20 February 2013
Lawrence Whiffin - eulogy
'It is often said that music is non-specific in its meanings - which is its power and its limitation, and sometimes its danger. Because of that vagueness, it is quite common to look for clues in the life and personality and times of the composer, in order to understand and explain a piece of music more fully. No one here needs convincing that Laurie's personality was all around us in audible form.' John McCaughey spoke these words some months ago in a eulogy delivered at the composer Lawrence Whiffin's (1930-2012) funeral on 26 November 2012, and has kindly made the eulogy available for publication on Resonate.
Let me start by expressing on behalf of the music community our sympathy to all the members of the Whiffin family for their loss of Laurie.
When a friend and colleague of many years such as Laurie Whiffin has come to the end of his life, there is the shock at the finality of it. Email and phone contacts are still there in our systems, but we realise that he will never again respond to a message or call. There is of course sadness in this, but that phrase the 'finality of death', also seems to stand in contradiction to another sense: of an ongoing presence of the person and the life.
In the music that we just heard, the concluding stage of Laurie's work Murchitt, a daydream, the central figure, Albert Murchitt, finds himself in some very strange geographical zone, possibly not far from the gates of Hell (for which he might need that orange boat to get over the River Styx), or maybe on the outskirts of Heaven. Anna, his partner, has already passed into the latter location in William Henderson's tale - from page one of the score she had been growing larger and larger, while Albert Murchitt was shrinking ever smaller. Laurie, as we can hear, relishes the artistic appeal in this end situation. However, as most people will know, he was unenthusiastic - enthusiastically unenthusiastic - about religious forms of language to deal with such an issue as death and its aftermath, or with any other issue for that matter. All the same: being someone who lived music as the central factor of his day-to-day existence, Laurie might still have allowed a musical interpretation of his own mortal end and continuing resonance for those of us who remain.
Music, we like to think, has its own way of framing thoughts and saying things beyond the ordinariness of the moment. And the musician - particularly one with such spectacular composing gifts as Laurie - may have the privileged possibility of travelling with those flights of sonic fantasy that we call music-making. If we say that Laurie lived music, it implies that music is not just a working skill or profession but a form of life, a way of living, and possibly one to which we belong more than it belongs to us.
It is often said that music is non-specific in its meanings - which is its power and its limitation, and sometimes its danger. Because of that vagueness, it is quite common to look for clues in the life and personality and times of the composer, in order to understand and explain a piece of music more fully. No one here needs convincing that Laurie's personality was all around us in audible form, in the music we have already heard this morning. What strikes me, however, is how things flow in the reverse direction in his case - the music gives us clues to the person. The multiple life of Laurie's music - its multi-character within individual pieces and across the variety of his works - points to dimensions in his personality and in his times that maybe were not so obvious by just meeting and knowing him.
Laurie's important compositions were largely competed during the second half of his working life, - in fact, the majority from his 50th year onwards. But they draw in his whole experience as a working musician, and grow out of a diversity of environments which had been his habitat since his early 20s.
It was as a fully developed musician in his late 40s that most of us first got to know Laurie Whiffin, after he arrived back in Australia in 1976 to join the staff at La Trobe University. A new and progressive department of music had been established at La Trobe by Keith Humble, Laurie's friend since student days in Melbourne and Paris. Humble's idea of a music department was certainly for it to be a creative centre, but not necessarily a harmonious one. He believed that a truly contemporary music flourished best in the cross-winds of different ideas. So his staff came from different directions, literally and metaphorically, representing influences from the West and East Coasts of the United States, from Australia of course, and from Europe with its own multiple strands.
The composers, who were in a majority on staff at La Trobe, did not just have contrasting ideas, they also embodied these ideas, and lived them out in their own individual personalities and practices. This, I think, gave the students who thronged to that department throughout its life considerable choice in musical possibility and vision.
Like all human institutes, the La Trobe department had its own biography - a birth in the mid 70s, a varied life with highs and lows through the next two decades, (including periods when Laurie was its Chair), then death at the end of the century. This biography was much dependent on the changing generations of students, but also on the evolution of the staff, naturally including its administrative and technical members. For the whole founding period, the administrator was Gerri Savage, who pretty much ruled the enterprise from behind a large and crowded desk. Laurie's personal partnership with Gerri in those years, which remained as the abiding attachment of his Australian life, was part of the department's biography, and also its seismography.
So, Laurie joined a kind of human kaleidoscope at La Trobe, sometimes bemused by the musical offerings of his colleagues, but contributing his own characteristic approach, humour, and eccentricities. He had the deepest voice in the corridor, which effortlessly penetrated a wall or two of cheap university architecture. And he had the loudest sotto voce. Laurie never quite grasped the carrying power of his own voice, and if he wanted to say something confidential, or defamatory, his practice was to lower his pitch even further, by around a minor third, and reduce the volume minimally in decibels. The result was that most people in the surroundings, registering the drop in pitch, would listen more intently.
Laurie's voice in the broader musical sense was of course crucial as part of the La Trobe mix. And progressively it imprinted itself on the wider contemporary music scene in Melbourne and Australia. That musical voice was the product of an exceptional range of experience since Laurie had left the country as a 20-year-old to study in France.
In those pre-globalisation times, from the 1950s really through to the late '70s, it was a much more decisive difference to choose France and Italy for study and professional work, as against the UK, and having left Australia there was less toing and froing than has now become common. In Laurie's case, he stayed away 26 years, and that quarter-century vitally affected the person and artist whom we first met.
His education in France from 1950 was extraordinary for a young Melbourne musician - in piano, composition, conducting, but also enriched by a range of professional activities as pianist, and set against life in the broader French culture of the Fourth Republic, itself in foment over the Algerian War (and indeed passing to collapse during Laurie's time there). He continued the piano studies in which he had graduated under Roy Shepherd in Melbourne, and, from 1957, joined the classes of René Leibovitz. As a composer and conductor of great distinction, Leibovitz was the main teacher of the Schoenberg School in Europe at the time. He was also a kind of opposite pole and antidote to another famous teacher, the neo-classical Nadia Boulanger, to whom a great number of well-known American composers flocked.
From Leibovitz Laurie received not only a solid and demanding central-European teaching in composition and theory but also, as conducting student, the experience of assisting on recording projects - on operas and on the cycle of Beethoven symphonies that subsequently became a classic in the history of recording. In the Leibovitz circle he also encountered a gallery of characters, including Michel Puig, born in the same year as Laurie, a maker of theatre at its more experimental end, who remained a lifelong friend.
With this formidable background in classical training, Laurie and his then wife Margot moved to Rome for much of the 1960s, where he worked in the popular sphere as arranger, conductor, composer, pianist in the recording studios of RCA and on tours in various countries. His collaborators included many well-known names of popular music, for example Paul Anka, and Ennio Morricone, who was a close associate of Laurie in those days.
Although Laurie preferred to downplay this commercial-music part
of his life, one is struck by how much it contributed to the
whole package of his musical abilities and, ultimately, to the
individuality of his 'serious' music. It also ran in parallel
with other kinds of work. During the Italian years he travelled
to Milano to perform the role of Speaker in Schoenberg's Ode
to Napoleon, conducted by Leibovitz - a performance one
would love to hear now. And after returning to France in 1970, to
work in film music, he resumed performing with Diego Masson, one
of Europe's best-known conductors of contemporary ensemble
Of special importance, in my view, is the multi-lingual existence that Laurie led in those years. He was at home speaking either French or Italian, a process that entails entering into another culture's spirit and humour and way of thinking, or even of letting these things enter into one's own psyche. Clearly a talented linguist, Laurie even picked up some plausible German when working for a period in Zürich. No one would regard Switzerland as an ideal place to acquire German (not even the Swiss), but he could communicate basic sentences, and did so with a very strange, Franco-Italian accent, the like of which no other speaker of German has ever quite achieved. Fortunately, this is not lost to linguistic and musical history: a CD on the Astra label contains a choral-theatre piece by Mauricio Kagel, in which Laurie's solo voice booms through, reciting texts from German Lutheran chorales.
More seriously: Laurie's own musical scores, I think, are full of a multi-lingual view of the world, and that is one of their strengths.
All of this mixture of skills and experience in one person, then, is what arrived at Bundoora from Paris in 1976, to the rather alien environment of academia, and became a source for students to learn from. As a composition teacher Laurie conveyed the idea of a piece as an expressive statement, rather than a construction from a more abstracted scheme, or the result of an experimental procedure in sound. Both of those legitimate notions were also on offer at La Trobe, but Laurie was happy to represent his own style of thinking.
Mark Pollard, now Head of the new VCA School of Contemporary Music wrote last week: 'Laurie was a brilliant composer and an inspiring teacher. He was the first person to really connect me with emotion and drama in composition. I still recall the time he played through my very first piano work: it was like electricity being turned on for the first time.'
Teaching traditional theory - harmony and counterpoint - Laurie also saw in quite a personal way, not really as institutional academic subjects but more as engaging at the coal-face of music itself. He especially enjoyed the one-on-one teaching that continued through the years of his retirement. He gained much satisfaction from the musical and personal encounters this brought him with students who were mature musicians, such as Tom Henry, Kim Tan, Phillip Villani and others. With his fellow-composer and near-neighbour in West Brunswick, Martin Friedel, he would also have one continual topic of conversation over coffee: what are you doing with your notes on the page, and how, and why?
Personal encounter is built in to much of Laurie's own music as well. Murchitt, as we heard, was an amalgam of Laurie's personality, and that of the writer William Henderson. The text previously existed as an independent performance piece, much performed by William in places such as La Mama, but Laurie not only transformed it into his own characteristic mixture of chamber music, cantata and satire, but even incorporated the presence of William - almost in competition with the solo soprano and tenor, a speaking voice asserting itself amid the encroaching music. In the last year or two, Laurie and William had proposed a sequel Murchitt Part II for an Astra performance in 2013. Typically, Laurie did not wish to rest on the previous work's prize-winning laurels, but planned to involve a further voice and collaborator in Steve Stelios Adam, to explore and add some entirely new electroacoustic sonic dimensions.
Multiple voices are similarly at work in his song-cycle of 2010, Time Steals Softer, eight songs mapped onto the bass voice of Jerzy Kozlowski - part of Laurie's familiar aural landscape for many years in the Astra concerts. This was his third joint project with his close friend, the poet George Genovese.
The pianist for the song cycle was Michael Kieran Harvey, whose unusual virtuosity has shaped the almost outlandishly difficult character of several of Laurie's pieces. Notably Piano Sonata No. 3 of 2011, now recorded by Michael, has in turn become Laurie's most recent, unperformed work in a new adaptation for four hands, made in particular for Joy Lee. The last Astra concert that Laurie attended a few weeks ago and took great delight in, was a two-piano program at Eleventh Hour Theatre with Joy and Kim Bastin.
And the Concerto for violin and five instruments, which is heard at the conclusion today, similarly lives from Laurie's long engagement with a special group of Astra performers over many years, including the violinist Miwako Abe, flautist Mardi McSullea, clarinettist Craig Hill and bassoonist Elise Millman. Such musicians with outstanding sound on their instruments added greatly to the range and richness of his oeuvre by their preparedness to work over months on occasions to play a new work. This applied particularly to the later ensemble work Fiesta for the recorders of Genevieve Lacey with a similar instrumental line-up.
Laurie's encounters with people were by no means restricted to other musicians - he enjoyed friendships in his local area wherever he lived, and this became a special support for him in West Brunswick as his health declined. Nor were his interests isolated in a musical cocoon. He maintained consistent and straightforward left-wing political convictions and, like so many, deplored the retreat of major Left parties from these convictions, which, for him, came down to self-evident human principles.
His humour, described by one fellow concert-goer as sardonic and trenchant, was fairly unstoppable. When Allan Walker and I visited him in St Vincent's on the Friday afternoon less than two days before his death, he was still making a joke with the young physiotherapist, whose pockets were brimming with various items of hospital technology. Laurie said to him: 'I see you've got a packet of fags there.' And like a number of Laurie's jokes, it went a bit wrong - the physio thought he might be a keen smoker desperate for a cigarette, although nothing could be further from the truth. By the time it had been cleared up, his face still showed a little concern (after all Laurie was in there for a lung condition), while Laurie's face, if anything, seemed not dissatisfied that he had managed to sew some little confusion in the world.
Laurie also enjoyed being the butt of humour, and continually supplied ample ammunition for that - his technique of driving a car being just one of many genres. He would have expected no less of today's occasion, than to have some humour at his expense, but he was always waiting to strike back, and I can sense him now, telling me to shut up and give him right of reply. And he shall have it, very soon, with his piano Etude.
But first one final provocation: a Latin tag - requiescat in pace. May he rest in peace. Laurie's physical existence is now at an end, with all its encroaching ailments set aside. Much as he will be missed, there is some relief for all who knew him that the struggle which increasingly weighed on him is at rest. The person and the life still are free to reside in many people's memories, and maybe equally in the music that is left behind. If Australian music gets serious about its history, his voice will be heard there, as an individual moment in the story, and it will be understood and enjoyed by players and listeners who never knew him.
And so to Laurie's riposte - the Etude No.1 for solo piano. Although written for the likes of Michael Kieran Harvey and Kim Bastin, who premiered it, we will hear it in the MIDI version, direct from the computer notation. This has something of an automated quality, like the music with pianola rolls, but it also seems like pure Laurie, sitting at his oversized computer screen in West Brunswick, and letting it rip. The material is a French popular tune that most people will know. What we don't know is where Laurie will take it, on a careering journey round many corners, and every time we think it can't get faster, or more unlikely, or more impossible for the poor player, something else happens or arrives. The final destination, however, is a chorale, with the piano brought back to a kind of human choir.
Maybe we can hear in this music a refusal on Laurie's part to rest in peace, and an invitation to celebrate that refusal.
© John McCaughey 26 November 2012
© Australian Music Centre (2013) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
John McCaughey is the musical director of the Astra Chamber Music Society.
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