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28 May 2015

Jack Body (1944-2015)

Jack Body Image: Jack Body  
© Gareth Watkins

New Zealand composer Jack Body died on Sunday 10 May at the age of 70. Colleague Glenda Keam remembers a man whose enthusiasm and determination inspired generations of artists, at home and abroad.

I first met Jack in 1982, at the first of the Young Composer Workshops in Nelson, New Zealand, where I was immediately struck by his enthusiasm, energy, and sense of mischief. Looking back on the decades that have followed, I marvel at how often I have found myself caught up in the many projects that sprang from Jack's irrepressible imagination, pushing obstacles aside in the momentum of his enthusiasm and extraordinary determination.

Because of Jack, three Asia Pacific Festivals have been held in Wellington, the latest in 2007 out of which came a double CD of extraordinarily varied and beautiful music. Because of Jack, there is a composer residency in Wellington, based at the former residence of Douglas Lilburn. Because of Jack, Waiteata Press published many scores and CDs of New Zealand music. Jack brought composers from Asia - young and established - to New Zealand, and introduced them to our music and us to theirs. He took New Zealand music and musicians to far-flung countries, coming up with a thousand ways in which music could make powerful connections.

The power of Jack's charisma and smiling insistence was such that he never did these things single-handedly, but rather he was surrounded by teams of helpers, friends and colleagues who knew it was their destiny to get involved and see the latest project through. Saying 'no' to Jack was not only difficult, it was most often pointless.

Jack's gregarious nature also flowed into and through his own music, which frequently pulled threads of other musics through its weave. In the same year (1975) that he wrote the theme music for NZ's first long-running suburban soap opera Close to Home, he constructed the tape piece Musik dari Jalan which went on to win first prize in the electroacoustic music competition at Bourges. Musik dari Jalan is a brilliant reminder of Jack's vibrant energy, with its overlaid recordings of hawkers' cries and instrumental calls heard on Indonesian streets.

Juxtapositions and overlaid elements appear too in Jack's orchestral music where transcriptions and quotations rub shoulders. His delight in instruments, forms and timbres from other cultures brought exotic colours into otherwise western textures.

His opera Alley portrays the life and times of Rewi Alley in China, and his Songs and Dances of Desire is a tribute to the exotic drag queen, brothel keeper and activist Carmen Rupe. By contrast, Vincent Ward's bleak 1984 film Vigil features Jack's haunting music.

So much of what preoccupied Jack was not composing as a solo act, but the world of music-and-people. Here stories of people and their experiences gave the music strength and purpose, and the acts of making music offered people purpose and a way to share. His was a life lived to the full, and the world of music and people he leaves behind is much the richer for his legacy, but it is very difficult to believe he is gone, and we will miss him.

Further links

Jack Body - Centre for New Zealand Music SOUNZ
Jack Body - www.jackbody.com
A gallery of Jack Body's portraits by Gareth Watkins - www.garethwatkins.com/jack_body.html
'Jack Body in Transit' - an article by Andrew Ford on Inside Story (13 May 2015)

Glenda Keam is President of the Composers Association of New Zealand CANZ


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