to remain in Australia. I don't think so. I mean, Australia was everything that I was on about and in my music I was trying to find some kind of Australian identity, so it was inevitable that I should want to stay here. I simply wanted to get a job in a university really. And in fact when I had the scholarship to go to Oxford, the University of Melbourne said that probably there would be a job for me on my return. So it all seemed to be fairly hopeful when I got back. And in fact when I flew back from England I stopped off in Sydney and I went to the ABC and I saw the then Director of Music and asked him - why not - would he perform my music and he was quite aghast. I mean he refused but he says, 'You're Australian why should we perform your music?' I then went to the University of Sydney and met Donald Peart who was then Professor of Music and I found him to be a very civilised man and I thought to myself I actually would like to work for him one day and it did come about eventually.
Yes in Tasmania. Because we were a very close family I wanted to stay, be with my mother and my brother and so I went back to work part time in the family business, which had expanded by that time. I did write a great deal of music though and at that time I befriended the painter Russell Drysdale, and we shared a house down the River Tamar, near Launceston. He painted and I wrote music and so on. That was a good period but a bit unstable because I still didn't have a secure job. Eventually a job did come up at the University of Melbourne, and it was for teaching composition and I thought it was tailor-made for me, and I applied. I was short-listed and the job went to a pianist not a composer. I was rather devastated and I found out through a friend that because I suppose I was a little bit wild in my student days, the then Professor of Music said, 'Oh we don't want anybody like that, we don't like his morals,' and said that I'm too wild, and that's why I didn't get a job. He was very conservative, this man. There was later a conference in Hobart and Donald Peart was there and he said there was a job coming up in Sydney, would I be interested, and I told him about the Melbourne story and why I didn't get the job, because they thought I was too wild or something, and Donald said, 'Is that true?' And I said, 'Oh no, it's absolutely untrue, I'm [a] very conventional, very conservative person.' 'Oh what a pity,' he said. He said, 'I'd have thought you'd be just the person for the job from what I'd heard' (laughs). And then I'm saying, 'Oh well, it's not entirely untrue,' (laughs) and eventually I did get the job in Sydney and that was the beginning of the next stage of my life in 1963.
Well, it was really because of Donald Peart. He was a visionary. He introduced the harpsichord to Australia, the gamelan, he got me to teach twelve-note music and we had letters of abuse from universities saying how dare you. In other words he broke all the barriers, he wanted me to create a real school of composition. So therefore he was offering me a position, giving me the opportunity to open up a world of teaching and a kind of school of music the like of which I'd wanted all my life but hadn't been able to find in Melbourne or in Oxford. And I think we did a pretty good job because in the late 60s there was an article about our department in the New Statesman, in which it said we were perhaps the most exciting music department in the world.
Well, I suppose much of the teaching I'd received had been to do with being taught rather old-fashioned musical techniques. There hadn't been any interest in me as a human being, or in my interests. And so, what I tried to do was say well look, you can learn techniques from the books, you can write in any style you like, and I'll criticise the music but what you've got to do is find out who you are, what you're on about as a human being. You've got to open your self up to all kinds of influences, ideas and know what's going on around you. So basically it was trying to help human beings to fly, to be who they really were, because that's what I'd always wanted. But no one ever did it for me, except perhaps some teachers going way back to my school days.
Well, music tends to be the one area of the arts that lags behind in every way. And in the '60s, music really hadn't caught up with Europe, what was going on internationally. And, so in a way, my job was to help young composers, not with their Australianess but with what was happening in the rest of the world, and to show them techniques and ideas, of other places. In my own work of course I had left all that behind, I'd left Europe behind ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I was trying to create my own vision of Australia. People often say, 'Your music has an Australian sound.' Well I'm not sure about that, I'm not sure that I believe in the idea of an Australian sound. But if one thinks of painting and if you look at say a Sid Nolan painting or a Fred Williams, their paintings of Australia are simply their vision of Australia and their vision is very easily recognisable. And so I really set out to write music that was my vision of Australia that could be easily recognisable, not trying to write Australian music any more than they were setting out to paint Australian paintings. So I was doing that, but meantime I was teaching music from all round the world, trying to open up the world for students. What is interesting I think is that those students from the 60s like Barry Conyngham, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and so on, who did finally look to Australia or look to Asia and Australia, they're the ones who emerged from that period, not the composers who were still looking to Europe. And that's the case today. I mean those composers who are looking at Australia are the composers who are performed outside Australia, because in the outside world people want to know about the country, know what we're doing. Nobody is interested in Australian composers writing like European composers and why should they?
When you came back to Australia choosing happiness or a place that you felt good about being in, instead of success, you nevertheless almost immediately wrote a piece that brought you the applause and the praise that you'd not had before. Did that continue, did your work continue to be accepted and understood and reviewed well?
Yes, I was given the first Alfred Hill Award for a string quartet and again I think it was the death of a friend that caused this work to be not a bad work.
My String Quartet Number Six and Tass Drysdale's wife Bonnie was a very close friend and she committed suicide and that affected me deeply and the work is dedicated to her. And again, I think, because these feelings that I had, that went into the work, the work was in fact my next best piece. I remember it was before April Fool's Day in the Sydney Town Hall in 1965 and that was another special moment really. After that I was commissioned by Sir Bernard Heinze through the ABC to write a work for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for the Commonwealth Festival in London. And I felt that it was time to move on, a little bit. I was having a lot of trouble with the pieces. I said to Sir Bernard, 'What'll I do?' and he said, 'Why don't you write a piece without rhythm, melody or harmony.' It's not quite possible, but I set out to do that and it became Sun Music I, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played it in London, and it was an enormous success and it suddenly seemed to present that view of Australia to the outside world. And I suppose after Irkanda IV, Sun Music was the next big landmark in my compositional career.
I was looking for a title, I like to have titles before I begin pieces, because you know if... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I was seeking a title that might have Australian resonances, and if I were an English composer and I called a piece of music [that], well it would be a very different work from being an Australian composer because here the sun is not only a giver of life but it's a destroyer, and I wanted to put all those opposites into the piece. I usually try to find a title before I begin a piece because you know a composer is a chooser, and getting from one bar to the next is hard enough. But if you can find a way to limit the choices, then you are going to be able to get there more easily. So a title helps, a duration and certainly the instrumentation that's dictated to you, the kind of orchestra or the kind of group, even the players, because I find I like to write with certain players in mind and if I'm thinking of writing for somebody's violin I know where I like it to sound best, and so I build all these limitations into my work. Because if one were totally free then one is, oh, just on the ground, you can never fly, but if you're, in music, if you're limited almost chained down, then you can fly, because all these limitations help you to fly up.
Bearing in mind that you like to write for particular players, you were writing the Sun Music for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and you were doing a work that was very different from what these, I imagine, fairly conservative musicians were used to playing, how did they receive it when you asked them to play it?
Well, that work I was writing for Sir Bernard, having known him since student days, and he's always been a wonderful friend to me, so I didn't think so much about the players. Now many of the notations in the score were written in symbols, like graphic symbols, and not in normal musical notation, and when the orchestra sat down, everyone sort of looking at the music, (clears throat) and finally the orchestra just got up and walked out. I mean it was (laughs) ... I was quite devastated. And the players refused to play. So they had a meeting and Lois Simpson who was then the leader of the cellos said to everybody, 'Look, why don't we humour Peter and play the piece?' She said, 'We know he can write a tune if he wants to, but he certainly hasn't written one here, so let's go and play the piece and humour him.' So they came back and humoured me.
I think they ... some of them probably liked it. Even today one member of the cellos says, 'Sun Music IV is my favourite piece of yours.' So, yes it did get through.
It had very mixed reaction in that people either raved, you know just went out of their minds about it, or castigated it. I mean this is what every composer wants, one thing or the other, but not the middle, anything but that polite middle ground. And audiences loved it, and it was very important for me, because my publishers had heard my String Quartet No. 6, or the firm that was to become my publishers, and I think that the performance of Sun Music I in London helped confirm their interest. And so I went to London, not for that performance but later in the year, on my way to the United States, and signed a contract with Faber Music and that was very important to me.
Well, I suppose it's symbolic in that it means that somebody out there loves it. But it's very important because it means that no longer did I have to supply - for instance if an orchestra is playing a piece then I have to supply the score and a part for every single player, say a hundred players, and that's very time consuming. But a publisher takes all that over, and the publisher also collects the fees and in fact does all the business, so it's important time wise. It's also important ... I've lost that, what's important.
I think it's important for all people. Like a writer, it's important to a writer to see words in print and for a composer to see music in print, that's very special. I was staying in London later that year after the performance with Tass Drysdale and Maisie, his second wife, and Faber asked Tass to do the cover of Sun Music I and he was having trouble because of the light. It was winter and he couldn't seem to find the right colours, and he was building a house at Hardy's Bay, beyond Woy Woy, and by coincidence his son-in-law sent him for Christmas a handful of Australian earth from the property, and he got so excited about this that he mixed up the colours, mixed up paints from the earth and painted the cover of Sun Music I, which is very special.
I'm always combing books of Aboriginal word names, looking for good Aboriginal words. That one means a remote and lonely place, but I'm always on the look out for a good title. But hard to come by, really.
I loved [it], I mean I really thrived ...
I always say that I probably learn more from them than they do from me. It's just a mutual enjoyment really.
As a teacher of course one complained all the time that there was never enough time for one's music but I've always felt that the more you do, the more you do, really. And if I hadn't been teaching I'm sure I wouldn't have written any more music, maybe less. Donald Peart was very keen for me to spend time away as well. I actually didn't want to go away. And one day Nugget Coombs said to me, 'I think you should go to the States.' And I said, 'I don't want to go to the States I'm happy here,' and he said, 'Oh you've got to, it's good for you, it's going to open up so much for you.' They were days when one didn't really apply for things, everything was very informal, and so Nugget organised for me to have a Harkness Fellowship and I went to live in the States for about two years and that's when I stayed with Tass and Maisie Drysdale in London. Tass had an exhibition there and I was on my way to the States. And that was a good time. I decided that as Harkness, Edward Harkness, the man who left the money for the fund, had endowed a good part of Yale University, it would be a good idea to go to Yale as composer-in-residence, thinking that as a Harkness Fellow I might have special consideration. And I think it did help.
I suppose it was really - apart from making lifelong friends, and I mean friends have always been important to me - I think opening me up to the world of American music, first hand. And opening me up to the manners and mores of America, a place that I had actually never particularly wanted to go to, but of course I loved it.
I think it's the openness. In the music that I like best, American music, there's an outdoors quality inevitably of course, music that goes from the sea coast, to the prairie, to the mountains. Whereas in Europe, partly because of climate, there's an interior feeling to much of the music, and because it's interior, it tends to be about people, people being brought together inside and of course the moment people are brought together there are often problems. Therefore European music tends to be, much of it, more darkly psychological or about the human psyche than much American music. And while I don't deny human beings from my music, it's really the landscape that inspires me and therefore being able to relate to the landscapes and the landscape music of America was important.
Well, most of them actually were composers of an earlier time, like Charles Ives in particular, but composers like Roy Harris, and then coming up Henry Brant, but even John Cage. Lou Harrison, because of his interest in Asian music. A composer like Lou Harrison was a great inspiration because I lean towards Asia but never really quite found a way to incorporate Asian ideas into my music and Lou had. And therefore he was a very good role model for me.
Well, it was an incredible time, because there were writers like John Cheever, Eudora Welty. Susan Sontag was there for a while. My favourite person was Malcolm Cowley, who was quite old at that stage, and he'd documented the American push to Paris earlier in the century and he was the authority on that and I loved to hear him talk about the Americans in Paris and about Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane, and everybody. I befriended an Italian writer, of Italian extraction, while I was there, and he used to read me bits from his novel which he decided he was going to sell to the movies and make him a fortune. He had a large family in New York, he was incredibly poor and whenever we'd go for a drink to a bar, I'd quietly pay for his round, to help him. Anyway I thought his book wasn't too bad. His name was Mario Puzo and the book was The Godfather, so he owes me a drink sometime. I also discovered living amongst artists, that writing music takes more time physically than any of the other arts. At that time there were some action painters there and they'd put a bit of paint on a bike wheel and spin it round and have their day's work even before breakfast. Writers, many of them would finish writing by midmorning, coffee time or by lunch time, because they were very disciplined - to the typewriter straight after breakfast. Sculptors would finish as the light began to fail in the late afternoon. Composers would stagger in at dinner time and after dinner when everyone else went off to enjoy themselves we'd go back to our cabins and copy out neatly what we'd done during the day. So it was very clear that writing music is the most time consuming of the arts, but I'm sure that none of us would do anything else. That's what we love.
I knew that I'd be back one day, just the fact of having made so many friends. And what is really interesting was that I wrote Sun Music III at Yaddo and a few years later it was performed in Carnegie Hall. [INTERRUPTION]
I think whenever I've been away, and part of the best thing about going away is coming back, I love coming back and I really look forward to being with my students again at the University. Because being unmarried, I suppose my students were like my family and also because I write music about Australia, it's better to be here. Although you know I wrote Sun Music III at Yaddo in upper New York State and when it was performed in Carnegie Hall, actually a few years later, a New York reviewer said this music could only have been written in Australia. Little did he know it'd been written up the road from New York. But I do need contact with Australia for my work.
And so you're back at Sydney University and you were writing yourself and working well with your students. From your point of view what was the next most significant event that took place in your life, that changed things for you in any way?
Well, my life seems made up with significant events but this was a very significant event. And it was theSun Musicballet and Bobby Helpmann, who'd been a really good friend, he wanted to do a ballet around my Sun Music. I had to write some more music and we did the ballet in 1968. I mean, I don't regard the music as my best music, far from it and certainly played in the pit of theatres it wasn't played very well. But it was the publicity, the hype around it, was very important to me because it took my name out of the concert hall and out to all kinds of people all over the place - and after all a composer writes for people, we write for people, we write for society. It presented my name to more people and therefore it was very important. If not from a musical point of view, from a ... well, we'll say a career point of view.
Well again, it's this idea of being limited. You know, for instance, the easiest music of all to write is film music because you are only writing little grabs of music. They need to make sense, they've got to be the right music of course. So writing for theatre in a way is easier than writing for the concert hall. But of course it's got to be the right music again. Talking of film music, in that same year I did write the music for Age of Consent, that was directed by Michael Powell, and that was really exciting because I went up to Dunk Island where they were filming, and I remember lying on the beach with James Mason and looking at his - the fact that he didn't have a tummy at all, and saying, 'How do you do it James?' And he said, 'Well,' he said, 'I'm never the first to arrive at a party, but I'm the second and never the first to leave, but the second to leave. I just discipline my life.' And I thought I'd rather have a bit of a tummy I think. That was a good time. I was very pleased with the score and after I'd finished I went to Japan and, you know in the 60s we all thought we were Zen Buddhists, I even used to put it in Who's Who, so I decided that I should live in a Zen Buddhist monastery. That's another story, that I might tell you about. But it seemed the film had its premiere in Australia and when they took it to London there was something about the transfer of the music to the soundtrack that made ... it didn't work in theatres outside Australia, and I wouldn't understand why. And so Michael wanted me to send the score to London to re-record it, and of course, nobody knew where I was because I was in a Zen monastery in Japan and in the end he had to get an English composer to write another score for it, almost overnight. So it's not my score on the film. But there has been talk over recent years of restoring my score to the film, because Michael is of course a cult figure and they're trying to have everything the way he really wanted it.
When you were approached to do a film what was your first reaction, about writing film music? What did you feel about it? What sort of thoughts went through your head as you thought about working on film music? Was it attractive to you?
Well, I first had my chance to write film music through the old Commonwealth Film Unit and Stanley Hawes and Monita Eagles, who was in charge of music there, and I wrote for quite a few documentaries and I loved it. It was also a way of earning a little bit of money - not much. So I think I enjoyed writing for those documentary films because the directors knew music, and knew what they wanted. But later in my life, when I was working with directors who really didn't seem to have a clue, I found it very time consuming and frustrating. And I keep saying I'll never write for film again because of those.
Yes, I mean for instance when I wrote the music for Manganinnie, a little Tasmanian film, and John Honey, the director, knows music, plays the cello and the guitar, we looked at the film, we decided on [a] certain thematic structure of the music, almost like a leit motif for the different characters. And then I went away, wrote the music, we recorded it and then laid it to film, nothing changed from the moment John and I discussed it and worked on it. And basically I was doing what he wanted and what he knew he wanted, and so the film, modest film and music, kept winning awards and so on. But in the last feature film I did, Burke and Wills, the director, whom I love dearly and would probably be mad enough to work with again, he never knew what he wanted and I'd have to record, say, 24 little tracks so that we could put them to film to see if he thought they worked. And you know it was a dreadful waste of money and time.
The thing that strikes me about Burke and Wills is that the music in it is fantastically memorable. I mean it's very hard to get the music of Burke and Wills out of your head once you've seen that film, but it didn't always seem to fit into the film in a way.
I think there is some terrific music in the film and I think it's a very bad film score. And I can give you a very simple example of this. At the time that I was writing it, I had a European folk song on the brain 'The Three Ravens'. I decided I wanted to find out more about this and I discovered the song was about love and loyalty and the quest for the Holy Grail. And I thought this is fantastic, because Wills was on the expedition, it was his quest for the Holy Grail. With Burke it was for power and money. And so I decided to put 'Three Ravens' in a major key and make it Wills' melody, theme. And so the film begins with a 'Croquet Waltz' which is based on the 'Three Ravens' in a major key, which in a major key is so like Parsifal it's not true. And it becomes a quicker quadrille and so on. Half way through the film, Wills is talking to Burke about his quest for the Holy Grail and we're out at Lindfield putting it to the film and I wrote a really beautiful bit of music I think, like a Hayden string quartet, as Wills is talking to Burke about his quest. And one of the sound boys at the back said, 'Oh for Christ's sake it sounds as though they're having it off together'. And Graham said, 'Oh we can't have this, it sounds as if they're having it off together.' So the thread of the Wills theme was cut half way through the film, and then it was suddenly restored at the end where it is put into a minor key for the first time. But hearing it you wouldn't have a clue why, because it takes the course of the film before it's presented in its minor form at Wills' death. And so that is an example of the sort of thing that happened with the film. It was because the director didn't really know what he wanted. It makes it very difficult because a composer is there to serve the director, and if the director doesn't know well ...
While we're on the subject of writing for other media rather than just the concert hall, what about opera? Tell me about your relationship to opera and how that's affected the way that you write and what you feel about writing opera?
Wee, I suppose as long as composers exist we'll always want to write for the theatre, for a combination of music, orchestral music and song and wonderful visual things. My first opera was actually to be for the opening of the [Sydney] Opera House. There were so many problems that I had to do with management at the time and also with assembling the libretto. I had very difficult times with a number of librettists who simply didn't understand musical time. I mean, basically they were writing plays that one sets to music. But if you set a play to music, a play that might take two hours, set to music it could take four or five hours, because musical time is different. So I had a great deal of trouble and eventually decided to assemble the libretto myself, and by that time it was clear that I wouldn't be ready for the opening. I was very happy about that because I think that the responsibility was simply too great for anybody. It would have to disappoint like Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra for the opening of the new Met in New York. It's actually a very good opera but it disappointed because it palled before the building itself. And so I wrote this opera, Rites of Passage which was more a kind of dance work. It was really based on the ideas of Lully, an early French composer, in which he felt that opera should be an equal mixture of instrumental music, choral music, and some song, dance - what he called 'les merveilleux' - wonderful things happening on stage. And so it was an opera in the Lully sense but I was roundly condemned for not writing an opera because it wasn't in the Italian nineteenth-century sense. But I was very ... fairly happy.
It was certainly the best music that I could write at that time. The score does need a lot of work done to it, on it, and I just haven't had time, because a lot of opera houses have expressed interest in mounting it, and I should do something about that. I think the problem with Rites of Passage is that it was like a Philip Glass opera, long before Philip Glass operas, and therefore the manner of it, the style, was not acceptable. Whereas today Philip Glass operas are very acceptable and I think Rites of Passage would fit in very well.
You decided you wanted to live in Australia and work in Australia, but like a lot of Australians who do that find travel absolutely essential, after you had your stay in America did you go away much after that?
In the early '70s I went to England and I was visiting Professor at the University of Sussex and, in fact, I wrote most of Rites of Passage there. That was a very pleasant period because I lived for a while at a little village called Glynde, which is near Glyndebourne, and lived in Lewes and even in Brighton for a little bit. And I loved that part of the world. I was there for a good two years because, again, Donald Peart was keen for me to go away and to bring ideas back and so on. That was the last time in the early '70s that I actually lived somewhere else other than Sydney. I might have, say, been to the Soviet Union for three weeks or ...
The Zen monastery was in the early '60s, earlier yes. Or Aspen Colorado for the festival, for the fortnight, and so on. I can't see that I will be living anywhere else than Sydney for the rest of my life. But I enjoy travelling and being away for a short time.
That was the third in theSun Musicseries not the first one, yes.
I think that I had to write Rites of Passage away from Australia being a big work and by that time I was getting a lot of demands being made upon me for my time, even students, and so it was better to be right away from it all in order to get the work done. I think after I came back I somehow found a way to control my life better, so that I could tend to everybody's needs, and student needs and also write music. And, I think, maybe it's even plane travel. Although we travelled, just travel seemed to become easier or places around the world seemed to become closer. It just appeared, at least to me, better to go somewhere for a short time and come back. Is that answering the question?
In a way although you've concealed in that a very easy remark, something that I'm sure everybody would love to know the secret of. You said that you'd somehow learnt to control your life so that you were able to meet all the demands placed on you. Now knowing the extent and depth of those demands that are placed on you, how do you do it?
I think I missed out a word or two in that. I'm able to control my life, I was able to control it and still am able to, better than I had earlier. But it's still very difficult. I think it's partly to do with delegation, deciding that I just can't do everything, and other people - I just need other people to help me, help me get through. With correspondence, with whatever.
Well, I have a secretary to do letters, and a music assistant to put my music into the computer and attend to all music matters, and a personal assistant to attend to everything involving the written word, apart from letters that is. At the moment he is pulling together all my published writings, to put them into a book and so on. And then if I need other help or if they need help, well then we'll get extra help.
What, after you decided to stay in Australia? You'd had a number of events in your life before that usually involved moving away for a period and then coming back. In terms of your life from the 70s onward, how, what was the next thing that happened to you here in Australia that affected the way in which you were developing?
I think earlier I had been consciously adapting Asian musics, Japanese and Balinese in particular, into my own music. I think first of all that these musics began to become a part of the very nature of my own work. In some they were assimilated and became a part of my style. The next was because I was very caught up with Aboriginal land rights. Having earlier said that Aboriginal music has nothing to offer a composer, I certainly began to look at it more seriously, and by that time of course there were books on Aboriginal music which there hadn't been earlier. So I was able to look at it more, to really look at it, instead of just having a scant knowledge. And so I slowly began to, as Asia receded, Aboriginal music began to enter into my work, and I think for me in my work that was very significant. I remember when Port Essington was performed in the Opera House in 1977, and I had letters from Aboriginal leaders thanking me for what I'd done and thanking me for bringing about this awareness. Because even in 1977 Aborigines were still like a non-people, even as late as that, and I think support from them helped me continue in that direction. It's very interesting though because later some of my students, who were doing work with urban Aborigines, discovered that a few people disapproved of what I was doing and so finally I asked Burnum Burnum what I should be doing, and he said, 'You must keep on doing what you're doing. We know you do it from your heart.' Because I've never stepped over the line. For instance in the film Burke and Wills, the director wanted the sound of a bullroarer, and he wanted it in a part of the country where a bullroarer never sounds anyway. Well, I didn't want to do it because it's a sacred object and women shouldn't hear it in some parts of Australia, and the director insisted. So I synthesised the sound of a bullroarer and in passing it sounds like a bullroarer but any Aborigine would know it's not. And I think in doing things like that, little stories get around and it's felt that I haven't transgressed.
Those who were criticising you were criticising you for what is called 'cultural appropriation', were they? And that has become the issue. In terms of talking about a line, you say you won't use a sacred sound but you have drawn themes from Aboriginal music. Would you talk about your approach when you're doing that?
Yes, I've used only one melody exactly as it is, and that is in 1974 I wrote music for a little ABC feature film called Essington with a script by Tom Keneally and it needed to have an Aboriginal melody in it. So I listened to three recordings by Professor Elkin and there was one melody, the moment I heard it I knew it had to be that, called 'Djilile'; it means 'whistling duck'. That is a species of whistling duck on a billabong, and I love the melody so much I've used it exactly, note for note, as it is, in a number of works, since that time. Now what is really interesting is that a student at Columbia University in New York is writing a thesis on my string quartets and he discovered in my String Quartet No. 4, written in 1950 that I've used this 'Djilile' melody note for note at the same pitch, but in a different rhythm, and he was so astonished by this that he traced the melody through my works up to the time that I knew the melody 'Djilile'. So it's clear that this configuration of notes - I'd never heard the Aboriginal melody - it's just that this particular configuration of notes happens to be something that means something special to me. And of course the moment I heard the Aboriginal version of this configuration of course I had to use it. And anyway it is the only melody that I've used note for note. Otherwise I've tended to listen to a melody and hum it, and sing it to myself and slowly over a period, little changes occur and it becomes more a melody that's more in my own particular style of melody.
Before you became so absorbed in using Aboriginal themes, Asia was the big thing for you. How did that evolve? Can you tell me the story of how you developed and used your contact and interest in Asia with your own music.
Well, I mentioned having had, when I was very little, music in the Chinese market garden. And when I was a student in Melbourne I had heard an arrangement of Japanese court music on a recording by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. I was so impressed by this music that I wanted to find out what I could about Japanese music. And that wasn't difficult because, for many years, there have been books on Japanese music and Japanese culture [is] easily available. And so I came to know Japanese music reasonably well even before I arrived in Sydney to teach in 1963. And then Donald Peart got me to teach ethnomusicology, basically Asian music. And I was totally untrained of course but it was all done out of love and enthusiasm. So in teaching the music and being one lecture ahead of my students I was able to, I was forced to learn more about it. And eventually I did go to Japan as I mentioned earlier, thinking I was a Zen Buddhist. I went to live in a Zen Buddhist monastery to discover that I'm not a Zen Buddhist. Because the first thing I had to do was to leave, divest myself of possessions. Well I mean I'm a possession person, I love owning things and I'd bought a beautiful Japanese gilded Buddha, and I had to put it in a locker in the Kyoto railway station. I actually used to sneak out of the monastery to go and look at that, and touch my Buddha. But what will always remain with me from that time, was that I discovered Shintoism. There are two religions in Japan; Shinto is the state religion, and Buddhism. I became friendly with the abbot of a Shinto shrine, not so far away and the difference between the two is that when I would arrive at the Shinto shrine the abbot's wife and daughter would rush out to meet me and we would go inside and sit on the floor and have the green tea, and sweet cakes. At the Buddhist place I didn't ever meet one wife or child, because the families lived in compounds outside the temple. At the Shinto place everything grew in the garden as nature intended. At the Buddhist place if you looked carefully you would find trees and all the plants were pulled with little wires into shapes against nature. At the Shinto place there was a waterfall like something from a Hokusai print, just as nature intended. At the Buddhist place there was a very, very famous much photographed waterfall with no water; it was just rocks and people would come and exclaim looking at it, saying how wonderful it was. But to me as a pragmatic Australian all I could see was rocks not a waterfall at all. And then there was the problem of the riddles because the idea with Buddhism is that Zen Buddhism, if the mind is purged of logic then it can easily leap up into enlightenment. Well this was a problem because I spoke little Japanese and my Zen master spoke some German. My German wasn't so good and he spoke no Australian. Communication wasn't easy. But he'd ask me a question, and I might get it right and suddenly a little man with a bamboo rod with a split at the end would come and thwack me on the back, and then he'd ask me another question and I'd get it wrong and I'd get a thwack on the back, and then another question and I'd get it wrong and then I wouldn't be hit on the back. In other words the idea was to get rid of the logic and get rid of expectation. Well, my back was a bit of a mess, but I think if I'd stayed too much longer I would have gone mad because it's just not my way at all. I'm sure Zen Buddhism is fine for other people and it doesn't distinguish between east and west - it's just that it's not for me. But Shintoism I've been drawn to ever since that time. It's a kind of Pantheism.
That's right, and also springing from the sun goddess herself and the worship of what is natural and what is nature, and there's no dogma attached to it. But I don't think anybody who's not Japanese could take to Shintoism because I think it goes too deep into the psyche really. To me it's a very attractive, more than attractive, religion.
Yes in particular ...
Do you want me to go back to that first ...
When I was a student in Melbourne I heard an arrangement of Japanese court music. It was a recording by Stokowski with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. And this was the first Asian music of any kind that I'd heard in between the times I'd heard Chinese music in the market garden when I was young. And again I was very drawn to it, I can't explain what it was. Well if one could explain maybe it wouldn't have the same power. And that made me want to learn about Asian musics. And it certainly was easy to find out about Japanese music and culture because the Japanese have always been very good with their own propaganda. And there were lots of books and so I was able to become something of an expert, well, in an amateur way, on Japanese music. And then later when I went to the University of Sydney ...
Well I certainly have used some of the harmonies. What also is interesting is that the names of notes like C, and D, notes of the scale have special meanings for me. And there's a Japanese court music piece called Etenraku, beginning with an E. And of course E is the lowest note of the double bass, of most double basses. And when I use that low note, for me it represents eternity. E for eternity. And of course Etenraku, means music from heaven, beginning with an E. So in some way because that work and many other Japanese court music pieces are founded on an E, [it] made it very easy for me actually to appropriate some of this music, to take it over into my own music and transform it in some way. But I have also used some of the melodies, very ancient melodies, some of them from the sixth century. I have used note for note in some works of mine and I expect I will continue to do so.
Oh, before leaving that I should mention that in Japanese court music often the wind instruments play a little bit behind, a little bit ahead of each other so that you get this lovely, sometimes almost like forming a halo around a melody. And I've adapted that idea, and I often use it, I call it 'fore paso' in Italian, which means out of step. So you have one instrument playing the main melody and other instruments playing about it and it's rather a nice idea. Japanese music then was important to me for some years. And because I had to teach Balinese music, teach Indonesian music at the University of Sydney, I mean Donald Peart felt that Indonesian music was particularly important because of Indonesia being a neighbour and he brought the first gamelan into Australia which we had at the University of Sydney. And so I had to learn all about that, to my pleasure, and to teach it. And so in learning about it, somehow I was able to have the figurations and the sound, more the textures of the music enter my own music. I remember back in Yale days I was on the doorstep of the Yale Co-op on the morning in 1966 when Colin McPhee's book Music in Bali came out. I must have bought the first copy. And this is the great book on Balinese music and certainly it's that book that influenced my work with Bali. But what is really interesting is that by the time that I did finally reach Bali, and I tried many times - once I was about to leave on a little light plane, a Garuda plane, and the weather was so bad we weren't able to take off and things kept militating against it - by the time I did go to Bali in 1974 the influence was slowly, not so much passing from my music as entering at another level into my music, and by 1974 Japanese influences were passing, except for the storehouse of ancient melodies that I've used ever since that time. And what was happening was that as the Asian musics were entering at another level, less superficial level really, Aboriginal music was beginning to come in. But I've never ceased to believe that our next 100 years will be Asian in some way.
You went to Indonesia. You went to Bali to make a documentary about Balinese music, didn't you, and that was in the early '70s. That was a bit of ... took a different direction from what you were imagining.
Well, it was little bit like my Japanese experience. I had expected Zen Buddhism to give me the answer to everything and I was very disappointed. I had read all these accounts of Bali and Balinese music and Balinese culture, and I had expected something quite different and in one way richer than the Bali and the music that I found. Although finally, I suppose it was just different. I had been led astray by books in other words and when I did finally discover Balinese music, it was just incredible. But it was just very different and very disappointing at first. Even things like, you know you read about how, what consummate musicians Balinese are, and their sense of rhythm and so on and so on. I wrote a little gamelan piece for some Balinese musicians and because they don't read Western notation I had to teach it to them playing the instruments. And, to find that their sense of rhythm was about as deficient as mine, that was a big shock [laughs] because I was expecting them to be perfect. I know it shouldn't be, we're all human, but - and looking back it was rather nice that they are human and that they couldn't count so well.
Reality that's right, and reality of course was much better than my romantic notion. As discovering Shintoism in Japan was much more wonderful than this romantic idea I had of Zen Buddhism.
It's very hard to give an example without becoming technical. Maybe one example is that much Balinese music is made up of punctuation, on many levels. You know there'll be a big gong, [which] will punctuate a long section of music and a slightly smaller gong will punctuate a less long section of music, within the long section, and then a smaller one within a small section. So you've got all these levels of punctuation and it might be hard to hear the other, the smaller levels in my music. But certainly you will also hear this deeper tam tam or deeper gong punctuating the sections in my music. There are many other ideas but as I say I would have to get rather technical to explain. It's mostly to do with textures though.
Can we now go right back in time to the wild student whose reputation later got him into ... when you were regarded, you said, you'd perhaps been ... At Melbourne University, when you first went there as an undergraduate, you had a reputation for being a little bit wild. In what way were you wild?
Well I suppose it was because of rehabilitation students and many of my friends were older - older men, older women - more experienced, and I suppose I was just doing what they were all doing and being. Perhaps I was lucky to spend time with people who were sexually experienced really.
I mean here I am unmarried, I think I'm a monogamous person, which is probably rare for a man. I mean my mother always used to say women are monogamous and men are basically polygamous and we women have got to do our best to keep them on the straight and narrow sort of thing. I think I'm basically monogamous because when I was about 13 I was at a school dance, and this girl Elizabeth said if I could climb that clock tower and put her apple core on the little hand of the clock she would swap badges with me, which meant we were sort of betrothed as school kids. So of course I climbed the tower and put the apple core on it, and we were about 13 and we were together until we both went to university in our later teens. But she went to Hobart and I went to Melbourne and so our relationship slowly dissipated. In Melbourne I did become engaged to a very nice girl; for some reason I decided I wanted to get married. My parents said, Oh, where are you getting the money for the ring from? And (laughs) how right they were of course. But she produced a family heirloom ring and so that was no problem, but after a while I decided I would actually have to have a tent or something out in the back yard, that I really couldn't share my life. I thought this is for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it. And so the engagement was broken off. I actually organised a triangle in order not to hurt her feelings, so that she actually broke off the engagement.
Oh, I'm sure because writing music is ... well, my mother used to say,He's married to his music, and I'd expect that's the way it is. It's because it's so demanding, the hours or at least the way I write is so demanding that it doesn't leave much room for a proper relationship, only for a relationship that's laden with guilt because of the way one isn't able to tend to it, really.
You'd had before you, as a child, an image of a really good relationship between your parents and often that then is something that you feel, well that's a good thing to have in your life as a human being.
At the time I felt it but perhaps it wasn't, perhaps it was too - not that it was perfect of course - but perhaps it was too good a relationship. Perhaps I felt that I couldn't live up to the model given to me by my parents. But I'm glad I lived through that.
Well over the years there were a few. Well when I say longer, maybe relationships for a year or so, a year or two. But they tended to fall away, mainly because of a slight lack of commitment from me. I mean I was again engaged to be married. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, I did feel quite strongly about somebody in the late '60s and then in the early '70s when I was living in England and she was living in England, I did want to marry her. We became engaged and it was a very happy time in my life. And I was really looking forward to this. I came back to Australia - she was still in England - and I was busy making plans for the future and then she broke off the engagement and I sort of ... well people around me said it really affected me very badly. Certainly, I felt I was rather devastated. I still don't know if it was partly pride, but I was devastated. And she, herself, because she was a very special person, took the blame for this. I don't want to go into those details. But many years later, because we're still very good friends, she told me that the real reason was that she felt that I wasn't quite committed enough and I'm sure she's right. I thought I was committed but heavens above a woman knows better than a man. And if she felt that I wasn't quite committed enough to her then I think she was probably right, and I was unaware of it. So it's just ... I mean I lead a very happy life, a very fulfilled life. I would like to have had a right relationship, and recently when one of my nieces gave birth to a little boy who smiles all the time, and he just makes everybody's day feel the better for coming across him, I thought, oh maybe I really missed out on something by not having children. This is the first time, actually, with little William that I've felt that I've missed out but of course you can't predict what kind of children you're going to have. I might have had a monster so ...
Given that periods of great emotional intensity have produced some of your best music, after the break up of the most significant relationship it sounds like in your life, how did, what were you writing?
I was actually finishing Rites of Passage but at that stage it was sheer hard work. I mean I wasn't depending on inspiration, on any kind of suffering to dictate what I was doing. That's a very interesting question actually, because it hadn't occurred to me that my next piece was a work called The Song of Tailitnama and in that work written in 1974 I suddenly broke new ground. It was a kind of new me. There is no suffering in it, in fact it's one of the few pieces that doesn't actually have any angst of any kind. And I still regard it as one of my best pieces. So maybe that came as a result of living through that bad period and I've never thought of that before.
Well, it was certainly a new dependence upon Aboriginal musics and ideas. For instance, I'd never really ... you know how a didgeridoo is a drone, it's one note. I mean you can vary it of course, but it's basically one note that sounds on and on. I'd never used that, the idea of a drone in my music as much as in The Song of Tailitnama. It's interesting that the pitch that I chose for it is A, and of course for me A always means Australia, so I think I was entering into a period where pitches had even more special meanings for me. And where romanticism actually tends to be purged. I mean The Song of Tailitnama is not a romantic work, it doesn't mean that it may not be a deep work, but it's more classical, in a sense it's a little cooler. And it just sounds - rather than pour out emotion.
Less longing, more serenity ... The '70s was a period which Australia remembers as a period of great cultural nationalism and yet that had been something that you'd been about for a long time before that. Was it a period, in some ways, in which you came into your own, in which the atmosphere around you in the country, what was happening in all art forms, came into tune in a way with what you'd been after?
I think so because at the end of the '70s, in 1979, that was like the climax to that point of my compositional life because I think that my Cello Requiem and my orchestral work, Mangrove, probably, will always be two of my best pieces. And in a sense they were, they pulled together what it was clear, looking back, were the main musical influences on my life, and they are - I'm not Catholic - but they're plainchant of the Catholic Church, ancient Japanese chant, the court music in particular, and Aboriginal chant. And it's so interesting somehow at the end of the '70s these were being pulled together, sometimes coexisting in music. Maybe partly because I think all music aspires to song, and I think that those three kinds of song are amongst the greatest musics produced by the human race. I mean with plainchant it often sounds arbitrary, just as though its meandering along. But if you pull out one note it sounds wrong and it doesn't work. And the same with the other musics. So I think, yes, of the '70s that's when these three very different musics began to converge in my work.
[The] eighties seemed to bring more, a great deal more travel. I didn't travel a great deal in the '70s but I did in the '80s. It brought a great deal more exposure, outside Australia, I mean. Like the Kronos Quartet championing my music and many performers outside ...
Actually the Kronos Quartet had played my String Quartet No. 8 for some years and they decided that they wanted to put the Quartet on a financial footing, so they gave a big concert, and it was beautifully organised and I think at that stage they were wearing Frankenstein outfits for their concerts and afterwards they gave a wonderful party. And then after the party there was a sort of meeting with the people they hoped would put money into the group, the financiers. The basic feeling was they loved the concert, the way it looked and the way it was presented and the supper was great and so on, and the way you were dressed. They didn't think much of the music apart from that Australian piece, but yes we'll back you. And so because they liked my piece which was my String Quartet No. 8, and liked everything else, the Kronos then got on to a very good financial footing. So therefore my String Quartet became like a mascot for them and they played it all round the world. That was rather terrific for me. And there were other groups who took me up at that time. That was outside Australia. Within, I don't know what was happening. I felt by the mid-80s that the energy, the creative energy was being drained from Australia. The feeling was very present inside me. It wasn't that I didn't want to write music, it wasn't that I didn't feel I could, but I felt that the climate here was not good. It may have been building up to the Bicentenary and maybe we had to get that out of our system. I don't know but I actually stopped writing music for a year or two in the '80s and that's when I began my autobiography. I thought well, you've got to do something so I'll write words instead of music. By the time the '80s ended I was feeling better about things, maybe it was after 1988; as I say maybe we had to get that over with in order that we could get on with reality.
Did it have something to do with the fact that there was, really, a fairly massive cultural shift in the climate of the times? That in fact there was a big move towards ... you know we were talking then about economic rationalism, about a kind of less community-based way of looking at things.
It was definitely related to politics in the country, yes, and I'm sure to economic rationalisation. Yes it was definitely related to the way that our society was beginning to function.
I think it was in 1988. It was actually in 1988 because that's when I wrote the orchestral piece Kakadu. And I suppose it was because it ... maybe because the piece is about Australia, it was for performance elsewhere and it was commissioned from elsewhere and I don't know but that piece marked the beginning of a whole new period in a way in my output. It was commissioned by an American anaesthesiologist. I remember I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang and a voice said, 'This is Manny Papper, phoning from the States, I want to commission you to write a work for my wife's 60th birthday.' And I'm saying, you know it's the Bicentenary year ...
Well, it was in the bicentennial year, and I was sitting at my desk one night and the phone rang. And a voice announced himself as Manny Papper, an American anaesthesiologist. And he said he wanted to commission me to write a work to mark the occasion of his wife's 60th birthday. And I was being very nice and I said, 'I'd love to do it, but it's our bicentenary this year, I have a lot on my plate, and I couldn't possibly.' You know, 'I'd love to fit it in,' but I couldn't. And so then he started to put the price up. And I kept saying, 'No, no, it's not money, it's time that I don't have.' So he put the price up. I was getting to feel so embarrassed, and embarrassed about saying 'no' as well. I thought, well I better show a bit of interest, and so I said to him, 'Oh, and what is your wife like?' And he said 'Well, you know, she's just the most beautiful person in the whole world.' It was just something about the way he said it, and the feeling, I knew I had to write the piece. And I'm so glad I did, because they've become very dear friends, and she is, Pat is a wonderful woman. And they've spent time in Australia, and even been to Kakadu. And the brief was that I write a work that has some Australian resonances, most important that it's a work that I like and a work that might have a chance of getting into the concert repertoire. He was keen about that, I suppose because of his wife, Pat. And so I set to work and wrote the piece. And in a way ... I said it was like the beginning of a new period in composition. The work was performed at Aspen, at the festival in 1988, and was a great success there. And it sort of never looked back, actually, the piece. In a way I call the post-Kakadu works, because many of them are related, I talk about them in terms of Kakadu songlines. Because I've taken melodies from Kakadu and Kakadu-related works, and they weave their way through many pieces in different guises. And so I suppose that work really began my Kakadu period.
Yes, I think I had a few little forays into Torres Strait itself, and I think that more water is beginning to appear in the music. In other words, I seem to be leaving the land mass of Australia and moving into Torres Strait in some way. I've spent quite a bit of time up there, it's part of the country that I do love. And I don't know what's ahead, but I think it's going to be more music of our northern coast somehow.
In looking to Aboriginal themes for your inspiration in the last little while, has that been just a natural evolution for you, or has it been given impetus by the particular concerns of the Aboriginal community over the last period of time, especially in relation to the Australian scene as a whole?
Yes, definitely to do with my own concerns, because for instance, I had to write a little piece for schools - for performance for school children at schools concerts - for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And I called it 'From Nourlangie' - no, I called it 'Little Nourlangie'. Little Nourlangie is a rock underneath which there are the blue paintings, wonderful Aboriginal paintings, and nearby is Jabiluka, the proposed uranium mining site. And so whenever the piece was performed, I'd tell the school children about this. And I'd say, 'If you really care about this then write a letter to Canberra, write to the Minister and tell her how you feel.' And the Minister was inundated with letters. And that was quite important to me, because it made me realise that through music one can ... I mean music itself doesn't make a political statement, but I, at least through my work, can make some kind of statement. So certainly that's been a part of my work. And today, I'm more concerned about reconciliation and certainly that enters my work. I mean as in my last string quartet, when I was a little boy my father used to tell me the story of Quamby Bluff in Tasmania and how soldiers would drive Aborigines to the edge of the bluff, and they had the choice of either being shot or jumping, and as they jumped they'd cry out, 'Quamby! quamby!' meaning 'Save me, save me' and I'd always wanted to write a piece about that. And finally I did in my last string quartet. And somehow in the last movement, where I'm dealing with this, it's not resolved, but there's some kind of suggestion that it could be resolved. That there could be resolution. And I hadn't actually thought that an audience would grasp this quite. But I was quite amazed after the first performance, because the applause seemed to go beyond the music. It suddenly was as though this whole audience had a care, wanted reconciliation. And so I expect I'll pursue that idea for quite a while the way we're going.
Yes, for the 50th anniversary of the ABC, I wrote a television opera, Quiros, about this Portuguese seaman who sailed for Spain, and who sailed in the days when it was believed that there was a land mass in the southern hemisphere to balance the masses in the north. And he had a dream, he had a real vision of this wonderful country. He altogether made three voyages, but on his last voyage he thought he'd discovered Australia, and he named the place La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo - the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. He was a bit mad at this stage, he was unwell, and he dubbed all his officers Knights of the Order of the Holy Spirit, and after a ... and the town to be built there, the New Jerusalem, and the bay, the Bay of St. Phillip and St. James. And after a time it became clear to his men that this was not Australia, it was just a small island. And it was in fact the Island of Espiritu Santo. And the expedition broke up. Torres sailed westward back to Spain, he sailed back across the Pacific. And he dreamed of returning and finding this south land. He died in Panama before he was able to. But it was his vision and his dream that I wanted to write about. And his failure. Because I think that our history is made up of antiheroes rather than heroes, and perhaps he was our first antihero. The Pope gave him a supposed piece of the true cross, that he was to put here, enshrine in the first church in Australia. But he finally put it in the little church in ... somewhere in California. I know that Manning Clark did make a pilgrimage to go to see this part of the true cross at one stage. I think he's very important in our history, and many years earlier I had been intending to work with James McAuley, because he'd written a poem Captain Quiros and we were going to write an opera. I finally used the idea for the television opera, which I think actually failed. Not really musically, because I think it's got some of my best music in it. I think probably it was because of the production, because the ABC hadn't done a television opera for at least ten years, and so everybody came out of the woodwork and had little ladies sewing sequins on everything. And the production was so busy, and I'd planned it to be very simple, on a grand and vast scale, and not all this busyness. And I think that the busyness of it pulled it down a great deal. I've often thought that I'd like to amplify it for the stage, because it could easily be done. For instance, the big love duet in the opera is only about two minutes or two and a half minutes. This is because it's for television. I mean it'd be silly to have a protracted love duet. But for the stage, the material's there, I could easily make it ten minutes or whatever.
Well, it should be said that the first person to talk about Quiros was Nugget Coombs and he - this goes back to the mid-sixties - and he, even then, used to urge me to write, to use the idea of Quiros as a theme for an opera. And then, when I first met James McAuley, a man whom I admired very much and whose poem on Quiros I loved, I mean it was important to me through those two human beings, to begin with. And as I came to know the subject ... I don't know, I think my feelings are too complex to be able to express them simply. I mean even the fact that ships are in my blood, from my family on my father's side; so therefore ships. I've mentioned plainsong of the Catholic Church, although I'm not a Catholic. The idea of using plainsong in a work. The idea of using Spanish music. The idea that it's concerned with history, Australian history, and I'm a fanatical devourer of our history. The fact that he was our first hero or antihero, or almost the first Australian. There's so much in the story.
And the impossible dream.
Yes, yes. Because the heroic failure, Gallipoli or Ned Kelly or Burke and Wills, really it was the beginning of our story. And discovering Australia. And it wasn't even there. Wasn't even Australia. In other words, trying to find out what Australia is.
A theme that's run through your life, and something that you've done as well as teach and write music, you've been an advocate of music. You've articulated publicly a lot of ideas about music and the fact that Australia could have its own music. Could you talk a little bit about the motivation behind that and chronicle a little the opportunities that you've been given to actually be able to be somebody who was a voice that both expressed and encouraged the development of an Australian idiom in music.
Well, there's a lot of questions there.
I suppose I had an early sort of irritation about our cultural cringe. I mean I used to get very annoyed, upset about the concept that if it's from overseas it's better. And I probably went even a little bit too far in talking about that. But maybe one had to go as far as one could in order for people to get the message. I remember in 1966 when I was on my way to the States, I was interviewed by the Times in London. And I simply said, 'Europe is dead. Australia is the future.' And it caused actually quite a furore at the time. And what was interesting to me was the number of Europeans, or Englishmen in particular, who said 'Look, actually you're right.' That was a nice affirmation of my belief but I did go too far. But at least in doing that, I was beginning to get a message across. I mean it was all about my coming back to Australia from Oxford at that time, and going to the ABC, to the general manager and him being horrified that I should expect my music to be performed. Because after all, you're only an Australian, he said. So I think I made it a campaign really, to try to have conditions bettered here for Australian composers and Australian musicians. I don't think that I did anything in particular except write about it and talk about it. That's all.
Well, I've often said that I'm a visual composer in the sense that I think that we - young countries - have visual cultures. I think North America, has a visual culture. And you know, it can be put very simply in that, in England even today, one is categorised in society according to the kinds of noises that one makes when one opens one's mouth. Well, I mean you know, if we did that in Australia, we wouldn't even have a government to begin with, because it'd be too darn low down in the social scale. When I was a student in Melbourne, Sir Bernard Heinze would arrive in a smart car and step out in a smart suit and walk into the conservatorium with a smartly painted ... every wall a different colour in those days. And what he thought or said wasn't important. But what we saw was. When I went to Oxford, I had an appointment with Jack Westrum, the senior professor of music in the world. As I was walking into the Department of Music there, there was this old man trying to get through the door. It was one of those doors that sort of comes back at you. He had a push bike with mudguards held together by bits of string, and I thought it must be the cleaner. Anyway, I helped him in, helped him park his bike in the foyer. I mean we would never have had bikes parked in the foyer in Melbourne. And then I went to the bathroom to clean myself up for my big appointment. And I walked in, and of course there was the cleaner sitting behind the desk - Jack Westrum himself. So what he arrived on - his old bike - and what we saw, a battered old raincoat, the image that we saw was irrelevant, but here was a great scholar who had written the authoritative book on Purcell, when he was a university student at Balliol. So yes, I think we have a visual culture, and I embrace that, and I think that I'm inspired by what I see, the landscape and by painting certainly more than by what I read, which is to do with the eyes anyway. Because ultimately I think that I'm not trying to portray just what one sees. I'm seeking what one might call the sacred in nature, and I used to describe myself as a religious composer for that reason. And then people would say, 'Oh, Methodist or Church of England?' But of course I didn't mean it in the denominational sense. So I stopped using that description. But basically I am a religious composer, because I am looking for what is beneath the landscape, or what is within it. I suppose it's related to Shinto also really.
Tass Drysdale's work affected my composition in the sense that I was very attracted to his notion of the lonely figure in the landscape, and for a time in my music, that's what it's all about really, this lonely figure in the Australian landscape. With Sid, I think the only real influence that he had is the notion of series. You know, he would paint a series of pictures of Ned Kelly or Eliza Fraser and the rain forest, Africa. And whether it influenced me or not I don't know, but certainly I felt as though his series supported my view that in music we can have series of works, like I have the Kakadu Songline series or I have the Irkanda series, or theSun Musicseries. And I probably wouldn't have continued with that idea if it weren't for the fact that Sid was doing it and there was a model for one. You know, just to make one feel a bit more secure in a way.
In your early years you were influenced by a couple of other composers, when you were getting your own head together. Looking at your life overall, have there been further composers in your own tradition - I'm not talking about the Asian inspirations and so on - that have really impressed you and affected you?
Well, incidentally I should mention first of all that I forgot to mention Mahler. He was actually a very important influence on me when I was young. And from him, I probably developed my harmonic method -- I mean we call it a ... It's when a melody is going along and you think it's going to resolve onto this harmony when it gets there, and suddenly the harmony shifts and the melody still hasn't resolved and it moves and you think it's going to resolve and the harmony shifts. And Mahler does that a great deal and I continue to do it in a different way in my music, because this is a way to keep the tension, to keep the music moving, you know. And it's not easy to just hold the interest, and Mahler gave that to me. What now is interesting is that composers that I do like are American minimalists, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and these are composers who write music where the melody and harmony are together all the time, where there's very little, if any, tension. But maybe what one listens to and what one writes are very different.
Could you explain what it is that's happened with you, with your own personal development, that that, as it were, out-of-sync tension which attracted you when you were younger has been replaced by something which is much more in line. I mean is there some reason for that?
Well, I've often talked about the fact that most of my music has a dual nature. That there are two things happening together in it. And sometimes they're resolved at the end, and sometimes they're not. And I think that it goes way back to my being Tasmanian. And that little stretch of water, the Bass Strait, creates in us Tasmanians a feeling of us and them. You know, we Tasmanians and those people over there on the mainland. So I think from childhood there existed this feeling of duality in me. And then later, of course, even then when I finally went to Melbourne to study, there was the feeling of us here in Australia and them, those people over there in Europe. So it grew bigger, the duality. It even became us here and those people up there in Asia. So there were many layers of duality that entered my music. It's always been my ambition to write a work in which the two don't exist, in which there is just one. And I have achieved that in a few pieces. The Song of Tailitnama is one piece, and it's my dream that all my works will be like that. But maybe if they were they wouldn't be me, maybe I need these two ideas pulling together. I mean a really good example of this is Port Essington, which is about the settlement at Essington, that was made in the 1830s when it was believed that Australia would be invaded by the French, as though they would have attacked right there. It was also to help open up trade with Indonesia. And you know the first thing they did was build a government house. I think it was eaten by white ants, and the second government house [was] destroyed by a cyclone and the third by flood or something. And the men drilled every day in uniform that was more suited to an English winter than an endless Capricornian summer. And no effort was made to come to terms with the place or the climate. And so in the work I have two things happening. One is the settlers at the settlement and the other is the bush. And there's no real confrontation, but finally the settlers and the settlement just cave in, and the bush takes over. And as the settlers are being rowed away, towards the end of the work, for the first time in the music, the bush music plays some of the settlement music. And it's saying, it could have been. If only we could have come together, if only we'd been able to make some compromise. And I think that the story is a parable or metaphor for Australia in that we still tend to copy what is done overseas, instead of getting on and doing our own thing.
I hadn't thought of that. But certainly, well, it was the first work of mine that openly dealt with Aboriginal musical material. And it was after that work that I had letters from Aboriginal leaders.
Nineteen seventy - oh, six or seven - I've forgotten, in the later '70s. Terrible isn't it, when you write so much you forget the dates.
Well, maybe very good. You anticipated in your answer to the last question something I was going to ask you. You are claimed in Tasmania as a Tasmanian composer. Does that phrase have any meaning to you? Does it have any reality? I mean, are you a Tasmanian composer?
That's very interesting, because in the string quartet that I mentioned, in which I used the Quamby story, I decided that I would try to write a work, try to write the string quartet that I would have written in Tasmania as a Tasmanian before I was really exposed to Asian music and Aboriginal music. And I tried to go back to that time and write the quartet I really would like to have written. In other words, a Tasmanian string quartet. And so I think I did write a truly Tasmania string quartet. At least, my Tasmania. Tasmania as I see it.
Yes and no. Basically I think of myself as an Australian, but very proud of being born in Tasmania.
Can we now just turn back and start sort of talking about some of the elements in your life that have been influential in making you who you are and therefore helping to shape the music that you've made. It's very clear that your mother was an immense influence on you.
Looking back through your life at the way in which your life evolved and your music along side it, I wonder if you see key points of development that were there, that reflected what was happening in your life and what was preoccupying you and the work that you were doing at the time. Is there a connection?
Yes I think there is a very intimate connection. While every piece is related in some way to one's life, I think I could chart my life according to certain compositions to do with my emotional life, to do with trying harder, to do with social events. For instance the first work that made an impact, a little impact on others was my Piano Sonatina when it was performed in 1955 in Europe. And it's clear that it was probably a better piece, my best piece to that point, because I was trying harder. I'd left the family business, or I was working part-time trying to prove myself to my parents, to friends - well, to myself - because that was written at the time when I was 25 years old, a quarter of a century old and feeling I'd achieved nothing. So there had to be an incredible amount of something from within me going into the piece and therefore it was like a landmark for me. I mean the next one of course was Irkanda IV, written upon the death of my father and that was because it was an incredibly emotional time for me with this link in our family chain broken. And looking back if I hadn't written my best piece to that point, I probably should have given up, because these circumstances had to affect the music that I was writing. It's a little difficult to chart these pieces. I would say that the next piece would beSun Music I, and perhaps in the case of that work I was trying to prove myself to the outside world. I don't think there was anything especially emotional, not to do with any emotional involvement with anybody in the piece. I was in Sydney, I had my first real job, apart from being a barman in Oxford and the gun shop. I was probably trying to prove myself as a lecturer at the University and prove myself as a composer in the outside world, particularly in London. And, there must have been all kinds of things going on inside me, to help me produce that particular work.
It was a very daring work at the time, you were doing something that stepped out of the mould. Do you think that having the basis of a job and support and encouragement - I mean Sir Bernard Heinze was the one who suggested it - gave you that courage to really step right outside?
I think that's really interesting that you should say that, because inSun Music 1 not only was the concept daring at the time, but in it I wrote music that I couldn't even hear. I'm fairly conservative and cautious as a person, and to write music that I couldn't hear was very daring for me. So I think it must have been because of the safety of the job and finally having the kind of job that I'd dreamt of, I suddenly felt I can throw everything to the wind as I did in that work. I haven't often done it since. Usually I've known exactly how a piece is going to sound, but parts of that I really didn't have a clue.
Well, I suppose in a waySun Music I was the real beginning of my career in the professional world, not just here, but outside Australia as a composer. And in a way there probably were a few key works but I would say that the next work really was The Song of Tailitnama and this was written after my engagement had been broken off. I'd been very much looking forward to getting married and it didn't work out. And so ... I mean it's very difficult looking back, but I think I must have been in a position where I had to take stock of my life, where I was going and what I was doing. And suddenly in that work a whole new me seemed to emerge, I mean, phoenix-like rising from the ashes. The work is more classical, it's cooler, more pure in a way, and most of my music has passion in it, or the residue of passion but there isn't even any residue of passion. It's been drained from the work and in many ways it's the kind of work that I'd like to be writing in my very old age. So, I think that the trauma of that period and the broken engagement simply would have to bring that work into being. So I should probably be grateful that the engagement was broken.
I think what happens is - I mean, we're talking about certain landmarks, pieces that are landmarks, but there are always - this overlapping, you know you leave certain things behind. I'd left theSun Musicperiod behind but in The Song of Tailitnama there are still sounds that I used in theSun Musicperiod so there was a certain overlapping. I think the overlap with The Song of Tailitnama was this, the beginning of the real interest in Australian Aboriginal music, because it is based ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, I mean earlier I had named pieces, used Aboriginal words, even myths, but never actually looked at the music. In fact I'm on record, in print as having said Aboriginal music is of no use to a composer. That was absolute ignorance on my part because it is so rich and The Song of Tailitnama did usher in that period. I think that that was also a time when we were becoming more aware of land rights, in particular, or the need for them, and so I wanted my music to be giving some kind of message about that. So therefore the '70s basically grew from that piece. There wasn't another piece that was as pure in a way. I mean I returned to my earlier passionate ways in music. In a way I haven't written a piece like The Song of Tailitnama since but I will. I think somebody else's commented that my music tends to be marked off by decades. I don't know if we get a bit worried about the next age, how old we're going to be by the time of the next decade, but it makes a kind of sense, I think, because the next important period or important landmark really was in 1979 and that was the year of my fiftieth birthday. And I wrote two pieces, The Cello Requiem and Mangrove for orchestra. I talked about safety earlier with Sun Music, being able to be a bit daring. I think these works grew from a different kind of safety. I'd been living in a smaller house, I moved to a bigger house where I could spread myself more, I'd had a grant from the Australia Council that actually helped enable me not to write music. In other words to read and take stock of my life and my music and where I was going. And I think The Cello Requiem and Mangrove come directly from a new comfort in a way in my life ...
Enrichment, yes, that I'd been actually able to stand still for a little bit. And, also they seemed to bring together my interest in Catholic plainchant, Japanese court music and Aboriginal music. Suddenly in those two works, there they are very clearly. And they certainly were, those two works were the springboard for the music of the next decade or almost a decade. During the '80s, having been enriched, I suddenly felt I was in a position to explore, to look here, and in a way experiment, find directions and go up blind alleys. In my Piano Concerto I actually write music about water and water is something that has appeared very, very rarely in my music. A little like Tass Drysdale in his paintings. I only know of one and it's a drawing in which water appears. And there are only a few pieces of mine that are about water. The Piano Concerto is important, I wouldn't call it a landmark work but it's important to me because in it are enshrined my three father figures after my father died. Bernard Heinze, Tass Drysdale and Donald Peart all became, in their different ways, father figures to me and very dear friends; and they had died a little before that. They are in the Piano Concerto in all kinds of ways actually. So the '80s constituted a kind of groping, not desperate, it was just a search. And I think I really found myself finally in 1988 with the orchestral work Kakadu. I don't know it may be again because of the Bicentenary - I wonder. It seems to me that that is the best work of the time and certainly it was a landmark in that it received lots of performances, still does actually, so that the brief of the man who commissioned it is so far going well. But it should find a place in the repertoire. I'm not talking about whether pieces get performed or not performed, I'm talking about pieces as they are important to me. I think with Kakadu I left the interior of Australia and moved to the Top End and that set in motion a series of works that still continue to now, and I call these works Kakadu Songlines. But then I've moved further since Kakadu. It's probably because of my love affair with the Northern Territory and with Torres Strait and I'm back in the water again, or music of the coast, the northern coast of Australia. I think what ushered that into my music is one day I went standing on top of Nourlangie rock in Kakadu National Park and looking out, and it was almost as though the wind was bringing to me music of the local Aborigines, the Gagadju; music from early white settlement, places like Port Essington; the music of nature, birds and wind; the thought of Torres sailing in earlier times, maybe a guitar slipping overboard from his ship and lying somewhere resonating in the sea; and even in my imagination the sound of the music of Indonesia, particularly Bali. It's almost as though all these fused in my mind and they really provided the material for the next decade which brings us to the present and I have no idea where I'm going from now. But I think those works are the key works. I wouldn't say ... no, I'm too close to my recent music to be able to say this is the work of the '90s, I wouldn't know really.
I think Earth Cry is very interesting in that it was in 1987 and I'd been commissioned to write an orchestral work for the ABC. My mother who was staying with me had an operation but didn't go well, and I had to nurse her for some time and I realised that I wouldn't be able to conceive and write a new orchestral piece. So I decided that I would arrange an earlier work. And of course I looked at The Song of Tailitnama because I regarded that as one of my best pieces and so I thought it would make a good orchestral piece. But what happened, in arranging it for orchestra, well I had to do more than arrange, it was rethinking a great deal of it. It suddenly became a passionate work and even an angry work, because I was thinking about Australia. I was wanting to write a joyful piece about Australia but then when I thought about it I thought well, it's a great country but we've got a long way to go before I can write that joyful piece. And because I felt a lot of our carry on about our national identity was false and bogus any way. So that's what happened in Earth Cry.
Well yes, what I'm really saying in Earth Cry is that Australia is such a wonderful place but we really do seem to be getting a lot of things wrong. And if only we can listen to the cry of the Aborigines, attune ourselves to the earth as they have done for so many thousands of years, if we could do that, maybe we could solve some of the problems and get a few things right.
It might be simply because I grew up in the country, in Tasmania and landscape, the country, became very important to me early in my life. I used to love being with my father when I was a boy in the bush and to have him explaining everything, like when he'd say, 'See that duck flying alone, well the duck has lost his or her mate and will fly alone for ever'. And, how could I not be touched by [that] or the story of Quamby Bluff and soldiers chasing Aborigines to the edge of the bluff. So I think we spent a great deal of time, in fact every weekend we'd go on a fishing trip or something. I developed an early love of the landscape.
It seems to me that your most recent works, the works that you have been writing in the '90s, have been fairly hopeful and cheerful works, or certainly attempting to be hopeful and cheerful work. Could you talk about that, your optimism?
Well, I suppose I always say one of the good things about leaving Australia is coming back, and when I fly into Sydney and look out of the plane window and see the Harbour Bridge, my little heart just goes pitter pat. I love returning. I think that there's no doubt that we have the best quality of life in the world. It seems to me from all my travelling that this is the best place to live in the whole world. I suppose I'm biased. No I think it's true. And therefore I think it's probably the last place in the world where a composer can honestly write joyous music. And I feel that it's my responsibility to uplift others. I don't want to reflect the doom that we have in our society or the negative matters, but just to be optimistic. I mean a few years ago ... Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer, and I were guests at a festival in Wales and every day Henryk would say to me, 'After bad there is worse.' And I'd say, 'Oh come on Henryk, after bad there's better.' 'No after bad there's worse.' And I'd say, 'Well as far as I'm concerned after good there's even better.' And he would say, 'Well it's all right for you coming from that big shining white island Australia, but for us here, after bad there is only worse.' And that somehow seemed to confirm what I'd felt and also confirmed me in the thought that, all right I understand he's a Polish composer, maybe after bad there is only worse, but for me after good there's only better. And I think we should all think like that in the world and if I can pass a little bit of this on, then I will have done something in my life.
Well, I suppose a composer like Palestrina, the Spaniard Vittoria, they're my favourite composers, I like the late works of Stravinsky, oddly enough though most of the music is choral, to be sung in great buildings. But I find in that kind of music an incredible purity. It's as though the music has been through passion and out of the other side, there's a certain classical quality. It's not that it doesn't have emotion but it's the other side of emotion and that's what I'd like to be writing in another ten years. And you know, it is a wonderful thing to aim for, that's what's so good about being a composer, there's always something just ahead of one to keep one going. You never retire.
I must tell you a story about Einstein. When there was talk of putting a time capsule into space, Einstein was asked what should we put in it that would best represent the human race. And he immediately replied, 'The music of Bach of course, or do you think that would be boasting.' And I like that. Certainly I would include Bach. I would include Japanese court music.
Yes, it's very old music that's played with a smallish orchestra. It's probably an acquired taste like olives or oysters, but once you've acquired the taste you sort of need to listen to it every now and again. It's somewhat piercing but it has a sublime beauty really.
Yes, it's out the other side of emotion as, of course, is most of the music of Bach, really, is the other side. And then I'd include of course Palestrina. Oh, I'd include the late works of Stravinsky, as far as music of this century is concerned. Perhaps not Balinese music. Oh, I'm talking about a time capsule - well why not? I would include some Javanese court gamelan music and oddly enough my favourite piece is called All Kinds of Flowers. This is a Javanese piece, and I was once talking about it, and saying that's the piece I'd put in a time capsule and I discovered that it has been put in a time capsule along with Frank Sinatra. I have no objections to that either, but ...
Well these are the musics to which I'm drawn really, the ones I've put in the capsule ...
Certainly. And I would say sublimity as well. I mean they're not just beautiful pieces, they're beyond beauty. Like a beautiful village church in England. I mean a village church can be very very beautiful but some cathedrals are beyond beauty, they are sublime and I think yes, it's music like a great gothic cathedral that I aspire to.
Of course this kind of beauty, this kind of transcendent beauty is something that immediately one associates with the religious yearnings and aspirations of the human heart. What has religion meant in your life?
Well I went to an Anglican school, I was brought up - went to Sunday school - brought up to be a good Christian. I strayed really from denominational Christianity. I think it's odd. My mother loved the poetry of Wordsworth, and she gave it to me to read at a very early age and I think that I must have picked up something of Wordsworth's pantheism, and the worship of nature, and so if anything my beliefs are concerned with the landscape with nature and I think that is why I find Shintoism so interesting to me. So I don't really have set beliefs and please don't ask me about what I think about the after life, I don't think about it, in fact, because I think this life is so good, it's enough for me. But my religious beliefs are simply bound up in some way with nature.
Despite various set backs and griefs in your life, you seem to have maintained a tremendously happy and positive sort of outlook. Do you see a reason for that? Do you think you were just blessed with that kind of nature or is there some other reason why you've got this, the man who wrote theSun Musichas such a sunny disposition?
Well, I'm Taurean to begin with, we're usually fairly placid. I think I was just born that way really. I've also been very lucky and I'll always come back to my childhood, to my parents, to the way I was brought up; I was really blessed. I couldn't not have become a happy person.
No, not really, although in talking about the landmarks in my compositional output it's clear that pain of some kind is involved in most of the landmarks actually. No, I think that is a myth about suffering. I mean if you're a composer and you haven't got any money and you're suffering and you can't afford much to eat and you're living in a garret and you can't even afford to keep warm, so you don't have any friends, so to occupy your time, so what do you do? You probably write more music than if you were living in a large comfortable house with log fires. So I think that's how this myth of suffering and composition came about.
Oh, well, that's the bad stage, or the difficult stage, not bad stage. I try to find as many restraints, or limitations, or I try to find ways to cut down the choices. You know, even if I know the player that I'm writing for that's a great help, because then I can do it with some love. Even knowing an instrument helps. But I walk around a lot, I think a lot, I read a lot. In fact, I have to find out what I'm writing about. Something has to be at the back of my mind, I mean something has to inform the piece. Now in the history of music, most of the music of the human race has been about something. But it's only really in the late 17th century and 19th century that some music became abstract in some symphonic works. Well I don't wish to write abstract music. My music has to be about something, it's got to be about something that gets me going. Because I don't believe that music is about music. I think music is about bigger things actually. You know, it's about life itself. So once I have my idea - now I can actually tell you precisely. I've talked about my String Quartet No. 12, which I wrote recently. So I had the idea of Quamby, and soldiers driving the Aborigines to the edge of the bluff. Then I work from the outside in, not from the inside out. So I write down As and Bs and Cs on paper - not a note of music often, and I'm planning this movement of music, the structure of it. Often in my life I've said to myself, did it really have to be, because often in writing music, my music is about something that it really didn't have to be. I've found that I was humming to myself a motif from the last movement of Beethoven's last String Quartet. And the motif is muß es zein - 'must it be'. And I suddenly thought, but this is fantastic. I will use this, slightly transformed. 'Must it be', did it really have to be at Quamby. And so you can see that now the materials are beginning to gather, come together, because having decided to use 'must it be', I'm going to have to resolve it or try to resolve it, and at the end of the movement it is sort of resolved. It's sort of saying did it have to be? But it's saying but it still happened. And so you can see I now have all my little boxes, As and Bs on paper, and I'm able to put into each box what is going to happen in the music. So slowly it comes together from the outside. Does that help?
Always. And therefore it means one doesn't necessarily have to begin at the beginning of the piece. I can begin at any one of the little parcels or boxes in the piece, and what is in one box is going to relate to another box. And so on.
Oh, well, say in case of this movement, the String Quartet, basically it's the contours of Quamby Bluff itself. The music almost follows the contours of the bluff. So yes, landscape is very important. I'd just like to take time off to tell a funny story. With the Beethoven Quartet, it's said that Beethoven wrote in the bass clef 'must it be?', because his washerwoman was demanding payment for his laundry, and he said, 'must it be?' And then it's answered in the treble clef, 'es muß sein, es muß sein', and it's his washerwoman saying 'it must be, it must be.' So in my quartet I didn't answer it, I didn't say it had to be, I'm saying it happened. It didn't have to be. My only worry of course is that that was in the last movement of Beethoven's last string quartet, so I think I'd better start another string quartet fairly quickly. But you can see, even thinking about Beethoven's washerwoman and her answer, all this is information that somehow gets put into motion.
It's fuel for the piece, yes.
This business of sketching out the thing to begin with, and the fact that landscape plays a part, was that ever influential in the evolution of your particular style of music? I'm thinking here of going right back to Irkanda IV, where you were sketching out the music and you discovered out of that a sort of flatter way of writing music, out of the Australian landscape. And so that's really - I thought that was an interesting story. So I'll ask you that question again, because I was after that kind of relationship between your finding that way to have a line that continues on a sort of long level, that you felt was a reflection of the landscape. So I'll ask a question that will lead you and give you an opportunity to answer that. When you actually come to shape your music and you do that sort of initial sketch, are there examples of where that has actually altered the way you might have written the music had you not sketched out the landscape, as it were?
I was just a bit unclear about that.
Yes, well that's what I was coming to, and then I thought, oh have I got ... can I just go into that?
Well, yes, you know Irkanda IV is the fourth in the series of pieces called Irkanda. And when I wrote Irkanda I for solo violin, I was living in Canberra, working at the Playhouse there. And I certainly thought that I would trace the 360 degree graph of the landscape around me, and then write music that followed the contour of the landscape. And so that is exactly what happened. In the -- this is on the opening page -- there are also some little grace notes that go 'hm', that I wouldn't normally write, but I had to do those because they were sort of trees, that were just poking up momentarily and interrupting the flow. So I had to have these little grace notes to interrupt the flow. But it's a very faithful reproduction of the landscape. That's the first time that I did it, and I think it's significant that it's also the first time that I lived on mainland Australian outside Melbourne, and that I was more in touch with the landscape. I think probably from that time I began to have the idea that my music should have a certain flatness to it. Because when you think of ... in a way Europe is pulled together, pulled up into the Alps, and it's not surprising therefore that the harmony should keep changing, that the shapes should keep changing. Because if you go for a walk anywhere in Europe, the view changes continuously. I mean you can even walk some parts and walk for half a day and cross a border, and the customs and the ways, beliefs, everything of the people, apart from what you see, are totally different. But in Australia you can go for a walk for half a day in most of it and what you see in the evening is much the same as what you saw in the morning. So therefore it seemed to me that I should be writing music that has less events. But when there is an event it can be quite dramatic, like a rocky outcrop or cries of birds, or even suddenly the sun's light catching on pebbles and insects and so on. So I didn't set out to paint pictures of this, but I used the idea of flatness sometimes broken up with other objects that one sees.
Well, I suppose because I'm Tasmanian, in the first place, I would have to love architecture because I mean Tasmania's just full of really wonderful Georgian and Regency houses and churches. I grew to love them dearly as a boy. It's always fascinated me how many houses have their southern facades resplendent with windows and often in the northern facade there's not one window. And it took builders and architects several generations to realise that in the southern hemisphere the sun shines from the north, not the south. So therefore, many of the northern sides of these houses that don't have windows are very ... the houses are quite damp, and because they're National Trust they can't even be changed. That quite early on made me think I would like to write music that faces north, to the sun, not music that faces south as these English builders did in the early days. As a composer of course, one is naturally interested in buildings, because we think of places where music sounds. I don't think I've written a piece about a building. I might have, I've written a lot of music. But some composers ... like Stravinsky planned one of his great later works on the domes of St. Mark's in Venice and the structure is based on those domes. And of course, Puccini, in Tosca, bases the three acts upon three great landmark buildings in Rome. But I must say that architecture is so important to me that I think that the large Georgian house and the string quartet are two of the great achievements of western civilisation.
Well, because I love the medium so much.
It's almost perfection, really. I mean it's the perfect medium to write for in the way that it's graded. You know, it's just to do with the perfect medium. It's the same as a great Georgian house. If you look at the windows, they're larger on the ground floor and then a little bit smaller as one goes up, and a little bit smaller. A similar grading and a similar perfection really. So therefore - others might disagree with me, but as long as I think it's a perfect combination, then for me it's a wonderful combination to write for. And to try to write perfect music. And fall on my face most of the time, but at least try to write for it.
Yes, but when I was a student, I wanted to play in an orchestra. [INTERRUPTION]
It is possible, but on the other hand, I've always been attracted to low instruments. I think it's interesting that composers, historically, have tended to give the voice of God to a bass voice, oddly enough not a high voice. And therefore that may be one reason one is wanting to write like Bach, to the greater glory of God. But when I was a student, I wanted to play in an orchestra, and of course the two instruments that there's usually a shortage of - the viola and the double bass. And when I thought about it, I thought well if my fingers are half an inch out on the viola that's a long way out. But if they're half an inch out on the double bass, you can be almost in tune. So I thought, well it's not going to be so hard to learn. And it was when I was playing the double bass in the orchestras and suddenly the harmony would change and I would feel that I'm supporting this whole orchestra with this wonderful change of harmony, I found it really thrilling. And from that time almost all my music has been driven from the bass. So if you look at the bass line of any of my music, then you'll be able to find the real direction of the music. So the bass line has been very important to me for a long time. But if you look, yes I don't write works for solo flute, for instance. But we're just doing a CD of all my works for solo cello. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, it's interesting that we're just doing a CD of all my solo works for cello. I've written hardly any works for solo flute, for instance, a high instrument. I've written more works for viola than I have for violin. So I think that tells the story. I'd like to write a piece for solo trombone. I keep meaning to do that, and solo bass, double bass. But not necessarily solo clarinet or oboe. So it's fairly clear, I think that it's the lower voices that I prefer.
Maybe I'm a frustrated cellist, along with being a frustrated architect, poet. I would love to have played the cello. So it might be as simple as that.
Could I ask you, as somebody who fairly early on asserted your own opinion and your own view of what you should do and should be doing, how far are you affected by critics? Because over the years ... [INTERRUPTION - Peter: could we just do that again? Sorry to waste tape because I've just thought of something I'd like to add to my last question]
In recent years, I've been using the Aboriginal idea of a tumbling strain. That is, a melody will begin quite high and slowly work its way down and then when it gets to the earth, to the bottom of the earth, then it stays there. And then it goes up again and slowly comes down. It's called a tumbling strain. And in almost every work of mine, recently, there's a tumbling strain. Not an Aboriginal one, but one of my own invention. And it may be this idea of being drawn down to the earth that is why I like low instruments, and not the ones that begin at the top of the melody up there. It's just a thought.
You've had an interesting relationship with critics over the years. That some of them have taken you up and others have taken you up and put you down and so on. Could you tell me about how you feel about that, and give some examples of the way in which criticism has either been something that you had to, as it were, work through and get over, or been something that's actually helped you.
Over the years I've had some music critics who are and have been very good friends. But that's a little bit different from music critics in general. Because with any of my friends I welcome criticism of my work. In fact I play it to friends asking for criticism. That's one thing. I think that from the very beginning, it didn't worry me too much. Perhaps there was a time early on when my pride suffered a little, thinking more, you know, oh, what are other people thinking when they read this. But I soon passed through that. Tass Drysdale always used to refer to scar tissue, you know, if you've been wounded enough in one place you just can't be wounded there any more. Composers are very different. I mean Benjamin Britten had to be -- well his friends had to build barriers to stop him ever reading reviews, because he couldn't write a note of music for weeks if he read a bad review. I must confess that I tend to thrive on the bad reviews, because they're the ones you can dine out on. A friend of mine, a wonderful composer, I won't mention his name actually, but he has the review that I would most like to have. And that is when his piano concerto was played in London, critics said, 'This is the kind of music that gives A major a bad name.' I think that's wonderful. The best I can do, with my piano concerto, is pretty great, but 'This music would be better played in a cocktail bar late at night, preferably after all the people had left.' It's not bad. So I think the only time that a bad review worries me is if I have a few doubts about the piece. If I really believe in the piece, and feel confident in it, then nothing will shake me. And I'm not concerned about pride or losing face with people reading something bad about me in a newspaper.
Now, that, I think that today, if I had a piece played and applause was very lukewarm, then I think I'd have to take stock of what I'm doing. Because I do write music for people, I write music to be heard. And if it's received warmly I'm very excited. That is important to me. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, with my opera, Rites of Passage, I had to bow after every performance, and I remember coming out one night and bowing and a whole row of people down in the front stalls just booed me. It was incredible. And then suddenly, the row of people behind them got up and leapt up and thumped them. The whole row. I was thrilled, because both rows were showing passion, showing concern. And the ones that hated it, they hated it, there's nothing wrong with strong feeling. And also with Rites of Passage, a lot of people walked out. And members of the audience who were enjoying it were yelling at the people who'd walked out. I found that very exciting. I think, yes, creating some kind of excitement or feeling, that's the main thing really.
There's this theme through your life of self-sufficiency, of a willingness to accept your own judgements, a belief in your own ideas, and indeed a capacity to live alone and function alone without a partner. Does this mean that you don't need people?
Ah, I do find life a bit difficult, because I am actually a very gregarious person. I mean I love people, I love the company of people. I enjoy my own company working at home, and I do find it difficult at times knowing that I have to stay home and finish a piece for a deadline, when all my friends are having a party somewhere. But I make up when I can. I mean my friends, I couldn't function without my friends. And some friends, like Ross Edwards, the composer, I like to play my music to him, and he plays his to me, for criticism actually. Because you know, I think a composer needs ... sometimes we get too close to a piece and we need a more objective view.
When you first started writing, you were somewhat of a pioneer as an Australian composer, as you've explained to us, that it was a rather novel concept for people to really take on board at that time.
Because they were all dead.
But now, as you went along, there were other significant Australian composers that came along. What effect has their work had on you? What do you think of other composers in Australia, and do they affect the way you write?
I would say that they don't affect me at all. But there are some composers - I mean I mentioned Ross, well he is one of my favourite composers of all composers. And therefore that makes my friendship with somebody like him even more important to me. I don't think there's a ... well, yes, recently I was writing a piece and there was this chord in it, and I thought, oh dear, that sounds like somebody else. Then I suddenly realised it was a Ross chord. And I thought, oh good, I'll keep it there, because it's the kind of chord Ross uses. So I suppose there is a bit of flowing into each other. But it's certainly not conscious.
Well I suppose Richard was always an image breaker. And his early works, which were very European influenced, which mine ... I was writing my Australian works when he was writing very European-influenced work. They were what he wanted to do. But they tended to shock people a little, because they were more than astringent and dissonant and spiky. I mean they're wonderful works actually, those works. Today, he's gone to the other extreme. It's almost as though he still wants to shock. And the music is so consonant and so harmonious it does in fact shock people because it's the other extreme. So he's had two major periods in his music, whereas mine has been just a slow evolution. But I can say that, I mean Richard is certainly a composer that I admire tremendously. And I always defend him, even if I myself don't like a piece, because he clearly knows what he's doing. And believes in what he's doing. And I know that and so I believe in him.
As a 20th century composer, the whole area of popular music was something that, presumably, you had to come to terms with, develop an attitude to, a relationship with. What's been the history of your relationship with popular music?
Well, I've always enjoyed some popular music, not all popular music. And there was a time in around 1970, I suppose it was coming at the end of the psychedelic sixties, there was a time when I wanted to fuse so-called serious music with rock music. And I did write a piece Love 200, that worked fairly well I think. And it was the rock group Tully. And we had Ellis D. Fogg, and fog and lights and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And what was exciting about it was that a lot of the kids slept on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall all night the night before, to make sure they got a ticket to it. So that was, to me, that was very exciting. I didn't pursue that. I don't know why. Maybe it helped me to define what I was on about. It helped me to realise that I'm the kind of person that ...
No, not really. I think it was very good that I did, because it helped me to work out what kind of composer I am. And I think I could say I'm the kind of person, or kind of composer who wants to write a perfect work of art. And I think that the history of the human race can be told more through the story of people wanting to create the perfect work of art, can be told more through that than maybe through our wars and pestilences. I mean one goes back to the Pyramids or whatever. And so rock music, of its very nature, its essence, is transitory. You know, what is wonderful and exciting today is a little bit old-fashioned tomorrow, because it has moved on to something else. Whereas I talked earlier of Palestrina. I mean a great Palestrina mass is just simply a great work of art. It was then, is now, and forever will be. And so I'm the kind of composer who aspires to do that. I may never do it, but it's a wonderful way to keep going, to aspire towards that. So I think that's why I decided not to pursue rock music. But what is interesting at the moment is that I have some students who are very inspired by techno music. And music, the kind of music that gets played at rave parties. And they somehow ... one in particular has been able to sort of extrapolate this music and write serious concert works for orchestra that contain the very essence of the music. But I don't think his pieces will date. Whereas the techno music that might have inspired it will. I think that his pieces [won't] because he's been able to find the essence. And I wouldn't mind doing something like that. But of course, I have my other irons in the fire, really.
Your mother has played a tremendous part in your whole life and in the formation of the person that you are. Could you tell me about that in a more general way, about what your mother's significance to you was, and how she's affected the way you've lived.
Oh, that's difficult. I think I'm just trying to find some ... a pragmatic - I mean because we take love, in a sense, for granted, or we assume it. I think that her giving me, passing on to me, questioning my, putting literary works into my hands. Well, education, I mean she was really about education. And I think her passing that, just the very concept of education and a broad education, on to me, is perhaps the most precious thing that she gave me. Along with unquestioning support, of course. Which my father gave me after I'd proved myself to him. But with my mother I didn't have to prove myself. It was just unconditional love really. Which is interesting, because today I talk a great deal about unconditional love. Often, some of my friends will feel very let down by somebody that they regarded as a friend. And I'll say, 'But you know that this person behaves like that. You know, if you loan this person money he won't pay you back. We know that's what he's like. So loan the money and don't expect to get it back, or don't loan the money. Or love this person unconditionally, or just don't bother with this person.' You know, I think unconditional love and not to expect too much is very important. And perhaps my mother gave me that.
Well, she had a lot of good friends in Sydney. And she had one very good friend, so that she'd come to Sydney for a short holiday every Tasmanian winter to get away from the cold. And then they'd go travelling together. Then the friend died. And then my mother got older, she needed help. My brother's second wife - unfortunately his first wife died of an asthma attack - and his second wife had nursed both her parents and her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and we felt it was unfair for her to have to tend to our mother. And so eventually, in her last years, Mum did come to ... [INTERRUPTION]
Eventually then Mum did come to, from Tasmania, to live with me in Sydney. And this gave me enormous pleasure. Because you know, without my mother, and without my father, I could never have been a composer. Without their emotional support and financial support it would have been impossible. And of course, my mother didn't expect anything in return. I mean her love was unconditional. But I had never been able to do anything for her. You know, I felt that I'd never been able, really, to do anything for her. So at the end I felt that I was able to repay - not that she wanted repayment - in return. And therefore in her last months, they were really wonderful, nursing her and feeling that, for the first time, I was able to do something really special for her.
That's terrible, Robin, because I can't [remember]... yes, several, yes, she died several years ago. [INTERRUPTION]
I don't think it did, because I was reconciled. It wasn't like a sudden loss. It was more like, you know, this is life and death. But something very interesting happened. Because I had written a piece called Memento Mori which is about ... well it literally means remember to die. And it was about the sad fate of the inhabitants of Easter Island. And there was just something about the piece that seemed right in dedicating it to my mother. So I decided to dedicate it to Mum, and the day after the funeral in Sydney I decided to go right away. So I went to Washington, and some of my music was being performed at the Lincoln in the Kennedy Centre, and one of the pieces was Memento Mori. And I remember after the first performance the conductor knew Mum, and as I got up to bow on the first performance, 'Oh,' he said 'I could feel Edna there all the way.' Her name was Edna. And then on my last night, by surprise, the orchestra gave a pre-concert concert in the foyer of the Kennedy Centre and they played Irkanda IV the piece written for my father. And then I left the foyer and went into the hall and the orchestra played my mother's piece Memento Mori. And it was a most astonishing thing to happen. And when I arrived home, my mother's ghost was no longer in the house. It was almost as though I'd left my parents together in the Kennedy Centre. And somehow that - all that emotion, all that feeling - was sort of beautifully resolved. And, I can't explain, I felt really quite uplifted from that.
You say your students are really like family to you, that you care for them and are there for them in the way that you would if you had children. What are some of the things that you're trying to pass on to them? What would you like to be able to give your students as a way of approaching their work and their life?
I suppose at some stage I talked of myself, probably had a rather wild period in my life. But I don't think I did anything bad. I believe in goodness, godness, you know, if I could help my students to be good, better human beings, that if [I] can do something towards that then I feel I've achieved all I can achieve, because that will pass into the music. And the music will be better. So I think I'm on about goodness. It might sound trite or like a cliché, but that's what I'm about.
Now I want to go back to pick up something that we talked about right at the beginning and I just wanted to get the story again, sort of succinctly, because it's an important story, your first. When did you first start to write music?
I'm not quite sure of the age. It was between six and eight. I must check it out. So we'll say about seven. I went to my first music lesson. And I just simply assumed that I was going to a music lesson to learn to write music. It hadn't occurred to me that I was going to learn to play the piano. So I rushed home, wrote music all the week, and got all excitedly back to my teacher a week later to show her all the music I'd written. And she was so furious with me, she hit me with the cane end of the feather duster across the knuckles. And told me that I was there to learn to play the piano. I had a problem reconciling that, because I had art lessons, and I was learning to paint. So it seemed to me perfectly natural that when you have music lessons you learn to write music. So I just kept on writing music, but under the bedclothes with a torch. Because I'd realised it was bad to write music. It probably is. And about a year later my parents discovered me, and they said, 'That's all right if you want to write music, but don't do it at night, in bed. Do it anytime, the daytime.' And I haven't looked back, whether it's good or bad.
You've had many assistants that have helped you over the years with supporting your work, operating as secretaries and other assistants for you, and there was one who became quite well known in musical circles, called Kelly Trench. Has Kelly Trench been very important in your life?
Kelly has been very important, or she was at one stage, because she was my secretary for some years, and handled my correspondence wonderfully. She also, in the days when I was invited to write program notes for my pieces or other pieces for the ABC, she wrote the program notes. She was good at parties, I mean she was almost like a social secretary.
Yes, in fact quite early on we did give a concert of her music, a program of her music on the ABC. I rarely see her because she's a real globe-trotter, you know. Everywhere I go I suddenly hear she was here last week, or whatever. I probably wouldn't recognise her, because I believe she's had a few facelifts and she keeps putting her age back and things like that. But I really do look forward to catching up some day.
Oh, she's an expert in many areas, but Spanish organs is one area that she does specialise in, yes. [INTERRUPTION]
The sort of outer structure, from outside, yes.
Well, the first thing ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I mentioned I often talk of myself as a religious composer, religious in a sense. If I had to be more precise I would call myself a melodist, in that I love writing melodies. Now some of my critics might say they're hardly melodies. But in my book they're melodies. And so first of all, always, is melody. Sometimes the melody is an adaptation of another melody, say Japanese, Aboriginal or whatever, and I rethink it in some way. Sometimes of course it's my own. Right, it's all very well to have a melody, but if one's writing for orchestra, you know, you've got all those other instruments, which can hardly all play the melody in unison. So how do you keep the melody going? Now, if the melody is very four square, I might syncopate it. That is, just delay the melody as you think it's coming to an end. I just, oh, delay it. [INTERRUPTION]
I sometimes call myself a religious composer. More often I refer to myself as a melodist. I love writing melodies. Now my critics may not call them melodies, but I do, and that's all that matters, I suppose. So the melody is the first parameter of music. But then in writing a piece of music, particularly if it's an orchestral work, one is filling out a big gap in time. So just a melody is not enough. One has to find a way to keep the melody going. One way is to use what we call syncopation. That is, if the melody is a bit four square, just to add or take out a beat. So it helps the music to move on. And the other way is of course by the use of harmony. So you're harmonising, the melody's going along like that, and you're harmonising it. And just when you think the melody's coming in line with the harmony, I move the harmony so that the melody doesn't resolve. And then again, as the melody is about to align with the harmony I move it again. This is something that, really, I was influenced by Mahler with this, because he always does this in so many of his works, particularly the later symphonies. And often by introducing percussion in rhythm, particularly if I syncopate the rhythm so that there's the continual, the music is not - [it] feels as though it's going to resolve, but it doesn't resolve. And I think that it's finding a way to keep the tension. So that's basically what I'm doing when I write music. But melody first.
Well, I think we all have what we call orchestration books, and as students at an early age we study the books, and we listen to recordings. And we have a fair idea of where you put your finger or your mouth or whatever, to produce a certain note. And we also learn the capabilities of instruments. That, of course, is not enough. I mean for instance when I - I don't play the cello, I have played the double bass - when I'm writing a cello work I sometimes get my cello friends out of bed in the middle of the night and they've been known to get their cellos and come to the phone while I'm saying is this possible. And so we do it over the phone. So that's the fine tuning. But then there are other instruments, in particular the guitar, that just don't appear in orchestration books. And traditionally, composers do have a lot of trouble with the guitar. Well, when I'm writing for John Williams, he always says, 'Just write what you think will work.' 'If it doesn't work, we can fix it up but don't learn the guitar.' , he says. Because he says if I learn it then my little knowledge is going to limit me. Because I'll be writing for what I know. Whereas if I'm writing just what I think will work, then it's got more chance of flying up off the page. So that's what that's about.
Well I'm never lonely. I actually enjoy my own company. I don't think I'd be able to do that if I didn't have friends. I mean friends are of paramount importance. For instance, I've tried living in the country, alone. And all the time I desperately wanted to get back to the city. I can live in the city and stay home and work all the weekend, happy in the knowledge that I have my good friend Jane [who] lives just up the road, or that another friend might just drop in. Knowing that I'm surrounded by friends. But I simply couldn't function without friends.
I'm glad you did that, because ...