Composer Peter Sculthorpe
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Sometimes we forget just how much our modern conveniences have shrunk
the world. We take so much for granted, but instant communication
makes it possible for a live newscaster to say, “This
incident happened tomorrow in (city on the other side of the globe).”
That, of course, involves longitude. For latitude, we cross the
equator and find winter and summer have flipped. Both of these
divergences were the case when I spoke by phone to Australian composer
Because of time compression and seasonal adjustment, we spoke on two
different days and were suffering the extremes of two different
climates. It was mid-February, so Chicago was in the grip of cold
spell. From my window I could see the ice on Lake Michigan.
Sculthorpe, on the other hand, was sweltering in the summer heat.
Indeed, at the end our conversation, he was very concerned that
few of his answers had been amusing, and he blamed that on the heat
there in his home. I assured him that his responses were very
good, that I had learned a lot and had gotten a great deal of fine
material. [A portion of that bit of our chat appears at the end,
somewhat like an out-take included as a bonus!]
Besides having produced a significant and respected body of
musical work, he is one of 100 Australian Living National
It was 1994 and Sculthorpe's 65th birthday was approaching. I
made contact with him and we arranged a convenient time to talk.
Here is much of what was said on that phone call spanning halfway
around the world . . . . .
Duffie in Chicago.
BD: How are
Sweltering hot! I’ve got the overhead fan on, and a
around my head to stop from sweating onto the music.
You don’t want incidental
directions on the page in the form of little wet spots?
right, or the ink running, yeah.
BD: I wonder
what would happen if the performers
got a hold of your music and tried to perform extraneous markings.
that’d be rather interesting! I’m
sure John Cage has done it. [See my Interview with John Cage.]
That’s true! That’s true. I want to talk about all kinds of
things, so let’s begin with your career at the moment. You are
both a teacher and a
composer. How do you divide your time between those two taxing
PS: I don’t
know. I think I spend my
whole life panic-stricken — that’s what I’ve been saying lately.
But the point is I love teaching and I love writing music, and I have
found in the past that whenever I’ve taken time off from teaching, I
in fact, written no more music. I think the more one does, the
more one does. I just like being busy, you know.
BD: Do you
ever find yourself incorporating
ideas of your students into your own music?
PS: I often
say that I learn more from them than
I think they learn from me. That may not be entirely true, but I
do find students very stimulating, and I think it keeps my mind
alert. It keeps me young.
BD: These are
students in Sydney?
Yes. We have students from all over
the place. The other year I had a Canadian student. We have
many Asian students, but the majority are from this state of New
South Wales, which is around Sydney.
BD: Does the
fact that you have students from
various other places make it more of a homogeneous group,
so that you would find a similar kind of group in London or in New York
or in Stuttgart?
PS: Yes, but
there is a great difference.
Last year I had to run the composition course at the Darthington Summer
School in Devon. There were a number of English composers,
a number of Scandinavian, Japanese, Brazilian — in other words, a
group. But I found that on the whole, the music was very
unrelenting. It sort of just came out at you in a
relentless fashion! I also found that the music was very
similar. With the students here, they’re incredibly
diverse. If we
put on a concert, one piece might be a sort of meditation
piece — sort of new age; another
piece might be post-serial, another
might be Asian influenced, another minimal and so on. There is a
difference in what they do.
BD: Is music
becoming too much of a stew, where
everything is getting melded together?
PS: I just
wondered if the music that I
heard that the students were writing in Devon last year was in some way
influenced by the rather grim politics and the rather grim
societies from which these people spring. For some of the
English composers, for instance, the first thing they ever knew about
politics was when Margaret Thatcher was elected. Well, I mean,
that’s grim, in my opinion!
Sure! Is the instantaneous
communication all over the world creating a kind of lack of
individuality amongst students and professional musicians?
PS: I find
that students here do have more
BD: Is that
because they’re so far removed?
probably is. Of course, I think
we’re at the center of the world! [Both laugh] But I think
it is because they’re removed.
Also, we’ve had a policy at the university of encouraging
people to be their own persons, to be individual. We’ve never
taught a sort of party line, so I think that’s helped.
BD: When you
are writing a piece of music, are you conscious at all to make sure
that the strains that make you
Australian are coming through?
Yes. For many years I’ve consciously tried
to write an “Australian music.”
I suppose traditions surely evolve,
but I’ll be long dead and gone by the time evolution creates
tradition. So I’ve had to create my own, really.
BD: Is this
from your experience and
your background, or just what you have picked up more recently?
really from my own experience. My music is mostly concerned with
the landscape, and it always
has been, in fact. I was born in Tasmania, a tiny
little island about the size of England, south of Australia. And
it’s very like England, in many ways — oak trees and elms,
beautiful old stone buildings. In my youth, influenced by that, I
tended to write music that was
somewhat English and pastoral, sort of Delius, in a way. Then
when I went to study on the mainland of Australia, I was confronted
much harsher landscape. So too, my music became less pastoral and
open, even more harsh. So, without realizing it, then, I was
responding to the landscape.
you’re writing a piece of music, are
you always controlling how that music will evolve, or do you let it
evolve itself and just be a slave to where it takes you?
[Laughs] I much prefer to be a slave and let it
take me. But that doesn’t always happen; I wish it did,
really. But I think if one does get the right musical ideas at
the very beginning, then the music will dictate itself.
you’re working with the ideas, how do
you know which ones are right?
PS: You don’t
always. Sometimes I spend a week or two on an idea, thinking it’s
right, and then the time
comes. I might wake up in the middle of the night and
realize it’s not the right idea. Then I find the
BD: Do you
discard the old idea, or do you put
it away and use it elsewhere?
PS: Oh, I
never discard, no! I’ve got a drawer
full of things. Often, some years later, an idea that wasn’t
good for one piece becomes good for another, really. No, I’m a
real hoarder! [Both laugh] Even bad ideas are hard to come
by! [Both laugh again] But good ideas? Very hard to
there in Australia, do you seek to
teach as much as you can about Australian music, or do you try to teach
all of the new music of the world — Europe and America and Asia?
PS: I do give
Australian music, from the time of
white settlement — that’s just over two hundred years ago — I give that
preference, because there are so many books and so many recordings of
the rest of the music of the world. There’s so little of ours,
and this might be the only time that students will ever
know about the history of Australian music. My second priority is
music of Asia.
BD: Because of its
of its proximity, yes. Maybe
I’m a little biased there, but once again it’s because students
are exposed much more easily to other musics. You’ll be
interested to know that my next priority is American music. In
fact, it’s just about
equal with Asian music, because I do have a thing about the Pacific
Basin. I’d love to see a real culture to emerge from
this whole area.
BD: Is that a
or is that a political thing?
PS: I suppose
it’s all bound up, really, isn’t
it? It would have to be, yes. Musical, literary,
painting-wise, everything — an actual culture.
BD: How does
music fit in
with those other arts?
PS: I think
that music is the
most accessible of all the arts — when it’s
that is. Music of one kind or another is constantly around us.
BD: Are you
talking about the music of nature,
or what you hear in an elevator?
talking about what you hear in an elevator,
what you might put on in your car, or what you might hear just in going
for a walk up the street coming out of different houses. Music is
BD: That, of
course, is mechanically reproduced music.
true. It’s a difficult
question to answer.
BD: Well what
do you expect of the audience that
comes to hear a piece of your music? And, would that expectation
be different there in Sydney, or in Europe, or America?
PS: I’ll have
to answer that in a slightly
roundabout way. I believe that the history of the
human race is made up of great works of
art. The pinnacles of achievement of the race, it seems to me,
have been the greatest works of art. I think they’re more
important than all the wars or all the peaces. It’s art.
There have always been — and will be
— somewhat eccentric human beings who want to create great
works of art, and I’m one of
them. I would like, before I die, to create
something that I could regard as a very high achievement.
BD: Do you
be eccentric to create something great?
PS: No, you
don’t have to be eccentric. In
fact, I don’t think anyone would call me eccentric. Perhaps
“eccentric” was the wrong
word, but maybe “crazy”!
One has to be a bit crazy, I think, to hope to achieve
this. But what a wonderful thing to keep on going through one’s
life, right to one’s death bed, trying to create a great work or
art. To answer your question, naturally I try to communicate with
people, and when a piece is performed, if an audience really
loves it I’m over the moon! If an audience doesn’t,
well, you know, that can’t be helped. I think to myself,
“Well, maybe one day, or maybe next time.” Maybe it wasn’t
such a good piece, but one just keeps going.
decides if it’s a good piece? Is
it you, is it the audience, is it the critics, is it history?
PS: I think
time looks after that,
actually. It’s a combination of the creator, the
critics, the audiences, and certainly the performers. I was at a
performance of a piece of mine, Irkanda
IV, the other day. It was
written in 1961 in memory of my father, and that piece
seems to get more performances every year than the
year before! I was just so excited the other day to think
this piece is really alive and well after thirty-two years!
BD: I was
going to ask if you’re pleased that some of your earlier pieces have
Yes! And actually the performance I heard
the other day was one of the best that I’ve ever heard. The
pieces are getting molded in different manners. This performance
was a much more dynamic. I can’t explain it.
It was just stunning, actually!
BD: Is this
to be expected, that a piece which
will survive in the repertoire will get better with age as we all
begin to understand it more and more?
PS: Yes, I
think so. Also the
orchestra that played it have played many of my pieces, and they know
me well. The rapport that we have between us
also helps to produce better and better performances.
you’re writing the piece, do you allow
a little leeway? Do you expect interpretation on the part of the
PS: Yes, in
fact, I would love to write in the
published score, “Please take any liberties you wish, as far as tempi,
dynamics, and so on, are concerned.” But of course, if one did
that, then incredible liberties would be taken, and often by not very
[Laughs] Maybe you should preface the remark with,
“If you are a great
PS: Ah, if
you are a great performer! I like
brings up the question, then,
how far is too far, in terms of taking those liberties?
always giving really good performers verbal
permission! I don’t mind how far because the point is I
write for human beings. If I didn’t, then I’d be writing
electronic music; music that exists perfectly on a piece of tape, the
perfect performance and that’s it.
never dabbled in the electronic medium?
PS: Oh, I
have dabbled in it, and I expect I will
dabble again, but for me, writing music is just putting
little black dots on paper. That’s the way I am, really.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?
PS: Oh, very!
performances of early works that weren’t very good rather turned me off
the works, and it wasn’t until many years later, when I’d hear a
superlative performance, that I would suddenly think, “Oh, the piece
isn’t too bad after all!”
they’ve discovered the value of your piece?
about the recordings? Have you
basically been pleased with what is put down in the plastic?
PS: I have a
vast number of recordings!
Unfortunately, not many of them are available in the States. I
must confess that some recordings I’m not very happy with, but
they’re a minority. On the whole, I’m really thrilled with the
recordings. Certainly the recordings of mine that are
available in the States I’m very happy about.
BD: Is there
anything we need to know about Australia to really
understand your music, or should we just let this go and enjoy
your music for music’s sake?
PS: I think
it can probably be just enjoyed for its
own sake. It’s very important, here, to say that if
anybody has been to Australia and knows the outback of Australia, they
could probably relate more easily to it. But what I’m trying to
do in my music is not paint pictures of the
outback. I’m trying, really, to find the spirit of the land
and the landscape, the sacred, if you like, in nature. That’s
what the music is about.
BD: As you’ve
the world, do you find that same kind of feeling coming from any other
place besides the outback of Australia?
there are many places I’d like to put,
or discover through music. This would include time spent a few
years ago in
Arizona and New Mexico, but then, of course, that relates very
closely to Australia, in a way.
BD: You found
the same kinds of
feelings coming back at you?
feelings, yes. Because
I’ve always been strongly drawn to D. H. Lawrence, who lived near
Sydney for a time, I have referred to his work in
my music. Going to Taos in New Mexico and to the
ranch there somehow was like a pilgrimage, and a
completion of some sort of spiritual journey. So I do
connect with other places. I have also spent a good deal of time
in Indonesia and
Japan, and at times, I have written music that is very obviously
Indonesian or Japanese in sound. But my concerns, really, in more
recent years have tended to be more ecological. Last
year I wrote a piece about Easter Island. Do you know about
the one with the big statues.
right, the one with the big statues.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was a population
explosion, and the inhabitants stripped the island of trees causing
soil erosion, and depriving themselves of building materials
for boats and houses. They retreated to caves, and clans fought
each other. Finally there was enslavement and
cannibalization. By the time the first Europeans
arrived, in 1722, the survivors had even forgotten the significance of
those great stone heads standing there! I called the work Memento Mori,
meaning remember to die. It was like a “Memento
Mori” for this
planet. I was treating Easter Island as a metaphor for planet
Earth because I
do care about it. It worries me! My number one
concern is overpopulation of the planet, so if
just a few people who go to the concert and hear the work have my
concerns, that’s great!
BD: So then
you’re really trying to change a few
lives every time your music is heard.
right. I wrote a piece called Little
Nourlangie. That’s the name of a
little rock up in Kakadu National Park, and the music was written
especially for school concerts. The government has been proposing
to mine uranium just nearby, which would destroy the river
system. I had to introduce the piece at about six school
concerts, so probably thousands and thousands of
school kids heard it. Every time I’d talk about this and I’d
say, “If you really care, write a letter to the Minister.” So
all these schools made it a project, and the Minister was flooded out
with letters! That’s not a bad
thing to do, is it?
BD: Are you
optimistic about the whole future of
PS: I do
worry a bit about
management. Naturally they have to be conservative
because they’ve got to get all those bodies on the seats. I do
worry that there is a danger that concert music could become
a museum culture, but I don’t believe that it will. I believe
that there are always going to be players wanting
to play pieces in concerts, and there are always going to be people who
want to go
out to listen to a concert rather than stay at home. And I think
there’ll be enough of us composers supplying
music that is not too inaccessible. I’m optimistic.
about to hit your sixty-fifth
birthday. Are you at the point in your career that you want to
be at this age?
trouble is, I don’t feel like sixty-five!
[Laughs] There’s a lot more that I want to do, but on the other
done some wonderful things and had marvelous experiences through my
music! I must tell you about one from last year. I’ve
piece called Kakadu, the
Kakadu National Park. The Darwin
Symphony Orchestra decided to put on a concert of all my Northern
Territory music in the park, in the
open. There was
a waiting list of about six thousand people because there’s a limited
number of people allowed into the park. It’s very small; it’s
only about the size of England. That caused a laugh
when I said it on the BBC last year. [Both laugh]
Beforehand, the local Aborigines did
a dance performance, and then there was this wonderful concert!
My guitar concerto that I wrote for John Williams is called
Nourlangie, and there was John
playing Nourlangie in front
the rock, Nourlangie. And there was Kakadu being performed in the
park! It was like taking the music back home. If I’d had an
accident and died
after that, I think I would have died happily! Life has been very
good to me, and my
I hope that there is a lot more
life, so that I can be greedy and get a lot more music from you.
PS: I hope
BD: Thank you
so very much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Right. I enjoyed it. That was great. Thank you very
--- --- ---
===== ===== =====
Note: Whenever my conversations ended, my guest and I usually
continued with a bit of small talk and/or exchange of addresses and
phone numbers so we could stay in touch and send materials. They
would often send me recordings and I always made sure they got the WNIB
Program Guide, which listed their presentations. In this case,
Sculthorpe was genuinely concerned about his performance. Like
an out-take on a bonus-reel, here is that portion of our
Bruce, my one concern is that there wasn’t a
great deal that was amusing, and it occurs to me that maybe it’s
because of the heat here!
BD: Oh, no,
no, your responses to my questions were
PS: Were they
Yes! Yes, very good. You gave very interesting
responses, and I got a lot of good material. There’ll be no
about putting together various programs.
PS: Oh that’s
all right, then, because often I tend to throw in some good
one-liners. I think because I’m so hot, the mind is a bit
you’re writing a piece of music, do
you make sure you’re by the air conditioner?
couldn’t work with an air conditioner, no, no.
BD: Then do
you make sure that you compose only in
PS: Oh, no,
I’m managing. As I said, I’ve got a
bandanna around my head. My mind’s not too sluggish for writing
music, only for witty remarks! [Both laugh]
Well, I’m not looking for witty; I’m looking for
intelligent and observational, and that has come through.
genuinely pleased] All right, fine.
Born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1929, Sculthorpe was
Launceston Church Grammar School, the University of Melbourne and
Wadham College, Oxford. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University
of Sydney, where he began teaching in 1963. He has also taught at music
institutions and universities both within and outside Australia, and he
holds honorary doctorates from Tasmania, Melbourne, Sussex, Griffith
and Sydney. In 1977 he was appointed OBE and in that year he was the
recipient of a Silver Jubilee Medal. He was appointed AO in 1990.
Sculthorpe's catalogue consists of more than three
hundred and fifty
works and, apart from juvenilia, a good part of it is regularly
performed and recorded throughout the world. The composer has written
in most musical forms and almost all his works are influenced by the
social climate and physical characteristics of Australia. Furthermore,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island music, and the gamelan music of
Indonesia, have been significant influences upon his musical language.
Sculthorpe has a deep love for his country and for its landscape,
which he regards as sacred. Because of this, one of the most constant
themes in his output is the protection of Australia's environment, as
well as that of the whole planet. His preoccupation with the frailty of
the human condition can be found in works such as the choral Requiem
(2004) and String Quartet No.16 (2006). The former grew from his
concern about women and children being killed in the war in Iraq, the
latter from the plight of people in detention.
The recipient of many awards, Sculthorpe regards the most
as being chosen as one of Australia's 100 Living National Treasures
(National Trust of Australia, 1997), Distinguished Artist 2001
(International Society for the Performing Arts), Honorary Foreign Life
Member (American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2003) and one of the 100
Most Influential Australians (The Bulletin magazine, 2006).
More information can be found on his website.
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on February
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB two months later and again in 1999. This
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.