|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 21, 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).
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Peter could you explain how your interest in Asian music evolved, what your relationship to it was and how it affected your own music?
Do you want me to go back to that first ...
When I was a student in Melbourne I heard an arrangement of Japanese court music. It was a recording by Stokowski with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. And this was the first Asian music of any kind that I'd heard in between the times I'd heard Chinese music in the market garden when I was young. And again I was very drawn to it, I can't explain what it was. Well if one could explain maybe it wouldn't have the same power. And that made me want to learn about Asian musics. And it certainly was easy to find out about Japanese music and culture because the Japanese have always been very good with their own propaganda. And there were lots of books and so I was able to become something of an expert, well, in an amateur way, on Japanese music. And then later when I went to the University of Sydney ...
The Japanese court music really appealed to you and affected you personally. How did it affect your music?
Well I certainly have used some of the harmonies. What also is interesting is that the names of notes like C, and D, notes of the scale have special meanings for me. And there's a Japanese court music piece called Etenraku, beginning with an E. And of course E is the lowest note of the double bass, of most double basses. And when I use that low note, for me it represents eternity. E for eternity. And of course Etenraku, means music from heaven, beginning with an E. So in some way because that work and many other Japanese court music pieces are founded on an E, [it] made it very easy for me actually to appropriate some of this music, to take it over into my own music and transform it in some way. But I have also used some of the melodies, very ancient melodies, some of them from the sixth century. I have used note for note in some works of mine and I expect I will continue to do so.
What other Asian music traditions affected your work?
Oh, before leaving that I should mention that in Japanese court music often the wind instruments play a little bit behind, a little bit ahead of each other so that you get this lovely, sometimes almost like forming a halo around a melody. And I've adapted that idea, and I often use it, I call it 'fore paso' in Italian, which means out of step. So you have one instrument playing the main melody and other instruments playing about it and it's rather a nice idea. Japanese music then was important to me for some years. And because I had to teach Balinese music, teach Indonesian music at the University of Sydney, I mean Donald Peart felt that Indonesian music was particularly important because of Indonesia being a neighbour and he brought the first gamelan into Australia which we had at the University of Sydney. And so I had to learn all about that, to my pleasure, and to teach it. And so in learning about it, somehow I was able to have the figurations and the sound, more the textures of the music enter my own music. I remember back in Yale days I was on the doorstep of the Yale Co-op on the morning in 1966 when Colin McPhee's book Music in Bali came out. I must have bought the first copy. And this is the great book on Balinese music and certainly it's that book that influenced my work with Bali. But what is really interesting is that by the time that I did finally reach Bali, and I tried many times - once I was about to leave on a little light plane, a Garuda plane, and the weather was so bad we weren't able to take off and things kept militating against it - by the time I did go to Bali in 1974 the influence was slowly, not so much passing from my music as entering at another level into my music, and by 1974 Japanese influences were passing, except for the storehouse of ancient melodies that I've used ever since that time. And what was happening was that as the Asian musics were entering at another level, less superficial level really, Aboriginal music was beginning to come in. But I've never ceased to believe that our next 100 years will be Asian in some way.
You went to Indonesia. You went to Bali to make a documentary about Balinese music, didn't you, and that was in the early '70s. That was a bit of ... took a different direction from what you were imagining.
Well, it was little bit like my Japanese experience. I had expected Zen Buddhism to give me the answer to everything and I was very disappointed. I had read all these accounts of Bali and Balinese music and Balinese culture, and I had expected something quite different and in one way richer than the Bali and the music that I found. Although finally, I suppose it was just different. I had been led astray by books in other words and when I did finally discover Balinese music, it was just incredible. But it was just very different and very disappointing at first. Even things like, you know you read about how, what consummate musicians Balinese are, and their sense of rhythm and so on and so on. I wrote a little gamelan piece for some Balinese musicians and because they don't read Western notation I had to teach it to them playing the instruments. And, to find that their sense of rhythm was about as deficient as mine, that was a big shock [laughs] because I was expecting them to be perfect. I know it shouldn't be, we're all human, but - and looking back it was rather nice that they are human and that they couldn't count so well.
So you had a romantic notion really of Bali which you lost and then you discovered reality.
Reality that's right, and reality of course was much better than my romantic notion. As discovering Shintoism in Japan was much more wonderful than this romantic idea I had of Zen Buddhism.
How far has Balinese music affected the way that your music works and could you give me some examples?
It's very hard to give an example without becoming technical. Maybe one example is that much Balinese music is made up of punctuation, on many levels. You know there'll be a big gong, [which] will punctuate a long section of music and a slightly smaller gong will punctuate a less long section of music, within the long section, and then a smaller one within a small section. So you've got all these levels of punctuation and it might be hard to hear the other, the smaller levels in my music. But certainly you will also hear this deeper tam tam or deeper gong punctuating the sections in my music. There are many other ideas but as I say I would have to get rather technical to explain. It's mostly to do with textures though.
Can we now go right back in time to the wild student whose reputation later got him into ... when you were regarded, you said, you'd perhaps been ... At Melbourne University, when you first went there as an undergraduate, you had a reputation for being a little bit wild. In what way were you wild?
Well I suppose it was because of rehabilitation students and many of my friends were older - older men, older women - more experienced, and I suppose I was just doing what they were all doing and being. Perhaps I was lucky to spend time with people who were sexually experienced really.
And so for you, you'd come from Tasmania, from a fairly sheltered household and this was an exciting time for you, a discovery of relationships and so on ...
I mean here I am unmarried, I think I'm a monogamous person, which is probably rare for a man. I mean my mother always used to say women are monogamous and men are basically polygamous and we women have got to do our best to keep them on the straight and narrow sort of thing. I think I'm basically monogamous because when I was about 13 I was at a school dance, and this girl Elizabeth said if I could climb that clock tower and put her apple core on the little hand of the clock she would swap badges with me, which meant we were sort of betrothed as school kids. So of course I climbed the tower and put the apple core on it, and we were about 13 and we were together until we both went to university in our later teens. But she went to Hobart and I went to Melbourne and so our relationship slowly dissipated. In Melbourne I did become engaged to a very nice girl; for some reason I decided I wanted to get married. My parents said, Oh, where are you getting the money for the ring from? And (laughs) how right they were of course. But she produced a family heirloom ring and so that was no problem, but after a while I decided I would actually have to have a tent or something out in the back yard, that I really couldn't share my life. I thought this is for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it. And so the engagement was broken off. I actually organised a triangle in order not to hurt her feelings, so that she actually broke off the engagement.
But you knew that you didn't really want to be with somebody for the rest of your life. Why was that? Do you think it had to do with your music?
Oh, I'm sure because writing music is ... well, my mother used to say,He's married to his music, and I'd expect that's the way it is. It's because it's so demanding, the hours or at least the way I write is so demanding that it doesn't leave much room for a proper relationship, only for a relationship that's laden with guilt because of the way one isn't able to tend to it, really.
You'd had before you, as a child, an image of a really good relationship between your parents and often that then is something that you feel, well that's a good thing to have in your life as a human being.
At the time I felt it but perhaps it wasn't, perhaps it was too - not that it was perfect of course - but perhaps it was too good a relationship. Perhaps I felt that I couldn't live up to the model given to me by my parents. But I'm glad I lived through that.
So after this early realisation that you didn't want to stay engaged when you were young, after that, at any stage did you feel that you wanted to enter into a relationship again?
Well over the years there were a few. Well when I say longer, maybe relationships for a year or so, a year or two. But they tended to fall away, mainly because of a slight lack of commitment from me. I mean I was again engaged to be married. [INTERRUPTION]
Did you ever after that initial relationship look to another relationship that might have lasted longer?
Yes, I did feel quite strongly about somebody in the late '60s and then in the early '70s when I was living in England and she was living in England, I did want to marry her. We became engaged and it was a very happy time in my life. And I was really looking forward to this. I came back to Australia - she was still in England - and I was busy making plans for the future and then she broke off the engagement and I sort of ... well people around me said it really affected me very badly. Certainly, I felt I was rather devastated. I still don't know if it was partly pride, but I was devastated. And she, herself, because she was a very special person, took the blame for this. I don't want to go into those details. But many years later, because we're still very good friends, she told me that the real reason was that she felt that I wasn't quite committed enough and I'm sure she's right. I thought I was committed but heavens above a woman knows better than a man. And if she felt that I wasn't quite committed enough to her then I think she was probably right, and I was unaware of it. So it's just ... I mean I lead a very happy life, a very fulfilled life. I would like to have had a right relationship, and recently when one of my nieces gave birth to a little boy who smiles all the time, and he just makes everybody's day feel the better for coming across him, I thought, oh maybe I really missed out on something by not having children. This is the first time, actually, with little William that I've felt that I've missed out but of course you can't predict what kind of children you're going to have. I might have had a monster so ...
Given that periods of great emotional intensity have produced some of your best music, after the break up of the most significant relationship it sounds like in your life, how did, what were you writing?
I was actually finishing Rites of Passage but at that stage it was sheer hard work. I mean I wasn't depending on inspiration, on any kind of suffering to dictate what I was doing. That's a very interesting question actually, because it hadn't occurred to me that my next piece was a work called The Song of Tailitnama and in that work written in 1974 I suddenly broke new ground. It was a kind of new me. There is no suffering in it, in fact it's one of the few pieces that doesn't actually have any angst of any kind. And I still regard it as one of my best pieces. So maybe that came as a result of living through that bad period and I've never thought of that before.
And you say it formed a breakthrough to something new for you. What was that, what was the new thing that you then carried forward?
Well, it was certainly a new dependence upon Aboriginal musics and ideas. For instance, I'd never really ... you know how a didgeridoo is a drone, it's one note. I mean you can vary it of course, but it's basically one note that sounds on and on. I'd never used that, the idea of a drone in my music as much as in The Song of Tailitnama. It's interesting that the pitch that I chose for it is A, and of course for me A always means Australia, so I think I was entering into a period where pitches had even more special meanings for me. And where romanticism actually tends to be purged. I mean The Song of Tailitnama is not a romantic work, it doesn't mean that it may not be a deep work, but it's more classical, in a sense it's a little cooler. And it just sounds - rather than pour out emotion.
Less longing, more serenity ... The '70s was a period which Australia remembers as a period of great cultural nationalism and yet that had been something that you'd been about for a long time before that. Was it a period, in some ways, in which you came into your own, in which the atmosphere around you in the country, what was happening in all art forms, came into tune in a way with what you'd been after?
I think so because at the end of the '70s, in 1979, that was like the climax to that point of my compositional life because I think that my Cello Requiem and my orchestral work, Mangrove, probably, will always be two of my best pieces. And in a sense they were, they pulled together what it was clear, looking back, were the main musical influences on my life, and they are - I'm not Catholic - but they're plainchant of the Catholic Church, ancient Japanese chant, the court music in particular, and Aboriginal chant. And it's so interesting somehow at the end of the '70s these were being pulled together, sometimes coexisting in music. Maybe partly because I think all music aspires to song, and I think that those three kinds of song are amongst the greatest musics produced by the human race. I mean with plainchant it often sounds arbitrary, just as though its meandering along. But if you pull out one note it sounds wrong and it doesn't work. And the same with the other musics. So I think, yes, of the '70s that's when these three very different musics began to converge in my work.
And what did the '80s bring for you in your life?
[The] eighties seemed to bring more, a great deal more travel. I didn't travel a great deal in the '70s but I did in the '80s. It brought a great deal more exposure, outside Australia, I mean. Like the Kronos Quartet championing my music and many performers outside ...
The Kronos Quartet being a Los Angeles, San Francisco based ...
Actually the Kronos Quartet had played my String Quartet No. 8 for some years and they decided that they wanted to put the Quartet on a financial footing, so they gave a big concert, and it was beautifully organised and I think at that stage they were wearing Frankenstein outfits for their concerts and afterwards they gave a wonderful party. And then after the party there was a sort of meeting with the people they hoped would put money into the group, the financiers. The basic feeling was they loved the concert, the way it looked and the way it was presented and the supper was great and so on, and the way you were dressed. They didn't think much of the music apart from that Australian piece, but yes we'll back you. And so because they liked my piece which was my String Quartet No. 8, and liked everything else, the Kronos then got on to a very good financial footing. So therefore my String Quartet became like a mascot for them and they played it all round the world. That was rather terrific for me. And there were other groups who took me up at that time. That was outside Australia. Within, I don't know what was happening. I felt by the mid-80s that the energy, the creative energy was being drained from Australia. The feeling was very present inside me. It wasn't that I didn't want to write music, it wasn't that I didn't feel I could, but I felt that the climate here was not good. It may have been building up to the Bicentenary and maybe we had to get that out of our system. I don't know but I actually stopped writing music for a year or two in the '80s and that's when I began my autobiography. I thought well, you've got to do something so I'll write words instead of music. By the time the '80s ended I was feeling better about things, maybe it was after 1988; as I say maybe we had to get that over with in order that we could get on with reality.
Did it have something to do with the fact that there was, really, a fairly massive cultural shift in the climate of the times? That in fact there was a big move towards ... you know we were talking then about economic rationalism, about a kind of less community-based way of looking at things.
It was definitely related to politics in the country, yes, and I'm sure to economic rationalisation. Yes it was definitely related to the way that our society was beginning to function.
And when did you then start writing again? What was it that brought you back to composition after having had that sort of dry period?
I think it was in 1988. It was actually in 1988 because that's when I wrote the orchestral piece Kakadu. And I suppose it was because it ... maybe because the piece is about Australia, it was for performance elsewhere and it was commissioned from elsewhere and I don't know but that piece marked the beginning of a whole new period in a way in my output. It was commissioned by an American anaesthesiologist. I remember I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang and a voice said, 'This is Manny Papper, phoning from the States, I want to commission you to write a work for my wife's 60th birthday.' And I'm saying, you know it's the Bicentenary year ...
[end of tape]