Compositional Beginnings

I suppose I started when I should have been practising the piano and preferred to invent my own things instead. I suppose too I must have been learning "theory" at the same time, but this was a sort of drudgery which one "had to do" - it did not seem to have anything to do with music. Hopeless as I was (and still am) at the piano, it at least was music and so the Bach 2-part inventions which I adored inspired one of my first compositions. I think I was quite lucky that the theory had so little effect on me - especially the harmony. It meant I didn't have to shake off much traditional harmony later.

My first years at university were mainly involved with a science degree, but I kept on writing for myself and for friends I played with. Victoria's Musoc played my stuff, even although I was a science student and I could always take my work to Douglas Lilburn and know that I would get a sympathetic and thoughtful response. Even when the student reviewers were not helpful: "... and then we had a quartet movement by a mathematician and it sounded like it!", Douglas always was. He was a sort of anchor, a rock. I don't suppose I took work to him more than half a dozen times, but I always had the feeling that he was there and would help me if I needed it. Now, it strikes me as rather presumptuous that I would just knock on the study door of New Zealand's foremost composer and ask his opinion about my latest piece, but he was so accepting and encouraging and ruthlessly honest it didn't seem strange to me at all at the time.

From 1959 - 1964 I started going to the Cambridge summer schools. In retrospect I see this as the most important part of my education as a composer. No other courses that I attended came anywhere near the usefulness of the composers group in the Cambridge music schools. I was lucky that in my first year many of the class were also fairly inexperienced. Ron Tremain was a bit shocked, I think, at our ignorance, and devoted the afternoons to listening to Bartók and Stravinsky - all new experiences for me (aged 22!). He also taught us about 12 tone composition and we each wrote a variation on a 12 note theme he offered.

Each following Cambridge school I turned up with a piece ready for performance and the pieces got more ambitious as the years went by: "Reading Gaol" (for Baritone and Orchestra), performed by Nelson Wattie with the Cambridge Orchestra, a Clarinet Quintet, beautifully performed by Ken Wilson, who was also in the composers' group.

The last two years were under the tutelage of Larry Pruden. He would spend hours going through scores with a fine toothed comb and was extremely helpful. My second year with him saw the performance of my Violin Concerto, the solo part played by Marjorie Dumbleton.

In 1961 I came to Christchurch to the Teachers' College and then from 1962 - 1965 I taught as a maths teacher at Linwood High School. At the same time I did the rest of the B.Mus. I'd started at Victoria. Curiously, when I came to the final year and discussed what works I could offer as composition exercises, the Violin Concerto was unacceptable. I was encouraged to hand in the more conservative Clarinet Quintet, a Psalm setting for SATB, and“Kuza Nama", a cycle for Baritone and Piano with text from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This last I heard for the first time in 19801 It wasn't usual in those days for student exercises to be performed.

Rather than thinking of remedying this, my heart was set on seeing the other side of the world and studying further in Europe. So in the spring of 1966 I enrolled at the University for Foreigners in Perugia. It was here I met Brigitte. After the three months language and culture course, we toured Italy together, then she left me at 'The Accademia Chigiana' in Siena for two months (where I studied composition with Goffredo Petrassi) and at the end of that year we were married in Switzerland.

For Petrassi I wrote "Due movimenti per quattro stromenti", for Piccolo, Clarinet, Cello and Piano - a fairly strict 12 note work. I see I've left this work off the list in the CANZ bibliography. It's probably best left off. I think I must have been quite spoilt by my earlier teachers, the care they took with their help and advice. Petrassi was friendly, but lazy as a teacher. On the first day he said: "In Siena dovete scoprire Simone Martini" - then he disappeared for a week or two, and so I went out and discovered Simone Martini, and Duccio, and the Lorenzettis. My lasting impression of Siena is a visual one with music well in the background.

I had to wait until the following year before I was to learn very much new. This was at Darmstadt in 1967. Stockhausen was there and produced his “Mikrophonie II” Ligetti gave a series of lectures - I remember especially his description of how he used clusters. Pousseur was describing his opera "Mon Faust” and how the audience could control the direction successive acts could take, and Penderecki was invited but couldn't come and was replaced at the last minute by Earle Brown who talked about his "Available Forms" Ideas of clusters, chance procedures, open forms, live electronics, parameters it was like the experience at my first Cambridge school where I met Bartók, Stravinsky and Schönberg for the first time. Although this Darmstadt course was a very passive one for me, I fed on these ideas for years afterwards. I bought scores and records and books and gradually absorbed some of these ideas into my own musical vocabulary.

In 1968 I was back at Linwood High School, still a maths teacher but talking about Total Theatre. In the next four years we produced four major stage works: The Odyssey, Harold and William. Simplicius, and Akhnaton. The first of these scores I wrote entirely, but then as I got more and more involved in music education (I was actually teaching some school music now!), I tried to involve the pupils in the writing and improvisation of parts of these stage works. Although this probably did a lot of good educationally, I think the first two of these four total theatre pieces are the better musically. At the same time I must admit to having learnt a tremendous amount from my pupil composers: The singing of clusters for instance through tuned plastic tubes - something I was to use years later in "The Ever-circling Light" - was first tried out in the performance of a pupil's piece for “Simplicius”.

About this time I was invited to write a piece for the CSIM demonstration concert. At Linwood High School we had had a tape recorder which could play backwards and I was interested to try and translate this 'played-backwards" effect onto conventional instruments. The piece was "Palindrome" for 5 Orchestras, and it also made a feature of the spatial separation of the orchestras as they were set out in the stadium for that concert. The piece was a good one I think but dreadful to rehearse. The poor children in each of the orchestras had no idea until the final rehearsal what the total piece was like - for them it was like rehearsing one fragment of a jig-saw puzzle. Probably because of the success of this piece I was invited to form an experimental group of children percussionists to perform in the Christchurch Primary Schools Festival. The first of these "Creative Percussion" groups was in 1973 and continued until 1979. Although the children were creating the music, I was learning a great deal about percussion instruments. As the years went by and I felt obliged to produce "different" sounds in each concert. I looked for new sounds in “found instruments” (stone, metal, wood, glass, etc.) and encouraged the children to do likewise. This has had an obvious impact on my own work, especially "Stone Poem", "Devotion to the Small", and "Piece of 4", and to a lesser extent "The Ever-circling Light", all of which use percussion prominently - both conventional instruments and found ones.

In 1975 I left Linwood for the Teachers' College. I had been working on a Comic Opera "The Fisherman and his Wife" (Story from Grimm's Fairy Tales). I finished it in my first few months at the College, but it was not performed until November of the following year: It is the only one of my school works that has been performed in other schools. This is rather because the Linwood Total Theatre works, for all the prodigious effort, were occasional pieces and, would require massive rewriting to be successful in another context. "The Fisherman and his Wife" is a success, I believe, because it will fit into any context, and not necessarily a school one. At the same time it is a lot less adventurous musically than those earlier stage works.

Later in 1975 I joined the Royal Christchurch Musical Society (as a second tenor), and several of my pieces in the next few years were to be for this group, often burlesques for a special occasion: "Salve Robert Field-Dodgson”, "Serenade for Dr. Griffith's 85th Birthday" and "The Pink Panther's Picnic". This last was produced (with considerable effort) at a concert with the Skellerup Woolston Band in 1979, and resulted in my being invited to write a piece for the New Zealand Army Band. I was not keen to make a name for myself in writing music potpourris, and so the piece I wrote was, I think, a compromise. "Hubert the Clockmaker” is largely entertainment music, but it has its serious side too with its themes of time and old age. The RCMS also commissioned a serious piece from me which was to be "The Ever-circling Light". The score was finished in January 1980, ready for a performance in May or June, I was responsible for training the percussion ensemble, and I found an able and enthusiastic group from among my own music students at the Teachers' College. We were already well into rehearsals when the choir decided to postpone the first performance until after my return from overseas (we were to leave in August 1980 for a year's study leave). The net result was that I had a keen group of players with nothing to work for. My friend and colleague, poet Michael Harlow and I got together and planned a piece using a selection of his "small" poems. One of the "percussionists" was an excellent singer (Jillian Bartram) and "Devotion to the Small" was written for this group and performed and recorded for radio just before our departure for Europe. Just after we left "Hubert the Clockmaker” had its first performance and I heard it first on tape in Switzerland, where I had the spoken part translated and broadcast on Swiss radio. When we returned we found that "Devotion to the Small” had received a Mobil award for the best recorded New Zealand musical piece in 1981 and the NZSO were asking for an orchestral version of "Hubert the Clockmaker".

Kit Powell, 1981