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13 October 2008

Nigel Westlake: learning on the job

Westlake concert at Melbourne International Festival

Nigel Westlake Image: Nigel Westlake  
© Carla Gottgers / Melbourne International Arts Festival

This year's Melbourne International Art Festival featured a concert of Nigel Westlake's music, with the composer himself conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The following interview is a transcript of a radio conversation between Westlake, who recently turned 50, and Andrew Ford on ABC Radio National, a few days before the concert (11 October). It touches on the topic of composers learning 'on the job' as well as the fact that, during the most difficult of times, music is not always able to offer consolation. The interview, recorded in front of a live audience, was preceded by Slava and Leonard Grigoryan's performance of Westlake's guitar duo Songs from the Forest (1994). The transcript is published courtesy of the The Music Show program.

Andrew Ford: You've made those instruments your own. How did that come about? You're not a guitar player – most guitar music is written by guitar players, you know.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, and it's a bit of a cow of an instrument to write for, especially if you are not a player, but a lot of my misspent youth was spent mucking around with rock guitarists and jazz guitarists and folk guitarists, and I think a lot of that rubbed off. But it was a kind of leap of faith, I guess, by a friend of mine, Timothy Kain, head of guitar at the Canberra School of Music, who invited me to write for his group Guitar Trek. And you know, it was initiation by fire, having not actually written anything for guitar before. And then Tim introduced me to John Williams, and John of course was instrumental in getting the commission for the Antarctica Suite, which Slava will be playing on Tuesday night. So it started from there.

AF: People are always surprised to hear that composers think that guitar is 'a cow of an instrument', as you say, because, you know, everyone plays the guitar a bit. And yet, it is the most scary instrument to write for, isn't it?

NW: You've got to be so specific, because of the logistics of actually playing it. It's a bit of a minefield, really – the stretch of the fingers and coordination of both hands, and so on. So yes, it's very difficult to write for, and you learn as you go, I guess. But I've been really lucky to have had fantastic collaborations, such as with Slava and Lenny. They've helped a lot with regard to making music playable. You give them an idea and they find a way to make it work. So it's a beautiful relationship.

AF: What about conducting? That's something else that one learns on the job, isn't it?

NW: Yes. Some years ago, I got invited by Richard Mills to present a concert of my own work for the Brisbane Biennial. He rang me up and said, 'I want to do a "Westlake Conducts Westlake"'. I said, 'No no no, you can't do that, I've never conducted before.' And he said, 'Oh you'll be fine, just get up there and wave your hands.' I said, 'Look, no really, I can't do it, I don't want to do it.' A few weeks later the poster arrived: 'Westlake Conducts Westlake'. Oh my God. So I ring him up: 'What is going on?' And he said, 'Look, you'll be fine. Just come on up, and I'll give you a lesson or something.'

So I went up and he said, 'Okay, let's start from bar one.' So, I had my conducting baton with me, and I started, and there was a complete silence, and I looked over in the corner of the room, and there he was, with his hand over his eyes, shaking his head. 'Oh my God, have we got a lot of work to do.' And he invited me up to his house every weekend for the next two months, prior to the concert. And we stood in front of the mirror and did all the patterns, and he got me going. And from then on, I really love conducting. I don't have a lot of opportunity to do it live but I have conducted a few film scores and things like that. It's a great feeling. It's about making music together. I'm not going to get up in front of the orchestra and do the maestro thing, we are all in this together. And I think the orchestra responds well to that.

AF: The players cut you a bit of slack as the composer as well, don't they? Because whatever your conducting technique is like, you're the world authority on this music.

NW: Well, hopefully, if you can remember what the hell you write!

AF: This concert on Tuesday night is dedicated to the memory of your son Eli, who died so tragically in June. I don't suppose anybody here can imagine what that feels like, but I wonder whether, after something like that, music would seem very important, or even palatable?

NW: Music has lost a lot of relevance these past few months. You would imagine that it would be something that would console one, but that hasn't been the case. My last times spent with Eli were actually sailing up the coast of New South Wales, and we used to listen to a lot of Lior, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter, and Bobby McFerrin. I've been listening a lot to those tracks, to kind of, I don't know, keep a hold of those memories. Eli was going to come, he long planned to come to this concert, it was high on his agenda, so we're bringing him with us in spirit, hopefully. He grew up with these pieces, he slept in the next room as they were being composed, and they were very much a part of who he was. But much more than that, he inspired them in me, the joy of a young father bringing up his two sons. Eli and his older brother, Joel, gave me the kind of flights of fancy and a kind of fantastic springboard to exercise my creativity and productivity, and so, I hear a lot of his … people describe him as a kind of impish, Buddha character, and there is a lot of that in the music.

AF: Your creativity is important to all the rest of us as well. Long may you be creative, Nigel Westlake.

Performance details

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The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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