Peter Joshua Sculthorpe
Music composer; Australia; Peter Joshua Sculthorpe
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
10 Mar 2000
- Brisbane; Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary
- -27.53293 152.9693
- :04 - 14:25
New South Wales
- -33.85997 151.21111
- 16:14 - 58:34
- Sennheiser MKH 30
- Sennheiser MKH 40
Stereo=1; Decoded MS stereo; Stereo, Neumann KMR 81
Log of DAT 1: labeled A-3
Koala Bellows (Lone Pine Sanctuary, March 11, 2000)
Logged by Joan Kelly at Magian Design Studio, Australia
Date: 11 March 2000
ng = not good
ok = okay
g = good
vg = very good
Time Description Rating
00:00 Start recording - low level insects in BG and low level hum through most of recording.
00:20 Cockatoo squawk ok
00:30 Scraping sounds and branch breaking
01:06 koala groaning, close in left channel - scraping sounds continue vg
01:35 Koala groans increase in intensity - more textural - to 01:50
Followed by leaves vg
01:55 More distant koala - lost of leafy sounds g
02.20 Short crow calls in MG ok
02:27 Engine in BG - gone by 2:35
02:35 Groaning koala in left channel - becomes vg - birds in BG g
3:12 Other koalas join in BG, and koala in FG stops.
Two or three others join in, in MG, left and right channels g
04:00 FG koala joins in, in left channel, MG still in right vg
04:45 Cockatoo in BG - no koalas. Distant traffic. ok
5:14 Single soft koala grunt in left channel
5:15 Short crow caws in MG ok
05:25 mournful bird calls g
05:42 Crow again and general twittering
General scratching around sounds. Branch breaking ok
6:25 Koalas start up again in FG in left channel, then both channels
Continue until ~7.30 vg
8:04 Rustling leaves, birds in BG g leaves
8:45 Insects become predominant again in right channel ok
09:08 Plane in BG - segment ends
09:30 NEW SEGMENT: chatter. Previous segment continues.
09:55 Koala groaning gently in right channel - short session. g
10:13 Another takes over in BG - another short session. Occasional cockatoo in BG and leaf rustles ok
11:13 Several soft groans in BG in left channel. **noise in right channel
Various birds in BG
12:30 Branch sounds then koalas start up again - until 13:46
Beautiful texture. vg
13:57 Very BG koalas in left channel - then talking ng
14:28 Segment ends
14:45 NEW SEGMENT
Alex Chadwick in right. Peter Sculthorpe in left
10 March 2000, 10.15am
Split track, KMR81's
16:00 Interview begins: Alex interviewing Peter
A. Just tell me your name and how we should identify you.
P: I'm Peter Skulthorpe, Australian composer
A. Were you working here this morning? When I called you yesterday you said you were working.
P: Yes. This is my studio, and at present I'm working on a film, a documentary film about Australian beach culture. Its about the hedonism of the beach, the poetry, the painting and the music inspired by the beach, and its got wonderful shots taken all round Australia of Australia's edge. So that's exciting.
A. Who's that for?
P. It's for Don Featherstone Productions but its being financed mostly by a Japanese company. But I think its being shown at a documentary film festival at Cannes on April 10, which is a month from this very day we are doing the interview, so its going to have to be done fairly quickly.
A. Is it one of these IMAX films, I know you've done them before.
P. No, I haven't done an IMAX. It's just for TV really. In fact I don't like doing films very much. I'm doing this because the director is a very good friend and I enjoy working with friends.
A. But you don't like films?
P. I like films, but I find that the more people involved in a project the more time it takes, and, frankly, I'd prefer to work between me and my desk. And also the more people involved in a project the more different opinions there are, and so on, so I'd rather just get on with my own music. It's different, though, working with a friend. Because in the same way if, say, I'm writing a cello piece, I like to know the player well. I like to write music for friends and if I know the instrument that's even more exciting. Therefore, writing film music for a director who's a friend is the same thing really. Its to do with the hear I think. Music has to be about the heart.
A. Let me ask you about the Australian heart. Is that what you're trying to explore in your music about Australia?
P. Yes. Once upon a time I used to say that - when people would ask me what kind of a composer I am - I'd say I'm a religious composer, and people would say, Catholic? Methodist? Anglican? But, of course, I didn't mean it in the denominational sense. I meant it in the fact that my music seeks the sacred in the Australian landscape, and the sacred in nature. And in this way, perhaps, I'm not unrelated to our indigenous people and their approach because in all their art they seek the sacred in nature. So that's the kind of composer I am, really. But how does one do it?
I spend quite a bit of time in the Outback, in Central Australia and in Northern Australia (plane in BG - Peter stops for a moment).
20:38 Peter begins again:
P. I spend a good deal of time in Central Australia and also in Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Oddly enough I've never been to Torres Strait, although much of my music has been inspired by Torres Strait music. That's my next trip I think. Sometime this year. But I can't really explain what I do without getting technical in a music sense. But I can tell you one technique that I use, and that is, just as the Australian landscape is very flat - this is in the centre of Australia - there is very little change, I mean you can go for a walk in the morning and what you see at lunch time is much the same as what you saw when you left. The sun might have just changed some aspects of it. Therefore that's always suggested to me that there should be a slow rate of harmonic change. In other words, the harmonies underlying the music remain for a long time before they change. That makes writing music difficult because you risk getting very boring, of course. So I have to find other ways in order to create tension.
Sometimes, every now and then on that walk, in the Outback, a big rock will protrude so on the way in the music I can have a sudden rock in the music, if you like, or a sudden flight of birds. But I have to find ways to keep the music going. Basically, all of my music has that slow rate of harmonic range.
A. But you also have talked in the past, and at times when you talked about joyous music. Quick, fast music. Fast joyous music, and that's not..
P. Yes. You can still have joyous music above that slow rate of harmonic change. In fact, that is my present feeling about my music. I am very concerned about the growth of world population. If the population has doubled itself by the middle of this century, I am sure that science will solve the problems of food and energy. But it's the compounding of human hatred that concerns me. So then, all my music from now, for the rest of my life, will be trying to pass on a feeling of goodness, of joy, of love. Because that too can compound itself. And if others can do this in their work, instead of mirroring what is going on around us, perhaps we can achieve something.
(pause for plane in BG)
A. Could you tell me what you think it is - what is an Australian?
P. Oh Alex. What is an Australian. Well there's no doubt that we're very easy going. (interrupted by phone)
A. What is an Australian. I guess what I want to get at is, I mean you've moved Australian music. You've told people you've come to think and believe and write and have directed the feelings of others to say that we're not a European country.
P. It always seemed to me to be perfectly clear that we're not, but many Australians felt, and perhaps still feel, that we should ally ourselves with Europe. But I've always felt very close to Asia. I love Asian countries and for me that's what's special about being Australian. First of all, there is this amazing continent that I love passionately, and there's easy access to Asia. I think we have a little way to go, we Australians. We do have to bring about reconciliation with our indigenous people. It distresses me that Australia was always about the land. The land was our heart, our soul, and we've done our best to destroy a lot of it. But we've also lost our links to it, and I think, therefore, that we could learn from our indigenous people.
Because we are a very easy going lot, we don't take things perhaps as seriously as we should. But still, that's all right. But because of that we don't seem to produce great statesmen because we tend not to take politics very seriously, and I think we badly need some visionary politicians. That to me is one of our great lacks at the moment. On the other hand, I know of no country - I do travel quite a lot - and I know of no country where there's a better quality of life. Admittedly I'm biased, being Australian of course, but trying to be objective, that's the way it seems to me.
A. When you go out across Australia, you have this kind of - the crescent edge is green and populated, but out in the middle its really... I remember flying from Perth to Sydney thirty years ago and looking down from the plane and saying, good Lord, this just goes on and on and on and on and there's nothing down there.
P. I find that very inspiring in its awesomeness. But you mentioned the edge of Australia. In the film that I'm writing the music for, we're told that four out of five Australians live within a short drive from the beach. Whether that's true or not is an amazing statistic. It just shows how empty the centre is, really.
A. Did you visit the centre of Australia before you began writing about it?
P. Well that's a very interesting question, because most of my music had been influenced more by Asia than by the outback of Australia, and then finally I came home and began writing music about, particularly the Northern Territory, and I'd never been there. For instance, I wrote an orchestral work, Kakadu, which was a commission by an American, actually, for first performance at the Aspen Music Festival in 1988. And I called the piece Kakadu, but I'd never been to Kakadu. (plane in BG over dialogue) I had books and photos and so on (stop for plane).
31:20 I had books, lots of books, about Kakadu and photographs and so, and I sort of had those all round me and I wrote this piece. The piece - it's a fairly bold, quite a strong piece, even wild at times. And then about a year after I'd written it I went to Kakadu and I realised that most of the photographs I had were very dramatic photographs because they made good photographs, and I didn't feel the drama there that was in the books I had. So, if I'd written Kakadu after I'd been there it would have been a very different piece. So I'm glad I hadn't been there. But the music that I wrote about Kakadu, from that point, was much more calm and serene, because when I arrived there I felt very much at home, very happy. And it wasn't like the original Kakadu piece at all.
Afterthought: Then on the other hand, Vaughan Williams had never been to Antarctica when he wrote the music for Scott of the Antarctic; or Pacini had never been to the golden West and certainly Copland had never been to the West when he wrote his cowboy pieces. And for that matter, Janicek had never been to the moon, so I don't think it's all together necessary.
A. Could I ask you about - is it Nourlangi (chat about pronunciation between Alex and Peter)
A. What about that piece?
P. Well that piece is much less, although it has a little drama, it's much less dramatic that the original Kakadu piece. It has more serenity in it. It's also a little bit dramatic too, because when I was writing it I imagine Torres - who sailed for Spain and sailed through Torres Strait, named after him - and when he was sailing through the Strait a guitar fell off the ship and it was lying there resonating in the sea, and when I was writing the guitar music I kept thinking of that and had that sound in my mind, of those lovely resonances. And again, that was written for the Australian guitarist, John Williams. Again, I wrote for somebody I know well. (waiting for plane)
A. That piece opens - its seems as though I'm outside and listening to the forest.
P. Yes, and there's thunder and I think there's a little rain there. I don't often use or imitate real sounds, except sometimes I use rain sticks, and a thunder sheet, and also bird sounds. I have violins, or strings, imitating bird sounds. (plane again - until 36:15). Just over a year ago I wrote an orchestral piece for a Japanese orchestra, and I went to Japan for the performance, and it had about 12 seconds of thunder sheet and when I arrived at rehearsal, there was the thunder sheet behind the orchestra. It was bigger than a movie screen! And I thought, this is really embarrassing for just 12 seconds of music. So there and then I had to somehow find a way to get more thunder in the piece to make it worthwhile. But I enjoy things like that.
A. That's the piece that I heard and thought - that is so Australian - because its got this wildlife, this sense of landscape. Its got this openness and these influences that sound Asian to me, picking up in it.
P. I should mention that when I made my first visit to Kakadu National Park I climbed up on top of the rock, Nourlangi, this massive rock there, and just stood there. And in my imagination I imagined that I could hear local music of the Gagadu tribe, that I could hear sounds hanging in the air from early colonial settlement, particularly at Port Essington, that I could hear indigenous music from Torres Strait and even Gamalan music from Indonesia coming in on the wind. And somehow, all those musics seemed to - I imagined them and they fused in my mind and that was really the beginning of a new style, so that Nourlangi is, in fact, which was inspired by my first visit to Kakadu and that ushered in what became my style during the 90's. I'm not quite sure where I'm heading at the moment, but I'll take some of that with me anyway. So, therefore, that's a very good example of the landscape and the sound of the landscape - it wasn't only the music of course, it was thunder, bird sounds, everything seemed to come together.
A. Do you know what Australia is becoming? What is your idea of what Australia is becoming? This is a country that has gone through an awful lot of changes in the last thirty years, and is now in quite a wrestle with its own soul to establish what its going to be, especially in regards to those first people.
P. That's almost too difficult to answer.
A. And there's the Republic vote, and all that sort of thing.
P. We are a Republic at heart. In a way, it seems to me that becoming a Republic in name is just window dressing. I just thought it was ridiculous to have a referendum, or have all this nonsense about it when we haven't even sorted out reconciliation with our first people. That seems, to me, to be the first thing we must do. I think the next thing we need to do is look at our constitution, before we can think about republic. We often do things the wrong way round because we are in too much of a hurry. I think a good example is our national anthem. A former Prime Minister decided that we should have a new national anthem so we had a competition. Not one anthem that was sent in for the anthem was any good. They were appalling. I remember one, written by a woman, the last verse was,
"Out with the guns boys, ratatatatat
We'll shoot the bloody commie's
And that's the end of that."
And that's the kind of standard of lyric that was submitted.
So then it was decided to hold a plebitite, and we were given a choice of Waltzing Matilda, Advance Australia Fair, or Song of Australia, which is associated with South Australia - only South Australians seemed to know it, nobody else seemed to. So that was out. Everybody felt that Waltzing Matilda, which of course, should be our anthem, but everybody felt it was too undignified - not European enough, really. So Advance Australia Fair was chosen. But, of course, Advance Australia Fair is stolen from the melody, God Bless the Prince of Wales.
A. You can't have Waltzing Matilda, because there're too many words in there that foreigners can't understand.
P. Yes, but there are too many words in Advance Australia Fair, and Australians don't even know them. We've got words in the Beach film like, chunder, which means vomiting - how do you translate that into Japanese.
So the melody for Advance Australia Fair is stolen from the melody for God Bless the Prince of Wales. The last part of it is identical. So we jettisoned one Imperial anthem, which is a great melody, and took on another Imperial anthem which is a lesser tune anyway, its Victorian and not particularly good - so we still have an Imperial melody, with words that nobody can remember. And we did this in our hurry to have a new national anthem, and I think that's the way we've been going about things with the republic. There's no rush. We can do little things to help it along, but let it evolve, because most Australians feel that we are a republic.
A. You're becoming a much less European looking nation, anyway. How do the European Australians, the older Australians feel about the changes that are coming with immigrations - so many Asians coming into the country.
P. This is hard for me to say - it's not hard for me to talk about - because I can't talk with any certainty, but there is a certain amount of resentment from older Australians. On the other hand, I do feel that there's less racism than in any other country I know. Certainly there is racism, but it doesn't seem to me to be too pronounced. I didn't object to the whole Pauline Hanson phenomenon because I think that it was good that she actually caused people to be able to give voice to their feelings of racism. If these feelings are there they should be let out and spoken about.
It hasn't helped Australia's situation in Asia though, unfortunately. But even though John Howard did, of course, the right thing in East Timor, he didn't handle perhaps as well as he should have and we're not regarded particularly well now, and maybe for a few years to come by our nearest neighbours. With John Howard, sort of setting himself up as the deputy of the United States, you know, to look after Asia, and so on, you can't say things like that to Asian people, Indonesians and so on.
A. There was a performance at Kakadu in 1993 of John Williams.
P. That's right.
A. Were you there for that performance?
P. Yes. It was a concert of all my Northern Territory music given by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, in Kakadu itself, with John playing Nourlangi in the shadow of the rock - which was amazing. The conductor of the orchestra, Martin Jarvis, says there was a waiting list of 5,000 people wanting to get into the concert. I don't think it was as many, but I think there was a waiting list of a few thousand, but of course numbers allowed in the Park are limited. They simply weren't allowed in. I was talking about this on the BBC a few weeks after the concert, and explaining that because the park is small and so on, numbers have to be limited. And the interviewer said, "Oh really, just how small is it this park". And I said, "It's only about the size of Scotland.", and she nearly fell off the chair.
A. People think that, God Australia is enormous and its got everything in it, and you talk about these dramatic pictures of Kakadu, and people think that the country can support a lot more than perhaps the landscape really can here.
P. I think it probably can support more (plane again)
P. Well, I go to Alice Springs at least once a year, and I've done that for nearly ten years now, and I've never seen it not green around Alice Springs. We always think of it as being dry and red, but its green. So, I think with certain climate changes, maybe we can sustain more people. I haven't really thought about this, I must confess.
A. Have you written about Ayres Rock? What do you think about Ayres Rock?
P. Yes, I've written music about Ayres Rock. In fact, I think the most unforgettable experience of my life was flying towards the rock at sunset with the sun behind me in the plane and the rock in front of me and seeing this enormous shadow of the rock stretching out across the desert for miles and miles - to the horizon. It was just like something from another planet. It was uncanny, and I've been wanting to write music about it ever since and I can't find a way - I can't find a way without it being a bit corny anyway - but I will one day.
Its amazing how one's perceptions change. When I first went to the Rock, I had no qualms at all about climbing it and walking on top of it. It just seemed to be the thing to do. But whenever I think about it now, I couldn't climb it because, you know, it is sacred and I know that Aborigines prefer that we don't. They don't really object if we do, but they prefer that we don't climb it. It now surprises me that I once happily climbed the rock.
A. I've heard a photographer friend described, who went to shoot here for National Geographic - he showed me a picture of the rock and said, "There's this line of people going up it," and he said, "I took that because there are these signs down there at the bottom which say, 'Please don't climb this rock', and people just march by these signs and go up the rock."
P. It is really bizarre seeing this line of people, silhouetted, especially. But the sign isn't - it's a polite sing. It's almost saying, well we know you're going to climb it but we prefer that you didn't. Well, it that's the way they feel, then why do people climb it. It's not a good start for reconciliation is it.
52:20 I've, over the years, been very influenced by aboriginal music, but I've always tried to take care never to transgress. An example is, the bull roarer - you know, if you put a ruler on the end of a string and swing it around - I was writing music for a film and the director wanted the sound of a bull roarer in it. Well, the bull roarer is a sacred object and in many parts of Australia, women aren't supposed to hear it, and I said to the director, no, I couldn't do it. Now, he insisted, so I synthesised the sound of a bull roarer, and any aboriginal would know that its not really a bull roarer, and I think that gets around and people realise that I'm always wanting to do the right thing.
A. Can you tell me, as a composer - well its ridiculous to ask you how does aboriginal music strike you because there is everything from here to there - but what are the elements of it that you like and try to use.
P. I like it because of the rhythms in the first place, because basically most aboriginal music are melody and rhythm. I like many of the rhythms and certainly I've used those rhythms. And also I like the rhythms that are set up by the didgeridoo. I mentioned how my music has a very sustained harmony - a slow rate of harmonic change. Well, of course, the didgeridoo has only one note and therefore, to me, it is the quintessential Australian instrument. It can play harmonics, it can play higher notes, but basically it is one pedal note and that sort of sustains me when I'm writing my one note in the bass, really. I've been influenced by aboriginal melodies, and in particular, what is known as a tumbling strain, and that is a melody that begins on a high and is repeated, then it drops down a bit more and slowly it drops down and down and finally it gets to the bottom of the range and it just stays there and stays there. And then it goes back up again, and then comes down. It's as though the melody is being drawn down to the earth all the time and then staying on the land and then back again and then down to the earth, and I love that idea and I've used it. Not aboriginal melodies. I've fashioned my own melodies that do go through that procedure.
Thankyou - End of Interview.
56:33 Minute of ambient rain in left channel. Very soft breathing from Alex in right channel.
Rain is fairly steady with occasional metallic drip. Ends when car approaches in BG - at ~58:00.
END OF TAPE