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Peter Sculthorpe, an internationally recognised Australian composer passed away in Sydney nearly two weeks ago. I had the privilege of studying composition with Peter during the 1980s, while a student at the University of Sydney’s Music Department. I recall many hours spent reclining on the sofa in Peter’s office, treating my composition tutorials as part lesson, part psychotherapy session. He was happy to endure endless whinging about our workload, and for many composition students he provided an artistic, supportive oasis in the heart of the Seymour Centre. While you couldn’t necessarily count on confidentiality, a session with him reconnected you to the reasons you wanted to study there in the first place. There were many things that impressed me about his approach to teaching composition, which I list below.
Firstly, he had a light touch. He understood that creative tuition is less about telling people what to do, than providing a structured, supportive context for people to find their own way, discover their own path, explore their own enthusiasms. His breadth of taste allowed him to be genuinely interested in a diverse range of musical directions.
Secondly, his own life was a lesson in trying to capture one’s own experience and one’s own situation as an artist, rather than mimicking other styles. How could an orchestra or string quartet be used to capture an Australian experience? How could the sights and sounds of the Australian landscape be explored musically? Such a focus then allowed the whole nation-building cultural infrastructure (ABC, Australia Council etc) to get behind him.
Thirdly, his ideas on the creative process and idea generation were healthy for young composers to hear. Instead of waiting for creative states to capriciously arise, he saw composition as a daily practice, a daily discipline. The way to write a great work is to write a hundred bad works. Just write. Quantity ultimately drives quality. He encouraged students to be open to serendipity, those chance occurrences that arise unforseen in the creative process, rather than being slavishly wedded to a preconceived notion of a musical work. He would hear a musician make a mistake during rehearsal, realise he liked the mistake more than the original conception, and ask the musician to alter the parts.
Finally, he made pursuing an artistic life appear attractive and inspiring. He was not some troubled social misfit sitting by himself in a garret writing music. He was witty and urbane, and had some style and panache about him, from the car he drove, to his house in Woollahra.
After leaving Sculthorpe’s tuition I then made my greatest gift to Australian composition: I stopped. Peter’s contribution extended for another thirty years. For the reasons outlined above, which are confined only to teaching, just one dimension of his contribution, I believe the accolades bestowed upon him are well deserved.