THE PERCUSSION MUSIC OF NIGEL WESTLAKE

– an interview with Gary France

(head of Percussion at the Australian National University School of Music).

GF Nigel Westlake’s work “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is well known to percussionists around the world. This marimba quartet received its world premiere in 1986 by the Australian Percussion group Synergy.
In 2004 I had the rare opportunity to work close hand with Nigel while he was the H.C. Combs Visiting Fellow. During this time Nigel wrote a new marimba quartet, which we originally thought would be called Son of Omphalo, which is now called Kalabash. So, it is with great pleasure that I present this interview with Australian composer Nigel Westlake, focusing not only on his new work Kalabash, but also on his other works for percussion.

GF: Good morning Nigel.

NW: Good morning Gary.

GF: Nigel, I would like to talk a little bit about how Kalabash was born and what prompted you to write this new piece.

NW: Lets just go back about 20 years or so, to the birth of my first marimba quartet, Omphalo Centric Lecture. It started life as a piece for two percussionists & Bass clarinet. I was playing (bass clarinet) in a trio called “Touchwood” with percussionists, Michael Askill & Graeme Leak.

Michael suggested I re-work Omphalo for Synergy (a percussion quartet based in Sydney). It soon became a regular part of their programs & Michael was the first player to record it – as a multi-tracked performance (available on the c.d. “Onomatopoeia” TP047 from www.rimshot.com.au.) Incidentally Michaels recording is still my favorite after all these years.

It has been a constant amazement to me that this piece has gone on to have such a life of it’s own and is played so regularly. Following the success of Omphalo, it’s been in the back of my mind to write another marimba quartet.

When I was offered the HC Coombs fellowship from the Australian National University in 2004, it gave me the opportunity to pursue this idea & write a piece for your group Gary, DRUMatiX, so I began work on Kalabash, using traditional African balofone music as a departure point.

I began by listening to traditional kora & xylophone recordings from Northern Ghana, Gambia & Senegal.

Whenever I write for marimba – I always think of the Balofone.

Its important to state here that its not my agenda to duplicate or re-create the traditional balofone style………its more about getting in touch with the origins of the Marimba which is what interests me. These days of course, there’s all manner of styles & genres available to the modern marimba player & its exciting to hear musicians such as the Safri duo play their Bach arrangements & so on. But to me, traditional European harmonic & melodic concepts on the marimba sometimes sound uncomfortable & even occasionally boring, whereas the traditional repetition-based balofone music seems to make perfect sense.

I’m not sure if anyone else shares this idea, but whenever I hear this traditional music, it seems to me to be the source of the sound of the Marimba and that’s where my ideas originate. So I spend some time listening, absorbing the gestures of this tradition. It has such a joyous, festive feel to it.

That’s what I try to plug in to when I am writing.

GF: So, it was the African influences that inspired Omphalo Centric Lecture

NW: Yes. At the time I wrote Omphalo I was also working with percussionist & drummer, Greg Sheehan who introduced me to a lot of traditional African recordings & ideas. Greg actually invited me, even though I’m a clarinet player, to play bass drum in his ensemble Utungan Percussion. I learned a lot working with Greg, he would whip out all these African albums and explain how the rhythms worked. He really took my hand and led me through this amazing world of music that I hadn’t been exposed to previously. This is some 25 years ago or so. Having my eyes opened to that music, by such an enthusiast of this particular sound world really inspired a lot of my ideas in percussion, and I think Omphalo came out of that for sure.

GF: Is there a connection between the title and the style? What inspired the title Omphalo Centric Lecture?

NW: That’s a weird story. Soon after completing the piece I found a bag in the gutter outside my front door and in the bag was a beautifully framed picture of this painting by Paul Klee, called Omphalo Centric Lecture. Somehow the simplicity & focus of this picture seemed to me to embody what I was trying to achieve with this music. I’ll show you, I have the picture right here.

GF: That’s fascinating! Life certainly throws some funny curves, speaking of Omphalo, I would like a little bit more detail. I remembered when I first encountered this piece in 1986, when I came to Australia, it was written for four marimbas. Now here I was in Perth, 3000 kilometers from Sydney. We wanted to play the piece but we did not have four Marimbas. I immediately began the job of trying to edit this down so that we could play it on two Marimbas. And now it’s my understanding that worldwide there are lots of closet directions / versions of how to play Omphalo on two Marimbas. Nigel, could you please tell us where you’re at with this piece, do you receive a lot of questions about this?

NW: Ah, not so many questions, but a lot of groups have recorded it. It’s always fascinating to hear the different sounds and different approaches. Synergy recently did an album called “Omphalo Centric Lecture” where they recorded the piece twice; the first version is a “straight” arrangement they did for 2 marimbas (four players), the second version is a very “free” arrangement including African drums and extended improvisations. It’s a very elaborate interpretation of the work. The definitive arrangement for two marimbas is something that Synergy have been playing for many years now & will be published (finally!) by Rimshot music early in 2006.

GF: So that will be for two 4&1/3 octave instruments down to low A.

NW: Exactly!

GF: Are you happy for people to take your music and change it in a way like Synergy have done? Is this something that you encourage? What are your thoughts on this?

NW: Well, I’ve really only experienced it with this piece, and there have been some wild interpretations. A few years ago Synergy performed it with tabla virtuoso & percussionist Trilok Gurtu – now that was different! I guess I don’t have a problem if it’s done well. Synergy have taken a lot of care with their recent “African” interpretation & are very much in tune with the piece. Tim Constable (from Synergy) has studied traditional music in Africa & was able to bring some specialist knowledge to their re-arrangement. Although I must say, I cant imagine some of my other much more complex and highly structured works being interpreted in this way, but an early work like this, as long as people are able to bring something fresh to it…working with the general feel of the piece & entering into the optimistic spirit of celebration… Then why not!

GF: Thanks for that Nigel; this brings us to a question of some of your other works and related questions about those, which are asked often. Your terrific solo piece for Marimba and digital delay Fabian Theory was written in September 1987. This particular work calls from some technology, which is not readily available any more. Do you receive questions about this one any more?

NW: A lot of questions about Fabian Theory!

GF: Well, this is a chance for us to clear up some of these questions.

NW: Fabian Theory was written in 1987 & at that time, digital technology was in its infancy.

I wrote it for a Roland SDE 3000 delay unit, which of course has been obsolete for years now. (I still have one actually!) Of course, percussionists approaching the work now have to find some way to overcome the problem of adapting the piece to more recent technology. The main problem occurs at the point in the piece where the player is required to “capture” a small fragment of sound within the delay (by depressing a footswitch) to create a loop, which then acts as an accompaniment for other material. There are plenty of delay units on the market, but not many that “capture” precisely like the old Roland delays used to. Though percussionists who play this piece seems to be able to find their own solution to this particular problem (percussionists being a particularly inventive & resourceful group of people!).

Nowadays there are a number of computer programs and electronic devices that can be adapted to achieve these ends, such as the Kat midi mallet instrument and sampling devices that can be triggered from a laptop by footswitch & so on. You can also get very sophisticated digital delay systems. So I encourage players to find the current technology & manipulate it to their own ends.

Percussionists around the world have sent me their suggestions to the “looping” issue & some of these are listed on my web site www.rimshot.com.au. Click “concert works catalogue”… & scroll down the page to “works with percussion”. If you click on any of these titles, you’ll find annotations about the work. Under Fabian Theory, you will find some of the dialogue I have had with other percussionists & how they choose to perform the work.

And, as a good reference point, you can pick up the copy of Alison Low Choy performing Fabian Theory on the Australian Anthology of Music on Disc CSM24, available through the Australian Music Centre.

GF: So, if I could paraphrase you for a minute. You’re saying that as long as the performer captures the essence of the music, literally, that the technological medium is not important.

NW: Exactly.

GF: Nigel, while we’re on the subject of Fabian Theory, would you like to talk about the subject of holding three mallets in one hand.

NW: Laughs abound!!! Yes – I have had a few complaints about that (although there are some players who don’t know what all the fuss is about & play it with three anyway!). You’ll notice that this section of the piece was recently revised & I now include an “ossiá” in the published score for those who prefer to play it with two mallets.

GF: Actually, we do have a lot of people playing with six mallets now. I would refer our readers to the many articles on holding three mallets now available. (Percussive Notes article by Dean Gronemeier December 1996).

Ok Nigel, it would be great to move on to Kalabash, your exciting new marimba quartet! I was very pleased to have been involved in the premiere of this new work. Can you tell us how you put this work together?

NW: Well, as I said earlier, it’s been in the back of mind to write another piece for marimba ensemble & build upon the success of Omphalo Centric Lecture. Actually, it was your suggestion Gary, to use the two – five octave marimbas, the four splash cymbals and the log drums, which is similar to Omphalo but which I “fine tuned” following your suggestions. You may recall that you encouraged me NOT to write a “student” piece that was technically compromised in any way, for you & your students to perform. This was a great suggestion & your students really rose to the occasion when they performed the piece during my residency at ANU.

I think you’ll agree that this work is much more challenging than Omphalo. What do you think Gary?

GF: Yes it is definitely more challenging than Omphalo, but certainly worth the effort. Working and performing Kalabash was certainly rewarding. The combination of the splash cymbals, we talked about having soprano, alto, tenor and bass splash cymbals (I used the Sabian Terry Bozzio Radia series), which expanded on the original Omphalo, which only had one splash, and the log drums of course which tie in with the older work. I believe that percussion ensembles will be fascinated with Kalabash. It’s a funky shuffle as compared to Omphalo, which is a steady four/four groove. Nigel, would you like to tell us a little bit about that feel?

NW: Look… writing, for me is almost a subliminal process. I don’t know where the ideas come from; but I spend time trying to develop riffs & rhythmic inventions & then play with them – shuffling them around & trying to fit them into the bigger scheme of things. I go through a lot of ideas when I’m writing; I throw a lot of things out… I have to feel really comfortable with the groove that I’m working with. It doesn’t matter what the piece is, whether it’s a piano concerto, a percussion work or a film score. You’ve got to feel good about the instrumentation and, you know, the tempo and feel just have to “click” somehow. And when you’re on that track it becomes a stream of conscience-ness…the notes almost write themselves. Ideas flow, you’re in an environment where you can comfortably develop and use the ideas as stepping-stones to other ideas, and the piece just organically grows

GF: Would you agree that it’s a funky shuffle?

NW: Yeah, Definitely! In fact, it was interesting that at one point you made the suggestion that it could be notated as a jazz tune & “swung”.

GF: Yes, I think so.

NW: Yes, but I actually chose to notate the rhythms literally, specifically in terms of the swing rhythms, because I realized that it would probably get played by classical players rather than jazz players & I didn’t want any misinterpretation of that shuffle-feel, so there are a lot of sextuplet figures etc.

GF: One of the elements of the composition that I particularly enjoyed was the shifting directly from this groovy shuffle to straight eighths. Are the eighth notes in this example to be played literally? For example bar 16, were you have the 16th notes for groupings of 16th notes groups of four against the six couplets. It was your intention for the 16th notes to be played strictly as the written, thus establishing a three against four (3:4) feel?

NW: Yes, hence my decision to notate the rhythms precisely as they should be played & therefore dispense with any ambiguity that might arise from a swing-style notation.

GF: So, as a program note, although Kalabash is precisely notated, it was your intention, in relation to the “swing feel” that you really want the piece to have a terrific groove.

NW: Definitely there is no doubt about that! Synergy recently recorded Kalabash (for release on my “Chamber music Volume II” c.d. released through Tall Poppies records in 06). They asked me whether they should be aiming for a tight, precision based performance, or something a little more relaxed. In this instance a relaxed, slightly loose style works well I think. They’ve managed to find a good “middle ground” between precision & groove.

GF Is this going back to your real tradition of honoring this balofone style of playing?

NW: Yes. That’s the predominant feature of a lot of the traditional African music, the amazing momentum and humungous “feels” that the traditional ensembles develop. This piece was a nod in that direction – an attempt to inhabit this beautiful sound world – but from my own perspective.

GF: Nigel on behalf of the percussion world. I would like to thank you for giving us another great piece to play. Kalabash will be a lot of fun for percussionists to encounter and experience. And I would like to thank you for that.

While were talking about your music, you also write a quite a bit of other music and, of course, are well known for your film scoring. Soundtracks to like Babe The Pig, the sequel, Babe Pig in the City and also the outstanding work that you do for many of the IMAX films (Antarctica, Solarmax and more). My ensemble the DRUMatiX recently performed your work Invisible Men for Percussion Quartet and Film.
Would you like to speak a little bit about your film scoring for percussion?

NW: “The Invisible men” was also commissioned by Synergy. They basically told me to go & find a silent movie and score it for percussion quartet. So, I spent a long time at the Australian National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra, going through a lot of old Australian movies, documentaries and old dramas. The most intriguing bit of footage I found was an old French movie called The Invisible Men. Made in 1906 & running for about ten minutes, this movie is one of the earliest examples of trick photography and is an endearing and quirky film that I found absolutely fascinating & fantastically entertaining. It was a lot of fun putting a busy, quite complex score together that, as you know, is quite demanding to perform.

GF: For percussionist who are interested in playing Invisible Men, the instruments required are traditional keyboards, drums and a wide variety of other sounds including: four flexatones, a wide variety of whistles, ice bells and other sound effects. Would you describe the soundtrack as basically as cartoon slapstick comedy music?

NW: Yes, it is in a way. The whistles used in the score represent the characters talking & yelling at each other & much of the on-screen action is supported by “Foley” type percussion writing (i.e. sound effects made in sync with the picture). It’s quite comical in a cartoon type style. The performers are synchronized to the movie with a click track, which is part of the soundtrack on the DVD. The audio output from the DVD goes straight into the headphones of the performers. And there’s also a bar count on the click track in case you get really lost…. (Laughing!)

GF: Thanks Nigel, that was very helpful and we really enjoyed performing that work.

Nigel, can you tell us little bit about your other films you’ve done, the IMAX features etc.

NW: Yes. Percussion has played a big role in many of my film scores, particularly sections of Antarctica, which were originally recorded with Synergy. They came into the studio and recorded some big tom-tom / bass drum feels that formed a basis for orchestral & vocal overdubs. More recently, the Imax documentary, SOLARMAX (which is currently showing in a number of cinemas worldwide) featured my friend (& percussion mentor) Greg Sheehan. We spent a day overdubbing 65 individual drum tracks to create this massive feel. The piece is called Drums of the Universe, orchestrated for things like African talking drums, congas, timbales, djembes, snare drums, low tom toms, hi Tom toms, several kick drums, concert bass drum, heaps of shakers and various cymbals.

GF: Wow, it must’ve been a lot of fun for Greg to play all these parts!

NW: Yes, we put down this big bed of sound, then Greg recorded several tracks of “feel improv” over the top. It’s really a fantastically powerful effect & it supports the enormous Imax, time-lapse sequences beautifully. This was a hell of a job to mix though, as you can imagine.

GF: Are the soundtracks to these IMAX films available to the public?

NW: Yes, SOLARMAX, Antarctica & The Edge are available through the Rimshot music website (http://www.rimshot.com.au/)

GF: Nigel, one of your most famous pieces to come out of Antarctica was Penguin Circus.

NW: I was afraid you’d bring that one up! Well, that section of the score came about because we needed some comic relief in the midst of a very serious scientific documentary. The penguins put on a bit of show for the cameras, jumping into the water, stealing rocks from each others nests, waddling around & so forth & I decided to support these antics with a very slapstick, incredibly corny, “cartoon hack–style” circus track using xylophones, flexatones, duck calls, wobble boards & so on. To my eternal embarrassment, this piece has gone on to have a life of it’s own outside of the movie. I cringe whenever I hear it, but I think kids especially get something from playing it.

I never really intended for it to become so popular.

GF: Nigel this is not the first time that you wrote music for circuses, can you tell me a little bit about that background?

NW: Actually, composing for the Flying Fruit Fly Circus was one of my first “professional” engagements. I toured in the circus band with them for couple years playing saxophone, clarinet & bass clarinet and contributing to the writing of the music for the show. That was a great learning experience, as you can imagine, very unusual.

GF: Nigel, earlier you mentioned bass clarinet, clarinet and percussion. Your composition Malachite Glass comes to mind as well as other works for the ensemble Attacca. Would you like to talk about these works?

NW: Malachite Glass was another commission from Synergy. Michael Askill suggested I write something that I could play with the band. At that time I had just come back from studying bass clarinet in Holland with Harry Spaarnay. Consequently it’s a quite a demanding bass clarinet part. In a sense it uses Omphalo as a departure point again. Two percussionists play ostinato figures on marimba and the other two players have various kits of stuff. It’s a challenging, fun kind of piece, & the bass clarinetist needs to be amplified to keep up with the rest of the ensemble. I’ve performed it a few times with Synergy & made a recording. This work gets played from time to time in the States & Australia.

Attacca was a septet formed by John Williams (the guitarist, not the film composer) in the early nineties. The players in the band generated most of the material. We toured the UK & did a few concerts in Australia. It was an interesting blend of jazz & “art house classical” – an attempt by John Williams to explore new horizons for the guitar. Michael Askill was the percussionist in that group. It was great to work in that unusual ensemble.

GF: What was the instrumentation of Attacca?

NW: Two guitars, double bass, piano, violin, clarinet / bass clarinet, and percussion.

GF: How many works did you write for that group?

NW: I wrote three pieces, “Touchwood”, “Tall Tales But True” & “Penguin Ballet” (arranged from Antarctica). I also performed “Onomatopoeia” (for bass clarinet & digital delay) at most of our gigs.

GF: Well Nigel, this has been fascinating, but what about the future?

NW: I’m currently writing a concerto for percussion and Symphony Orchestra, which is a commission from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for one of this country’s great mallet players, Rebecca Lagos (currently acting principal in the Sydney Symphony orchestra).

I first met Rebecca when she played with Synergy some years ago, but this is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to work on a new piece together.

The premiere is in June ‘06 so there still a couple of months of writing to go. We’ve finally settled on an instrumentation layout which includes marimba, xylorimba, metal junk, Peking opera gongs, tuned Himalayan temple bowls, crotales, tam tam, concert bass drum, kick drum, cymbals, pitched octobans & Thai gongs. It sounds like a lot of stuff (well actually come to think of it – it is!) but Rebecca has arranged all the instruments in an incredibly compact layout where most of them can be reached by hardly moving.

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 in a Rossini overture, the fiendish Xylorimba part in Messiaen’s “Des canyons aux etoiles”, or tearing up paper in Tan Dun’s “Paper concerto”, she appears to be completely unfazed and so relaxed – yet the sound she’s producing is extraordinarily vital, focused 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.

So it’s very inspiring to be able to work with somebody like that. I will be collaborating closely with her on the work.

GF: That’s very exciting, we will all look forward to the public release!

NW: What I would really like to do this time but I haven’t done with any my previous concertos is to start with a piano reduction of the orchestration so that it can be played as a duo for piano and percussion.

GF: Nigel, you mentioned a piano reduction; but, what about a midi version or electronic reduction?

NW: That’s a great idea, thanks for that Gary, I will pursue this.

GF: Sometimes it’s hard for the piano to really produce enough sound, although with a disk klavier you have more options. But of course, more and more we’re interfacing with new technology.

NW: Indeed, – a “music minus one” version.

GF: Nigel, could you tell us little bit about this terrific studio that you’re in and your approach to composition.

NW: Well, the studio is a result of years of working in the film industry where I am required to deliver to a director very sophisticated, sampled representations of the score as a “work in progress” prior to the final recording with live musicians. So, as a result, I’ve got the latest in sampling technology & sample libraries: the full Vienna Symphony Orchestra library, Larry Seyer Drum Kits, some great Marimba / Vibraphone sample libraries & so on. I can use these libraries to create a mockup of my orchestral score for any director that I’m working with. Once the director has approved my “template” for the score, the next step is to record it with live musicians. I haven’t got the space to record here in the studio, so I find a nice acoustic, record all the parts & bring them back here for mixing. I also use this technology when I am writing concert works. For example, when writing Kalabash the files I played to you in the early stages of composition were generated using a gigasampler & MOTU’s digital performer, just to give you an idea as to where I was heading with the piece. It was very useful to get your feedback & ideas for refining the instrumentation this way.

Some of the musicians I’m writing for find it really handy to be able to hear this stuff immediately, it gives them the chance to have input into the compositional process and comment on the work in progress. This technology also facilitates the constant flow of communication between performer and composer. Conductors like it too, it can help them to learn a new score a bit quicker.

GF: Yes, I noted that with your MIDI realizations of the Invisible Men and Kalabash are really terrific sounding.

NW: Thanks Gary, but for me the joy of writing music is to hear it come alive in the hands of wonderful musicians, but the midi thing can be a handy tool on occasion.

GF: Well Nigel, I would like to thank you for spending the time on this interview, it’s a real pleasure to share part of your music and your life. On behalf of percussionists worldwide thank you for your commitment to percussion music. All the best for your continued success!

NW: Thank you very much Gary. Great to talk to you