– Katarina Kroslakova writes about a new commission for the Macquarie Trio.

“For me, inspiration begins as a single note,” says Sydney-based composer Nigel Westlake. Sounds pretty back-to-basics, and perhaps it is. But in age an where many contemporary composers feel the more black dots on the page the better – hence alienating many new audiences – a simple, core philosophy such as Westlake’s brings the art of composing back to its true roots. That’s not to say Westlake’s music is either simple or simplistic – quite the opposite. But his approach to composing and treating each single note like his muse has proved to be a winning formula with audiences, performers and critics alike.

Once that single note has travelled through a labyrinth of musical opportunities, it has led Westlake to successes such as five IMAX movies, award-winning soundtracks including Babe and commissions from some of the country’s top arts organisations including Synergy Percussion, Bell Shakespeare Company, SBS Television, Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Musica Viva. In 2002, Westlake added Macquarie Trio Australia to his list of luminaries with his first ever piano trio work, Urban Myths .

Although Westlake comes from a musical family, he is largely a self-taught composer. He initially studied clarinet with his father Donald (former principal clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) and subsequently became one of the country’s leading clarinettists himself. In 1980, Westlake formed the Magic Puddin’ Band – a revolutionary ensemble blending classical, jazz, rock and ethnic music.

It was during his time with this band that Westlake first dabbled in composition. He has previously quoted Frank Zappa as his initial inspiration for venturing into the composing field, saying: “I used to think that if this bloke Frank was able to get away with such musical ratbaggery and even make a living from it, then maybe there’d be a place for me to try some of my own noodles. Of course, once you start experimenting, it opens your ears up to everything and I soon found myself listening to music in a completely different way.”

Westlake formalised his composition studies with a course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School under William Motzing, then in Holland whilst studying bass clarinet performance. He was also awarded an Australia Council grant to study orchestration, which he completed in 1993, but by then many of his works had already become core repertoire for Australia’s top ensembles.

Around this time, Westlake and his wife Jan decided to take control of the reproduction and distribution of Nigel’s composition catalogue. This was fairly unusual practice at the time, since most Australian composers were either represented through the Australian Music Centre who paid composers a standard commission rate for sales, or with a music publisher. But the Westlakes opted for self-distribution and bought a photocopier, binding machine, plastic covers and paper, produced their own catalogue and have since been sending orders throughout Australia and overseas. Not only does this give Westlake complete artistic control, it also helps track performances of his works.

In terms of composing for specific performers, Westlake says he likes to visualise the performers on the concert stage, poised ready to perform. Then if he listens carefully to his imagination, he can even hear the performers playing parts of the work he is about to write for them. When it came to writing for Macquarie Trio Australia, Westlake went to plenty of concerts and got to know each individual player so he could include their personalities in the character of the new work. Plugging into the strengths of each performer was also a priority, and Westlake found the trio’s playing to be perfectly suited to his composition style: “They’re all such lyrical players and capable of playing rhythmic music.” But it was the personal, characteristic quirks that Westlake used to add colour to his composing.

Of Kathy Selby, Westlake says: “I think she’s an incredibly lyrical pianist. I love the way she plays Beethoven and Schubert and the logic she brings to that. So I was looking for a clear and logical piano style, something that maybe isn’t as dense, busy… looking for something more open. Let’s face it, the piano is the backbone of this ensemble so without trying to create a piano concerto, the piano was the central focus in terms of how I approached it.”

On Michael Goldschlager: “He’s got such a warm and engaging personality. When you talk to him, you feel embraced by this warmth and he also has a fantastic sense of humour so I’m trying to bring in some of that. I still see a lot of New Yorker in him so try to catch that too, in a quirky way. On the other hand, he’s also very compassionate and a fantastic master of phrasing. So it leaves a lot to play with.”

And on Nick Milton: “Nick is just such a brilliant, consummate musician in that he’s such a fantastic conductor. He’s got this great overview of what the music is about, so when I hear him play the violin, I just feel this breadth of musicality and knowledge. And he’s also very quirky, he has lots of fun with music. He treats it very seriously and with utmost respect of course, but still has fun with it.”

Westlake admits it’s like dealing with an orchestra of personalities, which leaves plenty of inspiration to work with. Then it’s just a matter of finding that all-important first note and allowing the muse to lead the way through a musical labyrinth to create something magical.

© Katarina Kroslakova