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 Peter Sculthorpe. 

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 Treasures. 

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 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Peter Sculthorpe?

Peter Sculthorpe:    Yes.

BD:    Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

PS:    Right, yes.

BD:    How are you?

PS:    Sweltering hot!  I’ve got the overhead fan on, and a bandanna around my head to stop from sweating onto the music.

sculthorpeBD:    [Laughs]  You don’t want incidental directions on the page in the form of little wet spots?

PS:    That’s 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.

PS:    Well, that’d be rather interesting!  I’m sure John Cage has done it.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]

BD:    [Laughs] 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 activities?

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 have, 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?

PS:    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 diverse 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!

BD:    [Laughs] 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 individuality.

BD:    Is that because they’re so far removed?

PS:    It 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?

PS:    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?

PS:    It’s 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 with a much harsher landscape.  So too, my music became less pastoral and more open, even more harsh.  So, without realizing it, then, I was responding to the landscape.

BD:    When 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?

PS:    [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.

BD:    When 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 right idea.

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 come by!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Being 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.

sculthorpeBD:    Because of its proximity?

PS:    Because 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 musicological thing, 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 accessible, 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?

PS:    I’m 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 ever-present.

BD:    That, of course, is mechanically reproduced music.

PS:    That’s 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 besomewhat 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 have to 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.

BD:    Who 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 held up.

PS:    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.

BD:    When you’re writing the piece, do you allow a little leeway?  Do you expect interpretation on the part of the performers?

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 good performers.

BD:    [Laughs]  Maybe you should preface the remark with, “If you are a great performer...”

PS:    Ah, if you are a great performer!  I like that!

BD:    That brings up the question, then, how far is too far, in terms of taking those liberties?

PS:    I’m 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.

BD:    You’ve 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?

sculthorpePS:    Oh, very!  Some 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!”

BD:    So they’ve discovered the value of your piece?

PS:    Yes, that’s right.

BD:    What 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 traveled the world, do you find that same kind of feeling coming from any other place besides the outback of Australia?

PS:    Yes, 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?

PS:    Similar 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 Easter Island?

BD:    That’s the one with the big statues.

PS:    That’s 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.

PS:    That’s 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?

sculthorpeBD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

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.

BD:    You’re about to hit your sixty-fifth birthday.  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

PS:    The trouble is, I don’t feel like sixty-five!  [Laughs]  There’s a lot more that I want to do, but on the other hand, I’ve done some wonderful things and had marvelous experiences through my music!   I must tell you about one from last year.  I’ve written a 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 of 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 music!

BD:    Naturally 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 so, yes.

BD:    Thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me today.

PS:    Right.  I enjoyed it.  That was great.  Thank you very much.

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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 back-and-forth...

PS:    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 very good!

PS:    Were they all right?

BD:    Yes!  Yes, very good.  You gave very interesting responses, and I got a lot of good material.  There’ll be no problem 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 sluggish tonight.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, do you make sure you’re by the air conditioner?

PS:    I couldn’t work with an air conditioner, no, no.

BD:    Then do you make sure that you compose only in the winter?

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]

BD:    Well, I’m not looking for witty; I’m looking for intelligent and observational, and that has come through.

PS:    [Sounding genuinely pleased]  All right, fine.

Born in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1929, Sculthorpe was educated at 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 important 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 17, 1994.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two months later and again in 1999.  This transcription was 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.

Award - winning 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 like 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.