Interview - Robert Constable discusses composing with Dr Jane McKellar
JM - What do you think compels or inspires you to compose music? Have you felt this compulsion all
RC- I’m not sure what causes it, but I automatically invented my own music in my head from the earliest time I can recall, say, at around 4 years of age. Music has always been there, fully formed and playing out in my mind as I went through my daily routines. It was like an accompaniment to my own personal ballet. No doubt these were my own versions of what I was hearing on the radio. So, I suppose if one has music in one’s head it’s logical to take the next step at some point in time and start writing it down so that it could be heard again and again and perhaps heard by others. But then there is the doubt in one’s mind: “Just because I like my music doesn’t mean that anyone else will like it. It will take a bit of courage to test that out one day.”
JM - Can you remember your first music creations, and what they were like?
RC - I can’t remember any pieces in detail apart from one or two very vague fragments; these tell me that my musical ideas as a child were based upon the music I was experiencing at home. We didn’t have a record player but we did have the radio, which was frequently turned on and playing in the background. So, the music I heard was the popular stuff of the 1950s and early 1960s that was on the air waves. Crosby, Como, Sinatra and the various rock and roll recordings when they became popular. My brother and I listened to radio serials every afternoon between 4.00pm-6.00pm. There was lots of music in those as well as the acting and the music was put there to illustrate the stories. I must have soaked it up like a sponge because in later life I have made a habit of creating music to illustrate stories of one sort or another. But I didn’t write any music down until I went to study at the Conservatorium as a full-time student in 1970.
JM - Can you describe in more depth the impact that the music you were hearing had upon you?
RC - It must have been quite profound because I recall that my musical feelings were, to me, the most obvious emotions I had. Looking back, I realise that I absorbed everything I heard in a way that stored it in some sort of logical filing system inside my brain. Having stored it in my head I could, after a fashion, replicate it pretty much instantly at the piano, which was only limited by my clumsy technique at the piano at that time. I think I always knew that if I wanted to take my music further than my improvised, stumbling keyboard efforts would allow, I needed to understand it
better. This meant developing the ability to analyse it, assign labels to its various components and so on. But I think I only came to this conclusion in my late teens and I didn’t gain the ability to write musical notation until I went to the Con in 1970. I suppose I could have written music down before this but it never occurred to me to try to do it until I attended harmony classes in which we were given homework assignments such as imitating little piano pieces and writing four part harmony exercises.
JM - With little prior exposure to Western art music, and no theory training, how were you able to do your student harmony and theory homework from commencing your diploma?
RC - I had some exposure to classical music from the age of 8 or 9 onwards. For example, my mother would sometimes take us to the Sydney Symphony’s free concerts on Sunday afternoons at the Sydney Town Hall. In all, we probably did this 10 or more times when I was little. Again, being a musical sponge, what I was hearing and seeing probably gave me much more information to process and learn from than most people.
When I was at the Conversatorium, music history and harmony classes unleashed a torrent of personal activity that I had never experienced before. I can still play at the piano my very first harmony assignment dating from Feruary 1970. We were asked to write a few bars for piano in a baroque style.
Now, some 50 years later, I can remember every detail of what I wrote. I responded the following week by presenting to our teacher, Mr Ramm, a complete four movement suite in what I thought might be the style of Handel. It was. (see example below). Being able to do this without prior instructions in composition or harmony is, I suppose you’d
have to say, quite unusual and somewhat prescient. Every exercise I did in those classes took me further down the path of writing down the music that I had in my head, pretty much all of it imitating quite accurately the styles of a number of composers whose music I was now hearing regularly.
JM - Did being appointed lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium impact your musical philosophy?
RC - I think it did, quite profoundly, in fact. The reason I say this is that as soon as I graduated I had to turn around and be a student/scholar once again to prepare all the classes I had to give. Every lecture I delivered, particularly in music history courses, was the result of dozens upon dozens of hours of preparation work during which I tried to anticipate not just what I would need to say in my lecture but, just as importantly, all the questions I was likely to be asked. I had to be 150% prepared for every class. This process expanded my knowledge of the repertoire, analysis techniques, the language I used to label everything and to connect up all the threads. It was, as they say, a steep learning curve.
Even back in the 1970s (1974 was my first year of teaching at the Con), we surveyed students at the end of each semester. My course content and teaching style seem to have always been given 5 star ratings by my students. I think, in addition to all the preparation I did, I was something of a natural communicator. I really enjoyed standing up in front of a group of people and talking about the wonderful music which meant so much to me. In turn, I wanted my students to have their own versions of that feeling of love and adoration for the art.
JM - Did your engagement as Seymour Group pianist and the extensive exposure to Western contemporary art music influence your musical philosophy and/or your notated compositional
style and/or your improvisation techniques?
RC - Yes, I think it did. But more than that, it enhanced my status with colleagues as well as with the students, many of whom turned up at the Seymour Group concerts. The Seymour Group had a sort of cult following in those days. So, they heard me in the dual roles of teacher and performer.
As far as my own composition was concerned, I wasn’t seriously doing that in the 1970s and 80s. My colleagues only knew me as a clever manipulator of notes, writing fugues and complex canons as well as ditties in more recent musical styles. I could also play 1920s and 30s popular stuff, which I harmonised in a pretty cool way. The reason I was reluctant to write my own music was that I was aware that any music I was likely to compose would be seen as quite retrograde
in style. This was an era of avante garde music and when composition was taught, the curriculum was based on tone row manipulation and the work of god-composers like Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I had zero interest in writing anything like that. I was happy enough to play it from time to time - that is, I could understand its musical logic - but I couldn’t have written in those styles.
However, there were some exceptions to following the avante garde among my colleagues: Martin Wesley-Smith, Vincent Plush and Ross Edwards were writing tonal music. I think I recall reading an extract from one of the London papers in which a critic had unfairly described Ross’s Piano Concerto as being “…the sort of music that gives A major a bad name.” While it was certainly music that used major chords a great deal, it was also a very fine work in my opinion, and I thought Ross was musically very courageous to write it just as he did. And so, armed with these recent example from my friends, I began gradually to emerge from where I’d been hiding and started putting my own music pen to paper.
JM - You compose in two distinct processes and styles – a notated Western style and a sharply
contrasting improvisatory style that is, to some extent, imitative of other people’s music. Can you
broadly describe each style and explain how and/or why you use them? Do you use each
process and style for different purposes?
RC - Since my student days I’ve been able to quite deftly imitate any style of music I have experienced. This is very useful for my theatrical music, and also becomes apparent, I believe, in my silent film music, which I always improvise at the piano. Even so, while my theatre and film music might sound like an accurate replication of older styles, such as ragtimes or cakewalks, I can also write pieces that are uncannily in the style of Offenbach, Faure or Poulenc, or anyone else you care to name. Let me play two examples here: One is music I originally improvised for a film called 'Bardleys The Magnificent' a 1926 King Vidor film. I did this film at the Australian Silent Film Festival in 2010 in which I made up this music for the famous lake scene. The music I invented is reminiscent of Faure's salon music (or maybe it's Offenbach). The second example is the second movement of my Suite for Concert Band (1990) which I called 'FP' and in which I imitate Poulenc's style.
There are certain personal ‘thumbprints’ that are unmistakeable and easy to detect, I think. These are a use of composition devices such as repetition, voice leading, fugal imitation, pedal points among other features. Also, in my silent film work I will often throw in a phrase or two of a well-known classical tune, not for any particular artistic purpose but just to show my audience that “these two tunes fit together, don’t they!!” This always adds a humorous element and can be downright funny. This is an example of music I originally made up for the hilariously funny scene between Buster Keaton and a stolen horse and cart, in the movie, 'Cops' in which I superimpose a snippet from Bizet's Carmen.
In terms of structure, my silent film music, whenever I write it out as concert pieces, no longer exists as part of an improvised soundtrack that is tied to a film. As concert pieces, in keeping with the music from earler eras, which they imitate, they usually have fairly straightforward structures such as A:B:A, variations, or rondo etc. My extended instrumental pieces usually take on a type of minimalist style involving much repetition of ideas and a gradual shift from one region to the next. This, of course, takes a certain amount of skill to manipulate. The thing is, if there is one constant element, such as a pedal point, rhythm or harmony that doesn’t change for 2-3 minutes, it allows all the other
elements that are operating at the same time a much greater range in which to be expressive. Also, I enjoy the compositional challenge this style of music presents. But even more than these things, the style I have adopted is also a way of grabbing the listener and not letting them go. I realise that my music has something of a hypnotic quality, which I have consciously cultivated; once it starts, the listener is forced to go on the journey with it. I try to remove the possibility of the listener allowing his/her mind to wander.
Extended composition is much harder, mainly because one is manipulating a bigger chunk of time. You have to plan on a bigger scale for a work that is going to play for 10 minutes or longer. Silent film work can be similar at times, particularly in feature films. This is because one is working with an unfolding story that lasts for an hour or more. This requires a substantial musical structure as well.
JM - Both your written styles are strongly contrapuntal, although their polyphonic nature is revealed
quite differently. How did you come to use contrapuntal structures in the first instance?
RC - I just think that way. Counterpoint, once you reach a certain skill level with it, is simply a way of musical thinking. I was naturally drawn to it from my student days. I practiced it a lot, too. Counterpoint (contrapuntal manipulation of musical material) is also a way of extending a musical idea. Through counterpoint one learns economy; if you can manipulate your material contrapuntally, you don’t need too much of it (providing the musical ideas are of good quality to start with). So, contrapuntal manipulation is a way of maximizing the effect with a minimal amount of high quality material. Bach and Beethoven are our great teachers in this regard.
I think various types of voice-leading is a thumbprint of my music. It tends to turn up in everything I write. It’s just an internalised aspect of my musical language no matter what style I am using. Counterpoint is something you have to practice relentlessly. I could write counterpoint much more easily when I was younger simply because I was doing it all the time. But nowadays it’s just there in everything I write. I don’t set out to write fugues nowadays but what comes out often sounds somewhat ‘fugue-like’.
JM - While we’re talking about contrapuntal elements, how do you use these in your notated
compositions such as ‘Medea’ and your percussion quartet, ‘Locomotive Music’; and how does
counterpoint feature in non-notated electronic music like the incidental music you composed to
Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’? How would you describe the musical
consequences of this?
RC - You may hear more in my music than I am consciously aware of, at least when I’m actually writing it. For example, for the electronic music I created for A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 1994, I only had 2-3 weeks to do it all. I was working every night and then turning up the next day at rehearsal with my latest number and they would immediately start rehearsing it. The overture, in true theatrical tradition, was only composed on the day our production opened. It was only when I stood back from that body of work that I became more keenly aware of the motivic relationships between various items in the score. Each number has an internal organic relationship with the other pieces with the same melodic motives, instrumentation, texture and so on. Even when I was following the rhythm and rhyme of Shakespeare’s words this organic relationship between the various items was taking place. I was conscious of some of this as I wrote it, of course, but other features took me by surprise after the event. This happens more
often when one works quickly to produce a whole score (in this case, 45 minutes of music) within a very short timeframe. I have chosen three examples from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', each of which exploits the same theme. These items are:
a section of the Overture;
the music for the scene in which Bottom is transformed into an ass;
and a song which occurs in the final act, when Puck sings "Now the hungry lion roars and the wolf behowls the moon." followed by Oberon singing "Now until the break of day, through this house each fairy stray." I joined these two scenes together, simply changing key to better suit Oberon's (Rod Ansell's) voice and from minor to major to suit the dramatic mood change from Puck's words to Oberon's.
I call it a ‘score’ and refer to ‘writing’ the music; in fact, the music is entirely electronic and the programme I was using laid it out graphically on the computer screen from top to bottom, rather than left to right. On the screen it looked for all the world like a pianola roll.
The first six minutes of Medea is an extended fugue.
Locomotive Music didn’t even have a title until the day it received its premiere performance. Musically, it behaves similarly to a lot of my other stuff in that there are distinct sections (key centres) and these share the same or similar motivic ideas. In terms of musical consequences, the techniques I employed meant that I was able to be very economical and tie the sections together so that they would function more like the working out of a single idea. Perhaps this is like looking into a kaleidoscope where you see many different patterns but always with a
juxtaposition of the same basic shapes and colours. Again it’s the old “maximum effect with minimum of means” trick. The kaleidoscope image is not a bad way to describe the way my minimalist music works. Perhaps I could refer to this as ‘listening to the kaleidoscope’.
JM - What techniques do you use in your improvisatory compositions, particularly your silent film
music and how does this contribute to highlighting the action and the experience of “seeing the
music and hearing the film”?
RC - First, improvised music is never going to be as fully worked out in terms of composition techniques like fugue-writing. Maybe Bach could do it (legend says that he could) but, in practice, I’d have to say that the music I write down is better and more complicated in terms of composition technique than what I improvise. Writing it down gives one the chance to polish.
With silent films I do a lot of planning ahead of the performance. I don’t write the music down but I certainly plan in my head very thoroughly the sorts of things I will do in each scene including keys, rhythms, speeds etc. I watch each film a lot as well. But it’s still improvisation because so much of it is unknown before the event, even if the basic parameters have been well-planned. Jazz musicians do this as well, of course. They have a chart with fixed parameters and they tie
their improvisations to that. Jazz improvisations usually have a fixed element (a chart) and a free element (the improvisations).
When you improvise without planning ahead of the event (free improvisation) you often don’t know what you’re going to play until your backside hits the piano stool. So, you sit down and strum a chord or play a fragment of an idea and say to yourself “What comes next?” In deciding what comes next it’s not long before you have a whole musical statement outlined under your fingers. This, of course, has implcations for what comes next. So, you might repeat what you’ve already played but with a different ending and that will lead you somewhere else. By that time, you might want to restate your opening, perhaps with variation, and, lo and behold, you’ve been improvising for 2 minutes, exploring the musical implications of the opening gesture. For me, the constant elements tend to be the harmonic language and a particular way of voicing chords; these are really one’s thumbprints – one’s signature – that will be there all the time.
I tend to have my own way of improvising, but if, on the other hand, I set myself a particular assignment, such as composing in a particular style I’ll go away and think about it for a few minutes and start to come up with something that, while improvised by me, sounds for all the world like…….
JM - I want to ask you about the impact of changing personal circumstances - including professional
appointments and geographical location - on your compositional styles and musical philosophy.
This is particularly pertinent to your long period at the Newcastle Conservatorium - works for
students, community and regional professional organisations, colleagues, etc - as well as during
your time in New Zealand.
RC - Yes, one responds to local needs, but, then again, every musician since the year dot has had to do this. In Newcastle I was so busy running the Conservatorium that I didn’t have a lot of creative composing time. The fact that I succeeded at all in creating a fair amount of stuff was made possible by the speed at which I can come up with my musical ideas and then get them down, either by writing it on paper or by creating it electronically. So, even when I was extremely busy fanning sparks off students and staff I could always write something, do a series of silent film
performances and so on. Being able to do this quickly was an essential part of being able to do it at all.
One of the short pieces I did in Newcastle was a crazy piece of electronica that I subsequently called "The Ant's Factory" - featuring a group I call The Insect Allstar Band. This music would probably be ideal for an animated cartoon featuring insects operating in some sort of industrial setting accompanied by an insect big band.
JM - How do you approach composing for theatre?
RC - It is very difficult to combine speaking with background music because the music will distract the audience, they will struggle to hear the words clearly. You need to take that into account. Films (I mean modern films) do the same. If you analyse a scene from a film and ask yourself how the various elements are working together you become aware of the levels of volume, background and foreground noises, dialogue, angle and width of shot and so on. The volume level of each component and its relationship to camera angles and distance is vitally important. In film, where everything is recorded and balanced in a mixing studio, all sorts of complexities can be balanced out and, therefore included.
In live theatre it’s much more difficult to get that balance. It’s surprising the number of experienced composers who appear not to understand this when they write for live performance. Generally, music and dialogue should take turns. I think of it as two people trying to talk at the same time.
JM - How do you work collaboratively with, for example, writers, film makers, visual artists, etc?
RC - It is difficult and I don’t enjoy it, which is one of the reasons I work with old silent movies so much! While I would argue that I do collaborate within the context of silent film it’s more collaboration with the film itself. I can’t collaborate with the people who made it because they are all dead and gone. It’s not a ‘live’ or ‘real time’ collaboration, but it’s a collaboration nonetheless. I did collaborate with colleagues in a multi media work called 'All Things Are an Exchange for Fire' back in 1992. This was an ‘art documentary’ about BHP and their steel-making in Newcastle. For that, my colleagues Paul Kavanagh and Allan Chawner had already planned the text (Paul) and images (Allan) and I was brought in at the end, more or less as an afterthought, I think. So, I was working with fixed elements and adding a soundtrack to what already existed. I recorded an actor reading Paul’s text but when it came to blending this with what I was writing I decided, after some agonising, to put the spoken words at the end, more or less as my music was slowly fading out. In this way I avoided having too much aural and visual messaging going on at any one time. The music was all based on recordings I’d made at the BHP plant. In fact, I noted that everyone who worked there (everyone who lived within 10 kms of the plant, for that matter) had a very low and soft (and slightly sharp) G major chord in second inversion humming constantly in their heads, 24/7. So, my music used this chord as a pedal point throughout the piece and against it I superimposed all the other industrial sounds I’d recorded there.
JM - How has historic art music, literature, ancient history and myth influenced your musical
philosophy and notated compositions?
RC - To answer fully one has to start with an acknowledgement that it is a complex question. The first part of my answer will have to do with my understanding of the elements of historical styles of music: their formal structures, their harmonic language, their rhythmic manipulation, their use of instrumental colour, texture and so on. I made quite a study of historical styles, particularly during my Sydney Conservatorium teaching days (1970s and early 80s). To effectively lecture in my various courses I had to really get inside and understand the music I was introducing to my students. For me, the most thorough way to achieve that was to practice it myself, that is, imitate it. To me, music history is the study of historical composing styles. Other societal elements are important, of course, vital one might say, but the music itself should always lead the discussion.
Moreover, in imitating historical styles of music I was never happy until I’d come up with something that was just as plausible as the original. It never could be considered as good as the original, of course, but that is simply because Bach, Mozart, Chopin were each doing what they did for the very first time. My imitation of their style is simply someone else doing it much later, after the music-world’s collective understanding of those styles has been distilled, understood and accepted for quite a long while. But that is not to say that anyone can plausibly imitate Bach. I realise that very few can, in fact, and to me, that was a challenge that made it well worth the effort involved. In fact, style imitation is the sort of topic that most colleagues of mine would turn away from and even perhaps dismiss as being not so important.
Second, every composer, no matter how great, starts from the known and proceeds towards the unknown. The starting point for a composer is what he/she has gleaned from all the music composed by others that he/she has absorbed. One does want to be unique, of course, but your starting point has to be everyone else’s music, which you’ve absorbed and to which you wish to add something of your own voice. So, then the question arises: how much is original and how much is borrowed? The proper answer to that question requires a concession that a lot of it is borrowed and the personal stamp, the new aspect, is quite telling in its own right as well. A younger composer will tend to borrow more and innovate less (even Mozart did that) and the percentage will change over time. We can certainly appreciate Schubert symphonies in terms of the classical models he used; at the same time, we can appreciate Schubert for his unique, individual contribution to the development of the symphony, even in his earliest works. What percentage is Schubert and what percentage Mozart and Haydn? The answer is, it doesn’t really matter as long as there is enough Schubert to satisfy us that the symphony has been taken somewhere new. So, the real question ought to be, ‘Is it any good on its own terms?’ In many ways, it’s not a percentage (quantity) thing but is rather the quality of what is new. In the final analysis, when you play it 200 years later, people just react to the fact that it is great music and (if they’ve got any sense) not to what percentage is Schubert and what percentage is Mozart and Haydn.
So, now the question is, at least for me, how much is my mature music my own and how much relies upon its models? My answer to that question is to say that as long as there is enough of my personal stamp it doesn’t really matter. So, if someone says to me: ” It sounds a bit like….” I will come back with:” Yes, but is it good music anyway?”
You also asked about the relationship with literature and story in my music. I do like story-telling, particularly ancient Greek myths and I use these as a stepping off point for musical creativity in works such as Medea and Terpsichorean Dances. Most of my music is stimulated by stories or visual elements of one sort or another.
JM - Do you consider your notated compositional style has changed or transformed over time and, if
so, how does this reflect your music philosophy?
RC - It has certainly become better, in my view. But that is not to say that my earlier stuff is not good enough. If one adopts the attitude that your latest efforts are a lot better than your earlier ones, you’d be tempted to destroy all the early stuff and rest your laurels on only one or two recent pieces of music. That would be silly. Whenever I review my earlier pieces, I sometimes tweak them a little to make them better or, quite often, I just leave them alone.
JM - It has been said of your performing with silent film that the audience “sees the music and hears
the film”. What has determined your improvisatory compositional approach to working with silent
RC - That comment was made to me by the director of an international film festival a few years ago and I took it as a great compliment. It meant that I’d succeeded in achieving exactly what I set out to do. I think she had seen (heard) me do Buster Keaton’s The General.
JM - You’ve recently been busy writing down some of your silent film improvisations and turning them
into concert pieces. Has notating your improvisations changed those particular works?
RC - No, not really. They’re the same works in most instances, but simply more polished. I made one or two of them longer than the original conception and that gave scope for greater extension of the ideas. For example I originally created Taking the Air for a scene of about 2 minutes duration on board the ship The Navigator. This is a Buster Keaton film and in this scene Keaton, playing the part of Mr Rollo Treadway, strolls around the deck thinking to himself that he is the only person on board. He then becomes aware that there is someone else there as well and the scene unfolds in which he and the other person walk progressively faster and faster until they are running flat out trying to find one another. Keaton develops this gag for as long as he can, which, in reality, is around 2 minutes of film footage.
My concert piece, which derives from the same musical idea, is much longer. This is simply because, as a stand-alone piece, which is no longer strictly tethered to the film, it wanted to turn itself into a longer piece. This makes a better piece of music overall, I think. And it underlines an important issue: when one uses a musical idea to improvise with a film, one is constrained by the film itself, particularly the length of the scene, which is, of course, a fixed element. When the music is cut loose from the film and exists outside the original context it only has to exist in its own absolute musical world. My pieces derived from silent film improvisations still imply their original context in their mood and title, but, in effect, exist in a different world now. This is a world in which you don’t need to see the images to ‘understand’ the music.
JM - You have said that you are notating much of your silent film music for both piano solo as well as
for piano and xylophone. Notating for piano solo is the more immediately understandable
instrumentation because it relates directly to the way you played the music with the film, but why
are you focussing on the xylophone?
RC - My son, Timothy, is a percussionist and I wanted something lighthearted that he and I could play and record together. To me (most people, I suspect), the xylophone is not an instrument to associate with deeper or more powerful emotions but is ideal for 1920s slapstick comedy. Aside from that, there is a dearth of good xylophone music available and I think my silent movie pieces will add to the repertoire in a way that will be welcomed by percussionists. It may well be that students will play this music more often than professionals, but they will need to be quite advanced students because the pieces are not easy. This piece (now called Hieronymous Sprocket's Bicycle Race) is based on what I originally improvised for the breathtaking motorbike scene in Buster Keaton's Sherlock Junior.