Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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Looking back through your life at the way in which your life evolved and your music along side it, I wonder if you see key points of development that were there, that reflected what was happening in your life and what was preoccupying you and the work that you were doing at the time. Is there a connection?

Yes I think there is a very intimate connection. While every piece is related in some way to one's life, I think I could chart my life according to certain compositions to do with my emotional life, to do with trying harder, to do with social events. For instance the first work that made an impact, a little impact on others was my Piano Sonatina when it was performed in 1955 in Europe. And it's clear that it was probably a better piece, my best piece to that point, because I was trying harder. I'd left the family business, or I was working part-time trying to prove myself to my parents, to friends - well, to myself - because that was written at the time when I was 25 years old, a quarter of a century old and feeling I'd achieved nothing. So there had to be an incredible amount of something from within me going into the piece and therefore it was like a landmark for me. I mean the next one of course was Irkanda IV, written upon the death of my father and that was because it was an incredibly emotional time for me with this link in our family chain broken. And looking back if I hadn't written my best piece to that point, I probably should have given up, because these circumstances had to affect the music that I was writing. It's a little difficult to chart these pieces. I would say that the next piece would beSun Music I, and perhaps in the case of that work I was trying to prove myself to the outside world. I don't think there was anything especially emotional, not to do with any emotional involvement with anybody in the piece. I was in Sydney, I had my first real job, apart from being a barman in Oxford and the gun shop. I was probably trying to prove myself as a lecturer at the University and prove myself as a composer in the outside world, particularly in London. And, there must have been all kinds of things going on inside me, to help me produce that particular work.

It was a very daring work at the time, you were doing something that stepped out of the mould. Do you think that having the basis of a job and support and encouragement - I mean Sir Bernard Heinze was the one who suggested it - gave you that courage to really step right outside?

I think that's really interesting that you should say that, because inSun Music 1 not only was the concept daring at the time, but in it I wrote music that I couldn't even hear. I'm fairly conservative and cautious as a person, and to write music that I couldn't hear was very daring for me. So I think it must have been because of the safety of the job and finally having the kind of job that I'd dreamt of, I suddenly felt I can throw everything to the wind as I did in that work. I haven't often done it since. Usually I've known exactly how a piece is going to sound, but parts of that I really didn't have a clue.

And what would you see as the next landmark change of direction after that?

Well, I suppose in a waySun Music I was the real beginning of my career in the professional world, not just here, but outside Australia as a composer. And in a way there probably were a few key works but I would say that the next work really was The Song of Tailitnama and this was written after my engagement had been broken off. I'd been very much looking forward to getting married and it didn't work out. And so ... I mean it's very difficult looking back, but I think I must have been in a position where I had to take stock of my life, where I was going and what I was doing. And suddenly in that work a whole new me seemed to emerge, I mean, phoenix-like rising from the ashes. The work is more classical, it's cooler, more pure in a way, and most of my music has passion in it, or the residue of passion but there isn't even any residue of passion. It's been drained from the work and in many ways it's the kind of work that I'd like to be writing in my very old age. So, I think that the trauma of that period and the broken engagement simply would have to bring that work into being. So I should probably be grateful that the engagement was broken.

Did you continue in that vein for long after?

I think what happens is - I mean, we're talking about certain landmarks, pieces that are landmarks, but there are always - this overlapping, you know you leave certain things behind. I'd left theSun Musicperiod behind but in The Song of Tailitnama there are still sounds that I used in theSun Musicperiod so there was a certain overlapping. I think the overlap with The Song of Tailitnama was this, the beginning of the real interest in Australian Aboriginal music, because it is based ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did this start a phase of Aboriginal interest for you?

Yes, I mean earlier I had named pieces, used Aboriginal words, even myths, but never actually looked at the music. In fact I'm on record, in print as having said Aboriginal music is of no use to a composer. That was absolute ignorance on my part because it is so rich and The Song of Tailitnama did usher in that period. I think that that was also a time when we were becoming more aware of land rights, in particular, or the need for them, and so I wanted my music to be giving some kind of message about that. So therefore the '70s basically grew from that piece. There wasn't another piece that was as pure in a way. I mean I returned to my earlier passionate ways in music. In a way I haven't written a piece like The Song of Tailitnama since but I will. I think somebody else's commented that my music tends to be marked off by decades. I don't know if we get a bit worried about the next age, how old we're going to be by the time of the next decade, but it makes a kind of sense, I think, because the next important period or important landmark really was in 1979 and that was the year of my fiftieth birthday. And I wrote two pieces, The Cello Requiem and Mangrove for orchestra. I talked about safety earlier with Sun Music, being able to be a bit daring. I think these works grew from a different kind of safety. I'd been living in a smaller house, I moved to a bigger house where I could spread myself more, I'd had a grant from the Australia Council that actually helped enable me not to write music. In other words to read and take stock of my life and my music and where I was going. And I think The Cello Requiem and Mangrove come directly from a new comfort in a way in my life ...

Enrichment ...

Enrichment, yes, that I'd been actually able to stand still for a little bit. And, also they seemed to bring together my interest in Catholic plainchant, Japanese court music and Aboriginal music. Suddenly in those two works, there they are very clearly. And they certainly were, those two works were the springboard for the music of the next decade or almost a decade. During the '80s, having been enriched, I suddenly felt I was in a position to explore, to look here, and in a way experiment, find directions and go up blind alleys. In my Piano Concerto I actually write music about water and water is something that has appeared very, very rarely in my music. A little like Tass Drysdale in his paintings. I only know of one and it's a drawing in which water appears. And there are only a few pieces of mine that are about water. The Piano Concerto is important, I wouldn't call it a landmark work but it's important to me because in it are enshrined my three father figures after my father died. Bernard Heinze, Tass Drysdale and Donald Peart all became, in their different ways, father figures to me and very dear friends; and they had died a little before that. They are in the Piano Concerto in all kinds of ways actually. So the '80s constituted a kind of groping, not desperate, it was just a search. And I think I really found myself finally in 1988 with the orchestral work Kakadu. I don't know it may be again because of the Bicentenary - I wonder. It seems to me that that is the best work of the time and certainly it was a landmark in that it received lots of performances, still does actually, so that the brief of the man who commissioned it is so far going well. But it should find a place in the repertoire. I'm not talking about whether pieces get performed or not performed, I'm talking about pieces as they are important to me. I think with Kakadu I left the interior of Australia and moved to the Top End and that set in motion a series of works that still continue to now, and I call these works Kakadu Songlines. But then I've moved further since Kakadu. It's probably because of my love affair with the Northern Territory and with Torres Strait and I'm back in the water again, or music of the coast, the northern coast of Australia. I think what ushered that into my music is one day I went standing on top of Nourlangie rock in Kakadu National Park and looking out, and it was almost as though the wind was bringing to me music of the local Aborigines, the Gagadju; music from early white settlement, places like Port Essington; the music of nature, birds and wind; the thought of Torres sailing in earlier times, maybe a guitar slipping overboard from his ship and lying somewhere resonating in the sea; and even in my imagination the sound of the music of Indonesia, particularly Bali. It's almost as though all these fused in my mind and they really provided the material for the next decade which brings us to the present and I have no idea where I'm going from now. But I think those works are the key works. I wouldn't say ... no, I'm too close to my recent music to be able to say this is the work of the '90s, I wouldn't know really.

Where did the work Earth Cry fit into that evolution?

I think Earth Cry is very interesting in that it was in 1987 and I'd been commissioned to write an orchestral work for the ABC. My mother who was staying with me had an operation but didn't go well, and I had to nurse her for some time and I realised that I wouldn't be able to conceive and write a new orchestral piece. So I decided that I would arrange an earlier work. And of course I looked at The Song of Tailitnama because I regarded that as one of my best pieces and so I thought it would make a good orchestral piece. But what happened, in arranging it for orchestra, well I had to do more than arrange, it was rethinking a great deal of it. It suddenly became a passionate work and even an angry work, because I was thinking about Australia. I was wanting to write a joyful piece about Australia but then when I thought about it I thought well, it's a great country but we've got a long way to go before I can write that joyful piece. And because I felt a lot of our carry on about our national identity was false and bogus any way. So that's what happened in Earth Cry.

And what did you feel you were expressing in Earth Cry? Can you put it into words?

Well yes, what I'm really saying in Earth Cry is that Australia is such a wonderful place but we really do seem to be getting a lot of things wrong. And if only we can listen to the cry of the Aborigines, attune ourselves to the earth as they have done for so many thousands of years, if we could do that, maybe we could solve some of the problems and get a few things right.

It is interesting in your music and in that account of it, that it is very much place, landscape that has been your inspiration. Why do you think that is?

It might be simply because I grew up in the country, in Tasmania and landscape, the country, became very important to me early in my life. I used to love being with my father when I was a boy in the bush and to have him explaining everything, like when he'd say, 'See that duck flying alone, well the duck has lost his or her mate and will fly alone for ever'. And, how could I not be touched by [that] or the story of Quamby Bluff and soldiers chasing Aborigines to the edge of the bluff. So I think we spent a great deal of time, in fact every weekend we'd go on a fishing trip or something. I developed an early love of the landscape.

It seems to me that your most recent works, the works that you have been writing in the '90s, have been fairly hopeful and cheerful works, or certainly attempting to be hopeful and cheerful work. Could you talk about that, your optimism?

Well, I suppose I always say one of the good things about leaving Australia is coming back, and when I fly into Sydney and look out of the plane window and see the Harbour Bridge, my little heart just goes pitter pat. I love returning. I think that there's no doubt that we have the best quality of life in the world. It seems to me from all my travelling that this is the best place to live in the whole world. I suppose I'm biased. No I think it's true. And therefore I think it's probably the last place in the world where a composer can honestly write joyous music. And I feel that it's my responsibility to uplift others. I don't want to reflect the doom that we have in our society or the negative matters, but just to be optimistic. I mean a few years ago ... Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer, and I were guests at a festival in Wales and every day Henryk would say to me, 'After bad there is worse.' And I'd say, 'Oh come on Henryk, after bad there's better.' 'No after bad there's worse.' And I'd say, 'Well as far as I'm concerned after good there's even better.' And he would say, 'Well it's all right for you coming from that big shining white island Australia, but for us here, after bad there is only worse.' And that somehow seemed to confirm what I'd felt and also confirmed me in the thought that, all right I understand he's a Polish composer, maybe after bad there is only worse, but for me after good there's only better. And I think we should all think like that in the world and if I can pass a little bit of this on, then I will have done something in my life.

What kind of music will be better for you? Where are you headed, Peter?

Well, I suppose a composer like Palestrina, the Spaniard Vittoria, they're my favourite composers, I like the late works of Stravinsky, oddly enough though most of the music is choral, to be sung in great buildings. But I find in that kind of music an incredible purity. It's as though the music has been through passion and out of the other side, there's a certain classical quality. It's not that it doesn't have emotion but it's the other side of emotion and that's what I'd like to be writing in another ten years. And you know, it is a wonderful thing to aim for, that's what's so good about being a composer, there's always something just ahead of one to keep one going. You never retire.

You've been interested in the whole canon of music, if you like, right across the world and through time, what music to you admire most?

I must tell you a story about Einstein. When there was talk of putting a time capsule into space, Einstein was asked what should we put in it that would best represent the human race. And he immediately replied, 'The music of Bach of course, or do you think that would be boasting.' And I like that. Certainly I would include Bach. I would include Japanese court music.

Japanese court music.

Yes, it's very old music that's played with a smallish orchestra. It's probably an acquired taste like olives or oysters, but once you've acquired the taste you sort of need to listen to it every now and again. It's somewhat piercing but it has a sublime beauty really.

Does it have this transcending quality that you are after?

Yes, it's out the other side of emotion as, of course, is most of the music of Bach, really, is the other side. And then I'd include of course Palestrina. Oh, I'd include the late works of Stravinsky, as far as music of this century is concerned. Perhaps not Balinese music. Oh, I'm talking about a time capsule - well why not? I would include some Javanese court gamelan music and oddly enough my favourite piece is called All Kinds of Flowers. This is a Javanese piece, and I was once talking about it, and saying that's the piece I'd put in a time capsule and I discovered that it has been put in a time capsule along with Frank Sinatra. I have no objections to that either, but ...

But the music to which you're drawn ...

Well these are the musics to which I'm drawn really, the ones I've put in the capsule ...

They have the characteristic of great simplicity.

Certainly. And I would say sublimity as well. I mean they're not just beautiful pieces, they're beyond beauty. Like a beautiful village church in England. I mean a village church can be very very beautiful but some cathedrals are beyond beauty, they are sublime and I think yes, it's music like a great gothic cathedral that I aspire to.

Of course this kind of beauty, this kind of transcendent beauty is something that immediately one associates with the religious yearnings and aspirations of the human heart. What has religion meant in your life?

Well I went to an Anglican school, I was brought up - went to Sunday school - brought up to be a good Christian. I strayed really from denominational Christianity. I think it's odd. My mother loved the poetry of Wordsworth, and she gave it to me to read at a very early age and I think that I must have picked up something of Wordsworth's pantheism, and the worship of nature, and so if anything my beliefs are concerned with the landscape with nature and I think that is why I find Shintoism so interesting to me. So I don't really have set beliefs and please don't ask me about what I think about the after life, I don't think about it, in fact, because I think this life is so good, it's enough for me. But my religious beliefs are simply bound up in some way with nature.

Despite various set backs and griefs in your life, you seem to have maintained a tremendously happy and positive sort of outlook. Do you see a reason for that? Do you think you were just blessed with that kind of nature or is there some other reason why you've got this, the man who wrote theSun Musichas such a sunny disposition?

Well, I'm Taurean to begin with, we're usually fairly placid. I think I was just born that way really. I've also been very lucky and I'll always come back to my childhood, to my parents, to the way I was brought up; I was really blessed. I couldn't not have become a happy person.

You don't subscribe to the creative wound theory, that you need to have had pain to be able to write?

No, not really, although in talking about the landmarks in my compositional output it's clear that pain of some kind is involved in most of the landmarks actually. No, I think that is a myth about suffering. I mean if you're a composer and you haven't got any money and you're suffering and you can't afford much to eat and you're living in a garret and you can't even afford to keep warm, so you don't have any friends, so to occupy your time, so what do you do? You probably write more music than if you were living in a large comfortable house with log fires. So I think that's how this myth of suffering and composition came about.

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