Barry Conyngham talks about being interviewed

The composer Barry Conyngham wrote the foreword for Lyrebird’s latest book, Take Note: Interviews with Australian Composers, edited by Madeline Roycroft. At the launch of the book at the conference of the Musicological Society of Australia on 11 December 2021 he was interviewed by Suzanne Robinson. Below is an extract from the interview when he talks about his experience of being interviewed and what he sees as the value of a book such as this one.


SR: I’m sure you’ve been interviewed many times – is there any interview that stands out in your memory?

[At the World Expo in Osaka in 1970] I’d been involved in creating the complex sound tracks for the Australian pavilion. As it happened the pavilion next to the Australian one was the West German one (the Germanys were still east and west). That pavilion was dedicated entirely to the music of Stockhausen. Twelve hours of live performance of Stockhausen seven days a week for six months!

The interview I’m thinking  of was as a result of the two governments deciding on a meeting and interview between the two composers, which given our relative status was very flattering. Karlheinz in his wisdom, and somewhat evidently typically, said he would be happy to talk to me but he would only talk in German. So we had an interview that consisted of his German being translated into Japanese which was then translated into English so that I could understand it. That’s all I need to say. The whole conversation had a kind of Monty Python quality and I’ve never forgotten [it] because I knew that Stockhausen’s English was better than mine, it was a piece of nationalism gone mad.

Another experience of a more formal interviews was more recent. Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have another orchestral piece done in St Petersburg. I couldn’t be there obviously, travel’s not permitted, and they wanted to have an interview with me online. This was with the interviewer and other musicians on stage. The laborious nature of translation combined with the fact that it was online and hard to hear made for problems. Indeed sometime I was not sure if the others were speaking Russian or their English. Thankfully kinds of interview are unlikely to be in a book.

SR: Do composers or you see interviews as a necessary evil when a new work is performed, especially a big one, and maybe especially one in a country where people wouldn’t perhaps know you as well as they do here? I’m sure it’s a requirement but is there any benefit to the composer in doing that?

BC: Usually the people putting on the concert, publishers or whatever, external people, these are essentially publicity marketing kinds of interviews and I did refer to them in the foreword, saying that they have certain perilous elements to them, especially if it involves translation, because you don’t know what the translator is doing, so that can become an issue. But I must say I can’t imagine any composer or any artist, or maybe any person, not being willing to be interviewed if  it’s actually promoting or assisting in the understanding of their work. And once again to draw back to the book, these are particularly valuable interviews in my view because they’re done by people who are musicians, in many cases composers [and] academics.  They have a level of technical capability and presumably interest so that the conversations are very useful and perhaps more penetrating.  First of all to people who are interested in the music, but also to academics or just the two people involved.

SR: You mentioned that there’s a capacity I suppose if you’re interviewed by a composer that it would be analytical and actually I’m quite surprised that some interviews went down that path but not nearly as many as I might have expected. And some of them, as you said in your foreword, are quite revelatory, some very candid and frank. But you use the word kaleidoscopic and, just to quote what you say, “They exhibit a wide variety of perspectives and styles, eras and concerns, character traits and individual revelations”.  Was it a surprise or do you think the kaleidoscopic nature of the interviews is perhaps reflective of the breadth or diversity of Australian composition at the moment?

BC: Yes – the actual music is very diverse but the people are too. First of all, what’s really interesting is the age range. Not that I know the age range of everybody.  Larry Sitsky is well into his 80s and Helen [Gifford] too. They are one end of the spectrum. Some of the other composers must be several decades younger. That alone is an interesting thing in terms of their perspectives. And I think those kinds of musical interests reflected in the book and in the work of the composers comes out in the interviews, in the conversations. I forgot to look up the definition of kaleidoscopic, but my definition would suit the idea that on a number of dimensions – age, social area, gender perspective, there may even be undercurrents of other kinds of political interest, but lots of diversity there. A lot of that comes out in these interviews because they are deeper and more personal than many other kinds of interviews. Also in this context, the character of the composer I know well is often revealed. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing. I don’t know everybody in the list but I know a percentage and their voices bring their personalities back to me very quickly. I won’t embarrass people in the audience who are in the book, but it is interesting that these interviews are of the kind that reveal not just the people’s thoughts or what they want to talk about, but also can reveal some unconscious element of their personality. Hence the point I make about these interviews being particularly revealing and interesting.

Going back to bad experiences, perhaps the worst experience I’ve had, and it hasn’t happened too often, is being interviewed for television.  It happens when on a program where the interviewer, the host of the program, has no idea who the hell you are! They’ve been told this person has just done something newsworthy and are handed a list of questions. So they just ask a question and you answer it.  Then they ask the next question.  It  feels as if it doesn’t matter what the answer is. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but I can assure you it’s extremely unnerving. Most interviews are a kind of conversation, but in this situation of a television or a news [program], where it’s very tightly timed, they just ask the questions and move on. You could say anything. You could say something very provocative, they would move on. I mean you could probably even say, “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever been asked I think you’re an idiot” and they would just ask the next question. It seems they are  not interested in what the answer is. These perils of interviewing are not present in this book.

SR: You’ve reminded me that we put some pages of score in the book but because of copyright and other problems we couldn’t have a page for everybody, which is quite a regret because even if you just rifled through the book and had a look at those scores you’d see just how diverse this group is. So that’s a regret in the book, but there are some pages, for instance a page of Julian Yu’s orchestral music and a page of Helen Gifford’s Music for the Adonia, so there’s quite a lot of variety. But we’ve got the opportunity to ask you what you’re working on at the moment. You mentioned the orchestral work, is there something else in the pipeline?

BC: Those of you who know my music know I am obsessed with writing orchestral music. By the way, every time I see a young composer I say don’t do that, it’s not smart to do that. But too late for me, so my mid-Covid escape was to write yet another orchestral piece. Moreover a number of years ago I was approached, or finally convinced, to write a symphony. I had avoided writing something called a symphony up till then, this was 2012. No thought of another until now. I don’t know, maybe it was a sign of trying to turn the page. Hence I spent much of this year writing  a work at moment called Symphony 2.  It’s an attempt to do probably what every artist on the planet is doing at the moment, which is reflecting on the pandemic. The potential emotional content, the structural content of the pandemic is I’m sure going to echo through the whole artistic world. I have been thinking maybe we’re going to have lots of novels, paintings, plays, choreography and music about what we’ve all been through.  As it’s  an experience shared by everybody on the planet it will be an interesting experiment. So that piece has taken much of my year. And almost in contrast, I’m very thin on the ground in piano music, so in the last few months I’ve been writing some piano music. I have been reminded what most composers will tell you, it’s just as hard to write a piece for piano as it is to write for orchestra, and in some cases more interesting. So, since I’ve had more time  to focus of my own music this year, with less outside distractions, that’s what I’ve been up to.

SR Thank you, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much for writing the foreword and being with us today.