5 November 2010
James Murdoch remembered
© National Library of Australia
Elisabeth Silsbury, Jenny Vogel, Prue Neidorf, Gordon Kerry, Mary Vallentine, Shane Simpson, Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, Robyn Holmes, Justin MacDonnell and Patrick Thomas remember James Murdoch (25 January 1930 - 25 October 2010). We invite you to add your own recollections in the comments section after the article.
[Updated 25 November 2010]
In May this year, James came to Canberra. He needed urgent surgery (not recommended in Bali) for umbilical hernias, and was anxious to get his copious archives out of the mould-inducing humidity of his chosen home and get them safely stored in the Australian National Library. I had not seen him for some years, but we had kept in email contact, so I was keenly aware of his deteriorating health. So Canberra it was for me too.
We met for dinner at University House. We fell on each others' necks and just hugged and said darling a lot until we both calmed down. He was gaunt - amused that his sunken cheeks brought into sharp relief the nose that, he had just discovered, was of Jewish provenance - and physically frail, leaning on me and on Chopin's walking stick he had inherited from Peggy Glanville-Hicks. But Oh Lordy - that unmatchable mind was sharp and clear and that wicked tongue had lost none of the viperish sting that made too many enemies for his own good.
He got his hernias mended, got new glasses, new teeth and new hearing aids. He finished sorting his papers five minutes before the ANL closed on the Friday before he was due to return to Bali. Over two long dinners and several short encounters we re-hashed the thirty years since we first met.
James brought Igor Kipnis to Adelaide in about 1970. Harpsichord live was a novelty. A small audience turned up in the Art Gallery. We were introduced over a glass of wine and got talking. Immediate rapport.
In 1972 Adelaide was buzzing with moves to upgrade the amateur Intimate Opera Group, established in 1957, to professional status. I was involved. Through contacts with Justin Macdonnell and Len Amadio, James approached the working group with $4,000 cash in hand to persuade us to put on Margaret Sutherland's only opera The Young Kabbarli in honour of her 75th birthday. I was repetiteur and pianist in the small orchestra. Patrick Thomas conducted three performances in Adelaide and two in Melbourne, plus the first Australian quadraphonic recording, made in the Flinders University Matthew Flinders theatre. James brought David Gulpilil and Dick Bundilil from the Northern Territory to dance and play didjeridu. My world had suddenly expanded, and was about to burst wide open.
James had also been commissioned, by Jean Battersby, to track down people to appoint to the various boards of the national funding organisation Gough Whitlam was planning to establish were Labor to win the 1972 election. They did. Early in 1973 I answered the phone in my office. Don Banks had been asked by Gough Whitlam to invite me to join the new Music Board of the Australian Council of the Arts. Who, me? Would I what!
Soon after that, I found myself sitting around a table in Sydney (first class flight, Commonwealth cars) with people with famous names Professor Sir Frank Callaway, John Hopkins, Robert Hughes, Don Banks himself - Kim Williams and Ken Tribe, now in the same league, and project staff including Mary Vallentine, Ian D. Campbell, Jane Spring, Ian Johnston, Jenny Vogel and, of course, James.
They were wonderful days. We were a team. Nugget Coombs liked to have lunch with us because we were such fun. We met in most capital cities. Probably the most memorable was Hobart. Don conducted us, champagne glasses in hand (thank you Suzanne Gleeson) in the premiere and only performance of Singing the Mountain. Meetings were followed by meals in fine restaurants.
James set up the Australia Music Centre and I sat on his board.
Our bonds never weakened, however rarely we met.
When things turned sour for him and he felt that Bali suited him better than Australia, we kept in touch and met whenever possible. Bali was not the climate for me and I never went there.
My years on the Music Board were followed by an appointment (thanks to Len Amadio) to the Board of Directors of the Australian Opera, where I survived for 17 years, to a number of state government arts funding bodies as member and chair and to invitations to write for a number of national and international journals. It all started from the Music Board. I firmly believe that if James had not given me that opening, I would not be doing what I am doing today. When I got to know him well enough, I said 'James, why me?'
He said 'Darling, you were perfect, you came from South Australia, you were a woman, and no one had ever heard of you.'
Just as well I went to Canberra, hey. I'll never forget his high squawky laugh when I reminded him.
Elizabeth Silsbury OAM B.A, B.Mus. (Hons), is the Adjunct Senior Lecturer Flinders University, Senior Music Critic for The Advertiser, SA Reporter for Opera (London), and reporter for Music Forum
It was the wet season and James's 70th year. My sons were 11 and 12 and, since I was convinced James was carrying the same longevity genes that took his parents into their 90s, I wanted my kids to begin to get to know this Honey-Tongued Orpheus who had so inspired and guided me in my formative years. 'Jump off the cliff into life' was what propelled me to move to Europe in 1976 and has resonated in me ever since, although I relied on James to take the initiative to impart that to my kids.
In terms of preparation for us he had thought of everything with aesthetics ruling practicality - except that his beloved monkeys, one of whom really didn't like women, were tied up at a safe distance so that my mother shouldn't be confronted on the uneven path that led from the dining pavilion to her sleeping quarters, James's very own temporarily sacrificed to afford her the most breathtaking early morning view over the ravine that the property offered.
For a week it all unfolded - magnificent but simple meals from that most basic of kitchens, sarongs and head-dresses for everyone so we could participate in the house-blessing ceremony for which a local priest was motorcycled in, the daily gamelan lesson (in appropriate local attire) for Benji from the moment he sparked with curiosity, to the motor cycle ride for Nick to shop for the live chickens that would be transformed and presented at that night's evening meal. The fascination with the juxtaposition of their 90210 LA lifestyles reached its peak when James instructed his boys to whisk them off to a cock fight which they both still recall with a mixture of disgust and awe.
And so the days passed very, very slowly and spontaneously, with the longest being a trip to Linda Garland's house for an all-night 'opera' performance from which we carried the sleeping children in the early hours of the following day. Time became a vast expanse and we emerged from the week just as I had hoped feeling as though we'd been checked out for months.
Lounging on the big bamboo couches one night after dinner and asked what he would encapsulate as the single most important words of wisdom to these two pre-teens, James's response was 'Look after your teeth and chew every bite ....... times before swallowing'. Nick remembers the number as 13 and Benji remembers 14 and it's one of the many things they still argue about but both remember from that trip.
Jenny Vogel has just entered her 26th year working for Opus 3 Artists (formerly ICM Artists) managing classical instrumentalists and orchestral conductors. In 1972, fresh out of Sydney Uni, she became Project Assistant for the newly created Music Board of the Australia Council. James Murdoch was the Board Consultant, and the main initiative of the Board was the establishment and funding of the Australia Music Centre, of which James Murdoch was appointed Director. Jenny became his assistant until, during the Centre's presentation of the 1975 Music Rostrum, she met Cathy Berberian and Luciano Berio, and, six months later, was invited to Italy to become Berio's personal assistant. She left Australia and began a 35-year career in artist management, from Rome to London to New York, and finally LA.
My first contact personally with James was in 1974, when I was
Music and Sound Recordings Librarian at the National Library of
Australia. I had been to a IAML/IASA Congress in Jerusalem in
August 1974, where I first encountered the work of the Music
Information Centres (MIC) as they were known then. James rang me
later that year to ask me to go on the committee to set up the
Australia Music Centre in Sydney. Also on that first Board, after
Ken Tribe had created the appropriate legal entity for it in
1975, were James Penberthy, Robert Hughes, Nathan Waks, John Day
(MD World Record Club), Glenda Callagan and John Sturman, (last
two from APRA,) myself and James as Managing Director.
The first premises were not far from the present AMC, but with access from George St. The views were stunning, many works of Charles Blackman were to be seen on every available wall space, a secretary and librarian were soon appointed, and the Centre was up and running. Publications followed soon afterwards, the library grew rapidly and every composer demanded that they get all the attention possible. Computer technology was used to produce all the publications, and the financial and business systems as well. Exhibitions, performances, conferences and meetings were held there and it was home to not only composers and musicians of all kinds, but various organisations also had a foothold there, with members making use of the facilities, helping to edit the various publications or run the many events held there. Out-of-towners used it as a base; people went there to meet each other. All the young pianists at the first Sydney Piano Competition found a welcome home there, and so it went on.
James had time for everyone, honed in on our most urgent needs and found ways to fill them. He called my daughter Melissa Melismata, never explaining it to her, but she was so chuffed to have a special name (she was 10). He stayed with us on many of his Canberra visits.
At one of the conferences on Australian music in Canberra, he brought Peggy Glanville-Hicks with him and put her in University House for the heated bathroom floors. We had an hour to spare for dinner one night, so I brought them both home for a soup. When I drove through the Stromlo Forest, as it was quicker to do so, Peggy became hysterical because there were no streetlights. We returned by the best-lit way possible, so I was forgiven. James was always attentive to her every need, and was so dismayed when his suggestions for performances of her works weren't taken up in her lifetime.
We had many adventures at IAML/IASA conferences overseas. In Cambridge when Christopher Hogwood was about to conduct a concert, James was horrified that he was wearing brown shoes with a black suit, and so insisted they swap shoes. James hobbled around all evening as he got the smaller ones. In Budapest he filled my hotel room with yellow chrysanthemums the size of dinner plates. So many memories, but I'll close on this very sunny one.
Prue Neidorf met James Murdoch when working at the National Library of Australia in the 1970s. She was also a member of the AMC's first Board.
Jamie would, I think, have understood why I couldn't travel to
Sydney to be there in person tonight. He'd have understood that
having a large piece at a certain stage requires unbroken
concentration in, preferably, tranquil conditions. He'd have
understood, because it was his life's enterprise to make it
possible for creative artists to do the best work they could, and
then to have that work presented to full advantage.
That is clear in the passionate advocacy of new music that he brought to his roles as a musician, as artistic director of this or that festival, manager of this or that ensemble, in his founding work with the Australia Council's Music Board, and directing the fledgling Australian Music Centre. It is clear in his remarkable documentation of this country's music: his books and the collections of recordings that have been invaluable for those of us who have subsequently written about our music and its composers. It was clear in the way in which, with his fellow trustees, he worked so hard to realise Peggy Glanville-Hicks's vision of this, her home, as a haven for composers; it was a huge honour for me to be offered the first fellowship in 1994, and my time here was a happy and productive one, a time of grace.
James was many things to many people - not just in all those professional roles, but a hugely amusing friend and, at the same time, a deeply serious mentor to so many of us. It's hard to think of any aspect of Australian musical life in which he didn't play an important and transforming role. We shall not see his like again; may he rest in peace.
Gordon Kerry's message was read at the memorial event for James Murdoch at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Paddington on 8 November.
James's death has brought back a flood of memories of my early
professional life in the 1970s. We went to lots of concerts (all
contemporary and many in the old Cell Block theatre), enjoyed
many meals (always with red wine), and took part in conversations
that went late into the night (about new Australian compositions,
which composers reflected the Australian experience most
directly, or which works demonstrated the most individual voice).
We discussed publishers and applauded those who did most for
Australian composers (Universal, Faber) and, importantly, the
need for an Australian Music Centre, James's dream. James
provided access to a world where music was a living breathing
creative force with the power to influence, educate, delight and
inspire. His unending belief in the important role Australian
composers had to play to realise the vision many had for a more
confident Australia with a thriving culture (which Gough Whitlam
gave voice to and supported), was infectious. Of course, he had
passions for certain styles of music and for some performers more
than others, especially those who were committed to the music of
today. His views were not always popular.
I worked with James for only a year after he had introduced Jenny Vogel and me to the Australian Council for the Arts and its CEO, Dr Jean Battersby, an incredible leader of the newly invigorated federal funding body for the arts. I looked after living composers and Jenny took charge of the organisations which presented the music of the 'dead' ones. James travelled the country searching for new work which often involved many different art forms and for the original and the interesting. Jenny and I would help them turn their ideas into applications for support. These were days when there was more money than funding applications and James made the most of this time encouraging new ideas and supporting the risk-takers. Jenny subsequently went to work with James at the newly-formed Australia Music Centre and I went to Musica Viva Australia.
Because of James, I pursued a career in arts administration. For his encouragement, enthusiasm and belief in me, I will be forever grateful.
Mary Vallentine AO is the Chief Executive Officer of the Melbourne Recital Centre.
How often do we have a man such as James in our life?
How well can you ever know someone like that? He was a dear friend of mine for 25 years. For some of you, that friendship extends more than 50 years. Some knew him as a young man - those early photographs show a young handsome strong and confident man. They don't show how he struggled in those early days, how hard he worked to pay for his musical education, how difficult it was to find an entry into a musical life.
After all, James had only a modest education, no money, no networks of influence - but he had a fine mind and he was hungry to learn everything that 1950s Sydney had to offer. He was self-formed. He blazed his own path but with his wit, charm and irresistible imagination, over the years he developed into one of the great networkers. His personal papers reveal the deep links he had with many of the truly significant creative figures of the last 50 years.
Interestingly, he was not personally ambitious. He was ambitious for his ideas and ambitious in his support of others. In this way he was an important mentor and friend to many composers, performers, policy makers and administrators - some of whom are here tonight.
In the excellent obituary last week in The Australian, there was just one mistake: the subtitle. It described James's profession as arts administrator. He was never really a professional administrator. He was a catalyst, a provocateur of change, an organiser, a mentor, a repository of musical lineages and links, he was all sorts of things but never really an administrator.
Each of us has our own portrait of James: a detail rather than the whole work. He and I grew to be dear friends - really through our link with Peggy Glanville-Hicks. It is fitting that this remembrance for James is here in Peggy's former home. She wanted it to remain a house for composers and it was James who brought her to me to make it happen. Through the many years that followed we became the closest of friends.
James could be apparently whimsical in his friendships. Many people have said to me over the years that they used to be his friend and never really knew why they had been dismissed. It was sad that he did this to good people and old relationships. Whenever I talked to him about this he showed that underneath his outer casing was a very sensitive man who was easily hurt - sometimes where no offence had been intended. In return, he rarely confronted; he just let the friendship fall away. It was perhaps a weakness and it was certainly his loss - but it was also a loss for those who had been set adrift.
There were few secrets he and I would not share. Some of you will be delighted or horrified to know that James wrote an autobiography. You will be either disappointed or relieved to know that it will not be published. It's a pity really as it does tell the story of an extraordinary life. In daily life he could be horribly indiscrete but at least he knew better than to put it in print.
He could drop famous names like others drop their 'h's - but I was never irritated by this. It wasn't affectation. These people really were part of his life and he always had a fascinating story to add sugar to the pie. By way of example I have brought this walking stick to this evening because it symbolises some of the things that were important about James.
He gave it to me because we shard a love of Chopin and in particular the Nocturnes. I had been working on the Nocturnes and often discussed them with him. One day he said that he had a gift for me. It was Chopin's walking stick. The story is that when Chopin was living at the Monastery Valldemosa around 1838-39, local monks gave him this walking stick. When Chopin returned to Paris he left the walking stick with the monks, who kept it. Around 1934, Robert Graves took up residence near the Monastery and soon attracted a busy traffic of visitors, which benefited the village economically and culturally. Eventually the monks presented the stick to Graves in the mistaken belief that he was musical. In 1956, Peggy Glanville Hicks spent some weeks in Deya near Graves, while they discussed his libretto for her opera Nausicaa based on Grave's book Homer's Daughter. (The opera was premiered at the 1961 Athens Festival and was hailed as a masterpiece.) Later, back in New York, the walking stick and its provenance was much admired by her very close friend Oliver Daniels (a concert pianist and then managing director of BMI) and she gave it to him as a thank you for his long support. In 1990 James went to New York to interview Peggy's friends and colleagues for his biography on Peggy and during his interview with Daniels was shown the Chopin walking stick. Daniels died soon thereafter but James maintained a correspondence with his partner Don Ott. When James eventually returned to New York in 1996 he visited Don Ott who presented it as a gift to James in recognition of his devotion to PGH. From there, Chopin's stick went to Bali - and then in 2008 to Sydney and to me. I share this story because it is so Jamesian: It reflects his love of a great story; it is an example of his generosity to his friends; it tells of his extraordinary international network of contacts and influence. And because of its association with the great Chopin, it is a symbol for me of his life with and for composers.
He had a refined critical ear and as you know, his breadth of musical knowledge was extraordinary. He combined this with a rare ability to talk about music in a way that was illuminating and that stimulated an urge to discover more. For me, talking music with James was a wonderful combination of storytelling, insight and invitation. An invitation to listen to new composers; listen to new works; listen to familiar works in different ways. Above all, to listen.
We have lost a friend but it is our loss. We mustn't grieve for James. These last years have been so very hard for him. Always impecunious and with cascading ill health, life was not easy. Just a couple of months ago James came back to Australia, to Canberra, for a series of operations. He couldn't afford this care but some of his friends helped this happen - in particular Barbara Blackman - thank you Barbara for your help during this time.
James has left a remarkable legacy and he would be delighted to know that you have acknowledged him so fondly this evening.
Valedictory for James Murdoch (8th November 2010, PGH Composers' House)
James Murdoch - a personal memoir by Ross Edwards
During my student years in the 1960s there appeared on the scene
a suave, devastatingly handsome and sophisticated young man whose
mysterious aura and charming manner caused quite a stir in
contemporary music circles. This was James Murdoch - pianist,
composer, author, entrepreneur and fearless champion of
Australian music. I was one of several young composers whom James
would periodically summon to Melbourne where we'd be introduced
to musicians and other artists, encouraged to talk about our
work, taught to drink real as opposed to instant coffee, and
generally treated with civility and understanding. He'd also
organise concerts of our music and write about it for various
publications. Being immature, I took all this a bit too much for
granted. I can now see that it was a rare privilege.
For James, the ideal composer was a confident, highly presentable individual, adept at wheeling and dealing, and if talent sometimes appeared a lesser prerequisite he would probably have argued that without an effective platform it was useless anyway. Beneath his extravagant personality James was a realist. He deplored the conventional scruffy, head-in-the-clouds image of a composer and was at pains to remodel it, both sartorially and psychologically, hauling it out of the back room and shoving it before the footlights. In this he was only partially successful and generations of Aspergers and other 'flawed' aspirants who, unable to live up to his criteria, found themselves on a long list of personae non gratae. This list was compiled, I like to think, as much with humour as with asperity: James could be very, very amusing, and many of his whimsical observations and deft sarcasms have stayed with me over the years.
He could be waspish, but at heart James was a deeply caring man who recognised that composers needed support in a society that sometimes regarded them with suspicion - if it showed any interest at all. Among many examples of his kindness and concern is the way he looked after Margaret Sutherland and Peggy Glanville-Hicks during their years of failing health. He was passionate about fostering awareness and appreciation of Australian music and he would use all of his personal charm to this end, buttonholing business leaders and beguiling festival directors. I don't think his campaign to have Australian music piped through the streets of Adelaide ever came off - it would have been quite a coup - but he pursued it with vigour and conviction.
Operating for the most part on a shoestring budget he had little interest in material self-advancement and put his energy into making things happen for others. His charm was infectious but it was undermined by his tendency to be recklessly high-handed and outspoken. This made him enemies and deprived him of many opportunities and the recognition he deserved. Turning his back on Australia, he made his home in Bali, coming back now and again to stir things up. I know there was bitterness and suffering in his later years but, I'm told, also happiness and fulfillment. (I was on the personae non gratae list and we hadn't spoken for a long time). He was one of those rare human beings who have the capacity to celebrate life to the full and to whom others naturally gravitate.
- James Murdoch : A Celebration
Some months before he died, James made what was to be his last visit to Australia. Needing specialised hospital care, he was brought back from Bali by his longtime friend Barbara Blackman. She lives in Canberra and he stayed there until he was well enough to return. I dearly wish that I'd visited him there. While we talked on the phone, it would have been so good to have seen him. After he settled in Bali, we didn't meet very often, but distance didn't diminish our friendship. We were friends for almost half his life, since the days of wild parties when he lived in Melbourne.
For me, it was James's enthusiasm that characterised him most. He embraced his friends with it and he even handled a few vendettas in an enthusiastic way. Everything that he did was approached with enthusiasm. Without it, he could never have founded the Australian Music Centre. He achieved this at a time when governments were well-disposed to the arts, recognising that they defined the very identity of our nation. James often lamented the disinterest in the arts shown by recent governments. At present, neither major party in the Federal Government is capable of defining its own identity.
I always admired James's fierce championing of equality of gender. He scorned the once generally-accepted notion that women couldn't write music. In Australia's Contemporary Composers, published in 1972, James devoted chapters to Alison Bauld, Anne Boyd, Helen Gifford, Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Margaret Sutherland. It was the first time that Australian women who create music were written about at length and in a serious way. James once introduced me to the music of the Tasmanian composer Hellgart Mahler, grand-niece of Gustav Mahler. A Tasmanian myself, I hadn't even been aware of her existence.
In addition to writing about Australian music, and passionately so, James initiated many recordings of it. He was responsible for recordings of two of my seminal works, Irkanda IV and Sun Music I. He also initiated and co-produced some films about composers, now important historical documents. I particularly like a line in the film on Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Peggy states, 'If you're a woman and you write music, you have to be twice as good as the men, and I am!'
Composers will be forever grateful to Peggy and James. It was James's idea that Peggy bequeath her house as a place where composers could stay free from the constraints of rent. The house in Paddington, in Sydney, has given shelter to some of our best composers. It also provided James with a good reason to visit Australia. Without him, and the whole-hearted guidance of Shane Simpson, the venture may well have floundered. Prompted by the idea of Peggy's house, Aaron Copland did the same with his, in Upper New York State. The Copland House is now a part of the White House Save American Treasures Project.
I hope that sometime in the future Peggy's house, honouring both Peggy and James, will be given the Australian equivalent of The Copland House. At least the local council has erected a street-sign pointing the way to it. Today, like the Australian Music Centre under the leadership of John Davis, Peggy's legacy is entwined with our culture.
Enthusiasm is usually coupled with generosity of spirit. Certainly this was true of James. We spoke on the phone a little before his stay in Canberra came to an end. He talked of the selfless support given to him by Barbara Blackman and Adrian Keenan, and he was clearly more interested in my well-being than his own. We bade each other goodbye. Then, a few days later he returned to his beloved Bali. It was his final journey. Dear James: your friendship will always be in my heart. Terima kasih.
Throughout his 60-year career in the arts, James was always a trail-blazer, a dreamer and innovator, galvanising and inspiring artistic life in whatever milieu he was in. He established organisations and companies, then moved on to the next big idea. He corresponded, networked with and supported countless people around the world. He undertook consultancies for governments and arts organisations in Australia and Asia; promoted, documented and managed international and Australian artists and composers, none more than his beloved Peggy Glanville-Hicks; and he conceived, organised and directed major festivals and events, here and overseas. He captured countless artists, across the art-forms, on film and in sound; wrote books, directories and commentaries; and lobbied and advocated for the importance of the arts in every sphere of life.
But no motivation was more important than what he saw as 'our
Australian music project': I think it represented a kind of
'Enlightenment' vision for James. Shane Simpson has asked me, for
this memorial occasion, to research and recount some of James's
early contributions that resulted in enduring changes in the
musical landscape in this country. I have briefly skimmed through
his manuscript papers held at the National Library, many
restricted until his death, with hundreds more files still to
come. But the vast array of documentation, programs, reviews,
correspondence, reports and schemes, research and writing, and
business records is far too overwhelming to deal with in a
cursory way. If Grainger portrayed himself as the 'all-rounded
man', then in his own way, so was James, a quality for which he
was both admired and criticised: it was his strength and his
bête-noir. So today, while you can read my short précis of his
abundant life, I will gather just a few titbits from his papers
that glimpse his attributes and capture his humanity.
The emotional catch-cry of Gough Whitlam's 'It's time!' captured the essence of James's most pervasive dream, what he saw as the grand 'Australian music project'. James betrayed this passion in a letter to Frank Callaway from London in 1969, when his colleagues first tried to woo him to return to Australia. He said:
'My heart is in Australia. It would be a source of great satisfaction to me to continue the work in an area, and help bring it to a new stage of fruition, in which we have all laboured for so long. I feel very much the time is now and for many reasons the establishment and promotion of Australian music must not flounder at this point.'
Once back in Australia, he reported to the Commonwealth's (CAAC) Music Committee that the few resident composers had no hope of making a living from composition. Moreover, they complain 'of a sense of cultural isolation and are uneasily aware of not relating to the community and not having a proper place in it'. Yet he also felt that 'what is happening in Australia is the most exciting manifestation of any culture that I can see, I wouldn't be anywhere else, I feel there's an enormous explosion of energy in this country'.
James enlisted all sorts of people to assist his mission. For example, City University of New York Professor Barry Brook, then President of almost every international documentation project and agency, advocated the formation of the Australian Music Centre to the Music Board in 1974. When he visited again two years later, Brook wrote to Ken Tribe:
'Little did I dream …that I would find [in two years] so extraordinary a development at the Rocks as I met on this visit. The AMC's importance to the arts in Australia is powerfully manifest. One wonders how Australian music could have existed for so long without it.'
In reporting on the AMC, a journalist for Hi-Fi attempted to capture James's style.
'James who?' he asked. 'This little chap, suave and slightly mischievous in manner, who seemed to enjoy himself so much, was largely an unknown quantity. His voice was the first I'd heard, after many rather strained phone conversations about [contemporary music in Australia], that had any trace of humour in it. He was one of the few who did not seem concerned to justify his own position, and certainly no one was more concise, or knew the subject better'.
'I once approached him for advice on a project I had in mind. He was completely honest and did not paint a very optimistic picture, yet I left feeling quite cheerful [and satisfied]. Had I been fobbed off by an expert PR man? … James is certainly good at the PR. He enjoys himself and he contrives to get everyone enjoying themselves … and he avoids being bored by deftly introducing two bores to each other and vanishing. …Nevertheless I had not been fobbed off. He had run through every possibility known to him and clearly illuminated the obstacles… He is very good at staying just within the bounds proper to his position.'
Dorothy Freed reported to the New Zealand Composers Association in 1979:
'When James Murdoch went the 1978 IAML conference in Portugal, he took with him a film about music and music-making in Australia (Music Australia). [The response was amazement]….[He] also took with him an Aboriginal musician and an Aboriginal dancer, and staged a big concert featuring these artists, the film and recordings of "white" Australian music. The whole event was … a sensation, and a major success in international relations. All of this is due to the energy, charm, ability and dedication of a brilliant director of vision, a very busy man who has time for everyone and for whom nothing is too much trouble - James Murdoch.'
James's dreams and projects always exceeded the funding realities, and his papers are littered with the business and financial challenges he faced. His many changes in direction were part of that reality. However, he described himself as 'a creative person … not in producing works of art but as a general coordinator and … catalyst for all the activity that I see around me.'
James had a creative eye and an irrestistibly aesthetic view of the world, knowing what was good, what would work and its value, and he encouraged risk-taking in those he saw with the personal commitment to develop and carry through an idea. This reflection in 1973 provides a poignant self-assessment:
'I feel very consciously one of my talents…is to give people around the country…the courage to attempt more than they are already doing, to give them a sense of hope …and confidence….It's very interesting, knowing the mechanics of things which most creative people [don't]. … You can't use a system until you know how it works. Well, I know how the system works and I am able to make things possible, often around the back door but that's neither here nor there, it's got to happen.'
Internationalising Australian music was part of his crusade, for, he said: 'how could Australian composers be taken seriously until they had [international] points of reference?' In 1973, he also presciently stated:
'I foresee in the next 50 years an enormous change in our attitudes to Asia…I feel this country will become not only geographically but temperamentally, culturally Asian. …it can be done. It's changing people's attitudes, and we have to have a vast traffic of cultural events from Asia and vice versa.
But if we represent James only by his big picture ideas and organisational achievements, then we diminish the other, more personal qualities that reside in so many stories of personal affection for and from James. Two stories I found in the papers exemplify his humanity and his loyalty. One, a pithy note he wrote to Roger Woodard, who was suffering a crisis of confidence, in 1977:
'You give up the music? The Pope, the throne? Jean, the Council? …Maria, The Australian? You only get better, the price is agony and you pay!'
And to Clive Pascoe at the Music Board in 1979:
'I have recently visited Dr Margaret Sutherland in Melbourne. For the past year she has been at the Old Colonists' Home for the Aged and this has not been a happy experience for such an artist of refined sensibilities and a hypersensitive aural world. She is almost blind now.
She is surrounded by elderly bodies in their rooms, all playing different radio [and television] programmes and all too audible - a musical tower of Babel. For a modest sum,…I could provide her with sound equipment, on which she could hear the music of her choice. I would keep her supplied with new Australian music, on cassette…If her musical children have forgotten her, she cares deeply for them.'
James ends his own Oral History in 1973 with the words:
'[Amidst the bureaucracy, the mechanics, I fear we tend to forget that] all our efforts are made only to help human beings achieve…an unfoldment of their lives that is meaningful not only to themselves but to people around them'.
Thanks, James, for a lifetime of unfolding opportunities. Australian music, as well as dance and the other arts, owes you a lasting debt.
Robyn Holmes is the Curator of Music at the National Library of Australia (8 November, Peggy Glanville-Hicks House).
'Number 9 Collins Steet. The Paris End.' They were the first words Jamie Murdoch ever spoke to me. It was 1966. I was 20 and a student. I knew no one in Melbourne but a musician friend in Sydney had given me his phone number. I called and was invited to 'a party'.
The party, it turned out, had been going for some days. I never knew why, but found myself in that Alladin's cave of his apartment with its sloping Monmartre glass roof, works of arts, books, records and people strewn everywhere. And everywhere, this man called Jamie urging, shaping, magicking things along.
I knew no one and met everyone. I drank too much red wine out of
embarrassment, I suspect. Later I was to realise that the elegant
woman on the piano stool holding court in French would go on to
run the first Australia Council; that the byronic gentlemen under
the piano who rose up, played some Satie and collapsed, would
reveal himself to be Richard
Meale. A senator passed through and possibly passed out.
There were poets, potters, paupers and, for all I knew, Queens. I fell in love at least twice that afternoon and would have given my life not to leave. The odor of scanctity filled the air. But next day I returned to Queensland University and Homer and that, I thought (with rerget), was that.
18 months later I had just moved to Adelaide. It was festival
time. We met by chance in the famed Terrace Bar of the old South
Australian Hotel. To my surprise James remembered me. ISCM, which
he ran, was presenting concerts of Australian music. Appalled at
my ignorance, he frog-marched me off to them and I was dazzled.
'It will change your life', he said. Indeed, it did. Through
thick and thin we remained friends and co-conspirators ever
My memories over those 45 years are lit up with bursts of revelation and intoxication - in both the alcoholic and inspirational senses.
They include: his introduction to Australia of English mime artist and director Mark Furneaux who forced me to rethink that the meaning of music theatre; his putting a youthful Lyndon Terracini with Hans Werner Henze in El Cimarron at the 1976 Adelaide Festival that launched the baritone's stellar career across Europe and ultimately made him the radicalising Artistic Director of Opera Australia; an incandescent night at the 1982 Sydney Festival when he directed countertenor Andrew Dalton with the Seymour Group under Stuart Challender in two versions in one evening of Pierrot Lunaire - one in recital dress and one staged ('the first', he said, 'to truly listen and the other to luxuriate'); bringing the wild and wonderful Diamanda Galás to Australia for the first time in his fabulously rich New Directions Festival in 1989; sitting down a young Graeme Murphy at the Australian Music Centre to listen to a mountain of tapes of Australian composers ('If it's going to be the best in dance, it has to be the best in music for dance.'). Murphy went on to commission what is still, I would think the largest and certainly the most distinguished body of original Australian music for dance. And, bless him, he stll does.
But it was also personal. There were boozy and bizarre nights when we dreamed and schemed and some dreams happened and some never did. A few I'm sure we couldn't even remember next day.
But one event stands out: James had lived and worked in Spain as a young man and spoke Spanish, though a little rusty with time. In the mid-1980s the renovations on my Redfern house had become so intolerable that I took to 'boarding' with friends. James was going abroad and offered me his apartment in Woolloomolloo for a month.
He gave me two instructions: Peggy (G-H) will ring and invite you to drinks. You have to go at least once a week. The second was that he thrust into my hands a bilingual copy of the poems of Garcia Lorca and said, 'Read these. They'll change your life' (Jamie was fond of urging life changing experiences or, as he put it, 'jumping of the cliff into life'). On this occasion, he little knew how truly he spoke. Reading Lorca was the beginning of the journey I took into Spanish and Latin America, and the rest of my life.
Was he prescient? I sometimes thought so. He had a knack of looking right into people and deciding their fate. Merlin he certainly was, and one day, like Merlin, he retreated to his cave never to return
When I spent a weekend with him in Canberra in May this year, his body was fading but the mind like Aristotle was undimmed. He ranged across people, places and the meaning of life. A week later I took him to have lunch with John Davis in the Rocks near the Music Centre which had, I think, been his most beloved achievement.
I doubt that anyone of importance in music had treated him for some time with as much respect as John did that day. James was deeply moved and John has my undying thanks.
If there was a disappointment in my relationship with Jamie it is that I never lived up to his expectations. From when we met all those years ago I know he hoped for more; that somehow I might become one of the keepers of his flame. But I was just never up to it. Perhaps no one was.
Vale James. Non bis ad idem.
I was sad to read recently of the passing of the Australian Music Centre's first Executive Director, James Murdoch, and began reminiscing from the time when the AMC was born. Many people, myself included, had hoped for some years that the Federal Government would establish an agency similar in role to Holland's Donemus, the Czech Music Information Centre, the Canadian Music Centre and similar other long-established bodies throughout the world.
The election of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister was the catalyst that brought with it radical changes of great benefit to the Australian music and arts scene; and soon after his election, the Australia Council and the Australian Music Centre came into being. Things were at last looking up so far as the future of modern music by Australian composers was concerned.
It was fortunate, too, that expatriate composer, Don Banks, had returned home to Australia after many years - successful ones, too - in the UK. Another musician and artists' agent, widely experienced at a high level in the London arts scene, was James Murdoch. His work was well respected by Banks, and soon James Murdoch was appointed to head the fledgling Australian Music Centre.
James Murdoch proved to be definitely the right person, in the right place, at the right time, and his dynamism, combined with acutely shrewd professional judgement, helped set the AMC off on the right track. Murdoch did not suffer fools gladly, and if at times this caused some tensions in the conservative music fraternity, composers nonetheless began to appreciate that someone at last understood their problems and could suggest ways to help overcome them. In short, they soon recognised that James Murdoch had the flair and ability to make the Australian community more receptive to contemporary composition and performance - something that had been worryingly dormant in earlier decades.
I remember asking James to chair one of a series of 'Contemporary
Music at the Opera House' performances, which I programmed in
1979 with the SSO and other groups. His presence that evening
added an unmistakable element of real authority, erudition, and
an innate cosmopolitan charisma that was born from many
competitive years in London's theatre and music world. He was
also very helpful in my efforts to establish broader career
contacts and, towards that end, he produced a brochure for me
when I was the ABC's Chief Conductor in Queensland, and also a
set of postcards later, when I came down to Sydney in 1978, using
action photographs taken in the Opera House by Gordon Clarke.
Both these initiatives were under the AMC aegis and due to
His work over many decades resulted in many innovations and advances in people's appreciation, and in encouraging the involvement of commercial interests to assist in sponsorship. In short, his presence led to the increased awareness that not all composers were dead ones!
There is so much more one could add, but James's pioneering work
helped 'legitimise' modern music in the wider community. This
must not be forgotten. What's more, his example should serve as
an inspiration, hopefully to present-day promoters of music to
always keep their eyes open and be conscious that all arts need
refreshment in the form of new and progressive concepts and
ideas, if they are not to wither and become moribund.
Vale James Murdoch.
Murdoch - biography (AMC)
James Murdoch - biography and other resources on the Australian National Library website
James Murdoch - obituary (The Australian, 2 November 2010)
James Murdoch 1930-2010 - a news article on Resonate
'Bali loses a distinguished man of the arts' - Bali news website
© Australian Music Centre (2010) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.
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James Murdoch remembered
Isn't it interesting how, when asked for memories of James, so many of us tend to speak of the starts of our own careers? The reason is obvious. James was an inveterate advice giver and his advice was good. When I arrived in Australia in 1983, someone - I think it was Virginia Braden - sent me to see him. James handed me a list of names, addresses and phone numbers, telling me not only who to contact but why, how and in what order. He told me who I should write to and who I should ring, who to take seriously and who not, who should get scores and who only recordings (a certain critic, 'because he wouldn't which know way up to hold a score'). I can't think where one would go for that sort of advice now.
I'll miss James, especially his laugh.
thoughts on James
I can't claim to have known James well, but we've been acquainted for 30 years. This is my chance to put on record that he was always a wonderful resource, and offered himself as such on many occasions, especially if I was dealing with the release of Peggy's music on disc. His role in the development of Australian music was unique, and many people owe him a great deal. I've always been impressed with his energy and thought the early days of the AMC were thrilling. Long will we miss him.