Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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Did you pursue the pop music, the rock music idea beyond that?

No, not really. I think it was very good that I did, because it helped me to work out what kind of composer I am. And I think I could say I'm the kind of person, or kind of composer who wants to write a perfect work of art. And I think that the history of the human race can be told more through the story of people wanting to create the perfect work of art, can be told more through that than maybe through our wars and pestilences. I mean one goes back to the Pyramids or whatever. And so rock music, of its very nature, its essence, is transitory. You know, what is wonderful and exciting today is a little bit old-fashioned tomorrow, because it has moved on to something else. Whereas I talked earlier of Palestrina. I mean a great Palestrina mass is just simply a great work of art. It was then, is now, and forever will be. And so I'm the kind of composer who aspires to do that. I may never do it, but it's a wonderful way to keep going, to aspire towards that. So I think that's why I decided not to pursue rock music. But what is interesting at the moment is that I have some students who are very inspired by techno music. And music, the kind of music that gets played at rave parties. And they somehow ... one in particular has been able to sort of extrapolate this music and write serious concert works for orchestra that contain the very essence of the music. But I don't think his pieces will date. Whereas the techno music that might have inspired it will. I think that his pieces [won't] because he's been able to find the essence. And I wouldn't mind doing something like that. But of course, I have my other irons in the fire, really.

Your mother has played a tremendous part in your whole life and in the formation of the person that you are. Could you tell me about that in a more general way, about what your mother's significance to you was, and how she's affected the way you've lived.

Oh, that's difficult. I think I'm just trying to find some ... a pragmatic - I mean because we take love, in a sense, for granted, or we assume it. I think that her giving me, passing on to me, questioning my, putting literary works into my hands. Well, education, I mean she was really about education. And I think her passing that, just the very concept of education and a broad education, on to me, is perhaps the most precious thing that she gave me. Along with unquestioning support, of course. Which my father gave me after I'd proved myself to him. But with my mother I didn't have to prove myself. It was just unconditional love really. Which is interesting, because today I talk a great deal about unconditional love. Often, some of my friends will feel very let down by somebody that they regarded as a friend. And I'll say, 'But you know that this person behaves like that. You know, if you loan this person money he won't pay you back. We know that's what he's like. So loan the money and don't expect to get it back, or don't loan the money. Or love this person unconditionally, or just don't bother with this person.' You know, I think unconditional love and not to expect too much is very important. And perhaps my mother gave me that.

Your mother lived with you towards the end of her life. Why was that? Why did she come to Sydney to be with you?

Well, she had a lot of good friends in Sydney. And she had one very good friend, so that she'd come to Sydney for a short holiday every Tasmanian winter to get away from the cold. And then they'd go travelling together. Then the friend died. And then my mother got older, she needed help. My brother's second wife - unfortunately his first wife died of an asthma attack - and his second wife had nursed both her parents and her father-in-law and mother-in-law, and we felt it was unfair for her to have to tend to our mother. And so eventually, in her last years, Mum did come to ... [INTERRUPTION]

Eventually then Mum did come to, from Tasmania, to live with me in Sydney. And this gave me enormous pleasure. Because you know, without my mother, and without my father, I could never have been a composer. Without their emotional support and financial support it would have been impossible. And of course, my mother didn't expect anything in return. I mean her love was unconditional. But I had never been able to do anything for her. You know, I felt that I'd never been able, really, to do anything for her. So at the end I felt that I was able to repay - not that she wanted repayment - in return. And therefore in her last months, they were really wonderful, nursing her and feeling that, for the first time, I was able to do something really special for her.

When did she die?

That's terrible, Robin, because I can't [remember]... yes, several, yes, she died several years ago. [INTERRUPTION]

When your mother died, just a few years ago, where did -- did that affect the way you were writing, the way you were thinking, the final loss of your mother?

I don't think it did, because I was reconciled. It wasn't like a sudden loss. It was more like, you know, this is life and death. But something very interesting happened. Because I had written a piece called Memento Mori which is about ... well it literally means remember to die. And it was about the sad fate of the inhabitants of Easter Island. And there was just something about the piece that seemed right in dedicating it to my mother. So I decided to dedicate it to Mum, and the day after the funeral in Sydney I decided to go right away. So I went to Washington, and some of my music was being performed at the Lincoln in the Kennedy Centre, and one of the pieces was Memento Mori. And I remember after the first performance the conductor knew Mum, and as I got up to bow on the first performance, 'Oh,' he said 'I could feel Edna there all the way.' Her name was Edna. And then on my last night, by surprise, the orchestra gave a pre-concert concert in the foyer of the Kennedy Centre and they played Irkanda IV the piece written for my father. And then I left the foyer and went into the hall and the orchestra played my mother's piece Memento Mori. And it was a most astonishing thing to happen. And when I arrived home, my mother's ghost was no longer in the house. It was almost as though I'd left my parents together in the Kennedy Centre. And somehow that - all that emotion, all that feeling - was sort of beautifully resolved. And, I can't explain, I felt really quite uplifted from that.

You say your students are really like family to you, that you care for them and are there for them in the way that you would if you had children. What are some of the things that you're trying to pass on to them? What would you like to be able to give your students as a way of approaching their work and their life?

I suppose at some stage I talked of myself, probably had a rather wild period in my life. But I don't think I did anything bad. I believe in goodness, godness, you know, if I could help my students to be good, better human beings, that if [I] can do something towards that then I feel I've achieved all I can achieve, because that will pass into the music. And the music will be better. So I think I'm on about goodness. It might sound trite or like a cliché, but that's what I'm about.

Now I want to go back to pick up something that we talked about right at the beginning and I just wanted to get the story again, sort of succinctly, because it's an important story, your first. When did you first start to write music?

I'm not quite sure of the age. It was between six and eight. I must check it out. So we'll say about seven. I went to my first music lesson. And I just simply assumed that I was going to a music lesson to learn to write music. It hadn't occurred to me that I was going to learn to play the piano. So I rushed home, wrote music all the week, and got all excitedly back to my teacher a week later to show her all the music I'd written. And she was so furious with me, she hit me with the cane end of the feather duster across the knuckles. And told me that I was there to learn to play the piano. I had a problem reconciling that, because I had art lessons, and I was learning to paint. So it seemed to me perfectly natural that when you have music lessons you learn to write music. So I just kept on writing music, but under the bedclothes with a torch. Because I'd realised it was bad to write music. It probably is. And about a year later my parents discovered me, and they said, 'That's all right if you want to write music, but don't do it at night, in bed. Do it anytime, the daytime.' And I haven't looked back, whether it's good or bad.

You've had many assistants that have helped you over the years with supporting your work, operating as secretaries and other assistants for you, and there was one who became quite well known in musical circles, called Kelly Trench. Has Kelly Trench been very important in your life?

Kelly has been very important, or she was at one stage, because she was my secretary for some years, and handled my correspondence wonderfully. She also, in the days when I was invited to write program notes for my pieces or other pieces for the ABC, she wrote the program notes. She was good at parties, I mean she was almost like a social secretary.

And she's established a bit of a reputation with her own musical ...

Yes, in fact quite early on we did give a concert of her music, a program of her music on the ABC. I rarely see her because she's a real globe-trotter, you know. Everywhere I go I suddenly hear she was here last week, or whatever. I probably wouldn't recognise her, because I believe she's had a few facelifts and she keeps putting her age back and things like that. But I really do look forward to catching up some day.

She's written - what's the work she's written? She's an expert in some particular area of music.

Oh, she's an expert in many areas, but Spanish organs is one area that she does specialise in, yes. [INTERRUPTION]

So after you've worked out what you're going to write.

The sort of outer structure, from outside, yes.

And you've done your sort of sketch, really, of the shape of the piece, then what sort of things do you start to consider?

Well, the first thing ... [INTERRUPTION]

So when you've worked out the overall shape of the music and sketched it out, what considerations then come into play?

Well, I mentioned I often talk of myself as a religious composer, religious in a sense. If I had to be more precise I would call myself a melodist, in that I love writing melodies. Now some of my critics might say they're hardly melodies. But in my book they're melodies. And so first of all, always, is melody. Sometimes the melody is an adaptation of another melody, say Japanese, Aboriginal or whatever, and I rethink it in some way. Sometimes of course it's my own. Right, it's all very well to have a melody, but if one's writing for orchestra, you know, you've got all those other instruments, which can hardly all play the melody in unison. So how do you keep the melody going? Now, if the melody is very four square, I might syncopate it. That is, just delay the melody as you think it's coming to an end. I just, oh, delay it. [INTERRUPTION]

And so, when you've sort of sorted the melody, what about the other elements?

I sometimes call myself a religious composer. More often I refer to myself as a melodist. I love writing melodies. Now my critics may not call them melodies, but I do, and that's all that matters, I suppose. So the melody is the first parameter of music. But then in writing a piece of music, particularly if it's an orchestral work, one is filling out a big gap in time. So just a melody is not enough. One has to find a way to keep the melody going. One way is to use what we call syncopation. That is, if the melody is a bit four square, just to add or take out a beat. So it helps the music to move on. And the other way is of course by the use of harmony. So you're harmonising, the melody's going along like that, and you're harmonising it. And just when you think the melody's coming in line with the harmony, I move the harmony so that the melody doesn't resolve. And then again, as the melody is about to align with the harmony I move it again. This is something that, really, I was influenced by Mahler with this, because he always does this in so many of his works, particularly the later symphonies. And often by introducing percussion in rhythm, particularly if I syncopate the rhythm so that there's the continual, the music is not - [it] feels as though it's going to resolve, but it doesn't resolve. And I think that it's finding a way to keep the tension. So that's basically what I'm doing when I write music. But melody first.

How do you write for an instrument you don't know how to play?

Well, I think we all have what we call orchestration books, and as students at an early age we study the books, and we listen to recordings. And we have a fair idea of where you put your finger or your mouth or whatever, to produce a certain note. And we also learn the capabilities of instruments. That, of course, is not enough. I mean for instance when I - I don't play the cello, I have played the double bass - when I'm writing a cello work I sometimes get my cello friends out of bed in the middle of the night and they've been known to get their cellos and come to the phone while I'm saying is this possible. And so we do it over the phone. So that's the fine tuning. But then there are other instruments, in particular the guitar, that just don't appear in orchestration books. And traditionally, composers do have a lot of trouble with the guitar. Well, when I'm writing for John Williams, he always says, 'Just write what you think will work.' 'If it doesn't work, we can fix it up but don't learn the guitar.' , he says. Because he says if I learn it then my little knowledge is going to limit me. Because I'll be writing for what I know. Whereas if I'm writing just what I think will work, then it's got more chance of flying up off the page. So that's what that's about.

How important has friendship been in your life, as an element? How much does friendship, the friendship of people, mean to you?

Well I'm never lonely. I actually enjoy my own company. I don't think I'd be able to do that if I didn't have friends. I mean friends are of paramount importance. For instance, I've tried living in the country, alone. And all the time I desperately wanted to get back to the city. I can live in the city and stay home and work all the weekend, happy in the knowledge that I have my good friend Jane [who] lives just up the road, or that another friend might just drop in. Knowing that I'm surrounded by friends. But I simply couldn't function without friends.

I asked that because we might have got an impression of someone who was just totally self-sufficient.

I'm glad you did that, because ...

[end of interview]