Right Composition: Meeting Composer Carl Vine

Anna Goldsworthy
The Monthly | Arts & Letters | November 2011

Many years ago in Sydney, moments before I was due on stage, the stage manager breezily mentioned that the composer might be in the audience. I fled to the bathroom and locked the door, scanning the walls for a window through which I might escape. The composer was Carl Vine; the piece was his Piano Sonata no. 1.

Terrifyingly, Vine prefaces the sonata with a set of instructions for the performer:

Tempo markings throughout this score are not suggestions but indications of absolute speed. Rubato should only be employed when directed, and then only sparingly. Romantic interpretation of melodies, phrases and gestures should be avoided wherever possible.

Under the composer’s scrutiny, would I be able to compute the difference between 144 beats per minute and 146? And what exactly did “absolute speed” mean? Was there really no margin for error? Why couldn’t all composers have the good grace to be dead and buried and past the point of protest?

There were no windows in the bathroom, so I trudged reluctantly back to the stage. As I bowed, I scanned the audience for Vine’s distinctive presence: the large patrician head, the statesman’s bearing. Then I realised he wasn’t there after all, and sat down to play with a small disappointment.

“If performers play it wrong, I’d prefer they didn’t play it at all,” Vine tells me, in his immaculate Sydney apartment overlooking Hyde Park. At 57, he still commands any room he enters, though his chiselled features are etched into a softer stone. “My third string quartet wasn’t really played properly until eight years after it was written. The premiere was execrable. The second performance was worse. I thought, this piece is an abject failure.”

It was only when he heard the Goldner String Quartet perform it in 2007 that he recognised the work he had written. “And I burst into tears. It was just surprise, that it really was a piece of music.”

Hearing this, I feel a new sympathy for living composers, for the way they are held hostage by performers. How painful it must be to see your baby publicly executed on stage, or not to be able to recognise it as your own. Still, Vine’s fastidiousness exceeds the norm, possibly because of his own background as performer.

Born in Perth, Vine took up the piano at age ten, after falling out a tree and fracturing his spine, forcing him to abandon the trumpet. It was the piano that awakened him to a world of compositional possibilities – the discovery that “you could actually have more than one melody at a time.” An adolescent encounter with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen inspired a period as a teenage modernist: “I believed that with the transformative power of the brilliance of my mind, my music could change the world.”

After a brief dalliance with nuclear physics, while moonlighting as a concert pianist and composer, Vine moved to Sydney and founded the contemporary music ensemble Flederman with trombonist Simone de Haan. “Flederman was a very robust ensemble and we would abuse each other roundly. And we did some very fine performances of music, very accurate and very good. So that was my training ground. You get it right. You play it right.”

Vine’s music at this time was “terribly clever, terribly studied, and contained lots of good and expansive techniques”. It was only in 1985, when asked to compose a piece to commemorate a young friend who had died of AIDS, that he questioned this approach. “I realised that the way I was composing didn’t convey anything about me. And so in that piece I actually went back to a chorale and wrote a simple scale-based melody with some chunky triads beneath it. At the time I thought, this is incredibly daring. It went completely against the modernist ethos. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t written a major triad since high school.”

In the composition fraternity of the mid ’80s, this was indeed a daring move. “There was a sort of warfare going on, and I was a turncoat. One reviewer to this day cannot review my work without using the word ‘mawkish’.”

Despite the protests, Vine continued to seek a new way of writing, alongside a new rationale for writing. “I worked out over many years that I don’t relate to other people particularly well. This is a way for me to link people, to link into their minds. I don’t have to talk. I don’t have to look at them. I don’t have to work out what to do with my hands or with my feet.”

He had to find a new vocabulary. “I didn’t just want to write I–IV–V–I chord sequences. Where was I actually going with this? That’s a question I’m still answering.” Unlike a writer of prose, who can at least accept the premise of a mother tongue, a composer has to state the rules or invent them in each new piece, before getting down to the business of story. Vine’s new style, as it emerged, was as rigorous as that which preceded it, in which complex rhythms are built into rich, kinetic textures, set alongside an austere lyricism that is all the more moving for its restraint.

The first piano sonata dates back to 1990, five years after his conversion. Championed by pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, the sonata quietly colonised the competitions and conservatories of the United States. The Five Bagatelles for Piano, composed in 1994, has enjoyed a similar popularity in the United Kingdom. Vine is disparaging of the bagatelles, which he composed in just ten days, and yet they contain his style in microcosm: the motoric and jazz influences, the command of sonority and space, and those brief, heart-stopping moments of lyricism, when the cosmic textures compress to something singular, to the human voice.

Despite his international success, in 1998 Vine entered a period of burn-out. “I had been working terribly hard for 30 years, but what was it all for? I had eight commissions outstanding, and no ideas.” He paid back $40,000 for outstanding commissions and reinvented himself as a computer programmer, a pursuit he found “almost as satisfying as writing music, but even more isolating”. His planned two-year sabbatical extended to three years, and then to four, and might have lasted longer had there not been a phone call from Musica Viva, the national chamber music organisation, seeking a new artistic director.

Vine agreed to attend the interview, it seems, out of sport. “I was in my worst, most callous and offhand character role. I told them I didn’t particularly like chamber music. When they asked what I would do with Musica Viva, I said: ‘Give me a string quartet and I’ll put Kylie Minogue with it.’ I was definitely trying to be incendiary but their eyes lit up. And my response was, Hello! This is not the stately old lady I was expecting.”

Vine accepted the position but – possibly to the relief of Musica Viva audiences – never did combine Kylie Minogue with a string quartet. Instead, he devised a new science of programming, based on four tenets of “quality, diversity, challenge and joy”. He also embarked on an intensive study of chamber music, discovering that he did rather like the genre after all. “I knew Beethoven had written late quartets, but it was only by having to hear them performed by some of the greatest ensembles in the world that it dawned on me that this is miraculous.”

The new role thrust him into the role of public figure, so that he was forced to talk, and look at people, and work out where to put his hands and feet. “I still have a touch of the curmudgeon. But all of those postures are of course self-protective. And when it comes to Musica Viva I don’t need to protect myself.”

Whether it was the enforced conviviality or the miracle of late Beethoven, Vine abandoned computer code and returned to music. The last few years have been particularly prolific. Next year sees the premiere of his second piano concerto, performed by Piers Lane and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and a set of songs for soprano and strings, performed by Danielle de Niese and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Vine will be sitting in the audience, seeking to recognise his young. The performers had better get it right, but one suspects they will.


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