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30 March 2016

Nigel Westlake: Pragmatism and paper planes

Nigel Westlake Image: Nigel Westlake  

Nigel Westlake talks about his composing and his recent large-scale works: Missa Solis - Requiem for Eli, song cycle Compassion, and film score Paper Planes. The long-term APRA Board member and outgoing AMC Chair also touches on the rich array of music created in today's Australia, and the challenges and opportunities faced by our artists.

A new work Dream of Flying, commissioned by the BBC, is about to be premiered by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis on 13 April. Reworking elements of the Paper Planes score, the central section depicts a paper plane's journey through the air: 'a metaphor for life, perhaps, evincing the way we are all subject to forces beyond our control'.

Anni Heino: Over the past few years, you've been involved with several large-scale projects, including the 2010 work, Missa Solis - Requiem for Eli, and the orchestral song cycle Compassion (2013), composed in collaboration with Lior (who was also the soloist), as well as the film score for Paper Planes (2014). Are you continuing to paint on a large, orchestral canvas and is this where you're increasingly headed as a composer? Do you have smaller-scale projects in the pipeline? I'm asking, in part, because I was just recently talking to someone who was hoping to hear a another Piano Sonata some time soon, and I imagine percussionists and guitarists are particularly hoping that you won't 'abandon them', as it were.

Nigel Westlake: I love writing those smaller, intimate works and certainly have no intention of abandoning close working relationships with my piano, guitar and percussion colleagues. Over the coming months, in addition to planning some more chamber ensemble works, I also have a couple of symphonic commissions and a film score - to be confirmed! - to complete.

'Avinu malkeinu' (movement 7) from Compassion
Sydney Symphony Orchestra & Lior, conducted by Nigel Westlake.

The Requiem was forged through personal tragedy and, with intense grief at its heart, was something that demanded a larger form as an outlet for that anguish. This process has acclimatised me to the idea of working on a larger scale so, in a sense, it was the Requiem that paved the way for the Compassion song cycle.

Orchestral film scores are not a common occurrence in locally made films for various reasons, but I love the depth and emotional engagement of a symphonic score in the right context, and it's always gratifying to engage with a director who sees music as a priority, and is willing to allocate appropriate resources to the task.

Music is one of the last things to happen on a movie, so everyone, including the director, producers, sometimes even distributors, have their eyes fairly and squarely focused on the music as the film reaches the pointy end of production.
Trying to be creative whilst managing all this disparate commentary can be a tricky business, and I really admire composers who are resilient enough to sustain an ongoing career in an industry that has the potential to be brutal with one's work.
Happily though, my experience on Paper Planes was not at all like this. Director Robert Connelly was very clear about wanting a big, lush, traditional sounding score for Planes, and it was a joy to work with him on that project. I don't work on many films, but I'm pretty excited when the right project presents itself.

AH: Thinking of these three works - they've all been well received by the general public as well as reviewers, and won awards. You've also been quite involved in performances as a conductor. Some time has now passed since the completion of Missa Solis and Compassion - how do you hear and think of these works now, from your own, private composer's perspective? Do you move on quickly from such big projects, or do they continue to feed into other works? And how important is public recognition to an established composer?

NW: I am very proud of these works and enormously grateful they were so well received. I am also very happy when they manage to live on and receive further performances. Even though conducting the Requiem was such a cathartic and emotional journey, it was an enormous privilege to be able to share that experience with so many.

I rarely listen to anything after I've written it (unless I happen to be conducting), but hopefully every new work is a voyage of discovery and the process of developing and refining ideas for each piece assists to hone one's craft and open up new creative doors and ways of thinking.

Connection with audience and emotional engagement is a consideration whenever I am writing music. I am hopeful that if I can write something that resonates with my own aesthetic and gets my dopamine flowing, then perhaps others will find a connection. After all, if a member of the listening public is prepared to offer their precious time and focus of attention, then I believe we as composers have an obligation to at least attempt to honour that gift with work of creative fascination and emotional engagement.

The loss of my son Eli helped me to realise that without empathy, compassion and love, our lives are meaningless. If we have the capacity to integrate these concepts into our work, we stand a better chance of creating music that may be of relevance to the human condition and hopefully offer a spiritual connection on one level or another. At least this is what I was hoping to achieve through some of the more recent works such as the Requiem and Compassion.

AH: You started out as a self-taught composer and are now widely respected as a professional who knows his craft. Yet I understand you went to Richard Meale, not that many years ago, to find out more about orchestration. Why was that? Can you reflect on your own journey of becoming a composer and learning your craft? Do you feel you still have things to learn and areas you'd like to work on?

NW: I call myself self-taught because I have never had any formal training in composition, but I have received invaluable guidance and mentorship from so many. Richard Gill, Richard Meale, Theo Leovendie, Richard Mills, Bill Motzing, Peter Sculthorpe, my parents and my wife Janice have all been important figures in my compositional and musical development, and I am immensely humbled by the feedback and wisdom these special people have so generously shared with me. Composition is a constantly evolving voyage of discovery and growth. Most days I feel overwhelmed by my inadequacies and the amount of learning to be done, and I don't think any artist ever feels they have absorbed all there is to know.

But composing was never part of the grand plan. From an early age I always assumed I would be following my father into the clarinet chair of an orchestra somewhere, and the idea of becoming a composer never occurred to me. In those early days of studying the clarinet with my dad and playing various freelance gigs, mucking around with composition was just another way to get to know music better. I imagined that by discovering how notes are put together, it might somehow help to bring a deeper understanding of music to my clarinet playing. It wasn't until I wrote a small collection of very naive pieces and formed a band to perform them that (much to my surprise), my world began to open up to the possibility of writing music as something other than a casual past time. It was around the early 1990s that I began to receive some very exciting composition opportunities and the clarinet started to take a back seat as I began to focus more on writing.

My time with Richard Meale in 1993 was a deliberate attempt to hone my technique and embrace the writing process more deliberately. Richard invited me to visit him at his rainforest house near Mullumbimby. I spent some six weeks living close by and would drop in to visit him about once a week. Such was his passion and enthusiasm that our 'lessons' were never less than 8-10 hours long. He made one feel that there was nothing else more important in the world than what we were discussing at a particular point in time, whether that revolved around overarching concepts concerning musical philosophy or the micromanagement of notes on the page. I shall never forget his abundant generosity and genuine encouragement of my work.

Some of my most valuable lessons have been learnt on the job - working with musicians, taking their feedback on board, hearing pieces come to life and working out how ideas might have been better managed. Recording film scores can also be a revealing and instructive exercise. Scores have to be written so quickly, and within days you are in the studio, documenting them for perpetuity. This sort of pressure is very good for focusing the mind.

AH: Your long-term involvement with APRA as a Board member and a slightly shorter term as the Chair of the AMC Board have given you a lot of insight into the workings of the art industry as a whole. What is your view of the future of your own art form in Australia - where is it headed, what developments are you excited by, and is there a lot of cause for concern?

NW: I feel I have lived through a time of relative abundance on the back of the Whitlam era, the Australia Council and 10BA film funding. In contrast, my parents, also musicians, thought the only way to earn a living for a musician was to join an orchestra.
Things have changed substantially in my lifetime thus far, and I am deeply concerned by the recent cuts to the Australia Council, an act that has the potential to decimate the foundation of Australia's artistic community.

Even on the back of the most meagre resources, careers have the capacity to rise and flourish, and if our aspiring and talented creators are given some financial encouragement, they will often find a way to make things work. But to savage this precious resource to the extent where only a paltry percentage of applicants have any hope of success does not bode well for the future of arts in Australia.

On the bright side, I am happy to see a steady growth in music philanthropy and we composers are certainly blessed to be surrounded by such a strong base of excellently trained and committed instrumentalists who are genuinely passionate about Australian new music.

On those rare occasions when I am given the opportunity to conduct my own works, the sense of allegiance, love and embrace I feel from the musicians in the orchestras around Australia is deeply overwhelming and awe-inspiring.

My exposure to other musical genres from working on the APRA Board has also been something of a revelation. There are so many people out there, making so much music, in so many different ways. I think we all have a lot to learn from each other.

AH: Why has it been important for you to give your time to this kind of work for the music community - largely volunteer-based and presumably not exactly thrilling work?

NW: The AMC and APRA have both played a significant role in my creative pursuits and helped to facilitate my survival as a freelance composer, and there comes a time in life where one feels compelled to give back. When I formed an ensemble to play all original music back in 1978, our first concerts were at the AMC's original premises at The Rocks. Those events were pivotal to my desire to continue to experiment with original music.

In 2008 my election onto the APRA Board provided me with a completely fresh insight and appreciation of APRA's important work in supporting the music industry. Even though the vast bulk of APRA's revenue is generated by the commercially driven genres of pop and screen music, APRA is strongly committed to acting in the interests of all their members, regardless of the potential or otherwise to generate substantial royalties.

The benevolence of APRA toward the Art Music sector is strongly evidenced not only through their support of the Art Music Awards and the recently announced Art Music Commissioning fund, but also in their unquestioning backing of the AMC at a time of critical significance in the AMC's 40 year history.

In 2010 the AMC was undergoing a period of financial crisis and was forced to undergo significant restructuring. At the suggestion of APRA AMCOS CEO Brett Cottle, and with the full backing of the APRA board, the AMC was thrown a lifeline by APRA in the form of a new premises, access to important APRA resources and staff, as well as financial support. It was at this time that the AMC governance structure was remodeled, the Board was reconstituted, and I was appointed to the AMC chair.

The AMC Board has spent the past six years battling the ever-present spectre of insolvency and closure, but together with CEO John Davis and the extraordinary diligence of the AMC's lean and passionate staff, the AMC has managed to continue its important work, and reverse the organisation's deficit position in 2011 to achieve a more sustainable position in 2015, with some modest reserves.

With some dynamic new additions to the Board this year, and the appointment of Genevieve Lacey to the chair, I now feel very confident that the organisation is well placed to maximise its opportunities and enter a new phase of flourishing productivity. Having now completed my six-year term on the AMC Board, I am stepping down (a requirement of the constitution). However I am very pleased to continue to attend AMC Board meetings as an observer, at the invitation of the board. It has been particularly exciting for me to see the new board embrace the challenges ahead with such optimism and creativity and to bring such diversity and breadth of experience to the task. I am genuinely optimistic about the AMC's future and I am looking forward to offering my support to this incredible organisation in whatever form this may take.

AH: What do you see as the greatest challenges for composers today? And for performers of new music? What is your advice for young people trying to carve out their careers in the arts in today's Australia?

NW: My own career path has been anything but conventional, so it's difficult to be able to recommend a clear strategy for success, although I am more than happy to share a few thoughts -

Take control of your destiny. Don't expect anyone to sign you up and champion your work. Embolden yourself by taking control of your own destiny.

I began by writing music for my friends and me to perform. We were in control of what, where, when and how we played. I'm not saying we were great, but it was an empowering time of experimentation, creativity and learning by trial and error. It also got the music 'out there' to a listening audience, which opened up possibilities for further collaborations and invitations.


At heart I am a pragmatist. I love the idea that music not only has the capacity to transport us to the sphere of celestial ecstasy, but can also function for practical purpose. My own path has involved a breadth of diverse and fascinating experiences in radio, theatre, circus, documentary, jazz rock, feature film, commercial TV, Imax film, contemporary dance, electronic hip-hop, installation, ethno fusion, massive public spectacles, intimate chamber music and symphony. This diversification is the only way I have managed to sustain a full-time career in composition and, frankly, I wouldn't have had it any other way!

Fan the flame.

The drive, diligence, perseverance and passion required to forge a full-time career has to be relentless. Buckle up! It's gonna take all you've got, and then some.

Would you pay to hear it?

Seriously - would you pay money to hear your own work? If not, then why would anyone else?

Make sure you are very content in your own company.

After all, you will spend 99% of your working life alone. That is the nature of writing music.

Be gracious in your business dealings.

The music world is a small, tightly knit community and people have very long memories.

Is that piece finished?

Have you done everything you can think of to make your music as good as it can be? Is it playable? Does the form have logic? There is no shortage of half-baked ideas out there. Why add to the stockpile?

Learn to be self-reliant, and versatile.

Don't blame others when stuff doesn't work, and try everything at least once, no matter how weird the project. You never know, you might surprise yourself.

And last but not least……. Stay honest & true to yourself.

Richard Meale always used to say there are two types of music - good and bad. Make sure you always write the good stuff!

Further links

Nigel Westlake - AMC profile (biography, works, recordings, events, articles)
Forthcoming events with Nigel Westlake's music: BBC Proms Australia 13 April (MSO, Melbourne); Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra 16 April; Adelaide Symphony Orchestra 20 April; Sydney Symphony Orchestra 28-30 April
New education resource: Compassion by Nigel Westlake and Lior (Resonate 2 March 2016)
Nigel Westlake - Rimshot Music (publisher & distributor)
Smugglers of Light foundation (http://smugglersoflight.com/)

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