Remembering Jack Body: Interview rewind

New Zealand's leading composer Jack Body passed away exactly two years ago next month. We remember Jack with an interview he made in the region a decade ago when he brought his enthusiasm to our shores.

Mountains of Molehills: A chat with Jack Body
Off The Edge, June 2006  

Rewind: Off The Edge caught up with leading composer Jack Body, whose work has been feaured on Kronos Quartet’s CD, while he was in Singapore.

Is the remarkable growth of  contemporary music in New  Zealand a reflection of our  own possible future?   

NEW ZEALAND IS perhaps better known  for its gorgeous alpine scenery, the awesome  All Blacks, a prominent sheep population,  and bungee-jumping than for its art music  scene. Yet contemporary music in the  land of the Kiwis has been anything but  dormant – it is in fact very much alive and  well, with concerts of new music being  performed on a regular basis by orchestras  across the two islands. A scan through the  New Zealand Symphony Orchestra website  alone is revealing – an entire page proudly  announcing the schedule of premieres by  local composers for the year, something  local orchestras can learn from.  

In fact, the remarkable growth of new  music in New Zealand provides a model  for our own budding music scene – there  are many parallels, and perhaps in their  experience, we can see our own future.  

One of the country's leading veteran  composers, Jack Body, whose work can be  found on the Kronos Quartet disc Early  Music  and who is actively engaged in Asian  music traditions, particularly in Indonesia  and China, was recently in Southeast Asia  to promote the upcoming Asia Pacific Festival 2007. Taking place in February 2007, Wellington plays host to a regional meeting of creative minds and a feast of contemporary and traditional music organised regularly by the Asian Composers League (ACL), of which New Zealand has been a long-time member, and which, Body hopes, Malaysia will soon join. 

OTE: Is this the first time you are coming to our region to meet composers? 

Jack Body: No, ACL had a meeting here in Singapore 18 months ago and one of the things we did was to meet composers there and encourage them to rejoin ACL. Malaysia and Singapore have lapsed in their memberships; one reason is that there is no strong composers' association representing either country, and that is one of the requirements for membership. 

But I very much hope that we can have representation from here … because I know there are some very interesting and active composers here and it would be good to share our music on a long term basis. 

In a previous festival in Japan, a composer from Malaysia – Tazul Tajuddin – had sent us a piece and it was played. But there were no composers in attendance, and that's what we'd like to have – we'd like to meet and share, there's so much to share! It's also very good for composers to have some connection with one another, to meet and collectively promote their music. And if you are a group, you can then go to the government and ask for money to promote yourselves. 

OTE: Tell us about the festival that is taking place in February 2007. 

Our closest neighbours are Asian countries so we'd like to be a part of that family. We now have two active gamelan groups here, I have students from China and Korea, and many of our composers have been represented at ACL festivals in Asia. 

In recent decades, the New Zealand government has woken up to the fact that if we want to survive as a country we have to relate to our Asian neighbours, so we have to have a good understanding of Asian cultures. 

We have hosted two ACL festivals in 1984 and 1992, and in 2007 we are hosting it again. That is my initiative, because it's exciting to have many guests from Asia coming to our shores to play their music and to hear our music. 

From Feb 8 to 16, Wellington will see concerts by the best musicians in New Zealand – orchestras, new music ensembles and traditional Asian music ensembles as well. There will also be workshops, particularly in the use of Asian and Pacific instruments, to see how they can be integrated into ensembles to express something of our cultures. 

OTE: The contemporary music scene in New Zealand is a rather recent affair, isn't it? How did it develop into such a vibrant scene that we see today? 

Our first important composer was Douglas Lilburn (b 1915) – we're lucky to have such a powerful composer right at the beginning. He had a number of students and one of them was my teacher, and then below me there are further generations of composers so one can draw a kind of family tree of composers in New Zealand. 

And I remember my teacher saying how important it was to have strong models, not only because one follows them but also because one can react against them, so you have something to stimulate and inspire you, or maybe to do something different from what they did. 

My generation were offered good opportunities largely because of Lilburn as an established composer and as a mentor to the following generations, giving us encouragement and creating opportunities. He would say to performers, "Yes, you can play my music but you must also play these other composers' music," so he was very conscientious about creating opportunities for younger composers, and it was very valuable for me. 

I think that still happens in New Zealand today, because people who visit are always astonished at how supportive we are of one another. That's a result of being a small country with a relatively small number of composers, and we need to support each other - if you have enemies then you have no friends! 

OTE: Behind this flourishing scene, there is also significant government support isn't there? 

We have a music centre established over 10 years ago funded by the Government through the Arts Council called SOUNZ, and that promotes New Zealand music internationally [by providing resources, scores, recordings and funding for commissions and residencies]. 

We also have publishing companies – I am the publisher of Waiteata Music Press and we represent about 60 composers and publish 250 scores, adding 15 or more every year, we publish CDs of New Zealand music … so in our own do-it-yourself way there are a lot of support systems for composers. 

And there are orchestral workshops by the NZ Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) or Auckland Philharmonic where composers can send in scores and take away a recording, which they can use to promote their work. These workshops take place about thrice a year.

There are also very good performance groups – one in Auckland called 175 East, there's STROMA in Wellington – both get funding from the Arts Council and they play new music from New Zealand and around from the world.

OTE: But your orchestras are all publicly funded – that's an advantage isn't it, whereas the Singapore Symphony and Malaysian Philharmonic are moneymaking concerns, and for them money is their concern!

Well, because the NZSO receives public funds, it has to support New Zealand music – how can it receive millions of dollars to play Beethoven and Brahms all year? It's New Zealand money so you have to support New Zealand music. Similarly if there is to be a Malaysian orchestra, you have to play Malaysian music!

OTE: But really it's your arts council that is the central driving force?

It is – it's different from the US where there is a lot of patronage. The council developed out of the ministry – they were giving scholarships in the arts and decided that if we were going to give out money to artists we needed an infrastructure, so the arts council was set up.

Then composers started to appear – I was among them – who also got money to study composition. But in my generation, to be a composer was exceptional – not many people had the idea that one could be a composer! Everyone thought composers were dead, and born in Germany!

You always see a lot of support for various arts, but somehow music composition always gets left out, don't you think?

Well yes, as I said, in my generation it was a new thing. But again, it was thanks to Douglas Lilburn who set the precedent, and they recognised that we could indeed have composers in New Zealand, and they also needed funding.

OTE: Why is there always a perception that music is something foreigners – Westerners – could do well but locals can't?

I think it's to do with a lack of tradition. When you go to Germany or the Netherlands and you tell people you are a composer, you are immediately registered in the composers' tradition of their country, of Bach or Beethoven, whereas in both our countries, without the history then the idea of being a composer is not entrenched within the culture.

It's true that being a composer – I am sure here, as well as in New Zealand – is still a little bit odd, I suspect!

OTE: How much then is the new music scene in New Zealand now part of the general cultural environment?

Composers always feel they don't receive enough support – the amount of money that goes to supporting performance organisations such as orchestras and ballet companies runs into millions of dollars – then look at [how little] money goes to creative artists – especially composers, because they are particularly dependent on commissions unlike, say, painters, who can sell their works.

OTE: How's aware is the public of your composers today?

It's changing now. In recent years there are some younger composers I can boast about – many are my former students – who are very successful and of high profile in society.

[For example] Gareth Farr is very productive and deeply interested in Balinese gamelan, so a lot of his music sparks with the energy and colour of gamelan – his music is dynamic and exciting. He is extraordinary because he has another profession, which is as a drag queen.

OTE: And that helps?

It does! People are fascinated and intrigued, and love it because he's very funny and very good. And people think it's wonderful to have someone talented in this way – he even does shows in drag to his own music. Of course something like that makes everyone know his name!

Then there's John Psathas – his music is inspired as much by jazz as by Greek traditions... very exciting music. He was commissioned to write for the Athens Olympics so there were billboards across the country saying "John Psathas, Olympic Composer"!

Here's something as well, when Prime Minister Helen Clarke came to power and the news asked her what was her priority in government she said, "the arts". She made herself the Minister of the Arts, and that is a very powerful symbol of how much our government respects the arts.

OTE: And I see from the arts council website that you have annual funding for commissions too, that is certainly impressive.

Well, the problem is that one in five applications to commission a new work from a composer succeed. Four will fail, not because they are unworthy but just because there is not enough money at that level – there is a lot of money that goes to big institutions like orchestras, but for ground-roots creativity, I believe it's still very inadequate. And it's a shame because that's people creating, that's where culture happens.

And also, one has to acknowledge that you have to invest in failure, you can't say, "everything we spend on must succeed, we can only put our money on sure bets". No! You have to give money to young people who might fail, but who may succeed the next time and become geniuses! You have to invest in new talent.

OTE: Going back to the Asia Pacific Festival, it is interesting to see the emphasis on local traditions – it's something that composers can learn from, that is, not to shun our heritage.

We hope to promote this concept particularly strongly – we have an ensemble from Korea made of five traditional Korean instruments and four western, playing numerous new repertoire. The first four days of the festival will have a conference to talk about the aspects of this relationship between traditional and contemporary music and what the latter can learn from tradition.

Because to me, that's the key for creating an identity – you can create something new but it seems futile to draw your inspiration directly from America or Europe, when in fact you need to look at your own roots to make something that has a connection with the place you live.

- OTE June 2006

Jack Body passed away in Wellington in May 2015.