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28 February 2012

Helen Gifford: still writing, still modernist and still brilliant

Extract from Rosalind Appleby's book Women of note (Fremantle Press 2012)

Helen Gifford Image: Helen Gifford  

'An attraction for something so little practised in this country as music composition must have a mite of perversity in it … a life writing music may be seen and explained in Australia as the pursuit of someone following an urge to be contrary. There should be other factors', wrote composer Helen Gifford in the early 1980s1. Her interview is included in a new book by Rosalind Appleby, Women of note - the rise of Australian women composers, published by Fremantle Press.

The following chapter about Helen Gifford and her music is reproduced on Resonate with permission - also featured in Women of note are: Ros Bandt, Betty Beath, Anne Boyd, Ann Carr-Boyd, Mary Finsterer, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Moya Henderson, Camilla Hannan, Cat Hope, Sarah Hopkins, Miriam Hyde, Elena Kats-Chernin, Becky Llewellyn, Liza Lim, Mary Mageau, Gail Priest, Margaret Sutherland. The book will be available through the AMC from 8 March.

The vintage Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn has been home for decades to one of Australia's most tireless composers. Her unswerving dedication to modernist music has never faltered despite serious illness, financial stress and the fickleness of popularity. Helen Gifford's husky voice (the result of an asthma condition) is full of animation as she recounts the stories of a life arranged around music.

Gifford's fascination with progressive classical music began at a young age from listening to recordings on the radio. Ravel and Stravinsky were early favourites, while a broadcast of Brahms' Violin Concerto was the highlight of the school week.

'I missed going to a school party which I should have gone to. I remember giving an excuse of women's troubles, and it was purely because there was a broadcast,' she recalled. 'I didn't have my record collection then. Parties came and went.'

At the age of thirteen a recording of excerpts from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck had her transfixed. It's hard to imagine many other teenagers scouring Melbourne for a record of one of the first atonal operas, but this was the beginning of Gifford's large record collection containing the seminal works of the twentieth century. It was her chief way of keeping up with the latest developments overseas.

Helen Gifford
Helen Gifford.

Determination and self-education were values she acquired from her mother Edna, a trained singer and violinist in the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra who taught herself music theory by visiting the state library in the evenings after work. Edna married John Gifford, who established Gifford Brothers shoe factory when he returned from the First World War. The legacy of her father's war service was imprinted on Helen's childhood, with war paintings hanging in the house and ex-servicemen often given accommodation by the family. Helen and her brother attended privileged private schools in Hawthorn and were encouraged to pursue music; Edna bought a grand piano when Helen began lessons at the age of eight.

'I think she had grand plans for me,' Gifford laughed. 'I came from a family where music mattered.'

Gifford's piano playing gained her a scholarship to the Conservatorium at Melbourne University. There were no composition teachers so she elected to study piano with Roy Shepherd and build her knowledge of repertoire through the piano, receiving early encouragement in composition from harmony lecturer (and composer) Dorian Le Gallienne. She stayed with this arrangement even when a composition teacher was added to the staff, because she was dissatisfied with the lack of focus on twentieth-century repertoire. Her somewhat precocious critique of the Conservatorium was based on the formidable knowledge of music she had acquired from attending the monthly Society of New Music concerts organised by Kevin McBeath.

'That introduced me to the neoclassics: Poulenc, Stravinsky, Bartók. It was an important part of my education in twentieth-century music because it was not provided by the Conservatorium. There was scarcely any mention of composers in the twentieth century, nothing after the Second World War. Just incredible.'

After she graduated in 1958 Gifford trained as a librarian, a job she selected from the occupations available to women (mainly teaching and nursing) because it didn't require a lot of stamina. Much of Gifford's childhood had been spent battling serious illnesses including pneumonia, scarlet fever and asthma, leaving her with frail health as an adult. Gifford worked in the architecture library at the Commonwealth Department of Works for thirty years, using the hours outside work to compose music. 'There were very few people interested in composing in Melbourne then. For most of us we wrote music at night or on weekends. It was almost a furtive activity, if not quite undercover. But there was no one wanting to hear what we were writing.'2

The record collection continued to grow and with it Gifford's hunger for new sounds. 'I moved slowly from Brahms and Rachmaninov as an adolescent into the more sophisticated Ravel, which was a major influence. If you hear my Fantasy for flute [1958] everyone thinks it's a French work. Piano Sonata [1960] still shows a bit of Prokofiev and Bartók, then I start with Spell, Waltz, Cantillation [Three Pieces, 1966] to get my own voice.'

Most composers of this era continued the trend of the generation before and travelled overseas to complete their musical education. In 1962 Gifford spent a giddy year relishing the European avant-garde. She encountered developments in composition as they occurred, visiting the new electronic studio in Holland where Ligeti's Atmosphères was being written, and attending every concert at the International Society of Contemporary Music conference which was held in London. She also went to the theatre at every opportunity. In fact she went to more theatre than concert performances, foreshadowing her golden decade of music theatre writing in the seventies. Sadly her trip was cut short by a chest infection which prompted an early return to Australia.

On her return Gifford began to investigate the Polish music she'd heard in Europe, particularly the music of Witold Lutosławski. She was fascinated by the creativity of Venetian Games (1961), which she describes in 'Raison d'être' as 'an entirely spontaneous expression, an exuberant outpouring.'3 The experimental aspect of Lutosławski appealed to her, as well as the way he crafted his music to have dramatic impact. 'The organisation - the man had a mind that was staggering. Boulez I didn't admire to the same extent because the end result I didn't admire as much. Le marteau sans maître, that's interesting, but it never touched me. But Lutosławski's did, the sheer drama of it.'

The inspiration resulted in an outpouring of large-scale works that launched Gifford into the spotlight. Phantasma for string orchestra (1963) was chosen for the International Society of Contemporary Music festival in Copenhagen and performed again three years later at the Adelaide Festival. Gifford says she hadn't absorbed much Lutosławski at this stage but the Lento introduction to Phantasma, with its sustained chords and string interjections, shows why she identified so much with Venetian Games. The sparseness and use of silence in the Allegro movement is reminiscent of Ligeti while the return to the Lento theme with its atonal melody shows what Gifford describes as getting serialism 'out of my system'.4

Gifford's emergence as a composer of repute coincided with the cultural optimism of the sixties when composers responded with works that were ambitious in size and scope. Two large orchestral works, Chimaera (1967) and Imperium (1969), reveal the sound world Gifford was attracted to at that time. Imperium is a complex work with a dark primordial sound similar to the second movement of Lutosławski's Symphony No. 2. It employs Ligeti's technique of subdividing strings while the variety of percussion sounds shows an ear for experimental colour that would be further developed in her music theatre works. The interest in percussion is part of the composer's larger fascination with sound or timbre, which is used as a major structural device in her music.

'I allow form to evolve from sound. Form is never something I set out to fill with sound. I start with the sounds and see what forms were suggested by them. There is a very strong sense of harmony, because I hear harmonies to the fifteenth. Upwards of maybe eight simultaneous sounds, I hear them as harmonies.'5

Chimaera is also complex in structure, with a three-note motif introduced by the string bass recurring subtly throughout like the fragment motifs used by Lutosławski. The woodwind writing sounds impulsive and chaotic, like the random sounds produced by the chance music of John Cage.

These are works that display an intelligent and innovative mind and it is tempting to speculate where Gifford would have gone from here if she had been well enough to pursue her dream of moving to Poland. What would she have produced if, like Moya Henderson and Elena Kats-Chernin a decade later, she'd spent years in Europe writing music-theatre works?

But perhaps the outcome wouldn't have been entirely different from how it is today. For two decades Gifford's music was championed by the ABC in what was a golden time for the composer. She wrote eighteen works in the sixties and twenty-two predominantly music theatre pieces in the seventies. She remembers being able to send an uncommissioned score to the ABC headquarters and be guaranteed a recording.

'Oh for the old days,' she told me. 'I just wrote it [Chimaera] and took it to the ABC. It was sent to Pat Thomas who told them he wanted to record it in Adelaide, so the studios over there did this ten-minute work in 118 takes. The ABC certainly gave me every encouragement. [They were] marvellous right up till the early eighties.'

Despite her success Gifford was still working as a librarian and generally didn't introduce herself as a composer. 'I am a bit like Margaret Sutherland who called herself a pianist; it's because they don't value it in the culture. I just say musician most of the time; so did she. They respect musician but composer is a bit troubling, because the only music known in the general community is pop.'

The creation of the Melbourne branch of the International Society of Contemporary Music in 1966 put Gifford in regular contact with Sutherland and a strong friendship was formed in the last years of Sutherland's life. Gifford witnessed the strain the elder composer suffered from her divorce, the politics of the Australian music scene and her fight for recognition.

As Sutherland ceased composing, Gifford's output began to increase due to commissions from the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). Gifford is best known for the theatre works she wrote for MTC between 1970 and 1982. The commissions included music for productions of Shakespeare, Tourneur, Brecht and Sophocles, and Gifford worked alongside local and international directors such as Tyrone Guthrie, John Sumner, Joachim Tenschert, Frank Hauser and Rick Billinghurst. In 1974 she wrote the opera Jo Being while composer in residence at Australian Opera, following immediately after Moya Henderson's stint there. From 1976 to 1978 she was chairman of the Composers Guild of Australia.

The years of writing theatre music helped her overcome the modernist tendency to avoid immediacy, and her music theatre pieces, although constrained by the nature of the play and the director, reveal an experimental ear for sounds and the capacity to evoke great beauty. Unfortunately Gifford became increasingly ill from asthma and in 1982 she ceased writing for MTC. Her last theatre works were two large commissions funded by the Music Board of the Australia Council: Regarding Faustus (1983), which was recorded by the ABC and performed at the Adelaide Festival, and Iphigenia in Exile (1985), which remained unperformed until it was rediscovered in 2010. It was the end of an era. Gifford's mother and role model died the year she wrote Iphigenia (her father had died in 1958), leaving Gifford alone and financially vulnerable.

She had always been single, despite meeting people she admits she was tremendously fond of. 'There were many, from an English director to a tenor, of whom I was very fond indeed. You let your affections go where they will but suitability comes into it, and compatibility. And you can always keep them as friends. There were no males with my interest in music, although you saw a few inevitably homosexual males who were.'

There was also a reluctance to take on the task of child rearing, something Gifford felt she never had the stamina for. So she persisted on her own. And despite knowing of women composers around her, she felt her modernist aesthetic was so different from theirs that she couldn't connect with them. 'I felt so different. And I really had no contact with them, none at all. I have felt alone, not lonely, but alone, for some time.'

During the eighties Gifford's output continued to drop owing to illness. 'My health took a downturn and I started to lose weight gradually. It was the onset of atherosclerosis which was leading up to a heart attack. I was leading a reasonably quiet life, I was learning how to cope with it. The years went on and on and I didn't realise I was dying - you just don't get the message. And then Faustus got put on at the [1988] Adelaide Festival in a dreadful production by the Victorian State Opera and that really set me down quite a bit more. I had a near-fatal asthma attack on the stairs and the heart attack came in 1989. I had to have a quadruple bypass in 1990. So … right through from the 1970s I couldn't travel, I went into part-time work.'

She continued to compose but growing antagonism towards modernism meant interest in Gifford's work began to wane. The eighties and nineties saw a string of commissioned but unperformed works. Point of ignition, a work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, was the product of a Composer Fellowship from the Australia Council in 1995 and hasn't been performed.

'Point of Ignition, I don't know what the outcome of that's going to be. That's a seventeen-minute work for large orchestra written with hopefully the MSO in mind, because being a Melbourne composer I don't see why the local orchestra can't do it. It was a $25,000 fellowship I got in '97. I won't be writing for orchestra ever again you can be sure.'

'I don't consider myself a successful composer. If you want to be successful you can't just stay put. You've got to travel and arrange performances. You've got to be a very healthy, preferably no more than middle aged, person.'

Despite the disappointment she continues to compose. Her fragile health and struggle to notate music means she refuses to accept paid commissions with the deadlines that come with them. There are very few performances and even fewer recordings of her works. But she believes her recent works are some of the best she has written. 'Music for the Adonia [1993] was performed at the Lismore Town Hall with no review. That's the only performance that work has ever had and I think it's the best work I ever wrote. Plaint for lost worlds was another one that I liked, and I think I like Point of ignition but I really need to hear it.'

In 1999 Melbourne's Astra ensemble commissioned and recorded Choral scenes for choir and chamber ensemble. In many ways it brings together the threads of Gifford's life. The work is a setting of First World War poetry and displays Gifford's skills in text setting and her profound connection with the Great War. The sparse texture and dramatic instrumental colour - military drum rolls, jingling bells - are inherited from a decade of theatre writing, while the absence of pulse and the slow sustained crescendos reference early works like Phantasma. Hymn tunes quoted in the middle of the work are unusual for Gifford but provide a moment of humanity, a foil for the atonal depiction of agony that makes up the remainder of the work.

More recently the tide has begun to turn again. In 2006 Menin Gate was premiered by Michael Kieran Harvey and won a prize for Best Australian Composition for the year from Victoria. It was later recorded and released by Move Records (see the AMC catalogue for details).

In 2009 Gifford was stunned to be approached by David Young, the director of Chamber Made Opera, who had discovered the score of Iphigenia in Exile and wanted to mount a production. The piece was performed in 2010, twenty-five years after it was written. Exile, as it is now known, featured soprano Deborah Kayser, an ensemble of clarinets, percussionists and piccolo, an antiquated reel-to-reel recording of a women's choir (recorded decades ago in Gifford's Kew flat) and a mandolin guitar from Gifford's own archives. The performance was recorded and digitally recast as an interactive music video dubbed 'the world's first iPad opera', completing the journey from musty archive to online worldwide distribution.

'It all happens when you're seventy-five!' laughed Gifford, who described the forty-five minute work as her most major work. Gifford is also looking forward to the release of another CD of her works by Astra and is writing a large piano work for Michael Kieran Harvey. Neither Gifford nor her compositional style has mellowed. Unlike her contemporaries Richard Meale and Colin Brumby, Gifford has maintained her modernist streak, a nonconformist through the decades where others 'dumbed down' as she put it, to keep their audience. She is still writing, still modernist and still brilliant.


1 Helen Gifford, 'Raison d'être', in Patricia Grimshaw and Lynne Strahan (eds), The Half-open Door: sixteen modern Australian women look at professional life and achievement, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982.

2 Australian Women Composers video, Adele Sztar, Fifth Nabula, Melbourne, AFI Distribution, c1983.

3 Helen Gifford, 'Raison d'être', op. cit.

4 Helen Gifford in interview with Lynne Stevens, New Music Australia, No. 4, 1983, pp. 35-7.

5 Ibid.

AMC resources

Rosalind Appleby: Women of note - the rise of Australian women composers (AMC catalogue - the book will be available through the AMC from 8 March)
Helen Gifford - AMC profile

'Podcast and iPad App of Helen Gifford's opera Exile' - news article on Resonate (7 December 2010)

Further links

Rosalind Appleby: Women of note - the rise of Australian women composers (Fremantle Press)
Iphigenia in Exile
- listen to the 45-minute opera as audio-on-demand through ABC Classic FM
Imperium (1969) for full orchestra - listen to the work as audio-on-demand through ABC Classic FM
Exile iPad app (Aphids website)
'Women of composure' - an article by Rosalind Appleby in the West Australian (21 February 2012)

Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based music writer. Her book Women of note was released by Fremantle Press in February 2012.


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