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18 February 2015

John Gilfedder - obituary

John Gilfedder and the score of <em>The Timeless Land Symphony</em> Image: John Gilfedder and the score of The Timeless Land Symphony  

Ken Jamieson writes about the life and music of John Gilfedder (1925-2015). A concert of Gilfedder's music will take place in Brisbane on 20 March 2015.

John Francis Gilfedder was born in Melbourne in 1925. He died on 20 January 2015, five days short of his 90th birthday.

John's secondary education was at Xavier College where he was dux in his final year. Early on, he had a love affair with things French, gaining first prize for French at the school - his later output contains a dozen songs to texts by French poets, and he spoke the language fluently. John studied medicine, but dropped out after five years, opting for studies in music. He started to compose in 1948 and studied composition in England with Benjamin Frankel and Raymond Jones in 1951-52.

Back in Melbourne, he completed his Trained Primary Teacher's Certificate, and, by 1962, his BA, and B.Ed (Hons). He was employed by the Victorian Education Department between 1953 and 1969, becoming a lecturer in music at Melbourne Teachers' College. During this time he presented programs for schools on the ABC, and published a seminal text with Patrick Quirke for primary teachers in the classroom: Living Music: a Synthesis for New and Traditional approaches to Music in the Primary School (Victorian Education Department).

In Melbourne, John Gilfedder became part of the Catholic Intellectual movement, the Campion Society, influential in Australian letters and politics. The Campions all espoused the 'French Absolute Thinkers' such as Pierre Teilhard De Chardin and Jacques Maritain, the leading French intellectual thinkers of the time. John's wife, Jeanette, was librarian for the Catholic Library, founded by Father Hackett, who, incidentally, gave his blessing for their marriage. One of the society's well-known members, psychologist Ronald Conway, wrote the text for a Nativity pageant that John set the music to, Child of the Horizon, presented in the Myer Music Bowl in 1960 and '61. Joseph O'Dwyer's verse was used for The Trojan Doom which was presented by Queensland ISCM in 1972.

After a period lecturing at Geelong Teachers College, John was appointed Senior Lecturer in the History of Music and the Arts at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 1970 . During this time he involved students in innovative workshops in contemporary music styles. Some of his students include Robert Burrell, Stephen Stanfield, Stephen Cronin and Peter Rankine.

Robert Burrell's recollection gives us an idea of John as a teacher:

'John was a great support to me and always believed in my composition abilities. He took me out to lunch and took an interest in my career. He came to my concerts and first performances. He came and visited me in my house. He was always generous and encouraging. He organised get-togethers of composers at his house, and we would gather downstairs in his study and listen to each others' works. He would have dinners with composers and academics... one particular one comes to mind, where the fare was all hot curries, and there was no water provided, only wine. This made for a very lively dinner indeed.'

Commissions and performances of his music came from groups such as the Queensland Conservatorium Percussion, Queensland Conservatorium singers (both groups touring their respective commissions), the Queensland Youth Orchestra, the 1991 International Clarinet Conference, the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Southern Cross Soloists, amongst others. John had works performed at important festivals and conferences, such as the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, the International Society for Music Education and the ANZAAS (Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science) symposium on integrating art, science and technology in 1983. John also held the position of President of the ISCM in Queensland for two years in 1975-1977.

John had a great intellectual curiosity. He would listen to musicologist Trevor Jones's description of the art of the didjeridu, or Ravi Shankar's description of raga on LPs - the latter manifested itself in the Raga of the morning for solo cello, composed in 1989, while Balinese circular melody becomes a component of the compositional style in Variations in Silver for flute choir. Some of these musical influences also steered John's son Francis to become an authoritative exponent of ethnic music.

Lecturing in music history as well as practical music making - exploration and explication of wildly varying contemporary styles - and that symbiotic relationship peculiar to teacher and student influenced and spurred John to develop his own compositional language from the earlier, modal works. His later works were to contain many contemporary stylistic facets, sometimes becoming aggressively atonal such as in his piano work Orbits About a Theme.

John Gilfedder's music intends to evoke spiritual atmospheres (such as the Creator), and celebrate objective realities (such as Australia), symbolism and colour, as witnessed in works such as The Timeless Land Symphony (premiered by the Queensland Youth Orchestra), or the 'colour' series of varied instrumental combinations.

The Timeless Land Symphony aims to represent in music the awesome geological history of Australia, with God shaping the landscape through his agents in nature. John's son, Francis, writes of the genesis of the work:

'Dad and I had a seminal trip to Central Australia in 1987. While the Timeless Land Symphony had been a concept for years, it was when we went to Trephina gorge in the eastern MacDonnell ranges that Dad wandered off the track, came over a rise and saw a vast panorama of bluffs and ranges, and the main theme of the symphony came to him in that moment. He worked on it in our motel room, and on the plane returning we looked at the aerial landscape, noticing the dendritic patterns of streams, and Dad came up with the idea of "dendritic orchestration" where the woodwinds and strings mimicked the patterns of desert drainage. Of course there are many more narrative elements of the Symphony, which can be found in his notes on the piece.'

John was fascinated by the Aboriginal legend Tibrogargan and used to assemble his children in the shadow of the Glasshouse Mountains to tell them this legend about how these mountains came into being. Some of the inspiration for his orchestral work Legend of Tibrogargan came during a trip to Cape Byron.

'That's where Dad got inspiration for the invasion of the sea in the Aboriginal story - from the crashing waves on the rocks at Byron. Space themes were also important as long as I can remember, but the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1986 gave Dad inspiration for Pathways Through the Systems', the composer's son recollects.

John's compositional journey took him from modal, linear works to music that he described as simultaneously 'Journey' and 'Now-time' - that is, with both linear growth and 'circular sound-states', reflected in the attempt to express these dichotomies and complexities in the movement titles such as 'Line - Circle - Spiral' in his String Quartet no. 4. All of this shows a remarkable vigour in creative vision from a composer then in his late eighties.

There is much work to be done in deciphering John's manuscripts and presenting contemporary performances of his work. John was never one to retrieve parts from performers, or push his own barrow (to the detriment of knowledge of his work), although the list of performers who performed his work is an impressive one, suggesting a great respect within the musical community. But there is an undiscovered richness to be found within the over eighty works he has left us.

AMC resources

John Gilfedder - AMC profile (biography, work list, events)
'John Gilfedder (1925-2015) - a news article on Resonate (22 January 2015)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Ken Jamieson obtained a BA(Hons), majoring in Music and English at Sydney University and has been involved with music in four states as a performer, through involvement with music organizations such as ASKM, the Bartók Society, branches of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Sydney, Brisbane (as President) and Adelaide, and the Adelaide Sinfonia.  He founded Willowmavin Music in 2008 with Rob Soutar, with a view to publishing and promoting performance of Australian composers. He is chairman of chamber orchestra La Fraternistà di Solisti.


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