Australian Biography - Peter Sculthorpe

Shot Vision Audio In Point
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Fade up from black
Hands playing piano

Music

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Peter playing piano

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Hands playing piano

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Peter playing piano and annotating score

Peter v/o: I'm the kind of person, or kind of composer who wants to write a perfect work of art.

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Peter

Peter sync: And I think that the history of the human race is probably -- can be told more through the story of people wanting to create the perfect work of art, can be told more through that than maybe through our wars and pestilences.

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Hands playing piano. Tilt up to Peter annotating score

Music

Peter v/o: I may never do it, but it's a wonderful

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Peter at piano

Freeze-frame at end of dialogue
Super:
Peter Sculthorpe
Born Tasmania, 1929
Aboriginal Activist

Dissolve to:

way to keep going.

Music

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Photo. Peter as child

Peter v/o: I went to my first music lesson. And I just simply assumed that I was going to

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Photo. Peter on tricycle as child

a music lesson to learn to write music. It hadn't occurred to me that I was going to learn to play the piano. So I rushed home,

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Peter

Peter sync: wrote music all the week, and got all excitedly back to my teacher a week later to show her all the music I'd written. And she was so furious with me, she hit me with the cane and the feather duster across the knuckles. And told me that I was there to learn to play the piano.

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Photo. Peter as child

Peter v/o: So I just kept on writing music, but under the bedclothes with a torch.

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Photo. Sculthorpe's family house

And about a year later my parents discovered me,

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Peter

Peter sync: and they said, you know, that's all right if you want to write music, but don't do it at night, you know, in bed. Do it any time, the daytime.

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Photo. Peter's parents

Robin v/o: Did your parents encourage your creativity in other ways?

Peter v/o: Actually what I treasure more than anything

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Photo. Peter with his mother and brother

is the fact that my mother encouraged my love for literature,

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Peter's mother. Pan right to Peter in school uniform

for reading and so by the time I was in my early teens I'd read all the great books.

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Photo. Peter's parents

I once heard my father say to my mother

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Peter

Peter sync: "What's he doing inside writing music, you know, all the time. Why isn't he outside playing football with the other boys?" And I remember my mother said "Well Joss" she said," you know, there are thousands of boys out there playing football, there's only one of them inside writing music." Which was a pretty good answer. But I wanted to please my father

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Photo. Peter with his father

Peter v/o: and therefore really at quite an early age I decided

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Photo. Peter standing in swimming trunks by boot of car

that I would take up sports because he

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Photo. Peter and his brother in swimming trunks

loved sport, but sports that depended only upon me. Well our school preached

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Photo. Peter's school sports photo

team work, I was against that.

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Photo. Detail of previous. Peter in school sports photo

Robin v/o: Why?

Peter v/o: Because I could swim in my own time,

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Photo. Peter as teenager in swimming trunks

I could train in my own time, but at quite an early age

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Peter

Peter sync: I'd decided that I wanted to be a composer, although that wasn't any good because everyone said that all the composers were dead. Or a writer or a painter, and therefore I wanted to get on with these, I needed time for these pursuits, in fact.

Robin v/o: Yours was a very close family.

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Photo. Tile up. Peter as young man, and his mother

How did your parents feel about it when you decided to go to Melbourne to do your degree in music?

Peter v/o: My father

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Photo. Sculthorpe family

desperately wanted me to stay home. I mean, you know, we had a great relationship.

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Photo. Peter as toddler sitting on running board of car

I loved cars. And he promised me that if I stayed home I could have any sports car that I wanted.

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Photo. Peter as child sitting on car

I don't know how he would have paid for it but he would have beggared himself I think. And I just looked at him, and I said,

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Peter

Peter sync: "Dad, look I love cars but a car is only a car and music is my life." And somehow that seemed to convince him.

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Photo. Peter playing piano

Peter v/o: He was a very practical man. And from that time he was right behind me really.

Robin v/o: After you

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Photo. Peter with his parents as his university graduation

graduated were you able in the Australia of that time to pursue a career as a composer, I mean

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Peter

what was your next move?

Peter sync: Well, the next step is all right, a job. So I ended up in Tasmania teaching

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Photo. Peter's brother

Peter v/o: and then my brother had always dreamed of owning a sports shop.

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Photo. 'Sport's Hut' sport shop

And I spent a good four years in partnership with my

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Photo. Peter in sports' shop

brother. I was writing music for the Launceston Players. You know, that is theatrical productions,

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Photo. Peter with cigarette

but writing less and less, and I remember on the night of my 25th birthday,

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Peter

Peter sync: I sat on my parents' bed and burst into tears and I said "Do you realise I am a quarter of a century old and I've achieved nothing."

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Photo. Peter

Peter v/o: And we then decided that I

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Photo. Peter playing piano

would work just part-time in the business.

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Peter's musical score for 'Pianoforte Sonatina'

And the first piece that I wrote after that time I entered

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Peter's signature on front of score

for an ABC competition

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Sketch of Aboriginal man on front page of score

for a piano sonatina and it was rejected

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Peter

Peter sync: with a rude note saying they couldn't take the work seriously. And I was so annoyed I sent it off to the International Society for Contemporary Music

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Peter's musical score. Pages of score turned

Peter v/o: and they decided to include it in their festival, and to be accepted in Europe made us feel that we were on the right track.

Robin v/o: And in 1958

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Photo. Peter

you won a scholarship that allowed you to study wherever you wanted to.

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Photo. Peter and family boarding plane

How did you decide where to go?

Peter v/o: Well it wasn't

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Photo. Peter's parents

very hard because my father

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Photo. Detail of previous. Peter's father

who had been such a wonderful support to me, I mean emotionally as well as financially,

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Peter

Peter sync: but didn't understand a thing about what I was on about, or my music. And I thought to myself if I could get an Oxford doctorate that's something he really would understand.

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Photo. Peter's parents farewelling ship

Peter v/o: The only time I ever saw my father cry was on the wharf of Melbourne as the ship

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Photo. Detail of previous. Peter's father

drew out and the streamers broke, you know.

Robin v/o: Did you learn a lot from your

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Peter

time in Oxford?

Peter sync: Well yes, I bought every possible score and book that I could afford and soaked it up and I think eventually what I learned was that everything must come from within me, and must be concerned with what I am concerned with.

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Photo. Peter and friend at English pub

Peter v/o: It made me realise, simply realise how Australian I am, that I think in a different way from these people in England.

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Peter

Peter sync: The composer Malcolm Williamson once said I mean "How can you go back to Australia? There is nothing there you know for a composer." And I said well "I can only live in a place where I'm happy,"

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Photo. Malcolm Williamson

Peter v/o: and he said "Well I can only live in a place where I'm successful." But, I mean,

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Photo. College at Oxford

I'm Australian, there wasn't a choice really.

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Photo. Peter in room reading and smoking pipe

Robin v/o: And in fact you had to return to Australia before you'd finished at Oxford because your father became very ill, didn't he?

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Peter

Peter sync: Oh, I will never forget seeing my mother's face at the airport and my brother and his wife. My father didn't have long to live. We were able to get him home from hospital for a short time while I was there. In those days you know, it's so ridiculous, his doctor said that he hadn't told Dad that he had cancer and we must never mention it, never mention a word, so we knew and I assume my father knew but we weren't able to talk about it, just seems awful not to be able to have honesty.

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Photo. Peter's parents

Peter v/o: Anyway, so Dad died -- but I then wrote a piece

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Irkanda IV score

in his memory. And it became Irkanda IV,

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Cover of Irkanda IV score with 'Written upon the death of my father'

and it was the first work that I'd ever written that had

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Peter

Peter sync: sustained applause and rapturous reviews from critics. It was like the landmark work in my life.

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Newspaper headline: 'This music evokes Australia's loneliness.'

Peter v/o: And it's so ironic that it had to be

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Newspaper Headline: 'Sculthorpe work glowed.'

written upon the death of father who never heard it.

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Photo. Peter as baby being held by his father

Music

Robin v/o: You say that it's ironic that it had to be that way. Do you think there's a connection

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Peter

between deeply felt emotion and really successful composition?

Peter sync: Absolutely, I think in fact that's, that's how it came about because for the first time in my life I experienced real, well, not just suffering, but I mean a link in the family was broken, and for me it was devastating and so out of that -- I'm not saying that one should suffer to write music -- but out of the depth of feeling that I had, if I hadn't written a good piece I probably should have given up I suppose.

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Photo. Peter as a boy with is father

Music

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Photo. Peter's father. Pan right to his mother

Music

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Photo. Peter seated writing on score

Robin v/o: What was happening to your career generally -- had your return done it any harm?

Peter v/o: It all seemed to be fairly hopeful when I got back.

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Peter

Peter sync: And in fact when I flew back from England I stopped off in Sydney and I went to the ABC and I saw the then Director of Music and asked him, you know, why not, would he perform my music and he was quite aghast. But, he, I mean he refused. But he says "You're Australian why should we perform your music" I then went to the University of Sydney and met Donald Peart who was then Professor of Music and I found him to be a very civilised man and I thought to myself I actually would like to work for him one day and it did come about eventually.

Robin v/o: Yes, he invited you to create a new school of composition at Sydney University,

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Photo. Peter standing writing score

didn't he? What did you think were the essential ingredients you had to set up to encourage budding composers?

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Archival. Musicians in rehearsal room

Peter v/o: What I tried to do was say well look, you can learn techniques from books, you can write in any style you like, and I'll criticise the music, but what you've got to do is to find out who you are, what you're

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Archival. Peter

on about as a human being, you've got to open your self up to all kinds of influences, ideas

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Peter

Peter sync: and know what is going on around you. So basically it was trying to help human beings to flower, to be who they really were, because that is what I'd also wanted but no one ever did it for me.

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Photo. Peter with book 'Thai musical instruments.'

Robin v/o: How did your interest in Asian music come about?

Peter v/o: When I was a student in Melbourne I heard

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Photo. Peter playing percussion instrument

an arrangement of Japanese court music. It was a recording by Stakovsky with the

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Photo. Peter holding musical instrument

Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and that made me want to learn about Asian musics. And in Japanese court music

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Peter

Peter sync: often the wind instruments play a little bit behind and a little bit ahead of each other, so that you get this lovely, sometimes almost like forming a halo around a melody. And I adapted that idea, and I often use it, I call it Fore Paso, in Italian, which means out of step. You have one instrument playing the main melody and the other instruments playing about it and it's rather a nice idea.

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Photo. Peter playing Asian musical instrument

Robin v/o: In these various ways you were establishing yourself as a distinctive Australian composer -- was there a particular

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Photo. Peter with Sir Bernhard Heinz at performance

work that really put you on the international map ?

Peter v/o: I was commissioned by Sir Bernhard Heinz through the ABC to write a work for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

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Photo. Peter inorchestra pit during performance of 'Sun Music'

for the Commonwealth Festival in London. And

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Peter

Peter sync: I felt that it was time to move on a little bit. I was having a lot of trouble with the pieces, I said to Sir Bernhard, what do I do, you know, I don't know. And he said why don't you write a piece without rhythm, melody or harmony. It's not quite possible, but I set out to do that and it became Sun Music I,

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Photo. Peter holding score of SUN MUSIC I

Peter v/o: and it was an enormous success and it suddenly seemed to present that a view of Australia to the outside world.

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Archival. Shimmering landscape

Music

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Archival. Ants crawling in desert

Robin v/o: Why did you call it

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Archival. Sun beating down on desert

Sun Music?

Peter v/o: Well, I was seeking a title that might have Australian resonances because here

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Archival. Muddy water

the sun is not only a giver of life but

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Archival. Sun glinting on large body of water

Dissolve to:

it is a destroyer and I wanted

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Archival. Wind blowing across sand dunes [2 shots]

to put all those opposites into the piece. I usually try to find a title

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Peter

Peter sync: before I begin a piece because you know a composer is a chooser, and getting from one bar to the next is hard enough,

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Photo. Peter writing at table by lamp

Peter v/o: but if you can find a way to limit the choices, then you are going to be able to get there more easily. Because if one were totally free then one is,

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Peter

Peter sync: just on the ground, you can never fly, but if you're -- in music, if you're limited almost chained down, then you can fly, because all these limitations help you to fly up.

Robin v/o: Now in relation to your personal life,

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Photo. Painting on wall. Tilt down to Peter with Anne Boyd

you've never married -- have you ever wanted to?

Peter v/o: Yes I did feel strongly about somebody in the late '60s and then in the early '70s I did want to marry her.

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Peter

Peter sync: 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. But I still don't know if it was partly pride,

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Photo. Peter at desk with Anne Boyd leaning beside him

Peter v/o: but I was devastated. And many years later because we're still very good friends,

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Peter

Peter sync: 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,

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Photo. Peter with Anne Boyd at her graduation

Peter v/o: I'm sure.

Robin v/o: After the break up of the most significant relationship it sounds like

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Peter

in your life...

Peter sync: Yes. Well, absolutely.

Robin v/o: ...how did, what were you writing?

Peter sync: I was actually finishing Rites of Passage, but at that stage it was sheer hard work. I mean I wasn't depending on inspiration or on any kind of suffering to dictate what I was doing. That's a very interesting question actually because I, it hadn't occurred to me that my next piece was a work called The Song of Tailitnama.

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Cover of score: 'The Song of Tailitnama'

Peter v/o: And suddenly in that work, a whole new me

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Peter

Peter sync: 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 residues 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 would like to be writing in my very old age.

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Archival. Aerial over desert

Dissolve to:

Music

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River gorge

Dissolve to:

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Archival. Aboriginal rock paintings

Robin v/o: This work was inspired by Aboriginal music. Did this start a phase of Aboriginal

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Archival. Detail of rock painting

interest for you?

Peter v/o: Yes, of --

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Archival. Aboriginal rock painting

I mean earlier I had named pieces, used Aboriginal words,

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Peter

Peter sync: 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 I mean 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, land rights in particular, or the need for them, and so I wanted my music to be giving some kind of message about that.

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Archival. Orchestral performance of Peter's work [7 shots]

Music

Robin v/o: In 1988 you wrote Kakadu and that seemed to be another of those turning points for you. What flowed out of Kakadu?

Peter v/o: I think with Kakadu I left the interior of Australia and moved to the top end

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Peter

Peter sync: and that set in motion a series of works that are still to a point continuing 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.

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Archival. Flock of birds taking off from water

Dissolve to:

Music

Robin v/o: Landscape has obviously been a very important source of inspiration for you. Could you describe how you use it in your music?

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Cover of 'Irkanda I' score

Peter v/o: When I wrote Irkanda I for solo violin, I was living in Canberra.

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Peter

Peter sync: And I suddenly 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 hmm 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.

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Irkanda musical score

Peter v/o: But it's a very faithful reproduction of the landscape.

Robin v/o: You've always used unusual sounds in your music. How have audiences reacted to it?

Peter v/o: My opera,

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Photo. Performance of 'Rites of Passage.'

Rites of Passage, I had to bow after every performance,

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Photo. Performance of 'Rites of Passage'

and I remember coming out one night and

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Peter

Peter sync: bowing and a whole of 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, were showing concern.

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Newspaper Headline: 'Mixed reception for Rites of Passage.'

Peter v/o: And the ones that hated it, hated it,

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Newspaper Headline: 'Rites of stormy passage'

Peter v/o: there's nothing wrong with strong feeling. And also with

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Newspaper Headline: 'Boring Rites guilty of all that is wrong.'

Rites of Passage, a lot of people walked out. And

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Peter

Peter sync: members of the audience who were enjoying it were yelling at the people who walked out.

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Newspaper Headline: 'The Rites of Sculthorpe were wrong.'

Peter v/o: I found that very exciting.

Robin v/o: It seems to me

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Newspaper Headline: 'New opera was great success.'

that your music particularly in the last decade has been on the whole

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Peter

fairly hopeful, cheerful, happy work. Do you see yourself as an optimistic composer?

Peter sync: Well

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Photo. Peter with Henryk Gorecki

Peter v/o: Henryk Gorecki, a Polish composer and I were guests at a festival and

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Peter

Peter sync: 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 is worse." And I'd say, well as far as I'm concerned after good there's is even better. And he would say well "It's all right for you coming from that big shining white island, Australia."

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Peter driving in his sports car

Peter v/o: I suppose you know, 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,

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WS Peter pulls into driveway

my little heart just goes pitter pat. I love returning.

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Peter pulls up in front of house

I think that there's no doubt that we have the best quality of life in the world. And therefore I think

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Peter

Peter sync: 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,

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Peter playing piano at home

Peter v/o: just to be optimistic.

Robin v/o: You've said that you still aspire to write the perfect work of art. What direction will that goal take you in next do you think?

Peter v/o: Well, my I suppose a composer, a composer like Palestrina,

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Peter writing music at piano

the Spaniard Vittoria, they're my favourite composers.

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Peter

Fade to black

Peter sync: But I find in that kind of music an incredible purity -- it's as though the music has been through passion and out the other side. There's a certain classical quality. It's not that it doesn't have emotion but it is 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, I mean that's what's so good about being a composer, there's always just something ahead of one to keep one going. You never retire.

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Fade up from black. Credit sequence over photos of Peter as a child.

Credits roll
Interviewer
ROBIN HUGHES

Editor
KIM MOODIE

Director of Photography
PAUL REE

Sound Recordist
TIM PARRATT

Music

00:27:14
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Additional stills cinematography
JOHN WHITTERON

Production Manager
JEANNINE BAKER

Sound Post Production
MICHAEL GISSING
DIGITAL CITY STUDIOS

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ROEN DAVIS
VISUALEYES

Production Supervisor
IAN ADKINS

00:27:29
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Production Accountant
JANETTE GOULD

Research
JEANNINE BAKER
BRIGID PHELAN

Transcripts
KERRIE MCGOVAN

Archival Sources
ABC LIBRARY SALES
CANBERRA TIMES
FILM AUSTRALIA
ELIZABETH GILLIAM
THE LAUNCESTON EXAMINER
THE MERCURY
LANCE NELSON
NEWS LIMITED
PETER SCULTHORPE

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Produced and Directed by
ROBIN HUGHES

Executive Producer
MEGAN McMURCHY

Made in association with SBS TV

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