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27 November 2009

Richard Meale - eulogy

Richard Meale at AYO's National Music Camp 2005 with composition student Cyrus Meurant Image: Richard Meale at AYO's National Music Camp 2005 with composition student Cyrus Meurant  

This eulogy, written by Andrew Ford, was read at Richard Meale's funeral in Sydney on Friday 27 November by Brett Cottle, CEO of the Australiasian Performing Right Association (APRA).

In Richard Meale we have lost a bold and passionate musical imagination, a curious, penetrating, original intellect, a profoundly caring conscience and a mordant wit. Richard was a generous colleague, a shrewd judge of music - and of people - and an honest and considerate friend.

Music really mattered to Richard. It was important. Not some deluxe item, not a fashion accessory, not an entertainment (or not simply an entertainment). Music might be playful, it should certainly be alluring, but at heart it was intensely serious.

Richard's creative life was driven by several paradoxes. He was, without a doubt, the most cosmopolitan Australian composer of his generation. For a start, he was supremely well read - poetry, plays and novels, but also - and particularly - philosophy. His ears were open to all sorts of music; his mind was open to everything. And it was in his mind that he first began to travel, through European music and literature, through Asian art. His imagination took him round the world, even before the Ford Foundation Scholarship did.

When he got to California, at UCLA, he studied Indian music, Balinese and Javanese gamelan and Japanese gagaku. He didn't just read about them or listen to them, he played them. And these experiences emerged, somewhat later, in his own music, not as quotations or borrowings or as the trappings of Orientalism, but fully absorbed. When you listen to Clouds now and then or Images (Nagauta), you are hearing pure Meale. No quotations, no musical dress-up. And yet you sense a stillness, a timelessness that you feel can only have come from a genuine engagement with these other cultures.

It was the same with Spain. Richard drank in the language, the poetry, the painting and the music. But the works that sprang from this - Las Alboradas, Homage to Garcia Lorca, Very High Kings and (let's not forget) the Three Miró Pieces: they are Richard, through and through. They are intense, passionate and intricate. They are also, it seems to me, Australian.

So here's the first paradox. For when he actually went to Spain, Richard was surprised to discover that the light there reminded him of Australia; and that he wanted to come home.

He would continue to steep himself in European culture, but he felt the need to be apart from it. He would love Lorca and Rimbaud, Bach and Bruckner, Monteverdi and Messiaen, but he would love them from afar.

In a way, I think it was the same with his friends. He loved his friends, too, but he came to feel the need to distance himself from us. This was behind his faintly quixotic move to Mullumbimby at the start of the 1990s. From then on, most of his friendships - most of the time - were conducted on the telephone.

One of the last times I saw Richard - it was in 2007 - we ended up talking about God. It wasn't a long conversation: neither of us believed in Him. I said to Richard something stupid along the lines of it being essentially liberating that we didn't have a deity. We were responsible for our lives and our world, so we just had to try to be nice to one another. Richard gave me one of his more withering looks and growled, 'But I don't wanna be nice to people!'

Now this wasn't strictly true. In fact it's another paradox. Part of him craved company. When he lived in Julie Simonds's granny flat in the first part of this decade, Julie's children, Matt and Caitlin, would try to get out of taking Richard his mail. Because they knew they'd never get away. There was no chance of just handing the letters in at the door, they'd have to stay for a chat and the chat would turn into a harmony lesson. The whole thing might easily take an hour. And yet, they came to regard Richard as their grandfather, and, when they were out together, Richard took to introducing them as his grandchildren, enjoying the confusion this caused on the faces of his old friends.

At the end of his life, Richard moved in with his niece Amanda, and he found, I think, a true kindred spirit, someone with whom he could be as quiet or as gregarious as he liked. Someone who simply understood him.

A good example of the gregarious Richard was the National Music Camp at Monash University in 2005. The artistic director Richard Mills invited Richard to be the composition tutor. It was a brilliant idea, but on Day One the signs weren't good. When Richard walked into the staff bar that first night, he looked crestfallen and said he wasn't really drinking any more. His doctor had told him he had to cut it out, and it was the same with the cigarettes. To be social, though, he'd have a glass of red and just sort of sit on it all night.

The plan lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour. He ended up having quite a few glasses of red, and before the night was out, he was in the doorway lighting up his fags.

On the morning of Day Three, I bumped into Richard's composition students. They were looking bleary-eyed, and, in one case, actually ill. It turned out that the night before they'd gone for a drink with Richard. (The innocence of youth!) They'd finally got to bed around 5 am. Richard himself showed no ill-effects. He was having a ball.

The students came to love him during those two weeks. And so did the instrumental tutors. It was touching to see how much respect they had for him and how happy they were in his company. By the end of the fortnight, Richard had committed himself to writing five of them concertos. There was to be a harp concerto for Marshall McGuire, a clarinet concerto for Frank Celata - these of course were Richard's own instruments - as well as concertos for horn, cello and (I think) flute. I don't know whether the players truly believed these pieces would be composed, or whether Richard himself did. I doubt it. I think, perhaps, they were all engaged in a kind of communal euphoria, brought on by Richard's presence and his good spirits. There's no now point in regretting that these fantasies came to nothing ... but I can't help thinking that horn concerto would have been something.

As the Music Camp proved, Richard was a very good teacher. But he wasn't a born teacher; he had learnt on the job. Those who first studied with him at Adelaide in the early 1970s report that he could be doctrinaire and forbidding. Classes might be inspirational but occasionally also terrifying. Richard felt that everyone else should be as fascinated and informed as he was when it came to the music of Stockhausen, the poetry of Mallarmé and the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein. At the very least, they should want to be fascinated and informed. One suspects not many of his students measured up.

But here's another paradox. As Richard began to think more about writing his first opera, Voss, his musical style changed, tonality finding its way back into his work first in Viridian, then more boldly in the second string quartet. As his music mellowed, the composer began to experience doubt. For someone who had been as adamant about the modernist shibboleth as Richard, this was perhaps inevitable. One of the things he doubted was whether he should stand in front of his students any more and tell them how to write music. He lacked certainty and felt, I suppose, that this was a weakness in a teacher. But it wasn't. It was a great strength. And there's a generation of students will testify to that.

When it was finally premiered on the opening night of the 1986 Adelaide Festival, Voss, with its inspiring libretto by David Malouf, was a turning point for Richard, for his music and for opera in this country. It was daring, rich, experimental and lyrical. Brought vividly to the stage in Jim Sharman's production, it told Patrick White's story with fidelity, while adding layers of meaning and resonance. And it continues to resonate.

Before this year's 'Voss Journey' (the four-day symposium about the novel and the opera organised by the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Library), I listened to the opera for the first time in years. I was moved and impressed all over again, but I was also amazed to discover that I seemed to know every note of the piece. I suspect that Mer de glace, Richard and David's second collaboration, might be an even better opera, but Voss has a demonstrated capacity to speak to a wide audience and to insinuate itself in our memories. What better place to start building an Australian operatic repertory?

Time changes our perceptions of art. Art seems to keep working on us even when we're not looking at it or listening to it or thinking about it. Today, when I hear Richard's great orchestral works of the 1960s, they don't seem especially atonal. And Viridian, which caused such a shock when first performed, doesn't seem so tonal. The stylistic fracture appears to have healed. Or maybe we've grown up. On the new CD of Richard's music conducted by his friend and supporter Richard Mills, Lumen (from 1998) is followed by Clouds now and then from 30 years before. They are evidently the work of the same man, the man whom Wolfgang Fink calls 'one of the few Very High Composers of our time'.

It would be hard, truthfully, to overstate Richard Meale's importance to Australian music. But alas, it's proved all too easy to underestimate it.

Our mass media prefer people whose ideas will fit neatly into the boxes they've already constructed. Richard's ideas were too big to fit. To make matters worse, he wasn't interested in giving interviews. In fact he hated all that: 'You always end up saying something stupid,' he told me. Unguarded, more like.

In a way, it's a shame he didn't give more interviews, because at his most cantankerous he'd have made fabulous copy. Sometimes, I suspect, he would drop a contentious remark into a conversation just to see what would happen. But I don't think he ever spoke meretriciously. When Richard said something outrageous, he meant it. He spoke his mind, even when he spoke it too bluntly.

In the popular press, though, Richard held his peace. So they forgot about him. When a reporter rang me for a comment on the day he died, she wasn't even sure how to pronounce his name. 'Is it Meal', she said, 'or Mealy?'

It's ironic. In the late 1960s and 70s, the newspapers were interested enough in Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe to create a rift between them. It wasn't a real rift, more a beat up, but how extraordinary it seems, from here, that the press should have cared that much about concert music! Now half the time you can't even get your concert reviewed.

It was a beat up, but if newspapers are writing about a rift between you and someone else - a friend, a colleague ... a competitor - well it becomes hard not to get caught up in it. And Richard grew wary of Peter. At least on the surface.

But I'd like to finish by telling you a Richard Meale story. Anyone who met Richard has a story about him. Most of you here will have dozens of stories. Still you probably won't know this one.

One day in 1993, Richard rang up. For many years he had served assiduously on the board of APRA - the performing right association - and now it had fallen to him, at the forthcoming APRA awards night, to present an award to Peter Sculthorpe. It was the Ted Albert Memorial Award - for a lifetime of achievement - and as Peter's colleague, contemporary and the only classical composer on the board, Richard was clearly the man for the job.

Well he didn't want to do it. He told me he hadn't followed Peter's career, he didn't know his music and he couldn't imagine what he might have to say. Would I do it?

I said, 'No, Richard. You must do it. It would be a good thing for Australian music.'

He wasn't buying this, of course. So eventually I agreed to write a speech for Richard to read.

As I wrote, I came to feel I was engaged in some great purpose. Working for the general good. I praised Peter's qualities and those of his music, and I praised them from what I took to be Richard's perspective. Single-handedly, it seemed to me, I was healing that rift, bringing our two most famous composers back together, uniting Australian music and musicians.

I sent the speech to Richard. And I printed out a second copy to take to the dinner in my jacket pocket. I just had a bad feeling that, come the big moment, Richard might have locked himself in the toilet.

But no. There he was. On stage. Speech in hand.

And so he began to speak. And they were not my words. They were better than my words. They were his words. Personal words. Whatever he might have felt about Peter and about the rift, he couldn't help but stand there and speak the truth, honouring another composer's work and another composer's uniqueness.

I began by saying that Richard Meale was caring and generous, and that he was shrewd and honest. I think all those qualities shone out of his speech that night in 1993.

They shine out of his music too. And as long as his music is played, those qualities will continue to shine and to transmit themselves to anyone with the time, imagination and ears to hear.

And so now it's up to us to honour Richard Meale's work and Richard Meale's uniqueness.

We do this, very simply, by playing his music. As well as we can. Again and again.

Further links

Richard Meale - AMC profile (biography, list of works, articles, recordings etc.)
Vale Richard Meale: personal reminiscences by David Worrall and Ross Edwards - Resonate feature.
The Place of Voss - Resonate article about the Voss Journey event by Vincent Plush.
'Restless spirit found the music in Voss' - an obituary by Vincent Plush (The Australian, 24 November 2009)
Vale Dr Richard Meale AM MBE - news item on APRA website
'A Composer's Legacy' - an article by Robyn Holmes in the National Library of Australia's Gateways

Subjects discussed by this article:

Andrew Ford is a composer, writer and broadcaster.


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Wake for Meale

This Thursday the 3rd of December, Radio Adelaide is presenting a three -hour wake for Richard Meale.

The programme has been prepared and presented by Grahame Dudley and Luke Altmann and will feature many of his works and live and phone -in contributions from  many of his friends, colleagues and students around Australia.

Tune in at Radio Adelaide at 101.5 FM also on the world wide web

Tune in from 9:10am until 12noon.

The composer Grahame Dudley was associated with Richard Meale from his Sydney student days conducting many of his early and middle works and also giving the premiere performances of LUMEN and PALIMPSEST.

He was also a close friend and colleague during the eighteen years they taught together at the University of Adelaide.