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24 August 2007

Richard Meale at 75

Richard Meale Image: Richard Meale  
© Bridget Elliot

Today marks the 75th birthday of Richard Meale. Such a milestone not only marks the passing of time, but also provides an opportunity to pause for reflection. My reflections expressed here are a handful of personal memories and thoughts on this artist, who, indeed, is a major landmark in the Australian music landscape and whose works contribute in a truly significant way to Australian culture.

I remember hearing many of Richard’s works during my composition studies at Wollongong University in the 1980s. In particular, one work that has stayed with me, Clouds now and then, which I remember – after first hearing it – needing to listen to again and again. The poem that inspired this work also became my mantra for a long time:

Clouds now and then
Giving men relief
From moon-viewing.

Perhaps my ongoing obsession with matters lunar caused me to obsess on this work, but what struck me at the time was that the poem is the most perfect distillation of the work itself, or rather, Richard takes the words and paints them so precisely in sound, but on an entirely different scale.

There are so many performances of so many of Meale’s works I have attended, some performances changing my understanding of the work entirely. I heard a performance of the second string quartet – I can’t remember exactly when this was, but I recall that it was in an entirely unsuitable venue (a lecture auditorium?) with appalling acoustics (perhaps at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum at the 1988 Composers’ Conference?) – and being taken on a journey that changed my thinking about this work. Open spaces, precise and succinct musical expression, rendered by a master.

I also recall the premiere of Meale’s Symphony at the Adelaide Town Hall in 1994, and being surprised at the musical language, a little confused, but often – during the performance – smiling at the humour, playfulness, and even audacity being expressed in the music. And I vividly recall the look on Richard’s face after the performance, beaming with triumph, pleasure, and perhaps satisfaction that he had taken such a radically conservative stance in this work. He was ready to be challenged, if anyone had dared to!

I have come to know him at least a little, in AMC and APRA dealings over the past decade or so, but I really can’t say that I know him well. On the one hand, the twinkle in the eye, the quick wit and mind as sharp as a razor; and on the other hand, the terrible (and sometimes terrifying) fearlessness when dealing with an issue close to his heart, or matters that he might have serious concerns about, or strong opinions on. He can be formidable, and challenging, and is able to test one’s capacities in either a very subtle way, or a very direct one. He can also be incredibly germane, standing outside a venue, glass of wine and cigarette in hand, ready to spar in a playful fashion on any and all matters.  

He once talked to me about his experiences travelling in the 1960s while on a Ford Foundation Grant, and how this time was so fruitful, and so essential to his development. The importance of an artist being able to buy time to explore and grow – personally and creatively – is one that he holds dear, and one that he continues to advocate.

On the wall at the AMC is a photograph of Richard Meale taken by Bridgett Elliot. He stands tall, arms folded, face expressionless, like a Roman senator. The image speaks of authority, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. It is an image that I feel captures the essence of him.

Richard, on your 75th birthday, we salute you!

Check out Julian Day’s interview with Richard on the New Music Uplate website. And see also the transcript on the ABC Music Show website of Andrew Ford’s interview with Richard on his 70th birthday: (www.abc.net.au/rn/music/mshow/s751860.htm).



Subjects discussed by this article:

John Davis is CEO of the Australian Music Centre.


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Vividly Viridian

I remember the day I first heard Viridian as vividly as though it were earlier this morning.

A landmark piece that gave many a composer the courage, even permission if you will, to write a tune.

Thanks Richard, a force has indeed been with you.


A lovely article, John.

When I met Richard recently for the first time - for the New Music Up Late interview - I was truly inspired. This is a man who has had the courage and strength to continually challenge both himself and others, regardless of the direction it might lead him in. He has had the vision and energy to contribute so much to our new music community. He is also humble and gracious. Most importantly for me he has realized that sound is a physical thing, and that as musicians and listeners we should be guided foremost by our ears - a view not always shared by others throughout his long career.

He makes me want to be a stronger and wiser composer and presenter. Happy birthday Richard.