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25 August 2014

Barry Conyngham on teaching, learning and the stuff of music

Barry Conyngham Image: Barry Conyngham  

Composer Barry Conyngham talks about his teachers and mentors, his orchestral works and his two-fold career in composing and academia, in this interview conducted just a few days before his 70th birthday on 27 August 2014. Conyngham's latest orchestral work, ANZAC, will be premiered in a concert at Melbourne's Iwaki Auditorium on 31 August (for details, see the AMC Calendar).

Anni Heino: You have taught many composers yourself - what is your approach? Does it owe anything to the example of your own teachers Peter Sculthorpe and Toru Takemitsu? What did you learn from Sculthorpe?

Barry Conyngham: With Peter I mostly learnt from just being around him, and from the music he exposed me to. When you were working on a piece, he would make some suggestions, but mostly he just asked why you were doing a particular thing. He did not like my early tendency to 'smudge' harmonic textures - but at the same time he encouraged me to be different, to write things he would not write. But mostly it was just being open and generous with his time and company, and demonstrating commitment and hard work.

With Toru too, there was no formal, 'this is how you do it'. Like Sculthorpe, he encouraged me to listen to certain works, usually with the score. He did talk about some technical matters and particularly liked sharing his knowledge and exploration of individual instruments. I remember (and still have) his 'illustrated' talk about the harp where he showed particular notations and other technical points.

The most interesting elements we talked about were his sense of 'space' and 'time'. And as I was beginning to write Ice Carving, a work that was a watershed piece for me after I finished it back in Australia, he encouraged me in the exploration of what he called 'orchestral space': a relationship between pitch, register and texture. Later I decided that what was, for him, an inner space was becoming, for me, the sense of isolation and disconnect that I saw as a possible expression of what it was to be Australian: people living in a huge continent 'occupied' in the name of another country - insecure, uncertain, fond of nostalgia, sentiment and (oddly enough) displays of self-satisfaction.

When it came my turn to teach I tried to pass on the notion of being 'professional' - hard work, clear thinking - and, like Peter and Toru, I was very enthusiastic about listening to a wide and particularly new range of music. But, unlike them, I was more technical, even if the techniques were diverse, and not too prescriptive.

AH: Some of your most powerful works have been dedicated to the memories of Takemitsu (Passing, 1998) and Sculthorpe (Dreams go wandering still, 2004) - and also Hiroyuki Iwaki (Gardener of Time, 2010). How do you go about honouring a person - and these particular friends and mentors - in music?

BC: When Takemitsu died in 1996, the loss was not only of a teacher, mentor and friend but of someone who had created so much extraordinary music. When I decided that I wanted to create an orchestral work reflecting on my relationship with Toru and his music, I was determined to create a good piece. The mixture of the feelings involved in trying to encompass all he embodied, and the challenge of doing a piece worthy of him, seemed to work. I enjoyed writing the work and I somehow knew it released a range of emotion and a kind of power that was special.

A few years later I decided to do a work that did a similar thing for my other teacher, mentor and friend, Peter Sculthorpe - but while he was living, indeed to celebrate his 75th year. Once again I enjoyed the struggle and the depth of emotion in doing that work. Likewise, my piece for the conductor, Iwaki, had to do justice to our friendship and to all he had given me during our times together.

AH: From your new vantage point as a septuagenarian, can you see, looking back, a line that stretches through your body of work?

BC: I think I am one of those composers, like Takemitsu and Sculthorpe, who found a musical territory that fascinated them and continued to explore it. Thus there are technical and emotional threads that run through most of my pieces. I am fond of ambiguity, heightened nostalgia, harmonic tension that moves forward, energy, stillness, too... Lots of things are always there.

AH: You composed a Symphony in 2012 - how does it differ from your other orchestral works? I understand that here, too, there are some extra-musical links to do with themes of teaching, or learning?

BC: The Symphony was written in response to a suggestion from Richard Gill to whom it is dedicated. Though calling something a 'symphony' was something I had resisted through many orchestral works, I wanted to see if I could write a Conyngham piece that was what that title implied. It turned out, however, that I needed some extra-musical assistance. So I reflected on the fact that both Richard and I had, in different ways, spent a lot of time helping people learn, and that gave me an emotional trajectory, a musical narrative, that could assist the structural expectation and gestures that are implied by calling an orchestral work Symphony.

AH: You are the only composer that I know of who has also been the Vice-Chancellor of a university. Are there any parallels, or links, between composing music and managing a large academic institution? How does a deadline for a large orchestral work fit in?

BC: I guess the most obvious link is that I have enjoyed doing both. As a manager I strive for good will and I seek to create opportunities for as many as possible to get satisfaction out of their roles. Just as a composer must bring together the different textures, personalities and contributions of all the instruments in writing a piece, perhaps managing an institution is a little like that. It is difficult to see any other explicit connection between management and composing - indeed the former should be an intensely social interaction, whereas the latter tends to be a very personal, solitary activity. I occasionally say that composing keeps me calm for managing, whereas managing drives me mad so I have to compose. The truth is that I have one useful ability that helps me do both: I find it easy to concentrate on whatever is in front of me. And, I enjoy making things.

As for deadlines and time constraints - I give myself lots of lead time, work through Christmas Day…whatever it takes!

AH: Finally, your next orchestral premiere is of a work entitled ANZAC, for orchestra and nine soloists, to be premiered at the end of August by the Melbourne University Orchestra - can you tell me a little bit about this work, its background and how it sounds?

BC: I believe it is impossible to live very long in Australia, let alone all your life, without being involved in the various aspects of the ANZAC phenomenon. Whether you are referring to the men who made up that military force, or the day that is the yearly commemoration that bears its name, or all the feelings, symbols, memories involving other military action that is now subsumed under the ANZAC tradition, a myriad of images and feelings are thrown up by the sight or sound of that word.

For me the images and memories are both old, and relatively new: starting with recollections of growing up in my small suburban street in the late forties where our neighbours dressed in uniform on ANZAC Day (or at least wore military decorations), returning in the afternoon, drunk, sad or nostalgically exuberant; and most recently attending a dawn service in Melbourne, where thousands of women, men and children stood silent as the sun rose to the traditional bugle.

The feelings and images - real or re-imagined - are inescapable: preparing for battle, confronting death, experiencing fear, mothers and fathers waiting for news. We all remember or recreate (and, if we don't, television and other media do it for us) the images of young men, and now women, going off to war, coming home in coffins, or on foot, on stretchers, on crutches, in wheel-chairs - many with mental scars to share with their family, friends and perhaps strangers. So ANZAC is a powerful and challenging topic to write music about; but tempestuous events, strong emotion, nostalgia, life and death are the stuff of music, and one should try.

AMC resources

ANZAC on 31 August at 2:30 pm, Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne Victoria - all event details (AMC Calendar)
Barry Conyngham
- AMC profile (biography, works, recordings and other resources)
CDs and MP3s of Conyngham's music available through the AMC

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and Editor (Communications & Resonate) at the Australian Music Centre.


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