We are thrilled to share the first episode of our podcast, the Chamber of Musical Curiosities, hosted by Artistic Director Paul Kildea.

For our first episode, join Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Paul Kildea in conversation with leading Australian academic and musicologist Malcolm Gillies.  Paul invites Malcolm to reflect on a range of issues, both contemporary and historical, not limited to the world of chamber music. In this half an hour conversation, they discuss the evolving concept of nationalism, discuss Malcolm’s rich and varied career path, and ponder which vital questions young musicians today should be asking themselves at the outset of a career. Then, using the careers of Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainger as examples, they also hypothesise on the necessity for musicians keep an artistic personality at the centre of their technique.  

You can order Malcom’s book on Béla Bartók here.


Paul: Hello, I'm Paul Kildea, Artistic Director of Musica Viva. Today I'm talking to Malcolm Gillies, whose partway through an astonishingly interesting career which started with Malcolm being a tutor, at the Victorian College of the Arts in Music. From there, a lectureship at the Melbourne University Conservatory of Music, from there to Queensland to the University of Queensland Music Department from there to Australian National University. From there, I think, to Adelaide and after that London for Vice Chancellorships at the University, City University and then the London Metropolitan University. I'm sure I've left things out there, Malcolm, which you can touch on, although I urge you not to linger too long on your Amos A in piano. I'm here talking to you and asking that you be here because we're going to have a little chat about the idea of music and exile. And that's partly because, of course, Musica Viva, the organisation that I am very proud to be an Artistic Director of, was founded 75 years ago by Jewish emigres escaping the black clouds of Nazism and in doing so, arriving in Australia and through their passion for music and for the sounds and literature and the many things they'd left behind founded this organisation that is, 75 years later, still greatly affecting the way that we think and perform music in Australia. The reason I want to talk to you, Malcolm, is because, of course, in part of this long academic career of yours, you've been writing so profoundly, expertly and it's some volume about Béla Bartók, who, of course, in the 1940s found himself also is an emigre in America, writing some very profound pieces of music that I think you think are more potboilers, but we can get onto that on that, and that he, himself was a penniless emigrate in America. And he, of course, changed the way that we think about music in that country and performed it. And, of course, one of my interests is the émigré, Wanda Landowska, who also finds herself in America in these years, and who also changes the way that Americans played and thought about music. So welcome, Malcolm.

Malcolm: Thank you, Paul. 

Paul: I suppose I should ask what I have left out there in your rather distinguished academic career so far and whether the interest in Bartók is something that has defined your career, but whether it remains to this day this burning hot passion of yours, as far as your work is concerned?

Malcolm: Thank you, Paul, for saying I was partway through my career. I think we only know where we are in our career when it's actually finished, and I sometimes wonder, in this COVID era, how many things I will continue to do in the future, because we all carry a great baggage of either skills or aspirations into life, and what I found most exciting about mine was that I could be a musician from beginning to end of that life, yet have these relatively elevated positions in running universities and university systems. That's a wonderful thing of the 20th and the 21st century, which wasn't necessarily available in earlier times. Musicians are often thought about as being rather peculiar people – curiosities is ideal for this podcaster. Yet, in fact, if you are a musician, it feels completely normal because that's what you are, and why so many of the people we're talking about today left one country and went to live in another is because they could no longer be who they were. Did you know that Bartók was born only about 200 kilometres away from where Richard Goldner, the founder of the Musica Viva was born, yet they went in different ways. Very early in his life Richard Goldner went to live in Vienna, and very early in his life Bartók started to move around the back blocks of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and ended up in Budapest when it was time to go to music college, at Liszt Academy. And when you look what they did then, in the late 1930s, as they each determined that that society they loved, that such musical society of Vienna in Budapest was no longer the happy, joyful society it had been, but increasingly under Nazism and intensive nationalism, was becoming something quite dangerous to them, even to them personally. But they made their decisions, Bartók made the decision to go to New York. Goldner made a decision that ended up with him being in Australia, and what is wonderful is that they took the music with them. Bartók wrote Concerto for Orchestra, after being in America for a couple of years. Goldner came and, after working in, I don't know, the RAAF and other various jobs, and being considered an enemy alien, actually was there at that founding concert in December 1945. And isn't it nice the way music can be both a refuge of solace, a cause, and, hopefully, have really high respect in our society? I am hoping, in these COVID times, music and the performing arts can continue to have that high respect.

Paul: And I am sure they will. I think, actually the opposite. I think they have garnered, you know, new respect and as the recognition of how important music and high culture is to us has dawned on people starved of it over the last six months. I know that Bartók, when he arrives in New York, because there are all those awful stories of him queuing up at his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, asking for yet another advance on royalties that he'd be waiting for for a long time. So, I'm wondering about this idea of writing the Concerto for Orchestra, and what he kind of missed when he left behind, and thought he was doing in that piece. It's different from someone like Dvořák, who goes to America and thinks, wow, I'm going to try and incorporate these ideas and songs and musical threads into my music. Bartók seemed to be wanting to hold on to a lot of the musical modernism that had characterised his music up until then, although this is the work that I did say in my introduction that you have once before, many decades ago, Malcolm, described to me as a little bit of a potboiler, or perhaps that's not the word you used, but it was something more popular and a popular detour, if you like, from some of the music that Bartók had been writing hitherto.

Malcolm: The problem for Bartók, I think also other people in times of international crises, is that they have to live the life forwards, while all of us look back on them and say, but why did they have those anxieties about money or what was it that they feared so much? And in Bartók’s case, it wasn't that he ever actually ran out of money; he wasn’t as poor as you might think. I once read an article about his tax returns. Very interesting things to write. Not quite as interesting as his music, however. And he had to bend. He could get a job as an ethnomusicologist doing transcriptions with Harvard University. And he did that and located his actual working place at Columbia University. He was able to get that good commission. He actually had the money, the problem was, he didn't know how long the war would go. It was difficult being an enemy alien as he was in America, not knowing that you could either play with orchestras, for instance. And so I think you do find that the financial imperative becomes more important, even in terms of what he was writing, than it might have been in his astringent, you might say more personally driven musical experiments of his earlier decades. The Concerto for Orchestra sounds very popular, and it was popular, and it remained one of his more popular pieces. But he could also write something that was a really great piece of music, which showed what a talented musician he was. He didn't actually write for Hollywood the way some of the other emigres did, but I think that he could have if he'd wanted to. 

Paul: And was he asked, remember, of course, that Benjamin Britten, who's also in America in these very same years, was interested in the great Hollywood commission, was also very much like Bartók, reliant on commissions and advances from the same publisher. It was, in fact, Britten, I think, who noticed one day the shabby character who partook in the offices of Boosey & Hawkes. So I wonder if he was actually asked at that point, because it was such a new and brilliant medium, but also the promised land in terms of the kind of money that someone could expect to earn. And I wouldn't mind you contrasting that as well to the experience that Goldner would have had in Australia with no film industry, certainly no money. I mean, he did make his wealth, but in something that had nothing to do with music.

Malcolm: Well, for Bartók, he was actually asked, and he did go to the west coast of the United States. And, in fact, he was being sought out for a commission when he died in 1945, for something called the Genesis Suite, to which a variety of other lead classical composers contributed. So yes, they're was that kind of side to American music, and Australia didn't have that. Now, I wasn't around in Australia in 1945, I was around in 1954, and I can say that at that time, music in Australia was something which was really quite a challenging area, where you didn't have the stability and you didn't have the critical mass, even in the larger cities of Sydney and Melbourne, that you would have found in two or three cities across Europe or North America. But it is important, I think, there to see that Goldner had a vision, and the vision of music of even today, to make Australia and more musical place bespeaks of that vision of 1945. Because so many of those people who came to Australia in exile - and so many of them stayed - they wanted to recreate some of that role of music in the societies of which had originally been part. Why should this wonderful country of Australia somehow not have an equal access to such riches of the ear. 

Paul: It's a beautiful way of framing both the organisation and also the second half of the century in terms of Australia's cultural development. And thinking, I didn't know that about Bartók and films, but it does remind me that, of course, Stravinsky was invited to write for a film, and he responded, I think, seriously saying, well, I'd need $10,000. Of course I would have to appoint the director, and I'd need to have a say in who was cast in the film, and that was the end of Stravinsky's relationship with Hollywood. So, I think the thing that interests me a lot these days, and I talk about it with young musicians, is also personality. We don't talk enough about personality and how important that is as an ingredient in the success of a career. And I'm really interested in that in terms of Bartók, I'm really interested in it in terms of another of your great loves and areas of expertise, Percy Granger. Not least of all because Wanda Landowska had this peculiar personality and self belief that really drove her career in America from when she arrived there in 1941, and it really does turn around the way that her finances and life there after run for the remainder of that life - the 16 or 17 years or so - and I'm wondering how that factored in both Granger and Bartók; this idea of personality and what that does to the chemistry of a career.

Malcolm: Well both Granger and Bartók were born in almost the same year, 1881 for one and 1882 for the other. And for their generation, there was a view that through technical brilliance, you earned the right to have that display of personality. But there was a high threshold of your technical professionalism as a musician that gave you that access. Percy Granger went on with that game, you could say, for most of his life, through his expertise as a great pianist, having great recordings, great piano rolls, great interpretations, he earned the right to have the personality that was later much more obvious in his life. Literally, people called it another word called eccentricity. Bartók was going on that track and when he was in his early twenties, suddenly transformed by first exposure with what he called the true Hungarian folk music, and he decided that the performing side, the technical side of this to anyone in an audience, would come second to his view of being a composer of the Hungarian style, increasingly derived from the folk music of the people. And there's a difference, isn't there, between the ethical, the different personal betting on themselves. Those two characters went on, and it's interesting to see it now, Bartók’s reputation goes from strength to strength, and Granger's is somewhat more intermittent, though perhaps better known in Australia than other parts of the world. How do musicians get trained to be brilliant, but keep personality that, through technique, to a better demonstration of their world of musicianship, yet not lose their soul and yet not end up being in a soup kitchen, and having some of those fears Bartók had even in his sixties in America? A difficult question. It's a good question to ask in 2020, isn't it?

Paul: It's the only question, really, to be asking in 2020 of musicians and artists. I used too glibly say, if you're a musician, what you need to do is survive your twenties, because if you survive your twenties and your instrument and technique is intact, you have usually developed as a person and you have started to have those early successes in your career that hopefully lead on to a more sustained career. And now I'm less sure. 2020 has kind of really pulled the rug out from those assumptions. On the one hand, we could say yes, all you need to do now is survive until you know you're very early thirties, you know, to make up for the lost years. But I'm not sure, in answer to your question, about how you develop that integrity as a person that completely affects the way that you operate as a musician, when all you're trying to do is kind of get up the ladder, earn a living, survive your twenties, and also when you've spent the whole of your teen years as you become more and more vocational on the instrument or on the voice that you're now specialising in, it's often at the expense of reading more and thinking more and doing other things. Music becomes so specialised so young. So I think it is an interesting question, and it's a tricky one. 

Malcolm: A tricky question, too, because none of us are 100% music. We have to have the skills to negotiate our sanctuary. We have to have an ability to feel that we are at one with our own body and our own mind. And that means that I think the tendency to think when you are a musician, or as many of my relatives used to say, “just a musician”, somehow the way to get through life. And as someone grows, perhaps playing an instrument, going off and having lessons once a week and doing half an hour practise, when they start to say, do they want to go more on that track, or, are they very good at sport, or are they very good at science? So, how did they build that person that is you? That is a very difficult issue, and often if you do it terribly well, the world conspires against you. I was always amazed that people thought I was a number off different people because, for instance, in The Australian, I used to write a comment column on higher education saying I was in Canberra and then another comment column, which was on music, by being a music critic in Brisbane people thought, surely couldn't be the same person? We can be the same person. Each one of us has multiple skills, and how you balance that across your life. Perhaps if I'm done doing more things that may be outside music than in music and now in my retirement, I’m definitely spending the majority of my week on something that's to do with music. I think that's part of how we fulfil our personality. So what I don't like to see is people who rather unwillingly, sometimes when they come from very musical families, end up in fact being this solely musical personality, or trying to live that, when actually at the moment with the break of the finger, with the misuse of the knife, with something happening beyond your control with your hearing, you suddenly find you’re thrown back on a whole lot of other skills that you did, or, even worse, you didn't develop earlier in your life. So, we all have to take a bet on that. Some get it right, and some lived there for decades. How some people conduct. I was looking at something about Bernard Haitink, and he was in his 54th year of working with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. And you thought, my God, how could you do that? But some of the people only got one go and then disappeared without trace. Or, like one of the leaders of the Berlin Philharmonic, got shot in 1945. It's such an interesting question, but for us to have a musical society, from top to bottom, allows everyone to have the chance to place music in their life. Without that, being a somewhat minutely light society, as I think the exiles to Australia in the 1940s with musical backgrounds in Europe found, that doesn't give everyone the choice. We have to give that choice to everyone.

Paul: That's so interesting. One of the future guests of this podcast will be the Canberran, Australian First Nations artist, composer and poet, Judith Crispin, a really wonderful and interesting character. But she trained with Larry Sitsky in Canberra, a composer whom you know. And then studied overseas with Karlheinz Stockhausen. And she has this lovely line about how if you're a musician, and if you're trained really well, you take those disciplines, and this idea of time and space and linearity, and you can transfer that. You can transfer these skills and these concepts of how they play out in sound into other art forms. And in her case, it was initially to poetry and then also, over time, into the rather beautiful visual arts that she has come to represent and produce with such expertise. So that's certainly someone to look forward to, and she does speak to your point, Malcolm, about how we learn what our skills are and how portable our skills are as musicians over time.

Ad break: Musica Viva would like to say thanks for the support and ongoing partnership of Wesfarmers Arts. Wesfarmers Arts understand the vital contribution that the arts make in the communities in which we live and work. Bringing people and art together.

Paul: I wouldn't mind talking, if we're thinking about exile, about how that's almost applied to you, and I can speak for myself as well, I lived out of this country for a long time - for 25 years, almost in total. I know that you've lived and studied in different countries for a very long time. I wonder how it has affected your concept of the work that you write about, and also, that whole process of who you've become as a person over time.

Malcolm: Well, I have a peculiar crisis right at the moment because I'm passport holder of two countries and I've lived in four countries and I guess, over three or four decades, I lived a pretty global life with networks that spanned many parts of the world, and I didn't think there was anything unusual about that. I thought that was just the way, indeed, the world was going. Now, as we find nationalism and, perhaps, isolation becoming more forced upon us, and COVID again is helping to do that; stopping travel, making us look at borders in a different way than we've looked at for many decades or centuries. I think it does start to make us wonder who we are and how we define ourselves. To this point about the transferability of skills, it’s very important, as well as time and space and I'd throw in their memory. The wonderful memory training and tying up with bodily movement the musicians have. But we also have to look a place. Where do we place all of that now? The world is trying to define us, you know, “who are you?”. People have said to me, “are you British or are you Australian?”, “Why do you keep on writing about Hungarian music more than you write about contemporary Australian music?”, as if, somehow, that's being disloyal. Well, I think that’s just using various talents or resources I've got in the best possible way. I think the concept of exile, the ‘ex’ in it is meaning out of somewhere else and being the place that's different. And actually, we were starting to forget that. And we don't, I think, want to bring that back because the exile story to Australia, for people of my generation, in our mid sixties, was, well, if you're good enough, you went away and if you're really good, you stayed away. And yet, we do feel bound to place. And we do feel bound to people. People who speak like us, talk the same language and talk the same musical language, maybe. I think we're getting a lot of very confused people, and I'm one of them. Having made my decision to move definitely back and live in Australia in these last five or six years, to suddenly find that it’s riven with a whole lot of difficult questions, or questions I remember from the 1960s. “Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing?” in a new way, but I don't think it’s particularly helpful. 

Paul: I wonder if you'd care to talk a little bit about the kind of rancid nationalism in Hungary, and I think it's worthwhile pointing up that you've spent a very long time in that country, and have observed it over three decades or more. And it has actually greatly affected the way you think about this composer whom you've made a speciality of. And I wonder about this idea of Bartók’s concept of nationality, and how he expressed it, and then also today, the concept of nationality and Hungary and whether there's any overlap at all between the two?

Malcolm: I think we're seeing, in the European Union, a big crisis, as to “who are you?”. Look at Britain. Was it European as it has been for the last 45 years? Or is it in fact something distinct, something very different? And it decided three or four years ago to go in their different way and is now in a terribly difficult way is trying to work out what that means. Hungary is in a different way. When I first studied in Hungary, it was in the communist era and everyone, in more intellectual and artistic life, had a common understanding. They wanted to get rid of the Communists. The only problem in 1989 when the Russians promptly packed up and left, was that everyone had suddenly become different. Some wanted to go on an American-like, capitalistic path. Others wanted a more moderated balance, kind of an economy, as you had in Western Europe. And so, countries go through those points. I'd suggest that Poland and Hungary - as a couple of the states that are particularly being singled out at the moment for a lot of comment, increasingly rubbing up against some of the core tenets of the European Union, in terms of issues like the rule of law and the liberalism of democracy - those countries are still trying to find their way, and in so doing, starting to create further ways within the grand vision, which was the European Union. I don't know where it will go, except I’d suggest it has to be gentle in trying to find the continuing identity of the 27 remaining countries of the European Union. It's difficult because it does get back to issues of nationalism and Bartók wasn't a Hungarian nationalist in the form that although he collected a lot of Hungarian folk music, wrote lots of pieces inspired by folk music. He also did that with Romanian and Slavic music. He was actually called a Danube Basin composer. Like Zoltán Kodály, we were much more strictly Hungarian. They drew the lines at the borders. Even the borders were changing, of course, in his life, and there are differences in the way different people feel. It's a bit the way I feel about being Australian. It's a wonderful gift, to have, especially in these moments in world history. But that doesn't mean that everything you're doing is not going to, sometimes be critical of Australia, where you sometimes look for other options. I don't wear all Australian clothes, I'm afraid. And I don’t think it’s disloyal. I think you, probably it’d be a little inartistic if I didn’t. We've got those issues of identity to work through, and they're closer to the surface now, I think, than they have been for 50 or so years. 

Paul: You said something a moment ago, and it might be a nice way to wrap up this, as ever, fascinating conversation. I remember not so long ago, and I can't even remember what the piece is, but I wrote something, and as so often happens, I ask for your response to things that I write, Malcolm. And you said you found my depiction of the Communist era a little bit ‘comic book’, that it was almost, you know, the comic book villain. And you just said a moment ago about studying in communist Hungary when you were a younger man and having great experiences off that country and culture in pre-1989 times. So, I wonder if that's a nice way for you to land the plane, if you like, on this conversation about exiles and about how cultures change and can shift. In Hungary's case, you know, in the space of only 30 years or so?

Malcolm: Well, we could look at the way the depiction of China has changed in American and Australian rhetoric just in the last 24-months or so. Look at the change, and look how much of a comic book depiction it is, and if we're going to get into the “one nationality good, the other nationality, bad”, I think we lose the essence of the diversity of humanity. And we're seeing that at the moment, as we see the struggle between the two largest powers of the world, and a fundamental change in balance of power in the world. That's difficult. So, that comment that I made, which may be based on a few talking points or a few things that one learns about particular styles of social organisation or regimes, I think that that has to be taken with a lot of study, and understanding that there were huge advantages and disadvantages in many different forms of societies and that the people in those societies looked on the issue sometimes very differently. They weren’t, perhaps, so interested in human rights, but they were interested in the common standard of decency. For instance, in what you might eat, in what you might do within your day. Those different valuations of society are, too, important. I went to study in Hungary, not because it was Communist, I went there because it had about the best musical resource in the world for what I wanted to do. And so I regularly went from Australia or Britain to Hungary. In fact, nearly every year in the last 40-years, to make sure that I could drink it well and drink very deeply. Doesn't mean I'm not critical of a lot of things I met there. And some of the times were very difficult, but the musical visions that I gained, the people I worked with there and continue to work with, I'll have to say, they were as profound as any I've had in my life. 

Paul: Malcolm Gillies, It's always a pleasure and today has not been an exception. Thank you, so much. 

Malcolm: Thank you, Paul.

Paul: Thanks for listening to this, our very first podcast. And I look forward to welcoming you to our next in the months to come.