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10 September 2009

Interview with Larry Sitsky

Larry Sitsky Image: Larry Sitsky  
© The Australian National University

'I believe in the power of music [...] but I don't like man-made religions, because they're inevitably corrupt, bigoted and lead to wars.' This quote comes from an interview with Professor Larry Sitsky, who celebrates his 75th birthday on 10 September 2009. In the interview, originally broadcast on The Music Show on ABC Radio National in February 2005, Sitsky talks about his faith in the power of music, his composition, his early years in Australia, and his major research on Australian 20th-century piano music. The program began with an extract from Sitsky's Violin Concerto No. 4, which gave Sitsky and the program's presenter Andrew Ford the reason to discuss Sitsky's friendship with Jan Sedivka, the Tasmanian violinist and pedagogue who passed away this August and for whom Sitsky wrote his violin concertos.

Larry Sitsky: Every seven or eight or nine years, he would come and nag and say 'I want another one'. So this one was going to be No. 4. And he said to me, 'What do you think about tackling something closer to home?' because we had used various esoteric subject matters before. And I said to him, 'I think I'm now ready to do it without being too self-conscious or indeed without worrying too much about it.' And he said, 'I feel the same way.' So that's how it happened.

I went to the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders here in Canberra, just around the corner from the School of Music, and sat there listening to thousands, I suppose, of recordings of folk tunes. And what occurred was that I arrived at a kind of ethos of what Aboriginal music might be to a Western-trained composer like myself. And so I took certain ideas and gestures and rhythms, and the piece is based on them. It's not in any sense any kind of re-creation, but there are some obvious elements: use of drone, the kind of corroboree-like feeling in the faster sections. It's the kind of thing that Basil Fawlty would have called 'the bleedin' obvious'. Because the rest of it is mine, and the title Dreaming is of course also an ambiguous title. It could mean Aboriginal mythology; it could mean the composer dreaming; it could mean the composer writing about Jan Sedivka's dreaming. So I leave all that for you to think about.

Andrew Ford: You mentioned not being self-conscious about it any longer - this is nearly 50 years after you arrived in Australia. Why do you think you were self-conscious for the first half-century of your time in Australia?

Larry Sitsky: It's funny, it just didn't feel right, it felt artificial, and I thought that a number of composers that did it, did it for political reasons rather than musical ones. And I wasn't comfortable with that. At this stage, suddenly it felt OK. There was a little inner voice which said, 'You can do this, without embarrassment'. It's hard to explain, isn't it? I'm sure you've been there yourself.

Andrew Ford: Yes, I still have qualms, I must say.

details of sitsky's score ballade and refrainsLarry Sitsky: Well, that's right. And I just thought, 'I think I know how to handle the raw material.' Of course it's a Western piece, it's based on pedal points, it's harmonically oriented, all those asymmetric rhythms are Bartókian, they just come from my own past. But it's a kind of - if not marriage, at least an acquaintance of two cultures looking at each other, maybe making a first step, for me, anyway.

Andrew Ford: We've talked on this program before, and also in the documentary series, Dots on the Landscape, about your beginnings: born in China into a Russian Jewish family, and then making your way to Australia, in 1951. You obviously encountered (and you have talked about this as well) an enormous culture shock, or perhaps I should say cultural shock, on arriving in Sydney. But I'm wondering now, looking back from more than 50 years it is now, [about] the comparison that you would make between what you found then and what you find now, in Australia, and how much, if at all, it has changed in terms of Australia's attitude to the sort of thing you do: composing music.

Larry Sitsky: It's strange, isn't it? Some things don't appear to have changed or shifted that much. I think in the book [Sitsky: Conversations with the Composer by Jim Cotter], I say something about going to a lecture by Alfred Hill. He said something like, 'As long as this country will honour people who can kick a ball or run fast, or jump higher than anyone else, and stop at that point, we will always continue to be a cultural backwater.' Words like that, which I've never forgotten, still seem to have some kind of legitimacy today. So some things seem very much the same. On the other hand, Sydney at that time was a very - what's the word - comfortable, sunny, seaside suburb, post-colonial, very English, [with] hardly any beginnings of incursions by other cultures at that stage - and I include even American culture, which is an English-speaking one - well, if one says that loosely of course. But you see, it's now shifted; it's a huge change with all that post-war immigration, of which I was a part, and of course huge Asian immigration. So some things would be unrecognisable to someone who grew up in Sydney in the immediate post-war era.

But the business of being a musician, and being a composer especially, is still, I think in most Australians' eyes, a fairly freaky activity, and I'm not sure that historians, looking back at this time, won't see it - and I'm talking about our time now - as some sort of Dark Age. I go into the university pretty well every day and grapple with the business of how our lords and masters see culture and see music in the great scheme of things, and it's not always a pretty picture. I'm sure you know what I mean.

Andrew Ford: Being based in Canberra I suppose gives the whole thing a certain imminence which it might not have if you were somewhere else. You've been in Canberra now since the late 1960s, haven't you?

Larry Sitsky: Yes, on and off, yes. We settled here in '67.

Andrew Ford: It's such a funny place. I'm personally very fond of Canberra, I know a lot of people aren't, but even being fond of it, you'd have to say it's a funny place, and I wonder whether you've ever felt you've been kind of out of the mainstream, stuck there in the nation's capital.

Larry Sitsky: Even that sounds weird, doesn't it?

Andrew Ford: Yes, it does.

Larry Sitsky: Well when we arrived, it certainly was unlike any place I'd lived in, and I suppose to a certain extent it still is. But I learned very quickly that you have to make something of it and you have to use the place for what it can offer. And what it's offered to me is a very nice base from which to operate, a lifestyle which means I can get to work in ten minutes, I don't have to fight traffic, and it's a kind of in-between place, that is, it's not small enough to bore me, and it's not large enough to begin to devour me. So I found that it's very comfortable, and it's promoted an atmosphere whereby I've worked and produced a huge amount of work. So, I'm grateful, but I understand when people say they can't hack it, or they find it really odd.

Andrew Ford: It's undeniably odd, Larry, Canberra.

Larry Sitsky: Well in that case I'm in the right place.

Andrew Ford: When you came to Sydney, one of the things you must have noticed coming from the background that you did, a specific cultural background and a specific religious background, was coming to a country in which presumably the life of the spirit, shall we say, wasn't valued in the same way. And you, it seems to me, are somebody who has always been in one way or another, quite a spiritual person; mysticism interests you very much. Anybody who's seen The Golem will know about the fascination with cabbalistic beliefs, and there are the Gurdijeff pieces. We're moving towards listening to some of a piano concerto whose title is 'The 22 Paths of the Tarot'. Could you talk about... well actually there's two things here. Perhaps, first of all, let's talk about finding yourself in Australia where those sorts of interests were, I would think, even less mainstream than composing music.

Larry Sitsky: Yes, very much so. And in fact the immediate side effect to all that was that I stopped composing for a number of years. It seemed a totally ridiculous activity, and completely at odds with the world that I found myself in. So for a number of years, I threw myself into performance, and when I went to study in America, it was as a pianist, not as a composer because, as I say, it seemed pointless to pursue that. What's interesting too, is that no sooner had I got on the boat - in those days, believe it or not, it was cheaper to go by boat than fly... so, I got on the boat in Sydney and went off, and on the boat I began to compose. I wrote a violin sonata. So it was a kind of, 'I've escaped from that world, and now it's OK to compose again'. So it did have that kind of effect. New music was not only exotic, it just didn't occur enough for it to even have a label attached to it. I remember the huge excitement when Goossens gave the first performance of The Rite of Spring. This was in the '50s, you know, and of course Goossens got unstuck through a kind of semi-mystical thing. They got him - dealing with the Book of Revelations just wasn't something polite society did.

Andrew Ford: I know this is a sort of a short conversation that we're having, and I'm about to ask you a very big question - it may be impossible to give a satisfactory answer, but can you describe the connection between mysticism and music for you? I'm assuming that there must be one?

Larry Sitsky: Yes, it's a complicated question. I suppose the initial connection is through ritual, through religious ritual, the witnessing of very moving ceremonies in whatever faith you belong to, or even if you don't belong to a faith, going along and witnessing something, a funeral, a wedding, celebration of a holiday. And the role that music plays in that celebration. I think that was the beginning. In China, quite close to us there was a Buddhist temple, and I was fascinated by the sounds coming out of there. It was behind a fairly high wall, and I remember sitting there, listening to the chanting, and the monks drumming, and using gongs and so on. Eventually they got used to this funny white boy sitting there, and they said, 'Do you want to listen? Come in'. So there again was a memory which I've never forgotten, which was connected with ritual, with the belief that music somehow can take us to a higher sphere. And I think everything that's happened subsequently is linked to those beginnings, the power of music, the invocation of music to do something that will better us. I don't know if that's a reasonable answer for you, Andrew.

Andrew Ford: No, I think that's a very good answer. Do you consider yourself a religious composer?

Larry Sitsky: No. Well you see I have trouble with man-made religions. So when you asked 'religious', I guessed, perhaps wrongly, that you meant belonging to an established faith. If you don't mean that, then the answer is yes, because I believe in the power of music to achieve these states. But I don't like man-made religions, because they're inevitably corrupt, bigoted and lead to wars. Most of our wars are thanks to established religions. So it's a curious dichotomy, I know, but when you see music out of that sphere, as it were, then it's possible to be religious and not belong to a religion.

I remember our Chinese neighbour falling sick, and the doctor coming, and to my utter astonishment - I must have been, I don't know, seven, eight - the doctor pulled out a flute, and he played to him, and of course, being a kid, you don't have too many prejudices or preconceptions, and I remember asking, 'What's going on?' And my Chinese friends next door said, 'He's healing him'. And I remember thinking, isn't that fantastic! You see, that's something that I still believe to this day. So these early experiences fostered what you call mysticism, the belief in the power of sound.

Andrew Ford: You said, perhaps in not quite so many words, but it's very clear from reading this book, Sitsky: Conversations with the Composer, that you felt very much like an outsider when you first arrived in Australia in 1951. Do you still feel like an outsider in some respects?

Larry Sitsky: Rarely now, because I've now understood where I am, and also I belong to the stream of Australian music history, and indeed as you know, I'm a fierce protector of it.

Andrew Ford: Well, you've got this new book about to come out, which is a survey of what you call the 'Dark Ages'.

Larry Sitsky: Don't misunderstand me, Andy, I call the Dark Ages now, not necessarily earlier.

Andrew Ford: So you think that we've regressed?

Larry Sitsky: Yes, in some ways indeed we have.

Andrew Ford: The book, Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century - is there something recognisable, identifiable there as being Australian piano music of the 20th century?

Larry Sitsky: You know, when I began the project, it was curiosity. I wanted to know more about what preceded us today, and whether there is a stream of some kind. I also, like most of us, had real misgivings about some of the earlier years of the century, and thought, 'Oh God, there's going to be a lot of rubbish'. Well there was a lot of rubbish, but what was incredibly heartening was that there was a slender, perhaps, but nevertheless a thread of serious art music right from the beginning of the century, and I thought, 'that's great, we now have a tradition of some kind.' And so the beginnings of all of this, with people like Brewster-Jones, Agnew, Sutherland, Hanson and so on, have led to where we are today. It's no longer that funny myth that Australian music only started in 1960, or whatever the date used to be. That's crap. There were people about who wrote seriously and earnestly and experimentally, and I was delighted to discover them.

This interview extract is published courtesy of The Music Show program. A longer transcript of the interview is available on The Music Show website. Larry Sitsky's interview will also feature as part of the program this coming Saturday (12 September 2009). To mark Sitsky's birthday, the National Library of Australia has launched a new Sitsky website, created and donated by Dr Marcia Ruff Hewitt.

Further links

Larry Sitsky - AMC profile
Larry Sitsky - National Library of Australia's Sitsky website
Cotter, Jim: Sitsky: Conversations with the Composer - AMC Shop
Sitsky, Larry: Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century - AMC Shop
The Music Show (ABC Radio National)

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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