Interview with Featured Composer Gordon Kerry – part 1
Few people on the planet would use the word “evanescent” in casual conversation. Gordon Kerry is one of them. That should not come as a great surprise, given his formidable reputation as a journalist and author. These additions to his other careers, as a successful composer and a respected music administrator, make him a somewhat daunting interview subject.“I really, really hate being asked that question,” he responds with knee-jerk sincerity when I ask him which composers impressed him when he was a student.
“It’s a bit like when somebody asks who’s your favourite composer, or who are the four people you’d like to have dinner with. One could change one’s mind on those things, depending on the time of day. They’re questions where the answers are evanescent by definition.”
Fair enough. Still, there must have been some musical figures who appealed to him in his formative years.
“I suppose that, bizarre as it might seem, I was very interested in the music of Pierre Boulez,” Kerry offers, “partly because of its extreme abstraction. At the same time I was interested in the music of Benjamin Britten, who to me had a similar kind of handle on the relationship between words and music, which has been very important to me.”
Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe, Debussy and Ravel, Wagner and Strauss were all important, he adds. “Can I stop now?”
Which brings us to the evanescence.
“When these things start getting written down and quoted as unalterable facts, it can sometimes misrepresent how one feels,” explains Kerry. So his student sources of inspiration must go down as ephemeral concerns, which leaves us with the more lasting matter of the relationship between words and music.
“In many cases my works have had their generative moment in a poetic image or thought,” Kerry explains, citing “No Orphean Lute,” the piano trio commissioned by Phillip Henry, who was artistic director of Musica Viva at the time. It was 1994, and Henry was terminally ill. Kerry selected the title in reference to the poet Robert Laurel’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, which describes a sea burial and instructs, “Ask for no Orphean lute to pluck life back.”
“We both knew that he was unlikely to live to hear the piece,” Kerry remembers. “So it was an elegy that recognised the finality of the situation. That and the sense of the sea became parts of how I thought about the music as I was writing it.”
Kerry’s second piano trio, “Im Winde”, also refers to a poem that addresses the topic of death. Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “Hälfte des Lebens” (“Half of Life”) describes autumn as the ineluctable harbinger of winter, middle age as a step on the path towards death.
His string quartet “Elegy” was a response to his mother’s clearly imminent death; a concern with mortality seems to be a common theme.
“I don’t think of myself as a morbid person,” Kerry demurs. “It is often said that music is about facing mortality. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. In Maynard Solomon’s book about Mozart, he talks about how the architectural imagination of the composer staves off mortality until the music stops. That’s the thing about Mozart. It’s a kind of inexhaustible creation, during which time we are, perforce, alive.”
I can’t think of the last time I heard anybody use the word “perforce” in a real sentence. Kerry seems determined to create an expected sound world even in conversation.
© Shirley Apthorp 2011