6 April 2016
Anne Boyd: Imagination is our most precious resource
© Australian Composer Polaroid Project / Jim Rolon 2015
This April, we celebrate the powerhouse that is composer Anne Boyd. We asked student and colleague Lachlan Skipworth to interview Anne on the occasion of her 70th birthday (10 April), and the resulting 7,500-word interview, related with Boyd's characteristic frankness, is full of fascinating detail about Boyd's compositional journey, her influences, her friendships with other composers, her time in York and Hong Kong, and, perhaps most importantly, her outlook on life and music.
Lachlan Skipworth: Anne, let us talk first of your musical heroes and inspiration. You spoke to me often of Debussy's influence on your work, and I remember one section of music you recommended I explore in one of our first lessons. It was taken from Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut from Images, book 2:
Can you tell us about this excerpt of music, and perhaps what inspires you in Debussy's work, in a broader sense?
Anne Boyd: Yes, these are very special bars; the inspiration for my Angklung. The upward rising major 2nd motif (start of the second bar right hand) and the 8va ornaments both find their way into my composition. It was 1974. I was living in the UK at Sussex in the second year of my appointment at the University there. Roger Woodward had asked me to compose a piece for solo piano after the success of As It leaves the Bell (piano, 2 harps and 4 percussion) which he had commissioned for the opening Festival Season of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. I need to tell that story first.
I'm not a pianist and found it almost impossible to respond to Roger's initial request. He held faith and programmed the work anyway - well before its completion. A few days before his departure for Sydney, I had given up all hope - not a note was written when he telephoned me at my digs in Brighton.
'Come'on Anne. I've programmed the work. It's the opening of the Sydney Opera House. You must send me something to play. Anything! Write a single chord on a blank sheet of paper, sign it and I will play it with all the love in the world!' How could I resist such an invitation? I grabbed a (fortunately nearly empty) bottle of whisky from the table, jumped into my car and headed off to my University Office, determined to stay put until I had at least written a single chord I was happy with. A pretty tough assignment, as it turned out, at a time of a significant creative and emotional crisis.
Faithful to Roger's request, I started with a sheet of blank paper and, after staring at the white page fruitlessly for some time, I acquired a similarly blank mind. Not quite asleep. Then I heard it. In the far distance a low gong resonated. The Big Bang? The Birth of Sound? The more closely I listened to this resonance, the more the instrumental ideas emerged, slowly, one by one, in a kind of procession.
Take another look at the left hand of that Debussy fragment - the pentatonic ostinato. A cyclical thread of similarly pentatonic pitches emerged in octaves in the opening piano solo of As it leaves the Bell as a kind of cantus firmus. It was as though I was inventing music from scratch. I found on my bookshelves, in a book of Japanese haiku, Basho's lines: 'The sound of the bell as it leaves the bell'. I was off and the music simply fell out onto the page in a single long gasp.
I promise the only mind altering substance I had imbibed at the time was a moderate amount of a very good Scotch malt, tempered with a very strong dose of desperation. I had certainly entered a new space in my creative imagination. Time stood still as I drew stave lines, when necessary, across the blank pages of the A3 sketch book I had taken with me to my office. The sounds themselves dictated their form. It was an egoless process. I was in a kind of trance; a slave to what was an insistent process of unfolding from a mysterious source.
Roger received his work and to my huge relief he seemed really thrilled. That experience for me was the real beginning of my compositional journey. I had learned the art of deep concentration somewhat akin to meditation, or prayer, necessary to access a pure creative energy. Roger became a significant muse. I have collaborated with him in seven works across the decades since.
There are three early works in that Sussex family that belong in the same creative flow: As it leaves the bell, Angklung and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. In recent years I have added some more in a similar vein: Kabarli Meditation (Dawn), a test piece for the 2012 SIPCA (Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia), being the most notable.
Now to Angklung. Once again, I was stuck, overwhelmed by the aura of a world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival. I had moved to a cottage outside Lewes on the edge of the Sussex Downs and, despite wonderful walks drinking in the sounds of skylarks floating above rolling green hillsides, nothing worked. I made several false starts and was way behind the deadline. Another desperate phone call from Roger. 'I can give you three days, no more!'
Now, I have to claim Debussy as one of my most loved composers. Peter Sculthorpe had introduced me to his music via the second book of Images when I was a very young student. The work you have quoted was open on my composing desk when that motif in the second bar struck me. So was Colin McPhee's Music in Bali with which Peter had rewarded me with after I had copied the orchestral parts for his Sun Music III(1967). It was open at the chapter on the gamelan angklung, a Balinese form based on a four-note scale. The two ideas came together. How about writing a piano work based upon only four notes? Following Debussy's example, I started to think about the colour of octaves placed in different registers on the keyboard. Another new work fell out onto paper in a remarkably short space of time.
Once more Roger was ecstatic and played the work all over Europe and in Australia. It received a mixed but often rapturous reception. Composers especially seemed interested. It was written before minimalism, two years prior to Arvo Pärt's Für Alina (1976) but I guess minimalism must have been in the air at the time, awaiting discovery. Angklung remains one of my most performed works.
Lachlan Skipworth: Similarly, I would like to ask about Beethoven who seemed another key figure in your musical outlook. You mentioned, early on, your admiration of the slow movement of his op. 132 String Quartet in the Lydian mode. What held the biggest resonance for you in Beethoven's life and music?
Anne Boyd: I don't think of Beethoven as a significant influence although, as with Schoenberg, I have a HUGE admiration for his musical genius. I don't really respond to the values that his music embodies - it sounds to me as music riven with male EGO and the forceful personal expression of the Artist Hero. In such work cultural imperialism rules! I'm actually rather repulsed by that kind of musical thinking. I respond to music that invites rather than demands listening. I like that particular passage from the Opus 132, a minor string quartet that you mention, as here Beethoven wrestles with a problem he is unable to resolve - the presence of a sharp Lydian 4th in the Lydian mode, renders the music unstable; lacking a perfect sub-dominant it simply can't resolve properly. Here Beethoven succumbs to a mystical force, a prayerful offering of thanksgiving to Almighty God as the threads of a slow elegiac chorale emerge, one by one, from the four strings. When he arrives at the end of this passage he slips in a C# and, boom, we're off as the music shifts into a bright D Major. Beethoven is back as he springs off his sickbed (or from his knees); his relief is palpable. The message is clear as he welcomes the restoration of health and vitality. It's an extraordinary passage, an extraordinary moment in all of Western music.
I think this passage illustrates the huge significance of the choice of a mode in shaping musical ideas. Mode equals mood. It also illustrates how a final is created as the middle pitch of a pair of perfect 5ths - the note residing in perfect equanimity between the tension of an active dominant and a grounding sub-dominant. Alter either the upper or the lower 5th, the balance is destroyed and the mode rendered unstable. I'm guessing this is the basis of tuning in 5ths that is so old in European and Chinese culture. The 5th after all is created as the simplest ratio in the natural harmonic series, 2:1. I've always been particularly interesting in tuning. Indeed the altered pitch in Angklung (the one string re-tuned to a flattened Fb) draws attention to our need to attune ourselves with each other and with Nature of which we are a part. The work is intended as a meditation concerned with just such tuning, an attempt to achieve a sense of wholeness.
Lachlan Skipworth: You and I share a great appreciation of Japanese traditional music, and your knowledge of the tradition was very helpful to me in shaping my experience of shakuhachi playing into a composition style. My work Aida (2009) for example, was composed very much under your guidance, and one can probably hear the references to your own 1975 work As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. Can you tell us a little more about the beginnings of your interaction with Japanese music and culture, and how this filtered through into your work?
Anne Boyd: Oh yes, I would love to. I've touched on this already in acknowledging Peter Sculthorpe's teaching. There's a book to be written here. As undergraduate composers, in our Harmony and Counterpoint and Aural classes, among other unorthodox teaching techniques, Peter used to have us write composition exercises based on Asian techniques, including Noh techniques and structures for our own instruments. I was the class flute player so I was kept busy when we studied Noh! When Peter played us the famous gagaku hit tune Etenraku I was thunderstruck. How could the ancient court music of Japan seem more redolent of my early childhood experience in central Queensland than any European music I had ever encountered? I was fascinated. It took me into another space in my imagination. I wanted to learn and hear everything I could from the Japanese tradition. I deeply loved the beauty of shakuhachi music and I was fascinated by Noh theatre.
What interested me about Japanese music was firstly its TIME sense: divorced from the linearity which underpins Western tonal thinking, it is much more cyclical in the way it unfolds; it is immensely slow, static, even, to the Western mind. I loved this sense of stillness powered by what I intuited to be extraordinary underlying intensity, created through elimination rather than the addition of material. It reminded me so strongly of the sparse uncluttered landscape of my childhood, the outback of Central Queensland. I lived with my Mother's brother's family on a very large sheep station 'Maneroo' from 1950-55. It was there, as a self-taught recorder player, I wrote my earliest compositions for Mr Melody man of the ABC Children's Hour, often drawing on the bush landscape for inspiration.
The next thing that fascinated me was the Japanese use of pentatonic gapped scales, modes that I was often to incorporate into my own musical thinking. These simpler scale forms enabled a greater focus on TIMBRE (tone colour) that also fascinated me. You will notice this emphasis in all my compositions.
I never travelled to Japan. Nor did I learn the language ('though I did later learn to speak Cantonese). I've been criticised for that. There is still time. It might be a retirement project. But I did spend a great deal of time in the Japan of my IMAGINATION. I studied many aspects of Japanese culture and resonated with everything I encountered. I adopted the Japanese aesthetic of yugen - of great beauty and great sorrow conjoined, as my own. Lady Sarashina became a significant Muse. She was a noblewoman who lived in medieval times and authored a journal recounting her spiritual journey as a Buddhist in As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams. I based my best-known choral work on this source. I've drawn on this source in several later works including Meditation on a Chinese Character, a chamber work for counter tenor and instruments commissioned by Roger Woodward for the Sydney Spring Festival of 1996, when I celebrated my 50th birthday. Was that really twenty years ago?
I think for an artist the IMAGINATION is by far our most precious resource. Music is in its very nature a kind of spiritual THRESHOLD that is the site of the imaginary. What fires our own composer's imagination is very important, very precious. We are all different in this respect - although you and I share the inspiration of Japan, for sure. Pretty well everything Japanese fires my imagination. I was lucky to experience the live performance of Noh and of gagaku in Brighton while teaching at the University of Sussex (1973-78). I had the thrill of hosting famed Japanese musicians, Toru Takemitsu (composer), Kinshi Tsuruta (biwa) and Katsuya Yokoyama (shakuhachi) of November Steps fame when they visited Sussex. Toru came down from London as he wanted to meet the composer of Angklung. That seems incredible to me now. It was so memorable and lovely spending that day together exploring the natural wonders of the Sussex Downs. We met on a number of subsequent occasions and I am honoured to count him among my special musical friends and mentors.
Morton Feldman was another. His visit to Sussex clashed with an opportunity to meet the ailing Benjamin Britten. I chose to host Morton whose encouragement and guidance had already been significant in helping me develop musical confidence. I think it was a wise choice although I adored and was in awe of Britten's music. He died not long afterwards, so we never met. My Professor at Sussex was Donald Mitchell, Britten's publisher, close friend and official biographer. Some years later, I had the thrill of beginning to compose my Book of the Bells (another Roger Woodward commission) sitting at Britten's desk looking out onto the same cornfields where he wrote much of Death in Venice. Another WOW moment!
Lachlan Skipworth: I'd quite like to hear a bit more about how Peter Sculthorpe was able to open your world to the excitement of composing.
Anne Boyd: To be candid, Peter was (and still is to a large extent) everything to me - father, teacher, life-long adored close friend and respected mentor. We nearly married and became engaged in early 1973, but our respective Muses just didn't allow the relationship to continue along a path to domesticity, pulling us in different directions. That period was confusing and heartbreaking - on both sides. Fate ordained it was just the way it had to be. We remained close yet separate throughout the rest of our lives. Our mutual love, however, was enduring, sustaining and sufficient.
I will never forget Peter's first encouragement of me as a composer. I had written some rather weird graphic music while living in Womens' College at the University of Sydney. I had been inspired by composers such as Haubenstock-Ramati and Kagel (to whose works Ross Edwards had introduced me) - one of my graphic works was intended for solo piano and the other for orchestra. When Peter saw these 'scores' he later told me he knew then I was real composer. Hmmm. Notice the use of 'real'. He started to encourage me to write more (and differently). Later, when I suspect my progress rather disappointed him, he declared that I could never really be a significant composer because I was woman and there never had been any women composers of note. He always added the rider 'But you might be the first!' Well, far from being downcast, I took that on as a challenge!
I was never much of a feminist: when my male contemporaries got the breaks, I always presumed that it was because their music was better! I had to work harder. So I did. It was only when I arrived in the UK in 1969 that I found my music was taken seriously; the gender difference simply melted away.
Ross and I were always very close friends. We met in the first year in the Department of Music at the University of Sydney as Arts undergraduates; we quickly discovered each other's compositional interests. Ian Cugley was another composer in that same year. Ian had topped Music Honours in the 1962 Leaving Certificate. I had come 2nd. I don't think Ross was able to take Music at Sydney Grammar in 1962 (how times have changed - in this case for the better!) but he knew more, especially about contemporary European and American music, than Ian and I put together.
In breaks between lectures, Ross and I used to hive off downtown, not to drink beer or coffee, but to Ricordi's, a dingy little music shop that was up some stairs above Palings in George Street. The proprietor was really cool and seemed to like us. He was certainly very kind. I think his name was John Palmer and he later went to a management position in Boosey & Hawkes. He imported the latest Universal Edition scores and other contemporary music from Europe. We were able to study the latest works by Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and many others, hot off the press. We were too poor to buy them.
When Peter arrived in the Department at the end of our first year in 1963, Ross was threatening not to sit any of his end of year examinations (except in Music) so he was destined to drop out of Arts altogether. I was horrified and our first conversation was my telling Peter that he must persuade Ross to stay on and take his papers in English and Philosophy. But Ross was stubborn and decided his destiny was to support himself as a 'real' composer by working as an errand boy in the ABC. Fortunately, about a year later, Peter Maxwell Davies came to the University of Adelaide as composer in residence and invited Ross to join his class of some of Australia's most talented young. So Ross agreed to go back to study. He felt Adelaide University took composition more seriously than what was on offer at Sydney at the time - despite Peter's commanding influence in building a curriculum where creative thinking was encouraged at every juncture. Our Professor, Donald Peart insisted on a broadly based liberal arts curriculum of which music was a significant component and for that I am rather grateful. I've always felt Music to be humanity's beating heart; I've loved discovering the connections that support such a view. However, I've always admired this single-mindedness in Ross, too. We all need to forge our own paths.
Now back to Peter's teaching methods: in building us as composers, he insisted on the significance of PLACE. He challenged the prevailing Australian cultural cringe head on. Australia was NOT Europe but far more interesting as a new nation situated in Asia located on the Pacific rim. 'Europe was the dead and the past. Australia and Asia were the present and the future', he declared to the Times newspaper on arrival in London for the first performances of Sun Music I in 1965. Wow, they were fighting words indeed! We were encouraged to think of our situation as unique. That was exciting, fresh and original.
What was 'Australia' in the mid-1960s? I started to think of myself as an Austral-asian. A self-taught recorder player and, later, flautist, I was oriented more towards melody and timbre rather than harmony. I found I had an almost instant rapport with many of the Asian cultures we studied. I now look back on some of this music, especially the traditional music of Japan and Bali, almost as music I had composed myself. The inner resonance is so strong.
Peter also encouraged us to consider landscape as a significant influence on the way we spoke and thought. He pointed out how Australian vowel sounds were flattened out and the Australian speech rhythms much slower than those of Europe - just as the topography of our landscapes were generally much flatter and more spacious than those found in Europe. Percy Grainger, who used to run between his piano recitals in Australian country towns, had similar ideas. This spaciousness, Peter believed, also affects our sense of time - the distances travelled in Australia, to get anywhere, were much greater than in Europe where, in a short space of time, one could be in an entirely different country. These differences must surely affect the way we think as composers. Our melody lines might be flattened out. We might think in much more broadly conceived musical structures. Tonal movement was likely to be much slower. Drone-based composition was not only a possibility but perhaps even desirable.
I think all his students drew in different ways from these ideas. This pleased him because, above all, we had to write our OWN music and it had to come from the HEART. This was antithetical to the European modernist emphasis upon STRUCTURE and abstraction. Yet don't misunderstand me: Peter was a stern taskmaster, particularly intolerant of sloppy structure. He took great care with this aspect of his own music and expected us to do likewise. However the cultivation of one's own voice was the most important thing.
Peter was very enthusiastic about my Sussex works. I think he felt that, in As It leaves the bell, I had at last discovered the beginnings my own voice. He was very excited about that work, also about Angklung and As I crossed a Bridge of Dreams. From then on, he no longer treated me as a student but as an equal. That was pretty humbling, actually, because his opinion mattered to me more than anything.
Incidentally, I was getting rave reviews for my work in the UK while, with the exception of Roger Covell, Australian critics remained unreceptive or even outright hostile. Take as an example Maria Perauer's unforgettable dismissal, writing in the Daily Telegraph (or was it in the Mirror?) of my children's opera The Little Mermaid as 'an utterly untalented satellite around Sculthorpe's Sun Music'; or John Hopkins's dismissal of my first orchestral work The Voice of the Phoenix as 'perhaps too long for its material'. To give him credit, he did eventually perform it with the Australian Youth Orchestra. When Japanese conductor Hiroyuki Iwaki conducted the same work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, he contemptuously halved the value of all the proportional time indications to get through it quicker! A 25-minute work became less than fifteen. It must have sounded pretty wild. I really wish I'd heard that performance. It was not a success even though Morton Feldman, when he first studied the score, had declared me 'to be better than Stockhausen'; he travelled up to York to hear its first performance even though he didn't approve of my quotation of Etenraku, the hit tune of the Japanese gagaku court repertory. Harrison Birtwistle, too, admired the work sufficiently to invite me into his class of young composers at the 1971 Dartington Summer School where I wrote the chamber work The Metamorphoses of the Solitary Female Phoenix, a kind of corollary, but, out of respect for Morton's advice, without any specific quotation of borrowed Japanese material. Alison Bauld was also in that Dartington class, and I persuaded her to come to York to study for her DPhil in Composition. We had quite a little Australian group at York, with Martin Wesley-Smith as a postgraduate student and Ross Edwards living nearby. My Dartington work was well reviewed when performed at an SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music) concert in London.
Lachlan Skipworth: I want to follow this thread of your musical development a little further, because I must admit I know little of your time studying at the University of York or as the Founding Head of Music at the University of Hong Kong. Are there any particular experiences from these times that have had a lasting effect on your compositional style?
Anne Boyd: York was a wonderful place to study in the late 1960s and early '70s. Indeed it was here that I first began to discover the promptings of an original musical voice. Far from Australia, it was this sense of space and the resonant sounds of Asia that colonised my imagination becoming ever more vivid. Maybe it was a form of homesickness. I continued to reject the European avant garde believing I had to find my own way and be true to my Australianness.
Bernard Rands became my composition teacher, and through his teaching I absorbed some of the Italian composer Luciano Berio's gestural musical thinking. I loved the lyricism of Berio's music, the colour of his sounds and the theatricality of his work. The intellectual side and links with formal linguistics and early semiotics left me cold. It seemed to me that there was a kind of misogyny among the leading European composers of the time that was surprisingly and refreshingly absent in British music.
Wllfrid Mellers, the founding Professor at York, was profoundly influential. His ideas on music as lying at the heart of the human condition were unfailingly exciting as they were visionary and insightful. He believed that music could only be studied by making it - either as a composer or performer. He founded the York department on this philosophy. A prodigious writer and composer, he didn't have a lot of time for musicologists whom he thought very narrow in their outlook. 'My dear, I don't read books on music: I listen to music and read poetry.' As a critic, Wilf had been nurtured in the literary stable of F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, author of The great Tradition that I had read with awe as an undergraduate student in English at the University of Sydney.
In the very best tradition of a liberal humanism, I still find Wilfrid's often difficult writing a source of refreshment and unfailingly stimulating. A particular favourite is Caliban Reborn, a study of renewal in 20th century music; another is Bach and the Dance of God. I treasure my signed copies of Wilfrid's books. He was the most riveting lecturer on Music I have ever heard. His thrilling and revelatory lectures on the Beatles at York in 1971 packed out the University's lecture theatres and had to be relayed into adjacent spaces. These lectures were the basis for one of his most famous books Twilight of the Gods. He also loved Peter with whom he sustained a lifelong friendship and had a very great appreciation of his music describing him as 'your Sun Man' and an 'Aboriginal composer'; this in a Jungian sense meaning that Peter drew upon archetypical sources of melody, rhythm and birdsong - belonging not to a single culture but to all humanity. Wilfrid's description of Peter's Mangrove in one of his last books Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century is one of the most profound pieces of writing on any Australian composer. I consider my own students fortunate to have been nurtured on some of Wilfrid Mellers's ideas.
In 1981, after a period of impoverishment working as a full-time composer at Pearl Beach (1978-81), I travelled to Hong Kong to establish a Department of Music at the University of Hong Kong. That was a wonderfully interesting period in my life, the most significant event by far being the birth of my daughter Helen-Louise in 1983. With my biological clock running down, I had determined to become a single parent and Hong Kong provided the possibility of being able to employ a fulltime amah to help on the home front. Helen's birth was a source of greatest joy as I learned the meaning of parental Love. Her welfare became and remains my greatest priority. Watching her grow into the beautiful woman she has become is my greatest fulfilment. After Helen's birth, life took on an entirely different shape; my values took on an entirely different set of priorities. Even music took second place to caring for my daughter. My Muse was accommodating - understanding even, as I wrote much less.
Lachlan Skipworth: Are there any other mentors who you met more briefly who had a lasting impact on your work? I always enjoyed hearing of your meetings with Morton Feldman in New York!
Anne Boyd: That's not quite right: I didn't ever go to New York until on tour as a chorister with Christ Church St Laurence in 2007. That was a wonderful experience. I spent several days in the Museum of Modern Art. I thought about Morton as I gazed at the original Mark Rothko canvases that had so influenced his work. We met in London where he was often a guest in the home of my special friend, the influential music publisher, Bill Colleran. Bill ran Universal Edition (London) Ltd. and had a significant impact on the contemporary music world. We met in Australia in 1966 and remained close friends until his death in 2008. You are correct in that Morton had quite a strong influence on my musical thinking. He shared his ideas though offering little stories, rather like Zen koans. Feldman on orchestration: 'Imagine the sound of a piccolo ABOVE a Double Bass'. On dealing with compositional road blocks: 'If you get stuck writing for string quartet, add a trombone!' These unusual colour combinations are very liberating. Another feldmanesque life/music lesson: 'If you want people to hear what you are saying, don't shout, whisper as quietly as you can!'
Lachlan Skipworth: Your work often has a spiritual element and I'm hoping you'll be able to tell me a bit more about this. You have, for instance, drawn on the Christian and Buddhist faiths as well as showing an appreciation of the Indigenous cultures of Australia.
Anne Boyd: I have described my musical aesthetic as the mingling of Christian love and Buddhist silence. This underlies all my creative activity. Spiritually, I draw upon both traditions. More recently, I have absorbed some of Peter's animistic beliefs reinforced by experience working with Aboriginal colleagues, especially in my opera Daisy Bates at Ooldea (2012). Deep down, my Christian faith is pretty strong but like my respected friend David Tacey, the author of Edge of the Sacred and many other books that have influenced me, I conceive of Christian Truths as metaphor rather than as literal.
Composing for me is a deeply spiritual activity, more meditative prayer than artistic practice. My imagination is deeply stimulated by symbolism drawn from many sources. In the liminal unthinking space in which my compositions take shape I am aware of many spiritual energies attached to the sounds with which I work. These flow from a mysterious source; if I listen carefully enough. Close listening to silence is where it begins. Recently, I've become distracted and concerned that the computer gets in the way. I'm feeling the need to get back to blank white paper. I'm retiring soon and hoping that in this new phase of my life I will find the time and space that my music needs to move into its next phase.
Lachlan Skipworth: I also wonder if your recent foray into the world of long-distance running is linked to the spiritual. Other runners have talked about the meditative nature of running (as well as obviously being a very strenuous physical activity) - do you feel your body connects with your mind in this way?
Anne Boyd: To my very great surprise distance running has become a really important part of my life, another passion. I'd never run until four years ago when I decided I didn't want to continue along the path of becoming a rather fat old lady. I joined a weight management program. Very slow jogging became a part of my exercise routine and one day I discovered, to my great delight, that I was able to jog the vast distance of 5 kilometres. To beat the boredom of just tagging along as my athletic daughter's 'bag carrier', I decided to enter some of the shorter events at the running festivals she attended. There were plenty of older participants and it looked fun. I was soon injured and realised if I was to continue to run I would have to put in the hard yards in cross-training to strengthen my aging muscles. It was become pretty consuming.
Numerous people have helped and encouraged me but none more than local physiotherapist Martin Doyle (a former Olympian lightweight wrestler) who believes in movement, especially regular weight lifting, as the key to healthy aging. He encouraged me into my first Marathon (42.2K, Melbourne 2014) after only 18 months of running. He thought I would then cross 'running a marathon' off my bucket list. Neither of us was to foresee that he had succeeded in creating the running monster I have become.
Running is highly addictive. I'm hooked, even to the point of having started to write a book Running into Old Age. In retirement, I'm hoping literally to run the world; also to capture the stories of some remarkable oldies out there who are showing that humans are indeed born to run. When people ask what I love about this activity, my first thought is the freedom one feels out there; the second is the sense of connection (not dissimilar to composing but more active) to the natural world, to other runners and the taking of a journey powered only by your own body and willpower.
At the start of running events, in which I love to participate, I've been known to declare, 'I reckon I'm just an old age adrenalin junkie!' It's such FUN. Music comes into it but actually I've had to learn to be tolerant of the stuff that event organisers pump out as motivational music. A 30K training run on my own is really bliss. I'll sometimes tune into Bach's B minor Mass or perhaps a long Indian raga. I now have so much music stored in my memory (not always perfect either but that doesn't really matter), I can pick what I want to listen to at any time without the distraction of earphones. Nature itself provides a pretty awesome soundtrack and a long run can provide just the space one needs to think up some new music of one's own.
Yes, I think I would describe running as a means of creating a transcendent mind space - but it is also immensely humanising and liberating.
Lachlan Skipworth: You talked earlier about your solo piano work Anklung, written at the request of Roger Woodward, and how you had much trouble with the deadline. Did you ever 'get better' at deadlines, and if so do you have any advice for younger composers? (Similarly, you told me to start a work again less than a week before its deadline and I went on to compose Light Rain, one of my most performed pieces!)
Anne Boyd: I've become pretty good at meeting deadlines. But commissions are much rarer these days so I'm not so often put to the test. That's OK. I prefer to compose only when the urgency becomes so great that I can't bear to do anything else! The tougher it is to start a work, usually the better it will be. It is important not to panic and put down any old rubbish just to fulfil a deadline. That's the biggest danger. It's too easy with computers to produce what might sound, feel and look like music. But is it really your music? Or simply sounds filling a space and maybe your bank account? Only you can judge that. A tip is that with composing, as with most things, elimination of everything inessential will result in stronger work. Starting again and crossing things out, thinking more carefully about how to expand initial ideas - listening, Listening, LISTENING, can be very beneficial as you found for yourself. Me too, many, many times. One should always breathe one's music. From BREATH comes LIFE. Never give up until you feel LIFT OFF. That will always come if you are patient enough and listen to your inner voice. Make sure it's YOURS, not someone else's.
Lachlan Skipworth: You have had an equally long and distinguished teaching career to go alongside your composing. Was it a battle to balance the two, or did they sit together well?
Anne Boyd: I suspect as an enthusiast, a rather explosive and passionate person, I'm a natural teacher. I love to share any knowledge I might have acquired with pretty well anyone who will listen. I truly believe that music is the very foundation of all life forms. I seem to learn more about that every day I live. How can one not wish to share, however imperfectly, such insights? On the other hand, it's a two-way street; my students have taught me so much. It is a thrill to watch someone with an immense creative musical talent, like yours Lachlan, grow your own musical voice. Your works really inspire me. Similarly the fresh ideas, introduced in all kinds of ways and at all levels by young minds, is a treasure trove that has been deeply nurturing of my own musical motivation. Other special composition students who spring to mind include Jane Stanley, Nicholas Vines, Daniel Rojas, Peggy Polias. There are many more. I've been teaching for several decades now.
However teaching is also very time consuming. I'm not really good at multi-tasking. I've done enough and will be glad of a break from teaching activity to put my energy into other things - especially writing which I've always wanted to do. I've numbers of books I want to write - some of which have come from my teaching interests. Apart for the running book and a fairly obvious personal memoir, I'm keen to write about the spiritual aspects of Peter's music - a kind of Jungian study of the deep Aboriginalisation of the Australian cultural unconscious that David Tacey so brilliantly draws attention to in his writing.
There are also three operas to be written about non-Aboriginal
Australian women pioneers who have worked and lived closely with
Aboriginal people: my heroines are Daisy Bates, Olive Pink and
Annie Lock. They are all interconnected and knew and influenced
each other. I've written the first, Daisy Bates at
Ooldea (2012) but I'm not so happy with it and want to
revisit this material. I'm starting work now on the remarkable
Olive Pink. That's going to be a lot of fun. The politics of the
University of Sydney's Department of Anthropology will run
headlong into the Walpiri women around Alice Springs.
With Olive as an intermediary, I think sparks might fly. I think
I've more than enough to keep me busy until the end of my earthly
existence - hopefully not before I run a marathon at 104!
Lachlan Skipworth: What do you think lies ahead for the next generation of composers and in particular female composers?
Anne Boyd: I'm not a crystal ball gazer. We've come some way forward BUT things still aren't great especially for the composing gals in this country. There are certainly more opportunities for young composers entering the profession, but competition is fierce, there are many more graduates; composing has become a very congested field. A career can begin with great promise but it is very hard to sustain and, sadly, the most talented are often the least suited to the tougher side of the kind of self-promotion, branding (ugh!), networking and political activity (UGH!!) that brings in the commissions and performances. Government cuts to the arts certainly don't help. Politicians continue to think of music as entertainment, an optional extra that has a strong commercial industry to support it; so why does it need subsidising? Music as a distinct art form seems barely a ripple in their consciousness.
The country is also starved of a quality music-critical environment and sadly, in our tiny neck of the woods, out-dated European modernism remains a force to be reckoned with - although its time is well and truly over. It's good to see composers in Australia, like Elena Kats-Chernin and Ross Edwards, cutting through the crap and writing music that is original and beautiful and, above all, communicative, carrying their audiences with them and making a living as full-time practicing composers. Other strong Australian voices continue to depend on institutional support as a financial mainstay, as I have needed to do. There aren't so many opportunities in academia either.
I'm afraid I'm not overly optimistic about the future financial prospects for young composers. A day job will continue to be pretty essential and overseas experience desirable. Seems all too familiar. The difference is that the new generation is not only bursting with talent but is better trained and technically more accomplished than we were at a similar stage of our development. I like to think quality, originality and beauty will out and that good music has in itself an irrepressible life force whatever social circumstances might dish up. The world needs its composers and the spiritual nourishment of good quality music as never before. Young composers must not give up!
Lachlan Skipworth: Finally, I want to ask if there is a particular work of yours that you feel particularly proud of that perhaps doesn't get performed as often as you would like? Perhaps we can use this as a little hint to orchestras/ensembles/performers for ideas for their future programs!
Anne Boyd: Ah that's very kind, Lachlan. None of my more recent music has had much of an airing 'though the old warhorses continue to be performed all over the place. I was particularly thrilled and rather humbled to be ABC Classic FM's 'Composer on a Pedestal' recently and to note that they played some of my lesser-known compositions alongside the better-known works like the ubiquitous Goldfish Through Summer Rain (1978). I must confess I thought some of the music could do with revising (another retirement project!) And most of it was pretty old.
Works of the last decade that seem to have something rather special about them are Holy Love, first movement of Seraphim Canticles (2008), a piano trio commissioned by the Seraphim trio; and the solo piano work Kabarli Meditation (Dawn) written as a test piece for the 2012 SIPCA. This piece was inspired by an ecstatic desert dawn I experienced at Daisy Bates's campsite at Ooldea Siding on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain. Many of the young contestants choose to perform it but after the competition was over I never heard of another performance until a recent concert of women composers curated by Corrina Bonshek in Brisbane. Thank you Corrina!
Another work which has disappointingly fallen into the cracks is Angry Earth (2007) for shakuhachi (s), two harps and orchestra. Originally commissioned for the SYO, the person responsible for the recording forgot to press the appropriate button on the evening of the performance. So there is no recording of what was a pretty good performance, with Riley Lee as outstanding soloist. I would be thrilled if this work could somehow be revived and recorded. I would be easily persuaded to do some revisions! Another retirement project looms perhaps.
Life is looking pretty good up ahead. I would love to think that another CD of my more recent music might be made available. Very little of my more recent music has made it onto CDs and therefore these works only gets occasional airplay time, if any. Radio continues to be the lifeblood for composers. God bless and preserve 'Aunty' ABC.
By the way, you may know that I like to dedicate my running to raising funds for a worthwhile cause. This year, I've elected to support Alzheimer's research. Alzheimer's has already impacted my own family and close friends; this cruel illness is set to become the scourge of the baby boomers. A cure is possible and indeed may not be far off but, as with many worthwhile projects, funds to support this work are in short supply and desperately needed. If anyone felt moved to help, a small donation to my every day hero page would be enormously heart-warming and encouraging.
Anne Boyd - AMC profile (biography, works, recordings and other resources
© Australian Music Centre (2016) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
- Anne Boyd (Interviewee)
- Ross Edwards
- Peter Sculthorpe
- Wilfrid Mellers
- Ian Cugley
- Alison Bauld
- Martin Wesley-Smith
- Elena Kats-Chernin
- voice of the phoenix by Anne Boyd
- aida by Lachlan Skipworth
- As I crossed a bridge of dreams by Anne Boyd
- Angklung by Anne Boyd
- Book of the bells by Anne Boyd
- metamorphoses of the solitary female phoenix by Anne Boyd
- As it leaves the bell by Anne Boyd
- Meditations on a Chinese character by Anne Boyd
- Seraphim canticles by Anne Boyd
- Light rain by Lachlan Skipworth
- Kabarli meditation (Dawn) by Anne Boyd
- Daisy Bates at Ooldea by Anne Boyd
- Angry earth by Anne Boyd
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This inspired me
Lovely interview, full of insights and advice one could take away. I felt inspired creatively, but also in another way: I've just been for a gentle jog! Couldn't resist it.
I agree we have no need to follow European models which were already out of date when we first came upon them. We should do our own thing.