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30 July 2019

Ron Nagorcka and the freedom to be independent

'It's easy to sing in just intonation'

Ron Nagorcka Image: Ron Nagorcka  
© Sarah Lloyd

Ron Nagorcka is a composer, performer, and naturalist now residing on Black Sugarloaf near Birralee in Central North Tasmania. In this interview, the 71-year-old artist talks to his colleague and collaborator Karlin Love about his life and work since moving to Tasmania in 1988. To learn about his pre-Tasmanian life and work, read the 1985 interview referred to in the beginning of the article.

Ron is a deep and broad thinker, seeking freedom from bureaucratic constraints and freedom to respond with integrity to place, the natural world, history, and sound. He is committed to opening up space for alternative perspectives. As a performer, Ron is a respectful and proficient didjeridu maker and player, as well as keyboard player, organist, and basso profondo singer. Alternative tuning systems are a core feature of his body of work.

The conclusion of a 1985 interview with Warren Burt offers a good place to launch into our talk.

Warren Burt: All this talk about philosophy and religion, and ideas and whatever. What does it really have to do with music, though. A colleague of mine a couple of months ago said, 'After all, in the end, music is about sound, isn't it?' and implied that all the 'idea stuff' is just superstructure and decoration to the sound. What do you say to that?

Ron Nagorcka: I think the Charles Ives quote is as good as any - 'My God! What does sound have to do with music?' No. There is no music without deep experience to express. The best music is spiritual, and unless you can find something in your soul, you may as well not even try.

Birralee, May 2019

I park my car and start up the 2 km dirt road-track to Ron and Sarah's place. I pass sheep and goats in a paddock, then a pair of pademelon wallabies on the track. It is a perfect morning for a brisk walk uphill through the forest: sunny, slightly chilly, still, quiet except for a few bird calls and the distant rumble of logging machinery. Everything appears fresh from recent rains. Fungi everywhere. A few yellow leaves fallen from exotic species. The last 10 minutes are on a footpad through a diverse forest. Even more fungi! Bright tape marks sites where Sarah has found slime moulds in the past.

Ron Nagorcka at Birralee
© Sarah Lloyd

As I get closer, I hear the sound of axe splitting wood. As I emerge into the clearing, Ron comes over to greet me, happy to stop splitting firewood for now. We go into the warm, wood stove-heated house for a cup of tea, step out on the sunny veranda to admire the large, completely fenced veggie garden.

Then back in to chat with his partner, Sarah Lloyd, who is seated in front of a desk with camera, boxes of samples, and a large microscope. They are planning a trip to Costa Rica in 2020 for a myxomycete (slime mould) conference. I suspect she's one of the world experts now by virtue of living here, noticing and following these mysterious creatures through their varied life stages (read more about her research here). She's promised to show me some in the wild - in the stretch of forest I just came through. But first, the interview.

Ron and I go to his studio - a structure he designed and built with local stone, timber and secondhand materials. (Along with all the structures on the property: house, studios for each of them, the original tepee, carport, BBQ shelter, loo.)

Ron sits at the keyboard so I can have the couch under the window. His soft white hair nearly glows in the natural light, gentle blue-grey eyes, and friendly deep voice. I set up the ZOOM recorder on the keyboard, we note the levels, and I adjust the angle. I want to make sure I get his deep voice clearly, knowing my teaching-conditioned one will carry easily. I mention Warren's interview.

Tasmania: ACOF, Sarah, bush and birds

K: What's happened since then - that was in 1985?

R: Yes, and I ended up with saying I hadn't been doing very much. That was sort of the end of the conversation and, really, I didn't do much until I came to Tasmania. I was there at Woodend, looking after [son] Derek, sort of building and being basically uninspired.

Then in '87 I came down as a tutor at the orchestral composers school [ACOF]. That was a strange enough experience because to this day I've only written one very peculiar orchestral piece. I wasn't there because of my orchestral ability. I got a phone call out of the blue. I don't know whether I contributed terribly much, really. I tried to give an alternative view of music to people who were interested in writing for orchestra.

And after that I came up here to visit my cousin and, while I was there, I met Sarah. I went back to Melbourne, and moved to Tasmania in '88. I was in Launceston for a year at Sarah's house and then we bought this place. It was after I got here that I got back in to composing. It was a fair break really; I'd done very little over those years.

First of all I started recording birds. Partly Sarah's interest and partly, too, I thought: 'Well I'm in this place, I'd like to express something about where I am. That might be my way back into composing.' Basically I took the birds as my inspiration. They gave me themes to work with. I'd grab a bit of birdsong and see what would happen as I played around with it.

Ron Nagorcka at Birralee
© Sarah Lloyd


R: The other thing that happened about this time is that samplers were invented. That was really important. I got the first Ensoniq sampler. I always looked forward to the idea of a sampler. The idea had been mentioned in the '70s by the guys who built the first Fairlight. They also wanted to build a machine that extends the idea of musique concrète into a keyboard and of course this didn't really happen until the digital era. By '88 I had just enough money to buy one. So I could do those sorts of things, and I could tune it how I wanted to. It gave me the opportunity to explore different tunings which I'd been interested in for a very long time.

It goes back to Harry Partch [when I was] in California. And of course he built all his own instruments in order to play his music. I didn't have the time to do that. Once these keyboards came that you could tune anyway you like, I started exploring just intonation. So those two things combined in all that music that I wrote in the early 1990s based on bird sounds. Yeah, so I got back into it.

An independent lifestyle

R: One of the reasons we bought this place and immediately lived here was that it meant we were mortgage- and rent-free. We both sold our places and it was enough to buy a block of land and the things you need to build, like a generator for electricity and tools. We lived in the tepee and I started building and in between the building I started doing music. And that was pretty much what life was like for the next ten years.

The freedom was very important. You could live very frugally. The department of Social Security was very tolerant in those days. I'd show them my compositions and they'd say, 'That's fair enough you're contributing to society.' But by the end of the '90s things changed and it got harder. They said 'That's not good enough. You need to go out and get a job.' But first of all I'm not qualified to do anything else. It's easier now on the pension. At least they leave you alone. And it's not like I didn't earn some money here and there, but it's not easy. And I got some big grants from the Australia Council and others which helped.

K: But the lifestyle choices are a really important part of that whole creative picture for you. It's not incidental. It's actually integral that you've created a life that makes these things possible, especially to be creating new language musically. You can't do that [without plenty of dedicated time and space].

R: Absolutely, Well that's right. It really does. It will take me a week just to work out on what tonal basis I'm going to write a piece. That's a lot of work. Then I have to tune the keyboard or, these days, the computer, to do these things. That's always a lot of work too, because the software you can get to do this usually doesn't work properly. The only way to do it is to just carefully tune every note. So you have a different sample for every note. That's what I do now. And now that memory isn't a problem in the digital age, I can get massive amounts of information into what I do. That's been a great advantage.

It would be much easier if I just stuck to equal temperament of course. That's what everything's designed for which can be very frustrating because programs automatically do things for you and you think, 'Hey, hang on!' You have to keep overriding the program.


K: Tell me about the ensemble NYET. That's who you were playing with when I first met you. Birralee is Central North, closer to Launceston. Why a North West Tasmania band?

R: Dan Robinson was community music officer in the NW - we'd been good friends since university days. And he knew the poet, Bruce Roberts, then Megan Cavanaugh-Russell and Teresa Beck-Swindale. We did a lot of the bird music. Bruce would read poetry and we'd improvise. It was fun and very relaxed.

But after a while my music started getting more difficult so it meant that it needed players who had the time to really work at it. It became a different thing.

Rob Williams [pianist] came over and played in the '90s. We go back to Melbourne State College [pre-Tasmania]. That's the only academic post I ever had. That's where we got to know each other, did things together. We toured Japan together in 1997 and we worked really hard for that. But then, like all bands, we broke up.

K: The collaborations we have shape a lot of what we do. Those relationships are very important. Tell me about your collaborations with Larry Polansky (NY, USA).

R: I first met Larry in Melbourne. He listened to my music; he said he really liked it. When he came later for a gig at the College of the Arts in Melbourne, in the early '90s, he came here to stay for a bit, then after that we started doing things together. Different continents makes that difficult. He recommended me when asked for an Australian for the Japan concert and was there, too. He joined us in a couple of pieces. Since then, I've stayed with him in California. He's been here just because we're friends. He gets on really well with Sarah - they go bird-watching. He thinks this place is heaven.

K: Well he's right!

International community

I met Larry when we performed and recorded Ron's substantial, just-intonation Artamidae suite, a work celebrating a family of Australian songbirds. It had been premiered in New York by the Downtown Ensemble, thanks to Larry's connection. He played fretless electric guitar in both places. Ron wrote Colluricincla harmonica specifically for Larry and his fretless electric guitar in 1998.

'One of the finest composers of his generation, not just in Australia, but anywhere.' (Larry Polansky)

Another important collaborator is the Australian-born David Scott Hamnes, who is behind Ron Nagorcka's Norwegian connection. Hamnes got in touch and asked Ron to write for the organ. That led to Little David at the Billabong (2004), a pipe organ solo.

During our talk, Ron and I spend a good deal of time going through his meticulous spreadsheet of compositions and performances. It's a memory-jogger for both of us. David performed About 3 for pipe organ and didjeridu in Norway with a Norwegian didjeridu player in 2001. Little David at the Billabong followed, and then trumpet and pipe organ pieces. David and I premiered Ron's Fantasia for pipe organ and clarinet when David was in Australia in 2005. He plays Ron's works frequently in Norway with various other instrumentalists.

R: Oh, I've got Magpies back of Bach. I arranged that for organ. That was part of the Artamidae suite. The rest of Artamidae is in just intonation but that one movement is in equal temperament because it's pretty hard to write a fugue in just intonation. And it's a fugue on the magpie song. The connection with David keeps me writing in equal temperament. Because you're unlikely to get a pipe organ retuned!

The other organist that I've had something to do with is Gary Verkade, an American organist and composer working in northern Sweden for the last 25 years or so. I wrote a piece for him for an organ tuned in mean-tone. One of the only ones in the world tuned in mean-tone. A beautiful instrument, huge Baroque thing with this strange tuning. He's a very good organist and very keen.

R: More has happened in the States and in Norway than has ever happened in Tasmania. I'll spend half a year preparing for a series of concerts in Norway, and get paid for it. Even if I have to pay my own fare, I'll break even. It made it possible.

Ron toured Norway in 2003, 2007 and 2013.

Rural and remote, but continually extending

K: Being here, the rural/remote composer, you have these rhythms of travelling and people coming here.

R: But most of the time I'm keeping to myself. I'm here in the studio and I go to work and occasionally things start happening. I'm just starting to write a piece - I'm experimenting with the 13th harmonic which is pretty weird. It's 765 [cents] above [the fundamental]. It's somewhere between a 5th and a minor 6th, somewhere in there. It's very interesting because it sounds really wrong in certain contexts but in other contexts within that which Partch calls tonality, there are some where it's just right. There is a truth to it, something really different about it. Even 11. Mostly I stick to 7, but I thought I'd extend to 13.

K: When you're at that stage of experimenting - does this piece have a particular destination? Are you writing it for someone for something?

R: At the moment the only people I have in mind are you and Dan.


Ron plays in many of his pieces: keyboard, didjeridu, and, now, singing.

K: Your basso profondo is an amazing voice. When did you start using that in your work?

R: Only very recently. It's another collaboration with [the Australian poet] Keith Harrison. I wrote the Song of the Central Tree (2010). That's the first piece ever that I've written for myself to sing. I know I have this really deep voice. I haven't done much public singing. I thought, 'It's about time I did something.' In 2010 I was 62. I love singing. I really enjoy it. It does mean that once again I'm writing things that will be impossible [for other performers]. The Song of the Central Tree goes down to A. Most basses can't get an E even. And my top note is at most Middle C. I haven't got a terrific range; I just have a very deep voice. I listen to these Russian basses who can get really low; I can always go lower. Haven't been beaten yet.

I'm going to write more for Dan's [Robinson] voice. He's got a gorgeous voice. I didn't realise it was so good. The Japanese Windbell (2010) he sang for me - I wrote it for contralto, but he sings it in tenor and he sounded great.

K: The piece where all three of us sang in April, Winter Canticle - it was easy to sing, easy to pitch. Of course. Because this is what fits; this is what feels right.

R: It's easy to sing in just intonation.


K: I'm thinking back to what you were doing at Clifton Hill in the 1980s: how your communities are now dispersed. There's community to it; you're not just sending pieces out into the ether; there's a connectedness.

R: Well part of it is that, for most of my music, it's necessary for me to be there. It could be done. I work at the idea that this could be done without me but it virtually never has. Because people just aren't willing to spend the time retuning their instruments or - the idea of playing in just intonation: they just don't want to do it. Apart from your good self, who sees it as a challenge.

K: I do. The attraction to it is that you're a really positive person to work with. I enjoy doing that. I swear at it a little bit in the process. (But I do that to other composers too.) It's the connection.

I've been playing Ron's music since the mid-'90s. It's a rare privilege to observe the development of new musical language over time - the discovery of materials, ways of organisation, deepening and extension, becoming more and more elegant, substantial and poetic statements.

Unlike strings or trombone, it has been more challenging for me, as a woodwind player, to find fingerings and flexibility for his just intonation pieces. Often the solutions I found at home don't work when we get into rehearsal, but something emerges in context that does. My technique and my 'ears' have expanded because it's 'right'. The harmonies are beautiful, and I'm grateful for that experience.

Ron is a gracious composer, willing to adapt when needed. Thus, he inspires me to look even harder for solutions, so I don't ask very often. Additionally, the privilege of meeting and performing with his other collaborators has been wonderful - they are such a generous and stimulating community. Ron's future plans include a recording project in summer 2020 and setting more of Keith Harrison's poetry. I'm looking forward to finding my way around that 13th harmonic!

After our interview we enjoyed a beautiful lunch of homemade bread and homegrown soup. And then the slime mould safari. Sure enough, Sarah points out several right near my walk in. She has a torch and magnifying lens, but once I know where to look I can see them, too. Several species, and in different stages, too. A genuine slime phase (plasmodium) and several fruiting bodies. I try out my new clip-on macro lens on my phone. Oh well, it's enough to trigger positive memories. Nothing like Sarah's work!

I happily walk down the track to my car, noticing even more life than I had on the way up.

Further resources

Ron Nagorcka - AMC profile

Ron Nagorcka - homepage (ronnagorcka.com)

Ron Nagorcka: Devils of the Night (Move) - view details, listen to samples and purchase from the AMC Shop (CD, individual tracks available as MP3s)

Ron Nagorcka: Atom Bomb becomes Folk Art (Pogus) - view details and listen to samples (AMC Online); purchase via Pogus Records

Ron Nagorcka: Song of the Central Tree (Ravello) - view details and listen to samples (AMC Online); purchase info (Ravello)


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about ron nagorcka

What a wonderful interview by Karlin, who knows Ron and his music so well (and is a fantastic musician herself). Ron is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most imaginative composers anywhere, and there is precious little writing available about him. He and his work deserve a booklength, deep study. I am really grateful for this interview and Karlin's historical addenda. Thank you.

A visit to Ron and Sarah is well worth the 2k walk.


Larry Polansky

UCross, Wyoming, US