Elliott Gyger on Being an Australian Composer – In Conversation With…


I never used to think of Australianness as
being something important to me as a composer, but I guess a few times early on I did set
texts or responded to texts that had a specific Australian context. The earliest was probably
Five Bells, a big Kenneth Slessor poem which I made a choral setting of and later wrote
an orchestral piece based around, and I think that I found that text really resonant not
because it was Australian, but actually because it was about Sydney harbour at night, and
I grew up by Sydney harbour. The landscapes that it describes of the moonlight
across the water and the sounds of the harbour at night were part of my consciousness from
when I was a small child, so I really liked that idea and responded to that in a very
particular sense of place kind of way. And I was probably actually quite happy that my
earliest Australian landscape pieces were urban and nocturnal as distinct from I guess
what one’s first sort of thought of as an Australian landscape is, which is outback
and noon. And I’ve written outback noon pieces since
then, From The Hungry Waiting Country being one of them, and also Fire In The Heavens
which I wrote for Gondwana Voices. Both of those pieces by the way I wrote while I was
living overseas, and From The Hungry Waiting Country was in fact a response to current
affairs in a way, because back around the time that I conceived the piece in 2004-2005,
Sydney’s dams were at a very very low ebb, and there were people saying that it was actually
possible that the city could run out of water within 3-4 years, and I don’t know about
you but I found that pretty frightening at the time, even from a distance, it was probably
even more frightening if you were here. So that was kind of like a punch to the gut, a visceral
thing like – the place that I grew up becoming, uninhabitable that’s scary stuff. So, but I think that
the sense of being Australian as a composer is something that only really made sense to
me after spending time out of Australia, and I don’t think that Australian music all
sounds the same, I think it is actually pretty diverse, I think you’d probably say the
same for most countries’ music actually. For all that we’ve got maybe cliche ideas
of what American music sounds like or what Dutch music sounds like or what German music
sounds like, there’s plenty of counter-examples to that. I think the national identity thing
in that sense is maybe overstated. But what I do think is that, Australia along with probably
some other countries, has an interesting perspective on the contemporary music world, because we’re
geographically removed from the big population centres, the places where sort of the major
art movements, the major events seem to take place, mainly North America and Europe, maybe
also to some extent Asia, maybe not yet but I’m sure that will happen more and more
in the coming years. So we’re a long way away from them geographically, but we’re
also a small enough nation that we can’t, and a small enough culture, that we don’t
suffer from delusions of self-sufficiency. That was one thing that I found actually dismaying
to some extent about being in the US. It is a very very large country, but so much of
the musical world there has no clue that stuff is happening in Europe, for example. At least
in the contemporary music world, it’s like ‘there’s so much going on in the US like
why would we care about contemporary French music or contemporary Dutch music ’. In Australia
we are a large enough scene that there’s some sense of cohesiveness, but we also have
got a perspective, an outsider’s perspective, which I think is a really healthy one.