What are the origins of PEACE? How did it all start?
The origins of PEACE lie in the Rotary Club of Melbourne which I am a member of. Soon after I became a member I was invited to join the 0808 committee, which stands for the 8th August and it commemorates the Battle of Amiens in 1918, when John Monash led the Australian troops to a very great victory which sealed the end of the war. Kevin O’Flaherty founded the 0808 committee in John Monash’s honour, because he felt that his name and reputation ought to be better known in Australia, rather than just naming a freeway and a university after him. Kevin came up to me and said, I think I’d like to see an opera written about John Monash. I asked him what audience he wanted, and Kevin said any which would make his name better known. So I thought I was best to compose for choir. We looked around for a librettist unsuccessfully, so I said to Kevin look, you’ve written this poem 1918, it’s got really good material, put that together with some of Monash’s own writings and you’ve got a libretto. And that’s how it started in 2011.
How would you describe the cantata’s musical style? Were you influenced by any composers?
I’m always influenced by all the composers I’ve dealt with, from Monteverdi and Palestrina, through to world premieres that I’ve conducted. 1960s pop music from my teenage years too, and a bit of music theatre. But I consciously tried to say, what kind of music would Monash have played and enjoyed? He lived from 1865 to 1931, so the music that you’ll hear has resonances from music written about that time. At its most romantic it evokes Dvořák, Middle Europe (Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, where Monash’s parents came from), and at its most modern somebody has said it sounds like Richard Meale. A little bit of Janáček as well; I find Janáček’s writing is modern and yet it’s rooted in the nineteenth century. A bit of Percy Grainger too, who was around about the same time as John Monash. And then there’s also your sacred four-part church music.
What was it like collaborating with poet Kevin O’Flaherty?
Well Kevin and I are good buddies. He never set out to be the librettist, and in a way he was quite surprised because he doesn’t consider himself to be a professional poet. And despite my best urgings he’s not yet published his poem. He did agree to add footnotes, because his style is modelled off some of the more cryptic poets like Dorothy Parker, people who write poetry and miss out half the words so it’s almost a sort of telegraph language. He alludes to people, places and events that you wouldn’t know anything about unless you actually knew the background. And this has been one of the challenges of the work.
As we went on, especially after 2015, Kevin felt that the music sort of swamped the words. And I said Kevin, you know, this is always the case. That’s why country and western music have the simplest of chord patterns and the simplest of tunes, so that the words come through. So I said let’s cut down the number of words, and let’s repeat some of them. “Let there be peace, let there be peace,” and by the fifth time of “let there be peace” people will say oh, “let there be peace.” I think that helped a lot, and Kevin understood that. But there was always this tension between wanting to convey the information about Monash and the music. It’s in every collaboration, there’s always that tension – Mozart had it.
What were some of the challenges you faced during the work’s composition?
Even though we’re not being paid for the composition we still had expenses. We kept on applying for grants, especially the Australia Council and Arts Victoria grants, but we weren’t successful. So I went to my company More Than Opera, and they believed in the composition and were willing to take the risk. So we were relying on our donor base before we applied for a grant with the Robert Salzer Foundation, and finally we were successful. It was such a long drawn out process because we had no interest from the major arts funding organisations. But I speak as one of many in saying that most people don’t get funding, especially if it’s anything to do with classical music. You’ve got to be more experimental.
The second challenge was that Kevin moved to Queensland, and although we did a lot by phone and by email our most productive work was when we sat together and nutted things out. So that dragged out the process.
What did you learn from composing PEACE?
I learnt that – I hate to say this – I’ve got more compositional techniques and inspiration for melodies and rhythms in me than I ever thought I had. I’m not saying it’s inexhaustible, but give me a task and I know I can compose. Rossini used to be able to compose a shopping list. I seem to compose from a lot of different sources. And some of the music actually does sound a lot more sophisticated when I rehearse it than even when I was composing it.
What would your advice be to any young composers?
They have to follow their instincts. Every composer has their own individual voice, their own individual message that they have in their hearts. They have to follow those. Some composers want their music to be liked, and heard and repeated. Some composers say, I don’t care what anybody thinks, I’m just going to compose what I believe in, it may be acceptable now or it may be acceptable in the future. That’s really up to the composer.
But I will say this, try to be simple and direct, especially if it’s for vocal music. If you’re writing an opera don’t just write reels and reels of prose that just go on and on. Otherwise you might as well just say the words over background music (and in fact, some parts of the cantata I’ve done precisely that). I’m also a great believer in structural forms. Verse forms, strophe, ternary, variation form, passacaglias. Because people do relate to that, they need a structure.
More Than Opera presents PEACE - A Cantata for John Monash at Hamer Hall on Saturday 9th September at 6:30pm. More information and tickets here.