Post by Dick Letts, August 12th, 2014
Peter Sculthorpe has died. The stories are coming out.
Accounts of his life and work and his importance to Australian music and culture are everywhere in the media. He set out to create an Australian musical voice and so far, is the composer to have most clearly achieved that. But it is interesting that despite all, it is more Sculthorpe’s voice than Australia’s.
For it to be Australia’s voice, it would have been necessary for a number of composers to adapt Sculthorpe’s idiom – for there to be a Sculthorpe “school”, perhaps. To my ears, that has not happened. The conditions were there: the high profile of the music, the clarity of the style and the fact that Sculthorpe was the teacher of many composers who subsequently became known as among our best. The fact that their music does not sound like the music of their teacher is testimony to something quite important about Sculthorpe’s being, and his imprint on our culture.
The stories are coming out. I have a small personal story of consequence mainly to me but it does speak to that quality in Peter.
I got into music professionally in a very peculiar way and it led me to jazz. I became a jazz pianist and band leader of some modest repute. I had qualified as an optometrist (don’t ask), was running a tiny practice and was bored silly. Bored silly by that but not by jazz. I thought of little else although I continued classical lessons with Nancy Salas, Marta Zalan then Igor Hmelnitsky. I decided to get out of optometry and to throw in my lot with music. Closed the practice and made myself an honest man (for the times) by enrolling in music at Sydney University.
Jazz was eventually frustrating inasmuch as my improvising went into a loop, didn’t get better. I thought to myself: what I need to do is learn to compose. In composing, you have time to sit and think about your work, its possibilities, where it might go, what needs to be fixed. It doesn’t depend entirely on the musical idea you have in the moment and put out into the world with no hope of getting it back. At university, I could get training as a composer.
For me, Sydney University didn’t deliver. I decided to study overseas – in the USA. In the half year between leaving Sydney U and, according to the plan, leaving the country, I studied with Peter Sculthorpe privately.
These were the days when, to learn to write music at Sydney U, you started with species counterpoint and worked through three years of stultifying exercises guaranteed to kill any real creative fervour stone cold dead. Then, if there was still a pulse, you might want to write your own music. This may have worked for some, but I was used to the spontaneity of jazz. It wasn’t really helpful to me.
None of that with Sculthorpe. We started with what I wanted to write, warts and all and he took it from there. In truth, in my case, he really did not do very much actual teaching. And it was never about what he would write as an improvement on what I had written – which is much more the norm in composition teaching. But he did a lot of encouraging.
What I wrote was the most ambitious and worked through thing I had ever attempted. That doesn’t mean it was very good but it did get me into the University of California at Berkeley. While this is one of the top music schools in the USA, after three years there, that music I had composed with Peter’s guidance and encouragement was still the best thing I had written. I have not composed since.
This is small loss to the world of music. I don’t think I would have been much of a composer. But I do wonder what I would have achieved if I had continued to work with Peter, the great encourager.
We don’t have a Sculthorpe school. Internationally, some composers’ fame has been boosted by their reputation as leader of a group of composers whose music bears a likeness. With our thirst for an Australian musical identity, the situation here was ripe for such a grouping – an Australian school. Peter would have been the obvious focal point.
There are notable Australian composers who speak of Peter’s great influence upon them but their music is distinctively their own. Peter’s fame comes from his music but his contribution goes quietly beyond that. He helped composers in the next generations to be their unique best selves.
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