‘John Sangster first read The Hobbit in 1958; The Lord of the Rings followed close behind. These books had a profound effect on his imagination.’
Between 2001 and 2003, world cinema was dominated by the three blockbuster films based on the much-loved trilogy which together make up The Lord of the Rings, originally published in England in the mid-1950s. The books were written by JRR Tolkien following the huge success of his earlier work, The Hobbit (1937), but it’s not the books about which I wish to write, nor the wonderful film scores by Canadian composer Howard Shore. I want to tell you a little something about Australian composer and multi-instrumentalist John Sangster who, in the mid-1970s – more than 25 years before the films were made – wrote and recorded his own epic musical interpretation of Tolkien’s fantastical world.
John Sangster was born in Melbourne in 1928, discovered jazz in his teens, taught himself to play the cornet and trombone and had soon formed his own band. He started being noticed at the age of 18 when he played at the inaugural Australian Jazz Convention in 1946 – and by the way, the Australian Jazz Convention has the distinction of being the longest running convention of its kind in the world. When his hot cornet playing wowed audiences at the 1948 Convention, it was clear the young man was going to make a mark on the Australian jazz scene. He not only played a red-hot cornet, but also drums and keyboards and by the mid-1950s he’d also taken up the vibraphone. In 1950, pioneering jazzman Graeme Bell invited him to join his band and over the next few years with Bell, he toured Europe, the United Kingdom, Asia and Australia; so he played a part in Bell’s development of a distinctive Australian jazz sound.
Moving to Sydney in the late 1950s, Sangster worked with a who’s who of the Australian and international jazz scene. He’d also become interested in more modern expressions of jazz, experimenting widely with collective improvisations. He learned rock drumming during his stint in the house band for the controversial musical Hair; and explored the fusion movement, deciding to incorporate elements of jazz, classical and rock into his work. He was fascinated with non-Western musical traditions. In fact, he was open to everything. By the late 1960s, John Sangster was composing for a range of different projects. He wrote pieces for specific musicians, something he did all his life, but he also went beyond jazz, creating music for commercials, television, films, animated features, and documentaries. And he was always keen to imbue his works with a real Australian flavour. In his book Black Roots White Flowers: a history of jazz in Australia (1979, rev 1987), music historian Andrew Bisset wrote that Sangster composed many pieces directly inspired by the Australian bush, aiming to create an ‘Australian style’ of contemporary jazz while also celebrating his love of traditional jazz idioms and embracing more avant-garde forms of music. For example, his 1971 recording Australia and All That Jazz was commissioned by the Australian Museum to accompany a group of nature documentaries. It’s a beautiful album, with sounds from nature incorporated into the scores, but sadly it’s largely ignored these days – possibly because the album title is trite, giving the impression of old-style jazz played by men in boater hats when it’s anything but; and the cover doesn’t even have his name on it. I only hope he was well paid for that commission.
YouTube link to ‘First Light’ from Australia and all that Jazz, 1971
Sangster’s compositional style was to write, as Bisset says, ‘groups of pieces linked by an idea if not a musical theme’, trusting that for listeners the music would connect their thoughts and allow their imaginations to carry them away. And with this thought in mind, we come to arguably his greatest compositions: his 1973 The Hobbit Suite, followed a few years later by three double-album volumes of music for The Lord of the Rings (1975, 1976 and 1977); and then in 1978 his Landscapes of Middle Earth. Sangster first read The Hobbit in 1958; The Lord of the Rings followed close behind. These books had a profound effect on his imagination. In his (perhaps not always entirely reliable) memoir Seeing the Rafters published in 1988, he writes that he waited for someone to put them to music, other than one English composer’s ‘pathetically dreary efforts’ and a Swedish composer whose ‘Tolkien stuff sounded like music for going up and down in lifts to. Let’s get a bit of life into it, I thought, as I waited and waited.’ He wondered:
‘Where’s the Hollywood musical? Where’s the grand opera? Where’s the rock opera, for that matter? Where’s the kiddies’ TV cartoon series? Where’s the bloody ballet? Where’s the four full-length movies? Where’s all the lovely music someone should have written about all this? Nowhere, that’s where.’
Well, what could he do other than write it himself? Bringing together jazz and classical musicians, by the time Landscapes of Middle Earth was recorded in 1978, he’d written 77 individual pieces of music and the total Middle Earth music time added up to a mind-boggling eight hours. The extraordinary world of The Lord of the Rings, along with the poems and songs that are dotted throughout Tolkien’s narrative, spoke very loudly to John Sangster: ‘I kept hearing more’, he said at the time. In the sleeve notes to Volume 1 of The Lord of the Rings, Sangster writes that in no way is the music a literal interpretation of Tolkien’s story. Rather it’s a series of ‘impressionistic sound pictures, to evoke some of the feelings and reactions one might experience on reading the adventure’.
The pieces have appealing titles like ‘Sam the Man’, ‘Phantasmagoria for Moria’, ‘Eleventy-One Today’ and ‘Lullaby in Lorien’. The music ranges from traditional and modern jazz to blues to more ethereal and impressionistic songs (‘Vale Theoden), and there’s an experimental element to some of the pieces as well. For instance, one track ‘The Great Battle’, is a collage of extracts from various other pieces in the suite. The bands are big – more than twenty musicians on the albums, the jazz musicians complemented by first a string quartet and in the later volumes, a whole studio string section. There are electric guitars, synthesisers, vocals, and occasionally various studio effects. The music is rollicking (‘Uncle Gandalf Needs You’), contemplative (‘The Grey Havens’), spooky (‘Shelob’s Lair), eerie (‘Ents and Entwives’), bluesy (‘Three Cheers for Smeagol’, ‘Blues for Boromir’), celebratory (‘Rivendell Rort’), sparkling (‘The O’Goblin Tattoo’), soulful (‘Arwen’s Regret’), hilarious (‘Longbottom Leaf’).
YouTube link to ‘Rivendell’ from The Hobbit Suite (1973; re-released 2002)
Sangster had an extraordinary vision and the singular ability to turn his own vast imaginings of the adventures of the Hobbits, their friends and foes into a rich textured musical landscape. Notably, he referred to these works as his ‘musical autobiography’ because they contained all the different types of music he loved, albeit ‘disguised and distorted’. If you haven’t heard any of his music for the Tolkien books, do yourself a favour and check it out on one of the digital platforms. His Middle Earth music is nothing short of a triumph … and it just may make you look at the works of Tolkien with fresh eyes.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that my family plays a small part in all of this. With the exception of Landscapes of Middle Earth, my father Bob Barnard played trumpet on all albums and my uncle Len Barnard played drums and percussion. He also played stride piano on a couple of pieces, including ‘Longbottom Leaf’. The Barnard brothers worked extensively with the composer right up until his death. When Sangster composed the music for his 1977 album, For Leon Bismarck to celebrate his love for American cornet legend Bix Beiderbecke, he wrote in his book that ‘Bob Barnard does the Bix things of course’. He was a composer always writing for particular individual musicians.
YouTube link to ‘Bixanity’ from For Leon Bismarck (1977, re-released in 2009)
Sangster had, according to saxophonist Don Burrows, ‘a fertile imagination and the unmatched flair for getting the best out of his fellow musicians, all topped off with the Sangster zest for the job in hand – and of course the chortling. John … actually chortles.’ He was certainly a character: brilliant, acerbic, eccentric, funny. A frequent visitor to our home, when he was writing his memoir he told my mother he was busy ‘authing’ – a word he invented, feeling it more accurately represented the role of being an author as opposed to being a composer. Len Barnard had a wonderful way with words and I reproduce for you here some of his observations of his friend and colleague:
‘… a creative composer and a superb vibraharpist … John, a roundish genial man, although no dandiprat or polished dresser, could talk his way into Government House in the morning, and be thrown out of the Drum and Trumpeter in the evening. He holds the dubious record of having been asked to leave the Musicians’ Club when he was the only customer on the premises …’
John Sangster died in 1995 aged 66. In 2002, Len Barnard and pianist Tony Gould released an album of Sangster’s last compositions, written when he knew he was dying. But there was no maudlin sense of regret about his fate and in The Last Will and Testament of John Sangster – the composer’s iconoclasm along with his trademark cheeky sense of fun shine through. Over his life, Sangster released some 25 albums of compositions, many of them double-albums. And they were all distinctive, such as Once Around the Sun (1970) which has been described as ‘orchestrated psychedelic jazz’; the wonderful Uttered Nonsense (1980), inspired by the nonsense works of Edward Lear; and Requiem (For a Loved One) (1980), following the death of his partner Janice, nicknamed Bo Diddley. (As a by the by, Janice was a good friend of my mother’s and often used to babysit my brother and me back in the day.)
John Sangster was a prolific composer and holds a distinctive place in Australian music, Andrew Bisset writing he was unique in that he was the ‘only musician who is equally important to both the traditional and modern schools [of jazz]’. Jazz historian Bruce Johnson has written that Sangster was ‘at the forefront of progressive jazz movements in this country: experimental, free-form, electronic, and fusions’ and that he had ‘the broadest palate’ of any Australian composer/performer. Indeed, John Sangster played a seminal role in a number of major developments in Australian music, and was one of the most remarkable jazz musicians this country has produced. Someone once referred to him as ‘Sango the Great, part-Hobbit, part wizard’. Brilliant and eccentric, he was one of great characters of Australian music.
YouTube link to ‘Gandalf the White’ from The Lord of the Rings Volume I
(This article was originally published on the website Australia Explained: https://australia-explained.com.au)
Loretta Barnard is an author and a reviewer for the Music Trust.
Bisset, Andrew (1979, rev 1987), Black Roots White Flowers: a history of jazz in Australia, ABC Books, Sydney.
Johnson, Bruce (2020) John Sangster, Australian Dictionary of Biography: https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sangster-john-grant-johnny-21819
Move website: http://www.move.com.au/artist/john-sangster
Sangster, John (1988), Seeing the Rafters, Penguin Books, Ringwood.