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16 October 2017

Phillip Houghton (1954-2017)

Phillip Houghton drawing at a river in 1991. Image: Phillip Houghton drawing at a river in 1991.  
© www.philliphoughton.com.au

Australian guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski writes about composer Phillip Houghton who died at the end of September at the age of 63. Please also visit Phillip's personal homepage which contains resources about his teaching, photos, pictures of his paintings and testimonials by performers of his music, his students and colleagues. A tribute concert is being organised by the Sydney Guitar Quartet on 20 October.

Phillip Houghton was a highly original Australian guitarist, composer and teacher. His compositions for solo guitar and ensembles used pictorial gestures in a powerfully intuitive way, exploiting the full spectrum of the guitar's sound palette. Notably, a number of these works were championed by the guitarist John Williams, who was an important source of encouragement and support for Houghton's work, and whose advocacy increased its reach beyond Australia. In the later decades, Houghton took his intimate knowledge of the instrument, powerful musicality and perceptive grasp of technique into teaching work with a large number of early-career guitar students. He was one of the great, defining figures of the Australian guitar scene, and his passing leaves it greatly diminished.

What follows below is a personal reflection written in the days after his passing.

We didn't need Phil to leave us to know he was a complete one-of-a-kind. He did not get an easy hand, and when a good card came along, he seldom seemed to be playing to win. A true Aussie battler from another era, he wore his patchy schooling lightly and was suspicious of academic refinement. In music, it was his extraordinary sensitivity and imagination that lent power, uniqueness and accomplishment to his compositions.

Some of us who knew him and played his works sensed that the fountain of his creativity was never harnessed or industrialised: he simply paid for it as he went with a pound of his flesh here, another there. When we spent time with him, those with anything to give learnt how to give it. Not in Phil's quantities, but an ounce or two more than we would have otherwise.

Phil was a tall poppy. Although admired by many, he never fit neatly into academic settings; at 'nice' dinner parties, he was both guest of honour and outsider. From Phil's earliest years as a composer, the earnestness and colour of his music were targets for people in pseudo-intellectual suits and ties. It's not that Phil wore the hurt on his sleeve, but the snide criticism and impediment-by-omission left scars. As a musical community, we had a place for those making the criticisms, but we either didn't have, or could not make, a properly nourishing place for Phil.

From up close, artists' work and personalities can seem mercurial or hologram-like. You can't always see the same thing every time and from every angle. For me, the thing that was consistently beautiful, even divine, was his playing of the guitar. It is no surprise that his compositions required, even for a mediocre performance, a far deeper commitment to working intimately with the instrument.

During my many visits with Phillip in Brisbane and Sydney between 2000 and 2010, his guitar would always be upright on the couch with us, like a third personality in a conversation. I was in my early 20s and thrilled to be burning the candle late into the night with a great and unique character, high on his knowledge and generous encouragement. I wanted to hear everything he had to say about his compositions and different players' performances of them. He was generous about players 'in general', but often had many specific critical observations. He would often stop the CD, and with an asymmetrical cheeky grin explain how so-and-so was butchering (overplaying, usually) a given passage. He would then reach for the guitar and demonstrate. His touch was magical, poetic and transcendent.

Phil did not have a performing career, but when he played, his handling of the instrument could be likened to that of Roland Dyens - a great French guitarist composer who has also recently left us. Some people play or compose for the guitar as though it were an imperfect piano. Not these two 'guitar tragics'. The dimples and the freckles of the instrument were what mattered.

Eventually, I would make my own recordings of Phil's music. I would work closely with him over Skype, hungry to capture the beauty and finesse of his music. But with time, my own recordings would become exhibits of butchery in late-night discussions with other young players. I doubt it was ever mean. No-one could play the subtlety in Phil's music like he could, and compared to the ideal, we could all sound square and banal.

Phil and I lived in different cities. For a while I visited him often. Apart from learning about the guitar and his own music, I turned to him with personal challenges I seldom shared with others. He listened generously and chimed in with his own stories. After we were done crying and drinking and laughing and playing guitar, I would go away, and he would send long handwritten letters, telling me in a million beautiful and emphatic ways that it would all be OK.

Phil's death leaves Australia's guitar community without its most distinctive personality and its most influential and accomplished player/composer. May his tenderness and generosity be blessed and cherished, and may his wonderful music be celebrated. Rest in peace, Phil.

Further links

Phillip Houghton - AMC profile

Phillip Houghton - homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

Aleksandr Tsiboulski is an Australian guitarist. His performance of Phillip Houghton's Stele is available on Australian Guitar Music on Naxos label. 


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Balkan Falcons

The article about the passing of Phil Houghton was expressed sensitively and with the humanity and gifts of this amazing Australian evident all throughout. In Poland, and other countries that prioritise Music and the Arts, the citizens proudly commemorate the passing of their leading, accomplished and influential musicians, composers, writers and poets, sometimes with a National Day of Mourning.
It  was wonderful listening to you play so recently, and meeting you Aleksandr, at the fantastic "Four Winds Festival " Bermagui this Easter 2018. Thank you for this well-written review article.