Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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So how did you come to write Kakadu?

Well, it was in the bicentennial year, and I was sitting at my desk one night and the phone rang. And a voice announced himself as Manny Papper, an American anaesthesiologist. And he said he wanted to commission me to write a work to mark the occasion of his wife's 60th birthday. And I was being very nice and I said, 'I'd love to do it, but it's our bicentenary this year, I have a lot on my plate, and I couldn't possibly.' You know, 'I'd love to fit it in,' but I couldn't. And so then he started to put the price up. And I kept saying, 'No, no, it's not money, it's time that I don't have.' So he put the price up. I was getting to feel so embarrassed, and embarrassed about saying 'no' as well. I thought, well I better show a bit of interest, and so I said to him, 'Oh, and what is your wife like?' And he said 'Well, you know, she's just the most beautiful person in the whole world.' It was just something about the way he said it, and the feeling, I knew I had to write the piece. And I'm so glad I did, because they've become very dear friends, and she is, Pat is a wonderful woman. And they've spent time in Australia, and even been to Kakadu. And the brief was that I write a work that has some Australian resonances, most important that it's a work that I like and a work that might have a chance of getting into the concert repertoire. He was keen about that, I suppose because of his wife, Pat. And so I set to work and wrote the piece. And in a way ... I said it was like the beginning of a new period in composition. The work was performed at Aspen, at the festival in 1988, and was a great success there. And it sort of never looked back, actually, the piece. In a way I call the post-Kakadu works, because many of them are related, I talk about them in terms of Kakadu songlines. Because I've taken melodies from Kakadu and Kakadu-related works, and they weave their way through many pieces in different guises. And so I suppose that work really began my Kakadu period.

And that extended through the whole of the last ten years?

Yes, I think I had a few little forays into Torres Strait itself, and I think that more water is beginning to appear in the music. In other words, I seem to be leaving the land mass of Australia and moving into Torres Strait in some way. I've spent quite a bit of time up there, it's part of the country that I do love. And I don't know what's ahead, but I think it's going to be more music of our northern coast somehow.

In looking to Aboriginal themes for your inspiration in the last little while, has that been just a natural evolution for you, or has it been given impetus by the particular concerns of the Aboriginal community over the last period of time, especially in relation to the Australian scene as a whole?

Yes, definitely to do with my own concerns, because for instance, I had to write a little piece for schools - for performance for school children at schools concerts - for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And I called it 'From Nourlangie' - no, I called it 'Little Nourlangie'. Little Nourlangie is a rock underneath which there are the blue paintings, wonderful Aboriginal paintings, and nearby is Jabiluka, the proposed uranium mining site. And so whenever the piece was performed, I'd tell the school children about this. And I'd say, 'If you really care about this then write a letter to Canberra, write to the Minister and tell her how you feel.' And the Minister was inundated with letters. And that was quite important to me, because it made me realise that through music one can ... I mean music itself doesn't make a political statement, but I, at least through my work, can make some kind of statement. So certainly that's been a part of my work. And today, I'm more concerned about reconciliation and certainly that enters my work. I mean as in my last string quartet, when I was a little boy my father used to tell me the story of Quamby Bluff in Tasmania and how soldiers would drive Aborigines to the edge of the bluff, and they had the choice of either being shot or jumping, and as they jumped they'd cry out, 'Quamby! quamby!' meaning 'Save me, save me' and I'd always wanted to write a piece about that. And finally I did in my last string quartet. And somehow in the last movement, where I'm dealing with this, it's not resolved, but there's some kind of suggestion that it could be resolved. That there could be resolution. And I hadn't actually thought that an audience would grasp this quite. But I was quite amazed after the first performance, because the applause seemed to go beyond the music. It suddenly was as though this whole audience had a care, wanted reconciliation. And so I expect I'll pursue that idea for quite a while the way we're going.

Going back and talking about your interest in opera, and the ... after Rites of Passage did you do another opera?

Yes, for the 50th anniversary of the ABC, I wrote a television opera, Quiros, about this Portuguese seaman who sailed for Spain, and who sailed in the days when it was believed that there was a land mass in the southern hemisphere to balance the masses in the north. And he had a dream, he had a real vision of this wonderful country. He altogether made three voyages, but on his last voyage he thought he'd discovered Australia, and he named the place La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo - the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. He was a bit mad at this stage, he was unwell, and he dubbed all his officers Knights of the Order of the Holy Spirit, and after a ... and the town to be built there, the New Jerusalem, and the bay, the Bay of St. Phillip and St. James. And after a time it became clear to his men that this was not Australia, it was just a small island. And it was in fact the Island of Espiritu Santo. And the expedition broke up. Torres sailed westward back to Spain, he sailed back across the Pacific. And he dreamed of returning and finding this south land. He died in Panama before he was able to. But it was his vision and his dream that I wanted to write about. And his failure. Because I think that our history is made up of antiheroes rather than heroes, and perhaps he was our first antihero. The Pope gave him a supposed piece of the true cross, that he was to put here, enshrine in the first church in Australia. But he finally put it in the little church in ... somewhere in California. I know that Manning Clark did make a pilgrimage to go to see this part of the true cross at one stage. I think he's very important in our history, and many years earlier I had been intending to work with James McAuley, because he'd written a poem Captain Quiros and we were going to write an opera. I finally used the idea for the television opera, which I think actually failed. Not really musically, because I think it's got some of my best music in it. I think probably it was because of the production, because the ABC hadn't done a television opera for at least ten years, and so everybody came out of the woodwork and had little ladies sewing sequins on everything. And the production was so busy, and I'd planned it to be very simple, on a grand and vast scale, and not all this busyness. And I think that the busyness of it pulled it down a great deal. I've often thought that I'd like to amplify it for the stage, because it could easily be done. For instance, the big love duet in the opera is only about two minutes or two and a half minutes. This is because it's for television. I mean it'd be silly to have a protracted love duet. But for the stage, the material's there, I could easily make it ten minutes or whatever.

In a thematic way, why do you find Quiros so important to Australia? What does it represent for you about us?

Well, it should be said that the first person to talk about Quiros was Nugget Coombs and he - this goes back to the mid-sixties - and he, even then, used to urge me to write, to use the idea of Quiros as a theme for an opera. And then, when I first met James McAuley, a man whom I admired very much and whose poem on Quiros I loved, I mean it was important to me through those two human beings, to begin with. And as I came to know the subject ... I don't know, I think my feelings are too complex to be able to express them simply. I mean even the fact that ships are in my blood, from my family on my father's side; so therefore ships. I've mentioned plainsong of the Catholic Church, although I'm not a Catholic. The idea of using plainsong in a work. The idea of using Spanish music. The idea that it's concerned with history, Australian history, and I'm a fanatical devourer of our history. The fact that he was our first hero or antihero, or almost the first Australian. There's so much in the story.

The idea of the impossible dream.

And the impossible dream.

And the heroic failure.

Yes, yes. Because the heroic failure, Gallipoli or Ned Kelly or Burke and Wills, really it was the beginning of our story. And discovering Australia. And it wasn't even there. Wasn't even Australia. In other words, trying to find out what Australia is.

A theme that's run through your life, and something that you've done as well as teach and write music, you've been an advocate of music. You've articulated publicly a lot of ideas about music and the fact that Australia could have its own music. Could you talk a little bit about the motivation behind that and chronicle a little the opportunities that you've been given to actually be able to be somebody who was a voice that both expressed and encouraged the development of an Australian idiom in music.

Well, there's a lot of questions there.

Yeah, but they're sort of the same question. Basically I'd like you to talk about what you've done in the way of public advocacy for music in Australia.

I suppose I had an early sort of irritation about our cultural cringe. I mean I used to get very annoyed, upset about the concept that if it's from overseas it's better. And I probably went even a little bit too far in talking about that. But maybe one had to go as far as one could in order for people to get the message. I remember in 1966 when I was on my way to the States, I was interviewed by the Times in London. And I simply said, 'Europe is dead. Australia is the future.' And it caused actually quite a furore at the time. And what was interesting to me was the number of Europeans, or Englishmen in particular, who said 'Look, actually you're right.' That was a nice affirmation of my belief but I did go too far. But at least in doing that, I was beginning to get a message across. I mean it was all about my coming back to Australia from Oxford at that time, and going to the ABC, to the general manager and him being horrified that I should expect my music to be performed. Because after all, you're only an Australian, he said. So I think I made it a campaign really, to try to have conditions bettered here for Australian composers and Australian musicians. I don't think that I did anything in particular except write about it and talk about it. That's all.

How far have other arts and artists working in other ways - as writers and painters and so on - affected your work?

Well, I've often said that I'm a visual composer in the sense that I think that we - young countries - have visual cultures. I think North America, has a visual culture. And you know, it can be put very simply in that, in England even today, one is categorised in society according to the kinds of noises that one makes when one opens one's mouth. Well, I mean you know, if we did that in Australia, we wouldn't even have a government to begin with, because it'd be too darn low down in the social scale. When I was a student in Melbourne, Sir Bernard Heinze would arrive in a smart car and step out in a smart suit and walk into the conservatorium with a smartly painted ... every wall a different colour in those days. And what he thought or said wasn't important. But what we saw was. When I went to Oxford, I had an appointment with Jack Westrum, the senior professor of music in the world. As I was walking into the Department of Music there, there was this old man trying to get through the door. It was one of those doors that sort of comes back at you. He had a push bike with mudguards held together by bits of string, and I thought it must be the cleaner. Anyway, I helped him in, helped him park his bike in the foyer. I mean we would never have had bikes parked in the foyer in Melbourne. And then I went to the bathroom to clean myself up for my big appointment. And I walked in, and of course there was the cleaner sitting behind the desk - Jack Westrum himself. So what he arrived on - his old bike - and what we saw, a battered old raincoat, the image that we saw was irrelevant, but here was a great scholar who had written the authoritative book on Purcell, when he was a university student at Balliol. So yes, I think we have a visual culture, and I embrace that, and I think that I'm inspired by what I see, the landscape and by painting certainly more than by what I read, which is to do with the eyes anyway. Because ultimately I think that I'm not trying to portray just what one sees. I'm seeking what one might call the sacred in nature, and I used to describe myself as a religious composer for that reason. And then people would say, 'Oh, Methodist or Church of England?' But of course I didn't mean it in the denominational sense. So I stopped using that description. But basically I am a religious composer, because I am looking for what is beneath the landscape, or what is within it. I suppose it's related to Shinto also really.

You were a great friend of Tass Drysdale, and you also admired Sidney Nolan's work. Did their work affect your composing?

Tass Drysdale's work affected my composition in the sense that I was very attracted to his notion of the lonely figure in the landscape, and for a time in my music, that's what it's all about really, this lonely figure in the Australian landscape. With Sid, I think the only real influence that he had is the notion of series. You know, he would paint a series of pictures of Ned Kelly or Eliza Fraser and the rain forest, Africa. And whether it influenced me or not I don't know, but certainly I felt as though his series supported my view that in music we can have series of works, like I have the Kakadu Songline series or I have the Irkanda series, or theSun Musicseries. And I probably wouldn't have continued with that idea if it weren't for the fact that Sid was doing it and there was a model for one. You know, just to make one feel a bit more secure in a way.

In your early years you were influenced by a couple of other composers, when you were getting your own head together. Looking at your life overall, have there been further composers in your own tradition - I'm not talking about the Asian inspirations and so on - that have really impressed you and affected you?

Well, incidentally I should mention first of all that I forgot to mention Mahler. He was actually a very important influence on me when I was young. And from him, I probably developed my harmonic method -- I mean we call it a ... It's when a melody is going along and you think it's going to resolve onto this harmony when it gets there, and suddenly the harmony shifts and the melody still hasn't resolved and it moves and you think it's going to resolve and the harmony shifts. And Mahler does that a great deal and I continue to do it in a different way in my music, because this is a way to keep the tension, to keep the music moving, you know. And it's not easy to just hold the interest, and Mahler gave that to me. What now is interesting is that composers that I do like are American minimalists, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and these are composers who write music where the melody and harmony are together all the time, where there's very little, if any, tension. But maybe what one listens to and what one writes are very different.

Could you explain what it is that's happened with you, with your own personal development, that that, as it were, out-of-sync tension which attracted you when you were younger has been replaced by something which is much more in line. I mean is there some reason for that?

Well, I've often talked about the fact that most of my music has a dual nature. That there are two things happening together in it. And sometimes they're resolved at the end, and sometimes they're not. And I think that it goes way back to my being Tasmanian. And that little stretch of water, the Bass Strait, creates in us Tasmanians a feeling of us and them. You know, we Tasmanians and those people over there on the mainland. So I think from childhood there existed this feeling of duality in me. And then later, of course, even then when I finally went to Melbourne to study, there was the feeling of us here in Australia and them, those people over there in Europe. So it grew bigger, the duality. It even became us here and those people up there in Asia. So there were many layers of duality that entered my music. It's always been my ambition to write a work in which the two don't exist, in which there is just one. And I have achieved that in a few pieces. The Song of Tailitnama is one piece, and it's my dream that all my works will be like that. But maybe if they were they wouldn't be me, maybe I need these two ideas pulling together. I mean a really good example of this is Port Essington, which is about the settlement at Essington, that was made in the 1830s when it was believed that Australia would be invaded by the French, as though they would have attacked right there. It was also to help open up trade with Indonesia. And you know the first thing they did was build a government house. I think it was eaten by white ants, and the second government house [was] destroyed by a cyclone and the third by flood or something. And the men drilled every day in uniform that was more suited to an English winter than an endless Capricornian summer. And no effort was made to come to terms with the place or the climate. And so in the work I have two things happening. One is the settlers at the settlement and the other is the bush. And there's no real confrontation, but finally the settlers and the settlement just cave in, and the bush takes over. And as the settlers are being rowed away, towards the end of the work, for the first time in the music, the bush music plays some of the settlement music. And it's saying, it could have been. If only we could have come together, if only we'd been able to make some compromise. And I think that the story is a parable or metaphor for Australia in that we still tend to copy what is done overseas, instead of getting on and doing our own thing.

Perhaps also it was your first of the works, in a way, about reconciliation.

I hadn't thought of that. But certainly, well, it was the first work of mine that openly dealt with Aboriginal musical material. And it was after that work that I had letters from Aboriginal leaders.

What year was that written?

Nineteen seventy - oh, six or seven - I've forgotten, in the later '70s. Terrible isn't it, when you write so much you forget the dates.

Well, maybe very good. You anticipated in your answer to the last question something I was going to ask you. You are claimed in Tasmania as a Tasmanian composer. Does that phrase have any meaning to you? Does it have any reality? I mean, are you a Tasmanian composer?

That's very interesting, because in the string quartet that I mentioned, in which I used the Quamby story, I decided that I would try to write a work, try to write the string quartet that I would have written in Tasmania as a Tasmanian before I was really exposed to Asian music and Aboriginal music. And I tried to go back to that time and write the quartet I really would like to have written. In other words, a Tasmanian string quartet. And so I think I did write a truly Tasmania string quartet. At least, my Tasmania. Tasmania as I see it.

Do you think of yourself as a Tasmanian?

Yes and no. Basically I think of myself as an Australian, but very proud of being born in Tasmania.

Can we now just turn back and start sort of talking about some of the elements in your life that have been influential in making you who you are and therefore helping to shape the music that you've made. It's very clear that your mother was an immense influence on you.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 8