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14 February 2012

Felix Werder at 90: a creative spark transformed

Felix Werder Image: Felix Werder  

'Without the acknowledging of those few musicians who were pursuing an idea of musical modernism, such as Margaret Sutherland, Keith Humble, and Felix Werder, among others, Australia seems stuck in a state of permanently starting out, of always beginning again, as each new generation invents the wheel, largely unknowing of those who had been building the culture before them', writes Warren Burt. He has been involved in organising a special birthday tribute concert for Felix Werder on 23 February (broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 25 February), as well as restoring Werder's 1974 electronic work The Tempest.

[External links section updated 28 February 2012.]

Australia generally doesn't do a good job of looking after its elderly citizens. For example, each time a pension increase is talked about, it becomes a political football, each party trying to outscore the other in tightness and meanness (they call it 'fiscal responsibility') while desperately trying not to appear uncompassionate or ungrateful to those whose efforts built the place over so many years. The hypocrisy of this annual charade is galling at best, nauseating at worst.

In the arts, too, with the exception of a few superstars, Australia seems to prefer that its elder statesmen and women just quietly fade away. (Trot 'em out once a year for a ceremony and two minutes on the ABC, then back to the warehouse with 'em!) The arts in Australia, after all, are largely a young person's game. In music, it's not enough that a person writes or improvises music. They also have to organise events, write about them, sell the tickets, sell the idea of the concert or series to the media, record the event, and produce the recording for distribution.

Felix Werder in 1989
Felix Werder in 1989.

This kind of entrepreneurial activity takes a lot of energy, and, in many cases, the effort is directed towards promoting the work of oneself and one's friends. The curatorial and media worlds in Australia are largely devoted to discovering new talent, and promoting the next 'big thing'. There are very few organisations in Australia that regularly produce music by composers and improvisers from all age groups, and from a wide range of styles and/or 'scenes'. In this kind of style-oriented, entrepreneur-driven environment, it's very easy for older artists to slip from view.

But the creative spirit does not go away, even if the light of publicity and participation fades. If the spirit of inquiry and creativity is there, people keep investigating while they still have breath. It's enough to cite the story of New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn who 'retired' from composition in the early 1980s. Twenty years later, after his death in 2001, piles of manuscripts were found - piano pieces that he'd been 'revising' during his 'post-composition' years. The itch doesn't go away.

I remember, during the very much unlamented debates on post-modernism of 20 years ago, Rainer Linz's quip: 'Australia can't have post-modernism because it never had modernism'. The thrust of that remark was an understanding of what an ahistorical society Australia was. Without the acknowledging of those few musicians who were pursuing an idea of musical modernism, such as Margaret Sutherland, Keith Humble, and Felix Werder, among others, Australia seems stuck in a state of permanently starting out, of always beginning again, as each new generation invents the wheel, largely unknowing of those who had been building the culture before them. (My educational colleagues sometimes say, 'This generation has no knowledge of history!' I point out to them that given the structure of the media and the educational system, there is no way that 'that generation' - and it doesn't matter which generation we're talking about - CAN have a knowledge of history. To give them that knowledge is largely OUR job.)

The building of culture can take place very subtly. I remember a conversation with a colleague where we were speculating as to why Melbourne had such a sense of cooperation in its new music scene. He pointed out that the elders, such as Felix, Margaret, Keith and others, had been very cooperative in organising events in the 1950s, and that although various scenes had come and gone, this kind of cooperation was then built into the ethos of the community here. This is the sort of subtle influence that can have a long-reaching effect, such that even those who initiated it can be largely unaware of the influence they had.

Felix Werder, weakened in body, but not in sprit, will be 90 years old on 24 February. For the past 10-15 years, he has largely been absent from the new music 'scene'. Living in Hawthorn with Vera, his rock of support and strength, the man who was once such a strong and challenging presence in the music world of Melbourne has been living, composing, and pursuing a whole series of intellectual interests, largely in isolation. The occasional European, or more rarely Australian, friend has asked him for a piece, and he's been happy to oblige, but the old days of organising concerts, touring, writing, battling musical conservatism and polemicising are long in the past.

In their place have been a continuing exploration of many topics, and a deepening of personal exploration and expression. On my visits to Felix and Vera over the past decade, I've been amazed at the range of areas he's been exploring, from the political writings of Gore Vidal and Henry Thoreau to the classics of Taoism, from continuing readings in the Kabala to the operas of Rameau, his intellectual explorations continue unabated.

When the American composer Elliott Carter turned 100, people remarked that his work seemed not to be innovating anymore. Carter's pithy reply - that he had spent 70 years learning how to write the music he wanted, and now he was getting on with writing it, thank you very much - also seems apt in Felix's case. In his work of the past 10 years, there has been a deepening and refining of his technique. One of Felix's most famous quotes is 'To understand a work of art, we must first ask, Who paid for it?' But more and more over the past decade, his work has been getting closer to what one might term 'pure music', a product of intense reflection and personal expression. The light and elfin opening of Ill-tempered Clavier, one of the featured works on the 23 February concert, is a far cry from the expressionistic force of his Requiem of the 1970s, but the creative spark is still the same, just transformed by years of isolation and reflection.

During the past decade, Felix has also been teaching privately, and his insistence that students know their history, and then go beyond it into finding their own path has been a salutary influence on those lucky few who have beaten a path to his door. Unlike the popular media in Australia, Felix very well understands Harry Partch's old saying: 'Affirmation of parentage is a primary source of rebellion'.

On 23 February, at Iwaki Hall, three new works of Felix Werder's will be premiered, along with a work from the '90s, and a classic electronic work of his from the '70s, which hasn't been heard publicly since its composing. Here's a look at the works that will be performed.

The title of the work Quinny on the Roof (1992) for percussion solo, refers to the Werders' cat in the 1990s, Quinny. Quinny was named after the quinella. In the early '90s, Felix (one of whose hobbies is an abiding interest in the TAB) won the quinella. He used his winnings to fund a tour of his Australia Felix ensemble to Europe. Quinny on the Roof was written for Richard Pusz, the ensemble's percussionist, and its fragmentation and sense of sonic fantasy is typical of Felix's work at the time.

Ill-tempered Clavier (2009) and Dice (2010) are two recent piano works. The first is a set of eight very short pieces. Although separated from each other by double bar lines, and of different characters, the piece seems to me to be one long solo melody line. Written without dynamics or expression marks (the pianist is to add those), the piece, at least to my ear, resembles a long recitative. Dice is a piece which is also made up of fragments, but here the fragments can be repeated and rearranged at the pianist's will.

Felix recently said to James Hullick that he thought there were two kinds of composers - mathematicians and gamblers - and that he was definitely one of the latter. I remember Felix showing me one of his pieces of the late '90s - he had taken a freely composed texture, cut it up, and rearranged the fragments to form the eventual finished work. Composition by chance and Xerox machine, one might say. In Dice the cutting up happens in real time, in collaboration with the pianist.

The H-Factor (2011) for string quartet is Felix's most recent work, and he claims it will be his last (see my comments about Douglas Lilburn, above.) 'H' stands for Felix's doctor, Hymie. Hymie, says Felix, is keeping him alive. He survives because of the 'H-Factor'. This is Felix's 19th string quartet. The insights of a lifetime of writing for the medium are refined here into a very intense and pure personal expression, as textures build up, and new material emerges from those textures.

Giorgione's La tempesta
Giorgione's La tempesta (1505-1508 circa).

The Tempest (after Giorgione's painting La tempesta) was written in 1974, using the Synthi 100, a very large digital-sequencer controlled synthesiser, which was installed in the studio at Melbourne University. The piece was originally recorded on LP and released by Greg Young on Mopoke Records. In 2005, when New York-based producer Al Margolis asked me about releasing an album of Felix's electronic music (he actually had the original LPs), we found that the master tapes had been lost in the intervening years. However, the LPs still existed. I put around 100 hours into recovering and cleaning up the LP recordings. To a large extent, the clean-up was successful, and the CD, on Pogus Records, continues to sell well and gather favourable reviews.

Felix once told me that his work with electronics had changed the way he thought about instrumental music. This was especially true in his understanding of timbre. In The Tempest, a 28-minute long piece, this is shown very clearly. With the Synthi 100, Felix makes electronic timbres that instruments are incapable of making - instruments have most of their energy in the lower parts of their sound. Here Felix makes sounds where most of the energy and activity is in the upper parts of the sound, creating brilliant sounds with an edge, and an inner life. These are then arranged in a very spacious manner, using Giorgione's curious allegorical painting as a model for his sound structure.

The Tempest can stand comparison with any of the other analogue works of the time, whether in Australia or overseas. Mostly abstract, although with occasional nods and winks to 'walking bass' lines (Felix was a jazz bass player in his youth), the work revels in the implications and intrinsic possibilities of the electronic medium. For various reasons, Felix was unable to continue his work with electronics, but in this concert we will get to hear this work in nearly ideal conditions, as Felix wanted it to be heard originally, 38 years ago.

In the early 19th century, the Japanese monk Monchu, at the age of 90, living in the famous Shisendo temple in Kyoto, wrote 'The Ageless Pine at Shisendo':

When just a few inches tall, where did you come from,
With your long life of eternal spring?
The long winds whisper poems endlessly,
As they shiver your old dragon scales.1

Felix's 'old dragon scales' have been 'whispering poems' to us for decades now. In the concert on 23 February, we pay homage to those decades of work, and get to share in experiencing his latest, most refined thoughts.


1. Quoted in Addiss, Stephen 1991, 'The Calligraphy of Ishikawa Jozan', Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals, ed. J. Thomas Rimer, Weatherhill Inc., New York and Tokyo, 1991, p. 90.

Event details

Felix Werder at 90
23 February at 7:30pm at Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, Victoria
Full event details (AMC Calendar)

AMC resources

Felix Werder - AMC profile

External links

Listen to Felix Werder's Requiem in its entirety (ABC Classic FM - classic/amp)
'Happy birthday Felix!' - New Music Up Late (ABC Classic FM)

Warren Burt is a composer, performer, writer, video artist, instrument builder, broadcaster... for more information, see his AMC profile and his website.


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