Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Music general

As a composer

Celebrating his 60th birthday, Mark Isaacs recalls his early years as an avid schoolboy composer

The calling to be a “classical” composer was instilled in me at the start of high school. Thanks to extraordinary teachers and mentors throughout those school years, I have stuck with my journey along that path through to this day, as I will to my last. Being a composer is my core identity, my musical ground zero.

I’d had piano lessons from age five, and by age nine began to make up things at the piano. I could already then play by ear most music I heard around me in my own busked-out, ham-fisted yet fully-harmonised way, but now I also started to venture into bringing forth my own little tunes. Sometimes my younger brother Steven would come and sing along with me, inventing lyrics to suit. I remember the words he put to one of my melodies betrayed an agenda of his own, as they began “Please, stop your work and play with me”. I suppose I am still rather assiduous.

My musical days at Carlton South Primary School in Sydney involved playing in the recorder band and singing quite difficult repertoire in multi-part harmony in the school choir, with a very skilled visiting accompanying pianist and coach in Audrey Oertel. The school made an in-house LP vinyl record of the choir, and it was all tremendous, beautiful fun. We did a scaled-down Bach cantata too.

I remember Miss Meades, the teacher in charge of music, suddenly walking into the empty school hall while I was a busy ten-year-old making up some music at the piano. I shrunk and stopped abruptly upon seeing her, but she urged me to go on. I refused. It seemed too private a thing then, this composing lark, almost shameful. I was Dux of my primary school but needed a real mentor to find true direction.

That role was first filled by Christopher Leechman, the redoubtable music teacher during my years (1970-75) at Sydney Technical High School, a State boys’ school in the Sydney suburb of Bexley (we lived in Kogarah; both were quite solidly working-class areas).

Leechman, who hailed from England and had studied at the Sydney Conservatorium with the great Russian piano master Alexander Sverjensky, was extraordinarily charismatic – rather like the Robin Williams character in Dead Poet’s Society – and we, “the music kids”, were his willing acolytes. He would organise “music weekends” on hired Halvorsen boats that cruised the Hawkesbury River, or would seize on a bunch of us, suddenly taking us out of school in the middle of the day for an activity he considered more important than the assigned lessons, such as traipsing into the city to watch the 1970 movie version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (its dark score by Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim gripped me as much as the story’s gruelling realisation on screen). Along the way he’d decide we needed to taste unheard of things found then only in delicatessens, like camembert cheese, rollmops and English pork pies. His beaten-up car was almost knee-deep in books.

Leechman wrote two original operas for the school during my time there, for which I was expected to work out my own piano continuos by ear and help him with some of the instrumental arranging. Libretti were by Barry Donlon, our Oxford don of a librarian. Slattery’s Band was the title of the first one, and I still recall fondly the irreverent wit with which the librettist’s program note for the work ended: ”Slattery’s Band is no Parsifal, but then again, neither is Parsifal”.

I spent every recess and lunchtime of my six high school years in Room 3, the music room, hanging out with Leechman and the rest of the music gang, all of us attuned to our mentor’s every utterance while he chain-smoked cigarettes and drank mugs of instant coffee as black and strong as tar, with five sugars. Other distinguished Australian music-makers who emerged from our ranks were harpsichord-builder Carey Beebe, opera singer John Davies and mandolinist Stephen Lalor.

Leechman was a great generalist too. He would take on the entire school in the mandatory music classes in Form 1 (now Year 7), striding over to the turntable affixed to the wall in order to disk jockey Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 as a kind of call to arms. Next would come something ravishingly melodic like Smetana’s The Moldau and then it was on to the big guns: Sibelius, always Sibelius. The finale of his 5th symphony that he would invariably play remains, in my view, a singularly accessible masterpiece for those new to classical music (I’ve tested it to good effect on my daughter’s boyfriends).

Amongst his favourite works, Leechman also gave pride of place to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and I still remember how struck I was when he confided in me that his most fervent wish would be to conduct this deeply mystical work at night in a forest. Already I was beginning to sense that life should be about these kinds of wildly passionate experiential aspirations of the spirit, facing off the naysayers who might pollute souls with their raw and profane, materialistic values. Later Jim (Jock) Black, another giant of a schoolteacher, would relentlessly draw out those kinds of themes from our studies with him of English literature in the senior high school years.

It might be mentioned that Leechman repeatedly dubbed me a “bumptious prig”. I was too much of a bumptious prig to look up those words in the dictionary, being content to bask in the backhanded compliment I imputed to myself of inspiring such grand-sounding appellations from the master. Irritating him by pointing out occasional infelicities in his blackboard harmonisations, and looking transparently bored when he espoused to the class information that to me was rudimentary, one day – when I was still twelve – he angrily barked at me to compose something right there at my desk by end of class, since I was clearly not going to engage productively otherwise. I’d never really written down any of my inventions before, but, having become familiar with the Baroque suite form, I duly took up a pencil and composed a Sarabande on my music pad. Leechman liked it, he really liked it. Eyes shining, he said “You are to be a composer” and I immediately obeyed, and still do.

I quickly wrote an Allemande, a Minuet and a Gigue to go with my Sarabande and arranged the suite for woodwind quartet. It was played at Speech Night, the first public performance of a written work of mine, at age thirteen, cementing in me for life the primacy of the idea of sitting in the audience – not on stage – while one’s music was played.

But I was in a hurry. Having been force-fed Sibelius symphonies along with the camembert, I had quickly decided that what I really wanted to be was a symphonist, an aspiration which Leechman firmly encouraged. I lay in bed each night from age thirteen with orchestration books – Forsyth, Lovelock, Rimsky-Korsakov – and slowly taught myself to orchestrate. Of course I was then light years away from writing a symphony, but by age fourteen I nonetheless produced the score of a short work for piano and orchestra, and then by fifteen a second little “piano concerto”, written at a table as I scribed away for the most part of what was a family holiday.

Recognition came. I was too young – as all are – to receive the lavish attention afforded to a “child prodigy”. There was a sense of unlimited promise – newspaper articles appeared declaring that I was some kind of budding genius – and it was as if by age twenty-five I should expect to be basking in a flooding international recognition that I still haven’t enjoyed at age sixty. That potential deep disappointment of unfulfilled promise when such artificially ebullient formative days are left behind can imperil the muse and embitter the soul, but I have chosen to remain always the eternal novice and never change my course. My teachers hover over me and firmly forbid it!

But early recognition creates its own forward motion. By age fourteen I had won two national composing competitions with my first little piano-concerto-type-thing. There was the 1972 Second National Series of Competitions for Musical Composition by Students organised by the University of Western Australia, which I won in my under-fifteen age category. The adjudicator was the towering Australian composer Don Banks, and remarkably I was sent a one page report from him on my work. It was a nurturing and encouraging screed while yet exhorting me firmly to go much further. I still have the document, as I do the full list of prize-winners. For some reason back then in early 1973 I was fixated on a name in the age category above mine, an entrant who had received a “Commended” award. It was a name then completely unknown to me and everyone else, yet “Carl Vine” in print seemed to have an energy about it, such that I kept staring at it. Who understands this kind of strange prescience?

At fourteen I also shared first place in the 1972 Frank Hutchens Scholarship for Musical Composition open to composers under the age of twenty-five (a co-winner was composer Brian Howard, then 21, much later to become one of my many composition teachers). This award produced a stipend to be used to study composition privately, and I can still see my mother at our red rotary-dial telephone speaking to the Sydney Conservatorium (while I hovered eagerly) asking for a composition teacher for me. “We don’t have a composition teacher” they told her “But we can give you Vincent Plush”. Vincent was then a lecturer in his early twenties, and would go on to become one of Australia’s more distinguished composers and now also a classical music critic for The Australian.

So as an eager young junior high schoolboy I trotted along to the Conservatorium, or otherwise Vincent’s apartment where he cooked up concotions he described as his “solution”, and found new wonders in store for me. Amongst a banquet of many dishes, Vincent served me Stockhausen’s Kontakte, the organ music of Messiaen (which I especially liked) and saw that I had a fairly thorough grounding in serial twelve-tone techniques. My music was nothing like that, but Vincent knew that I was eager to learn, and was very supportive of me performing my first romantic little piano-concerto-type-thing on national primetime television with a symphony orchestra conducted by the television tycoon Hector Crawford.

I won the Frank Hutchens scholarship for a second time at age fifteen and was duly assigned avant-garde composer (and later peak media executive) Kim Williams as my composition teacher. Kim had me pore over his copy of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions which he had meticulously marked up to elucidate their internal motivic consistencies. It’s still the copy I use, which he has happily bequeathed me.

Meantime, I was again blessed that the local suburban piano teacher my parents had found, Heather Silcock, was also a most formidable musician as well as an AMEB examiner. She had been a protégée of the great composer and pedagogue Dr William Lovelock – whose orchestration book had been one of my bibles – and Mrs Silcock took me right through a thorough grounding in harmony, counterpoint, fugue and orchestration using his materials, these theoretical studies being an adjunct to her work with me on classical piano repertoire. What an eagle eye she had for consecutive fifths and octaves when correcting my Bach-style four-part harmonisations! I’d think I had made it through unscathed, but she’d look again and suddenly find them lying between the alto and bass or whichever voices, eagerly marking the forbidden constellations with her punitive pencilled signage. She also showed my compositions to Lovelock, who gave me much very valuable feedback in reams of handwritten notes. I don’t know how it was that as a schoolboy I connected with such master teachers from the rather unprepossessing suburbs I moved in. I still visit Mrs Silcock, now in her nineties.

At that time I also trotted off several times a week after school by train to the Conservatorium for classes in chamber music performance (where I encountered flautist Jane Rutter as a schoolgirl) as well as jazz arranging and ensemble studies. I put myself forward as a regular on the classical “new music” scene in Sydney in the first half of the 1970s.  James Murdoch, a doyen of the movement, noted to me with commendation that I was the only schoolchild regularly in attendance at classical “contemporary music” events like Music Rostrum, one of his many brainchilds. Peter Sculthorpe took a typically warm interest in my schoolboy compositions – he would be another later formal composition teacher at University – and my school chum David Brown and I would take the train almost every weekend to Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts at Sydney Town Hall (there was no Opera House then), the apotheosis of which was the “Proms” which saw us all sitting on the Town Hall’s floor on picnic blankets or some such to hear confrontingly beautiful contemporary classical music by Australian and international composers, often conducted by the late Patrick Thomas. It was certainly a vitally energetic time.

Along the way, still a schoolboy, I went to see anyone famous who would have me, to ask for advice about my compositions. Composer Eric Gross smoked a pipe while turning through all the pages of one of my scores and put forth the valuable admonition to be less “four square”, and composer Werner Baer, who worked in music publishing at Albert’s, seemed to expect that I could play at the drop of a hat Chopin’s frighteningly difficult first C major etude (I can play it now, but not then).

My second piano-and-orchestra piece was played at Sydney Town Hall when I was sixteen, scarily followed in the program by none other than Sibelius, and preceded by Mozart. I had been invited by the ABC to play the piano part myself but declined, and I lied to the Sydney Morning Herald journalist who came to interview me that this was because I didn’t have time to rehearse, having to take two diplomas soon. The diploma bit was true – I was taking my A.Mus.A in both theory and piano at the time – but it wasn’t really why I opted not to play. I could have found the time, but, as a composer, I wanted a real grown-up pianist to play my work! To me, a more accomplished reading of my piece was far more important than the limelight of being at the piano: I was then, as now, a composer first and foremost. As it happened, concert pianist Mark Davies, whom the ABC accordingly engaged, gave a rather lacklustre reading of what was admittedly juvenilia, and it occurred to me then, as an afterthought, that I should perhaps play the piano in public from time to time.

My final year in high school, 1975, was a watershed for many reasons. While still sixteen I wrote what I could now call my Op. 1, since it moved rather beyond the more trivial clump of juvenilia that preceded it. It was a work called Interlude for flute and piano, somewhat inspired by Fauré, César Franck and Poulenc. I sent the score to the ABC and they programmed it to be recorded for national broadcast by two distinguished Melbourne-based classical performers. However, it was a very rocky road getting to that point with the piece, traversing which has given me resilience I draw on to this day.

I did my scoring at home on a desk positioned under a window. On that fateful day I was almost to the end of writing up the score in black ink, and since it had a very thick and busy piano part it had taken all of my school holidays to get that far. While we were out, it rained, the wind blew the rain diagonally through the window that was left open, and upon our return my score was just a black, sodden blob. I was beyond mortified, and my mother, to her credit, while fully empathetic, provided some “tough love” along the lines of pointing out that if I did no more than continue to feel sorry for myself, the piece would never be heard, and thus if I wanted it played, I had no choice but to knuckle down and do it all over again. Which I did. Writing up long complex scores is very hard and gruelling labour, and this experience gave me much muscle for the relentless arduousness in this required of me in future, when I would in time grow a large callous on the middle finger of my right hand, put there by the pencil pressure of thousands of pages of orchestral and other scoring. Since 2003 I have only sketched in pencil, doing my actual scores on the computer (with, as you might imagine, multiple backups both onsite and in the cloud!). Though the finger callous has consequently subsided it has not disappeared entirely and remains a kind of composer’s “mark of Cain”.

Although the music teachers I had while at school were immeasurably important, I owe the greatest debt to Jim Black, the aforementioned English literature teacher of my senior high school years. From him I gained a firm value system that has mapped out my career path since.

Black (we called him “Jock” because of his thick Scottish accent) was another Dead Poet’s Society Robin Williams figure. Like Leechman, normal class timetabling was woefully insufficient for his program. In our final year he announced that there would be further classes every day after school. These lasted an hour or so and he would then walk to the bus stop with us, still putting forth a steady stream of literary criticism. I can see him standing with a group of us even on the bus itself, hanging on for dear life to the roof stirrup as the bus lurched him from side to side, while still undauntedly providing for us – and indeed the rest of the passengers – further explanation as to what might have been going on in the mind of Ophelia. As the final exams drew nearer, we were also summoned to his home every Sunday afternoon for further discussion on the texts, with accompanying home-baked cakes.

Whether it was Hamlet, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, sonnets by John Donne or poems by A.D. Hope, Jock Black seemed to invariably draw out the same underlying theme from each text: the individual strives to stand steadfast, remaining resolutely true to the noblest of values, as a beacon of spirit that resists the prevailing insidious societal forces of materialism and conformity. It’s been said that the true purpose of reading literature is to craft a character and indeed change one’s life, and it was clear that Jock was not teaching us literature at all, but trying to change our lives while using the texts as tools. He certainly changed mine.

I can thank Jock for instilling in me the conviction needed to make my most important life decisions, whether it be walking away from a promising career writing orchestral music for film and television because my artistic principles were too often under assault there, in refusing to seek out the security of music faculty positions in academia or having a steady stream of students come to the house, or not falling into prestigious artistic directorships for flagship organisations. It’s his voice that told me to find a way to cut my cloth and live on less than the minimum wage for the last two decades as I have done, because that’s what an artist does if it’s what’s necessary to hold to the values of real freedom and integrity.

Following school I spent ten mostly continuous years in undergraduate and postgraduate study as a classical composition major, with secondary studies as a classical pianist and conductor. Along the way I had some truly formidable mentors both here and overseas: Isadore Goodman, Peter Sculthope, Nicholas Routley, Sergiu Celibidache, Richard Toop, Igor Hmelnitsky, Michael Hannan, Gillian Whitehead, Brian Howard, Samuel Adler, Josef Tal, David Burge, Alexander Tamir, Lucy Greene, Martin Wesley-Smith, Robert Morris and Graham Hair. I thank them all for lighting up the path I began to walk half a century ago. It is my wish to continue upon it and produce music until the age of 112, thus giving a full century of effort to the work that Leechman ordered his “bumptious prig” to begin to undertake at age 12. It is without a doubt a “long game” and, indeed, should be: the first symphony I envisaged writing as a lad was not completed until my 55th year (commissioned by my former teacher Kim Williams). I’ve written two more since then, and, I think, have many more still in me.

This article was first published here and here.


You need a very special drummer for it to sound better than no drums

Western non-classical music has evolved to the point where a composite instrument called a drum kit (or set) consisting of several drums and several cymbals of varying sizes is played continuously with four limbs throughout the entire rendition of any given piece (with occasional brief exceptions).

This is quite unusual in the history of music across all cultures. The density of a multi-drum/cymbal set-up and the unique application of four limbs using pedal mechanisms for the feet is equivalent to at least two instrumentalists playing drums with hands. The cymbals would be another player. Leaving aside the special case of actual music for drums alone this use of a drumset in a wider instrumental ensemble is an unusual instrumental balance. Continuous percussion in folkloric musics might come from a single tambourine or hand drum playing with several melodic instruments rather than what amounts to maybe the density of three traditional percussionists pitted against an equivalent amount of melodic instruments. Moreover there is the singularity of the very assumption of the drumset’s necessary constancy in the foreground of the music. Traditional folk musics and non-Western classical traditions like Indian and Arabic musics feature long passages without drums or if the drumming is continuous it doesn’t necessarily have the same degree of constant primacy that it so often does in jazz, rock and related forms. And of course in Western classical music drumming and cymbals are used only very occasionally for punctuation.

Now, the situation with drums as we now know them is all very well and I in no way intend to make a case that it should be any other way in non-classical Western music. But what is the musical purpose of this unusual case of the multiple drums + cymbals playing such a big role all the time?

Drummers need to justify their existence far more. It’s not at all the case that “swingin’ or groovin’” music needs drums inherently. A master folkloric player will groove like crazy without drums. Same for the unstoppable swing of a sublime jazz musician playing alone or indeed the rhythmic propulsion of a great country guitar picker. A certain kind of classical player – I’m thinking of someone like Glenn Gould – can also groove palpably without drums. Orchestras (really good ones) might get you on your feet dancing in certain passages with no more than an odd timpani bump, or not even that.

Clearly an accomplished musician doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need a drummer to keep time for them or to create a groove that they themselves are apparently incapable of generating. Why would it be that way other than lack of skill? All instruments are percussion instruments. Chick Corea once remarked that he liked to approach the piano as if he were a drummer with 88 drums and 10 drumsticks at his disposal. Even a voice can be percussive. So really – as is the case with every other instrument – the drums should bring something truly special of its own beyond the rhythmic dimension that all instruments contribute to anyway.

What distinguishes the master drummers that I know of is that they make sure they are really adding to the music something that it would lack without them. And so mere timekeeping is no more important to them than it is to any player. They play in time and share in the groove along with everyone else, no more, no less. But when music without a drummer is capable of grooving of its own accord if we’re going to have drums all the time it behoves the drummer not to forget that along with everyone else they must make very sure they are at all times adding something of unique value to the timbre, orchestration, counterpoint, dynamics and all the other spectra of the music. And since their instrument can so easily dominate adversely, they of all people need to pay extra special attention to balance.

Let’s strive to be sure the music really is better by virtue of what the drums are playing as it clearly is when Tony Williams – or any other master – plays. Too often the reverse holds, with a bombastic, gormless drummer wringing all the dynamics out of the music, puncturing a carefully spun fabric with boorish ejaculations and drowning out or indeed completely destroying the subtleties, careful pacing and shadings of other players to whom they just can’t be bothered to pay deep attention since the art of accompanying largely evades them. When this lamentable situation is in play the drumming is so far from being special that the music really would sound better without it.

Good Friday, 2009

Musicians do different things – end of story

This article is also published in Resonate magazine

I have what are, on the face of it, some odd experiences regarding genre labels. A few recent examples: I have never argued with the proposition that my CD Resurgence is a jazz recording. Yet I accepted an award at the Classical Music Awards for ‘Instrumental Work of the Year’ for the CD’s opening track Walk a Golden Mile.

A couple of days ago I did a 25-minute free improvisation at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Jazz:Now Festival. Enjoying a new Steinway concert grand, I made a whole bunch of contrasting sounds, damping strings etc. All very abstract and sounding like modernist concert piano music. Yet it seemed readily accepted under the jazz umbrella.

Perhaps one of the keys is process rather than resulting soundworld. Walk a Golden Mile is carefully scored, in much the same way as I would write a concert work. There are no improvised ‘solos’, though accompanying parts are improvised. I constructed a canon between the sax and guitar. It’s a piece generated by a written text throughout, much more so than in a head/solos jazz chart.

And unlike modernist, classical, notated piano music, the solo Opera House performance was, after all, improvised. So, in a way, it’s possible for what sounds like one genre to have more in common with the other one in its generation.

But in the end it seems to me that it is an incidental choice to focus on the differences between genres as being intrinsic rather than of passing interest to note. Of course playing jazz is very different from playing classical repertoire. But playing Bach is very different from playing John Cage. And Dixieland jazz is very different from free jazz. There are as many differences within each genre as between them. Musicians do different things. End of story.

I work with the skill set I have, and with my musical interests. It seems natural to me to want to write ‘classical’ concert works, play jazz, play classical repertoire, try to write some pop tunes and retain an interest in music for film/tv/theatre/musical theatre. As a Western musician growing up in this time, it seems obvious to aspire to do that much at least, yet it’s often regarded as exceptionally diverse. Others choose to master non-Western traditions or play multiple instruments. I’m not as versatile or exceptional as that.

In terms of career development, I’m sure my apparent diversity tends to slow things down. In the classical world, I am thought of as a jazz musician. In the jazz world, as a classical musician. I feel I get a bit of the outsider’s cold-shouldering in both camps. There still seems to be a wall between the two, and people are surprised that I can pass back and forth through it again and again as I show up with the perhaps faintly offensive odour of what lies on the other side. I’m not aware of a wall at all. I’m still the 5-year old who heard it as all music, the differences being interesting and necessary to the process of creating it but not at all the main game. In what I would call the “main game” there are no differences. Sound is affective or it is not. The musician is either inspired or not. In trying to interrogate what lies behind those possible outcomes the lessons I learn are identical and precisely applicable regardless of the genre. As an audience member, it’s no different at the other end. Genres are cosmetic. A cut of suit, hairstyle or a bit of a lip-gloss; it all helps with the presentation and stamps in some individuality. But let’s meet the person.

Five 2010 highlights

This article is also published at

  1. This year I got to know some more of the music of Australian pianist/composer/improviser Tim Stevens a little better through some disks that he sent me, including a preview hot off the press of his soon-to-be-released album Scare Quotes. I think Tim’s music is special in a singular way; he has a deep gift for real substance and integrity and creates magical, beautiful shapes in his writing. It’s often all so devotional in its content and feeling. When the trio does free improvisations they’re remarkable essays in economy and integrity. I like that Scare Quotes brings both Tim’s tunes and the trio’s extemporisations together in the one document.
  2. I attended two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and these made the world look a very different colour. Sometimes you’re just hearing the very best on all levels that human beings are capable of, such as their reading of Mahler Symphony No. 1. Simon Rattle is an extraordinary conductor; often he stops beating overtly for a bit and just lets them play giving the odd linking gesture. I understand that performances of the same piece are significantly different from night to night and from second to second with that band. It’s a myth that classical players don’t improvise just because the notes are the same every time! Whoever imagined music was just about notes? In jazz there’s often pretence toward improvisation, where in reality generic licks or templates are being strung together. It’s a rare ensemble or individual – whether it’s in classical or jazz – that does truly improvise.
  3. I got to know more of the music of William Walton this year, like his Five Bagatelles for guitar solo and his First Symphony (I’ve been into the Second Symphony since I was a kid). It’s part of an ongoing love affair with British composers. I don’t have “favourite composers” but Walton is someone with whom I identify probably more than any other (it kills me that he died as late as 1983 and that in theory I could have met him when I was a young adult). I love the deep, unceasing craft of it all (not least the stunning orchestration) and its melodicism and lyricism that burrows deeply into your soul. It’s so obvious that he enjoyed jazz, even though you don’t hear “jazz” elements so much as just great added-note harmony and suave rhythms. He was/is definitely under-appreciated and any artist who sometimes feels the same (and who doesn’t sometimes?) can take solace that one so mighty was not valued as he might have been even by his own countrymen.
  4. The music of guitarist Allan Holdsworth is an absolute treasure trove. I’ve been listening more to him and discussing the intimate details of his voicings and lines with James Muller. James truly believes Holdsworth is a musician of the stature of Coltrane, and I think there’s a pretty sound case for that. The sheer exhilaration of his inventive sweeps and the bitter-sweet, dark poignancy with which he leavens it all makes me soar above the clouds, as does Muller himself.
  5. Speaking of James Muller, an obvious highlight was being in the studio for two days with James, Matt Keegan, Brett Hirst and Tim Firth recording the new Resurgence band album Aurora. What a band to write for and play in! The sessions were so relaxed and chilled even as we tacked the most intense and difficult music. Recording at Studios 301 is the way recording should be and engineer Richard Lush made it all sound beautiful despite having to be in a wheelchair – he was only just out of rehab after a mysterious spinal illness. I got to live at the studio apartment during the recording and mixing, we brought in a Steinway concert grand and I ended up being the one taking the project through to its release in early December on my own label.

For the Record

I’m happy to have been asked to write of the one CD I “could not live without”. At the moment that honour goes to a Decca recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 along with his great tone poem Tapiola that was recorded in London March 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The pairing of these two works in this 30-year old recording is perfect. The 7th symphony – Sibelius’s last –  is an extraordinary structure, a symphony in just one movement completed in 1924. Two years later Sibelius wrote Tapiola which could in some ways be thought of as his 8th symphony, also in one movement (his actual 8th symphony was never released to the world and in fact the composer – in perhaps the greatest known act of vandalism in Western art – threw the score into the fire).

In these late works to my mind Sibelius moves away from portraying the bustle of human affairs to paint a portrait of organic life, or matter itself. This is especially so in Tapiola named after Tapio, the forest spirit of Finnish legend. Here I find Sibelius’s symphonic writing in polar opposite to Mahler’s whose symphonies seem to be operas for orchestra, their labyrinthine plots painting the comings and goings, agonies and triumphs of their human characters (with the central character often being Mahler himself, or so it seems). In Tapiola, all the human beings have exited stage left. Life itself – as expressed through the earth or indeed the cosmos from which we all arose – seems to be the very sinews of this music. It is something of a miracle.

The performances too are magisterial. I’ve heard quite a few versions of Tapiola and this is my favourite. One can see why Christopher Nupen, the UK film-maker who made a series of extraordinary films for television about classical music, chose Vladimir Ashkenazy to conduct the musical excerpts for his two inspiring films about Sibelius. Ashkenazy’s profound sensitivity and control of this magnificent orchestra can be heard in every richly-wrought bar. Of course Sydney’s audiences and orchestra have been fully in such an embrace for some years now.

If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I have been immeasurably sustained by the generous interest Maestro Ashkenazy has recently shown in my compositions. To meet with him and play for him as I have done is a musician’s dream. A couple of weeks ago I was driving and listening to the very CD I have been writing about here, part of the immersion in preparation for writing my own first symphony to be premiered by the QSO next year. I have a hands-free system in my car for my phone, which automatically fades out the music I am listening to before putting an incoming call through to the speakers. My enjoyment of these Sibelius works had already been interrupted by two calls. When the music started to fade for the third time in my exasperation I said aloud “Can’t I please just listen to Ashkenazy in peace?” upon which I heard the warmly-delivered words “Hello, this is Ashkenazy”.

Does Perfect Pitch really exist?

Perfect pitch really does exist but it is ultimately a curiosity – and a great party trick. As far as musical development goes, excellent relative pitch (let’s say “perfect relative pitch”) offers all that perfect pitch does as a useful item in the toolbox of musicianship. I wouldn’t put any real store at all on whether a musician has perfect pitch or not.

Perfect pitch seems to be a gift. I have never met a musician who claims to have acquired it by stealth in its fullest form, though I know people who have learnt one or two notes by rote. I’m not sure if great relative pitch is also something that appears as a gift, but it can certainly be acquired, and really should be. Perhaps the best thing about the gift of perfect pitch is that it spares you having to acquire really good relative pitch. Like any gift, it’s just one of a possible package of inbuilt musical aptitudes. My daughter is gifted with a rock-steady rhythmic feel that manifested precociously early and without any effort on her part at all. Despite my pitch gift, I lacked that one being bestowed on me freely; I’ve had to work hard on my time and continue to do so.

Because it generally appears so early (as it did in my case) it would seem that one is born with it. However, until one learns the names of the notes there is no way of demonstrating the gift. After I’d had a few piano lessons at the age of five, one night my mother was singing me a lullaby as she regularly did. When she finished the song, I told her the names of the last few notes she had sung. My father checked at the piano on a whim, and was astonished that I was right. He spent the next hour testing me and found he couldn’t fool me.

As a party-trick I’ve had fun with the acute form in which I have it, which enables me to generally identify all the notes in the weirdest chord that someone can come up with on the piano. I like to play back the exact ring-tone from the stage when someone thoughtlessly leaves their mobile phone on at a gig. All this gives the kind of satisfaction gained by someone who does terrific card tricks, or tells jokes excellently. The small pleasures of life.

It’s occasionally been useful in practical ways too. I bought an electric shaver and immediately regretted I didn’t buy the next model up, which had a meter that told you how much charge was left. I realised this feature would have been useful when packing for a short tour, in order to decide whether I’d need to take the charger or not. But I soon learned I didn’t need the meter, as the motor hum dropped in pitch as the charge wore out so I just learned the pitches and could tell from those how much charge was left.

Apart from my own laziness at the prospect of having to practice two instruments, perfect pitch was the reason I gave up the clarinet after a short spell in my early teens. At the very first lesson, I was shown the fingering for C, blew it and immediately apologised for the B flat that came out. I could never reconcile playing music that was written on the page in a different key than it was sounding. I guess I could have learned the kind of inbuilt transposition that I later did as an orchestrator, where I’d hear the French Horn part at pitch and transpose it up a fifth on the fly as I wrote it down. I could accept that chore as a writer but not as a player! In choirs I was in trouble if the piece was transposed, as my sight singing involved seeing a note and singing it. Good sight-singers without perfect pitch, who simply sang the intervals, were not bothered by transposition of course. So it can certainly be a liability.

As a very young musician doing a variety of gigs, I once agreed to play standards at a private party. The owner had the piano tuned, but as is often the case with very old upright pianos, bringing it right up to pitch would be too much strain on the frame. So the piano was in tune within itself, but a semitone down. A “piano in B”, as it were! After a few minutes attempting to play I had to abandon the gig. Playing by ear, I’d respond to what I heard and end up in a sonic hall of mirrors. To put it in the simplest case scenario of dominant and tonic, say my fingers would go to G7. I’d hear F#7 so my fingers would then in response go to the resolution of B major. But that would sound as B flat major! So, intending play G7 to C I’d end up with F#7 to B flat. This was compounded with more complex harmonic relationships. I just could not play that piano in any remotely coherent way and was almost physically nauseous trying.

It should be added that perfect pitch is not really “perfect”. Most people I know who have it round things up or down subconsciously to the nearest semitone. So microtonal gradations may or may not be registered. With turntables that ran at erratic speeds, I found that if the pitch was dead centre between two semitones, I could round it either way, and pretty much at will so that for example I could hear a piece in E major and then suddenly hear it in F. It would be like those optical tricks where a drawing can be seen two different ways, and you can flip which one you see wilfully.

Now that I am nearly 50 I am finding that my “perfect” pitch is drifting. I can sometimes be a full semitone out with a pitch that is actually accurate. This is widely reported as a common experience for the perfect pitch brigade with advancing age, but it’s very unsettling. Never mind – I may have to relinquish the smart-ass party tricks, but my time feel is heaps better!