The composer and broadcaster reflects on Australian music in 1983 and his relationship with Peter Sculthorpe.

I was never a close friend of his [Peter Sculthorpe] – I certainly wasn’t part of the inner circle of (mostly) former students – but I had many conversations with him over 30 years, and when I was a near neighbour in Sydney for the two years I spent in the Glanville- Hicks house, sometimes the conversations stretched into the early hours of the morning, fuelled by bottles of Australian sparkling wine. What emerged were contradictions, and while we all have those, in Peter’s case they were surprising because he and his music had such a strong reputation for being nationalistic, anti- European and devoted to all things Asian. It wasn’t always true. He was, for example, quite the Anglophile, and one particular night, following the launch of his memoir Sun Music in 1999, we sat in his backyard discussing the forthcoming referendum on the Australian republic. I was for it, and he was against it, saying it was ‘window-dressing’, though he wouldn’t be drawn on what he meant by that.

‘I can’t believe you’re saying this, Peter,’ I kept repeating. ‘You’re meant to be the voice of Australia. Do you want the Queen of England as your head of state?’

‘But you’re English!’ he kept countering.

The conversation went round and round, his notion of Australia, this night at least, more old-fashioned and even colonial than I’d supposed.

Andrew Ford's The Memory of MusicAndrew Ford’s The Memory of Music

Peter was good company and impossible to dislike. He was well known for being polite and always remembered the names of others’ girlfriends and boyfriends, spouses and offspring. But he was a terrible gossip, and you learnt not to tell him secrets. A couple of things he shared with me about mutual friends turned out to be completely untrue, and occasionally he could be unkind about people, though always in the guise of a joke.

His favourite joke was to drop his trousers at parties. I witnessed this three times, the first in a crowded restaurant. I assumed, as I was meant to, that the trousers had fallen down of their own accord, but Belinda Webster, who was present, said she’d seen it all before. Peter’s technique was to go into a corner of the room and surreptitiously loosen his belt, then return to the others in the room and look astonished when the trousers fell round his ankles (‘Oh, no! My pants have fallen down!’). The last time I saw him perform the trick was in the street outside the Glanville-Hicks house following a party. It was five o’clock on a summer’s morning and Peter, typically, was the last to leave. Since it was broad daylight, there was every chance that someone would look out of their bedroom window and see Australia’s most famous composer, seventy years old, standing in the middle of the road in his white boxer shorts, and maybe that’s what he was hoping for. I can’t believe it was just for my benefit.

For all that, I think Peter was probably shy. He loved the acclaim of an audience better than anyone I’ve known, but in his dealings with me, at least, I detected a reserve, a protective layer that stopped you getting too close, and some of the things he said had a rehearsed quality about them. I’m pretty sure Peter didn’t like my music, and I wasn’t certain he liked me until one day he rang out of the blue to ask if he might dedicate his Beethoven Variations to me. This was one of his last orchestral works and I’m proud to have my name at the top of its first page.

Andrew Ford’s The Memory of Music is published by Black Inc Books (RRP $32.99). Limelight is giving away a double pass to hear Andrew Ford in discussion with the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti at Yellow House, Sydney, July 13.

Click here to enter