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29 April 2008

Tristram Cary

1925 - 2008

Tristram Cary Image: Tristram Cary  

The loss of Tristram Cary last week was not only a loss for Australian music but indeed for world music, as Tristram was truly an international figure and acknowledged pioneer of electronic music. For those unfamiliar with his story I would suggest a reading of the excellent obituary written by Graham Strahle in The Australian Tuesday April 29th.

Rather than reiterate the high points and achievements of Tristram’s life and career, I would at this point prefer to make some personal observations. I am fortunate enough to have known Tristram for three decades and to have seen him in a variety of situations - as composer, teacher and, in recent times, interviewee for a proposed book on his life and work. Tristram was first and foremost a complete gentleman, rarely allowing a negative word about colleagues, students or other artists to pass his lips, it was enough for Tristram that people tried to do their best. As a composer Tristram covered all of the turf available, from film and television scores to pure electronics and works for the concert hall. At the end of one of our interview sessions, however, he wondered aloud whether he should have been more disciplined in creating a more conventionally accepted body of work, symphonies and string quartets. My response then, as it is now, was that the wonderful eclecticism of his output is what provides what I believe to be an enduring body of work. It is a widely held truism that the composers that history remembers are of two kinds, those at the beginning of a new era who experiment, and those who come at the end and encapsulate all that has gone before. Tristram was one of the former, he perhaps unknowingly spearheaded the shift from the traditional role of the composer into the multi-faceted workplace that today’s composers inhabit. I know composers of his generation who envy his eclectic output.

As a professional composer for theatre in the early '80s, I had occasion to renew my earlier acquaintance/friendship with Tristram. A commission from the South Australia Theatre company was devoid of any budget for performers for the music and the promise of studio time to create the score elsewhere had vanished. Approaches were made to Tristram for access to the studio at the Conservatorium and he agreed to provide time for me to work. I began my first session early one evening after Tristram had shown me the new studio setup incorporating the Synklavier computer synthesizer. He asked if I needed a tutorial on operating the Synklavier to which I replied (as only a young man can) “No, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” A desperate hour or so later I wandered out of the studios and noted that Tristram’s office door was open and the light still on and gingerly knocked on the door to confess that I was stymied by this new piece of equipment. Tristram merely smiled and asked “I’ve been waiting for you, what took you so long? It is the only one in the country so there’s no way this was going to be easy for you.” We then returned to the studio where he gave a practical driving lesson for the Synklavier and then belatedly left to go home. He understood from his own experience the anxiety and difficulty working to a film or theatre brief and allowed me absolutely free rein with the studio whilst always being on call for any advice, technical or artistic, that he might offer and always treated me as a fellow composer rather than a neophyte of the studio. Always the generous man.

As I noted earlier, Tristram was also kind in his treatment of other people within the framework of his own story. As a would-be biographer however, I knew that he had suffered on a number of occasions due to other people's insensitivities or egos, and tried to lead him into more fulsome explanations of some of these episodes. Whenever the tape was rolling he remained circumspect and it was only towards the end of our sessions when he began hinting that things had sometimes been more difficult than he had earlier mentioned. Again the generous man.

The world of music has lost one of its finest and it brings me sadness, but I think of some of the other stories I and others could tell and it makes me smile. Farewell Tristram, I will miss you. Jim Cotter

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defeating the Daleks

Thanks, Jim, for this lovely tribute to Tristram. I too picked up his feeling that he'd been a little hard done by in comparison to some of his composer colleagues. It was, I believe, his "wonderful eclecticism" that was responsible for most of this: such expansive talent, especially its pioneering work in electronic music, was a threat to the established order, and it was easier to ignore rather than embrace the works and and deal with their technical demands. I also believe that instead of defiantly embracing his eclecticism, he allowed the establishment to make him feel that this was a path to be avoided. For example, when he once bemoaned the relative lack of income from his compositions, I suggested he capitalise on his early electronic music by giving talks to, amongst others, Dr Who fan clubs. He dismissed the idea out of hand, anxious not to remind people of his early association with that program. But it was an association of which I believe he should have been proud: he was the first composer anywhere to compose electronic music for a popular television program. And he did it in his own home-built studio, the first in England and one of the first in the world. He deserved, and deserves now, far greater recognition than he has so far received.

The establishment is still suspicious of electronic music and its successor, computer music, and hence they are still fringe areas within the "serious art-music" world. If conservatoria, music departments, broadcasters, performing groups etc, most of them tarred with the same conservative brush, had given this music the respect it deserves, and explored its potential, and happily accepted eclecticism, contemporary art-music would not now be seen by most listeners as irrelevant.

Tristram's music helped defeat the Daleks, but it could not conquer the conservative musical establishment in Australia and elsewhere.

Tristram Carey

Thank you, Jim, for your article. Tristram was, and is, an inspiring figure for a generation or two [or three] of us, who we will never forget. It seems so sudden, yet it reminds us that times are brief.

A legacy

Thank you Jim for your elegant reminder of the humility and generosity of Tristram Cary. Andrew Ford's program also beautifully demonstrated the uncomplicated approach that he had to sounds and the impact of his work. We have had access to such a rich tradition.

In the beginning

I first met Tristram Cary when I arrived at College in 1967 – by a fortuitous coincidence the very year he set up the Electronic Music Studio,

in a room to the left of the concert hall. Looking back now it was all a bit primitive and basic but in those days it was pure science fiction with excellent boys toys.

Tristram was a very charismatic character. His only analogue instrument was his incredibly versatile pipe. With this he could demonstrate, motivate, communicate, and was his principle means of propulsion.

Every Monday morning he would puff his way through the entrance and concert hall, and all his students ( and most of the college) would know he had arrived.

He was a very well educated man. Each end of year report was carefully read by my parents with me usually armed with a dictionary. Words like ‘Solipsistic’ and ‘Quixotic’ were carefully studied. He was, above all, a very fine composer and produced the most rich and extraordinarily beautiful music with what were, in essence, very simple electronic boxes and magnetic tape. I remember his score for ‘Leviathan 99’ -Ray Bradbury’s Radio adaptation of Melville’s Moby Dick.

His electronic treatment of some of the characters voices was both ground breaking an astonishing.

He was a very generous man too. After the initial stampede by every College composer to join his class- the lure of the brave new sound world- all except three dropped out. Only Myself, George Brown, and Lawrence M. Langmead Casserly remained, and were rewarded by commissions for the !970 Cheltenham Festival. A very big thing for us students at the time, and all down to Tristram who had been asked to arrange an Electronic Music Concert in that years programme.

Finally he was instrumental in my being appointed to my first grown up job.

In 1974 I was appointed Senior Lecture in Composition and Electronic Music at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane, Australia.

They wanted him but settled for me. ( More recently he was the only one, when all others have failed, to get me into BBC Bristol, home of Blue Planet et al, and that was to record a segment for his obit for the BBC's 'Last Words' show!)

The last time I saw him was at his 75th Birthday Concert at the College eight years ago. It was the first time I had been back to the college since leaving in 1970. He was as generous as ever and I ended up joining him, his family, friends and colleagues at a nearby restaurant.

His dedication to his music and, looking back, to his students too was a huge influence on me, and when the position I now currently hold at College was advertised I saw it as a way of repaying my debt to both him and the RCM.