The Wisdom Interviews: Nigel Westlake interviewed by Peter Thompson

Australian composer Nigel Westlake’s music is the product of a contemporary mind and ear – with resonances of classical, jazz, rock, ethnic and fusion influences. His compositions include music for films such as Antarctica and Babe.

Nigel Westlake is the son of professional musicians and he left school early to pursue a musical career, working freelance with orchestras and ensembles. At 17 he made his first professional recording with the Sydney Symphony orchestra, playing bass clarinet in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Soon he formed the Magic Puddin’ Band, playing classical, jazz, rock and ethnic fusion. Later, Nigel was a core member of chamber group The Australia Ensemble, which toured Australia, USA, Asia, the UK, Europe, New Zealand and Russia.

It’s not an easy life being a composer, depending on commissions and royalties, and the fickle fortunes of grants and residencies. But at sublime moments, according to Nigel Westlake, composing can be like looking at the eye of God.

Transcript of interview –

Hello and welcome again to the Wisdom Interviews on Radio National. I’m Peter Thompson. This week our guest is the Australian composer Nigel Westlake. Nigel’s music is the product of a contemporary mind and ear with resonance of classical, jazz, rock, ethnic and fusion influences. You may be familiar with his large repertoire of music composed for films such as Antarctica and Babe. It’s not an easy life being a composer, depending on commissions and royalties and the fickle fortunes of grants and residencies. But at sublime moments, according to Nigel Westlake, composing can be like looking at the eye of God.

Peter Thompson: Nigel, a very warm welcome to Radio National.

Nigel Westlake: Thank you Peter.

Peter Thompson: At home you work in the garage.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, it’s a converted garage. The car no longer resides there. I’ve installed something of a mixing suite, I take my film scores there to mix and edit.

Peter Thompson: Being an honest to God Australian garage, it has a roller door, I hope.

Nigel Westlake: It has a roller door still on the front and behind that roller door is a sort of sound proof panel and so there’s the exterior brick garage then there’s a whole bunch of sound proof materials and then behind all that stuff is like another room so it’s reasonably sound proof.

Peter Thompson: What’s going on in that head of yours?

Nigel Westlake: When you set out to write a piece of music I can always hear, before I begin, what I’m about to do. Now whether that’s in a specific sense as is sometimes the case, sometimes you can hear the whole structure and sometimes I might have a dream where I dream of a complete piece of music and wake up and say ‘right, that’s it, I’ve got it, into the garage and write it down.’ Other times you start with a sort of vague notion of what you’re trying to do and so it’s what’s going on in your head, it’s like someone standing behind you telling you what note comes next.

Peter Thompson: That sounds a bit mystical.

Nigel Westlake: It’s a process that I can’t fathom, I don’t understand it at all. When people talk about being the vessel through which the work flows, Stravinsky referred to that, the vessel through which the Rite of Spring chose to manifest itself but that’s a good explanation when composing is done well, you feel like there are greater forces at work and you are channelling them.

Peter Thompson: When did this remarkable process start for you, when did you start having dreams where musical sequences were in your head?

Nigel Westlake: Difficult to put a date on that. I’ve always been interested in composition from a very early age and it happened over a very gradual period of time because for many years I was a clarinet player and worked as a professional clarinettist and gradually, bit by bit, composing took over my interests and time basically but when I was studying clarinet with my father, from about the ages of fourteen to eighteen, fairly intensively at that time, we were studying the great works of the repertoire, you know the Copeland Clarinet Concerto, the Mozart Concerto and the Quintet, the Weber Concertos, Carl Neilsen, things like this and I was thinking “What can I bring to these works that is my own individual statement? How can I interpret these pieces with a depth of understanding that perhaps other clarinet players can’t bring to these works?” And I thought “Well, if I could get inside the head of the composer and find out what it’s like to write a piece of music maybe that would help.” And so I started writing at that time in my mid teens and rather than just write for the sake of writing and not getting a performance out of it, I wrote for a very eclectic bunch of friends that I had at the time, people from rock music backgrounds, jazz music, classical and ethnic music backgrounds and I wrote a couple of works and we got together and played through them and it was very exciting to hear your stuff in a room with people who you have a rapport with and who were enjoying playing with it and my partner Jan said “Why don’t we apply for a grant and get this band on the road and tour these works..”

Peter Thompson: And that became The Magic Puddin’ Band?

Nigel Westlake: That’s correct. The band lasted for about three years. It went through about thirty members and each one of them brought their own individual musicality to the group in the form of new pieces or creative improvisation or whatever. And so it was a great testing ground for ideas and I then worked with the Flying Fruit Fly Circus as composer and performer and so composing sort of infiltrated my life over a very long period of time and from aspiring to be a clarinet player in my youth, following my father’s footsteps, he played the clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for eighteen years and he was sort of priming me for that career, composing infiltrated my life and sort of won over in the end. I’ve been doing that full time now for about ten years or so.

Peter Thompson: Here on Radio National I’m talking to Nigel Westlake. I’m Peter Thompson. Both your father, Don and mother, Heather were musicians, accomplished musicians.

Nigel Westlake: Yup, my dad was actually the first instrumentalist to win the ABC’s Vocal and Instrumental Concerto Competition and he came from Perth to Sydney to perform. That’s where he met my mother and the story he went up to her and she was playing violin and he said “One day I’m going to marry you.”

Peter Thompson: Just completely a bolt from the blue?

Nigel Westlake: Something like that, that’s the story. Sounds incredible and it turned out to be true.

Peter Thompson: And here you are.

Nigel Westlake: Here I am, yes. But they worked together in the orchestra for many years, my dad for about eighteen years full time and my mum, well she was bringing up me and my sister so not all the time, full time, but she was actually one of the first female string players to be appointed by Sir Eugene Goossens. Up until that time it was an all male orchestra and even though the females used to have to sit at the back she was one of them.

Peter Thompson: So you were born in Perth but quickly, because of your father’s appointment, came to Sydney. What, as a one year old?

Nigel Westlake: Actually we first went to Melbourne. He had a job there with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing bass clarinet and then he got appointed to the Sydney Symphony as principal clarinettist where he remained for many years. So yes, I grew up in Sydney.

Peter Thompson: What was the spirit of the household like, musically? Because music was work for both.

Nigel Westlake: It was very much a professional musical household and by that I mean, music wasn’t really something that was embarked upon in social situations or it wasn’t something to relax with. It was the way we earned our money, it was a matter of getting all the notes right at every gig and my dad was fastidious in his preparation for every concert he ever played. He practised for hours and hours and hours and consequently got repetitive strain injury from holding the clarinet probably because he practised too much. And so there’d always be the sound of the clarinet in the house at all hours of the day. My mum, well, she didn’t have that pressure of being principal performer like my dad was, so she wasn’t required to perhaps prepare the work the way that he did but he was always performing concertos and he had a lot of chamber music engagements with the Woodwind Quintet and he was involved a lot with the Symphonia of Sydney which was the precursor to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, led at that time by Tony Peni who was also the first leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and there were always rehearsals at home. Woodwind quintets and clarinet quintets and my dad rehearsed a lot at home so the sound of the clarinet was always going but at social occasions we wouldn’t sort of sit around the piano and sing songs. Music was very much a professional pursuit. I grew up in that environment which in some ways was a little strange, I guess but I’m very much like that now, myself. I spend all day with these sounds in my head, trying to get them out onto paper and so when I relax I tend not to listen to a lot of music.

Peter Thompson: You took your place alongside, or backstage and onstage, to some extent during rehearsals and where you could, you were part of performances. You went to lots and lots of concerts, didn’t you?

Nigel Westlake: I did, I did and I used to do lights for my dad’s woodwind quintet tours. When they were ready to go on stage they’d give me the signal to turn the auditorium lights off and so I did a lot of touring around the countryside with various chamber music groups with my dad. Went to lots of rehearsals from a very early age, orchestral rehearsals, I don’t think there was a concerto performance by my dad that I would have missed, I was his number one fan.

Peter Thompson: It must have been unusual too, in the sense that I presume, you went to East Lindfield Public School, you were at St. Andrews High School, no-one else was having a life like this.

Nigel Westlake: It was unusual but I cherished the individuality of it. My dad was a very individual person and that was something that I really admired about him and for me to have musical parents and to be living this slightly different lifestyle to my mates was great, I really loved that, the idea of that and I milked it for what it was worth.

Peter Thompson: He was tough.

Nigel Westlake: Yup, he was the patriarch of the family, to be obeyed at all times. He was very strict.

Peter Thompson: Where did that come from?

Nigel Westlake: Look, I never knew his father. He died before I was born. I can only guess that it has its roots somewhere there. He was the youngest, he had two elder brothers. Whether he felt that… they were apparently quite domineering with him, I believe when he was a child. So whether he felt that this was now his show and he was going to dominate the proceedings, I’m not sure.

Peter Thompson: So in turn, in some respects, you were able to get your own back with your young sister Kate.

Nigel Westlake: laughing Yes, that was the hierarchy of the household and she had her way with dog and so…

Peter Thompson: Poor dog!

Nigel Westlake: Yeah, yeah. As I found my father domineering I was domineering towards her which is something I regret now and I thank her for her forgiveness because I think we’ve sort of made up now but he was very strong about his values and when I embarked on music, he said ‘Well, you do it properly or you don’t do it at all’ and I had to adhere very much to a rigorous practice routine and then when I embarked on that as a career he was very strict about practising for hours a day and we had several lessons a week because I left school early to pursue this career as a clarinettist.

Peter Thompson: It’s interesting you say this, you describe the pressure obviously from your father in relation to discipline and so on and you also will say something like ‘As a teenager I was extremely lazy, arrogant and mischievous.’

Nigel Westlake: Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that he doesn’t know about which I prefer to keep it that way. I definitely had a passion for music and from about the age of eleven or twelve, I remember going to the Town Hall and hearing my father perform the Copeland Clarinet Concerto at the Sydney Prom Concerts. The Hall was absolutely packed with people and it was at that moment that I said ‘That is what I want to do.’ That is just so cool, to get up in front of all those people and play absolutely note perfect performance of such a beautiful piece of music. So I kind of had this agenda but yet it was a struggle for me at certain periods to get off my arse and kind of get to work and there were several periods where he had to crack the whip and get behind me and really say ‘I’m going to pull the plug on all this if you don’t get your act together.’ For that I’m grateful.

Peter Thompson: As a fifteen or sixteen year old, one of the really interesting things that happened in your family was your father’s dream realised to sail from Sydney to Cooktown and back.

Nigel Westlake: He took his long service leave just when I left school and invited the family on this six month trip on a 32 foot yacht and I would have to say it was a truly amazing and unique experience for a kid of that age to embark upon. And basically lived off fish and coconuts for about six months and living in that situation where we were living on top of each other for months on end was a great thing. It brought a certain closeness to the family and it taught me tolerance, I think. We met so many great people, people who were taking a break from the rat race or leaving it altogether and just embarking on sailing trips around the world.

Peter Thompson: The sailing grandmother!

Nigel Westlake: Yes, Anne Gash. We got invited aboard this 28 foot folk boat from Cairns harbour by this elderly lady on her own and she asked us aboard and put the kettle on and we started talking and we said “Where are you off to?” thinking she wouldn’t be off to anywhere because how could someone of that age sail and she said “Oh, I’m off to Scotland” and she was an amateur piper, a Scottish piper and couldn’t afford the airfare so she decided to sail to Scotland and we thought that she was completely mad and I remember my dad saying “How’s your navigation?” and she said “Oh, I’ve got a good book, I haven’t really starting reading it yet” and we thought she was completely loony and we got back to Sydney and a year or so later read about the return to Sydney Harbour of the sailing grandmother and couldn’t believe it. Yes, she was one of the many colourful characters that we met.

Peter Thompson: You were able during this six months to pick your location, go ashore, played with the birds and bees.

Nigel Westlake: I did, I kept my hand in whenever I could and I’d look for a really nice acoustic, a bit of a rocky cavern or something where the sound would reflect and do a few sort of warm up scales and sort of an improvisational session or go through some of the stuff that my dad was teaching me. Even though he himself was taking a bit of a break from playing, we would still have a bit of a lesson now and then and keep that flame burning.

Peter Thompson: I’m talking to Nigel Westlake here on Radio National. I’m Peter Thompson.

Tell us, Nigel, what happened on Masthead Island.

Nigel Westlake: That is a coral cay that exists about forty miles off shore, east of Rockhampton. We embarked on this ocean voyage to get out there and basically it’s a pile of sand with a few trees on it, surrounded by these various coral reefs. Anyway, we put the anchor down and decided we’d stay there for a night and then return to the safety of the mainland. Overnight a bit of a storm started ripping up and we thought we’d better wait, sit it out here until the storm abates. By the third evening the storm was just getting stronger and stronger and virtually cyclonic in its intensity and about 1am in the morning we noticed this sound, you know, the boat was being tossed around something shocking and we were terribly ill and so on and we could hear the anchor scraping against rocks which meant only one thing, that the anchor had started to drag and so my dad and I went up to the forehead section of the boat and we dished out some more anchor chain and more rope and we had another couple of anchors which we threw overboard and every available piece of rope was tied to try and get them deep enough to hold. By this stage we couldn’t see the island any more. It had a little lighthouse on it with a flashing light and there was no flashing light to be seen and this, of course, is an area of the reef where you are surrounded by reefs everywhere, you could easily end up hitting a reef at any time and having the boat destroyed. And so we noticed all the anchors and the chain that we’d put out had got tangled together and I’m talking about an incredible weight of three enormous anchors and various chains and so my dad and I decided that we’d try and pull them off onto the deck which took probably an hour or two of just inch by inch dragging this incredible dead weight up onto the deck and in amongst waves crashing over the deck and ‘where are we, what’s going to happen, are we going to survive the night?’ and my sister and mother were down below and hideously sea sick and we lost contact with the radio and it was a fairly desperate situation. So after a about a couple of hours pulling this dead weight up, this enormous wave came and washed my father overboard. Fortuitously there was a rope dangling behind the boat and he actually, I don’t know how, but he managed to get a hold of it and I pulled him aboard.

Peter Thompson: No easy task.

Nigel Westlake: No easy task, having sort of used all my energy to get all the anchors and stuff on board. So once aboard we just decided to go with the storm and we were surfing down these waves at about 15 knots without any sails up. Eventually dawn came and the mists cleared and we could see a headland and the radio started working again at that point and my dad got in touch with the local coastguard and described to them what he could see of the coast which was this sort of rocky headland and he said ‘Oh, that’s Cape Capricorn, head towards that and you’ll find an inlet behind that Cape where you can escape from the storm.’ So yeah, that was the initiation to The Great Barrier Reef, if you like. From then on it was plain sailing, I’m happy to say.

Peter Thompson: That situation where, who knows, you may have been decisive in saving your father’s life, did that change your relationship?

Nigel Westlake: It did but really it bonded us in a way that I had never felt before. I mean I was a fifteen year old airhead adolescent, completely self-obsessed and obsessed with my girlfriend at the time. That was kind of all that I was thinking of and it was a rite of passage for me. It woke me up in a sense, I felt that I came to my senses in many ways and I think my dad could see that and having gone through that incredible ordeal, it created this bond and brought us very close.

Peter Thompson: Which has been enduring.

Nigel Westlake: Indeed, yes. It was a very defining factor in our relationship.

Peter Thompson: Do you re-visit that night when you compose?

Nigel Westlake: Well, it’s funny you should ask that because I wrote a piece for the Melbourne Symphony a couple of years ago called Between Silence and Moonlight and I played it to my family at a gathering and my sister said ‘Oh, that sounds like Masthead Island’ because it’s quite a tumultuous, it goes through areas of frenetic activity and so on. I think you pack those life experiences away and into your sub-conscious and you’re always drawing upon them. They are the food of composition for me, those types of experiences and even though you’re not consciously re-creating them, the intensity of those types of occurrences are the stuff that drives you to do what you do.

Peter Thompson: You mention your younger sister Kate who was very gifted musically.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, she started learning violin with my mother and it was quite clear that she had a brilliant ear and could do anything with it and it was getting a bit intense musically, I guess with the rest of the family pretty involved in music so gradually she, as her hormones started to kick in, I think, around about that time, she started to reject that musical aspect of the family and I think even became a bit embarrassed by it. She wanted a much more conventional life. So she essentially rejected for many years my parents’ values and their musicality and the source of their livelihood and it wasn’t until she was in her mid twenties really that she started to realise that she actually did have a love of music and she started to embark on a bit of a singing career herself which she has not since pursued but that was a kind of catalyst for bringing her closer to the family after many years of what I thought was rejection.

Peter Thompson: I’m fascinated with the relationship you in particular have had with your parents. What did your mother say? There is a key moment when your mother took hold of your shoulders.

Nigel Westlake: Yes I think it was before I think my first appearance as a soloist, when I think I was playing the Weber Concerto with the Lane Cove Symphony. She took hold of my shoulders and that was the most intense and most passionate thing I’ve ever heard her say. She looked into my eyes and said ‘Music must always be beautiful.’ I always think of that moment, it’s echoing in my mind whenever I work I think.

Peter Thompson: What about your father’s advice. At the end of your life he says….

Nigel Westlake: Oh yes, he’s quite a philosopher in his own way and even though the household was pretty much an atheist kind of household, he would at dinner read philosophy texts such as U.G. Krishnamurti and so on.

Peter Thompson: At dinner?

Nigel Westlake: At dinner, yes.

Peter Thompson: Expecting silence, no doubt.

Nigel Westlake: Oh yes and he got it too. He always used to say to me ‘At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, you’ve got to be able to say well, I had a great time and it was worth it.’ And I think that spurred me on to having little tolerance for work that I didn’t feel for. I feel really blessed now that I’m in a situation where I only work on stuff that I feel really passionate about and that I feel is worthwhile myself.

Peter Thompson: He also used words like “At the end of the day you’ve got to be able to think back and be able to say that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Nigel Westlake: Yeah, great advice really. I could see where he was coming from even being the sort of ratbag adolescent that I was.

Peter Thompson: In mid life, can you look back and say ‘that’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do, so far?”

Nigel Westlake: Yes, you know, it’s about having no regrets, really, at the end of the day and I think there’s a few things I could have done better and more thoroughly but the general shape of things I certainly have no regrets and from embarking from, what at the time to me seemed to be a very exciting prospect, as life as an orchestral musician to a situation now where that dream has not so much left me but it’s more evolved into something else now. I’m now controlling this amazing voice which consists of the orchestral format and whatever chamber music or requirements or film score demands on a job to job basis that are required of me but it does seem an incredible privilege to work at that level and just to take on the jobs that I feel strongly about and that I feel I can contribute something to. Yes, I’d have to say that, yeah, no regrets.

Peter Thompson: On Radio National I’m talking to Nigel Westlake. I’m Peter Thompson. It’s no easy path you’ve gone down because, I mean financially it’s not paved in gold.

Nigel Westlake: It’s certainly not and there are many years where, when I was establishing my career, gee, we were living on the smell of an oily rag and when the kids were young and trying to get a foothold in terms of buying a house and so on. In fact the only place that we could foresee being able to ever afford was this acre of land an hour and a half north of Sydney which we bought for $12,000.

Peter Thompson: At St. Albans?

Nigel Westlake: At St. Albans, yes. And we’d just inherited a bit of money from the death of my partner’s father and it was just enough to buy this block of land and at that time I was working as a freelance clarinet player and we’d go for weeks without any jobs and my wife was supplementing my income with doing child care and so on. It was fun but it wasn’t always easy, that’s for sure.

Peter Thompson: There is also inevitably quite a lot of turnover isn’t there? If you look at some of the milestones in your career after The Magic Puddin’ Band and the The Flying Fruitfly Circus, you spent some time at The Australian Film and Television School studying and then working on film music. You worked with The Australia Ensemble, in fact for quite a long time, from 1986 to 1996.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, that was my first, regularly paid job because the Ensemble were based and still are, based at the University of New South Wales and my father had actually been working with them and they were looking for a replacement for their original clarinettist who was Murray Khoori who left I think in the mid eighties at some stage and they were trying out various people and they asked me along to do an audition and much to my disbelief I got offered the job and it was a wonderful experience, I toured with them around the world and also throughout Australia and performed all the great classical works with them and we commissioned quite a lot of new Australian compositions by various Australian composers so it was a great experience working with them and it was only because composition started to become more and more demanding on my time that … I first asked them if I could…. I said to them ‘Look, I’ve got all these films and commissions and I think I’m going to have to leave the group. I just can’t keep practising every day and keep up this workload.’ And I think they kind of thought that I wouldn’t really make it as a composer so they kept that job position open for me for a couple of years and every few months Dene Olding, the violinist would ring up and say “Well, when are you coming back, we’re still waiting for you.”

And I’d say “Well, I’ve got some more films and I can’t exactly see when.” And eventually they appointed Cathy McCorkill as a clarinettist and she’s still playing with them and she’s a student of my father’s actually.

Peter Thompson: This was the fine line you were treading between also I think a willingness, a commitment to playing as distinct from composing and you felt to some extent that you couldn’t do both.

Nigel Westlake: Sure, I know some musicians who don’t have a problem with covering this sort of ground, who work well as instrumentalists and who are also able to find the time to compose but for me to play properly I feel that I have to be playing at my peak and that involves several hours of practice each day and I really admire instrumental musicians. It’s a real grind sometimes that having to do your long notes and your scales and stuff every day and some players can get away without having to do it, you know, they have this sort of natural ability but I’m not one of them and so to do that and then to go and compose music is, you know you just kind of have enough of it all by then. And so that was the point at which I said ‘Right, I’m going to give up clarinet for a while’ and I did that for a couple of years and at the end of that period which included scores the movie Babe and a Bass Clarinet Concerto that was commissioned by the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra by Richard Mills and part of that commission was that I would then go and play that concerto and so after not having played for a couple of years I spent a good couple of months getting my chops back to go to Adelaide and perform that piece which I then performed with various other orchestras and recorded for ABC Classics and that was really the last time I played.

Peter Thompson: Here on Radio National I’m talking to Nigel Westlake.

How do you cope with being a creator but the wolf still being at the door and I know that your wife Jan has played a big role in a sense, being a practical anchor for managing your business affairs.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, we’re a bit of a team effort actually. I don’t have a head for business or contracts or anything and so she just takes over that side of things.

Peter Thompson: You call it ying and yang.

Nigel Westlake: Well, it is. She’s not much good at writing music so you know, she wouldn’t be able to do that without me and I don’t think I’d be in the position I am now without her so it really is a team effort, in a sense. You know, there’s been a lot of periods throughout my career where I’ve had to take risks and say ‘well, if I can pull this job off whether it be a commission or a film score or whatever for no money or for little money then that will lead onto other things. Particularly earlier on in my career where you take on film scores for smaller amounts of money and so on and you end up investing your own fee into the recording and that sort of thing and at the time you are thinking ‘gee, this is madness, I’m not earning a cent from this but if I can make it as good as I can then maybe it will lead on to other things.’ And so by taking these hopefully calculated and not too foolish risks over a very long period of time, well now I can pick and choose a bit the jobs that want to do and there’s always a bit of a backlog there. I mean, at the moment I’ve got several commissions on the backburners and a couple of films that I’m looking at and so by keeping this constant flow of offers and things coming in you are able to maintain some sort of level of being able to raise a family as a composer and I mean, most composers would have a job at a teaching institution or something similar to that which would be their bread and butter because the actual commissioning of new work is not all that rewarding financially. It’s more of an artistic expression really. It’s not financially rewarding for me because I take too long to write stuff in that way.

Peter Thompson: Give us an idea of composing. To what extent is it painful?

Nigel Westlake: Day in, day out, you have moments of great elation and joy and the next day you look at what you’ve done and you think, well geez why don’t I just go and give it up now because that’s just hopeless. I’m always questioning my worth and what am I trying to do, what am I trying to say, why should I, what right do I have to say this? It is painful, it’s never safe, I don’t have a process or a set of rules by which I work or a formula. I try to re-invent the wheel at every opportunity and that’s painful but when it works it’s also incredibly rewarding. I tend to attract people who are a bit like that, who commission work for me. A lot of the directors that I work with a lot, they’re looking for ways off the beaten track, for other non-conventional ways of expressing themselves.

Peter Thompson: John Weiley is one such person, isn’t he?

Nigel Westlake: Absolutely. I think he kind of taught me to be a bit like this.

Peter Thompson: John Weiley created the film Antarctica, the IMAX film and also a film which, as far as I know, has had very little if any showing in Australia so far, Solar Max.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, it’s been very successful overseas and I’m sure it will open here one day soon.

Peter Thompson: And it’s about humanity’s relationship to the sun.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, it’s about the sun from mankind’s perspective, religious, scientific, historical perspectives in the space of forty minutes, it covers a huge amount of ground and in typical Weiley fashion it’s a very spiritual event.

Peter Thompson: How is it spiritual for you?

Nigel Westlake: I think the easiest way to explain it is, the last sequence of the film is this amazing footage of the sun taken from the Soho telescope. Now that telescope is mounted one and half million miles out from earth in space and so it is digitally transferring images of the sun back to NASA and those images are the most amazing images you could ever see. This boiling surface of arcing flames of energy on the sun’s surface and there’s this amazing sequence in the film where for a couple of minutes we just look at the sun in all it’s glory and it appears a long way off and over the space of probably a couple of minutes it comes towards us and eventually we travel through it to the other side, into the star field on the other side. And I was just looking at this footage and it is the most amazing thing, talk about humbling. I mean, you just realise the power and majesty and this is the source of all life. And I said to John ‘What the hell am I going to do here, I mean musically? This is just … I’m out of my depth.’ And he said ‘Oh no, no, we’re looking at the eye of God.’ And that was it, that was all he said and he left me to interpret that in whatever way I could. Well, I don’t know that I achieved it but it is a very powerful piece of footage and I’m very proud to be part of that project and I’d work with him any time. I went through so many ideas. I wrote probably twenty ideas before I settle on something that I could then take and then once I got the idea that was only the beginning. Then I could see Mount Everest, I had to climb it.

Peter Thompson: In 1993 you were driving across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with your family and had a head-on collision.

Nigel Westlake: Yes, a car was coming towards me, he was in the wrong lane and I veered to miss him and I copped the impact of the collision on the driver’s side and consequently smashed my pelvis in four places and was confined to a wheelchair for several months. It turned out that it was actually a policeman who, from the eyewitnesses who were there, the other policeman was drunk at the time. It was never proven, because he refused a breath test and somehow managed to avoid getting a blood test. I leave that to your imagination as to how that could possibly happen. But it involved a couple of years of court cases and a lot of physical pain and anguish. And it was interesting, from my hospital bed I actually managed to continue a couple of projects that I was working on at the time, one of them was the score for Romeo and Juliet for the Bell Shakespeare Company and I remember John Bell visiting me in hospital and saying ‘Look, we can get someone else, you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to finish it off.’ But I’d already half written it and so I said ‘No, no, let’s go through the notes and you tell me what you need and I’m going to do it because whether I sit up to work or lie down, I’m in pain so it will help me take my mind off it.’ So I did complete the job and went to the premiere in the wheelchair and it was very traumatic. I had another film actually with John Wiley at that time which I managed to complete also, it was an IMAX film called Imagine, a beautiful piece of work by the 3D IMAX and then I had a period where there were no outside agendas being imposed on me in terms of my artistic brief. I had a commission for the Australian Chamber Orchestra for work that was to be premiered at the Adelaide Festival. So I was sitting there on my own without any direction from a director, film director or theatre director, left simply to my devices and for the first time in my life I experienced the absolute desolation of having no ideas. I searched my muse for any spark of creativity at all and it had completely dried up and it was the most shocking and dark period I’ve gone through. I would sit in front of the keyboard where I usually compose for hours every day, just waiting and playing things and there was just nothing there and I started having sessions with a psychologist and so on and asking where has my creativity gone? Something that I’d taken so much for granted and that was ever-present had just gone out the window and it made me realise just how vulnerable that creative spark is and that it doesn’t really take that much for it to disappear. And now I have a new-found respect for that, whatever it is, whether it’s you being visited by your muse or whether it’s your subconscious boiling away and coming forward with these musical thoughts. I don’t know where music comes from but I know it comes from a place that I now treasure and acknowledge as perhaps being something of a gift.

Peter Thompson: Something brought it back and you wrote Out of the Blue, beautifully named.

Nigel Westlake: That’s right. I don’t know whether it was just time or just putting the experience behind me and deciding to move on or just being fed up with the anguish. I went to days and weeks when I was in tears every day just asking myself where has it gone. Yes, something triggered something, I don’t know how it started or whatever, but yes, I ended up delivering the work on time, only just and it was performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Adelaide Festival and yes, it’s called Out of the Blue.

Excerpt from Out of the Blue

Peter Thompson: Are you a happy man?

Nigel Westlake: Yes, I feel on the one hand very content and blessed with my life. Life does throw up hardships from time to time but I think you have to use them as positive experiences and try to grow from them and take them on as stuff that happens on earth and utilise them to bring resolution and strength to your life. So that’s what I try to do, it’s not always easy. Composing, whilst in some cases is such a rewarding experience, but as I’ve been describing to you, also very painful and I think I’m not the only composer who feels that, I think that that’s pretty common. I’ve set that goal for myself because I know that I’d probably be bored otherwise if I didn’t aspire to do something that was creative and I thought was contributing something to the world.

Peter Thompson: What brings you joy?

Nigel Westlake: There are so many things. From day to day living, I try to feel a great sense of joy when I wake up each morning and I do twenty minutes yoga every morning and just feel that tangible ‘here we are, a new day, a new dawning and trying to feel good and empowered in your body and then set out to do the tasks of the day, the daily chores, whatever they are. Whether it’s the next sonata or film score or whatever. I derive a great deal of joy from having a family and it was a particularly wonderful experience growing up in the bush with my children and they have the childhood from heaven, in a sense, growing up at St. Albans and going to the local one teacher school where they had a fantastic teacher and just that day to day experience, living in this sublime environment which is so peaceful and the air was so rich with the natural activity and going for bush walks every day and that sort of thing and that was a period of great joy.

Peter Thompson: And bringing music to your own sons, what’s that been like?

Nigel Westlake: Well, I always figured that they should at least have a grounding of music. We were miles away from anywhere when they were at the age to get them started so I started teaching them piano although I’m not much of a pianist myself but my elder son took to that really easily and showed great talent for music and we had a couple of sessions where I gave him a clarinet and said well, okay why don’t you try learning the clarinet. And he showed remarkable talent from the very first moment he picked it up. It was as if he’d been playing for a few months already.

Peter Thompson: Your jaw dropped!

Nigel Westlake: My jaw dropped, it did! I couldn’t believe the sound, I mean he’d been hearing the clarinet since he was born or before he was born anyway so he knew exactly what it should sound like and how it all works and everything. And we had a lesson and then we had another lesson and he said ‘Oh, I’ve decided I don’t like the sound of the clarinet, I don’t want to learn the clarinet.’ And I thought what a waste, he could just go on to become a great clarinet player so easily. But anyway, that was to be what it was and so he went on to learn the double bass and he’s now pursuing that. He’s now a young student pursuing music full time. I tried teaching my younger son piano and that was going OK until I remember a visitor asking him ‘Oh, are you musical, do you play music?’ and he said ‘Yes, my dad forces me to play the piano.’ And I thought, oh God, there’s something wrong here. I don’t want to be known as forcing him to do anything that he really doesn’t want to do.

Peter Thompson: So you didn’t repeat what your father in a sense asked of you?

Nigel Westlake: No, my dad was tough but fair in that he said ‘look, if you’re going to do music, you’ve got to do it properly and you’ve got to practise every day and that’s that. If you’re not going to pursue it, don’t do it. But don’t take it on half heartedly.’ And so I was much more relaxed. I felt if they’re going to come to it, they’ve got to come to it with their own inward drive, they’ve got to have that agenda for themselves. And I haven’t got the inclination or energy to superimpose that on them.

Peter Thompson: What does music bring to the world?

Nigel Westlake: It’s different for everybody, everybody experiences music in their own way but for me, it’s like when I go and write a piece of music, I’m surrounding myself with my own world in a sense. It’s somewhere to escape in a way. It’s something of great consolation. I think that’s what people look for in music. They want to be consoled. People who have a passion for music, they have their favourite composers and their favourite works and they listen to them time and time again and I think that’s interesting because if you like a film you don’t go and look at it again and again and again. But people will keep returning to performances of Beethoven’s Symphonies or whatever at least once a year for their whole lives and that’s quite interesting, I think. And it is consolation for me. It’s being able to realise things that are in your head that no-one can hear and bring them out into the world and for them to be appreciated is a wonderful feeling. When you feel that a performer has communicated the original intentions of the work in a clear fashion that has been understood by an audience that is a very wonderful feeling. It doesn’t always happen that way but when it does nothing beats it. For me it’s creating your own sacred environment. You’re surrounding yourself with this chasm of beauty and creativity. I can’t imagine life without it.

Peter Thompson: Nigel Westlake, thank you very much for talking to us on Radio National.

Nigel Westlake: My pleasure.