These questions and the composer’s answers provided source material for the teaching material and resources of the 2006 Sydney Symphony Education Program, for which Nigel Westlake is the featured composer.

You spent some time in 2004 as Creative Arts Fellow at the ANU Music school. What does an opportunity such as that mean for you?

Having avoided music institutions most of my life, I was somewhat surprised to be offered the fellowship, but of course delighted for my work to be acknowledged in this way. I was in regular contact with students which, for me, was a rare and enriching experience. I was given the opportunity to rehearse, workshop and conduct a number of programmes that featured my work in collaboration with the staff and students and to also continue my association with pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, who joined us to play the newly revised piano concerto. Michael also performed a concert of all my solo and chamber works for piano and together we presented some workshops for the keyboard students.

Having such an intensive focus on ones work is a defining element in the development of any artist.

The plan was for you to write a piece for Michael Kieran Harvey, for whom you’ve previously written an exciting Piano Sonata, and another for percussion quartet. Did those pieces come to fruition?

During the course of the fellowship I wrote “Piano Sonata No.II” for Michael Kieran Harvey, and “Kalabash” for the ANU percussion ensemble (Drumatix). Since the success of the percussion quartet, “Omphalo Centric Lecture” (percussionists around the world tell me that this is one of the most frequently performed works for percussion ensemble), writing a new percussion quartet is something that’s been on my “to do” list for a number of years. Gary France (head of percussion at ANU) was incredibly supportive of the idea and I was able to work closely with the percussion students in preparing the piece for performance.

I also had the opportunity to do two major revisions of existing works, the “Piano Concerto” (originally written for Michael Kieran Harvey and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2000) and “Shadow Dances” (a concerto for guitar and chamber orchestra – originally written for Timothy Kain in 2000). “Shadow Dances” was given a fantastic premiere by one of Tim Kain’s students, Harold Gretton.

I also arranged a 30-minute orchestral concert suite of my film music called “Moving Pictures”. All these works were performed at various concerts during the fellowship.

You’ve moved back to the city. Has that had an effect on your music?

Not in the broader sense – the compositional process occurs independently of external factors. I tend to close the door, pull the curtains, turn off the phone and write in isolation – so it doesn’t really matter where I’m working, although since moving back to Sydney I have completely stopped playing the clarinet and have focussed all my energies on composing – so the move has coincided with a more intensive, focused approach to composition.

Approaches to composition.

You’ve said in the past that you can’t identify any specific elements in your music that reflect being an Australian composer, but that you recognise that being an Australian does influence the way you write. I wonder if you’ve had any further reflections on what writing music in Australia means for you?

It’s my perception that the cultural environment in Australia offers the creative artist a unique opportunity to be able to explore individuality and optimism in a context of relative isolation from the rest of the world. I might be over generalizing, but to me the music of many of our local composers is imbued with a sense of optimism and celebration that one rarely hears in the music of our European counterparts. I think this optimism is something that we also share to a certain extent with American composers.

There is no doubt that living and working in Australia has had a profound effect on my approach to composition but this influence is operating on a subliminal level. I hardly ever embark on a composition with the intention to portray or embrace sentiments that are in some way related to an “Australian” emotional or physical landscape. The notes always come first. In some instances a title might present itself at the conclusion of the writing process that may be “Australian” in one way or another, but the way the notes fit together remains my primary concern throughout the writing process

What is it that attracted you to the sounds that you’ve used in piece such as Entomology?

Entomology was written when I was living on the edge of Dharug National Park north of Sydney. Each day I had the opportunity to walk in the bush and to listen to the insects. Summer was a particularly fascinating time to observe the feverish activity of the local cicadas, crickets and beetles. Of course to the insects, their calls are simply part of the business of their daily survival but to me the spatial relationships, timbres, cross rhythms, metric modulations and polyrhythms were like listening to this incredible ensemble of virtuosic percussionists. I “harnessed” the sounds of individual insects by recording them and layering them out on a sampling keyboard in much the same way as you might lay out the individual sounds of a sampled drum kit, thus creating my own insect percussion section. I then sequenced a number of rhythmic patterns similar to what I had heard in the bush and set about the process of weaving the acoustic instrumental parts around these insect patterns. As I got into the piece I included other environmental sounds that were occurring close to home such as an exploding “cockatoo gun” (a mock explosive device used to deter cockatoos from eating the pecan nuts on a neighbouring orchard), various frogs, footsteps (me in the bush) and so on.

There seems to be a strong visual element in your music, not just in the film work, but also in your other compositions. How does that affect the composition process, and the music you write?

Film music and concert music are, in a sense completely different disciplines and I find it difficult to talk of them in the same breath. Film scoring is a collaborative process where the composer is required to work within the constraints of a pre-determined structure (i.e. the film) in partnership with other filmmakers (i.e. director, producer, editor etc.). Virtually every note becomes part of a score for a specific reason (in support of the drama and subtext of the film) and any musical reference to visual elements are of course obvious. When I write concert music I hardly ever draw inspiration from visual references, so in a sense, a listener who perceives this in my music is simply using the sound to trigger a visual response from their own imagination.

“Music is powerless to express anything other than itself” a famous Stravinsky quote, has some relevance in relation to my point here. To me composition is about how notes work together and the building of resonances, melodic contours and rhythmic impetus to create sonic constructions that I find aesthetically pleasing. I don’t consciously use visual references as inspiration, although after a piece is written, the sounds might remind me of a certain place or event and a title might come to mind.

Film music has offered you the opportunity to explore and expand aspects, such as melody and emotion, which have sometimes not been welcome in concert hall music. What effect has writing for film had on your music?

To me, the statement that emotion and melody are not welcome in the concert hall is a myth and has no relevance to my musical philosophy. From a practical point of view, film scoring allows a composer the opportunity to write a piece one week and have it recorded by excellent musicians the following week. This instant feedback is extremely valuable in developing ones sense of orchestration and instrumentation.

Film music must have a certain immediacy to it – so I try to be as resourceful as I can when writing a film score. It’s important to strip ideas down to basics and to say as much as possible with as few notes as possible. Melody must feel immediately familiar to the audience and must be clear in its emotional intention from first hearing. To support the emotional contour of a film with music is a really good compositional exercise in manipulating melody and texture and making notes work for you. These are all valuable disciplines and through my experiences in film, I feel they have provided me with additional skills that carry through to other areas of my work.

Working closely with directors can also provide an interesting perspective to ones work. Several times I have found them pushing me into unchartered waters and causing me to write music that would never have occurred to me, had I been left to my own devices.

You’ve said that writing concert hall can be an isolating experience, and you obviously enjoy the collaborative process, both in film making and in writing for specific performers. Of course, many of your early pieces were written for you to perform in various ensembles. Describe the similarities and differences between collaboration in those two genres (live music and film music).

Most film directors these days like to virtually stand behind the composer while the score is being written and they tend to take a very hands-on approach to the production of the score. I am constantly referring to the director for advice and guidance. Film making is a director’s medium and the composer has an obligation to deliver a score that the director considers entirely appropriate for their film. Of course the composer/director relationship is operating at its best when there is a mutual respect between the two parties. Luckily this has been the case for most of my film experiences.

The collaborative process with a specific performer for a concert commission on the other hand is much more informal and usually focuses around the actual technical issues of playability and so on. In this instance the composer is left very much up to their own devices and its not that common for the performer to comment on the form or musical content, although when they do, it’s usually with good reason and I’m all ears!

Only once have I experienced an ongoing dialogue with a performer in the writing of a concert work – the first piano sonata. Michael Kieran Harvey visited me about once a week for a couple of months during the writing process. I think he could see I was intimidated by the prospect of writing my first solo piano work and he was incredibly enthusiastic about my ideas, constantly egging me on and daring me to leave my comfort zone and write him something that was technically uncompromising.

You’ve talked about finding or developing your own musical “voice” as a long-term goal. What aspects of your music, do you think at the moment, are nurturing that development ?

The current lull in the Australian film industry has given me the opportunity to concentrate my energies on concert commissions and not be distracted by the numerous agendas (musical and political) that surround film scoring. I’m enjoying the opportunity to take a bit more time and care with my work and to reflect on such issues as finding a “voice” – which still remains a primary goal.

You’ve said that you like to visualise the performers for whom you’re writing and try to include their personalities in the music you write for them. What have you observed about Rebecca Lagos that you might include in the Percussion Concerto?

In the past, I have made reference to the “performer’s personalities somehow permeating the work”. This is not to say that I draw on specific aspects of their personalities to include in the piece, its more of a subliminal process, whereby the performer’s musical aesthetics and technical abilities will have some bearing on the final outcome.

Although we’ve worked together in the past with Synergy, this is the first time Rebecca and I have collaborated so closely on a piece together. I sense that she’s really excited about the piece, which is a best-case scenario for a composer and which I find very encouraging.

I’m trying to write a piece that Rebecca will find rewarding to play on a technical and musical level. As I feed her bits and pieces of score, her feedback will inevitably shape the piece to some extent. For instance, if she’s particularly excited about a certain musical phrase or gesture, then I might be encouraged to extend that idea or develop it further.

Our initial discussions have revolved around the practicalities of the percussion layout and also sticking and mallet issues. I’ve heard Rebecca play on many occasions and what strikes me each time is her “cool as a cucumber”, unflustered approach to playing. Whether she’s playing a single triangle note or some fiendish Messiaen xylophone lick, she appears to be completely unfazed and so relaxed – yet the sound she’s producing is extraordinarily vital, focussed and precise. Her mallet playing is extremely well developed, technically, and her ability to play really fast accurate passages is something that I will be exploiting to its fullest potential. The writing process will continue for many months yet, and as we get further into the piece, there may be specific aspects of the concerto that she has unwittingly had an influence upon.

Your percussion pieces, such as Clowning, Penguin Circus, and even Malachite Glass are characterised by fun, energy and a wonderful sense of colour. Will the new percussion piece be in a similar vein, or will you include more reflective passages or movement?

To me percussion music has a great sense of theatre and celebration and so far the material I’m working with certainly embraces some of the elements you mention. Listening to the percussion music of Messiaen and James Macmillan (his percussion concerto “Veni Veni Emmanuel”), I have become aware of the ability to embrace more profound sentiments as well using percussion. As I get into the piece I am attempting to cover as much ground as I can, emotionally and technically. Of course in this process many ideas don’t cut the mustard and fall by the wayside, so it’s difficult to say at this stage just exactly how it will end up.

The working title for the piece is “Big Bang Theory” (Concerto for percussionist and Symphony Orchestra.). This is a very “tongue in cheek” nod to the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, who was the first to propose that the universe began with the explosion of a primeval atom, (although the literal meaning of the title in this context is probably more relevant – i.e. the business of actually hitting stuff to make sound).

This work is a development and further exploration of my long association with Australia’s percussion community which began some 25 years ago, when I was invited by legendary percussionist Greg Sheahan to play bass drum in his ensemble “Utungan Percussion”. This long and fruitful relationship has led to numerous collaborations, commissions and the creation of percussion-orientated film scores with many of our finest players and ensembles.

From blistering xylophone virtuosity to the meditative sustain of Japanese temple bowls, the soloist revolves around several percussion “kits” featuring dozens of percussion instruments (wooden, metal and skin) in an engaging dialogue with orchestra that is at times driven by a pulsating rhythmic impetuous, counter balanced by moments of reflection and introspective contemplation.

I certainly hope to retain (and develop!) any sense of fun, energy and colour that may have been present in earlier works.

Like many other composers of your generation, you have been equally recognised as a performer and a composer. What are the most important links between the performer and the composer? What do you learn or experience as a performer that assists you as a composer?

Put simply, I learnt to compose “on the job”. By this I mean, that much of what I know about composition has been picked up by rehearsing and performing my own and other peoples music with other musicians – as a clarinettist. I can’t imagine any other way of building a composition career other than from a performer perspective. My initial composition experiences were very much informed by my experiences as a clarinettist.

I began writing music when I was studying the clarinet with my father. I thought that writing my own music would help me to better understand the music I was studying at the time (the standard clarinet repertoire) and would allow me a deeper insight into the nuts and bolts of the creative process, thereby equipping me with the tools to bring a deeper, more meaningful interpretation to that clarinet repertoire.

Any composer will tell you that to be present during the rehearsal process for a new work can be a very confronting experience involving a very steep learning curve. When you are actually participating in this process directly (as a performer) then this is a great chance to absorb feedback about playability and compositional issues from the other performers.

Some of the processes and technology that you use in composing will be familiar to students in your audience: sampling, processing and looping sounds or using the computer as a personal orchestra. What aspects of this technology do you find helpful in your writing?

Working in film requires the modern day composer to provide an electronic “template” of the score using sampling and sequencing technology, prior to it being recorded by live musicians. This is a process that I usually use at some stage of all my work. In many cases performers and conductors find this a useful tool in getting to know the music a little quicker.

The other aspect that will be familiar for many students is how a player of a melody instrument learns to write for ensembles with all the harmonic and textural elements that requires, as well as knowledge of different instrument colours and techniques. What advice would you give those students?

It may be possible to generate some initial ideas on single line instruments for example, but composing for ensembles usually requires that you embrace a larger perspective than what you know of your particular instrument and to some extent familiarise yourself with the workings of the instruments for which you are writing … the objective being to create a musically holistic experience for both your performers and audience.

Study the music that attracts you. Studying the work of other composers is common practice among all composers. If you are writing a string quartet (or whatever), listen to as many different string quartet pieces as you can find. Listen out for something that attracts you to the work of a particular composer or a certain piece. Get the score of that piece and find out what makes it tick. What is it about that particular piece that awakens something within you? Incorporate some of those ideas into your own work.

Perhaps as an example, you could explain how a clarinet player goes about writing a virtuoso piece for piano or percussion?

In a sense, the clarinet provided me with a gateway into composition, but my knowledge of the instrument has virtually no direct relevance to piano or percussion music. When I write, I leave the clarinet in its box (and have done for about the last ten years actually). Composing must encompass a much broader perspective and you must try to think like a percussionist or a pianist in order to write for these instruments. One way to achieve this is to study the music of the particular instrument for which you are writing.

When I embark upon a new guitar piece (I don’t play guitar at all and find it the most difficult instrument to write for), I usually spend some time going through guitar scores and listening to my favourite guitar composers. Also talking to instrumentalists about certain pieces and technical issues is incredibly informative. I always write for guitar with a diagram of the left hand fret layout in front of me – with all the harmonics marked. This helps me to avoid writing stuff that is unplayable.


Onomatopoeia is described as representing a release from the rigours and discipline that surrounded much of twentieth-century repertoire. How does that freedom continue to express itself in your music?

Onomatopoeia was composed following an intensive period of study of the contemporary cutting edge bass clarinet repertoire with Harry Sparnaay (http://www.harrysparnaay.com/) during which time I had developed a reasonable facility for extended contemporary playing techniques. Upon return to Australia, it occurred to me that much of this repertoire, that I had sweated over so intensively had little relevance to my sensibility as a musician – so I tried to write something that, although using similar extended techniques, perhaps felt a bit more relevant to my musical sensibilities. That was one of the initial catalysts for exploring composition in the first place, and remains an element of my compositional make up to this day.