|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 20, 1998
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Malcolm Williamson had said he couldn't live anywhere [where] he wasn't going to be a success and you had replied that you wanted to live where you were going to be happy, what made you so confident that you would be happier living in Australia than in England?
Who knows, it may be deep inside me. I was insecure and felt that I had to remain in Australia. I don't think so. I mean, Australia was everything that I was on about and in my music I was trying to find some kind of Australian identity, so it was inevitable that I should want to stay here. I simply wanted to get a job in a university really. And in fact when I had the scholarship to go to Oxford, the University of Melbourne said that probably there would be a job for me on my return. So it all seemed to be fairly hopeful when I got back. And in fact when I flew back from England I stopped off in Sydney and I went to the ABC and I saw the then Director of Music and asked him - why not - would he perform my music and he was quite aghast. I mean he refused but he says, 'You're Australian why should we perform your music?' I then went to the University of Sydney and met Donald Peart who was then Professor of Music and I found him to be a very civilised man and I thought to myself I actually would like to work for him one day and it did come about eventually.
But before that happened you spent some time between 1960 and 1963 in Tasmania ...
Yes in Tasmania. Because we were a very close family I wanted to stay, be with my mother and my brother and so I went back to work part time in the family business, which had expanded by that time. I did write a great deal of music though and at that time I befriended the painter Russell Drysdale, and we shared a house down the River Tamar, near Launceston. He painted and I wrote music and so on. That was a good period but a bit unstable because I still didn't have a secure job. Eventually a job did come up at the University of Melbourne, and it was for teaching composition and I thought it was tailor-made for me, and I applied. I was short-listed and the job went to a pianist not a composer. I was rather devastated and I found out through a friend that because I suppose I was a little bit wild in my student days, the then Professor of Music said, 'Oh we don't want anybody like that, we don't like his morals,' and said that I'm too wild, and that's why I didn't get a job. He was very conservative, this man. There was later a conference in Hobart and Donald Peart was there and he said there was a job coming up in Sydney, would I be interested, and I told him about the Melbourne story and why I didn't get the job, because they thought I was too wild or something, and Donald said, 'Is that true?' And I said, 'Oh no, it's absolutely untrue, I'm [a] very conventional, very conservative person.' 'Oh what a pity,' he said. He said, 'I'd have thought you'd be just the person for the job from what I'd heard' (laughs). And then I'm saying, 'Oh well, it's not entirely untrue,' (laughs) and eventually I did get the job in Sydney and that was the beginning of the next stage of my life in 1963.
Why was that, what was it about that job that changed things for you?
Well, it was really because of Donald Peart. He was a visionary. He introduced the harpsichord to Australia, the gamelan, he got me to teach twelve-note music and we had letters of abuse from universities saying how dare you. In other words he broke all the barriers, he wanted me to create a real school of composition. So therefore he was offering me a position, giving me the opportunity to open up a world of teaching and a kind of school of music the like of which I'd wanted all my life but hadn't been able to find in Melbourne or in Oxford. And I think we did a pretty good job because in the late 60s there was an article about our department in the New Statesman, in which it said we were perhaps the most exciting music department in the world.
In creating an environment in which composers or would-be composers could flourish, what were the elements that you felt were essential to set up which you had found missing in other environments?
Well, I suppose much of the teaching I'd received had been to do with being taught rather old-fashioned musical techniques. There hadn't been any interest in me as a human being, or in my interests. And so, what I tried to do was say well look, you can learn techniques from the books, you can write in any style you like, and I'll criticise the music but what you've got to do is find out who you are, what you're on about as a human being. You've got to open your self up to all kinds of influences, ideas and know what's going on around you. So basically it was trying to help human beings to fly, to be who they really were, because that's what I'd always wanted. But no one ever did it for me, except perhaps some teachers going way back to my school days.
How far were you part of that movement in the 60s to reassert or to assert in the arts our Australianess? [INTERRUPTION]
How far was the whole movement, that was really gathering in the '60s, for us to express our Australianess in the arts part of your agenda there in setting up that school?
Well, music tends to be the one area of the arts that lags behind in every way. And in the '60s, music really hadn't caught up with Europe, what was going on internationally. And, so in a way, my job was to help young composers, not with their Australianess but with what was happening in the rest of the world, and to show them techniques and ideas, of other places. In my own work of course I had left all that behind, I'd left Europe behind ... [INTERRUPTION]
What was happening in your own work in relation to the kind of work that you were doing yourself at this time?
Well, I was trying to create my own vision of Australia. People often say, 'Your music has an Australian sound.' Well I'm not sure about that, I'm not sure that I believe in the idea of an Australian sound. But if one thinks of painting and if you look at say a Sid Nolan painting or a Fred Williams, their paintings of Australia are simply their vision of Australia and their vision is very easily recognisable. And so I really set out to write music that was my vision of Australia that could be easily recognisable, not trying to write Australian music any more than they were setting out to paint Australian paintings. So I was doing that, but meantime I was teaching music from all round the world, trying to open up the world for students. What is interesting I think is that those students from the 60s like Barry Conyngham, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and so on, who did finally look to Australia or look to Asia and Australia, they're the ones who emerged from that period, not the composers who were still looking to Europe. And that's the case today. I mean those composers who are looking at Australia are the composers who are performed outside Australia, because in the outside world people want to know about the country, know what we're doing. Nobody is interested in Australian composers writing like European composers and why should they?
When you came back to Australia choosing happiness or a place that you felt good about being in, instead of success, you nevertheless almost immediately wrote a piece that brought you the applause and the praise that you'd not had before. Did that continue, did your work continue to be accepted and understood and reviewed well?
Yes, I was given the first Alfred Hill Award for a string quartet and again I think it was the death of a friend that caused this work to be not a bad work.
What work was that?
My String Quartet Number Six and Tass Drysdale's wife Bonnie was a very close friend and she committed suicide and that affected me deeply and the work is dedicated to her. And again, I think, because these feelings that I had, that went into the work, the work was in fact my next best piece. I remember it was before April Fool's Day in the Sydney Town Hall in 1965 and that was another special moment really. After that I was commissioned by Sir Bernard Heinze through the ABC to write a work for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for the Commonwealth Festival in London. And I felt that it was time to move on, a little bit. I was having a lot of trouble with the pieces. I said to Sir Bernard, 'What'll I do?' and he said, 'Why don't you write a piece without rhythm, melody or harmony.' It's not quite possible, but I set out to do that and it became Sun Music I, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra played it in London, and it was an enormous success and it suddenly seemed to present that view of Australia to the outside world. And I suppose after Irkanda IV, Sun Music was the next big landmark in my compositional career.
Why did you call it Sun Music?
I was looking for a title, I like to have titles before I begin pieces, because you know if... [INTERRUPTION]
Why did you call it Sun Music?
Well, I was seeking a title that might have Australian resonances, and if I were an English composer and I called a piece of music [that], well it would be a very different work from being an Australian composer because here the sun is not only a giver of life but it's a destroyer, and I wanted to put all those opposites into the piece. I usually try to find a title before I begin a piece because you know a composer is a chooser, and getting from one bar to the next is hard enough. But if you can find a way to limit the choices, then you are going to be able to get there more easily. So a title helps, a duration and certainly the instrumentation that's dictated to you, the kind of orchestra or the kind of group, even the players, because I find I like to write with certain players in mind and if I'm thinking of writing for somebody's violin I know where I like it to sound best, and so I build all these limitations into my work. Because if one were totally free then one is, oh, just on the ground, you can never fly, but if you're, in music, if you're limited almost chained down, then you can fly, because all these limitations help you to fly up.
Bearing in mind that you like to write for particular players, you were writing the Sun Music for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and you were doing a work that was very different from what these, I imagine, fairly conservative musicians were used to playing, how did they receive it when you asked them to play it?
Well, that work I was writing for Sir Bernard, having known him since student days, and he's always been a wonderful friend to me, so I didn't think so much about the players. Now many of the notations in the score were written in symbols, like graphic symbols, and not in normal musical notation, and when the orchestra sat down, everyone sort of looking at the music, (clears throat) and finally the orchestra just got up and walked out. I mean it was (laughs) ... I was quite devastated. And the players refused to play. So they had a meeting and Lois Simpson who was then the leader of the cellos said to everybody, 'Look, why don't we humour Peter and play the piece?' She said, 'We know he can write a tune if he wants to, but he certainly hasn't written one here, so let's go and play the piece and humour him.' So they came back and humoured me.
And then what did they think of it, once they'd actually heard it?
I think they ... some of them probably liked it. Even today one member of the cellos says, 'Sun Music IV is my favourite piece of yours.' So, yes it did get through.
And what about the general public? It was premiered in England wasn't it? In London? How was it received there by the critics?
It had very mixed reaction in that people either raved, you know just went out of their minds about it, or castigated it. I mean this is what every composer wants, one thing or the other, but not the middle, anything but that polite middle ground. And audiences loved it, and it was very important for me, because my publishers had heard my String Quartet No. 6, or the firm that was to become my publishers, and I think that the performance of Sun Music I in London helped confirm their interest. And so I went to London, not for that performance but later in the year, on my way to the United States, and signed a contract with Faber Music and that was very important to me.
Why was it so important to have signed a contract with a music publisher? What did that signify to a composer?
Well, I suppose it's symbolic in that it means that somebody out there loves it. But it's very important because it means that no longer did I have to supply - for instance if an orchestra is playing a piece then I have to supply the score and a part for every single player, say a hundred players, and that's very time consuming. But a publisher takes all that over, and the publisher also collects the fees and in fact does all the business, so it's important time wise. It's also important ... I've lost that, what's important.
In relation to being published, having a publisher of your own both provides you with recognition and it also relieves you of all the business side of the work, and ...
I think it's important for all people. Like a writer, it's important to a writer to see words in print and for a composer to see music in print, that's very special. I was staying in London later that year after the performance with Tass Drysdale and Maisie, his second wife, and Faber asked Tass to do the cover of Sun Music I and he was having trouble because of the light. It was winter and he couldn't seem to find the right colours, and he was building a house at Hardy's Bay, beyond Woy Woy, and by coincidence his son-in-law sent him for Christmas a handful of Australian earth from the property, and he got so excited about this that he mixed up the colours, mixed up paints from the earth and painted the cover of Sun Music I, which is very special.
Talking of the importance of titles to you, the piece that you wrote after your father's death and the death of Wilfrid Meller's baby was called Irkanda. Where did that name come from?
I'm always combing books of Aboriginal word names, looking for good Aboriginal words. That one means a remote and lonely place, but I'm always on the look out for a good title. But hard to come by, really.
Now you went on at Sydney University establishing this school of composing, working very well with the students ...
I loved [it], I mean I really thrived ...
What was it about working with students that you liked so much?
I always say that I probably learn more from them than they do from me. It's just a mutual enjoyment really.
And your own music was coming along well? So what was the next move for you?
As a teacher of course one complained all the time that there was never enough time for one's music but I've always felt that the more you do, the more you do, really. And if I hadn't been teaching I'm sure I wouldn't have written any more music, maybe less. Donald Peart was very keen for me to spend time away as well. I actually didn't want to go away. And one day Nugget Coombs said to me, 'I think you should go to the States.' And I said, 'I don't want to go to the States I'm happy here,' and he said, 'Oh you've got to, it's good for you, it's going to open up so much for you.' They were days when one didn't really apply for things, everything was very informal, and so Nugget organised for me to have a Harkness Fellowship and I went to live in the States for about two years and that's when I stayed with Tass and Maisie Drysdale in London. Tass had an exhibition there and I was on my way to the States. And that was a good time. I decided that as Harkness, Edward Harkness, the man who left the money for the fund, had endowed a good part of Yale University, it would be a good idea to go to Yale as composer-in-residence, thinking that as a Harkness Fellow I might have special consideration. And I think it did help.
What did you get out of your time in Yale?
I suppose it was really - apart from making lifelong friends, and I mean friends have always been important to me - I think opening me up to the world of American music, first hand. And opening me up to the manners and mores of America, a place that I had actually never particularly wanted to go to, but of course I loved it.
What was it that you loved about it and what was it about American music that you related to?
I think it's the openness. In the music that I like best, American music, there's an outdoors quality inevitably of course, music that goes from the sea coast, to the prairie, to the mountains. Whereas in Europe, partly because of climate, there's an interior feeling to much of the music, and because it's interior, it tends to be about people, people being brought together inside and of course the moment people are brought together there are often problems. Therefore European music tends to be, much of it, more darkly psychological or about the human psyche than much American music. And while I don't deny human beings from my music, it's really the landscape that inspires me and therefore being able to relate to the landscapes and the landscape music of America was important.
Who were the American composers that most appealed to you, or affected you in some way?
Well, most of them actually were composers of an earlier time, like Charles Ives in particular, but composers like Roy Harris, and then coming up Henry Brant, but even John Cage. Lou Harrison, because of his interest in Asian music. A composer like Lou Harrison was a great inspiration because I lean towards Asia but never really quite found a way to incorporate Asian ideas into my music and Lou had. And therefore he was a very good role model for me.
While you were in America at that time you spent a little bit of time at Yaddo, the artist's colony. Who did you meet there? Who else was there when you were there?
Well, it was an incredible time, because there were writers like John Cheever, Eudora Welty. Susan Sontag was there for a while. My favourite person was Malcolm Cowley, who was quite old at that stage, and he'd documented the American push to Paris earlier in the century and he was the authority on that and I loved to hear him talk about the Americans in Paris and about Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane, and everybody. I befriended an Italian writer, of Italian extraction, while I was there, and he used to read me bits from his novel which he decided he was going to sell to the movies and make him a fortune. He had a large family in New York, he was incredibly poor and whenever we'd go for a drink to a bar, I'd quietly pay for his round, to help him. Anyway I thought his book wasn't too bad. His name was Mario Puzo and the book was The Godfather, so he owes me a drink sometime. I also discovered living amongst artists, that writing music takes more time physically than any of the other arts. At that time there were some action painters there and they'd put a bit of paint on a bike wheel and spin it round and have their day's work even before breakfast. Writers, many of them would finish writing by midmorning, coffee time or by lunch time, because they were very disciplined - to the typewriter straight after breakfast. Sculptors would finish as the light began to fail in the late afternoon. Composers would stagger in at dinner time and after dinner when everyone else went off to enjoy themselves we'd go back to our cabins and copy out neatly what we'd done during the day. So it was very clear that writing music is the most time consuming of the arts, but I'm sure that none of us would do anything else. That's what we love.
So at the end of your time in America were you happy to come back to Australia again or was there some lure there that might have made you want to stay?
I knew that I'd be back one day, just the fact of having made so many friends. And what is really interesting was that I wrote Sun Music III at Yaddo and a few years later it was performed in Carnegie Hall. [INTERRUPTION]
[end of tape]