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26 November 2015

AMC at 40: 'The job I got thanks to a green velvet suit'

Martin Buzacott around the time he became the AMC's Assistant Music Librarian Image: Martin Buzacott around the time he became the AMC's Assistant Music Librarian  

The Australian Music Centre was established in its first address at The Rocks, Sydney, in mid-1975. It opened its doors to the public on 27 February 1976. Martin Buzacott got a job as the AMC's Assistant Music Librarian in 1978 and has vivid recollections of the 'Murdoch years'. See also: AMC's first 41 years - timeline and articles.

I saw the job advertisement in The Australian in mid-1978 when I was just about to turn 20. The Australia Music Centre (the 'n' was added later) required an Assistant Music Librarian.

It sounded great, especially as at the time I was an unemployed pop musician in Brisbane with precisely $118 to my name.

So I put in an application, using all my skill as a creative writer to make it seem like I actually had an employment history and knew what a music librarian was.

To my shock, my girlfriend received a phone call from the AMC with good and bad news.

Yes, they were willing to interview me for the position, but sadly, I would have to pay my own way from Brisbane to Sydney and back if I wanted to be considered.

The return trip would cost me $117.

I said I'd do it, and borrowed a green velvet suit from my brother to wear to the interview, with perfectly matched bright yellow socks.

Of course during the interview itself, held in the AMC's glassed-in board room at The Rocks, it became apparent that I had no qualifications whatsoever for the job and it had all been a rather embarrassing error on everyone's part.

But just as I was about to be shuffled out the door so that real music librarians could be interviewed, I noticed a most charismatic-looking man emerging from the office next door.

He glanced in as he bustled past the board room, and continued on his way. But then he suddenly double backed, and tapped on the glass door, beckoning the Chairperson of the interview panel to come outside to speak with him.

That done, the interview wrapped up quickly, and I was sent packing back to Brisbane, a wiser young man who'd enjoyed talking to the panel so much that I thought all the way back about possibly getting an education and actually going for a job like that for real one day.

On touchdown in Brisbane, my girlfriend greeted me with the news that I was to call the AMC immediately, which I did from a payphone at the GPO in the city, feeding into it the last silver coins that I had in the world.

I was offered the job and later discovered that the man who had interrupted my interview was the AMC's founder and National Director James Murdoch, and that his conversation with the interview committee Chairperson had been along the lines of:

'I don't care who he is. I don't care what he's done. But anyone who dresses like that has just got to work for this organisation.'

To this day, I love and thank that man.

The AMC that I first encountered in the late 1970s was like Cocteau's house in Paris - sit there long enough and almost every important figure in the arts scene would find their way in there.

Aaron Copland had just visited, being greeted by his old friend, the Centre's Asian Music Adviser Peggy Glanville-Hicks with her observation to him, 'You still look like a camel'.

Peggy was in at the AMC every week, dotty and wonderful and as adoring of James as the rest of us were.

Brian Cadd and his band the Family had been living for some weeks in the Centre's concert area out the back, saving money before leaving Australia for a crack at the American market.

Soon after I arrived, Peter Maxwell Davies and the Fires of London gave a semi-private gig in the same space, the stunned silence at the end of Ave Maris Stella lasting for full on five minutes.

There was a whole bunch of young composers from up at Pearl Beach who used to come by, including Anne Boyd in pastel-shaded gabardine slack suit, who James would chide for her lack of dress sense (I think maybe once or twice he forced her to go clothes-shopping?).

Ross Edwards was another Pearl Beach type, who we all knew was something special already and only destined to become greater.

And then the Summer Schools for composers turned up unknown names like Graeme Koehne, Elena Kats-Chernin, Michael Smetanin, Brenton Broadstock, Gerard Brophy and basically anyone who's well-known today as a leading Australian composer.

A kid from Perth called Carl Vine's score for Poppy blew us away, and its choreographer Graeme Murphy visited often, looking for new Australian music to work with; Jim Sharman was a frequent visitor too, searching for the latest trends in Australian music to incorporate into his theatre productions. The Blackmans, painter Charles and author Barbara, held a special place in AMC hearts.

Roger Woodward was an imposing presence in those days, the embodiment of the Romantic, tempestuous artist, his visits generating enough gossip to make Scheherazade seem unimaginative, but he was the most indefatigable of champions of new music.

Folkies often came in to sit at the public turntables, listening to the Library's Folkways discs, learning the songs by ear while singing along under headphones at the top of their lungs.

And the Centre was a hub for world music long before any of us had ever even heard of that term, exiles from Pinochet's Chile, Ukrainian bandura players, Asian traditional dancers, they practically lived in the place and were treated as family.

And of course the greats were there constantly too, Peter Sculthorpe, as charming and caring a man as one could ever wish to meet, Richard Meale with his awe-inspiring intellect and wicked sense of humour that he shared with James in what seemed to us to be a friendship of real substance, and probably with a colourful back-story as well.

Stuart Challender was pestered constantly by young composers in need of his sympathetic new-music conducting; Nathan Waks was the youngest board member, filled with zeal for Australian composition; and Patrick Thomas was there every month to look at new scores with a view to getting the ABC orchestras to perform them.

We were on a mission.

Why? Because just a decade or two earlier, the very term 'Australian music' had sounded like an oxymoron, so we were as out and proud about a schoolboy's first piano miniature as we were about Sculthorpe's Mangrove, his latest masterpiece that sat alongside it on our Library shelves, all lovingly catalogued in our various publications.

Just 20 years old, I had the honour of editing Music Australia, the AMC's bibliography of resources on Australian music, and in my introduction I began in good librarian-speak with the phrase 'Access to items may be gained by….', which James rewrote to read 'To speedily find what you want…'.

Yep, the first words about music ever published under my by-line were a split infinitive.

But I didn't care. James was like a father-figure to me, right down to him wiring me $500 when I ran out of money on my first-ever trip overseas and found myself stranded, penniless and freezing in a New York hotel where people were being murdered.

The self-belief he instilled in me was the greatest gift that any boss could ever impart to an employee, and the bit of parental advice he gave me before that trip has stuck with me all my life.

'When travelling overseas, you can put up with bed-bugs and you can even sleep in no bed at all. But the one essential is that you must always have a full stomach. Sacrifice anything else for the sake of a good meal.'

Thanks James, and my world-travelling children who you never met continue to thank you too, for your sage advice has been passed on to them.

But the problem always was that the Centre was entirely dependent on government funding, and James loved nothing more than bating the bureaucrats.

When the Australia Council's Music Board met at the Centre one day to decide its future funding, James ensured that they left the AMC's meeting room to the strains of Peggy Lee singing 'Is That All There Is?' on the Centre's wind-up gramophone.

On another occasion he decided that we'd all been working too hard (which was true - some of us, including him, often worked 80-100 hour weeks) and so he hired what he called a 'gin palace' to take us cruising on Sydney Harbour.

Of course there are some of a more sober disposition, and in particular those who care deeply about the minutiae of due administrative process, who found this sort of impulsive and instinctual behaviour appalling, and, to them, James represented some kind of anarchic spirit that needs to be expunged from society in general. (Come to think of it, that's what my first novels and plays were about.)

As a truly flamboyant and entrepreneurial-minded adventurist, James had some influential enemies and was the victim of too much professional jealousy to be able to withstand the chill winds of emerging economic rationalism that began coming our way in the new decade.

I encountered the first icy blast on an ABC News report one morning, probably around 1981, announcing that the Music Centre was now closed, just as I was about to go to work for the day.

Fortunately the Centre survived that false alarm, but from then on we all knew that its days were numbered, at least in its current form.

If the AMC was to survive beyond the early 1980s, less colourful, more sober-sided administrators had to take over in order to appease the government funding agencies.

We scattered, James to his beloved Bali, me into surely the best-managed music organisation in Australian history, Musica Viva, and others among us drifted off to other professions.

But even though history is written by the victors, no one, not even the most dour or ambitious of public servants who saw him off, can deny James Murdoch's commitment to the cause of Australian music and the magic of the wonderland that he created down there in that old converted wool-store in The Rocks.

More than 30 years since his departure, the Australian classical music scene in general, and Australian composers in particular, are infinitely better off for his pioneering efforts in the establishment of the AMC, and for his brave and altogether remarkable defiance of bureaucratic conventions.

It's simply unthinkable that his kind could exist in our arts scene today.

And we are all the poorer for that.

> AMC's first 41 years - timeline and more articles

Martin Buzacott is a writer, music historian, critic and broadcaster.


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