New symphony for ANZAC centenary

By Louise Bennet

Barry Conyngham had a late start for a composer, barely writing a note before his 20s.

“I was a jazz musician during my first couple of years studying law at university until I heard all of Bartók’s six string quartets played by the world-renowned Hungarian Quartet. That was literally the moment where I said: I want to do that. Someone said to me that I’d had an epiphany. I had to go away and look up the word, but that’s what it was!”

Conyngham returned to university to study music formally where he met the internationally renowned Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe.

Conyngham studied hard under Sculthorpe and through him met Toru Takemitsu who is generally accepted as the modernist Japanese composer of the 20th Century.

“I just love Takemitsu’s music. It’s exquisite, it’s just so beautifully poised. Complicated, but also very atmospheric.”

Conyngham studied with Takemitsu in Japan where he was inspired to compose a violin concerto that became his first big break, Ice Carving.

“I saw an ice carving festival in Tokyo and thought it was such a poetic experience, carving these beautiful objects and then leaving them in the sun to melt.”

Ice Carving made it into the top three pieces of the International Rostrum of Composers in 1973. The annual forum organised by the International Music Council offers broadcasting representatives the opportunity to exchange and publicise pieces of contemporary classical music.

Conyngham’s next big break was in the early 80s when he was commissioned to write a double concerto for violin, piano and orchestra to celebrate the ABC’s 50th anniversary.

The piece, Southern Cross, was performed by concert pianist Roger Woodward, violinist Wanda Wilkomirska and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It also won an ARIA award, which was presented to Conyngham by Sir Elton John.

“Yes, journalists love that!” he says when asked about the presentation.

A very Australian piece about the Southern Cross constellation, it also included variations on Waltzing Matilda.

“I’m still rather obsessed by Waltzing Matilda. In the 70s, under Whitlam, there was a chance to create a national anthem apart from God Save the Queen. They selected Advance Australia Fair but the other candidate was Waltzing Matilda.”

“I think it would be fantastic to have a national anthem that, albeit about a bum and a thief, is so symbolic and poetic and evokes such strong Australian nostalgia.”

Conyngham went from strength to strength also writing symphonies for opera and ballet, film and documentary. Virtually all the orchestras in Australia, the London Symphony Orchestra and orchestras in greater Europe, Asia and America have played his music.

Conyngham’s music is about being Australian and in 1997 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

“I often said to Peter [Sculthorpe] that for him it was about Australian landscapes and people, while I’ve tried to explore what it feels like to be an Australian, whether you’re an immigrant or your predecessors go back seventy-thousand years.

“Last year, on ANZAC Day, I was living opposite the War Memorial in Melbourne. I don’t know why, but I woke up at about 4am and remembered that it was ANZAC Day. I had never been to a dawn service so I decided to go. It was an extraordinary experience.”

Not leaving behind his prejudice about the inherent craziness of war, Conyngham couldn’t deny how powerful the experience was.

“It is an amazing human activity to have someone go off and fight in a war. The depth of emotion and the shared experience, not only by the people who fight but by the people who belong to the people who fight. Whether they are children, parents or friends.

“The other thing that I found fascinating is that now the parade includes former enemies. It seems a kind of acknowledgement that this isn’t a glorification of war but a genuine attempt to give homage to all the people affected by war.

“The ANZAC tradition has become a very genuine and unusual national gathering. It’s the one truly uniting day our country has but it’s got this strange history. It’s about a battle that was essentially a disaster, fought in a war the only reason we were involved in was because we were a part of the British Empire.

“I had in my mind, as a composer, that at some stage I might explore this musically and as next year is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, I felt this was the right moment.”

ANZAC is a full symphony with nine soloists, beginning with ‘Dawn’ and ending with ‘Dusk’. Each section of the piece contains a soloist or group of soloists representing a type of mood or atmosphere. Cleverly arranged both musically and structurally, the soloists guide the audience through the experience.

“Rather than simply have nine principal musicians, I wanted to create the space for nine soloists with their own concerto to take the audience through the narrative of the piece.”

The soloists are like characters who can cut from mood to mood with parts ranging from fearful – whether waiting for a battle or waiting for news – to bucolic.

“One of the other things that I find fascinating about the issue of war and battles is that it takes place in nature. Birds are singing and plants are growing and humans are busily trying to kill each other.”

The premiere also showcased the very best that the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music has to offer.

“I’ve used virtually all the full-time instrumental teachers of the conservatorium as soloists and the orchestra is made up almost entirely of University of Melbourne orchestra students.

ANZAC was conducted by Brett Dean, another renowned Australian composer, violist and conductor.

“My attitude to being a composer has always been about creating and relying on really good people. Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m a musician, to me musicians are the wondrously talented technical people who execute something while I think of music more as an invention you create.”

Article was first published in Voice, Volume 10 Number 9 September 8 – October 13 2014

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.