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30 June 2009

Iain Grandage and his wheatbelt

Iain Grandage Image: Iain Grandage  

The eagerly awaited new AMC/ASME music study guide wheatbelt, focusing on Iain Grandage's choral work of the same name, to the poem by Kevin Gillam, is now available for purchase at the AMC Shop. The following interview is an edited and shortened extract of a longer discussion between Iain Grandage and Lorraine Milne, the author of the music study guide. The interview was conducted in Melbourne in December 2008, and the full version is included in the wheatbelt kit.

Lorraine Milne: I’d like to take you back to your school days – particularly secondary – and ask, what, if any, music did you have?

Iain Grandage: My music in secondary school time (had) very little to do with secondary school itself and almost everything to do with the West Australian Youth Orchestra. I was in orchestras from the age of 11, starting off with junior string orchestras, and then larger symphony orchestras by the age of 13. But my principal music education through that time was with Richard Gill doing this program called 'the Junior Exhibitioner Course'. We did singing as a group, we did instrumental playing, I did my first composition lesson, we did aural training. It was after school hours on Friday afternoons. Some of my dearest friendships are from that time and from the Youth Orchestra … so all my training was in very practical fields. I hadn’t studied any music history until I entered University.

cover of the wheatbelt music study kitLM: What about harmony and counterpoint – did you study that before University?

IG: I’d done AMEB Theory up to 6th grade and I’d done instrumental music up to AMus (Associate Music Australia). I just had no idea who Josquin (des Prez) was, I had no idea when Bach lived, I had no idea how you would define the ‘classical’ style, I had no idea what a listening test was. I didn’t know I was supposed to listen to ten pieces and be able to tell you which piece it was. I went to University to be a lawyer.

LM: You were doing Law/Arts … no, Law/Music?

IG: There was no such thing at the time. In the University I attended you had to go through a year in another degree, the results of which would then allow you to enter a law degree. I got so won over by music in my first year that I just carried on. I still hanker to be a lawyer every now and then.

LM: Was there a ‘light bulb’ moment when you said: 'I’m going to be a composer'?

IG: There were a number of small moments. I used to sit down at the piano and make up things with my Mum when I was six … There were moments during that Exhibitioner program when I was working not only with Richard Gill but with Brian Howard, a great Australian composer (ex-pat now) who said, 'you’re one of the few students I’ve had who could be a composer.' Statements like that stick in your head … so there was always an intrigue there but it wasn’t until I wrote Three Australian Bush Songs and felt that it was something that was of its time – this is perhaps in hindsight. At the time I was just proud of it, like, it was the first piece I’d written where I went 'Oh … that’s a piece'. I felt like I could call myself a composer and that was the first time that had happened.

LM: Where was it performed?

IG: I was singing in a choir, the UWA Collegium Musicum, which was the top-end student body choir. Every Christmas we would do this huge staged Christmas event. We did the Dickens Christmas, we did a Medieval Christmas, we did an Australian Christmas, and we came across the fact that there weren’t enough Australian Christmas carols, so I wrote Three Australian Bush Songs as three Christmas carols and then reworked them to remove the Christmas references, and they became Three Australian Bush Songs. And so it was written from within the choir. All my training for orchestral writing has come from playing within an orchestra, all my training for choral writing has come from singing within a choir.

LM: I know you had that time with the WA Youth Chorale. How did that ‘inform’ your writing for voice particularly?

IG: The first pieces I wrote were choral pieces and cello pieces (because) I’m a cellist and I sang in choirs a lot. Orchestras are such a giant and frightening beast – the term ‘to orchestrate’ I found very frightening, so I didn’t actually write an orchestral piece until I was 32, and then just studied some of the great orchestral scores. I knew which composers I liked to play from inside an orchestra … I’d been playing with WASO (West Australian Symphony Orchestra) for seven years by then and I really knew what pieces were enjoyable and resonated within the orchestra, and so I got all my favourite bits of Ravel and all of my favourite bits of that rich late 19th century/early 20th century repertoire and just studied the scores and asked myself, 'why does that sound so fantastic?'

LM: You’re answering my questions before I ask them because I wanted to know how composers actually influenced you and if you studied scores … and you’re saying yes!

IG: Yes! My composition teacher was Roger Smalley and Roger led by example. He was someone whose rigorous thought showed me the way to write music... Another great lesson for me was observing Tony Payne – Anthony Payne was the man who finished Elgar’s Third Symphony – an English composer whose wife is Jane Manning, a great champion of contemporary vocal music. He came to Australia, and I met him here, and then went to visit him in England. But in Australia I saw him just sitting in the library, looking at scores. I said: 'What are you doing?' and he went: 'I’m just trying to figure out how Peter Warlock writes songs.' He’d never had a composition lesson in his entire life, so I had long conversations with him about what he was observing, how and why.

LM: When ASME commissioned you to write for their 2007 National Conference, did they actually specify that they wanted a choral piece or was that your choice?

IG: No, they specified the choir. I knew the choir I was going to write for and the fact it was a choral piece. They wanted it to be specifically West Australian … or perhaps that was me who suggested that that would be a good thing. They wanted it to be 10 minutes long. I knew that it was being performed in a program with the winners of the Young Composers competition from each of the States, so I knew it couldn’t be too difficult for the choir because they would be learning six other world premieres in the same program.

LM: Knowing that, how did you go about choosing the text?

IG: I’ve done a lot of work with Indigenous Australians. This was coming off the back of my residency with the WASO. During that, they’d given me the opportunity to revisit some collaborators out in the Western desert – the Spinifex people. They are old traditional owners of lands on the Western edge of the Western desert, and I spent a lot of time driving out there. It’s 600 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie, so very close to the West Australian-South Australian border, just north of the Nullabor plain … it’s in the middle of nowhere … so it’s incredibly isolated. It’s a wonderful community to deal with – there’s no drug, alcohol or discipline issues there – they’re very strong culturally and spiritually. In travelling out there, I spent a lot of time in cars, just trucking through the landscape, as opposed to flying across it, and the thing that West Australia (has) is the space. Somehow, I was searching for something that helped describe that space. Now the desert itself was so allied for me to Indigenous themes, that I wanted something that was not only closer geographically to Perth, but also had some sense of Western intervention about it, and the wheatbelt, being a monoculture of a transplanted crop, planted into what was once bushland, I find quite an interesting and eerie thing … this land that has turned to salt because it got cleared. Indigenous inhabitants through that area used to burn a lot, but burning once every two decades is very different to clearing these giant lands and there being endless hill upon hill with barely a tree, and just filled with wheat, and done, I must say, with all the best intentions. It was simply that there wasn’t the knowledge that this would ruin the land. It also helped feed the nation, so there’s all of those paradoxes within it. I find it a very interesting and mysterious quasi-ruined environment.

LM: Did you know Kevin’s poem at that stage or did you fall across the poem after the idea of working on something closer to Perth and something to do with the land?

IG: I’ve known Kevin for a long time. Kevin was the lead cellist of the West Australian Youth Orchestra when I first entered it. I was the young chap at the back and Kevin was leading the cello section, so he was a figure to idolise. And I knew that he had turned to poetry. His poetry had been read at a number of my friends’ weddings so I knew his poems and I knew that, him being a musician, it contained within it a lot of song. It’s very musical – the assonance in it, the words are beautiful to say, and in choosing a poem, I try to choose a poem that’s beautiful to sing. I knew I wanted Kevin to be the poet because he was West Australian and to keep that West Australian bent to the Commission.

LM: Did you consult with Kevin on that or did he give you carte blanche to go for it?

IG: I did it and then invited him to a rehearsal … no, no, I asked him before that, I said: 'Is it OK if I take another section, if I take the final section of the poem and place it at the beginning as well, just for form?' And he said: 'Do with it as you will.' Having worked in theatre a lot, I’ve adapted a number of novels or been involved in a number of novels being adapted for the stage, one of which was Tim Winton and his adaption of Cloudstreet. I distinctly remember a conversation, and Tim saying: 'I don’t want to be involved, I don’t write for the theatre, I write novels. I’ll be judged on my novel as you’ll be judged on the theatre piece'. Similarly Kevin said: 'I’m a poet and my poem exists independently of your setting of it and now it serves a different function; when it’s placed with music, the two are together and if that helps the musical form and the function of what you’d like to achieve, then that’s yours to do with as you will'.

LM: So what does he think of your setting of wheatbelt?

IG: He’s a supporter of it, which is a great relief. I’m not sure what conversation we would have if he didn’t like it … I think perhaps I would try and change it. In this instance I’m happy with how it’s turned out, I think it works.

LM: As a Victorian, I have a strong image of the long, flat wheat fields in the Wimmera and Mallee regions of this state. Can you describe physically the wheatbelt district of WA for us?

IG: It’s a huge area. Yes, there are areas which are long and flat. However, the area that the poem is written about is in the Avon Valley. The Avon River becomes the Swan River so it’s the feeder stream. This area is a classic river valley with hills and wheat travelling down all of these hills. There is a scarp that runs along the Western seaboard above which the wheat starts – a little like the Blue Mountains or the Great Dividing Range.

LM: So the wheatbelt goes across to the coastline?

IG: Very rarely … it just touches. Actually the bulk of Western Australia is sandy desert and, in the far south-west corner, green and forested. But the wheatbelt is the section between them that is sometimes flat, but often is rolling hills. They’re classic rolling hills, like the Malverns, like Elgar’s home in central England. And these rolling hills are wheat fields, hence the 'rise and rise and rise again' that Kevin talks of. So you can sit there, on the side of a hill, and you look down and there’s wheat, and you look and it’s there … and it’s there … and it’s there. You’re not in a flat expanse, you’re in large valleys but you can see 15 kilometres across and there’s just hills continuing and continuing.

LM: Is the actual environment reflected in the music of wheatbelt in any way?

IG: There’s two things. My experience of travelling out there is twofold. One is incredible stasis, just stopping and hearing things that you never hear in an urban environment because it’s covered by all sorts of other sounds, or the general phrrrr of traffic. What I’ve tried to evoke in the more static parts is that sense of sitting there and just suddenly becoming aware of the environment, be it the breeze or be it the tinkling bells of the wind chime or the wicker chair. But the second part is a distinct memory of euphoria, of travelling through this country in a car and just finding it thrilling, be it about the destination – me going out to the desert to see the old men or coming home to see my parents – or be it just the joy, the freedom of the road movie. What I’ve tried to get in the active section is an absolute sense of euphoria, of having this much space in which to live and I think that’s something that’s really particularly Australian.


LM: (...) What I’m hoping is that young student composers who study this guide and your piece of music, will be informed and influenced by your compositional techniques, and be able to take them as you’ve been describing with the composers who have informed and influenced you. Are there any little ‘pearls of wisdom’ you can give them?

IG: Commit to it … hmm … that’s not what it sounds like … Write it down. You can always change it. But without writing it down there is nothing. Otherwise your life is an entire series of things that were in your head and there is no record of it.

Further links

wheatbelt music study guide - product details (AMC Shop)
Iain Grandage - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/grandage-iain)
Lorraine Milne - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/milne-lorraine)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Lorraine Milne is a composer, musician and music educator who has extensive experience in writing curriculum materials and presenting professional development courses for Musica Viva In Schools, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Opera House, among others.


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