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28 February 2008

Nigel Butterley and the Problem that Wasn’t

Nigel Butterley Image: Nigel Butterley  
© Bridget Elliott

Nigel Butterley has long been grouped with Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Meale as one of the key figures in the coming-of-age of Australian music in the 1960s. For a young listener and concert-goer in the 1980s, however, it was actually difficult to come across performances of the major works with which he made his name. I remember isolated appearances of the 1963 chamber work Laudes, the 1968 orchestral The Meditations of Thomas Traherne (by the Sydney Symphony), and Pentad (at the Univeristy of Sydney) from the same year, but little else. In some cases there are particular complicating factors: the very unusual circumstances of the ABC Proms commissions Interactions (1967) and First Day Covers (1972), for example, or the massed recorder ensemble which joins the orchestra in Thomas Traherne. Most unfortunate of all, perhaps, is the virtual disappearance of In the Head the Fire, the composer’s prize-winning 1966 foray into radiophonic composition and a piece of unmistakable importance both for its composer’s output and for Australian music as a whole. Even eminently practical pieces, however, like the chamber-like Violin Concerto from 1970, or the exuberant Fire in the Heavens, commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, were (and continue to be) conspicuous by their absence from concert programs. Butterley’s music has habitually been slow to enter the repertoire, compared to that of his colleagues of comparable stature.

Butterley’s music has habitually been slow to enter the repertoire, compared to that of his colleagues of comparable stature. Pinpointing the reasons for this is, of course, highly speculative, but I suspect that some of them at least are intrinsic. Butterley’s music is often reluctant to yield up its secrets quickly: the fifth or tenth hearing of a Butterley work may be substantially more revelatory than the first. While I would see this ultimately as a strength, it does confer undeniable disadvantages in the early life of a piece, especially in a concert music culture where the primary value accorded to new work is the buzz surrounding a première. It is true that Butterley’s predilection for understatement can easily come across at first as diffidence or insecurity rather than thoughtfulness – an impression surely intensified, on a more trivial level, by his avoidance of grand openings and big finishes.

In any case, the Butterley works I knew first were new ones: I was present at premieres or early performances of the String Quartet No.3 (1980), The Owl (1983), There Came a Wind Like a Bugle (1987), and the opera Lawrence Hargrave Flying Alone (1988). In each case, it happened that I was able to get to know the piece well, whether through attending rehearsals, or subsequently being involved in performances myself as a singer or conductor. The high regard and affection I now have for these pieces – and for Butterley’s music in general – are fruits of a long acquaintance over months and years, rather than of an immediate and decisive impact.

Later encounters with the earlier music – by necessity, principally through recordings – took on a strangely archaeological character. Here was a substrate of material whose existence could be inferred from its influence on the known world, but whose details were largely unknown. Two such encounters have left particularly strong impressions on me. The first was researching In the Head the Fire, in connection with a tentative recording and performance project (at the time of Butterley’s 60th birthday in 1995) that unfortunately never materialised: the freshness of the musical vision, though trapped within the confines of a crackly old LP, nonetheless came through with abundant clarity, as did a mastery of the choral-orchestral medium which had to wait 34 years for a sequel in the composer’s output (Spell of Creation in 2000). The second was a much more recent (2004) excavation of Fire in the Heavens, which I found shockingly familiar because of unexpected similarities to some of my own orchestral writing – pieces from the early 1990s written with the knowledge of Butterley’s later music but not of this atypically extrovert work.

Butterley provided a rare Australian model of such catholic thinking, taking what he needed from serialism and other modernist techniques alongside ideas drawn from the traditions of his Anglican heritage.The affinity I feel between Butterley’s oeuvre and my own has several aspects, but the most fundamental one is perhaps the shared absence of a problem: the problem of the challenge of modernism. Many – perhaps even most – composers writing in Australia between about 1960 and 1990 seem to have felt acutely that they were faced with a stark choice: between progressive, modernist intricacy on the one hand, and direct, personal expressiveness (often tied to some version of tradition or tonal thinking) on the other. Peter Sculthorpe and Anne Boyd, for example, declared themselves fairly early on for the second path; Felix Werder and Keith Humble, among others, for the first; while figures such as Richard Meale and Ross Edwards found themselves taking different positions at different points in their careers – even, in a few cases, for different movements within a single piece (for example, Edwards’s Laikan and Meale’s Incredible Floridas, in each of which a sequence of movements in a complex, chromatic language is interrupted by a much simpler diatonic interlude). What they all had in common, though, is a conviction that they were obliged to take sides – and there are at least some younger Australian composers today for whom this still seems to be the case.

I remember being somewhat baffled by this as a student. I felt – and still feel – that choosing between Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, between Benjamin Britten and Brian Ferneyhough, between Steve Reich and Elliot Carter, was to achieve nothing more than a constriction of musical possibilities, and attempting to declare any camp illegitimate on principle would amount to wilful ignorance. However, this should not be taken as a desire for any sort of polystylism. Rather, influences from any quarter might be absorbed into a personal language defined by creative synthesis instead of exclusion. Although it took me some time to become conscious of it, Butterley provided a rare Australian model of such catholic thinking, taking what he needed from serialism and other modernist techniques alongside ideas drawn from the traditions of his Anglican heritage. Perhaps because of his familiarity with a wide range of new music through his experiences as a performer and broadcaster, he never seems to have needed to confront the choice, which loomed so large for many others.

Butterley’s own models for this inclusiveness were Michael Tippett and Olivier Messiaen, but their much more extrovert, indeed extravagant musical personalities allowed them to relish the incongruous juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible elements within one piece in a way quite alien to him. As I suggested in my programming for the Sydney New Music Network’s 2005 Butterley celebration, a closer parallel may be found in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, a close contemporary of Butterley’s with remarkably similar philosophical interests, musical influences and aesthetic preferences. For Harvey and Butterley, allegiance to tradition and fascination with modernist experiment both remain subject to the higher imperative of stylistic integration.

Although there is no major break in Butterley’s development, his music has undeniably changed: the works of recent years seem mellower, more conventionally expressive than those of his early maturity. Attributing this to a retreat from modernism seems simplistic, however, and I prefer to think of it in grammatical terms. In comparison to the bold modernist statements of Sculthorpe’s Sun Music cycle or Meale’s Nocturnes, Butterley’s works from the 1960s and ‘70s are more like questions – exploratory, even tentative, straining across vast empty spaces. Their most polemical aspect is precisely their refusal of polemic, at a time when stylistic positions were being staked out and defended with evangelistic fervour.

Butterley may not appear to have much in common with these heirs to the post-war avant-garde, but they share an underlying aesthetic impulse – away from sharp edges, bright colours and clearly defined textures, towards a blurred sound-world full of subtle beauty.While this searching vein continues in his music after 1980, it appears as one strand in a discourse which also admits the possibility at least of repose, if not exactly of answers. An unlikely parallel suggests itself here with contemporaneous developments in the music of the American composer Elliott Carter: after seemingly needing to create the universe afresh with each major piece between the String Quartet No. 1 (1952) and Night Fantasies for solo piano (1980), Carter’s output over the last 25 years has been more fluid and relaxed, while no less inventive. In Carter’s case the change of pace is clearly tied to a new-found stability of compositional technique, drawing together elements forged in the smithy of the earlier works. Even though there is no similar technical breakthrough for Butterley, one still senses – beginning with works such as the String Quartet No.3 (1980) and the piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves (1981) – conscious experimentation giving way to a more organic approach.

When it comes to matters of compositional detail, my music and Butterley’s may not always sound alike, but we do share certain ways of thinking. Butterley inherited from Stravinsky, via Tippett, a sense of the privileged status of the pandiatonic1 rather than the triadic as the basis for consonant harmony. Pure triads seldom appear in his music, and when they do the third of the chord tends to receive unusual emphasis, undermining the stability of the root; but added-note formations, quartal chords and diatonic clusters abound. Chromaticism arises freely through melodic decoration and/or mode mixture, as a natural extension of these diatonic materials rather than in opposition to them. Also reminiscent of Stravinsky is the precision of spacing and imaginative use of selective octave doubling within chordal sonorities. The balance of chromatic and diatonic shifts from work to work, but their relative functions are much the same: compare, for example, the luminous diatonic masses of Thomas Traherne (unthinkable in a Sculthorpe or Meale work from the same period) with those in the recent Spell of Creation. Even in Butterley’s most harmonically astringent works, like the Violin Concerto, pandiatonic materials have their part to play in resolving formal tensions.

These properties are scarcely unique to Butterley. Indeed, they represent elements of a harmonic practice common to many composers over the past 70 or 80 years, from Bela Bartók and Benjamin Britten to Louis Andriessen and Oliver Knussen. Because of the tendency to modernist/anti-modernist polarisation, however, this harmonic practice has been underrepresented in Australian music. It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to claim that Butterley is the principal Australian link to this rich mid-century European tradition of extended tonality – a tradition whose continuity undermines the narratives of revolution and counterrevolution promulgated by modernists and postmodernists alike. While my own pitch vocabulary is structured according to different principles, I would say that my ear for harmony is similar, albeit operating habitually on a different stretch of the continuum to Butterley’s.

Several other Butterley traits which I have found influential are aspects of a shared delight in ambiguity. Here too there is a long European tradition to draw upon, with its roots in early 20th-century French music but becoming increasingly prominent in the last 30 years or so, in the work of such figures as György Ligeti, Salvatore Sciarrino and Kaija Saariaho. Butterley may not appear to have much in common with these heirs to the post-WWII avant-garde, but they share an underlying aesthetic impulse – away from sharp edges, bright colours and clearly defined textures, towards a blurred sound-world full of subtle beauty.

This kind of thinking informs Butterley’s attitude towards just about every compositional parameter, including the most traditional aspects of his music such as its sense of tonal centre and its motivic construction. Particularly important for me has been his adoption – whether consciously or not – of heterophony as a key textural archetype, which blurs the boundaries between melody and harmony as well as denying the melodic line a single definitive form. My first encounter with heterophony was thanks to Winsome Evans, in the Renaissance Players’ performances of mediaeval music at Sydney University; I wonder whether the same may have been true of Butterley some 20 or so years earlier? Closely related is Butterley’s version of Klangfarbenmelodie – not a Webernesque succession of separate events with implicit linear connections, but rather a shifting blend of timbres, evolving as the line itself evolves. His orchestration in general is marked by a preference for mixed colours, with unmixed sounds reserved as a special effect for moments of formal clarification.

Butterley’s approach to musical time on all levels is similarly characterised by elusiveness and expressive fluidity. On the musical surface, his work evinces a distrust of regular pulsation as the generator of forward motion. Although he only rarely dispenses with barlines and time signatures, he writes music that is, for the most part, fundamentally ametrical: rhythm arises above all from considerations of phrase and line, constituting a kind of written-out rubato. This may be a trait inherited ultimately from expressionism, although Butterley’s version is much less angst-ridden. Tempi are predominantly slow, but subject to frequent inflections and subtle alterations. Thomas Traherne is perhaps the most spectacular exemplar of his sense of spaciousness and willingness to suspend time altogether when the expressive context demands it. However, his music is to be distinguished from that of John Tavener or Arvo Pärt, or even Messiaen: where these composers evoke eternity through the creation of musical ritual, Butterley’s focus is rather on the subjective human experience of time passing, a focus that is abundantly clear in his choices of poetic texts.

It is in the realm of vocal, and particularly choral, music that Butterley is most clearly an indispensable model for younger generations of Australian composers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his principal extra-musical influences, even in instrumental works, have always been literary rather than visual, and his textures are habitually governed by melody more than harmony or rhythm. It is difficult to say whether these traits are in turn products of his early experiences as a choral singer; but in any case they have given rise to a life-long commitment to the human voice, as a vehicle for sophisticated statements on every scale from the grandest to the most intimate.

Once again, circumstances have long conspired to obscure Butterley’s stature as a choral composer. The True Samaritan (1958/76) is (relatively speaking) a repertoire staple, but it is very early and not stylistically representative. Some of his most accomplished and distinctive choral writing languishes in large and impractical works (notably In the Head the Fire and the Hargrave opera). His pieces for The Song Company have fared better – although There Came a Wind Like a Bugle had the ill luck to have been written for the group in its original octet configuration shortly before its metamorphosis into a sextet. Only quite recently has he written substantial, mature a cappella pieces that fit within the broader choral repertoire (Spring’s Ending in 1999, and Beni Avshalom for the Sydney Chamber Choir just a few months ago).

I was fortunate enough to sing in performances of There Came a Wind and Lawrence Hargrave­ – as well as the radiant motet Flower in the crannied wall (1980) – in my early twenties, and the experience was decisive in shaping my own ideas about choral texture and sonority. Little of the writing in these works adheres to either of the standard textural archetypes (homophony and polyphony): most explores heterophony of one kind or another, as well as mining the rich potential of texture to create musical metaphors. The music throughout responds to the text – its meaning, inflection and sonic qualities – with sensitivity and flexibility. Chordal spacings are precisely imagined, and, whether simple or complex, are always informed by considerations of vocal colour, tessitura and balance. This kind of resourcefulness is considered indispensable for composers when writing for instruments, but not many are able to bring it to the choral medium. Butterley has few if any Australian peers in this respect, and clearly learned much from the English cathedral tradition (as did Jonathan Harvey, whose writing for voices is similarly imaginative).

Compared to their European and American contemporaries (Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough, Milton Babbitt, Franco Donatoni, Louis Andriessen), the major Australian figures of Butterley’s generation have left little stylistic imprint on their students: they have been mentors rather than models. Peter Sculthorpe is a partial exception, but for every student who might be accorded membership in a Sculthorpe ‘school’ (Barry Conyngham, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards), there are many others whose music does not resemble his in the slightest. This would be considered a good thing by most observers, but it does make questions of legacy harder to assess. Younger Australian composers have been left free to discover their own artistic forebears.

Except for one brief encounter in a workshop situation, I have never studied with Butterley; nor have I deliberately sought to take his work as a model. While direct (if subconscious) influence has undoubtedly been a factor, I think that most of the similarities between our musics have arisen through parallels in creative outlook and artistic philosophy. On a more abstract level, though, the trajectory of Butterley’s compositional development seems to me eminently worthy of conscious imitation. His oeuvre is testament to a conviction that style is not something to be chosen, but arises from the unique fusion of influences in the service of a personal vision, and it is simply irrelevant whether that coincides or not with the prevailing currents of the time.


1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandiatonic

Further Links

Nigel Butterley (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=207)

Composer Elliott Gyger was born in Sydney. His teachers have included Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, Bernard Rands and Mario Davidovsky. His music has been played by many of Australia’s major orchestras, choirs and ensembles, as well as North American groups such as the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Collage, Columbia Sinfonietta, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Emerson, Mendelssohn and Ying Quartets. He has been on the composition faculty at Harvard since 2002. In February 2008 he takes up a new position as Lecturer in Composition at the University of Melbourne.


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Thank you

What a brilliant article!

Mr.Gyger has hit the nail on the head. It is such a shame that we do not hear more of Nigel's music , particularly, as Mr.Gyger points out, because they yield more of their brilliance with every listening.

It is certain to me that Nigel's artistic output is equal (if not better) than any other in Australia, and certainly overseas as well, and yet his popular recognition has been unfairly overlooked for years. When, given the benefit of hindsight, we look back on the cultural heritage of our nation, and generation, it is inconceivable that Butterley will not leave one of the most profound, individual and distinguished legacies, so why aren't we celebrating it now? Where are the performances and recordings of his work?

What a wonderfully articulate article, Mr Gyger, you have said so many things that needed to be said - Thank you!

A model of how to write about a composer's music

What an excellent article - generous, perceptive and highly illuminating. I had been planning an article of my own on Butterley, but EG has left me nothing to say.