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31 July 2008

Peter Tahourdin at 80

Peter Tahourdin Image: Peter Tahourdin  
© Sarah Tahourdin

Peter Tahourdin (b. 1928) has lived in Australia since his arrival from England in 1964. In addition to composing a rich output of works from operas and symphonies to chamber music and solo works, he has been a highly respected teacher of composition – a position he left in the late 1980s in order to concentrate on composition.

In 2008, at the age of 80, Peter Tahourdin is still producing new music from his home in Melbourne. Here, he talks about his work and life to the resonate editor Anni Heino. Most recently, Tahourdin’s work list has grown with music for solo piano, as well as several works involving the clarinet, including the as-yet-unperformed Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (2007). His major operatic work The Tempest (2000) has yet not been staged – a fact that saddens Tahourdin but has thankfully not discouraged him from composing.

PT: My career has been based both on composition and on teaching, and I strongly believe that to teach composition successfully at tertiary level one must be a practising composer. This is partly due to my own teacher, Richard (Tony) Arnell, with whom I became a close friend, both during and after my studies; he regarded me as his star pupil! I studied at Trinity College of Music in London between 1949 and 1952, graduating as a trumpet player, which I gave up after deciding to follow my first love, composition, full-time, and having realised I couldn't do both!

I came to Australia at the age of 35 in 1964 and was appointed visiting composer to Adelaide University the following year, largely due to a recommendation by Henry Krips, who'd recently conducted my second Sinfonietta with the then South Australian Symphony Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor at the time. Having decided I enjoyed teaching, I went to Toronto University in 1966 to obtain a Master's degree. At Toronto, amongst other things, I studied electronic music, which had long fascinated me. Returning to Adelaide in 1967, having decided there were strong parallels between Canada and Australia – both, after all, were former British colonies – I determined to establish an electronic music studio there, which I did with the financial support of Derek Jolly, a prominent Adelaide businessman. In 1969, I was appointed a Teaching Fellow by the University (later a Senior Teaching Fellow) and taught the first practical course in electronic music in Australia to interested university students. Among them was Martin Wesley-Smith, who later set up a studio at the Sydney Conservatorium.

I regret, in Australia in particular, the erosion of the nation's artistic and intellectual life. But I'm well aware I've become a 'grumpy old man'!I'm often asked why I came to Australia. As usual there's no single answer. I felt I was a fish out of water in England, since I'd rejected the avant garde on the grounds it was too esoteric. Paradoxically though, I taught serialism at Melbourne University, based on the book by Reginald Smith Brindle, the English composer and teacher, believing it to be an extension of the possibilities available to composers, though I left it to each individual pupil to decide whether to use it or not. 

My own work has been influenced by certain aspects of serial technique, though I've never been a 'serial' composer. My Ern Malley: A Dramatic Testament (1976), though it's not a serial work,  does show the influence of serial techniques on my music – angular melodic lines and the avoidance of repetition. More to the point perhaps is my 3rd Dialogue, written for Bertram Turetsky and his flautist wife, Nancy. Bert was an exponent of advanced techniques on the double bass, which he demonstrated for me, and, consequently, the work does show the impact of Bert's individual style in the bass part. It also includes a 12-note row (pizzicato) in the solo bass cadenza about halfway through the piece. He and Nancy premiered it in San Diego while I was there on study leave in 1980; they also performed it at a new music festival in Mexico later that year, and toured it round Australia when Bert was in residence at the VCA some six years after that. They also recorded it here in Melbourne for Classic FM, together with an interview I gave with Bert for John Crawford. For all I know, that recording may still be floating around somewhere in the ABC’s archives.

But to return to coming to Australia: at the time I was married to Barbara and we had two small daughters – Julia and Sarah – both under five years old. Neither Barbara nor I enjoyed the English winters and had often discussed Australia, seeing it as warm, English-speaking, and a land of opportunity. So, after one especially cold winter (1962-63) we decided to go – and I don't think either of us has regretted it, though of course I can no longer speak for Barbara. Many years ago Barbara told me I lack ambition, and she's right! I do what I do because I love it; it's my life. I've never wanted to be internationally recognised as a composer, though I would like my music to be more widely performed than it is! And I've never wanted to hold a chair in music at a university. I've simply wanted to teach and pass on my experience to others, younger than me, whom it may benefit. These days I regret the passing, all over the world, of the values I've cherished in favour of populism, of what, in my old age, I call 'economic irrationalism'. I regret, in Australia in particular, the erosion of the nation's artistic and intellectual life. But I'm well aware I've become a 'grumpy old man'! One of the advantages of old age though – and there aren't many – is that you can do as you please! But I digress. 

In mid-1973 I moved to Melbourne to take up the position of Lecturer (later Senior Lecturer) in 20th century music in the Faculty of Music at the University of Melbourne. It was there that I first met Tristram Cary, who took over my studio at Adelaide University. We soon became friends as well as colleagues and I was saddened by his death earlier this year. I retired from the university at the age of sixty at the end of 1988, mainly to devote my remaining years to composition, but also because I was running out of steam as a teacher; I was boring myself, so was probably boring the students too!

AH: Do you see your operatic work (Heloise and Abelard, 1991; The Tempest, 2000) as separate from the rest of your output? These works involve you also as a librettist - does it change the way you compose? Could you tell me a bit about The Tempest, which is surely one of your major works to date and so far has not been performed? How did you approach the classic that has inspired so many in the history of music?

PT: In my retirement I first composed my chamber opera, Heloise and Abelard. I wrote the libretto myself and spent some time researching the story as well as the  mores of the period; it’s a true story that took place in mediaeval France, set for three singers and a chamber ensemble of eight instrumentalists. Heloise and Abelard was first performed at the Perth Festival in 1993, where it was well received and was later broadcast by the ABC. It was also the trigger for my continuing fascination with opera that, in turn, led to the composition of The Tempest.

Opera is an art form that requires the collaboration of the composer cum librettist with the singers, the director, the designers and the conductor to bring it into being in the theatre. Shakespeare's last play particularly interested me because it deals with the interplay between fantasy and reality. Again I was responsible for my own libretto, though it's more of an adaptation, since 80 per cent of the text is Shakespeare's. His use of language is musical in itself, and the only requirement is to cut it in places, since it takes about four times as long to sing something as it does to speak it, and that demands some non-Shakespearean text to fill in the gaps. So far it's not been staged. Operas, by their very nature, are expensive to produce and, though I've received expressions of interest, the necessary funds have not been forthcoming. That saddens me because I believe The Tempest would have a universal appeal.

I don't see my operas as being separate from anything else, though, as I've already said, I am attracted to the operatic medium. I first met my friend and colleague, Damien Top, because of his interest in Heloise and Abelard. Since then he's been a great support to me. Damien's a multi-talented fellow – singer (tenor), festival director, conductor, composer and scholar – he’s an internationally known authority on the life and work of the French composer, Albert Roussel, and runs the Centre International de Recherche Albert Roussel, as well as directing the annual Festival International Albert Roussel in Flanders – like Damien himself, Roussel was born and brought up in Flanders; in Roussel's case in the small town of Tourcoing near Lille, close to the Belgian border.

Fortunately, Damien likes my music and, during the past decade, has often presented it at his festival, to which I've sometimes been a visitor. In 2000 he produced Heloise and Abelard, in his own French translation, in a theatre outside Dunquerque. It attracted the most favourable review I've ever received, which included a scathing attack on the lack of interest shown by the Australian Embassy.

AH: Among other things, you are very much a symphonist. Your five symphonies cover a time span of a bit more than three decades, and I understand the work Elegy: A lament for a world that might have been (for string orchestra and percussion, 2005) has a connection to the Fifth Symphony?

PT: From my earliest memories I've been overwhelmed by the sound of a symphony orchestra in full flight, and I believe I've acquired the necessary skill in orchestration to bring that about. But, as with opera, symphony orchestras are expensive and, because of that, orchestra managers are cautious and inclined to stick to the standard repertoire. My five symphonies represent various stages in my life and career and, apart from the fifth, have all been performed and broadcast. In my Adelaide days I had the support of Henry Krips and the composer, Horace Perkins, who at that time was the music supervisor of the ABC in South Australia. But those days are now gone.

The fifth, uncommissioned, was written in 1994, a year which saw the genocide in Rwanda and a continuation of the struggle with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, both of them tragic events; as a result it deals with matters of war and peace and is a sombre work. My more recent Elegy, for string orchestra and percussion, deals with similar matters and is, I believe, a less successful work – too long and too intellectual. But, because it doesn't require a full orchestra, it's less expensive to perform.

AH: The Gerard Manley Hopkins poem used in Raga Music 1 (1985) turns up again as the title of a recent chamber music piece (Look at the Stars for flutes, clarinet, cello and marimba, 2006). Is there also a musical connection between the two pieces?

PT: As you rightly surmise, its musical material is derived from Raga Music 1; the title is taken from the first line of the G. M. Hopkins poem, which I chose because of its combination of worldliness and spirituality. Most of the music I've written since 1985 owes its origin to the north Indian raga – 'from small things big things grow'. My most recent music is short and compact – less verbose – as is evident in my very recent Five Short Pieces (2008) for solo piano, which, taken together, form a sonatina. In 1985, I went to a concert in Calcutta, in which Ravi Shankar played a 'peace' raga in memory of Indira Gandhi, which continued uninterrupted for over two hours; it remained in my mind for days afterwards!

AH: In the last couple of years, you have also composed several pieces involving the clarinet, including a Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra (2007), composed for the Melbourne-based clarinetist Robert Schubert. Can you describe what you set out to achieve in the piece? Did the awareness of the performer affect the nature of the solo part? Does the piece have a relationship with any of the other works involving clarinet that you have composed recently?

PT: My interest in the clarinet as an expressive instrument goes back to my teenage years, during WWII, when I was a fan of swing and trad jazz. I greatly admired musicians such as Artie Shaw, Barney Bigard, Sidney Bechet and, less so, Benny Goodman. As an aspiring trumpet player, I was, of course, an admirer of Louis Armstrong, whose instinctive musicianship I still equate with that of those classical giants, J S Bach and Mozart. 

My interest in the clarinet as an expressive instrument goes back to my teenage years, during WWII, when I was a fan of swing and trad jazz.I met Robert Schubert in April, 2007, when he made a recording here in Melbourne for the ABC, together with Danae Killian (piano) and Rachel Atkinson (cello). The recording was produced and edited for Classic FM by Lydia Warren (now retired) and is held on CD in the ABC's archive of Australian music; it includes three works of mine, a Trio (for clarinet, piano and cello, 2003), Music for Solo Cello (2004) and my early Clarinet Sonata. The Clarinet Sonata was written in England in 1962 and was first performed in London by John McCaw, a clarinetist from New Zealand – then a member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra – and a pianist friend of mine, Anna Berenska.

Robert, as his name implies, is of Austrian descent, though he assures me he's not related to the composer, Franz Schubert. He was born here and, after graduation as a clarinet player, lived and worked in Japan for ten years and is married to a Japanese woman. They're now back in Melbourne, where he teaches at the Victorian College of Arts. In response to his fine playing, I wrote a solo piece for him, and he then commissioned the concerto from me. Neither has yet been performed, and Robert has told me he wants to wait for a suitable opportunity. He wants to premiere the concerto, he told me, with a Japanese chamber orchestra he’s worked with before; the orchestra he has in mind was conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki, who died last year, and they're still looking for a new conductor. So I'm leaving it entirely to him, since I have no wish to interfere in his decision.

As I've said, Robert is a fine player, but the music I've written for him has not been influenced by any particular style; I’ve simply composed pieces that, to my mind, suit the instrument. I'm not unduly concerned with style, though I like to think that, while evolving, my music has been consistent across the years; if it appeals to others, that can only be a good thing, surely? When my Elegy for strings and percussion was first performed two years ago it was well received by the audience, but I was bothered that its good reception was due more to the subject with which it dealt than to the music itself.

AH: One of your most recent works is The Ern Malley sequence (2007) for tenor and piano. Could you tell me about this work?

PT: You may be familiar with the Ern Malley hoax; there’s an excellent book about it by Michael Heywood, called The Ern Malley Affair. In the mid-1940s two poets, James McCauley and Harold Stewart, having nothing better to do one afternoon, put together, from a variety of sources, a series of poems by an imaginary poet – Ern Malley – as a spoof of modernist writing. They called their collection The Darkening Ecliptic and sent it as a joke to Max Harris, who was then the editor of an avant garde literary magazine called Angry Penguins – of which Sidney Nolan was the art editor and John Reed (of Heide fame) the sponsor. Only after the poems were published did McCauley and Stewart acknowledge it was a hoax and there was no such person as Ern Malley. This caused a furore around the English-speaking world and Max Harris was subsequently prosecuted for publishing obscene material in a trial that was simply farcical. I am one of those who believe The Darkening Ecliptic is fine surrealist poetry and dragged Australia's artistic community kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

In 1970, Nolan, perhaps seeking to exorcise his past, gave all his Ern Malley paintings and drawings to the Art Gallery of South Australia. They were exhibited by the Gallery at the 1970 Adelaide Festival and, after that, I was commissioned by the Gallery to produce a musical work that included all sixteen of the Ern Malley poems and which, in some way, incorporated the Nolan works. The result was a semi- theatrical work, Ern Malley: A dramatic Testament, set for two singers – soprano and baritone – two contrasting narrators, an instrumental ensemble of eight players, an electronic tape and a slide show of the Nolan paintings and drawings (he was meticulous in indicating the lines in the poems to which they each referred). The Australian Council for the Arts (as it was then called) provided the money for the commission, but not for a performance, despite the fact that Marilyn Richardson and her husband, who then lived in Adelaide, had agreed to sing the solo parts. As a result, though I finished the work in 1976, it had to wait for its first professional performance till 1988 at the Victorian Arts Centre, with slides generously provided by the S.A. Art Gallery and copyright in the poems waived by Max Harris for that performance only.

Last year I was asked by Melbourne University to contribute to an Ern Malley anthology, which I did with Sweet William, for tenor and piano. I was delighted to revisit Ern after all this time and went on to compose The Ern Malley Sequence (2007), also for tenor and piano but quite different in style, which I've dedicated to Damien Top in gratitude for his support over the years.

Further links

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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