Nigel Westlake’s Shimmering Blue received its first performances with the WASO during the Masters concerts on 25 and 26 July. The composer discussed some of the significant features of his music in a conversation with John Meyer during his visit to Perth for the work’s premiere.

Australian composer Nigel Westlake might well be forgiven for resenting the suggestion that his music has become best known through its association with pigs and penguins. Yet he readily accepts the fact that his work for films such as Babe and Antarctica has been an integral part of his success as a composer, a success that has enabled him to devote himself full-time to composition for the past twelve years or so. “I guess my film music has reached far more people than any other form of work I’ve done, by far, so it’s hardly surprising”, he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great directors and on some wonderful projects”.

Like many of the turnings in his musical career, Westlake found himself writing film music almost by accident. One day in the early 1980s his mother drew his attention to an advertisement calling for composers for film music workshops, to be tutored by Bill Motzing, Tommy Tycho, Michael Carlos and George Dreyfus. This was the very first time that the Australian Film and Television School had run such a course, and his application to attend it was successful. “It was an eight-week course and eight composers were mentored by these professionals. My mentor was Bill Motzing and we all wrote a score for the same film. The final day of the course was watching the same film eight times with eight different pieces of music, which was quite a revelation!”

Westlake’s music was also a revelation to Jim McCarthy, the then Head of Music at Film Australia who was present at the screening, and who was so impressed that he immediately offered the young composer work on documentaries. Over the next few years he composed music for something like sixteen documentaries, meeting people in the industry, working with different directors, and – “it sort of snowballed from there”.

While he continued to study privately with Bill Motzing after the course, he also learnt a lot on the job. “I’ve learnt so much working with different directors, such as George Miller – a genius film-maker, he likes to become involved in the music process, and in a great amount of detail. You can’t help but learn in those situations, working with him on a day-to-day basis over a period of months. We worked together for two or three months at a time on the scores for the Babe films, so that was very informative”. A couple of years ago he had a position at the Film School as an acting lecturer in film music, and so was able to pass on some of his expertise to even younger composers.

Although Babe and its sequel are doubtless the best known films with which he has been associated, the first big break that came Westlake’s way was being asked to compose the score for Antarctica . This was the first of four Imax feature films he has worked on with John Weiley. “He was looking for a score that was a little more on edge than your average documentary score, he wanted something that stood up and barked a bit…He fashioned me in a way to write music that I would never have written had he not taken me under his wing. That score, I look back now, is very elemental, it’s very basic, but in a way it had to be because the medium of Imax is so overwhelming it actually requires very simple ideas. The orchestration is very raw in a way, because I hadn’t done much orchestration at that stage, but I think he had wanted that anyway – a very earthy and raw approach to orchestration, very percussive elements predominating”.

At the time Westlake was working with guitarist John Williams and the latter’s group Attacca, and he had wanted to feature the guitar in his score for the film. This did not work out in the way he had first visualised, but several months later he was invited to compose a piece for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate the 60 th anniversary of the ABC, and so he decided to combine some of the ideas he had discarded from the film score together with some ideas that had been included. This became a suite for guitar and orchestra, also entitled Antarctica , and it used the basic form of the film for its four movements. The short third movement – the ‘Penguin Ballet’ – is well on the way to becoming a classic of Australian music. The complete work has been performed a number of times by John Williams (who also recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra) and Slava Grigoryan, and is also a study piece on the curriculum for HSC music in New South Wales & Victoria – a measure of its general acceptance, not to mention a ready source for sales of the score!

The transformation of music for a film set in the southernmost continent into an orchestral work calls to mind a similar instance from the middle of the twentieth century, when Ralph Vaughan Williams used his music for Scott of the Antarctic (1949) for his seventh symphony (the Sinfonia Antartica ), which was first performed four years later.

The fact that Weiley wanted music “a little more on edge” than usual is significant given that he also commissioned Westlake to provide the score for another of his films actually entitled The Edge . This was a film set in the Blue Mountains and screened in a special cinema actually located in that rugged but beautiful part of Australia.

Another important aspect of Westlake’s musical makeup comes from his experience in circus music. He was a member of the band that played with the Flying Fruit Fly Circus (now well established in Albury) in its first season in 1979, and for that band he also wrote a few pieces. Then when the Nanjing Acrobats visited Australia for several months to tutor the youngsters in the circus, he wrote the score for that particular project. It was performed by himself and two percussionists, using a lot of electronics as well, and an album was made of the work. “We were described as being a very rambunctious band, with very flamboyant, loud and percussive music” says Westlake.

The influence of both film and circus music is felt in Westlake’s Shimmering Blue . Commissioned as part of the [15 x 5′] project for the 75 th anniversary of the WASO, this work is “a tipping of the hat to the past” with regard to the history of that orchestra. Nigel’s father Donald Westlake – who for nearly two decades was principal clarinet of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – is from Perth, where he was taught by Percy Newton, the principal clarinet in the Perth Symphony Orchestra (the forerunner of the WASO) and brother of Harold Newton, the first conductor of that orchestra. In her recent book celebrating the WASO’s anniversary, Marcia Harrison provides tantalising glimpses of the Newton brothers, who appeared to have quite different personalities but were obviously both significant figures in the early years of the orchestra. Percy’s playing was characterised by Don as having a “shimmering blue tone that rose to a glittering sliver in the upper register” and although Nigel never heard Percy Newton, he has detected a similar tone in the playing of both his father and Jack Harrison, another of Newton’s students.

Nigel Westlake was himself born in Perth but was only one year old when his family moved, first to Melbourne when his father gained a position in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and then to Sydney. With his mother a violinist who also played for many years with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, he grew up with music always around him. “I was very influenced by my father as a young boy and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I remember his performance of the Copland Clarinet Concerto at the Sydney Proms one year when the Town Hall was packed out, and you get all these people who don’t normally go to concerts coming – they take all the seats out of the Town Hall and everybody brings their pillows, it’s a great environment and very festive. He played the Copland and the audience went bananas – it’s a beautiful piece, I love it – and I said to myself: ‘That’s what I want to do’”.

So he learnt clarinet from his father and at that stage had no thought of becoming a composer, although he was dabbling a bit at the time. “When I was still learning clarinet from my father, I wanted to somehow find a way of interpreting the great pieces I was learning at that time – such as the concertos by Mozart, Weber, Copland and others – with a deeper sense of insight. I thought maybe one way of doing that is to study composition and find out how the composer’s mind ticks, and maybe that would help me imbue these works with a deeper meaning. And so I started writing music for my friends at that time, who were a very diverse band of musicians, from jazz, classical and rock backgrounds. I got them all together in one room and we tried these pieces out and I recorded them. They all got on well and said ‘It sounds great – we should form a band’”. This became the Magic Puddin’ Band – they applied for a grant and received $5,000 for a three-month tour, but the band actually lasted for three years. It was fusion band in which the classical players started improvising and the jazz players started getting more into notated music, and so it proved a fertile ground for his musical ideas.

After a year in Holland studying bass clarinet with Harry Spaarnay, and then joining the Australia Ensemble as its clarinettist, “I started to get little invitations to compose and bye and bye it grew and grew and the commissions became a bit more serious, and then I was writing for orchestra, which initially was quite terrifying. I never actually aspired to become a composer, funnily enough, it was a complete accident, and it’s actually interesting that it was drawn out of me by enthusiasm for the small bit of work I had done”. For a time he combined both performing and composing, with some of his concert pieces featuring the bass clarinet, as he was keen to show it off as a virtuosic solo instrument. These pieces were written for ensembles in which he was performing, examples being Refractions at Summercloud Bay (for the Australia Ensemble) and Malachite Glass (for Synergy), as well as Invocations , a concerto for bass clarinet commissioned by Richard Mills and the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra.

Most of Westlake’s other instrumental works have been composed with particular players in mind, either ensembles or individual soloists for concertos such as a second guitar concerto ( Images ) which was commissioned by Timothy Kain & toured in 2000 by Slava Grigoryan and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and a piano concerto for Michael Kieran Harvey & the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra . This process has been another important influence on his musical style, as he has responded to what he knows about the players, what they like to play, and what their audiences expect from them.

Westlake sees many positive signs for Australian music, not only through what has happened in his own career but through the fact that there is now an amazing collection of composers coming up through the ranks, with such a diversity of work being produced. Audiences also now seem to be much more accepting of Australian composers than they were some decades ago. Although back then Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music may have brought forth tributes in David Jones’s shop-front windows – as recalled in Sculthorpe’s recent autobiography – and that sort of thing is unlikely to happen these days, he points to such outstanding events as last year’s premiere of the Oboe Concerto by Ross Edwards, given by Diana Doherty and the Sydney Symphony under Lorin Maazel as an indication of how far we have progressed. “What an amazing work, what a beautiful performance….the audience wanted more. If things like that can keep happening, there’s great hope for Australian music!”

© 2003, John A Meyer