Review: Sun Music: Journeys And Reflections From A Composer’s Life

Sun Music: Journeys And Reflections From A Composer's LifeSun Music: Journeys And Reflections From A Composer’s Life by Peter Sculthorpe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d owned this book for a while but it took Sculthorpe’s recent death to spur me towards it. It was always my intention to read it, but I suppose now is as fitting a time as any, given the amount of obituaries and memorials which have been printed of late.

The work is interesting, though the product of later-life reflection rather than at-the-time recollection. It definitely helps to be aware of musical form and conventions, and reading stave better than I do would bring more enjoyment from the musical excerpts printed throughout the text. It’s pleasingly broken into sections detailing either parts of Sculthorpe’s life (youth, schooling) or musical development (Bali, Japan, Kakadu) and it’s the latter which prove most interesting. The development of Sculthorpe’s language, especially in early years is interesting, as is his move to synthesise Australian and Asian ideas and music into a music of this land.

He’s described somewhere as doing for Australia what Copland did for parts of the US, something not too far from the mark, I think. But I must admit there were surprises to be had – the inclusion of a graphical score for improvisation, the number of pieces which used amplified forces or tape, and the amount of prepared piano/plucked piano strings stuff really surprised me, given that I was more familiar with some of his more conventional work.

Though there’s a constant cast of famous individuals, the key character in the story of Sculthorpe appears to be the sun. It’s what the narrative returns to, and forms as close to a religious background as the text allows. Solar worship – well, not quite as cap-W as that might indicate – runs through his music, so it’s unsurprising Sol provides his autobiography’s title. It also informs the optimism on display throughout.

There are downsides to the work. Most obviously is the sort of revisionism that comes with writing an autobiography instead of merely printing diaries: there’s a distinct sense that Sculthorpe’s tact has been exercised. The only person criticised, really, is himself, and then it’s not in hugely harsh terms. While he was, from all accounts (and what’s written here) quite the bon viveur, there’s a mannered feel throughout that sometimes detracts from the momentous times at hand. I mean, the composers Sculthorpe interacts with are legends, but there’s a lot of self-deprecation at these encounters.

(To be fair, I suppose I’d probably downplay my role in the relationship if I was mates with Toru Takemitsu, too.)

Where the book shines – aside from the information on his music, ethnomusicology, celebs and travel – is in its small diary section. Sculthorpe wasn’t a diarist, and he included the effort presumably to show why he didn’t continue. But it’s where his prose becomes a bit more emphatic; it covers, mostly, an excursion in the 1980s to Russia, and is full of drinking and love. It’s a happy contrast to the more considered parts of the text, and best conveys the composer’s bonhomie and questing nature.

The book ends with the death of Sculthorpe’s mother, and a reiteration of – for all his vital connexion with Asia – how important his mother-introduced love of Mahler was to the man. It’s a fitting, quietly traditional end. Though I wish there’d been more insight to the rest of his life (the book was published in 1999 so obviously misses quite a lot) this is an interesting read if you’ve any stake in Australian music, whether as a listener, a composer or a practitioner.

Sculthorpe was possibly the most well-known modern Australian composer, and his work pointed the way towards a further exploration of our place in Asia. Whether you agree with his musical language or find it annoying, he can’t be ignored.

(Also, he wore a wicked cravat.)

My Goodreads profile is here. 

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