The composer’s work torn apart

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the Herald Sun on May 22, 2009.)

Former students are turning their musical mentor’s work on its ear

PETER Sculthorpe has received more than half a dozen 80th birthday cakes so far, but his most valued gift may be to have his music pulled apart and rebuilt.
Tim Freedman, of the Whitlams, and vocalist Katie Noonan will play their parts in the reconstruction, but the Sculthorpe Songbook will be aired in two concerts at Stonnington Jazz primarily as a result of work by trumpeter Phil Slater and pianist Matt McMahon.

It may sound like a demolition job, but for Slater and McMahon, who were students of Australia’s great composer at Sydney University, the reinterpretation of Sculthorpe’s works is a tribute recognising what he gave them in his classes on composition.

“Often you get musicians interpreting composers from the past, but the composer we’re doing it to is alive in the room and we get to talk to him about his music,” Slater says. “He’s like a mentor who’s giving everything approval and inspiring us. It’s very brave of him to submit his music to … it’s not even interpretation — we pull it to pieces.”

An example of what’s in store from the Sculthorpe Songbook will be Freeman singing It’ll Rise Again, originally performed by the 1970s rock group Tully in the style of a rock opera.

“Jazz pianist Matt McMahon has completely rewritten the composition. It’s amazing what he does. He works out what the chords are and what features of the original to retain and what to play around with and just arranges specifically for Tim,” Slater says.

He concedes there is a risk that messing around with the works of a world-renowned composer or attempting to gild the lily will end badly, but says the new works try to tap into “part of Peter’s identity, the characteristics of his music, his sound — it’s more than just the notes he writes down”.
Sculthorpe began composing music about the age of seven, assuming after his first piano lesson that he should be writing music rather than practising the instrument.

“I went home and wrote music like crazy and took it to my teacher a week later and she was furious, and caned me,” he told ABC Radio National in 2004. “So I wrote under the bedclothes with a torch, for a year…”

Years later, while studying at Oxford, Sculthorpe tried to interest his peers in Japanese music, which he loved, and in Australian Aboriginal music. Their lack of enthusiasm helped him decide to pursue his own path. His compositions since have reflected a deep concern with social justice and regard for the land.

The deaths of women and children in Iraq were significant in his Requiem and the plight of asylum seekers in detention for String Quartet No. 16.
“I’m not sure that music can state those issues, but it can convey the feeling,” Sculthorpe says.

“For example, in the Quartet the last movement is called Freedom and it reflects the anger and loneliness of those in detention. But at the end they are dreaming of loved ones and being free, so the piece is ultimately uplifting.”

Sculthorpe turned 80 on April 29, but his workload shows no sign of slowing. He anticipates that a large piano concerto and two string quartets he will compose will have climate change as their focus.

“Australia is lagging on climate change, with only 5 per cent emissions reduction by 2020 and billions of dollars going to polluting industries. That’s appalling. But I have to find a metaphor for these compositions — it would be a little bombastic to use, say, the collapse of the ice bridge in Antarctica as a metaphor for climate change. I need something smaller.”

Sculthorpe’s love of music from Japan, Bali and other parts of Asia may find expression in the Songbook works for Stonnington’s festival.
The jazz musicians involved — Slater, McMahon, drummer Simon Barker, guitarist Carl Dewhurst and bassist Brett Hirst — have travelled to Japan and experimented with gamelan rhythms.

“Simon travels regularly to study with Korean drummers and we play with a traditional Korean opera,” Slater says. “Simon’s playing is so original and mind-blowing that it’s drawing attention from all around the world. It’s a fusion between American or Western jazz drumming techniques with Korean rhythms. As the drummer, he sets the tone for all of us, so we’re all plugged in to taking influences from these regions.”

Peter Sculthorpe will be at Stonnington to hear his works reconstructed as jazz. He may do some readings — possibly from Tim Flannery’s writing on the environment. But there is little doubt he will be quietly proud of the creativity that has emerged from seeds he planted in the minds of students Phil Slater and Matt McMahon.

Stonnington Jazz runs from May 14 to 23
Sculthorpe Songbook, Malvern Town Hall, May 22 and 23, 8pm.

Stonnington Jazz

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