A visit with the composer who, in a career spanning six decades, has come to define Australian classical music.

I’ve rarely been to this leafy part of Sydney yet I recognise the house immediately. I’ve seen it in biographies and documentaries since the 1970s and very little has changed. The fastidious garden, the white pillars and even the (noticeably newer) red MG convertible in the drive. “I don’t like moving,” Peter Sculthorpe tells me later. At almost 84, he is smaller and greyer than I expected, but the subterranean bass voice is unmistakable. It’s the same voice I remember from countless other interviews: warm and earthy, humble yet assured. I feel immediately at ease.

I’m visiting Australia’s best-known composer ahead
of the imminent revamping of Quiros, a TV opera about
a Portuguese explorer who thought he’d discovered Australia. It’s remained unstaged since first broadcast in 1982 and is about to be performed again as an oratorio at the Canberra International Music Festival. Like the bulk of Sculthorpe’s music, it was written just a couple of rooms away.

“I bought this house in 1976,” Sculthorpe explains as we head down the hall. I glimpse paintings capturing the famous moustached visage across several decades. It feels odd to be in the home of
 an Australian Living Treasure. Should I have removed my shoes? Brought an offering? “My previous house around the corner was a single storey terrace and it was rather like a highly decorated passageway. It eventually became too small for me,” he continues. As I pass nooks of books and small rooms of carefully placed furniture and ceramics, I wonder where the 100 boxes of papers he recently donated to the National Library of Australia ever fitted.

We settle in Sculthorpe’s garden studio, which on this warm afternoon is dappled with light. It houses more books, a small wooden desk and a well-preserved baby grand piano, upon which sits the printed score of the avowedly un-religious composer’s Requiem. About the room I also note a koto, a shamisen, a pair of Tibetan horns and an 18th-century gold-leafed Japanese screen. “I’m less influenced by things oriental now than I used to be,” Sculthorpe says, “yet oddly enough there are Thai Buddhas and Japanese and Chinese objects all around us. They wouldn’t still be here if they didn’t mean a lot to me but the music from those countries is less important to my music now.”

Asia has always been key to Sculthorpe’s story. Much of his music of the 1960s and ’70s resonates with its sounds, a corollary to teaching ethnomusicology at the University of Sydney. He wove Balinese elements into Sun Music III (1967) and Tabuh Tabuhan (1968) and leant towards Japan in Night Pieces (1971) and Koto Music (1973). Such pieces reflected the composer’s prescience that, despite two centuries of British sway, Australia was, geographically if not yet culturally, part of Asia.

Now there is a newer and more pressing concern. Sculthorpe has become political. “My main influences these days are to do with the environment and climate change,” he says. “It has its seeds in a work like Earth Cry from 1986 in which I was saying we should listen to the cry of the earth as the Aborigines have done for many thousands of years. Then maybe we’ll get the country right. Later in a work like Memento Mori I used Easter Island as a parable for planet Earth and population growth. The way they chopped down all the trees and ended up cannibalising each other. Couldn’t even make canoes to escape the island.”

On one level I am surprised. Sculthorpe’s music has always evoked landscape, so clearly the emphasis has changed. If it was once about being part of nature, now it’s about the urgency to conserve it. Given society’s general trend towards sustainability, I ask if he is more optimistic now than 30 years ago. “I have to be optimistic, I have to try to be. So much
 is happening around the world. In almost every news bulletin you’ll get some climate problem or disaster happening, which ten years ago certainly wasn’t the case. This is a bad way of putting things, but I think the more cataclysmic events we have, the more likely we are to save the planet. And I think we’re approaching crisis.”

Sculthorpe’s new green credentials are evident not only in the rainwater tank and photovoltaic roof panels atop his house but also in Island Songs from 2012. The first movement, Song of Home, uses a popular melody from the Second World War, which was sung by GIs and Australian servicemen in the Torres Strait Islands to give comfort from the Japanese threat. Here it is used “to give comfort from a greater threat”. The lament in the second movement was sung to Sculthorpe by an Aboriginal elder and has appeared in various works such as Kakadu, although not always as a lamentation.
“In Lament and Yearning we’re yearning for better days and better times. Sometimes I wish I’d ended the work in despair, but I’m almost incapable of that. I can’t end looking downwards. Mind you, I’m thinking of making my 19th String Quartet so absolutely bleak that people might take notice of my message instead of thinking, ‘Oh well, she’ll be right’.”

Sculthorpe’s claims to optimism have always been leavened by his music’s melancholic edge. It was present already in pieces from the 1950s such as The Loneliness of Bunjil (1954) and the Irkanda series, which conjures an indigenous word for “a remote and lonely place”. Sculthorpe ascribes this tendency to growing up in Tasmania, then an isolated and slightly haunted island that early settlers had tried recreating as Mother England. He has previously described his childhood there as “happy, busy, and somewhat lonely.”

Peter Sculthorpe was born in the Invermay, a suburb of Launceston, Tasmania, in late April 1929. His mother was from Yorkshire and schooled her young son in a love of English poetry. Guided by the music of Delius, the aspiring composer began to write pastorales and to take long walks through the bush. Simultaneously, however, he grew fascinated by the music performed each week at a nearby Chinese market garden.

The young composer trialed various musical idioms second-hand, including Debussyian scales and serialism, before discovering what really drove him to express himself. “As a child I used to write poetry and paint pictures and write music. When I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up my teachers wanted me to write words. My father thought that if I must be mixed up in the arts I should be a painter so at least I could be a commercial artist and earn a living. And my mother just wanted me to be happy.

“I thought about it and realised that my poetry and paintings were my second- or third-rate experience of art and that my music was about my life. It was about the countryside around me. So from a very early stage I was writing music about landscape and it’s been like that most of my life”. Sculthorpe showed promise and was awarded a scholarship to study music at the University of Melbourne, but it would be some years before his career could flourish. Aside from stints
 in Canberra and Sydney writing for radio 
and the theatre, Sculthorpe spent much of his twenties running a “huntin’, fishin’and shootin’store” with his younger brother Roger in Tasmania. He didn’t plan things to be so circuitous. “It was mostly to do with survival. Just trying to hang
on to writing music and earn a bit
of money. Because in those days composers barely existed in Australia.”

Indeed, as older figures like Margaret Sutherland and Robert Hughes could attest, writing music in Australia then seemed a forsaken path. The local scene was small, conservative and offered few options to make a living. Of the two Aussies that had made it abroad – Percy Grainger and Peggy Glanville- Hicks – both became US citizens. As Sculthorpe recalls, being a composer seemed almost un-Australian. “It was as late as the late 1940s with John Antill’s ballet Corroboree that people in England were astonished to know that there was a composer from Australia”.

Antill’s reimagining of indigenous ceremony was a
 key precursor to Sculthorpe’s own brand of Australiana, in which landscape and native myth would coalesce.
And likewise, England would prove the testing ground. Almost a decade out of university Sculthorpe won a place at Oxford University and sailed to the UK. His two-year stay there was formative. “When I was in Oxford people used to say, ‘As an Australian you must love it here in Oxford – it’s so old.’ And I used to tell them, ‘Well, you ought to come to Australia – now that’s really old!’” Under a weak English sun, conflicted by European trends before him, Sculthorpe reminded himself that he should follow his own path. He returned to Australia, where he secured a post at the University of Sydney’s music department, and began to reinvigorate the local scene through the example of his own personal style.

“I set out to present my own view, my own vision, of Australia. We don’t think of, say, an Australian painting of Australia by Sidney Nolan as an Australian painting. It’s his view of it and it’s the same with me.” The new pieces composed back home made an immediate impact on the London he’d just left. Sun Music I was premiered in 1965 at the Royal Festival Hall and was hailed by The Times as a “strikingly imaginative aural achievement”. Core to this and other works was the conscious depiction of the flatness and glare of Australia’s wide open soil. “Early on I found I was using long-held drones in my music and later of course I realised that what I was doing was imitating the didjeridu. In mirroring the flatness of the landscape I was adding a kind of didjeridu sound to my music. For that reason when I started adding the didjeridu to my music I found I could add it to almost everything I’ve ever written.”

As we sit within Sculthorpe’s studio I hear the not-too-distant drones of neighbours and traffic. The manicured suburb in Sydney’s east seems a far cry from the haunted outback landscapes in his music. I query the apparent dissonance between the two. “Well, I’ve spent time in the outback – quite a bit 
of time. But then Vaughan Williams didn’t get to the Antarctic, Puccini didn’t get to the Golden West, Janacék didn’t get to the moon. So you don’t have to go there to write a piece about a place.” Famously, Sculthorpe penned his 1988 tone poem Kakadu before ever visiting the northern National Park. “I had surrounded myself in books about Kakadu but most of the photographs were of the wet season and therefore the piece is more about that time of year. When I first went there it was the dry season, and almost all
my pieces about Kakadu since have been about the dry season because I especially love it then.”

Sculthorpe has long been aware of the specific tensions that play upon Australian culture. In 1985 when his Piano Concerto won APRA’s award for most-played composition, he neatly described the complicated cultural situation of having “one foot in Australia and one back in Europe; or one foot in Australia and one in Asia”.

Much of this self-discovery came through teaching – a vocation he has dedicated half his life to. “I don’t think the imperative to reflect Australia would have occurred to me if I hadn’t been a teacher. I had to try to force these young composers to find out who they were, what they were on about and what they loved. In trying to find out what they were on about I realised that I had to find out what I was on about. Whatever I had been doing was instinctive. That’s all very well, but I think one really should know what one’s doing and where one’s heading.”

The process of teaching has also been an aperture for new influences. For instance, while he doesn’t dislike jazz (“I much prefer rock music”) it had never been a particular interest before the 1960s. “One morning I arrived at the department of music a bit after 9am and the professor of music Donald Peart said, ‘I want you to give a 13-week series on jazz. Beginning today at 11.’ I probably stayed just a lecture ahead of all the students, but it was very good for me.”

Sculthorpe has now turned out several generations of composers through his teaching. There’s even an entire book, Peter Scuthorpe: An Australian Composer’s Influence by Gwyneth Barnes that deals with this legacy. How does he feel seeing all these composers come up through the years? “Oh … pride. Delight. Peggy Polias who typesets my music studied with Anne Boyd, Matthew Hindson and John Petersen, all of whom were students of mine, so she’s like my spiritual granddaughter. This connection is very special.” Former students say that what they gleaned most from him was a sense of questioning themselves and gaining a sense of purpose. In Barnes’s book, composer John Petersen said of his lessons with Sculthorpe: “It was a shock in a way because I thought, here I am with this composer who I was hoping would teach me to be a good composer, when in fact I have to solve my own problems. I realised that this was Sculthorpe’s way of making us think independently. He had already accepted that we could write music, but he wanted to turn us into self-critical composers.”

Sculthorpe agrees that teaching note-by-note was not his approach. “A composer shouldn’t be locked up in a world of music. You should know about what’s going on around you. When a student would arrive I’d say, ‘Who won the tennis last night?’ or something about politics. Because I think music is about the world we live in. If you’re going to be a composer you have to know what’s happening in the real world; it’s as simple as that.” Sculthorpe no longer teaches but retains the role of Emeritus Professor at Sydney University. His legacy
 is set to continue not only through his students,
 but also through a $3.5 million endowment to the Conservatorium and Department of Music to establish the first chair of Australian music.

By this stage in the interview the afternoon is escaping us and I still want to ask about Quiros. Sculthorpe has yet to finish new sections for the Canberra version and
 I begin to suspect my visit is giving the composer a welcome opportunity to avoid working. The opera itself was inspired by failure. Pedro Fernandez de Quiros was a Portuguese explorer who, inspired by Thomas Moore’s Utopia, became obsessed with discovering the long-rumoured great land mass to the south. In 1606 he finally hit what he believed to be Terra Australis – except it turned out to be the New Hebrides. Disheartened beyond belief, Quiros spent the rest of his life scrambling to fund a final voyage, but died before it could happen.

“In a way, Quiros was the first in this tradition we have in Australia of failure that becomes much more than success,” explains Sculthorpe. “It becomes iconic. Quiros didn’t discover Australia; he failed. Burke and Wills failed. Same with Ned Kelly and the men that died at Gallipoli. Our true heroes in Australia are not anti-heroes and they’re not non- heroes. They’re failures that we turn into heroes.”

I wonder how a sense of failure might speak to Australia’s most successful composer? “I do relate to these icons in our past, but I don’t think of them as failures. It’s something to do with the Australian spirit of who we are. We find a way to reverse their fortunes and I think that’s what I like about them. So I never think of failure.” Is this where the optimistic streak comes in? “Yes. 
I mean, look at Gallipoli. It’s the ultimate story of ineptitude, yet the men that died there become more and more important to the Australian psyche as time passes. I can’t think of any other country that quite does this.”

Sculthorpe’s first Quiros outing was The Visions of Captain Quiros, a single-movement concerto for guitar and orchestra. It was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1980 with John Williams and the Sydney Symphony, but withdrawn not long after. Two years later the story re-emerged as a television opera commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the ABC. “I was very lucky because I had a wonderful librettist Brian Bell and a wonderful conductor in Myer Fredman. The only problem was that the ABC hadn’t put on a television opera for ten or fifteen years. Everyone was sewing sequins on everything and it was just a bit over-decorated. I’d planned it to be very stark and simple and to cost a minimum amount of money because I’m a fairly practical person. But oh, no, no. Looking back, it was produced with a lot of love; it just wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

Thirty years later, Sculthorpe has redesigned Quiros as
 a 100-minute oratorio, retitled Great South Land. It will premiere at the Canberra International Music Festival, which in recent years has treated Sculthorpe as a kind of honorary composer-in-residence with numerous performances, premieres and even occasional remix concerts.

By now the afternoon sun is dipping, and with it the famous face opposite me. I’m suddenly curious what it’s like to be such a well-known composer, of all things, here in Australia. “Well it’s been like that for a long time. I just enjoy it. I enjoy getting into a taxi and the driver knowing who I am.” So they don’t accidentally call him Steve Reich? “No. But I recently got into a taxi and the driver was playing classical music. He said, ‘Oh, I love classical music, especially Australian music, and if I can find it I’ll play you my favourite Australian piece’. And I was expecting it would be a piece by me! He couldn’t find it so he said, ‘Look, you may not have heard of him but if you ever get a chance you must listen to him, he’s a wonderful composer. It’s Dawn Mantras by a composer called Ross Edwards.’” 
One of Sculthorpe’s students.