Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

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When you came back to Australia from America had you felt refreshed and ready to do whatever you needed to do back in Australia?

I think whenever I've been away, and part of the best thing about going away is coming back, I love coming back and I really look forward to being with my students again at the University. Because being unmarried, I suppose my students were like my family and also because I write music about Australia, it's better to be here. Although you know I wrote Sun Music III at Yaddo in upper New York State and when it was performed in Carnegie Hall, actually a few years later, a New York reviewer said this music could only have been written in Australia. Little did he know it'd been written up the road from New York. But I do need contact with Australia for my work.

And so you're back at Sydney University and you were writing yourself and working well with your students. From your point of view what was the next most significant event that took place in your life, that changed things for you in any way?

Well, my life seems made up with significant events but this was a very significant event. And it was theSun Musicballet and Bobby Helpmann, who'd been a really good friend, he wanted to do a ballet around my Sun Music. I had to write some more music and we did the ballet in 1968. I mean, I don't regard the music as my best music, far from it and certainly played in the pit of theatres it wasn't played very well. But it was the publicity, the hype around it, was very important to me because it took my name out of the concert hall and out to all kinds of people all over the place - and after all a composer writes for people, we write for people, we write for society. It presented my name to more people and therefore it was very important. If not from a musical point of view, from a ... well, we'll say a career point of view.

You were, in a sense, back writing for theatre but with serious music, and how did that aspect feel to you? Doing work that was going to be, as it were, serving another piece of work?

Well again, it's this idea of being limited. You know, for instance, the easiest music of all to write is film music because you are only writing little grabs of music. They need to make sense, they've got to be the right music of course. So writing for theatre in a way is easier than writing for the concert hall. But of course it's got to be the right music again. Talking of film music, in that same year I did write the music for Age of Consent, that was directed by Michael Powell, and that was really exciting because I went up to Dunk Island where they were filming, and I remember lying on the beach with James Mason and looking at his - the fact that he didn't have a tummy at all, and saying, 'How do you do it James?' And he said, 'Well,' he said, 'I'm never the first to arrive at a party, but I'm the second and never the first to leave, but the second to leave. I just discipline my life.' And I thought I'd rather have a bit of a tummy I think. That was a good time. I was very pleased with the score and after I'd finished I went to Japan and, you know in the 60s we all thought we were Zen Buddhists, I even used to put it in Who's Who, so I decided that I should live in a Zen Buddhist monastery. That's another story, that I might tell you about. But it seemed the film had its premiere in Australia and when they took it to London there was something about the transfer of the music to the soundtrack that made ... it didn't work in theatres outside Australia, and I wouldn't understand why. And so Michael wanted me to send the score to London to re-record it, and of course, nobody knew where I was because I was in a Zen monastery in Japan and in the end he had to get an English composer to write another score for it, almost overnight. So it's not my score on the film. But there has been talk over recent years of restoring my score to the film, because Michael is of course a cult figure and they're trying to have everything the way he really wanted it.

When you were approached to do a film what was your first reaction, about writing film music? What did you feel about it? What sort of thoughts went through your head as you thought about working on film music? Was it attractive to you?

Well, I first had my chance to write film music through the old Commonwealth Film Unit and Stanley Hawes and Monita Eagles, who was in charge of music there, and I wrote for quite a few documentaries and I loved it. It was also a way of earning a little bit of money - not much. So I think I enjoyed writing for those documentary films because the directors knew music, and knew what they wanted. But later in my life, when I was working with directors who really didn't seem to have a clue, I found it very time consuming and frustrating. And I keep saying I'll never write for film again because of those.

Is that when you were working on feature films?

Yes, I mean for instance when I wrote the music for Manganinnie, a little Tasmanian film, and John Honey, the director, knows music, plays the cello and the guitar, we looked at the film, we decided on [a] certain thematic structure of the music, almost like a leit motif for the different characters. And then I went away, wrote the music, we recorded it and then laid it to film, nothing changed from the moment John and I discussed it and worked on it. And basically I was doing what he wanted and what he knew he wanted, and so the film, modest film and music, kept winning awards and so on. But in the last feature film I did, Burke and Wills, the director, whom I love dearly and would probably be mad enough to work with again, he never knew what he wanted and I'd have to record, say, 24 little tracks so that we could put them to film to see if he thought they worked. And you know it was a dreadful waste of money and time.

The thing that strikes me about Burke and Wills is that the music in it is fantastically memorable. I mean it's very hard to get the music of Burke and Wills out of your head once you've seen that film, but it didn't always seem to fit into the film in a way.

I think there is some terrific music in the film and I think it's a very bad film score. And I can give you a very simple example of this. At the time that I was writing it, I had a European folk song on the brain 'The Three Ravens'. I decided I wanted to find out more about this and I discovered the song was about love and loyalty and the quest for the Holy Grail. And I thought this is fantastic, because Wills was on the expedition, it was his quest for the Holy Grail. With Burke it was for power and money. And so I decided to put 'Three Ravens' in a major key and make it Wills' melody, theme. And so the film begins with a 'Croquet Waltz' which is based on the 'Three Ravens' in a major key, which in a major key is so like Parsifal it's not true. And it becomes a quicker quadrille and so on. Half way through the film, Wills is talking to Burke about his quest for the Holy Grail and we're out at Lindfield putting it to the film and I wrote a really beautiful bit of music I think, like a Hayden string quartet, as Wills is talking to Burke about his quest. And one of the sound boys at the back said, 'Oh for Christ's sake it sounds as though they're having it off together'. And Graham said, 'Oh we can't have this, it sounds as if they're having it off together.' So the thread of the Wills theme was cut half way through the film, and then it was suddenly restored at the end where it is put into a minor key for the first time. But hearing it you wouldn't have a clue why, because it takes the course of the film before it's presented in its minor form at Wills' death. And so that is an example of the sort of thing that happened with the film. It was because the director didn't really know what he wanted. It makes it very difficult because a composer is there to serve the director, and if the director doesn't know well ...

While we're on the subject of writing for other media rather than just the concert hall, what about opera? Tell me about your relationship to opera and how that's affected the way that you write and what you feel about writing opera?

Wee, I suppose as long as composers exist we'll always want to write for the theatre, for a combination of music, orchestral music and song and wonderful visual things. My first opera was actually to be for the opening of the [Sydney] Opera House. There were so many problems that I had to do with management at the time and also with assembling the libretto. I had very difficult times with a number of librettists who simply didn't understand musical time. I mean, basically they were writing plays that one sets to music. But if you set a play to music, a play that might take two hours, set to music it could take four or five hours, because musical time is different. So I had a great deal of trouble and eventually decided to assemble the libretto myself, and by that time it was clear that I wouldn't be ready for the opening. I was very happy about that because I think that the responsibility was simply too great for anybody. It would have to disappoint like Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra for the opening of the new Met in New York. It's actually a very good opera but it disappointed because it palled before the building itself. And so I wrote this opera, Rites of Passage which was more a kind of dance work. It was really based on the ideas of Lully, an early French composer, in which he felt that opera should be an equal mixture of instrumental music, choral music, and some song, dance - what he called 'les merveilleux' - wonderful things happening on stage. And so it was an opera in the Lully sense but I was roundly condemned for not writing an opera because it wasn't in the Italian nineteenth-century sense. But I was very ... fairly happy.

Looking back at Rites of Passage now, what do you think of it?

It was certainly the best music that I could write at that time. The score does need a lot of work done to it, on it, and I just haven't had time, because a lot of opera houses have expressed interest in mounting it, and I should do something about that. I think the problem with Rites of Passage is that it was like a Philip Glass opera, long before Philip Glass operas, and therefore the manner of it, the style, was not acceptable. Whereas today Philip Glass operas are very acceptable and I think Rites of Passage would fit in very well.

You decided you wanted to live in Australia and work in Australia, but like a lot of Australians who do that find travel absolutely essential, after you had your stay in America did you go away much after that?

In the early '70s I went to England and I was visiting Professor at the University of Sussex and, in fact, I wrote most of Rites of Passage there. That was a very pleasant period because I lived for a while at a little village called Glynde, which is near Glyndebourne, and lived in Lewes and even in Brighton for a little bit. And I loved that part of the world. I was there for a good two years because, again, Donald Peart was keen for me to go away and to bring ideas back and so on. That was the last time in the early '70s that I actually lived somewhere else other than Sydney. I might have, say, been to the Soviet Union for three weeks or ...

A Zen monastery in Japan ...

The Zen monastery was in the early '60s, earlier yes. Or Aspen Colorado for the festival, for the fortnight, and so on. I can't see that I will be living anywhere else than Sydney for the rest of my life. But I enjoy travelling and being away for a short time.

Why is that? Because you wroteSun Musicwhen you were away from Australia, a very Australian work, you wrote ...

That was the third in theSun Musicseries not the first one, yes.

You wrote Rites of Passage in Sussex away from Australia, also an Australian work. Why do you want to stay in Sydney and why have you, from the '70s, lived permanently here?

I think that I had to write Rites of Passage away from Australia being a big work and by that time I was getting a lot of demands being made upon me for my time, even students, and so it was better to be right away from it all in order to get the work done. I think after I came back I somehow found a way to control my life better, so that I could tend to everybody's needs, and student needs and also write music. And, I think, maybe it's even plane travel. Although we travelled, just travel seemed to become easier or places around the world seemed to become closer. It just appeared, at least to me, better to go somewhere for a short time and come back. Is that answering the question?

In a way although you've concealed in that a very easy remark, something that I'm sure everybody would love to know the secret of. You said that you'd somehow learnt to control your life so that you were able to meet all the demands placed on you. Now knowing the extent and depth of those demands that are placed on you, how do you do it?

I think I missed out a word or two in that. I'm able to control my life, I was able to control it and still am able to, better than I had earlier. But it's still very difficult. I think it's partly to do with delegation, deciding that I just can't do everything, and other people - I just need other people to help me, help me get through. With correspondence, with whatever.

So what do you do as a composer, is there a little Peter Sculthorpe industry going where other people work with you? So what sort of help do you have?

Well, I have a secretary to do letters, and a music assistant to put my music into the computer and attend to all music matters, and a personal assistant to attend to everything involving the written word, apart from letters that is. At the moment he is pulling together all my published writings, to put them into a book and so on. And then if I need other help or if they need help, well then we'll get extra help.

What, after you decided to stay in Australia? You'd had a number of events in your life before that usually involved moving away for a period and then coming back. In terms of your life from the 70s onward, how, what was the next thing that happened to you here in Australia that affected the way in which you were developing?

I think earlier I had been consciously adapting Asian musics, Japanese and Balinese in particular, into my own music. I think first of all that these musics began to become a part of the very nature of my own work. In some they were assimilated and became a part of my style. The next was because I was very caught up with Aboriginal land rights. Having earlier said that Aboriginal music has nothing to offer a composer, I certainly began to look at it more seriously, and by that time of course there were books on Aboriginal music which there hadn't been earlier. So I was able to look at it more, to really look at it, instead of just having a scant knowledge. And so I slowly began to, as Asia receded, Aboriginal music began to enter into my work, and I think for me in my work that was very significant. I remember when Port Essington was performed in the Opera House in 1977, and I had letters from Aboriginal leaders thanking me for what I'd done and thanking me for bringing about this awareness. Because even in 1977 Aborigines were still like a non-people, even as late as that, and I think support from them helped me continue in that direction. It's very interesting though because later some of my students, who were doing work with urban Aborigines, discovered that a few people disapproved of what I was doing and so finally I asked Burnum Burnum what I should be doing, and he said, 'You must keep on doing what you're doing. We know you do it from your heart.' Because I've never stepped over the line. For instance in the film Burke and Wills, the director wanted the sound of a bullroarer, and he wanted it in a part of the country where a bullroarer never sounds anyway. Well, I didn't want to do it because it's a sacred object and women shouldn't hear it in some parts of Australia, and the director insisted. So I synthesised the sound of a bullroarer and in passing it sounds like a bullroarer but any Aborigine would know it's not. And I think in doing things like that, little stories get around and it's felt that I haven't transgressed.

Those who were criticising you were criticising you for what is called 'cultural appropriation', were they? And that has become the issue. In terms of talking about a line, you say you won't use a sacred sound but you have drawn themes from Aboriginal music. Would you talk about your approach when you're doing that?

Yes, I've used only one melody exactly as it is, and that is in 1974 I wrote music for a little ABC feature film called Essington with a script by Tom Keneally and it needed to have an Aboriginal melody in it. So I listened to three recordings by Professor Elkin and there was one melody, the moment I heard it I knew it had to be that, called 'Djilile'; it means 'whistling duck'. That is a species of whistling duck on a billabong, and I love the melody so much I've used it exactly, note for note, as it is, in a number of works, since that time. Now what is really interesting is that a student at Columbia University in New York is writing a thesis on my string quartets and he discovered in my String Quartet No. 4, written in 1950 that I've used this 'Djilile' melody note for note at the same pitch, but in a different rhythm, and he was so astonished by this that he traced the melody through my works up to the time that I knew the melody 'Djilile'. So it's clear that this configuration of notes - I'd never heard the Aboriginal melody - it's just that this particular configuration of notes happens to be something that means something special to me. And of course the moment I heard the Aboriginal version of this configuration of course I had to use it. And anyway it is the only melody that I've used note for note. Otherwise I've tended to listen to a melody and hum it, and sing it to myself and slowly over a period, little changes occur and it becomes more a melody that's more in my own particular style of melody.

Before you became so absorbed in using Aboriginal themes, Asia was the big thing for you. How did that evolve? Can you tell me the story of how you developed and used your contact and interest in Asia with your own music.

Well, I mentioned having had, when I was very little, music in the Chinese market garden. And when I was a student in Melbourne I had heard an arrangement of Japanese court music on a recording by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. I was so impressed by this music that I wanted to find out what I could about Japanese music. And that wasn't difficult because, for many years, there have been books on Japanese music and Japanese culture [is] easily available. And so I came to know Japanese music reasonably well even before I arrived in Sydney to teach in 1963. And then Donald Peart got me to teach ethnomusicology, basically Asian music. And I was totally untrained of course but it was all done out of love and enthusiasm. So in teaching the music and being one lecture ahead of my students I was able to, I was forced to learn more about it. And eventually I did go to Japan as I mentioned earlier, thinking I was a Zen Buddhist. I went to live in a Zen Buddhist monastery to discover that I'm not a Zen Buddhist. Because the first thing I had to do was to leave, divest myself of possessions. Well I mean I'm a possession person, I love owning things and I'd bought a beautiful Japanese gilded Buddha, and I had to put it in a locker in the Kyoto railway station. I actually used to sneak out of the monastery to go and look at that, and touch my Buddha. But what will always remain with me from that time, was that I discovered Shintoism. There are two religions in Japan; Shinto is the state religion, and Buddhism. I became friendly with the abbot of a Shinto shrine, not so far away and the difference between the two is that when I would arrive at the Shinto shrine the abbot's wife and daughter would rush out to meet me and we would go inside and sit on the floor and have the green tea, and sweet cakes. At the Buddhist place I didn't ever meet one wife or child, because the families lived in compounds outside the temple. At the Shinto place everything grew in the garden as nature intended. At the Buddhist place if you looked carefully you would find trees and all the plants were pulled with little wires into shapes against nature. At the Shinto place there was a waterfall like something from a Hokusai print, just as nature intended. At the Buddhist place there was a very, very famous much photographed waterfall with no water; it was just rocks and people would come and exclaim looking at it, saying how wonderful it was. But to me as a pragmatic Australian all I could see was rocks not a waterfall at all. And then there was the problem of the riddles because the idea with Buddhism is that Zen Buddhism, if the mind is purged of logic then it can easily leap up into enlightenment. Well this was a problem because I spoke little Japanese and my Zen master spoke some German. My German wasn't so good and he spoke no Australian. Communication wasn't easy. But he'd ask me a question, and I might get it right and suddenly a little man with a bamboo rod with a split at the end would come and thwack me on the back, and then he'd ask me another question and I'd get it wrong and I'd get a thwack on the back, and then another question and I'd get it wrong and then I wouldn't be hit on the back. In other words the idea was to get rid of the logic and get rid of expectation. Well, my back was a bit of a mess, but I think if I'd stayed too much longer I would have gone mad because it's just not my way at all. I'm sure Zen Buddhism is fine for other people and it doesn't distinguish between east and west - it's just that it's not for me. But Shintoism I've been drawn to ever since that time. It's a kind of Pantheism.

A much more ancient and earth-based belief.

That's right, and also springing from the sun goddess herself and the worship of what is natural and what is nature, and there's no dogma attached to it. But I don't think anybody who's not Japanese could take to Shintoism because I think it goes too deep into the psyche really. To me it's a very attractive, more than attractive, religion.

And the Japanese music influenced your own work.

Yes in particular ...

[end of tape]

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