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12 November 2010

Ian Cugley (1945-2010)

A self portrait in charcoal by Ian Cugley Image: A self portrait in charcoal by Ian Cugley  
© www.icugley.freeserve.co.uk

[Updated 25 November]

Australian-born composer Ian Cugley passed away on 4 November in the UK. A former student of Peter Sculthorpe, Cugley came to prominence through his 1960s orchestral works Pan, the Lake and Prelude for orchestra. Prior to his move to the UK in the 1980s, he was active in Tasmania where he composed, taught music and computing at the University of Tasmania, and worked as a percussionist.

Since his move to the UK, and partly due to his deteriorating health, Cugley no longer considered himself an active composer.

'I used to be a composer, reasonably well recognised in my own country, but I don't do that now and I tend not to dwell on the past', he stated on his website. His friend and former composition teacher, however, considered Cugley as one of his most gifted students. Sculthorpe and Cugley maintained their friendship through sporadic correspondence:

'While I was deeply concerned about his health problems, his letters, always quirkily-expressed, were remarkably cheerful. He kept me abreast of the music that he was writing and the physical difficulties involved in committing it to paper', said Sculthorpe.

Cugley's Pan, the Lake, recorded by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1968, was based on a theme from Sculthorpe's Irkanda IV.

'Now, whenever I hear this piece, thoughts of Ian will come flooding into my heart. After Ian died, his sister Mavis told me that he'd recently managed to write a guitar solo for his son James. He also wrote a string quartet for a friend. All his life, he took joy in writing music for those who were dear to him. I treasure the fact that he wrote his Little Adagio for strings especially for my fiftieth birthday, in 1979. He was a special composer and a special friend', said Sculthorpe.

Tasmanian composer Don Kay met Cugley in the late 1960s. He remembers Cugley as a multitalented artist who had a formidable intellect but who also harboured many personal demons.

'I first met Ian Cugley when he came to dinner at my house in Hobart in 1969. He had arrived that very day to take up his position of Tutor of Music at the University of Tasmania, at the invitation of Rex Hobcroft, then Lecturer of Music there. By the time Ian left Hobart in 1982, he had established a high reputation as a teacher of harmony and analysis at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. His students responded to him with great respect and much affection. His own specially devised book on harmony became something of a Bible to them.'

'Perhaps his major work, before leaving Hobart, was his very challenging Violin Concerto, written for and premiered by Jan Sedivka in the late 1970s, with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I particularly remember a piano work, Aquarelles (notable for its intricate and delicate traceries of sound), which was broadcast on the ABC by Beryl Sedivka in 1971, in a program of works by Tasmanian composers. Ian possessed a wry and charming self-depreciating sense of humour, as well as impressive artistic talents. I feel very sad that his personal difficulties deprived us of a more significant body of work', Kay said.

Further links

Ian Cugley - homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

The Australian Music Centre connects people around the world to Australian composers and sound artists. By facilitating the performance, awareness and appreciation of music by these creative artists, it aims to increase their profile and the sustainability of their art form. Established in 1974, the AMC is now the leading provider of information, resources, materials and products relating to Australian new music.


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Ian Cugley - memories of a student

Near the end of my time as a student at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music I heard Ian somewhat cynically lament: “There are two types of students, those who will learn it anyway, no matter what you do, and those who will never learn it, no matter what you do”. As far as I was concerned this was far from the truth, for Ian’s teaching expanded both my concept and understanding of “it” far more than would have ever happened had I been left to my own devices. His lectures were engaging, erudite and delivered with both passion and scintillating wit. I found them so attractive that I would fill my quota of elective units each semester first by selecting anything with Ian’s name attached to it, and then anything else of interest. Among the units I studied with him were Australian Music since 1950, European Music since 1960, Electronic Music I & II, Orchestration I & II and Japanese Music. He was a sociable teacher, supplementing his formal classes with “listening nights”, when we would gather at someone’s residence equipped with quantities of both relevant recordings and alcohol, and listen to and discuss works such as Hymnen or Drumming until the early hours.

 Ian always stressed the primacy of actual sound above its representation printed on a page, once remarking “a musicologist is a person who can read music but can’t hear it”, a statement which still causes me feelings of annoyance and guilt, as to this day I am unable to analyse music as well aurally as I can by looking at a score. He used metaphor very effectively in his teaching, and I well remember him comparing the development of western harmony from c.1600 to the late 19th century to the evolution of the bodywork of the 1957 Studebaker (or some similar car).

 He was keen to spread the word to the wider community, co-hosting (with Anne Shirley) a contemporary music program on community radio (7CAE FM/ THE FM), was active in running the station, also contributing articles, cartoons and other artwork to its magazine. Along the way he taught me how to record a concert, and how to broadcast, all with his usual precision and dry humour:


Me (on first entering the radio studio): “Tell me how this works”,

Ian:       “I can’t tell you how it works. I can tell you how to use it”.

 I regained contact with Ian about seven years ago, at which time he seemed to be publicly admitting an interest in music again, and I sent him a recording of the “Voices of History” concert http://www.bicentenary.tas.gov.au/events/event.php?id=21 performed to mark Hobart’s 200th anniversary, which opened with his Canzona for brass and organ. I lost his email address subsequent to that, but found him again via facebook about a year ago, and am pleased to have had insight into his thoughts and the occasional exchange with him over that time. The date of the last entry on his facebook page is that of the day before his death. His sense of humour had not deserted him.

 His facebook comments also reveal that he had started to compose again, although he made characteristic self-deprecatory remarks about his endeavours in a comment to Michael Sydney Jones:

 “Paint — no, eyesight precludes. Write — not really, can't remember how to spell and the few words I can spell I can't type. Compose — I pretend. "Going through the motions" is a phrase more often associated with swimming near a sewage outlet, but it's more or less what I do, and with similar results”

 I remember many people with affection for having helped develop my passion for music, but I value Ian above all others for helping me to understand it.