Skip to content

Aus Ensemble: what we’ve been up to

December 18, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I called my Australia Ensemble colleagues to see how we’re all getting along, and to find out what we’ve been up to in this strangest of years. 


A very chipper, cheery Geoff appears on my phone screen. It’s really good to see him after so long. We agree immediately that we are both fine and well, enjoying a year without a single bout of cold or flu, a welcome but unexpected blessing. “In Adelaide, we largely escaped the restrictions that Melbourne had,” he tells me. “Masks were recommended but not enforced, and life has been fine, despite the restrictions.”

Since March, when we last came together as an ensemble in person, we have had to meet as a group via Zoom to discuss planning and contingencies for 2020 and 2021, tasks faced by individuals and organisations across Australia and, indeed, the world. Sonia and Paul have led us through the pandemic mess with what I’d call ‘realistic optimism’, a quality that Geoff has always shown in abundance.

“It’s interesting — I’ve felt quite good about being in reduced circumstances. I’ve been enjoying bush-walking, cooking, being calmer, being more self-reliant and solitary. I’ve always valued my time alone, and when I walk, I tend to choose paths away from the well-trodden ones.” It’s a sentiment that resonates for a Munro. We, too, love our time alone, although we’re never really alone when we’re joined by our imaginations. 

At Easter, on such a solitary foray into the Adelaide Hills, Geoff tells me that he exercised his talent for misadventure, another trait that I share, and tripped over a tree root. “It wasn’t the first root that did the damage; it was the way it caused me to fall onto a second, which tore into my hand.” Holding up his left palm, he shows me the eleven-stitch scar he didn’t have when I last saw him. “Blood was streaming out of it and I had to get back to my car, two hours away, and find an emergency department. I knew that Adelaide General would be full with people getting Covid tests, so I went to a private hospital, which was completely empty.” The doctor pulled back the flap of skin and cleaned out the wound of all the debris. “‘Do you want to see it?’ he asked me. I picked a spot on the wall…” It goes without saying that I’m very glad to know that the injury was relatively superficial, even though it must have hurt like billy-o.

We are chatting on Saturday 14 November. Tonight is the opening night of Richard Mills’ marvellous opera based on Ray Lawler’s ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. Geoff is excited at the prospect of getting into the newly-refurbished Her Majesty’s Theatre for live performances.

“We lost a lot of performances this year, including a Beethoven symphony cycle, although we managed to put on the violin concerto with Natsuko (Yoshimoto) and the Emperor with Konstantin (Shamray). Natsuko has also curated a chamber music series, a venture that the musicians really appreciated and one that we’re keen to continue after things return to normal. A germ out of necessity, you might say.”

After a three-month hiatus, sectional orchestral rehearsals began again in socially-distanced mode, which entailed carefully-measured seating by way of 1.5m measuring sticks. “The best arrangement we found was to sit in a big circle facing each other. We’ve tried the plastic flute guards, which work well but look a bit hilarious.” Designed for outdoor flute-playing, the ingeniously simple wrap-around clear plastic thingummies prevent a strong wind either from making the flute sound of its own accord or counteracting the flutist’s breathing. “I was once playing down at the Four Winds Festival and the wind against me was so strong that I couldn’t make a noise at all.” Those of you who have ventured to Bermagui for that lovely festival will be well-acquainted with the effect of the sometimes blustery weather, and the discomfiture of the musicians as they struggle to keep music on stands, something that has been helped with the advent of the ipad.

“One of the biggest disappointments has been the unavoidable cancellation of the annual Christmas Pageant, which I remember as a boy.” An Adelaide fixture of some 87 years’ standing, its notable statistics include the 2010 world record for most carol singers. It begs the question: can 9100 carol singers really evoke a silent night? Adelaide does have its own unique style, Geoff tells me. “Where Melbourne might have at one time suffered from an inferiority complex with regard to its status, Adelaide has probably seen itself as more self-sufficient, more satisfied with having avoided some of the excesses of Australia’s larger cities. Then again, as an outsider, I see a darker mood in Melbourne, something more brooding, and that can be both a good and a bad thing.” I think Geoff has nailed something there. An astute social observer.

I ask Geoff to identify some of the highlights of the year so far. “Early on, when we had to come up with things we could do ‘virtually’, the ASO celebrated National Reconciliation Week with a new recording of Nancy Bates’ song ‘Ruby’ about Ruby Hunter, the wonderful Ngarrindjeri musician who was also Archie Roach’s life partner.” Such a stand-out contribution is typical of the ASO and, indeed, Geoff himself, showing how much can still be achieved when the chips are down. Read more about the project here:

And watch the performance with Nancy Bates, Geoff, Dean and Jackie Newcomb here:


“Two weeks ago, we performed our first Goldner Quartet live concert since the pandemic restrictions began, and it felt great,” says Julian enthusiastically. “It was a Morning Masters concert at Chatswood for Musica Viva, with two new pieces for us, a Mendelssohn quartet (op.12) and a new work by young Sydney composer Christine Pan.”

I’m struggling not to be envious, since my own recital in the same series, scheduled for June 17, was cancelled as part of the pandemic response. A relaxed and comfortable Dimity and Julian join me on Zoom, the telephone for today, and I notice that Dimity has the sniffles. “It’s not Covid,” she assures me, “it’s just a cold. Goodness knows how I got it, as I’ve been wearing a mask most of the time.” Immediately, my mask theory is shattered. Not having had a cold over the entire year, I concluded that, however effective or ineffective against Covid19 they may be, they sure work against colds.

“Otherwise, we’ve been well. I’ve been running and cycling,” says Julian, “and in the beginning, you could literally run down the middle of some of the busiest roads in Sydney, there was so little traffic. It was very nice.” I know that Julian is a keen swimmer, as we’ve either swum together in places like Townsville, during the chamber music festival, or compared notes about pools and beaches around the country. Swimmers are like that. “I’ve been swimming at the Des Renford pool lately, since it re-opened and it’s beautiful.” Pools here in Melbourne have been re-opening too, but I’ve yet to take the plunge. Not only is it not yet very warm, but the anxiety of face-to-face heavy breathing is a powerful dampener on enthusiasm. Once our 25km restriction is lifted, I’ve said to myself, I’ll be down the Peninsula and in the bay again.

“Alex is a bit of a gym junkie and got me to go to the gym with him at one point,” adds Dimity. “It was fun but didn’t last. I’ve spent a huge amount of time overseeing the renovations to our house in Mollymook. I’m not sure we would have embarked on it if we’d known what a huge undertaking it would be.” I asked why it had become such a major operation. “The walls had to be moved, for a start, and a new roof put on. Mind you, we were the ones who wanted the walls moved,” replies Julian. They paint a beguiling picture of a haven, ready for the day when the slow-down in performing begins and a more permanent move down the coast beckons. “But not yet! We’ve got a lot of playing to do before then,” they both agree.

At first, the lockdowns and cancellations were bewildering, depressing, difficult, and Dimity put down the violin altogether. “I felt a bit lost, to be honest. What was the point of practising when there was no concert to practise for? There was a certain numbness that lasted several weeks. Some time after that, I started to enjoy having the time off.” Julian never stopped practising, he tells me, “because if I don’t play for a few weeks, I’m in trouble with the callouses getting soft.” It’s a cello thing, believe me. I will never forget my cello teacher Henri Touzeau ramming the side of my left hand thumb against the C string and shoving it up and down along the finger board. ‘Thumb position’ is the basis on which all high work rests in cello playing, and the calloused thumb is the foundation on which the poor cellists hand rests. “I also felt that I had to remain in practice for my students. I haven’t had a break from teaching at all, since everything continued via Zoom lessons. Now that we’re back teaching in person, it feels as if everyone appreciates it all the more, and the younger musicians are very keen and positive about everything. It’s been great to see. They’ve been asking about competitions and opportunities, generally overjoyed to be back in the studio.” I can imagine. Those students lucky enough to have Julian as their teacher could not hope for a more dedicated, expert mentor.

Is there anything you’ve missed? “We don’t miss the travelling!” they both answer. “And the dogs have loved it. Even Woofy, who hasn’t had a great year.” Woofie, the Smiles’s 16 year-old Cavoodle, rules the roost at home and, despite multiple health issues, is one of those cheerful dogs who is pleased and happy with life if it involves a modicum of attention.

For some reason, we end the conversation with a comparison of recurring nightmares. Mine and Julian’s are quite similar, evolving from anxiety about being ready and equipped. “I find myself standing in the wings, about to go on. ‘You’re on — here’s your trombone!’ someone tells me…” Mine also involves being in the wings. I’m in a play, trying to tell them I’m not an actor. “You’ll be fine,” they say. “I haven’t read the script!” “You’ll be fine.” “I haven’t got any clothes on!” I wake up abruptly.

“I don’t really have recurring nightmares,” says Dimity. “At least, not when I’m asleep.” We agree that, when the 2020 nightmare is over, it will be lovely to meet again as an ensemble and play onstage in Clancy. I think we all have a renewed sense of how lucky we are to have each other as colleagues and how much we have gained from making music together. Roll on, 2021.


Dave, typically, is running around doing a million things this afternoon but, also typically, creates space for me, in between setting up a Zoom meeting for daughter Nina and her friends, and rushing off for something else.

“Nina and I have spent a lot more time together this year. I mean, real time, rather than just the time we would spend driving to and from after-school activities. Every weekend we make some elaborate cake, since Nina got into baking, and I’m her assistant. Last one was a seven-layer Halloween cake with fondant and ghosts… We fought over it but came out of it still friends.”

For Dave, recently appointed Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium, teaching this year has been via Zoom, like virtually everyone else, and it has brought challenges and positives. “To tell you the truth, I’ve come to prefer it now, after not liking it at all to begin with. Apart from the basic problem of not being able to deal with tone very well, I like it a lot, now that I’m set up with good speakers and microphone, I can organise myself with scores and optimal set up at home. I’m not driving for two hours a day in and out of Melbourne, so I can actually spend more time with students, which they also like.”

Adjusting to delivering online what has traditionally been done face-to-face is a recurring theme this year. For Dave, the online environment has meant exploring relationships far and wide, engaging international teachers to give masterclasses where travel expenses previously would have been prohibitive, and being able to reciprocate with teaching into courses overseas. “I do feel for the First Years. It’s harder for them than the older students.” Why, I ask? “I’d normally spend a lot of time setting them up, correcting embouchure, refining their air. That’s much harder to do at a distance. It’s also been harder for them not mixing with other students in class, learning from being with and hearing others. We’ll definitely keep some of this when things return to normal, though.”

By now, everyone is aware that Victoria in general, and Melbourne in particular, has been hardest hit among the states, and our lockdown was harder than it has been elsewhere, and has lasted longer. Dave and I live 2km apart as the magpie flies but have not seen each other since July 31, when we gave a recital together at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall series. “That first lockdown was novel — excuse the pun — and kind of exciting. Setting up online schooling for Nina, online teaching. We quickly seemed to get on top of things, came out of it in June and you and I did that concert in July, wonderful to do something like that that we took for granted before. All of a sudden, it felt like ‘Oh my God this is amazing!’ Then the second lockdown came, which felt much more severe. For me, I almost didn’t leave the house, didn’t go anywhere. Nina found school much harder.”

Family life was curtailed in some ways: two birthdays went by without guests. On the other hand, there were positives. “Svetlana and I pretty much stopped playing for a while, which felt really nice. Extra time was focused on students and family. I had more time and energy than usual, and Svetlana and I went for a run together every afternoon, talking and enjoying each other’s company. We now look forward to it, and she said to me the other day ‘This is quite nice. Can we continue to do this and not go back to the way it was before?’ There’s also been a nice feeling in Melbourne in many ways. We still have the ‘STAY SAFE’ sign Nina and a friend drew on the front fence.”

It’s true. Around the suburb, children have festooned their nature strips with Spoonvilles, staged teddy bears’ picnics and chalked hopscotch diagrams on the pavements, along with encouraging morale-boosting messages. The disappearance of tetchy school-pickup SUV drivers, honking their horns at any and every minor irritation along Elgar Road and Burwood Highway, has been a brief blessing. Swapping gym and pool for circumscribed walks throughout the suburb, noticing and sniffing the many varieties of roses, has been a nostril opener.

“It’s great to be opening up again now, to teach our first classes, albeit strictly socially distanced. I’m curating a Chamber Music Intensive for two weeks in December, so it’s a bit strange to be gearing up for that at a time when I’d normally be winding down for the year.” Dave is also gearing up for a final Ensemble Liaison concert for MDCH on Wednesday 25 November. “We’re a bit on tenterhooks. We commissioned a new work by John Novacek. It’s been coming in bits and pieces and we still haven’t seen the whole piece yet. The concert’s only ten days away…” It is indeed a concert to look forward to. Beethoven’s Trio op.11, a Liaison favourite, and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons bookend the world premiere of Novacek’s ‘Trio Marlenita’. Novacek is a concert pianist of formidable ability who loves a good rag. Listen to his charming ‘4th Street Drag’ here:


Dene and Irena join the Zoom meeting via ipad as they make their way to the music room, taking me on a tour of the house in Newtown until we all plump down on the sofa. It’s good to see them looking so well and cheerful.

“Do you want go first or shall I?” asks Dene. Irena looks meaningful. “That means she’s going first.”

“It took a while to get over the shock of it,” says Irena huskily. “Instruments got packed away and practice abruptly stopped. It was hard to grapple with —  something you do your entire life, taken away. It took a while to get over it.” We had all last met up in March, playing the one and only Australia Ensemble concert of 2020 on Saturday 14th, just as the Covid situation was quickly getting serious and a day before UNSW shut down. 

“After that, it became quite enjoyable, almost like a sabbatical. We spent more time in the garden, doing family things. Even cleaning cupboards was pleasurable. Another thing we did was to take advantage of the extra time to connect with friends and family here and overseas. The enforced time off also meant that I was able to have a second necessary operation and not feel pressured into recovering as quickly as possible because of concerts coming up. I could recover as slowly as it took, and now it’s actually helped with playing.”

Dene is in a reflective mood. “When I look back, considering I’ve now been in the profession 43 years, when I left Juilliard I hit the ground running with my first paid gigs and haven’t stopped ever since. It felt like leaving Juilliard was the beginning of a new, crucial period of training, learning all the things we weren’t taught during the course, how to survive, manage. I was always jealous of my father, who, apart from being a fine musician, was also able to build a kitchen, fix a car. I couldn’t do those things. During this restricted year, I’ve been happy as Larry doing things around the house, painting the bedroom, learning some basic plumbing, doing stuff in the garden, trying to learn Italian. Nikolai has been at home, coping in his own way, at his own speed. I’ve been enjoying helping him with an online computer course. Suddenly I’ve had the time for all these things.”

I’m interested in whatever else Dene might have done this year that he might not have done in normal times. “Well, I had to get my motorbike license.” Had to? “Yes. We bought a purple Fonzarelli motor scooter. We call it the Flying Eggplant.” I’m tempted to enquire whether this is Dene revisiting his early years as a driver of a hot little red sports car. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Olding look in the flesh.

“Of course, we’ve felt very privileged to be in the position we are in, owning our own home and reasonably comfortable. It would be very different if we were in our thirties. It’s been tough for younger people, and music is a tough profession anyway.”

Now that things have started up again, what have you been doing? “We played for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall in the Clancy auditorium and at the Cell Block Theatre. On November 4 we played our first live concert since lockdown, a Morning Masters for Musica Viva at Chatswood. The audience numbers were greatly reduced but just hearing the murmur of real live people again was thrilling. It reminded us what a big difference there is between playing to an empty hall and the warmth of people.”

We all suspect that it will take a long time for things to return to normal, if there ever was such a thing. “Some people have told us how much they like the online concerts, appreciating avoiding the hassle of travel and perhaps the added choice of being able to listen to a concert online rather than having to make the decision either to go or to miss it. So that may be something we look at adopting long term as a way of augmenting our live offering.”

“Although,” adds Irena, “we all know what an inhibiting effect the microphone has. There’s nothing like playing live to an audience, knowing that it’s not going to be played back twenty years from now, perhaps critiqued. Being live isn’t just a thrill for an audience, it’s liberating for players too.”

We all want to play live again. We’ve missed it. We’ve missed each other and we’ve missed you too, loyal subscribers. We’re looking forward to seeing you all again as soon as we can, and we’re very thankful that UNSW has been such a champion of and supporter of our music-making for such a long time, and now at such a difficult time.

As for me, what have I been doing? Well, I played the 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven between April and June, a recital with my friend Dave in July and another solo recital of children’s music in October as a tribute to my much-missed friend Geoffrey Tozer, who loved children’s music and was quite a man-child himself. I wrote a piano sonata during the months of August and September and in October completed a commission for 3.5 seconds of music to illustrate an animated logo for a project collecting interviews of 100 year-old Australians. Like my colleagues, I’ve found much to worry about this year but at least at much for which to be thankful. I have been learning about caring for apple trees (I have a dwarf snow apple and another Cox’s Orange Pippin, coming along nicely after being savaged by the possum a while ago). I have been cooking and baking a lot and looking after mum, who fell and broke her wrist in September. Zoom, Skype, Messenger, Facetime have all been put to good use catching up with friends around the world, and tonight I spoke with my three closest school friends, all together for the first time in around twenty-five years, from Melbourne to Karlstad and Barcelona. What a strange time it’s been for us all, but such a lot to enjoy and look forward to.


Three Birds

April 30, 2017

Sometimes, the words of my dear old dad return to haunt me.


‘Haunt’ is not the right word: perhaps I mean, simply, that I hear his voice again, saying things he used to say at the sort of times he used to say them. Dad had a fund of saws and sayings, which he would sagely offer at moments of indecision, challenge, disappointment, triumph or for no particular reason, it has to be said. Very few were original, although they were always invested with a dad-like quirky Hugh-ness (Hugh was his name). Some were inane, like “(Son,) there’s no time like the present”, which I suppose is a common man way of saying carpe diem, or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going (, son)”. No less useful for that, but still pretty inane. Being a dad and a dag, I am guilty of having frequently employed similar platitudes in the upbringing of my two daughters, who were never as impressed by my lacklustre attempts at wisdom as I was at my old man’s, back in the day. On the other hand, there were many instances when dad’s advice was actually wise as well as useful, and those instances and pieces of advice have formed part of my inner dialogue ever since. Once, when I was struggling with conceiving how I would ‘get there from here’ — how I would ever gather the skills needed to play the piano sufficiently well to make a living — he said something like “Son, you’ve got a long way to go, but it’s not a steep slope, just a long one.” Which turned out to true, on the whole. The other one I like a lot is not easily remembered verbatim but may be summed up by “necessity is the mother of invention”, although that is not exactly the phraseology, nor quite the meaning. Nor can I remember the particular problem that gave rise to the advice, but I can explain it, because it came up again recently in a new iteration. When it did, I sought advice from composer friends and discovered that almost every one of them had a similar tale to tell, of frustration and pique. At least one told me that there simply was no workable solution. And yet, sometimes, seemingly insurmountable problems lead to improvised solutions that, it becomes clear in retrospect, turn out to be preferable to the original wished-for alternative. The principle seems applicable to just about any profession or situation, and is certainly true in the realm of composing, I have discovered. Let me explain.


My song cycle Three birds was commissioned for soprano Sara Macliver and the Australia Ensemble and was first performed at our August subscription concert in Sydney this year. Bringing together poetry from three eras, three places and by three very different poets — Judith Wright, Emily Dickinson and Matsuo Basho — the theme of birds, or man’s (and woman’s) relationship and fascination with birds, is explored across the centuries and continents. It also manages to encapsulate one of those serendipitous confluences of interest that, unknown and unsuspected until a moment of revelation, cause one to wonder about the more mysterious ways in which we are connected to one another. The commissioner of the work, Norma Hawkins, is a vigorous and delightful elderly lady living in inner city Sydney, who has been an Aus Ensemble subscriber since its inception in 1980. We did not formally meet until I had finished composing the pieces, and she was adamant that she did not want to place even the slightest demands on me in determining what form they should take, or what subject matter they might address. My plan to write songs about birds, therefore, was entirely my own idea. On visiting Norma in her cottage in Glebe, it was immediately clear that she was a bird-lover, with books about birds stacking the shelves and pictures of them adorning the walls. She enthusiastically told me of her involvement in a local group of environmentalists who have successfully fought to preserve the habitat of Glebe’s blue wrens. The only blemish on such a blessed coincidence was, it seems, the choice of Wright’s poem about a currawong, rather than a wren. Norma set me right on the nature of currawongs, great sinister predators that they are, despite their pleasant and memorable call, a “cruel and melodious bird”, according to Judith Wright.


Wright is among a small handful of Australia’s finest poets, and was a galvanising force in my artistic thinking from the moment when, during an English exam at school, I read her poem ‘Birds’. Over her long writing career, from the early, intensely lyrical poems of New England, already troubled by concerns for social justice and environmental protection, to her unflinching contemplations on love, old age, loss and a myriad other truths about life, she always expressed in her words a strenuous desire to understand and face up to reality, however difficult. In one sense, ‘Birds’ (from The gateway (1953)) provides a key to her later bird poems. It is, on the face of it, about birds:


“Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.

Weapon kestrel hard as a blade’s curve,

thrush round as a mother or a full drop of water

fruit-green parrot wise in his shrieking swerve—

all are what bird is and do not reach beyond the bird.”


Soon, however, it becomes clear that her contemplation of the evolution of the bird to be “perfect in the bird” is a point of distinction between the bird and herself, her ‘imperfect’ human self:


“But I am torn and beleaguered by my own people.”


If only I could be a bird, she says, more or less. Or rather, if only I could be a person as a bird is a bird. Her many later studies of birds (including the superb collection Birds (1962)) deliberately eschew the distinction and the anguish, leaving the contemplation of birds to be enough, simply to be. In her distinctive voice, she does what Dickinson and Basho did: she shares her experience of being with the bird, directing her gaze through our eyes, trusting and respecting our intelligence to make of it what we will, by far the best way.


Emily Dickinson, acknowledged as one of the finest American writers ever to have lifted a quill, lived an exceedingly quiet life, which became more and more hermitic as she grew older. Such inwardness as she chose for herself served to focus her poetic insights on small things and slight observations after the manner of a microscopist, thereby to reveal tiny details and surprising truths. Reading such a poem as ‘A bird came down the walk’ leaves one convinced that absolutely nothing is incapable of giving rise to poetic thought, and that ‘poetic thought’, moreover, is not the airy romanticisation of the otherwise humdrum but the opposite. Dickinson, like Basho, Stevens and Wright, really sees what she looks at, and her words are her art of capturing, in Wallace Stevens’ notable phrase “things as they are”.


And so to the first song to be completed, which is the second of the group, ‘Basho’s birds: homage to Wallace Stevens’. It turned out to be by far the most problematic, and it is the nature of that problem that prompted me to write about it here. Originally, this was a song that I sketched many years ago to words by Wallace Stevens, the great American symbolist poet whose earliest collection The harmonium contains the gem ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’. It is a poem that has fascinated American composers and literature students for decades, and has attracted a large body of scholarship and music devoted to its zen-like simplicity and aloof beauty. Among the composers who have previously set these words are Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Virgil Thompson, Lukas Foss, Ian Wisse, Mohammed Fairouz and Robert Paterson. Perhaps the most lovely Stevens setting I know is ‘A mind of winter’ by George Benjamin, based on another Stevens poem ‘The snowman’.


On the second day of 2016, I sat down to apply to the various publishers for permission to set all these words to music, with all of the bureaucratic detail that follows by necessity. For composers, this is typically, but not always, a mundane procedure invloving the negotiation of terms for performance, broadcast, sheet music sales and the royalties and fees that accrue and must be divided between the parties. In the case of Judith Wright, the rights holder was able to settle on standard terms within a fortnight. In the case of Stevens, however, the publisher and copyright holder took twenty weeks to respond, proposing what appeared to me to be quite restrictive and ambiguous terms. In any case, during the interim I had had to begin work on writing the songs, anticipating that all would work out fine, as it usually does. Once it became clear that all would not be fine, and that if I held to plan A the day of the concert might come and go without formal agreement, I decided that the words I loved and admired so much would probably be unavailable to me and that I would need to prepare a plan B. It seemed to me that the options were, essentially, three: I could find new words for the existing song; I could write a new song altogether and abandon the one I had already composed; or, I could cancel the performance. It possibly would have been easier, looking back, simply to have written a new song with different words, but I felt that I liked what I had written, and was overtaken by a stubborn determination not to be beaten so easily. So I started the hunt for new words to retro-fit to my song. That was where I found myself being reaquainted with Basho.


Stevens was sometimes slightly evasive about his sources of inspiration, but the form and style of ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’ is strongly suggestive of Japanese haiku and its Chinese ancestors. A reading of the most illustrious of haiku poets, Matsuo Basho (1644—94), alongside Stevens clearly shows an affinity, if not evidence of actual quotation (insofar as that is possible in translation), and I have freely adapted, with the help of a Japanese-speaking friend, a selection of Basho’s poems relating to birds so as to form something of an anachronistic tribute to his later admirer and colleague in words. The two men, separated in time by some 250 years, lived very different lives and had quite different aims in their writing. Basho lived as an itinerant thinker almost all his life, poor, reliant on the beneficence of strangers, quietly contemplating the largely rural 17th century world he wandered through, distilling the essence of a day’s experience in a handful of often miraculously apt and simple words. Stevens was a wealthy insurance executive who wrote poetry on the side, known for his extremely abundant vocabulary, often impenetrable symbolism and esoteric philosophical content. What the two shared, though, was an abiding sense of wonder at the beauty of the world and the attempt to capture the essence of reality in their work, as so many great poets do and have done.


I’d like to express my gratitude to Mirei Ballinger for her generous help with some of the Basho translations, and for helping me out of such a tight spot in a way which ended up artistically satisfying and interesting. It occurs to me now that the poetry of Basho has qualities that I might even prefer to those of Stevens, no matter how much I admire the supreme virtuosity, imagination and sense of beauty of the latter. Basho’s art is warm, personal and intimate: there is a sense in which you are with him, wherever he is on that day, in that moment, at that place, and he welcomes you always as a poetic companion. Stevens’ art is wonderful, cerebral, quirky, mysterious and often impenetrable but always beautiful and intriguing, but rarely warm or personal. Perhaps it is a time-of-life thing, but I find myself attracted more to the former these days. So, although it was not quite the piece I had planned to write, it might have been if I knew then what I know now, because of the the whole experience and because of the problem unhelpfully posed.


And I like to think that my old dad would have smiled an indulgent smile and said something pithy at this point. I just can’t think what it might have been.

sleep in thy forest bed, Amy Beach

July 25, 2015

In 1915, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, wrote: “It seems impossible for woman to create a beauty that must come from the soul and encompass a comprehension of the supernatural beauty that is given to us through the master artist. True, America has Mrs Beach and France Cécile Chaminade… But we have not opera, concerto, symphony, oratorio, or string quartet from womankind. Their work is light and frothy… they have not produced anything that could even be called near great.” Clearly, Damrosch was not a writer of felicitous style or penetrating insight but, despite the outburst, he was actually a prominent contemporary interpreter of Mrs H. H. A. Beach’s music, and we may at least appreciate the candour with which he recorded a sentiment that tacitly persists in some quarters to this day, and for sparking a debate at the time that ignited a wider interest in art by women.

Amy Marcy Cheney was, by all accounts, a precocious child. Able to sing forty songs by her first birthday, she was composing waltzes by the age of four and made her first concert appearance at seven, upon which she was immediately approached by managers and agents offering representation to an American prodigy. Once she had relocated with her parents from rural New Hampshire to Boston, her entrée into the wider world of America’s second capital of culture was made smoother, so that by the time of her official debut at sixteen she had already attracted a group of influential admirers (such as the poets Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes) who followed and supported the growth of her talent. Her gifts were such that, had she been a boy, she would certainly have travelled to Europe for further studies in piano and composition, but this was not condoned by her father, with the result that she was partly self-taught in the former and almost entirely in the latter. At eighteen, she married the illustrious surgeon Henry Beach, a widower 24 years her senior, who required of his young wife that she must not pursue a professional career, and that her appearances should be limited to one or two benefit concerts per year, with the proceeds donated to charity, thereby preserving the decorum Henry wished to maintain. The marriage seemed to have been happy, nevertheless, and the couple lived luxuriously in Henry’s mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. A year after becoming widowed, however, she sailed for Europe on her forty-fourth birthday and embarked on a three-year international tour that quickly established her as one of the leading American musicians of the day. Ironically, she was thus earning the money she discovered she needed to pay off the substantial debts accrued by Henry without her knowledge.

Returning to Boston in 1913, she became involved with the MacDowell Colony, a venture devoted to supporting the development of fellow American artists, established by the most famous local composer of the time, Edward MacDowell (1860—1908). It had been his ‘Indian’ Suite op.48 for orchestra (1892), which Amy admired, which seems to have sparked her interest in adapting native American musical materials in her works twenty years earlier, at a time when nationalist movements in music were prompting exploration and preservation of folk songs and folklore. Following her visit to the World Colombian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, her attention began to turn to questions of musical provenance, and she began expressing, in her writings as well as her music, concern for answers to the question: what is American music? It was also in 1893 that Dvorak, then living in the United States, premiered his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’, publicly declaring that the future of American music lay in its folk heritage. Beach responded with the first of her ‘Indianist’ works, ‘An Indian Lullaby’, a four-part song for women’s chorus, written in 1895. The anonymous author of the text

Sleep in thy forest bed

Where silent falls the tread

On the needles soft and deep

Of the pine

may well have been Amy herself. Although there are no folk or indigenous melodies included in the song, the intention to evoke an impression of native life is beautifully rendered in a gently wistful, romanticised way. Soon, she was acquiring a knowledge of authentic native musics and incorporating themes and stylistic traits in her own works. Probably the best known of these remains her suite ‘Eskimos’ op.64, which borrows Eskimo tunes collected in Labrador.

So it was that, when she received a commission from the San Francisco Quintet Club in 1915, she turned to ‘An Indian Lullaby’ for a theme. Following on from her most famous work, the impressively sumptuous piano quintet of 1907, she employed skills honed in her grand piano concerto (1899) and ‘Gaelic’ Symphony (1894) in gracefully idiomatic string writing that at once effectively provides an evocative setting for the solo flute and richly expands and decorates the original song. In a series of six variations, she gifted the original interpreter, flautist Elias Hecht, with an elegantly virtuosic vehicle laden with brilliant passage work and fine cantilena melodies, with plenty of characteristic late nineteenth century vignettes, so favoured in the salons of Europe.

From the elegiac opening address by the strings to the haunting coda, a panorama of descriptive character sketches leads us from quicksilver Mendelssohnian scherzi to a heartfelt Wagnerian largo, with a languorous fin de siècle waltz and an intriguing, nostalgic glance backwards by way of recapitulation. “The theme, haunting and beautiful, had seven (sic) variations, each one exquisite in form. Technically, they were worthy the mettle (sic) of these star men,”wrote the Musical Leader after the premiere, and the piece has remained a favourite with American flute players ever since. Nevertheless, it took until 1942 for it to receive its East Coast premiere, during celebrations for her 75th birthday in Washington DC.

For the rest of her life, Mrs H. H. A. Beach, as she continued to be known professionally, became a fixture of the Boston and New York musical scenes, widely respected as a pianist and always popular as a composer, surviving the gentle and gradual eclipse of all artists born of her era, as the ructions and modernities of the post World War I period proceeded apace. Unlike Mr Damrosch, however, her music has never left the American canon, and only gains greater international recognition as the years have passed since her death in 1944. The Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet is one of her finest chamber works, rarely heard in Australia, and will be given its first performance in the Australia Ensemble lunch hour series on Tuesday 11 August in the Leighton Hall, Scientia Building, University of NSW, 1.10pm.

leaving London

July 25, 2015

This is a blog post from 18 December last year, while I was touring with Keith Crellin for Chamber Music Australia, auditioning groups for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition that has just finished. One or two of the thoughts are repeated in the previous post about repertoire (so shoot me). 

Music is not a language: music is like a language. It’s my opinion, and not what I’m going to write about here, but it serves to show that (again, in my opinion) there’s a big difference between an analogy and a declaration of equivalence. The trouble with using analogies, which are addictively useful, is that it’s often difficult to know how far to stretch them, to what they apply and to what they don’t, and when to stop. I feel like indulging, so please bear with.

Keith and I are about to embark on the final leg of this fascinating and very enjoyable audition tour. We have heard thirty groups in four cities, and been delighted and privileged to be treated to private performances of great music played by many fine young colleagues. I have spent most of the tour so far making copious notes, and re-reading them, pondering what I have heard and discussing at length with my very pleasant travelling companion. Because most of my previous experience in adjudicating has been either alone or on juries, in which discussion is usually strictly forbidden, for good reasons, the opportunity to exchange views freely has been refreshing and liberating. I have been learning a lot from Keith, and he seems to have relished the reciprocation. Without wishing to speak for another, I believe that we are pretty much on the same page regarding the art and craft of playing, although, when it comes to inner feelings, we are all undoubtedly and aptly  different.

Among the groups, there have been those who have spent years together; there are those who have formed this year, last year, and one which replaced a pianist last week; there are those who play with near immaculate technical precision; there are those who are relatively rough, and show a myriad technical shortcomings; there are those who seem formal in approach, who might or might not be what is quaintly called ‘historically informed’; there are those comprising members who seem very well suited to playing with their confrères, those who seem more motley; there was at least one player who was crying as she played; there was one who seemed angry; and there have been a few ensembles who have brought a frisson, for reasons that don’t really need much analysis. And so on. And yet, with so many, many factors in play, and so many ways to listen to them, consider them, sort them, there is one aspect that remains at the core of all good playing: enjoyment, and the ability to impart it so that it becomes shared.

My analogy, which I will now proceed to stretch, ridiculously, is that ‘playing’ an instrument is just that, in a sense. Beyond and inclusive of all the discipline and learned skills, without play, the activity of music is forlorn and perfunctory. The particular beauty of chamber music is often said to relate to an intimate conversation, and I’d agree with that, except that I’d insist that it be a playful conversation in some way. I like to hear a small group playing as if they were sharing a game, and that that game delighted and surprised them as they went along. Listening to a solo performance, I want the same thing, but the nature of the game might be quite different: it’s like the difference between watching mixed doubles, perhaps (string quartet) and someone playing solitaire. I told you about analogies, didn’t I? Duets: chess? Trios: Monopoly? I don’t know.

Listening to young players is often fascinating, and this tour has been nothing if not fascinating. We will welcome some ensembles to Melbourne next year who will delight, charm and probably touch and win hearts. I hope and believe that we will hear the best that is on offer from the world’s young professionals, and that their youth will not be camouflaged or subdued by the maturity and respect due to music that is also necessary for the true interpretation of the classics that we love. It occurs to me, though, that some of the most playful people I have known, paradoxically, are also some of the oldest, which goes to show that playfulness, or its lack, is not necessarily proportionate to age and experience. And I’m very glad about that.

So, if anything, I would like our young groups to revel in their youth and their growing maturity, both, and never be ashamed or inhibited from playing the great game of music, with a child-like quality, nourished and protected. Mozart did, and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for us, nicht Wahr?



the beauty of repertoire

July 25, 2015

A few people asked me to put up the text of a talk I gave recently at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference in Melbourne. A busy conference it was, full to the brim with varied and interesting presentations. One of the highlights was Piers Lane’s recreation of a wartime recital by Myra Hess.

These are a few thoughts I’d like to share with you concerning the nature of repertoire, what it means to me, and why I have found the pursuit of it so engrossing, since I began collecting it with my pocket money when I was about 12 years old, and why it feels now that I know even less than I did before. I doubt whether any of the following observations will strike you as original or comprehensive, but they stem from a life-long appreciation of areas of repertoire that are often dismissed as unimportant or worse, as well as the notion that demarcating and subdividing areas of repertoire is useful  but also partly arbitrary — everything we do in music, and everything that our musical forebears have done, much of which they have left us to enjoy and from which to learn — is a contribution to an inheritance: a whole, living thing that forms a unique collective human utterance.

These are a couple of definitions of ‘repertoire’ that come readily to hand:

– a stock of plays, dances, or items that a company or a performer knows or is prepared to perform

– the whole body of items which are regularly performed; a stock of skills or types of behaviour that a person habitually uses.

Any definitions of ‘repertoire’ I can find immediately imply inclusion and, by extension, exclusion — what one can play, chooses to do, opts not to. In fact, is there even a satisfactory word for the whole of what has been written, including that which has been written and lost? The best I can come up with is ‘extant musical literature,’ although ‘extant’ would suggest what has survived to the present, rather than everything that existed at all. In any case, it is this concept to which I refer when I talk about repertoire.

When I was a student here at the College of the Arts in the 1980s, the opportunity to ransack the music library and get my hands on more piano music than I had ever seen before was a source of great pleasure. And where there is now a vacant lot on the corner of City Rd and Sturt St there used to be an old flat-iron building, formerly the YMCA, where the VCA rented rooms installed with pianos so that we had extra space in which to practise. In the corridors were boxes of old music donated by kindly folk who would rather we had it than throw it out, I guess, and that provided an additional supply of often peculiar scores reflecting the tastes of an earlier era. Fossicking among the dusty sheets I recall finding pieces by Norman O’Neill, Rudolf Friml and those ubiquitous Ketèlbys and Gabriel Morels, Bendels and Raffs, along with Schubert, Bach and Mozart and all the other granddaddies. It was all grist to the mill in those days, and there was little that I would find to reject. There were others similarly obsessed. The pianist Tony Gray, who was then completing his Graduate Diploma, told me that his ambition was to play, or at least play through, every piece that had ever been written for the piano. Given that he was not one to waste much time practising — he freely admitted — he reckoned that he would have the time to accomplish the feat within a lifetime, with a bit to spare. I sometimes wonder how he’s going with that — it was hard to tell whether Tony was being absolutely serious. When I met Leslie Howard in London a few years later, we had a similar conversation, and Leslie was the first person I knew who could fairly be described as having an ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’, to employ that overused expression. 

There are those, then, who have a fascination for the breadth of repertoire and who enjoy the hunt for the more obscure items, which was always part of the fun when it involved junk shops, antiquarian dealers and ringing up fellow piano nerds to swap photocopies. Now, there is, which has made the ten or so years Leslie and I slowly pieced together a worklist for Moritz Moszkowski redundant, if not quite a waste of time. Without those expeditions into London to Cecil Court and Bell Street, or the now defunct Atiquariat at Doblingers in Vienna, or the Westminster Library, or the bargain bins at Francis Music Supply in Gerrard St Soho (between the Chinese grocery and the sex shop) I would not have met the appealingly odd repertoire of David Wendell Fentress Guion, Nathaniel Dett, Serge Lancen, Gustav Jensen or Halfdan Kjerulf, and my life would be the less interesting for it.

But not everyone is bitten by the repertoire bug. I have had conversations with a number of colleagues who roll their eyes or simply smile in bemusement when I get all enthused about Carlos Guastavino, Sigismond Stojowski or Iris de Cairos Rego. “If they had been worth playing, we would have heard of them by now,” they say, or “There’s probably a good reason why they were forgotten,” or words to those effects — no doubt I’m being a bit unfair in my paraphrasing — and in a sense, they’re right. I have no argument with the fact that there is great music —sometimes embodying the sublime and crossing over into another territory in ways that could be rightly called ineffable. And yet, the people who created that aural art were echte Menschen, flesh and blood humans who lived and live among us; they belong to the societies that host them, sometimes sustaining them and sometimes not so much. How else to appreciate the magic than to gain the perspective afforded only by knowing above which landscapes they stood aloft, to adopt a rather Nineteenth Century turn of phrase. Just because you know and love the Flute Quartets of Mozart is no reason not to know the actually rather lovely but unloved quartets by Leopold Kozeluh, the man Beethoven referred to as a ‘miserabilis’. The one doesn’t occlude the other, or have to. 

Within the more or less undisputed canon, too, are plenty of examples of music that one might regard as essential desert island hand luggage, and another might disregard as muck. A good friend and colleague of mine was once forced by circumstance to play the G minor string quartet by Grieg. It’s a beautiful but not frequently-played work, with an evocative, tartly sweet Nordic romance at its heart, and the audience loved it. My friend loathed it, as he declared he loathed all Grieg’s music. He went on about how much he loathed it for several years afterwards, quoting a gnomic remark of John Painter’s: “I haven’t ever heard Grieg’s string quartet, and I don’t want to hear it again!” Now, not so long ago, the Sydney Symphony performed a concert version of the entire Peer Gynt, and my friend, I happened to know, was rostered to play in it. I was curious to know how he got on, so when I saw him next, I asked him. With tears welling up in his eyes, he replied, “It was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life.” To his enormous credit. Preconceptions are often just another word for not knowing stuff, and sometimes they can be destroyed in the pleasantest of ways.

One of Grieg’s greatest admirers was Percy Grainger, a composer with whom my friend has even more of a problem. For him, and others, it’s evidently the Morris dancing and twee, tweedy, Englishness of the folk music settings, although it’s worth remembering that Grainger was adamant that Country Gardens was a piece full of anger and grit, so at least some of it is a misunderstanding of Grainger’s intentions. I believe that there is a special element that contributes to the feelings of unease and aversion, and it has to do with bad taste: the cringe that we feel when emotionalism just veers over that boundary into bad taste, like most pop music has since about 1970. Percy was well aware of this, and told plenty of self-depreciating stories, including the one involving Sir Thomas Beecham when he conducted Colonial Song at the Proms. “My dear Grainger,” boomed the rotund knight, “you have achieved the near impossible: you have written the worst piece of modern times!” In a general observation about his life’s work and where he stood in relation to the mainstream, he once remarked, “My life has been one of kicking out into space, while the world around us is dying of good taste.” He believed that bad taste was not a barrier to good music, a notion to which CPE Bach stood diametrically opposed, as many do. I’m probably more with Grainger on this one, for a whole bunch of reasons, and we have some surprising allies (Mozart, for instance. One only ahs to think of the canons…). Just as there is nothing more superficial than the veneer of a person who scrupulously hides all his defects, a composer who is concerned only with surface decorum, and the disguise of all revealing foibles, is usually a composer who leaves us cold. Ally that with a desire to impress, rather than move or delight, and you have an altogether irritating musical irrelevance. Anyway, whatever good taste is, it’s really best judged personally, but tends to be subject to societal norms, and societal norms are all very well in some ways, but usually not a great prompter of good art, except in critique, I suppose. Additionally, good taste is inherently prescriptive and, worse, proscriptive, with the inevitable effect of limitation: limitation of that which is deemed worthy, and therefore choking off utterance before it gets a chance to be heard. All sorts of effects follow, but I don’t want to dwell on them, because it’s not the focus of this talk. 

Grieg might be regarded as a great composer by some — Grainger did — but let’s take an unarguable example. Who with a passion for Beethoven would possibly not want to hear and know everything he wrote? And yet, we are prepared to hear certain works again and again before we listen to some others even for the first time. Why is that? Is it in fact true that Wellington’s Victory is a lousy piece? Does it really matter? Many of Beethoven’s key ideas were worked out in those little factories of invention: the sets of variations, some of which turned out to be, like the Diabelli Variations, among his most inspired works; many others are almost forgotten. There are around thirty sets of variations dating from his teens to his last years and numbering over 250 individual movements. They were clearly important to Beethoven, and a key element in his musical thinking, and to the process by which his ideas grew and made sense. When I toured for the ABC in the 1990s, I was interviewed on radio in Hobart by a fellow about Tchaikowsky’s second piano concerto, which I was playing with the TSO. “Critics agree that it’s a weak piece in comparison with the first, poorly constructed and lacking melodic inventiveness,” he stated, and I spent most of the interview defending the composer, who really needed none, and trying to convince people to turn up and hear for themselves a concerto that is not played all that often. When we went off air, I asked him whether he really disliked the piece as much as he seemed to. “Oh, I haven’t heard it,” he said, “but I’ve read about it.” I’m always grateful when people are candid on such matters. At least you know what you’re dealing with. But again, we have the twin problems: repertoire that has been prejudged, before hearing, and the attendant lack of — loss of — perspective that follows. How much better for a lover and admirer of Tchaikowsky to know the concerti; to know not just the Seasons and Dumka and, perhaps, the Variations op.19 no.6, but also the exceptionally fine op.72 collection, which contains — yes — a few gnarly Tchaikowsky nuggets but rewards with a lullaby of painfully sweet beauty. When I was going through a Schubert fad in the 1980s, it was the sonatas that kept challenging and intriguing me, and from the moment I discovered the Reliquie Sonata D840, one of the great enigmas of Schubert, the unfinished sonatas became something of an obsession for a few years, and I collected various editorial completions and started trying to write my own. Among the writings addressing this repertoire, I soon came across an essay by Dennis Matthews, the English pianist and scholar, a fine musician who made a valuable contribution to English piano pedagogy. His view was that the ten works usually identified as incomplete sonatas — to say nothing of the dozen or so miscellaneous pieces also left incomplete — were of not much more than theoretical value, with the exception of the Reliquie. It was the way he summed it up that bothered me, more than the preceding discussion. “There’s plenty of finished Schubert yet to be discovered.”

It’s not an invalid point! There is. But, why must we choose one or the other? It’s a false dichotomy. 

From time to time, the Melbourne pianist Stephen McIntyre tells the story of a day with his then teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangli, one of the finest pianists of the twentieth century. Michelangeli was renowned for his legendary finesse and perfection, but not for having a large repertoire. Stephen asked if he might learn a Schubert sonata — I don’t recall which one, but it’s likely to have been the one Michelangeli recorded, in A minor D537. But il docente countered with, “What about this one?” and played a different one… followed by another. I can’t find any record of his having played any other Schubert sonatas, and he certainly only recorded one, but there it is: his ‘playing repertoire’ was informed by a wider pool of music which he kept for himself; his public music was fed and sustained by a much more comprehensive private repertoire.

We can get caught in the ‘masterpiece’ trap: constructing canons that ‘privilege’ (to use a dreadful post-modern term) the perfect work over the imperfect. In many cases, this might be quite apt, but even for some major musical minds, it doesn’t work so well. Think of Schumann — was there ever a more perfect ‘flawed’ composer? — a man who had a tendency to pack musical content of the most sublime quality into faultily-engineered vessels, apparently not knowing how to orchestrate, or when to stop — or so it has seemed to many critics from his time right up until ours. True, a long cycle like the Novellettes op.21 — eight untitled character pieces of awkwardly difficult technique, insufficiently contrasting tempi and dynamics, and with a rather perfunctory ending — contain some of Schumann’s most sublime moments. Schubert’s waltz chains (he wrote in the order of 500 waltzes for the piano alone), are hard to programme because they are long, harmonically disjointed, organisationally arbitrary and rhythmically unvariegated, and yet it is inconceivable to know Schubert’s music, to love it but not come to terms with the waltzes, Ecossaises, Galops, Polonaises, Cotillons and other various dances that formed one of the main bases of his compositional practice, or, like Beethoven and his variations, an essential factory of ideas. Not to mention, many of the best waltzes are sublime in their miniature perfection of melody and harmony.

From a composer’s perspective, perhaps, the concept of the oeuvre is more of a lived, daily, experience than a theoretical nicety. Beethoven might have been working on the Missa Solemnis at the same time as he was writing the thirtieth piano sonata op.110, and the material from one might have leeched into the other. Across the expanse of his complete works, the stylistic and creative variation is breathtaking, but there is an unmistakable ‘Beethovenness’ to it all that binds it to the mind that dreamt it and fashioned it. 

One composer from hereabouts demonstrates the phenomenon much more clearly. In 1981, when a few in this room today were junior members of the Musical Society of Victoria, the Society decided to commission a new solo piano work in celebration of MSV’s 120th anniversary. Peter Sculthorpe wrote Nocturnal, a ten minute piece that opened with a brooding, granite-like chordal introduction, closely related to his Sydney International Piano Competition commission, Mountains, which was the set piece that year. Interspersed with that chordal theme were long toccata-like episodes with a brief cadenza. When I first contacted Peter in about 1985, he told me that he had forgotten all about Nocturnal, but he was happy for me to play it. I didn’t ask him how he felt about all the copies floating round, because he declared that he had withdrawn it. When I heard marvellous Piano Concerto from 1983, I realised why. Peter had transformed the earlier, smaller, work into the later, larger, one. Not only that but he also wrote an entirely unrelated piece the same year, which he also called Nocturnal, which bears the work number W161. Our Nocturnal does not appear at all in Peter’s official worklist. There is no mystery here. Peter’s life’s work was a body of composition that is highly interrelated, and he was famous for revisiting earlier pieces, particularly the string quartets, and restyling them with added didgeridoo after he met the charismatic didge virtuoso and composer William Barton. If you go to the Sculthorpe website at you will find lists of discrete pieces with Wnumbers, but if you listen to enough of his music, the Wnumbers will fade away, and you will start to hear that Peter’s music, in a very real sense, comes together as a sort of collective great musical statement: a panorama of the essence of Peter Sculthorpe. All the borrowings, insertions, repetitions, foibles, aural symbols and even deletions are an expression of the man himself, of his wholeness. You may or may not like a particular work of Sculthorpe, but if you care about the value and contribution of Australian music in a world of music, then you will probably be interested enough to reach this point of understanding of what this one man was able to contribute, by a sheer force of will and imagination, and love of music, by listening to him.

It seems that I am in disagreement with many, if not most, of my colleagues on a core question: is music a language? I don’t believe that it is. I don’t know what music is, apart from itself, but I don’t think it is anything more than like a language, when we want it to be. I’m frequently told, when I ask the question (as I enjoy doing, because the answers interest me), that yes, music is a language: a language of the emotions. Rather than argue the point, which might be a logical thing to do, instead I’d like to read you something by the British poet Craig Raine, whose literary criticism is exceptionally penetrating. This from an essay he wrote in 1997 titled A Criticism of Life.

“In my naïve, untheoretical, writerly way, I believe in language.

“Edmund White’s autofiction, The Farewell Symphony, tells us that ‘the tragedy of sex is that one can never know what this most intimate and moving form of communication has actually said to the other person and whether the message, if received, was welcome’. I have annotated this sentence with one tart word: talk?

“Steven Pinker is a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He specialises in the psychology of language. In 1994, he wrote a brilliant book, The Language Instinct. His initial proposition is that human beings can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. ‘I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science,’ he writes. ‘These are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. This ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.’ We are, says Pinker, liable to forget what a miracle this is.”

Raine makes the case that we routinely treat language with the contempt bred of the familiar, not just taking for granted but overlooking the unique gift that it is and the miraculous properties that it has. I would say, as a sort of extension of that concept, that we musicians are capable of doing the same with music. There is debate in linguistic circles as to what came first, the large modern brain or the invention of language, and it would be interesting to ask a similar question about music, which may have developed even earlier. Whether one regards music as a type of language, or a relative, close or distant, which I guess I’d be prepared to accept, the fact remains that it has so many aspects that are unique to itself, while also being quite incapable of fulfilling many of the basic functions of language. How does one order a cup of coffee in Music?

It also seems to me that to perceive music and the other arts as branches of the tree of languages is to diminish, as Raine points out, the immense power and uniqueness of both language and music. Why can’t we simply say: language is language; music is music, and they are both unique and wonderful? Just as Pinker insists on the miraculous quality of language to go beyond what ESP is supposed to do in the movies, so does music alter perceptions, communicate beyond words and cause to arise changes in the brains of those who hear it, at the urging of those who create it. I am frequently and repeatedly amazed, as a composer, when people come up to me and tell me what they thought when they hear a piece I have written. I don’t mean, they say, “I liked it,” or otherwise; I mean, they tell me about the thoughts that arose, and it is a much greater joy to hear and marvel at these things than to get a good review, I can honestly tell you.

The way we experience music is often a complex and unlikely process. Some individuals with a yen to share their musical imaginations dream of a web of expressions, inherently personal, innately descriptive of their minds. They spend many hours contemplating, developing and refining those ideas, each according to their fashion. From that, a ‘work’ emerges. Most often, that work is given to others to learn, comprehend, re-imagine, re-express according to their fashion, and for us to hear. Or, we might read and play that work for ourselves. Or, we might read and silently imagine that music. I’m sure there are other ways. The fact remains, unless one is a composer, and one imagines one’s own music, there is this matter of interpretation, which is often a fancy way of saying: making the music sound — not exist — sound. But in essence, we take someone’s ‘work’, a deeply and keenly felt expression of mind, re-experience that and pass it on. It’s a marvellous thing.

Then, there is the question of interpretation. We are, as players, ‘interpretive’ artists; teh art of performance is a recreation rather than a creation, but beyond a certain point, obviously, the creativity in re-creation is a creation in itself. We are in relation to the music we play something akin to what an actor is to a script: we take the musical words of someone else and relive them, in us and through us — it begins to sound religious, doesn’t it? — and the music is recombined inside us, in a way. Beethoven becomes Beethoven plus Brendel; Chopin becomes Chopin plus Rubinstein, and the amount to which we ‘inject’ ourselves, if you like, not only is up to us but also expresses how we think and what we think is important, which in itself is a kind of interpretation. For a composer, this expression of self, and finding self, is probably more in the dreaming and writing of the notes; for a composer-player, it is in both; for a performer who does not compose, it may be in the declamation of the notes; and for someone who believes in the sanctity of the Urtext, that serious respect for the scholarship of the edition is also an expression of self. For teachers, it must embrace all these aspects and more, in order to pass on what one has learned, what technical means is needed to gain traction But, in all of this, we are all different; we really are. In what way can we serve Music best? Well, we can find what it is that we do best, which music resonates with us, and devote ourselves to that. How do we know, though? There’s the rub. In order to find out, we go on a journey, and it’s a lifelong one, and we often don’t know what it is we’re looking for, or know when we’ve found it. Looking for repertoire that suits us, and to which we can give the best of ourselves and the best service, goes hand-in-hand with looking for ourselves.

From this viewpoint, the repertoire we choose to experience becomes more than a collection of chosen ‘works’: it becomes an enactment of minds, communicating with ours, in the mysterious medium of music. We are able, through the repertoire bequeathed to us by people we never knew, able to imagine thinking the musical thoughts of others if we choose, being inside some of the greatest minds who ever lived. This communication and imagination is what music is about, and E. M. Forster in his epigrammatic title page to Howard’s End was indicating, perhaps, what all music — all good music — is about: “Only connect,” he wrote. Meaning: if life is meant for anything, it is meant for reaching out and being part of a greater thing; reaching out and making contact.

Perhaps all this is beginning to sound a bit cosmic, but these are hardly original thoughts or observations. When I have a piece to write, I often agonise until I have an idea or ideas I’m happy with, interested enough to take further, and can then go on. It’s a bit like catching the end of a thread and holding onto it, and I think that the thought processes prompted by the music we play can be like that too. There might be a piece you love by Chopin; say, the extraordinary Barcarolle op.60, with its astonishing coda, a slow harmonic explosion of genius, preceded by a lilting Venetian evocation of such sweet invention that you can imagine gondoliers themselves becoming enraptured and blowing hand-kisses. Gabriel Fauré evidently thought so, and so wrote thirteen of his own over a period of more than thirty years. But Chopin himself, at the time of writing his Barcarolle forty years before Fauré began his series, was a friend of Franz Liszt, who wrote his first version of Venezia e Napoli, with its Venetian gondola song as its third movement in about 1838, seven or eight years before Chopin. Liszt, in his turn, had borrowed from the earlier Italian composer Giovanni Battista Perucchini, who wrote a good many barcarolle-songs over a long period. The conversations between Chopin and Liszt were actual, at times, as the men knew and admired each other in their different ways. The exchange of ideas between Perucchini and Liszt, and Chopin and Fauré, was more remote physically, but still part of a coming together of minds, in music, and these are only a few of the much more numerous connections that branch out in all directions from such minds, active and fascinated as they were and are by the musical ideas around them. Perhaps thsi is what Stravinsky meant when he famously, or perhaps apocryphally, said that “all good composers borrow; great ones steal.” But it seems that he may even have been borrowing or stealing that thought, from T. S. Eliot, or Picasso, or someone else. Even the comment itself is revealing about how our minds can intermingle.

One man wrote along these lines, in 1623, on the seventeenth day of a 23-day illness that brought him close to death:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne

from Meditation 17

Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness

Closely related to that thought, it’s perhaps this that E. M. Forster is talking about. “Only connect,” he urges in the epigraph to the class-ridden Edwardian tragedy. But how? Certainly, in his chosen world of words, and his thematic focus, the qualities of societal norms that obstruct what we seek, which is, according to, Forster, closeness between people, and minds, and souls, the word is a powerful tool; but Forster was also a music lover, and acknowledged the other powerful tools that enable closeness of mind, like music.

I would venture to bet that many of you have had the experience with students I have, when choosing repertoire for them. You’re at the start of semester, looking ahead thirteen weeks or so to assessments and recitals. Student X asks: “What will I play?” Or sometimes, Student Y will say, “I heard this cool song I want to learn,” which is modified rapture to your ears, usually, because it means there’s an enthusiasm that could translate to sustained work over enough of a period to get them there, even if you might see the benefit of not playing Rachmaninov’s third concerto at this stage. It also means that they are of their own volition listening to and thinking about music themselves, and building a knowledge of repertoire that is not just a small database but a living understanding of what exists and how they feel about it. More often, though, it happens that you choose the pieces, and you give a good deal of thought to what the individual student, with their unique traits, what they might enjoy and what would be beneficial for them at that stage of their growth. Then along comes Week 4, or 6, or 8. “I don’t like it,” they timidly complain. What we are seeking to do in our teaching is to impart enough knowledge and skill to set them free to complete their training on their own. We want for them what we should desire for ourselves: to become the most complete musicians we can. 

I believe that that process stems from a hunger, only ever momentarily satisfied, for knowledge, a wider knowledge and understanding, of music, and for the refinement of the skills we need to communicate what we know to the utmost. “Only connect” is, for us in music, so important as musicians, on stage as performers; at the desk or piano or laptop or wherever it is that we write down the music we dream as composers; in the studio as we seek as teachers to impart all that to our young colleagues in the early stages of musical growth; and as we  consider the attempts by colleagues from previous eras who sought to do all that before us, leaving repertoire behind to continue the conversation after they were long dead.

The idea that the formation of the canon is over and done with is nonsense, too. Without making a to-do of it, we particpate in the re-formation of the Canon all the time.  In the late 1980s, I toured Northern Ireland for the Arts Council of Great Britain. In the town of Enniskillen,  the scene of a deadly IRA bomb attack two years earlier, I met the remarkable Joan Trimble, one half of the Trimble Sisters, who were a famous piano duo in Britain from the 1940s until the 1960s, when she took control of the family newspaper The Impartial Reporter. Joan wanted to tell me about Arthur Benjamin, the Australian composer who taught the Trimbles at the Royal College of Music and who wrote the world famous Jamaican Rumba for them, which became their signature tune. From that point, I became fascinated with Benjamin, whose music went way beyond that charming ditty, and began to research and play everything I could find, hampered only by the fact that most of it was out of print, but encouraged by the opportunity that undeserved neglect offers for the joy of rediscovery and advocacy. Since then, although through no great effect of mine, Benjamin’s music has undergone a bit of a revival, I’m pleased to say, and Wendy Hiscocks, also speaking at this conference, has done some great work in assembling a detailed biography of him. Last year, a project to unearth and perform for the first time Benjamin’s clarinet quintet, the last piece he wrote as a student in 1914 before heading off for service in World War I, came to fruition. As part of the Australia Ensemble series in Sydney, this major piece of missing Australian repertoire was heard for the first time in 101 years, and it was glorious, a great Brahmsian rhapsody with touches of the Australian vernacular.

Even closer to my heart is the story of Katharine “Kitty” Parker. Kitty Parker was a Tasmanian, from the north in the region of Lake River near Longford. The property ‘Parknook’, established by her forebears in the 1820s, was one of two pioneering farms in the area, and she grew up among the sheep, in the foothils of the magnificent Western Tiers. By the time she reached London, Percy Grainger, her teacher, declared her “the most gifted student I ever had.” Her marriage to English tenor Hubert Eisdell helped to prompt a modestly successful career as accompanist and composer of nostalgic Edwardian songs but also led, in its eventual crumbling, to her losing faith in her musical abilities, and her last published work were the Six Songs from the Chinese, miniature gems of piquant mastery. This was about 1930. Over the next forty years, and after her return to Tasmania until her final years in Sydney, she appears to have attempted to write but had little success. It’s a sad story, made beautiful by the music itself. But the music itself, when I first encountered it, was largely forgotten and gathering dust, literally. The powerfully moving, grand miniature piano solo ‘Down Longford Way’ may still be found occasionally at second-hand music shops, if any of those exist any more, and I found a copy in a shop in Sydney Road. It bewitched me, and I started on a journey to know more about this lady and her music. Various people helped along the way, some donating music, others relating their memories, the current owners of ‘Parknook’ showing me around the remains of the shearing-shed. I’m indebted to my friend Jodie Heald, through whose endeavours ‘Down Longford Way’ is now on the AMEB syllabus. In 2004, after over ten years of collecting music and stories, Belinda Webster and I published a CD of the piano music and songs, almost all of them, with Soprano Jane Edwards. I can’t tell you how much personal satisfaction this brought me, and there are further projects in the pipeline. Applying the defibrillating paddles to undeservedly forgotten repertoire brings a special kind of joy, which comes, essentially, from a feeling of taking part in a greater conversation, to which we are all open and welcome to contribute.

In some ways, these are very minor stories, and I don’t expect anyone else to get quite the same frisson from them as I have, but that’s all right. I know that there are plenty of people who have been touched and surprised by Kitty Parker’s music and her story, partly because they have told me, and partly because I know that the music itself has within it that elusive, magical, miraculous quality to connect and to touch, and that is exactly what I’m talking about. There are pieces, and concerts, and recordings, which dazzle, which impress, or which promote this or that cause or message, or which mesmerise with minimalist repetitive rhythm, or which seek to bring forward and amaze with avant-garde sounds never heard before. But, at the core of what we really want to experience and pass on as musicians — actually, as people — is as simple as it is mystical and inexplicable — we want to connect. Only connect. And this, I think, is what repertoire does, and why it’s so important, and beautiful.

I have a final quotation from Grainger, a man who, despite his zany reputation, was a brilliant and serious thinker, passionate about music and life. He once wrote, “If you love music with disinterested devotion, not for what it can do for you … then it will repay you with fourfold interest.” Looking at his personal library of music by other composers, the collecting of folk songs from the British Isles and Faeroes he did himself in his younger years, the quest for music from popular to experimental, the involvement in wind and brass bands as writer, player and conductor, writer on music, concert artist, you have to say that there was a man who sought to become the deepest musician he had it in himself to become, and his expansive perception of what repertoire was, and what was valuable (which was almost everything!) provides a model for an ambitious and inclusive view of repertoire that has great application for all musicians. It appeals to me, anyway, and I hope that it does to you, too.



The wisdom of Our Ford

December 12, 2014

I have long regarded Andy Ford as one of the most deeply intelligent human beings I know, and one of the best. My admiration only grows when I read a transcript of his recent contribution to the Senate Select Committee. Andy is one of those rare individuals who is able to help you to think more clearly. In these times, advocacy of this quality is gold dust.

Thanks, Andy, and bless you.


“I’d like to say something about how the ABC – specifically ABC radio, but also ABC online – helps to create and sustain and support musical communities around Australia. I’m talking about audiences, obviously, but also communities of musicians – and that’s at every level. I think that we’re about to lose some very important planks in that support with the removal of some specialist music programs from RN and Classic FM.
You always hear the expression ‘the music industry’, and I never really know what that is. I think if you were to ask most musicians, they wouldn’t feel they were part of an industry. As a composer, I feel more like a cottage gardener. My work is mostly pretty solitary. And even when musicians form up into bands or orchestras, they’re still making individual contributions – you know: they study alone, they practise alone. The same goes for listeners. We might be sitting in the middle of an audience with 2000 other people, but our experience of a song or a symphony is essentially a private matter.

As individual musician and listeners, then, we depend on institutions for information and commentary and a sense of community. Institutions such as libraries and newspapers; universities and conservatoria; and above all, I think, public broadcasting. And ABC radio is especially important in this regard –Triple J and Classic FM, ABC Jazz . . . and Radio National, which offers the broadest range of musical experiences I can imagine. Often you’re hearing music you can’t easily hear anywhere else, especially on RN; and significantly, you’re hearing it presented knowledgably. ABC Radio – whether it’s coming live out of the transistor in your kitchen or you’re listening online or to a podcast – isn’t just a purveyor of music; it’s also a guide to that music.

You’re also hearing Australian music – not enough of it on Classic FM, not in my opinion – but more than you’ll hear anywhere else. And you’re hearing Australian performances by Australian performers.
Now among the hundreds of thousands of listeners around the country are the musicians of tomorrow. It’s more than forty years ago, but I can still recall the eagerness with which I listened to the radio as a child. I remember hearing certain pieces of music and finding out about them. And I remember my excitement at hearing new pieces – music so new that it was being played for the first time. This is the kind of excitement that’s felt by young listeners to New Music Up Late on Classic FM. And it’s an example of what we’re about to lose. Well, I don’t think we can afford to lose it.

I also want to say something that tends to get overlooked. The ABC has traditionally been not just a curator of our musical culture, but also an entrepreneur. Once upon a time it had orchestras, choirs, even a dance band. But even with those gone, on a small scale and at a local level it’s continued to be a partner, recording concerts and making studio recording. These have diminished over the past twenty years, and the result isn’t just a loss for radio listeners. A lot of small concerts that were once possible because of a modest recording fee from the ABC, no longer happen at all. The fee might have been only $200 or $300, but it provided a safety net for, say, a young string quartet. Audiences miss out, and musicians lose a meagre supplement to their mostly meagre incomes. And by putting new music online only – as is proposed with New Music Up Late – instead of on air, you reduce composers’ royalties to a fraction of what they were. And they were never that much.

By cutting funding from the ABC, you also cut funding from musicians and from music itself.”

wieder einmal in Wien

December 6, 2014

A good night’s sleep on a long-haul flight is still a novelty for me, and as we start the descent into Zürich I’m grateful to the ingenious flat-bed seats provided by Swiss Air. I can’t say I dreamt of chamber music but there was pleasant, if vapid, in-flight music, and memories of past journeys to Europe, each one having the sense, like this one, of being a point of transition. When I was twenty, I left Australia for the first time, also from Melbourne, also headed for Vienna. Then, it was to study at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien with Professor Zettl; now, Keith and I are the elders, listening out for what the youngsters have to say to us in music. It strikes me now, as always, as as much a privilege as a responsibility. Prompted by conversations recently had at CMA and among playing colleagues, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is we might be ‘listening for’. It’s a question I’ve often been asked, and one to which I never feel I’ve given an adequate answer, perhaps because my thinking has never been fixed, as it still is not. More on this anon.

Continuing this, a few days later in our snug hotel, with the magnificence of the Rathaus between us and the city centre, we have been mulling over our second audition session, which was held yesterday at the Haydn Institute, only three streets over from the Johannesgasse, where I reacquainted myself with the aforementioned Konservatorium. Now that we have heard eight groups — two piano trios and a string quartet played in Melbourne; two quartets and three trios in Vienna — there are indications of what will be on offer in Melbourne next year during the international competition. There is also a strong sense of privilege and responsibility, and an even greater feeling of deeply affecting emotional connection. These are, after all, so very much like the people we were, twenty or thirty years ago — eager, hopeful, nervous, in love with music and wanting more than anything to be a part of it for life. Except that, when I was their age, I was all in for a solo career. There is something specially moving about hearing young people who, already in their early twenties, are devoted to the beauty of musical sharing, which is at the core of chamber music.

At this stage, then, Keith and I are keenly listening, and I am making copious notes in my (I like to think) fashionable little Moleskine notebook, pending more leisurely late-night discussions over a handy Glühwein or two. It’s a hard life.

Three days later:

It’s Sunday afternoon and Keith and I are waiting in the lounge at Vienna airport for our flights to Hannover and the German leg of the tour. Vienna has been utterly delightful, despite the weather gradually closing in, and today’s hint of snow to come is a little tantalising. This is a city that really sparkles under a fresh fall of snow.

However, it’s time to turn to thoughts of what we are to hear ahead, and return to considerations of how most effectively to listen to the young musicians we are meeting. I wrote a blog post that drew a thoughtful and heartfelt response from an old friend, John Garran. Particular mention was made of the question of what happens when a musician is rejected by such as we. This is probably something we all know about, whether we’re musicians or not, and I could expand on my own experiences in that area, but I won’t. There is rejection and rejection, and one’s response can be altogether different, depending on external and, for want of a better phrase, internal circumstances. Our job, in its essence, involves culling, choosing and rejecting, and we should not only be able to justify our decisions, but respond to all of our young colleagues in a way that is at least intended to help their development. Then, what is experienced as rejection at one point can lead on to growth and artistic strength.

Competitions have probably always come in for a lot of stick, from well-meaning people with informed and intelligent points of view, and I have heard mention recently of Bartòk’s famous, and critical, observation, likening music competitions to horse races. Very well, the point is valid, as far as it goes. On the other hand, what are the alternatives? Competitive processes are everywhere, and provide opportunity for many, and rewards for a few, at any given time. I prefer to focus on the opportunity rather than the evils and stresses that sometimes, or often, come hand in hand, but hold to the view that many people who ardently support and follow competitions such as MICMC do so for the best reasons, all to do with their love and admiration of young musicians and for the music they play.

You might think I’m avoiding the issue of criteria; perhaps I am. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, and I do make notes that refer to some, which I find useful as a guide. However, it has always seemed to me that to be too prescriptive about what aspects one hopes to hear, and to be prepared beforehand to reject other aspects of performances that have not yet happened, by people we have not yet met, of music we not yet have heard before, is all a bit premature. The first and overwhelming obligation of the musician is to open one’s ears and listen, and listen again and to continue to listen. Without the discipline of real listening, we can (and I frequently do) fall into the trap of seeking short-cuts, looking for reasons for rejection rather than for inclusion. There is also the truth that all good artists know: technique is not the master of art, but its servant, although it’s much easier to assess technique than art. And, the artist is always greater than the sum of the parts. More on this anon.


vale Peter Sculthorpe

August 21, 2014

I was thirteen years old when I first heard the name Peter Sculthorpe. The school orchestra was introduced to his Sun Music II, still one of Peter’s most modern-sounding works and an almost incomprehensible aural and technical challenge for us, and a bit of a stretch for me as a novice cellist. It already struck me at the time as inhabiting the same imaginative world as the sere and eerie reddish brown outback scenes of Russell Drysdale, rather than the more hedonistic Streetons and Conders I was infatuated with then, and it had a haunting aura that has stayed with me ever since.

I love his music, but coming to love it was a gradual process. In 1981 I was selected to premiere his Nocturnal, an austere and enigmatic piece (which Peter soon withdrew) that revealed its secrets only when it was recast as the beautiful piano concerto the following year. But it didn’t matter. I was already hooked, and started to collect and learn everything I could find, including Mountains, a test piece for the Sydney Piano Competition. We began to correspond, and I had the temerity to ask Peter to write a piece for me, emboldened by his evident and genuine interest in younger colleagues, and what I sensed to be, correctly as it turned out, a rare generosity to share his time and ideas. It took a while, and I had to be patient, because Simori didn’t emerge until 1995. It was worth the wait, of course.

I wish I had known him better. Over the years, we met at festivals, concerts, recording sessions, parties, exhibitions, film screenings. My favourite times, though, were just going to Woollahra for lunch and a play of the piano, especially when we looked at the folders of juvenilia which Peter had kept unpublished but which held tender and affectionate memories for him. The other times I would say I treasure are the idyllic yet strenuous days and nights at Dartington Hall in Devon, where Peter was guest composer during the summer school and festival, valued both for his music and for his entertainment value, particularly after midnight, when charades might or might not have taken some very imaginitive turns.

I’m still getting my head around what it means that he is gone, but am very proud to have known him a little, and very happy to have discovered his music so early and to have had it in my life and fingers. It’s a unique and magical body of work and Peter was an extraordinary artist of genius to have given it to us.

Lullaby in Edo and the genesis of a trio

April 18, 2014

A brief piece written for Limelight Magazine, May edition. I’m publishing it here as I can’t seem to locate it anywhere in that journal.

My second piano trio A Book of Lullabies began life as a song for mother and child, a setting of a well-known folk tune from Tokyo, known as ‘Lullaby in Edo’ (Edo eventually grew into modern Tokyo), for a young Japanese friend, Tomoe Kawabata-Ito, who had recently been blessed with a lovely little boy, Ryutaro. Contemplating its haunting simplicity gave me great pleasure, so I kept writing, selecting six further lullaby-like melodies from around the world. Soon, I had a virtual ‘lullaby odyssey’ that began in Australia with the indigenous ‘Maranoa Lullaby’, made famous by the extraordinary aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, followed by ‘Nina Bobo’ from Indonesia, ‘Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi’ from the epic Finnish poetic collection, the Kanteletar, ‘The Skye Boat Song’ from the Scottish Highlands (the ancestral home of clan Munro), ‘Iesus Ahatonnia’, otherwise known as ‘The Huron Carol’ from North America and the Zulu lullaby ‘Thula Mama’. Each of the songs tells a fascinating story, and more than one involves an expression of great sorrow and pain. The author of the ‘Huron Carol’, for example, was a Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, who wrote the hymn for the Hurons amongst whom he lived and worked, in their native language. He earthly fate was finally to be tortured and more or less boiled alive during the Iroquois invasion and annihilation of the Huron nation in 1649.

I came to realise that I had stumbled into writing what would become a piano trio for my friends, the delightful Jo and John Strutt, who had commissioned such a work as way of celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. All three of us love a good tune, so seven of them seemed about enough. The only one that didn’t make it into the final piece was the delightful ‘Flower Drum Song’ from China, written for pianist Andrea Lam (who was initially bemused by the subject matter: a wife at the end of her tether because of a husband with the irritating pastime of banging on a flower drum). That certain folk melodies endure and are loved and passed on by whole communities is well documented, although the reasons why are subtle, mysterious and fascinating. Over the years, I have often wondered what it is about great music that needn’t be complex to be profound, or difficult to be challenging, or obscure to be thought-provoking. So, in this work, I aimed to keep all of the materials simple, so as to reflect and stay true to the nature of the songs themselves, while suggesting the haunting aura of the eras and situations which gave rise to them. In the final version, the trio begins with an introductory passage based on a figure from ‘Nina Bobo’ (which replaces ‘Maranoa Lullaby’ as the opening movement) and ends with a similar, complementary return, during which the pentatonic Maranoa melody transforms into the similarly diatonic Indonesian one, suggestive of the wishful notion that in music it might be more possible than not to understand each other and find a natural and common humanity in song.

The trio receives its Sydney premiere at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney on May 20 at 11am. It’s a Musica Viva Coffee Concert and will be recorded for broadcast by ABC Classic FM.

Exciting time ahead for the Australia Ensemble

December 19, 2013

Two weeks ago, a dinner was held at the University of NSW to celebrate the enormous contribution made by Emeritus Professor Roger Covell AM, outgoing Artistic Chair of the Australia Ensemble. Music was played, including Roger’s own Fanfare, a choral serenade from the Burgundian Consort led by Sonia Maddock, and a movement from a Haydn Symphony from the Australia Ensemble. Old friends were reuinted, wine and food were enjoyed and speeches were made, not least the speech made by the guest of honour, in the form of “a few brief words”, in Roger’s inimitable style.

Having joined the ensemble in 2000 after a year’s exchange with the previous pianist David Bollard in 1998, I am still a relative newcomer at a mere fifteen years of service, or fourteen if you insist they be consecutive. Such a period pales in comparison with Roger’s 47 years of service to the university and, listening to his speech, which covered aspects of his career at UNSW from the beginnings of the music department, through the years of UNSW Opera, to the formation of the Aus Ensemble and beyond, I was struck by how much I hadn’t known. Among the tales, generously and humorously embellished by Roger, was the tribute paid to former Chancellor of UNSW Gordon Samuels, also a former Governor of NSW, between whose sassy and delightful wife and daughter I was fortuitously seated at dinner. Much has always been made of the role of Roger and Murray Khouri, founding clarinettist of the ensemble, who conceived the notion of a resident musical group and advocated for its inception, but Roger was explicit in his praise for the role of Gordon, who worked the university ropes to ensure that it happened, for which we can all be grateful. So often, valuable ventures in the arts and other fields can grow or wither, depending on the efforts of one or two gifted, insightful people of energy and integrity. That this happened in 1980, and was subsequently supported and nurtured, can be largely attributable to Roger and Gordon, although there are many other people to thank for their generosity over the years. The fundraising efforts of the UCommittee were extraordinarily generous, as were the contributions of members of our now defunct advisory committee, who gave of their time and expertise without exception, freely and enthusiastically.

When Roger dropped his bombshell earlier this year, we were both surprised and unsurprised. Such a long time with us has left an indelible mark, and I will miss the gravelly, considered tones at meetings as we were gently advised, chided, congratulated, questioned, prodded and, from time to time, bemused. A hard act to follow, that one. So, we do not intend for it to be followed, exactly, and have split Roger’s former role into two: Publications Specialist, who will produce all of our programmes and supporting literature; and Artistic Chair, who will take responsibility for chairing the artistic processes, including programming and artistic review, among other things.

Change is good, but we are all nervous of it until it doesn’t feel so much like change any more.

Happy Christmas, all .