Can you tell me about your first commission?
My first commission came from Musica Viva when I was a student! There was a lovely woman running it called Regina Ridge, who called me in and told me they were interested in commissioning me to write a piano trio. And she handled the situation very skilfully when I replied, “I don’t want to write a piano trio, I want to write for nine instruments including a flute and a harp!” She said, very kindly, that composers know best and I could go ahead and do that, which I did though it never got performed. Then I thought I better not be so arrogant after that!
You’ve been working with saxophonist Amy Dickson on a composition that was recently performed at the Musica Viva Festival. Can you tell me about your work with Amy?
This was the third time that I’ve composed for Amy, who is a wonderful saxophonist. On top of that she’s also very clever and entrepreneurial and, because of the limited saxophone repertoire, is creating a lot of new things through transcribing works and getting composers to write new works for her, which is where I come in. This work I did finish some time ago, actually – I had to play it on the piano a little bit before to remind myself how it went! This particular work is written for saxophone and string quartet, and the two before it were large concertos. I love writing for people like Amy, who have a great stage presence and are happy to move and dance on stage. It really brings another dimension, I believe - a part of performance that we lost over 100 years ago. When I’d written those first two pieces for Amy she said, “you haven’t got anything for string quartet and saxophone, have you?” and I said “well, no!” But I had a commission coming up from Kim Williams whom I’ve known for many years, and who is very interested in all the arts, and I thought it would be an interesting idea to do a series of songs and dances for Amy, where she could either play all eight pieces in a bracket or pick and choose between them. It has been a very special process.
When you have the opportunity to work with the musicians in the lead up to a performance, what does that process look like?
It’s a very interesting process, and one I really depend upon. Composers and performers have to get along and ask each other questions during that time. There is a great collaboration process, where we discuss different dynamics and articulations and generally try and understand each other. I think those who play my music seem to like it and they get it right in the end, but they always say, “why do you make it so difficult?” I always sort of apologise, but they get it right. Most Australian musicians are used to my quirks now – I enjoy working with sounds from wildlife and really going back to the origins of music. In the process right now, we are gradually putting it all together, and I’m very pleased with how it all sounds - even in a tiny room with no windows! When we hear it for the first time in the hall I’ll only make changes if they’re drastically needed, but I hope we’ve covered everything.
Those sounds that you’ve become known for – the ones that reference nature and insects and dance – where do those ideas come from?
I wander around sort of singing, actually. All the time! Essentially, the keyboard is the focus for me, and I have a great big board stuck up over it. As I come up with ideas I stick them up on the board, and then I can piece those ideas together to make the piece. Sometimes I move the board to different parts of the room and have a walk around to look at it. I used to wake up in the night with ideas and write them down, but I don’t do that anymore – if the idea is good, it will come back.
You are a full-time freelance composer, but you began your career by teaching composition. Can you tell me about that transition, and your first experiences as a freelancer?
I will tell you how it happened: I was teaching at the conservatorium for a time, but being in an institution wasn’t for me. I thought that I’d love to get out of there and freelance, so I asked my wife and she said okay! Then I consulted an accountant and he said it would probably be possible, so I thought I should and I did. When I announced that I was leaving I had the most wonderful feeling of liberation. Of course I’ve continued teaching here and there, but I haven’t been bound to a particular institution. I’ve learnt a lot, like when you’re looking for work you can’t always write particularly esoteric or academic material and you have to be prepared to write for theatre or film. And that is how it began – I’ve never looked back! It’s a little bit different now though, because when I was studying there were only a handful of other people, but I recently gave a lecture to 60 people studying composition!
So when the odds are stacked against you in that way, being up against so many other composers, how do you make your music stick?
Well, you can use all sorts of gimmicks that don’t last very long. I hope people don’t do that. I’ve heard some students who are very good, but even so, getting people interested in commissioning is tricky. When I first started out, even before I freelanced, there were places you could go to get support. I think then, once people thought you were okay they’d be willing to support you, and I was fortunate to get that kind of support when I was very needy. I’ve also had a lot of support from my family – I remember saying to my wife years ago when the work was not flowing in, “maybe I should go back to university," and she replied, “don’t be bloody stupid.” She is my manager and internet person – anything that’s too hard, I send to her.
That’s a fantastic thing to have – I imagine building a support system quite aside from those people who help you financially is extremely important. And that must help you when you’re dealing with that dreaded thing: deadlines. How do you deal with working to a time budget?
I’ve found that in the past if I’m working on a piece with a deadline in mind and I’ve spent quite an amount of time dealing with a particularly tricky bar, I always think “can I afford to continue working on this?” And you know, it’s often worth it in the long run! I do like to work well ahead of schedule though, because I don’t like to be in a rush. When I was working for Peter Sculthorpe he would work to the eleventh hour, and we would be copying all night until we collapsed. That worked fine for him and works for lots of other composers I know, but it certainly doesn’t work for me – I just go to pieces.
I think that the philosophy of creating something both beautiful and useful to society is incredibly compelling. But how can you measure that?
Well, there is so much diversity. I heard a work by a young woman that was absolutely beautiful, but had it been written 20 years ago it would have been tossed away. The simplicity wasn’t allowed in the 20th century, but we’re starting to accept that again which I think is a step in the right direction. On the other hand, you can write something simple that is absolutely boring, so I suppose you’ve got to have something indefinable… something that will sustain your work and move people.
How do you cope with reviews?
I’ve been both deeply ruined and highly encouraged by reviews, but I think I suddenly realised one day that it was all just nonsense. I think there’s a place for constructive commentary, and if someone has the space to do it and they’re not confined to a small column that is not going to be edited by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, then sure! There’s not much you can do to ensure someone will understand your work though – you can announce the concept and the composer and what they are trying to achieve, but as far as I’m concerned, you should let the people go and make up their own mind about it.
What do young composers really need to know now about creating a career in the industry?
I think it’s not just about learning orchestration, but about learning the business side of writing. I think that’s really a sign of the times – if it’s necessary, it’s necessary. I think it’s part of the industry that’s burgeoning, but it does alarm me to some extent for philosophical reasons. I think it’s important to ask what your art is for – is it to get on, is it for reputation, to improve talent? Our society is really moving into a time where we commodify art, and this is where the philosophy comes into it. Art is an investment. Once, the artist was anonymous, and art was considered a skill rather a commodity. You developed that skill until you could unveil your masterpiece proving that you had mastered your art, and that art was something useful and beautiful that society needed and treasured. That’s something we’ve lost in a way. Perhaps all of the institutionalised art machines will explode and there will be a grassroots beginning again, where teaching will be Socratic and real. I think it’s important to not lose sight of that.
Photo by Bridget Elliot.