Australian Biography

Peter Sculthorpe - full interview transcript

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When you sit down to write music, what happens in the actual process? I suppose to begin with, what kind of thing gives you the impetus to do it?

Oh, well, that's the bad stage, or the difficult stage, not bad stage. I try to find as many restraints, or limitations, or I try to find ways to cut down the choices. You know, even if I know the player that I'm writing for that's a great help, because then I can do it with some love. Even knowing an instrument helps. But I walk around a lot, I think a lot, I read a lot. In fact, I have to find out what I'm writing about. Something has to be at the back of my mind, I mean something has to inform the piece. Now in the history of music, most of the music of the human race has been about something. But it's only really in the late 17th century and 19th century that some music became abstract in some symphonic works. Well I don't wish to write abstract music. My music has to be about something, it's got to be about something that gets me going. Because I don't believe that music is about music. I think music is about bigger things actually. You know, it's about life itself. So once I have my idea - now I can actually tell you precisely. I've talked about my String Quartet No. 12, which I wrote recently. So I had the idea of Quamby, and soldiers driving the Aborigines to the edge of the bluff. Then I work from the outside in, not from the inside out. So I write down As and Bs and Cs on paper - not a note of music often, and I'm planning this movement of music, the structure of it. Often in my life I've said to myself, did it really have to be, because often in writing music, my music is about something that it really didn't have to be. I've found that I was humming to myself a motif from the last movement of Beethoven's last String Quartet. And the motif is muß es zein - 'must it be'. And I suddenly thought, but this is fantastic. I will use this, slightly transformed. 'Must it be', did it really have to be at Quamby. And so you can see that now the materials are beginning to gather, come together, because having decided to use 'must it be', I'm going to have to resolve it or try to resolve it, and at the end of the movement it is sort of resolved. It's sort of saying did it have to be? But it's saying but it still happened. And so you can see I now have all my little boxes, As and Bs on paper, and I'm able to put into each box what is going to happen in the music. So slowly it comes together from the outside. Does that help?

So before you actually write the musical notes, and actually sit down to compose that way, you basically sketch or draw a kind of vision of the whole thing.

That's right.

Does that method go back right to the beginning for you? Have you always liked to work that way?

Always. And therefore it means one doesn't necessarily have to begin at the beginning of the piece. I can begin at any one of the little parcels or boxes in the piece, and what is in one box is going to relate to another box. And so on.

Does landscape ever enter into the shape of what you're sketching at the beginning?

Oh, well, say in case of this movement, the String Quartet, basically it's the contours of Quamby Bluff itself. The music almost follows the contours of the bluff. So yes, landscape is very important. I'd just like to take time off to tell a funny story. With the Beethoven Quartet, it's said that Beethoven wrote in the bass clef 'must it be?', because his washerwoman was demanding payment for his laundry, and he said, 'must it be?' And then it's answered in the treble clef, 'es muß sein, es muß sein', and it's his washerwoman saying 'it must be, it must be.' So in my quartet I didn't answer it, I didn't say it had to be, I'm saying it happened. It didn't have to be. My only worry of course is that that was in the last movement of Beethoven's last string quartet, so I think I'd better start another string quartet fairly quickly. But you can see, even thinking about Beethoven's washerwoman and her answer, all this is information that somehow gets put into motion.

It's fuel.

It's fuel for the piece, yes.

This business of sketching out the thing to begin with, and the fact that landscape plays a part, was that ever influential in the evolution of your particular style of music? I'm thinking here of going right back to Irkanda IV, where you were sketching out the music and you discovered out of that a sort of flatter way of writing music, out of the Australian landscape. And so that's really - I thought that was an interesting story. So I'll ask you that question again, because I was after that kind of relationship between your finding that way to have a line that continues on a sort of long level, that you felt was a reflection of the landscape. So I'll ask a question that will lead you and give you an opportunity to answer that. When you actually come to shape your music and you do that sort of initial sketch, are there examples of where that has actually altered the way you might have written the music had you not sketched out the landscape, as it were?

I was just a bit unclear about that.

I thought that you'd used the hills around Canberra. That was what that bait was meant to be.

Yes, well that's what I was coming to, and then I thought, oh have I got ... can I just go into that?


Well, yes, you know Irkanda IV is the fourth in the series of pieces called Irkanda. And when I wrote Irkanda I for solo violin, I was living in Canberra, working at the Playhouse there. And I certainly thought that I would trace the 360 degree graph of the landscape around me, and then write music that followed the contour of the landscape. And so that is exactly what happened. In the -- this is on the opening page -- there are also some little grace notes that go 'hm', that I wouldn't normally write, but I had to do those because they were sort of trees, that were just poking up momentarily and interrupting the flow. So I had to have these little grace notes to interrupt the flow. But it's a very faithful reproduction of the landscape. That's the first time that I did it, and I think it's significant that it's also the first time that I lived on mainland Australian outside Melbourne, and that I was more in touch with the landscape. I think probably from that time I began to have the idea that my music should have a certain flatness to it. Because when you think of ... in a way Europe is pulled together, pulled up into the Alps, and it's not surprising therefore that the harmony should keep changing, that the shapes should keep changing. Because if you go for a walk anywhere in Europe, the view changes continuously. I mean you can even walk some parts and walk for half a day and cross a border, and the customs and the ways, beliefs, everything of the people, apart from what you see, are totally different. But in Australia you can go for a walk for half a day in most of it and what you see in the evening is much the same as what you saw in the morning. So therefore it seemed to me that I should be writing music that has less events. But when there is an event it can be quite dramatic, like a rocky outcrop or cries of birds, or even suddenly the sun's light catching on pebbles and insects and so on. So I didn't set out to paint pictures of this, but I used the idea of flatness sometimes broken up with other objects that one sees.

Shapes are important to you. And they've mostly come from the landscape. What about the built environment? What about architecture? Does that affect you?

Well, I suppose because I'm Tasmanian, in the first place, I would have to love architecture because I mean Tasmania's just full of really wonderful Georgian and Regency houses and churches. I grew to love them dearly as a boy. It's always fascinated me how many houses have their southern facades resplendent with windows and often in the northern facade there's not one window. And it took builders and architects several generations to realise that in the southern hemisphere the sun shines from the north, not the south. So therefore, many of the northern sides of these houses that don't have windows are very ... the houses are quite damp, and because they're National Trust they can't even be changed. That quite early on made me think I would like to write music that faces north, to the sun, not music that faces south as these English builders did in the early days. As a composer of course, one is naturally interested in buildings, because we think of places where music sounds. I don't think I've written a piece about a building. I might have, I've written a lot of music. But some composers ... like Stravinsky planned one of his great later works on the domes of St. Mark's in Venice and the structure is based on those domes. And of course, Puccini, in Tosca, bases the three acts upon three great landmark buildings in Rome. But I must say that architecture is so important to me that I think that the large Georgian house and the string quartet are two of the great achievements of western civilisation.

You've written a lot of string quartets.

Well, because I love the medium so much.

What is it about it that you love?

It's almost perfection, really. I mean it's the perfect medium to write for in the way that it's graded. You know, it's just to do with the perfect medium. It's the same as a great Georgian house. If you look at the windows, they're larger on the ground floor and then a little bit smaller as one goes up, and a little bit smaller. A similar grading and a similar perfection really. So therefore - others might disagree with me, but as long as I think it's a perfect combination, then for me it's a wonderful combination to write for. And to try to write perfect music. And fall on my face most of the time, but at least try to write for it.

Am I right in thinking that as you've got older you've been writing for, you've chosen more of the lower instruments, that you've loved to write for the cello and for the ...

Yes, but when I was a student, I wanted to play in an orchestra. [INTERRUPTION]

Am I right in thinking that you, as you've got older, have chosen to write more for instruments with a lower voice, deeper instruments?

It is possible, but on the other hand, I've always been attracted to low instruments. I think it's interesting that composers, historically, have tended to give the voice of God to a bass voice, oddly enough not a high voice. And therefore that may be one reason one is wanting to write like Bach, to the greater glory of God. But when I was a student, I wanted to play in an orchestra, and of course the two instruments that there's usually a shortage of - the viola and the double bass. And when I thought about it, I thought well if my fingers are half an inch out on the viola that's a long way out. But if they're half an inch out on the double bass, you can be almost in tune. So I thought, well it's not going to be so hard to learn. And it was when I was playing the double bass in the orchestras and suddenly the harmony would change and I would feel that I'm supporting this whole orchestra with this wonderful change of harmony, I found it really thrilling. And from that time almost all my music has been driven from the bass. So if you look at the bass line of any of my music, then you'll be able to find the real direction of the music. So the bass line has been very important to me for a long time. But if you look, yes I don't write works for solo flute, for instance. But we're just doing a CD of all my works for solo cello. [INTERRUPTION]

And so what solo instruments do you really like to write for?

Well, it's interesting that we're just doing a CD of all my solo works for cello. I've written hardly any works for solo flute, for instance, a high instrument. I've written more works for viola than I have for violin. So I think that tells the story. I'd like to write a piece for solo trombone. I keep meaning to do that, and solo bass, double bass. But not necessarily solo clarinet or oboe. So it's fairly clear, I think that it's the lower voices that I prefer.

Why do think that is? Do you think it just goes back to your liking that supporting line or have you got a theory?

Maybe I'm a frustrated cellist, along with being a frustrated architect, poet. I would love to have played the cello. So it might be as simple as that.

Could I ask you, as somebody who fairly early on asserted your own opinion and your own view of what you should do and should be doing, how far are you affected by critics? Because over the years ... [INTERRUPTION - Peter: could we just do that again? Sorry to waste tape because I've just thought of something I'd like to add to my last question]

In recent years, I've been using the Aboriginal idea of a tumbling strain. That is, a melody will begin quite high and slowly work its way down and then when it gets to the earth, to the bottom of the earth, then it stays there. And then it goes up again and slowly comes down. It's called a tumbling strain. And in almost every work of mine, recently, there's a tumbling strain. Not an Aboriginal one, but one of my own invention. And it may be this idea of being drawn down to the earth that is why I like low instruments, and not the ones that begin at the top of the melody up there. It's just a thought.

You've had an interesting relationship with critics over the years. That some of them have taken you up and others have taken you up and put you down and so on. Could you tell me about how you feel about that, and give some examples of the way in which criticism has either been something that you had to, as it were, work through and get over, or been something that's actually helped you.

Over the years I've had some music critics who are and have been very good friends. But that's a little bit different from music critics in general. Because with any of my friends I welcome criticism of my work. In fact I play it to friends asking for criticism. That's one thing. I think that from the very beginning, it didn't worry me too much. Perhaps there was a time early on when my pride suffered a little, thinking more, you know, oh, what are other people thinking when they read this. But I soon passed through that. Tass Drysdale always used to refer to scar tissue, you know, if you've been wounded enough in one place you just can't be wounded there any more. Composers are very different. I mean Benjamin Britten had to be -- well his friends had to build barriers to stop him ever reading reviews, because he couldn't write a note of music for weeks if he read a bad review. I must confess that I tend to thrive on the bad reviews, because they're the ones you can dine out on. A friend of mine, a wonderful composer, I won't mention his name actually, but he has the review that I would most like to have. And that is when his piano concerto was played in London, critics said, 'This is the kind of music that gives A major a bad name.' I think that's wonderful. The best I can do, with my piano concerto, is pretty great, but 'This music would be better played in a cocktail bar late at night, preferably after all the people had left.' It's not bad. So I think the only time that a bad review worries me is if I have a few doubts about the piece. If I really believe in the piece, and feel confident in it, then nothing will shake me. And I'm not concerned about pride or losing face with people reading something bad about me in a newspaper.

Forgetting professional critics, what about the audience? I mean some of your pieces have been played and got very strong audience reaction, haven't they? Could you tell me about that?

Now, that, I think that today, if I had a piece played and applause was very lukewarm, then I think I'd have to take stock of what I'm doing. Because I do write music for people, I write music to be heard. And if it's received warmly I'm very excited. That is important to me. [INTERRUPTION]

You've had some occasions, haven't you, where the audience has got very excited and even argued with each other about that. Could you describe that and how you feel about that reaction?

Well, with my opera, Rites of Passage, I had to bow after every performance, and I remember coming out one night and bowing and a whole row of people down in the front stalls just booed me. It was incredible. And then suddenly, the row of people behind them got up and leapt up and thumped them. The whole row. I was thrilled, because both rows were showing passion, showing concern. And the ones that hated it, they hated it, there's nothing wrong with strong feeling. And also with Rites of Passage, a lot of people walked out. And members of the audience who were enjoying it were yelling at the people who'd walked out. I found that very exciting. I think, yes, creating some kind of excitement or feeling, that's the main thing really.

There's this theme through your life of self-sufficiency, of a willingness to accept your own judgements, a belief in your own ideas, and indeed a capacity to live alone and function alone without a partner. Does this mean that you don't need people?

Ah, I do find life a bit difficult, because I am actually a very gregarious person. I mean I love people, I love the company of people. I enjoy my own company working at home, and I do find it difficult at times knowing that I have to stay home and finish a piece for a deadline, when all my friends are having a party somewhere. But I make up when I can. I mean my friends, I couldn't function without my friends. And some friends, like Ross Edwards, the composer, I like to play my music to him, and he plays his to me, for criticism actually. Because you know, I think a composer needs ... sometimes we get too close to a piece and we need a more objective view.

When you first started writing, you were somewhat of a pioneer as an Australian composer, as you've explained to us, that it was a rather novel concept for people to really take on board at that time.

Because they were all dead.

But now, as you went along, there were other significant Australian composers that came along. What effect has their work had on you? What do you think of other composers in Australia, and do they affect the way you write?

I would say that they don't affect me at all. But there are some composers - I mean I mentioned Ross, well he is one of my favourite composers of all composers. And therefore that makes my friendship with somebody like him even more important to me. I don't think there's a ... well, yes, recently I was writing a piece and there was this chord in it, and I thought, oh dear, that sounds like somebody else. Then I suddenly realised it was a Ross chord. And I thought, oh good, I'll keep it there, because it's the kind of chord Ross uses. So I suppose there is a bit of flowing into each other. But it's certainly not conscious.

But a composer like Richard Meale, who's sort of more or less a contemporary. His work is very different from yours, isn't it? How would you characterise the difference?

Well I suppose Richard was always an image breaker. And his early works, which were very European influenced, which mine ... I was writing my Australian works when he was writing very European-influenced work. They were what he wanted to do. But they tended to shock people a little, because they were more than astringent and dissonant and spiky. I mean they're wonderful works actually, those works. Today, he's gone to the other extreme. It's almost as though he still wants to shock. And the music is so consonant and so harmonious it does in fact shock people because it's the other extreme. So he's had two major periods in his music, whereas mine has been just a slow evolution. But I can say that, I mean Richard is certainly a composer that I admire tremendously. And I always defend him, even if I myself don't like a piece, because he clearly knows what he's doing. And believes in what he's doing. And I know that and so I believe in him.

As a 20th century composer, the whole area of popular music was something that, presumably, you had to come to terms with, develop an attitude to, a relationship with. What's been the history of your relationship with popular music?

Well, I've always enjoyed some popular music, not all popular music. And there was a time in around 1970, I suppose it was coming at the end of the psychedelic sixties, there was a time when I wanted to fuse so-called serious music with rock music. And I did write a piece Love 200, that worked fairly well I think. And it was the rock group Tully. And we had Ellis D. Fogg, and fog and lights and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And what was exciting about it was that a lot of the kids slept on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall all night the night before, to make sure they got a ticket to it. So that was, to me, that was very exciting. I didn't pursue that. I don't know why. Maybe it helped me to define what I was on about. It helped me to realise that I'm the kind of person that ...

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