The iconic photography of Peter Dombrovskis and a profound connection with Australia’s natural environment inspired the works brought together in The Dombrovskis Quartet, Sunday January 28 at the National Library of Australia. Presented by the Canberra International Music Festival, an organisation with a reputation for championing the work of female artists, the programme exclusively features the works of Australian composer Moya Henderson (b. 1941) performed by the Acacia Quartet. With a career spanning four and a half decades as composer, and yet still very much in her prime, Henderson holds an important place in Australian contemporary music history.
In this interview, Roland Peelman, Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, talks to Henderson about the upcoming world premiere of her new string quartet, commissioned by lawyer and human rights advocate Julian Burnside, her colourful past as a former-nun-turned-composer, and her work within the male-dominated world of contemporary art music.
Moya, do you remember when you first encountered the Dombrovskis photographs? Or did you meet Peter first?
I never did meet Peter Dombrovskis. The Rock Island Bend photograph may have been the first. There was a lot of publicity about the Franklin River when the Hydro-electric Commission was planning to dam it. When I heard about the 12,000-year-old cave (Kudikynah Cave) on the banks of the Franklin, I was entranced and knew I had to visit that cave. How beautiful and magical it turned out to be.
Does your music attempt to be descriptive, or how do you personally relate these pieces to the images?
I find it easier to capture the atmosphere, rather than try to paint the scene, or even imitate such things as bird calls.
In the Kudikynah Cave Quartet I thought about incorporating the harsh calls of the Tasmanian currawongs, high overhead, as we rafted down the Franklin to reach the cave, but opted instead to recall in the rhythms of the raft floating across shallow shingle banks.
Someone once told me I should avoid one-composer concerts! I disagreed. But what do you think of having a featured concert like this?
I feel over-awed. And yes, the same composer all night: that’s a risk. But hey, my great friend, Kevin Volans, is being treated to a 70th birthday concert by the BBC in London next year and I’m looking forward to it immensely.
Your work has covered a very broad spectrum of topics and forms, from large scale opera to small solo pieces. Looking back over it all, what has given you most satisfaction, or what do you feel closest to nowadays?
A crazy, mad music-theatre piece, Stubble, is being performed by Homophonic at La Mama in Melbourne on this same week end. I wrote it back in 1975-6! So there has always been this split personality aspect to my writing: the sacred and ecstatic, on one hand, and the ‘unhinged’ (as Alistair Noble calls it) theatrical wildness on the other. I worship both strands of composing.
One can say there is certain ‘Australianness’ about your works. Do you agree?
Yes. To start with I looked for my own voice, then I resorted to seeking out the music of First Australians. These motifs are apparent in an early work called Min Min Light, (1982) premiered by the Australia Ensemble, now the Goldner Quartet. By the time I wrote The Dreaming, (1985) (still not performed in its entirety), I felt that the feel for the land was sufficiently instilled in me and that if I drew upon what was deep inside me, it should sound genuine.
Tell us about your international relations.
Thanks to Patrick White giving me permission to write the opera, Voss, my composing career took off like a rocket. Patrick actually believed that a ‘simple nun’ (Patrick’s words to one of his correspondents) could do it (I’d like to say, pull if off!). So it’s 1972, and there I was, completing a Music Ed Degree at Queensland Uni and still a Sacré-Coeur nun.
I’d hardly written a thing, unless you count the Proper of the Mass for our profession of final vows in Rome in 1968. As a student, studying singing and composition, I’d written a handful of pieces. By 1973 I’d exited the cloister and was at home with my dad, when Don Banks, or was it Ken Tribe called me and asked if I’d like to be the Resident Composer with the Australian Opera in its inaugural year – 1973 – at the Sydney Opera House. Would I like?? Is Paris a city??
I was up there like a shot, and had the most exhilarating intro to opera. That opening year was spectacular, and I got to know my way around the House: work rooms, rehearsals, etc. Then came the chance to apply for a German Government Scholarship. What with Patrick’s permission for Voss and my lovely Professor Gordon Spearritt’s brilliant training in scholarship, resulting in 1st Class Honours, I bagged a DAAD scholarship and was off to the Goethe Institut in Grafing bei München, early in 74 to learn (ahem) German in three months.
So I spent about five semesters in Cologne at the Musikhochschule studying music-theatre with Mauricio Kagel, and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen. Such stories I could tell! Luminaries for teachers, and colleagues from all over the world as co-students.
The most long-lasting and beautiful of these friendships has been my connection with Kevin Volans. He is so famous and so prolific, I am in awe of what he has achieved. But he seems to have valued my friendship as well and we have been correspondents all these years. Kevin should be mentioned in the context of this concert, because he gave me a couple of little reprimands when I was starting out on the Dombrovskis. These comments appear to have changed my compositional style, which has become more contrapuntal. Kevin is from South Africa and he made several music-safaris for West German Radio in the late 70s/early 80s. He shared these audios with me and they had a profound effect on my music. The piece that typifies this influence is G’Day Africa. This work is a happy mix of Aussie and African melodies and rhythms.
Women composers! How well do you think we are doing here down under? Did you ever experience a sense of being up against the white male bastion?
I’ve worked quietly behind the scenes, along with Professor Peter McCallum to bring the discriminatory behaviour of certain organisations, mostly to their own attention. You pay a price for this. But certainly, things have begun to improve. It is so commendable that Ensemble Offspring has featured only women composers in 2017. The Sydney Conservatorium of Music has also taken an impressive stand on promoting the music and training of selected student women composers. What treasures are coming to light. Some time ago, Andrew Ford made the delightful, bemused remark about women composers: He wondered (tongue in cheek) if perhaps their breasts got in the way of their writing. Hilarious!
Of course, we all know that I never did write Voss. Opera management behaving badly? Well, writing Lindy was important, even a landmark opera in this country, even if Moya, the woman composer, couldn’t be trusted with a full-sized orchestra or a chorus.
The Dombrovskis Quartet features the works of Moya Henderson brought together by the Acacia Quartet on Sunday, January 28 at the National Library of Australia, ACT. Presented in association with the National Library of Australia. This concert is now sold out.
The Canberra International Music Festival runs April 27 to May 6 at venues around Canberra.