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8 September 2014

Larry Sitsky at 80

Larry Sitsky Image: Larry Sitsky  
© The Australian National University

Larry Sitsky's 80th birthday will be celebrated on 10 September 2014. In this article, a close friend of the composer, Judith Crispin, reflects on Sitsky, his music and his career.

Also on Resonate: an interview with Sitsky and Laura Chislett's observations after thirty years with Sitsky's Sonata for solo flute.

At 80, Larry Sitsky remains one of Australia's most prolific composers, having produced well over 200 pieces to date. His friends, students and colleagues, no doubt, suspect that one of his exotic Chinese cabinets must hide a much older portrait of him. After all, his piano performances and musicological research have hardly slowed in recent years and the composition, if anything, has increased.

Given Sitsky's high profile as concert pianist, composer, musicologist and teacher, one might assume the motivating force behind his career has been personal ambition. Certainly this is true for many musicians, and why not? But I am convinced, after twenty years in Sitsky's circle, that his entire creative and intellectual oeuvre has been driven by one thing alone, and that is the idea of service - service to his tradition, to music itself, and to those higher mystical truths that music has always accessed. This simple fact is the key to understanding why Sitsky at 80 still makes composers half his age look as though they're not trying.

Sitsky's creative and mystical lives began simultaneously as a child in China. A prodigy of the Russian school of pianism, he began ruling staves opposite the printed music for Liszt's 12th Rhapsody and attempting his own compositions. Lured by the sound of chanting, a young Sitsky visited Buddhist temples and discussed religion with monks. A lifelong interest in Asian mysticism was born which, later, sparked mature compositions about Tibetan mysticism, Kundalini and related philosophies. For seven decades, the twin streams of music and mysticism have permeated all of Sitsky's musical life.

In 1958-61 Sitsky studied in San Francisco with virtuoso Egon Petri, a devotee of the Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Discovering Sitsky's interest in composition, Petri brought him a copy of Busoni's Magnum Opus Doktor Faust and together they read through the whole score, Petri playing the orchestral part, and Sitsky the singers' melodies. Doktor Faust was the unifying element Sitsky had been searching for, the perfect synthesis of music and mysticism. Later studies of the Faust tradition led Sitsky to Kabbalah and ceremonial magic, ideas that underpin numerous of his works including the opera The Golem, Concerto for piano and orchestra the twenty-two paths of the tarot (1991), Tetragrammaton (1987) for violin and piano, and others.

Music, for Sitsky, became the axis mundi, the point at which matter intersected with divine light. And if this was true, then surely musicians themselves were the torchbearers of the axis mundi itself. To Sitsky, it seemed these torchbearers, spread out across all history, were connected by oral tradition and a shared purpose. No nobler task could exist for Sitsky than to serve this tradition- and he resolved to do exactly that.

Returning to Australia in the early 1960s, Sitsky paid homage to musicians from his own lineage, performing concerts of Busoni, Bartók, Scriabin and others. He wrote books and articles on Rubinstein, Busoni, Alkan, the Russian avant-gardists and devoted himself to teaching future generations of torchbearers. In 1965 he joined the newly founded Canberra School of Music, at one time the premiere music school in this country, as head of keyboard, then head of composition and academic studies. In 2005 he became emeritus professor at the same institution.

But traditions move from the past to the future, and Sitsky's dedication to younger generations has matched his dedication to the past. In 1975 he co-founded with James Penberthy the Composers' Guild of Australia and, in 1976, the Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble with Don Banks and Keith Humble. This ensemble recorded and performed new works by Australian composers as well as the music of Webern, Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky and other artists little known at that time. Sitsky championed his peers in his book Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century and taught three generations of young composers and performers. Many of Sitsky's instrumental works have been composed for these students, many young enough to be his great-grandchildren.

At one time Sitsky thought he would become a poet - a little known fact - and, indeed, his earliest published song is a setting of his own poetry. His love of poetry has resulted in a huge body of vocal work - operas, music dramas and song cycles, some of which use his own translations of Alexander Blok. It was also a love of poetry that brought Sitsky into contact with Australian poet Gwen Harwood in 1963, sparking a 30 year artistic friendship. Together they created six operas including the Kabbalistic opera seria The Golem in 1980. A libretto for a seventh opera was half finished when Harwood passed away - it was never completed and Sitsky has refused to write more operas since.

After their first meeting, Harwood wrote a poem about Sitsky, demonstrating penetrating insights into his nature. Nothing in this world will change, she observes:

Unless, wakeful with questioning,
some mind beats on necessity,
and being unanswered learns to bear
emptiness like a wound that no
word but its own can mend; and finds
a new imperative to summon
a world out of unmeasured darkness
pierced by a brilliant nerve of sound.

(Harwood, 'New Music')

Here, in black and white, was the articulation of Sitsky's vision of the composer-priest, torchbearer of lux vivens, the living light - music, the axis mundi through which any person has access to universal truth. And this audible documenting of his own mystical journey will be Sitsky's real legacy, a trail of lights left on the path for those who follow: musicians, poets or mystics, anyone looking for a door.

Sitsky's 80th birthday won't involve the kind of national celebrations devoted to composers like Boulez, the fireworks and hype reserved for rock stars. Sitsky's profile has always been quieter than that. But a program of concerts and receptions will begin this week in Hobart attended, no doubt, by generations of grateful musicians - myself included. Had I not met Larry Sitsky in my early 20s, my life would have taken a completely different path. I'd not have found the deep mystery of concert music, or the penetrating truths of poetry. In fact, I'd probably have become a lawyer. So if you love music, wherever you are on the 10th of September, why not lift a glass and toast Australia's last great modernist - happy birthday Larry Sitsky.

AMC resources

Larry Sitsky - AMC profile
'Interview with Larry Sitsky' - a radio transcript, published on Resonate (10 September 2009)
'Three observations after thirty years with Larry Sitsky's Sonata for solo flute' - an article on Resonate by Laura Chislett (7 February 2013)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Judith Crispin is a composer, sound artist and musicologist.


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