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12 August 2016

Moya Henderson - international, yet intensely Australian

Moya Henderson Image: Moya Henderson  

'Without intense feeling in the composer, it is unlikely that the music will exert the appropriate influence', argues composer Moya Henderson. Her long-term friend, John Carmody, gives an overview of the rich and varied work of the 75-year-old composer.

When Moya Henderson went to Cologne, in 1974, on a two-year fellowship of the German Academic Foreign-exchange Service (DAAD) to be a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, a certain flexibility of temperament and diplomacy proved almost as essential as considerable musical ability. In the end, she found Stockhausen far too rigid and forbidding; on the other hand, Kagel, an Argentine-born German (of Russian-Polish-Jewish background) - and therefore something of an outsider, too - proved aesthetically utterly congenial as well as warm and personally supportive. He shared her idiosyncratic (even iconoclastic) approach to music theatre, a genre which, though barely understood in Australia, was well-established in Germany.

Perhaps Henderson's background had prepared her well for these bracing experiences. She was born in Quirindi in country NSW, grew up in Geelong, was educated at a boarding school in Melbourne, spent several fraught years as a member of the Sacré Coeur order of nuns, took a music degree under Gordon Spearritt's strict but empathic supervision at the University of Queensland and then, with the support of Ken Tribe and Don Banks, spent a period as composer-in-residence at the very new Sydney Opera House.

So the questions and challenges (personal as well as aesthetic) of those five semesters in Germany were crucial, especially because, until her time in Brisbane, her creativity had not been encouraged at all: her education was orthodox. The Australia of those years (as I well remember from my own experience) believed that novelists, composers, filmmakers and the like (not to mention university Professors) all came from abroad.

Like me, too, she began to learn the piano at about six years of age and sang a great deal (though the similarities stop there). It was while in the school infirmary at the age of 15 that she began to write 'an entire symphony'. In 1959, after leaving school, she obtained her AMusA qualifications in singing and piano and passed 5th grade theory (AMEB), allowing her to enter the first year of the Diploma course at the Melbourne Conservatorium. But she did not sit for the exams because, as she put it, 'I went on a "good-bye world" trip to Europe and the States in October-November that year'. That 'lapse' meant that, years later, 'Percy Jones knocked me back' when she sought to use that year to allow her advanced standing at UQ.

Her formal studies were thus delayed until the time in Brisbane when (as a result of six months' teaching in a French school and a semester in which she took American literature and singing at Manhattanville College, New York), she was able to begin a BA degree with French and Composition in 1969. The following year (with reluctant approval from her order which imposed a three-year limit), having achieved very high marks in French, she was admitted to the second year of a BMus. But she was required to take singing as her major study (with Marissa Brumby, Janet Delpratt and Margaret Nickson [the wife of Noel Nickson, the Foundation Professor of Music]), relegating composition as only a minor subject (with Colin Brumby).

I remember one of her colourful anecdotes from those Brisbane years when she was based at Stuartholme College on Mt Coot-tha. Betty Churcher was the principal art teacher there, and Davida Allen her star pupil. Allen conceived the idea of stripping naked, covering her body with paint, and then rolling across a series of canvases which she had fixed to the studio floor. Did the nuns approve (or even know)? Moya suspects that the Principal did know but, to her credit, did not intervene. Certainly, though, the sheer flair and theatricality of the young artist made a great impression on the emerging composer. That experience is yet to become a Henderson piece - but I'm keenly awaiting it!

She graduated in 1972, at the age of 31, and left the order that same year. Her mother's death from a stroke in 1970 had confronted her with 'the fragility of life', but the major change in her own life circumstances meant that she had to begin building a career (as well as a new life) rather later than most of us do - and in difficult financial circumstances (the convent had given her nothing on her departure).

Her move to Sydney and to the position at the Opera House was closely associated with her inspiration to create an opera from Patrick White's magnificent novel, Voss. In September 1972, she went to Martin Road to see the author 'who was as scared of this ex-nun as I was of him'. He gladly gave her his permission to undertake the project and soon after he wrote her a postcard, saying, 'That bus has now left, with you in it.'

The project was interrupted by the German sojourn (for facilitating which, she gives the novelist substantial credit: 'That austere and great man, Patrick White made all this possible'), but that extended period of study and broadening of experience strengthened her craft to undertake it, notably the encounters with Kagel. His encouragement was crucial: 'He was a wildly creative and inventive man, with a brilliant mind.' In 1974 she attended the famous Summer course for New Music (by then the 'International Music Institute') in Darmstadt and won the Kranichsteiner Prize for the best composition of the school with her music-theatre piece, Clearing the Air (in which she was one of the performers: on didjeridu). Amongst her colleagues there and in Cologne were the cellist Siegfried Palm and the Kontarsky brothers.

Soon after her return to Australia she learned from White that Peter Hemmings, the new General Manager of the Australian Opera, had sabotaged the Voss project. The combination of the 'difficult' Patrick White with the 'wild' Kagel-enthused composer was doubtless terrifying to the conservative management of the Opera and its suave British chief. She had some compensation in that, in late 1973, just before her departure for Germany, White had given her his Six Urban Songs, which he had first offered to Peter Sculthorpe and then, after their fierce falling-out over a proposed opera (to be based on A Fringe of Leaves), had unequivocally taken back.

I well remember my first encounters with Henderson's theatrical flair. One was the performance by the cellist, Nathan Waks - got up with a Groucho-moustache - of Marxisms (1973) at the Opera House; another was at Belvoir Street and involved the marvellous soprano, Jennifer McGregor, shaving her ostentatiously hirsute armpits while warbling away in Stubble. There was also a typical 'sight-gag' which involved the singer unzipping the front of her long evening gown and exposing her (false and exaggerated) breasts, in order to draw out yards and yards of hair from around the nipples ('secret women's business', the composer calls it).

Ensemble Offspring's performance of Rinse Cyle, Carriageworks 2010:
(from the left) Carlos Gomes, Mother; and Katia Molina, Daught.
© Joanne Saad

Henderson has followed those pieces with the 'Hörspiel' Meditations and Distractions on the theme of the 'Singing Nun' for ABC Radio, the cabaret piece, Confessions to my Dogs (Vox Australis), and (for Ensemble Offspring in Sydney), Rinse-Cycle, a bitter-sweet theatre-piece about her psycho-trauma in the convent.

As many would probably know, her most ambitious work for the theatre has been Lindy, an imaginative treatment of the Lindy Chamberlain fiasco, which was written for Opera Australia (and recorded on ABC Classics). It was typical of her to choose a topical and contentious subject - notably, about a woman who had been the victim of legal and social vindictiveness - and then to treat it with her characteristic amalgam of high seriousness and, for the 'media mongrels' (in particular), mordant mockery. Such a piece was always destined for a rocky road, especially from those who lack or fear her artistic daring. Simone Young was the one who recognised its potential and rescued it, though (in the enduring operatic tradition) there was severe contention between the composer and the eventual conductor, Richard Gill. Many tears were shed and compromises achieved (albeit mostly reluctantly), but the season was a success. Yet, like with Meale's Voss, a well-deserved second production (in that grudging Australian way) has never happened.

When we glance at Henderson's catalogue of compositions, what strikes us is its chameleon variety. As one might expect from a former singer, there is vocal music in abundance - notably Pellucid Days for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra; the marvellous a cappella motet, In Paradisum, which was written for the funeral of her beloved twin brother, Peter, and which has been superbly performed by the Song Company; Six Urban Songs, which the SSO premiered in 1986 with the late Elizabeth Harwood but, lacking real commitment to Australian work, has never been repeated; and, most impressively of all, I'd like to name them all by name, a large-scale setting (for chorus, soprano soloist and orchestra) of the 'Requiem' sequence by the great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, using the definitive English translation by the American poet (and close friend of the composer) Judith Hemschemeyer.

There is chamber music, too, including Min Min Light (1982, for clarinet, violin, viola and cello), which the Australia Ensemble premiered; the lovely Kudikynah Cave (1987, recently recorded by the Acacia String Quartet); Waking up the flies (1990, for violin, cello and piano); and the lively G'day Africa series (1990-1995, for clarinet, piano, viola and cello). There are solo pieces as well, amongst them Cross Hatching: Rarrk (1984, for solo piano); Verklärung: Three Ecstatic exercises (1998) and Sorry Time, both for solo cello (1999); and G'day USA 1: Not Instantaneous or Merciful (2003), for solo horn.

Several of them highlight two important characteristics of her writing: one is concern for Australia's Indigenous people (something which goes far deeper than simply the titles of her pieces); the other is the intensity of her feeling, as a central element of the compositional practice, something which is reinforced by the frequency of her admonitions to the performers: sometimes exalted ('Intensely lyrical', 'Slow, ethereal', or 'suddenly fragile'), sometimes practical ('Agitated, even jerky', 'Move on' or 'Less aggressive playing'). These are surrogates for the emotions which she wants to evoke in her audiences. She insists, for example, that Puccini must have been in tears when he was writing sections of Madama Butterfly: without intense feeling in the composer, she argues, it is unlikely that the music will exert the appropriate influence on the affect of its listeners.

The result, at her hands, is a kaleidoscopic music with a compositional approach akin to Janáček's: performers and listeners, alike, need to be constantly alert to the temperament or tempo of the music which is prone to very rapid change.

Paradoxically, the music can be abrupt but seamless. One section might be intrinsically contrapuntal, then suddenly the next is jittery and figurative, to be followed in a twinkling by another which is harmonic and serene. The mosaic is constantly shuffled to great and diverting effect. The instrumentation is likely to be just as chameleon, yet the structure mostly seems entirely persuasive. At first encounter, the music might be considered arbitrary but, perhaps on account of its inherent lyricism (though that is never cloying and, indeed, can be quite acerbic), it is almost always coherent.

In Paradisum - a setting of the final text of the Catholic Requiem Mass - is a good example. The text reads, 'May the angels lead you into Paradise': the music is optimistic, of course, but never complacent. How could it be, when it honours a deceased twin? The part-writing is radiantly lucid, there is dissonance but the serene major key close is as reassuring as it seems inevitable. Audiences are profoundly moved every time they hear it.

Henderson talks honestly about realising, in the late 1970s, the need to find her own voice, and 'to be brave enough to do it', whatever the prevailing fashions and dogmas. Yet, in pursuit of that aspiration, she is nevertheless still willing to take advice from other composers, in particular from Kevin Volans (the Irish-resident South African) whom she first met in Cologne, and for whom she has the greatest admiration. She is also very willing to experiment with new instruments, including the bell-like timbres of the 'Alemba' (which she devised herself and still hopes to perfect) or added recorded or electronic sounds - such as tram noises that she layered onto Sacred Site which she wrote for the Ron Sharp organ in the Concert Hall of the Opera House (which was, after all, built on the site of a former tram-shed).

Though intensely Australian - many of her preoccupations and titles declare that unambiguously - she is also (as is probably inevitable in someone whose life has been so peripatetic) a committed internationalist. She regularly enjoins me to 'get one foot off this island'. For her, as for every truly creative person, finding her authentic voice requires her 'to go deep inside yourself'. Her philosophy is like David Malouf's advice to me: 'Explore and examine your inner life'.

For the true artist, there can be no stopping that quest. For Henderson, when she wakes each morning, 'I can hardly wait to begin writing'. That search is, necessarily, a lonely one; thus performances, which are so hard to achieve in this country, are really necessary because the creativity must be shared. The artist must be forever true to herself or himself, while at the same time yearning to reach out to the souls of the listeners.

Further links

Moya Henderson - homepage: score orders and resources (http://moyahenderson.com/)

Moya Henderson - AMC profile

Subjects discussed by this article:

John Carmody has written and broadcast about concert music and opera for more than 30 years in national and international media. He was convenor of the Medicine and Music Master of Medical Humanities program at the University of Sydney, and is President of the Australian Catholic Historical Society.


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