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Sonic Broom: 
The Composers Talk Back!

EVE de CASTRO-ROBINSON
I found it extremely difficult to prepare this brief talk. It seemed that, when pinned down, any answers that I thought I had to any of the questions put to me were too uncomfortably personal, too intangible to be expressed, too contrived or pretentious-sounding or so enormous and amorphous as to require a much longer time to deliver. So here I am, at 5.30 on the morning of the presentation gathering up jottings and thoughts which I've left until now to put in some sort of order. This is partly due to my procrastinational tendency with any project, including composition, which has me usually working furiously in a white heat of deadline-induced adrenaline, and partly because I wanted to observe my own reactions to this weekend to clarify a few things.

On Friday I got into a taxi at university and the driver struck up a conversation in a thick East European accent . . . 'I see you're at the Music School-that reminds me . . . do re mi fa so . . . I remember that from my childhood. We all used to sing, but I can't sing in tune, I'm not a musician'. His memory had been jolted however, and a couple of minutes later he launched into a wonderfully croaky fragment of Croatian lovesong, tailing off with an embarrassed chuckle . . .'I sound like a frog!'

It was one of those precious moments of direct human contact through music of an innocent and uncontrived nature which will stay with me. Later that evening I was sitting in a concert of contemporary music here and found that I was unable to respond in the same way to the rarefied, exquisitely crafted instrumental music on offer, even though I use a similar range and type of sonority in my own work, and even though I have great respect for all the composers represented. Just before I came down to Wellington, I recorded for Concert FM a Composer of the Week talk on Jack Body, and as resource material had been thrilled to find his address to the School of Humanities at Massey University last year, which provides beautifully penned insights into Jack's raison d'Ítre as a composer.

In it, he tells of his own revelatory experiences in Java-hearing street musicians and beggars 'dignifying' their need to make money by offering what they could do, to everyone, and his subsequent questioning of his own comparatively privileged situation here. We know in Jack's case, his realisation of this and other scenarios and his personal and musical reactions and solutions to them have resulted in marvelous experiences for us all. I'm not at all sure how my little case studies on Friday will affect what I do from now, but I do know that in the year 2000 there's been a turning point for me as a composer. I've had many non-productive months musically, but during production of my second solo CD have been able to at least reflect more objectively on what I've done up till now.

I know I'm not alone among composers in experiencing this brick wall, and this in itself is a tremendous comfort. I talked to a rare treasure of a person in my life, Jenny McLeod, who laughed disarmingly, with a refreshing combination of ruefulness and brutal reality-'It doesn't matter, does it?' And of course it doesn't. (In yoga the other day, during a taxing leg stretch, the instructor said 'the leg will know how far to go . . . use your mind, not your ego'). For years I've often thought of another of Jenny's devastatingly simple aphorisms: 'You can't fool the Muse, She is higher than God.' It always makes me smile, and I think she's right.

You will notice that I am influenced by my fellow composers, perhaps not so much musically, as philosophically . . . and emotionally. Someone said recently 'You're lucky, you've got a wonderful musical "family"', and certainly the feeling of being part of the musical community in New Zealand is a tremendously important and sustaining aspect of my life. When I look around this room, I see Peter Crowe, who, after shouting frustratedly at me to get my hands and mind around Bach and Beethoven on the piano, decided to offer me Lilburn and Whitehead instead, and urged me to go 'up the hill to hear what the Karlheinz Compay was playing at the University'.

I see John Rimmer, who listened, and I mean really listened to my rendering of Lilburn's Adagio Sostenuto as audition for my BMus-and continues to listen and give me warm and perceptive feedback on any issue. I see William Dart and Jack Body, both of whom provide loving support and public encouragement, and special composer friends-Helen Bowater, John Cousins and others whom I don't necessarily have to see very often to know and understand that we're all in this treacherous, miraculous creative world together.

I remember quite a few years ago there was a prominent Maori activist, Atareta Poananga, who was interviewed on television and said that she only had Maori and Pacific music in the house-didn't listen to anything else. I thought this was rather pretentious and narrow-minded, but in recent years, I find myself far more interested and in tune with what my fellow composers (and I mean New Zealand composers, including Lyell Cresswell, Noel Sanders and Annea Lockwood who don't live here) are doing, than in the latest musical fashions from Europe. To hear Gillian Whitehead's work for flutes and Maori instruments this year, new work from David Downes . . . and John Psathas . . . here is the HEART of the matter. Terence O'Neill-Joyce brought up Heart yesterday-for me, music should be a 'magic of the heart'.

And as for 'why do I compose?' There seems to be an inner surge of creative energy which must spring out and manifest itself in musical form. This usually involves much gazing out at trees and water (two life forces) and summoning up embryonic flickers and traces of sounds and ideas which may agree to be shaped and manipulated into larger forms and structures. I'm continually trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between being able to allow something to come into being and then to make some personal 'concrete' sense of it. I do try to achieve a balance between the peace of mind necessary for depth and clarity of contemplation, and the open and trusting (and therefore extremely vulnerable) state of being that is creative. I can only compose from inner conviction and speak with my heart. And I often return to a statement by Berio, who sees music as 'a gift to be given and a gift to be received'.

 

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