Composer  Carl  Vine

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Carl Vine (born 8 October 1954 in Perth, Western Australia), is an Australian composer of contemporary classical music. From 1975 he has worked as a freelance pianist and composer with a variety of theatre and dance companies, and ensembles. Vine's catalogue (as of 2019) includes eight symphonies, twelve concertos, six string quartets and a string quintet, music for film, television and theater, electronic music and numerous chamber works. Since 2000 he has been the Artistic Director of Musica Viva Australia. In 2005 he was awarded the Don Banks Music Award, the highest accolade the Australia Council for the Arts can confer on a musician. In the 2014 Queen's Birthday Honours List, Vine was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), "for distinguished service to the performing arts as a composer, conductor, academic and artistic director, and to the support and mentoring of emerging performers."

Vine played the cornet from the age of 5, and took up the piano when he was 10. A teenage fascination with the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen inspired a period of Modernism, which he explored until the mid-1980s. He studied physics, then composition at the University of Western Australia (now the UWA Conservatorium of Music), before moving to Sydney in 1975, where he worked as a freelance pianist and composer with a variety of theater and dance companies, and ensembles.


[Part of the Piano Sonata #1]

Vine first came to prominence in Australia as a composer of music for dance, with 25 dance scores to his credit. In 1979 he co-founded the contemporary music ensemble "Flederman", which presented many of Vine's own works. From 1980 to 1982 he lectured in electronic music composition at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane.

Although primarily a composer of modern classical music, he has undertaken tasks as diverse as arranging the Australian National Anthem, and writing music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony.

Since 2000, Vine has been the Artistic Director of Musica Viva Australia, the world's largest chamber music presenter. Since 2006, he has also been the Artistic Director of the Huntington Estate Music Festival.

Vine is based in Sydney, where he works as a freelance composer. His trombone concerto Five Hallucinations was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 2016. [An article about this work appears at the bottom of this webpage.]

In November of 1988, composer Carl Vine was in Chicago as part of the tour by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which included his Symphony #2.  I had the very good fortune to be able to arrange a conversation, and here is what was said at that time . . . . .

vine Bruce Duffie:   Tell me a little bit about your Symphony #2, which is being done on this tour with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Carl Vine:   It was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to be played by a number of Australia’s orchestras, who are all under the umbrella of the ABC.  It was premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and then played by several others, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is now the last of Australia’s orchestra to play the work.  I might say they are the best interpreters of the work, and under Stuart Challender it’s achieving a new life.

BD:   How are the American audiences receiving it?

CV:   I’ve seen two performances
one in Orange County, Los Angeles, which was very well received indeed, and afterwards people were being very kind and enthusiastic; and in Las Vegas as well, the reception was marvelous.  It’s been used as an opener to the program, which is always a hard spot for a new work to fit, in that you’re warming up the audience.  A piece that they don’t know is quite a challenge for the first work in the concert to grab an audience, but so far it has been working.

BD:   Do the American audience react differently from the Australian audiences?

CV:   It’s hard to tell.  I’ve only seen it performed once in Australia.  It’s been performed about six times but I only managed to catch one of those, and that was a very warm response from a Saturday afternoon audience
which is not the same as an 8 PM week night audience.  And the recordings I’ve heard from some of the other performances are very gratifying.

BD:   What do you expect of an audience that comes to hear a new work of yours?

CV:   It’s part of my compositional philosophy that it’s my job to give people something that they didn’t already have.  I don’t wish to assault people, and I don’t wish to particularly confront them.  I want to give them something, so, in a way, without thinking of a specific audience, I write music that appeals to me.  It’s the sort of music I would want to hear if I were going to a concert.  I want people to feel that I have worked for them, and that I have done something for them to the best of my abilities.  Hopefully, they will respond in that manner.

BD:   You get commissions all the time, so how do you decide if you’ll accept a commission, or put it off, or even decline it?

CV:   Frequently, I don’t have the option of not accepting.  It’s a question of paying the rent!  The important thing in a commission, for me, is that it is something I haven’t done before, or in a manner that I haven’t worked before.  My experience with commissions has been that commissioning bodies are generally very open, and it’s very rarely that I’ve had any sort of guideline beyond a duration and an instrumentation.  In general, if there is a more rigid limitation, it’s working with the dance, or the theater, when obviously the pre-requisites are rather more strenuous.  Given then a free run with a certain duration, a certain orchestra, or band, if I can’t find something to say then I should give up.

BD:   The ideas always come?

CV:   Yes.  I met Vincent Persichetti in New York many years ago, and I said I was writing an orchestral work
which was, without doubt, my firstbut I didn’t know where to begin.  He looked at me, and then said, What about E-flat?  The answer is glib, but on the other hand, how astute.  If you have anything to say, then all you have to do is put the pen to the paper and work on it, and something has to come out.  If it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong job.

BD:   When you’re putting the pen to the paper, are you controlling that pen, or does that pen really control your hand?

CV:   I always work at a fairly heated level, and the difficult thing is getting to that level.  It’s almost working into a trance state, and this might take a week, or it might take six months.  When the trance state takes over, then the pen seems to go itself, and in a way, I let go to whatever forces make up creativity.  I have no idea what they are, but they do exist.  I’ve felt them.  To begin with, you’re working with known technicalities, the logistics of writing either instrumental or electronic or what your own personal parameters of writing are.  When you get those all together, then it becomes a juggling act.  Let’s say, with orchestration you might want to put a chord in across the orchestra, but you’ve got individual lines running through.  All of these become a massive chess board, and when it starts rolling, the processes tend to meld and merge, and something else takes over.

BD:   Are you ever surprised where it goes, and where it lands?

CV:   Yes, frequently.  The other curious thing is that the first bar
or the first measure, as you say over here in the U.S.determines the last.  There is a continuum throughout, and at least one piece I’ve written this year, I finished and looked back and thought, Gee, the first measure’s wrong!  The piece didn’t finish up where I thought it was going to.  It should have taken a different path, but to take that different path, I would have to start from the top and work through the whole thing again.

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise a score?

vine CV:   Always, yes.  This Second Symphony that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is doing, is probably the least revised of my work.  I’ve altered a little bit of the orchestration, and I’m working, in fact, with Stuart Challender, the conductor.  But frequently I will have to chop a few bars, or re-orchestrate, and chop and change.  It gives the publisher nightmares, because there are then sets of parts floating around that aren’t fully corrected, but it has to happen.

BD:   But at some point, you’ve got to just let it go and say it’s done.

CV:   Oh, always, yes.  The most I’ve done is about three rewrites and, as I said, it will normally be a question of rebalancing, perhaps adding a few hairpins [crescendo and decrescendo (or diminuendo) markings as shown at right] that weren’t there before, and occasionally the odd cut, but nothing more than that.  If it’s a more substantive change, something more elemental, then I won’t do it.  I’ll simply scrap the piece and start another.

BD:   [Being the optimist]  I hope that doesn’t happen too often.

CV:   No, it doesn
t.  I’ve two pieces that I’ve rejected in what I consider my mature careerwhich is about the last eight yearsand those two pieces I do not wish performed.  That amounts to a withdrawal.  So, one day I’ll rewrite those pieces in a way, but I won’t start again.

BD:   What happens when some orchestras who have those parts, actually perform them against your wishes?

CV:   Well, that’s difficult, but that has happened.  If it’s the commissioning body, then they have a right to do that against my will.  Anybody else, they just don’t get the parts!  [Laughs]  I could mention the works, but I shall not!

BD:   What if someone hears a broadcast, and meticulously takes it down via dictation?

CV:   Then they hear from my copyright solicitor!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you are working on music, even before you’ve gotten to the end of the piece, how do you know what you’re putting down is the correct thing?

CV:   If the higher forces of which I spoke have come into operation, then I, in a way, relegate that authority to something else.  I always have a clear idea at the beginning of the overall shape of the work, and where it is going to end.  Normally, it’s very rare that the automatic process has overreached those boundaries, or distorted them.  I’ll generally find, often to my astonishment, that, in fact, the automatic processes land exactly where they should within the terms of the overall structure.  That normally happens about half-way through the work, or two-thirds of the way through the work, and it seems to have a momentum of its own.  But by that time, all of the preconceptions that I’ve had have become part of the machinery, and the machinery then clanks away.  I hope it continues, but it will normally finish at the end point.

vine BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?

CV:   Overall, yes.  For about nine years I had my own ensemble, and wrote about eight works for it.  Then, as a performer in that ensemble, I could always assure that the performance was as I wished.  In fact, that was the case.

BD:   Are you, as either performer or conductor, the ideal interpreter of your music?

CV:   As performer, perhaps.  With either soloists or ensembles that I have not worked with in rehearsal, I’m astounded with what they make of the music, and sometimes I am greatly disappointed.  But then, if I sit back and listen to what they’ve done, it becomes an acceptable interpretation of what I’ve written.  In general, I come across problems where people try to interpret my music.  The music that I’m writing at the moment does not require much interpretation.

BD:   Just play the notes?

CV:   Just play the notes!  The form of expression that one conductor said to me was,
Ah, this is Mozart!  I said, Yes, you’re absolutely right.  It hadn’t occurred to me, but it was a Mozartian type of dramatic language where you cannot stress, you cannot strain the music.  It must just sit, and the notes, the rhythms, the complexes will speak for themselves.

BD:   Let me ask the big question, then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

CV:   [Without any hesitation]  It is communication.  It is the deepest form of communication, so deep that I don’t think anyone should dare say what it’s about.  But I believe it goes back to ritual, it goes back to religion, it goes back to tribal dance.  There is something, a communality, a common experience of the human condition that is part of music, and that’s all music of any worth in any form.

BD:   Are you part of a lineage of composers?

CV:   I don’t know.  I don’t even know if I have antecedents.  I have people whose work I respect, and have used as inspiration, but I wouldn’t care to say what my lineage is, particularly.

BD:   In other words, they inspire you, but they don’t show up in your music?

CV:   Not particularly.  I think Stravinsky pops up now and then in my music.  One of my role models for a while was Elliott Carter, but only in very obvious terms does his philosophy show up in my music.  John Cage was an influence for a while, as was Steve Reich, but I think their influence audibly is minimal, or at most seminal.  I always stand back from saying it’s about this or it’s like that.  Someone asked me the other day what sort of stuff do I write, and I said,
A cross between Elliott Carter and Terry Reilly.  The reason I said that is that there is no common ground.

BD:   Right, they’re two extremes.

CV:   Yes, they’re two extremes, and that’s exactly where I am.  Somewhere there is the intricacy and rhythmic involvement of Carter, but also there is a sense of the continuum of harmonic stability of Terry Reilly.  There are probably musicologists out there who could make a much more sensible statement, but I’m not going to.

BD:   You’re involved in the process of it all the time, so you don’t need to pigeonhole it for history.

CV:   [Laughs]  The only times I have made such a statement I have been wrong, ultimately.  Probably composers in general, and certainly I shouldn’t talk about my own music because its effect, its purpose, its reason, is ultimately not going to be what I thought it was, or what I planned it to be.

BD:   When you’re given an assignment to write a piece of a certain length, you know at the beginning it will have to run a certain time.  Is there any chance your main idea will run too long or too short?

CV:   Always.  I’ve had both experiences in the last twelve months, where the notion that I began with couldn’t sustain the desired length, and that’s tough.  It just has to finish.

BD:   You don’t save that idea for a smaller piece?

CV:   It depends.  If I have enough time, sure I’ll do that.  But in general, the ideas I have a very amorphous to begin with, and only begin to take shape during the process of writing.  I’m not like Stravinsky, who would write down notes and memos and little ideas that would later be incorporated into other work.  I tend to work on each piece, and if an idea isn’t going through, then I’ll mutate it into a new idea, and make it fit in a way.

BD:   Do you work just on one piece at a time, or do you have a couple going?

CV:   I’ve tried working on two at once.  The effect was disastrous for both pieces.  I’m a pretty linear worker.  I’m not a linear thinker, but I’m a linear worker.

BD:   How do you resolve that kind of conflict?

CV:   That comes down to the whole question of polyphony versus melody, so the lateral-ness comes in that sort of process.  I need to know where the music has come from, and where it’s going to.  When I have tried to work on two pieces at once, the ideas don’t get confused, but I found that I simply had to stop one, do a little bit of that other one, or finish one in the middle, and then go back to it.  But the process of going back is like starting again, so that is not for me.

BD:   Better to work on one and get it done?

CV:   Yes, get it out of the way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you a full-time composer, or are you also a professional performer, and do you also teach?

CV:   I have been performing professionally for about nine years, almost exclusively with my music group, which is about to fold, in fact.  Other than that, I’ve only been writing.

vine BD:   Are you folding the group because it’s come to the end of its life, or is it falling apart?

CV:   It has come to the end of its life, and I’ve come to the end of my life as a pianist.  Every time I get together to perform, it’s like a major heart attack regarding the process of learning to play the piano again each time.  I’m getting too old for it.  I’m a good pianist, not a great pianist.  I’m a much better composer, and I should concentrate on that.  It’s nice to have a rest from composing, and playing the piano was such a relaxation, but it was a very tense sort of relaxation.

BD:   Are you a great composer?

CV:   No!  Great composers don’t live, they’re only dead!  [Both laugh]  That isn’t a game I want to get involved with at all.  I think I’m a good composer, and my life aim is to be a better composer.

BD:   What are some of the strains that contribute to making a piece of music great?

CV:   The term ‘great’ I don’t know.  ‘Good’ I can refer to.  For me, it has to have a fascinating surface.  The surface must, not at all times but most of the time, grip your ear and take it somewhere it hasn’t been before.  If that’s all it had, then it would be maybe Montovani, or at best Respighi.  It must also have substance within the surface.  There must be enough material there that isn’t immediately detectable, so that on subsequent listenings you can discover more.  You can discover in the subterranean depths of the music that there are messages going on that you’re not aware of on the surface, but they have to be there.  There has to be a depth to it as well.

BD:   Is that something you can write into a piece, or must it just be there?

CV:   It’s something you can hope for.  Then, if it’s a work that I’ve written, I need about six months to distance myself from it.  After that, I can become a member of the audience, and listen to it and see if it has enough superficial landmarks, and then what else does it do to me?  Is there substance there as well?  If it has both of those in sufficient quantities, then I’ll say it’s decent, and I can live with that.

BD:   In music, where should be the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

CV:   It’s something that changes all the time.  In the
60s, the vogue was to have music of almost totally intellectual value, with minimal pleasing content.  The work was aggressive and confronting, and if you weren’t prepared to put in the time, that’s tough.  You just didn’t get anything out of it.  In the world now, there’s simply too much happening to allow yourself that luxury.  You have to get out to people and give them something straight away.  You’ve got to grip them.  You’ve got to say, Hey, listen, it’s not that bad.  We have something to talk about.  You have a responsibility to audiences these days to really communicate as quickly and as effectively as you can, so there must be a degree of entertainment value there.  It can’t afford to overtake the deeper intellectual forces, but it has to be there.  First of all, you’ve got to say, Look, there’s something going on.

BD:   Grab the audience...

CV:   ...yes, and then take them somewhere.  You can’t just say,
“We’re going on a journey, and leave them standing on the platform, and whip off without them.  You’ve got to encourage them on board, and then say, Whether you know it or not now, we’re going somewhere.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Isn
t music completely voluntary?  Dont the people have to come with you of their volition?

CV:   Oh, of course, yes, and that is now the reaction to the approach of the
60s, and some of the 70s, where it was a very Ivory Tower approach, saying, We know the answers; we are the new music; if you’re prepared to put in the effort, then you’re terribly lucky!  [Both laugh]  I don’t think that arrogance is part of the 80s, and I don’t think the 80s is going to tolerate that.

BD:   Look ahead to the
90s.  Where is music going?

CV:   I don’t know.  It has to go with the society, so where’s the world going at the
90s?  I hope and feel that the world is heading to more synthesis; to more putting together of ideas and people.  If that happens, then the same thing is going to happen in the music of the 90s.  Perhaps there will be a more genuine fusion of ethnic backgrounds in music, and perhaps less distinction between the various forms of art music around.  Already we’re seeing that people, who were regarded as being terribly old fashioned as composers five years ago, are perhaps slightly more in vogue now.  There are all sorts of curious things that are going on, so I wouldn’t like to say.  Music has to keep going, that’s all.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I’d like to talk a little bit musical life in Australia.  Are you also aware of what’s going on in America?

CV:   In parts.  It’s quite hard to discover, but yes.

BD:   From what you have been able to observe, what are the similarities and differences between the two countries music-wise?

CV:   The main dissimilarity is that Australia is a much younger country, and it’s a much smaller country.  There’s only about 17 million people in Australia, which means you can’t have the breadth of musical life that there is in America.  You can’t have the depth of the various schools in America, or the father figures that you have here.  Australia is getting to the position the States was in maybe in the
40s, and it’s reaching there now.  We’re getting a few established composers of note who are becoming recognized, so we’re just the position that you were with, say, Henry Cowell, post Charles Ives, and that period in the 30s and 40s.  People are finally saying that there is good music being written in Australia of serious consequence.  [See my interviews with Malcolm Williamson, and Peter Sculthorpe.]  So in the next ten years, Australia is going to catch up, and we’re in the position now of having maybe two thousand people who call themselves composers in Australia, of which two hundred are performed on some sort of regular basis.

BD:   Is that too many?

CV:   That is possible.  In the long-term it will have been too many, but in the short-term it’s essential that there is as much public profile to this form of activity as possible.  It is partially an artificial environment created by government funding, but without that artificial environment, there would be no hope of catching up with the rest of the world.  With that environment I think we can do it in about ten years.

vine BD:   Do you really want to catch up, or do you want to just have the Australian profile remain and continue to forge your own lineage that way?

CV:   It’s forging the profile.  At the moment there is none, or it’s only germinal.  There is almost no local profile, and there is minimal international profile.

BD:   Are you setting up America or Europe as a standard you have to catch up to?

CV:   No, no, no, not as a standard, but to use commercial terms we have to become part of the world market.  I believe that some of the music coming out of Australia is as fine as any anywhere, but we don’t have the father-figures. We don’t have the ready reckoner that you have in America.  You (in America or Europe) can immediately pinpoint ten people and say that it refers her or him.  We’re just getting to that stage now of having sufficient landmarks to say that we exist as a country that produces music.

BD:   [When this interview was done in 1988, there were only a couple of commercially-released recordings of his music.  Now, more than thirty years later, of course, there are several.]  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been released thus far of your music?

CV:   Yes, they’re marvelous.  They’re done by my own group, so they’re splendid.  [Both laugh]  There are many recordings made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation of much of my music, but they very rarely become commercially released.  They tend to stay in-house, and they’re broadcast around Australia on the national FM band.  But the ABC tends to produce commercial discs very rarely.

BD:   So then, on occasion an old piece of yours will pop up?

CV:   On the air, yes, but not in the shops.  Part of this profile problem in Australia is that there isn’t actually a native operating publishing house in Australia.  My publisher is in England, and most of the published composers in Australia have either British or European publishers.

BD:   That’s half a world away!

CV:   Yes!  But there is nobody interested in Australia; nobody who can realize any sort of potential out of it.  Similarly, there are no record houses in Australia that are recording.

BD:   Then is this kind of tour with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra trying to bring awareness more than anything else?

CV:   I don’t know if that’s its intended purpose, but I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t.  People are going to be in for a big surprise to realize there is an orchestra of this stature in Australia.  There’s also the Australia Ensemble from Sydney, which is touring the States straight after this orchestra, and they really are splendid musicians.  A lot of people are going to be pleasantly surprised.  But that sort of awareness has to happen now, because we have the raw talent.  Many of the performers have been working, or studied at Juilliard, or have been playing in the Berlin Philharmonic.  We also have the composers.  We’ve just got to tell people about it now.

BD:   Is there competition amongst the Australian composers?

CV:   There is
sometimes healthily, sometimes not.  It’s the same as any thriving system.  Where people are going to compete, there is always an assumed pecking order.  I don’t know if there is or not, but if anybody does anything, it is ultimately for the good of all.  However, it’s very hard to make people realize that.  [Laughs]

BD:   [With a bit of skepticism]  I can’t imagine another composer being happy that you are on the tour.

CV:   Well, some of them are!  I know two people, who I speak to regularly, who are pleased, but probably the rest are not.  But it’s no different anywhere.  It’s just unfortunate that while it’s such a germinal small scene in Australia, the same pecking goes on as it does everywhere else.

BD:   Is there the philosophy in Australia, like there is in Canada, that on every program there will be something by an Australian composer?

CV:   That is a stated governmental support policy.  Some people manage to live up to it, and some don’t.  There is a minimal Australian content required on the radio, which at the moment is 5%, can you believe!  We’re trying to raise that to about 20%.  We figure that’s a reasonable level, but at the moment it’s stands between 3% and 5%.  The level of Australian performance in broadcast is already at 10%, but that generally applies to pop and rock music, which is not hard to fulfill because there are now some outstanding rock bands in Australia on the world scene.

BD:   Do you feel that rock is music?

CV:   Yes, sure.  [Laughs]  I will not go into a qualitative argument, but it is certainly music of a sort.  I actually am a great student of rock music production.  Some of the superfice [surface, or outer area] that they put on rock music production is absolutely stunning, and so is the technology.  The minds they have working in recording studios are incredible these days.  The content is frequently close to nil, but that’s okay.  I like listening to the surface, for the surface is far more interesting than what’s going on underneath.

BD:   Should the Australian concert music community try to get the people who go to rock concerts into the symphonic concert hall?

CV:   With the rise of what I see as a new language in classical contemporary music, a lot of people who enjoy rock are going to be pleasantly surprised in the concert hall.  Perhaps it’s the responsibility of concert programmers to incorporate more modern music.  The opera companies, for instance, are discovering that their audiences are literally dying.  They simply aren’t getting younger people into the box office, and it is possible, it’s viable, and it’s got happen.

vine BD:   Have you written some vocal music?

CV:   Very little.  I am writing a choral work next year.  Everybody in Australia seems to be writing an opera at the moment, so I’m not going to do that until the phase is over.  [Laughs]  I’ll wait until the fad goes, and then I might think about it.

BD:   You’ll be a post-faddist!

CV:   Yes, with any luck.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you want to wait and have the field more to yourself in whatever kind of music you’re doing?

CV:   No, not really.  I’ve almost never planned what I’m going to do next, except if I have done it before, in which case I generally won’t do it.

BD:   You don’t even want to repeat something that’s good?

CV:   No!  Good Lord, that’s the worst thing to repeat!  That’s the worst possible course of action!  I’ve always been terribly fortunate in that my path seems to have always gone somewhere new.  I’ve never had to try to force anything.  I was asked to write a first symphony two years ago, when I’d written some theatrical work with orchestra.  That was my first symphonic work, and it was quite a hurdle.  Having done that, the Second Symphony just fell out of a tree somewhere.  It just landed on me, and the ABC
I don’t know how, God bless themcame up with my name as a commissionee.  That has now opened up more avenues.  I’ve been doing a lot of chamber music work, and that seems to be going in different directions as well.

BD:   Most of your work is on commission.  Do you sometimes sit down and write a piece just because you have to write it?

CV:   I don’t have time.  [Laughs]  I am fortunate enough to have commissions that have a very broad base, then anything that I would want to sit down and do on my own I can do anyway within the terms of existing commissions.  I’ve never been stuck for an idea.  I’ve never had to sit down and say,
Damn, I have this commission, and I’ve got nothing to say!  That has not happened yet, so I can’t complain.

BD:   Is it possible that audiences, or critics, or historians, will read something into your music that really isn’t there?  Might they try to put a political cast to it, or an environmental cast, or something that is just far out of line?

CV:   Sure, but that’s already been done!  [Laughs]  But that’s okay.  If they can justify it, then in some respects perhaps it was there.  I always get a bit amused with people ripping Beethoven to shreds, and finding all sorts of ulterior motives.  I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that is except, perhaps, to keep musicologists in their line of work!  [Both laugh]  But if there is a valid thesis to be made there, then that’s perfectly supportable.  I tend to regard my music as not something that’s static.  As I’ve said, I relegate part of the responsibility to a greater force that tends to take over.  In that case, I can’t know what’s in the music.  I hope that if I write music of sufficient substance, then there has to be stuff in there that I didn’t plan, whether it’s serendipity, or one of a number of gods, or if it’s sheer intuition I don
t know.  If Beethoven planned everything he did in all of his symphonies, then he’s a far greater man than I could ever hope to meet.  I don’t think the human mind is capable of that on a conscious level, so he had to be working at a subconscious level.  He’s just extremely lucky to have such a rich sub-conscious.

BD:   Is composing fun?

CV:   It can be.  The best part is putting the last notes on the last page.  Then it’s always fun.  The middle bit, when ideas perhaps are running out, and the deadline is getting close, that is hell, and it’s hell for people round me.  I become totally self-obsessed, single-minded, and quite impossible.  But when you finish, it’s great fun.

BD:   Then do you immediately go onto the next piece, or do you take a little breather?

CV:   I’ve got to take a breather, sometimes as much as six months.  This year I wrote the Second Symphony of twenty minutes, a major orchestral ballet of thirty minutes, and a chamber music work of twelve minutes one after the other without any break at all.  I’m now just finishing a five-month holiday.

BD:   Then you’ll be back at your desk?

CV:   Then I’ll be back, yes.

BD:   Good.  Thank you very much for speaking with me.

CV:   Thank you, Bruce.


Trombone concertos are relative rarities, so it’s not surprising that Michael Mulcahy, one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s three masters of the instrument, has been heard only twice as a soloist since he began his CSO tenure in 1989. [Note: After being appointed to the CSO by Sir Georg Solti, his first solo appearance was in music of Elliott Carter, led by Pierre Boulez, and subsequent to the Vine Concerto, he would be part of the Low Brass Concerto of Jennifer Higdon.]  His appearance in 2000 under then-music director Daniel Barenboim in Leopold Mozart’s Concerto for Alto Trombone (1756) was so successful, however, that CSO artistic leaders offered to commission a concerto especially for Mulcahy.

The Australian trombonist was, of course, thrilled. What has turned into a 16-year process will culminate Oct. 6-8 when Mulcahy takes the Orchestra Hall stage as soloist in the world premiere of Australian composer Carl Vine’s Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra. Once the offer was made, Mulcahy faced a big choice: Which composer should he select for the project? “Martha Gilmer, our previous artistic administrator, was fantastic in supporting me through that process,” he said, “and I have to say that I was less fantastic, because I had trouble being decisive.” He slowly whittled the list of possibilities down to two or three finalists, and he just couldn’t zero in on one. “It was a little bit like being love with more than one person,” he said. “It’s just too complicated.”

mulcahy Fortunately for Mulcahy, the CSO’s commitment to the commission never wavered. In the end, with the approval of Riccardo Muti, who became music director in 2010, the trombonist picked Carl Vine, one of the best-known figures on the Australian classical-music scene. In addition to his sizeable output of compositions, including seven symphonies and 11 previous concertos, Vine also serves as the artistic director of Musica Viva, a chamber-music presenter in Australia. In the United States, Vine is best known for his keyboard music, such as his Piano Sonata No. 1, which was showcased at the inaugural Ivo Pogorelich International Solo Piano Competition in 1993. Vine describes Elliott Carter as his “most influential compositional force,” but he admires the esteemed American modernist’s works before 1970, after which he believes they became to “too dense and intellectual.”

The trombonist selected Vine in part because the composer knew his playing, and because Mulcahy thought that Vine would be able to give him a genuinely expressive “voice.” “I didn’t want a trombone concerto to show what the trombone as an instrument could so much, like what you might call a showpiece for the trombone,” Mulcahy said. “I wanted specifically a work that had a big dramatic impact.” In addition, he’s a big fan of Vine’s Love Song (1985), a solo work for trombone and CD accompaniment. “It’s really one of the most beautiful pieces you could hear for any instrument,” said Mulcahy, who recorded it as part of an album of solo and chamber trombone works titled “Full Circle.”

For Vine, whose orchestral works are primarily performed in Australia, the chance to write this work, which evolved into a co-commission with the Sydney Symphony, is a fulfillment of what he called a “very significant dream.” “Obviously, the Chicago Symphony is the ideal for composers everywhere — one of the very finest orchestras in the world,” he said. “When Michael Mulcahy first asked me, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. It’s incredibly exciting. The downside was that I had this immense pressure to write a terrific piece of music.”

Vine, who studied physics and mathematics at the University of Western Australia before changing his major to music, has always been interested in science. Now 61, since the age of 40 or so, he has become increasingly interested in the function of our bodies and minds, voraciously reading or watching whatever he could find on the subject. About four years ago, someone recommended that he read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a book by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, which Mulcahy found to be an “eye-opener.” “That’s when I started my distant love affair with Sacks,” he said.

In February 2015, Sacks announced in a New York Times op-ed piece that he had terminal cancer, a development that spurred Vine to return to the neurologist’s book Hallucinations. As he began re-reading it, phrases popped out at him like “hexagons in pink,” and he wondered if they wouldn’t make ideal titles for sections of the concerto. After all, Mulcahy had wanted the concerto to have a literary allusion, and this was a way to do just that. But Vine knew it wouldn’t be an easy sell.

As Mulcahy recalls it, Vine was initially thinking of the concerto as series of lieder, or art songs for trombone and orchestra, and the trombonist loved that idea. So he admits he was taken aback when the composer talked about his Sacks inspiration and proposed a piece that would be titled Five Hallucinations for Trombone and Orchestra. “I slept on that idea,” Mulcahy said, “and those people close to me encouraged me to be open to following Carl’s muse, because he has to create the concerto and if he is feeling strongly about something, that’s a probably a good direction to follow.”

In April 2015, Vine started writing the work and finished a year later, after false starts and interruptions along the way, with the most intense writing from December through March. The composer, who started on trumpet at age 5 and has had a long familiarity with brass instruments, did have to consult with Mulcahy on just how much a soloist can physically endure during a demanding work like Five Hallucinations. “Of course, it’s a wonderful thing that there is very little that he is not capable of,” Vine said of the trombonist. “But I did actually get to the limit of what he could physically achieve, and I had to pull it back a little bit.”

The resulting work has an almost theatrical or cinematic feel and a huge expressive range. As the title suggests, the concerto is divided into five sections or “hallucinations”: “I smell the unicorn,” “The lemonade speaks,” “Mama wants some cookies,” “The doppelgänger” and “Hexagons in pink.” Each has its own distinctive personality. “It’s almost like one actor playing five characters in a play,” Mulcahy said. Some of the sections are highly dramatic, others more playful. “And the doppelgänger movement, where I’m being followed around by the orchestra, is quite sinister and quite dark,” he said.

In terms of musical language, Vine describes Hallucinations as a fresh, modern piece with a “very firm harmonic base” — not atonal in any way. He didn’t want a sound that was too saccharine or too eager to please. “But I also didn’t want a piece that had a language, particularly harmonically, that was so hostile to the audience that they would find it difficult to get into,” he said. In preparing to write his concerto, Vine listened carefully to works such as Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1993, and he discovered similarities between their styles. Rouse never strays too far from tonality, and much of his music is marked by extremes in mood and volume, with the composer relishing in loud, clamorous moments. “I think it sounds like me,” Vine said of his new concerto. “But if you wanted to give a parallel, it’s bit like Christopher Rouse.”

Leading the concerto’s premiere will be up-and-coming guest conductor James Gaffigan, known for his affinity with new music. “I’m pretty excited to have him working on this,” Mulcahy said, “because he is a younger, fresher voice, and I feel that he’s very well-equipped to manage launching this thing. This a good piece for a new generation conductor to get their hands dirty with.”

Mulcahy has big hopes that this concerto will have a long life after its premieres in Chicago and Sydney; already, the San Bernardino (Calif.) Symphony has scheduled it for a concert on June 30, with him as the soloist. Mulcahy is confident there will be more such concerts down the road, with the work’s connection to Oliver Sacks giving it a boost. “There’s a story line there,” he said, “that’s maybe a little more interesting than just another new piece that is being commissioned and premiered by an orchestra.”

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.

--  Text from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Website [with addition]; photo ©Todd Rosenberg (2014)  
--  Links in this box, like those above on this webpage, refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 1, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB that evening, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.