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Shaping landscapes into sound

Australian composer Barry Conyngham: “The landscape has this sense of the never-ending. In my music, you get a long flat plane of sound, and then there will be an event that will come,” in the same way that Uluru looms on the horizon, or a bushfire flares in dry, windy summer. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

As a boy in Sydney, Australia, Barry Conyngham learned to play piano from the nuns at the local convent.

One of the nuns hit his hands with a ruler whenever he tried to look down at his fingers and not at the sheet music in front of him.

“I think even from that early age, I wanted to explore music and not just play the notes,” Conyngham says. “I wanted to do my own thing, and look down at my hands and the shapes and the patterns.”

Conyngham, one of Australia’s leading composers, and this year’s visiting professor of Australian studies, sees shapes and patterns in not just his hands moving over the keys, but in the Australian landscape that informs his music.

“Being a person is about your connection with other people, and your connection with place,” he says. “Most Australians live in big cities” – roughly 85 percent of the population – “and so we’ve mythologized the environment, the landscape. And that’s a very powerful symbol in a lot of my music.”

In his 50-odd published scores, including orchestral works, chamber music, operas, and works for musical theater, Conyngham has often tried to suggest the human response to the Australian landscape. He has evoked the outback – the hostile scrubland in the interior of the country; the Great Barrier Reef – the largest coral reef in the world; Uluru, the massive, forbidding rock in the center of the country. And in works like “Southern Cross,” the name of the four-star constellation that floats above Australia and on its national flag, he explores the cosmos and man’s sense of smallness in comparison.

“Somewhere in my music I think there is that sense of loneliness and isolation,” Conyngham says, “a sense of something happening out there.” He considers this a particularly Australian feeling, informed by their geographical distance from so much else.

The facts: Barry Conyngham

  • Born: Aug. 27, 1944; Sydney, Australia 
  • Education:
    B.A. University of Sydney (1967)
    M.A. University of Sydney (1971)
    Certificate of Post-doctoral Studies, University of California at San Diego (1973)
    D.Mus., University of Melbourne (1982) 
  • Career highlights:
    Fellow, Princeton University, 1973-1974
    Composer in Residence, University of Aix-Marseille, 1974-1975
    Lecturer, University of Melbourne, 1975-1979
    Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne, 1979-1984
    Visiting Scholar, University of Minnesota
    Reader in Music, University of Melbourne, 1984-1989
    Professor and Head of School, School of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, 1989-1994
    Dean of Creative Arts and Chair of the Academic Board, University of Wollongong, 1991-1994
    Vice-Chancellor, Southern Cross University, 1994-2000 
  • Some key compositions: Ice Carving, Bony Anderson, Southern Cross

“The term ‘Down Under’ – we use it ourselves, we don’t get offended by it when, in a way, we ought to,” he says. Not only Australians’ distance from other countries, but their patterns of settlement in their own country shape the national personality, Conyngham says.

“Australians always seem very open – we use the term ‘up-front’ – and I think that’s because we’re all down in this big country, and we sort of cluster together in certain areas,” Conyngham says. “And so when we meet other people, we’re so excited, we’re so interested in the fact that somewhere out there is the rest of the world.”

If America’s pet metaphor is the western frontier, and our history is seen as pushing that edge to its limit, Australia is governed by a sense of a burning center, of crowding outward toward the cool fringes, and of congregating for comfort and safety in clusters separated by miles of unchanging landscape.

His music unscrolls like the landscape. The eucalyptus trees never shed their long slipper-shaped leaves, the brownish-green bush goes on and on.

“The landscape has this sense of the never-ending,” Conyngham says. “In my music, you get a long flat plane of sound, and then there will be an event that will come,” in the same way that Uluru looms up on the horizon, or a bushfire flares in dry, windy summer.

“I find his music very beautiful, combining new sounds with forms and shapes that appeal to the intellect and the heart,” says Tom Kelly, chair of the Music Department. “He has spent the last several years serving as vice-chancellor of a new university. Now he can return to full-time composing, and we are eager to hear the results.”

In his recent six-year stint as president of Southern Cross University in Lismore, Conyngham became known for his “larrikin” spirit, an Australian term implying a rebel, a bounder, someone willing to break the rules. He more than doubled the new university’s enrollment, substantially increased its faculty and its research budget, and capitalized on the region’s strengths as a sort of Berkeley, a subtropical land full of tea trees and macadamia trees, with a strong environmental movement, “old hippies” left over from the 60s, and a tolerant attitude toward creative change.

“I had a terrific time, but I always felt that my real life was writing music and being involved in the world of music,” Conyngham says.

At Harvard, Conyngham is teaching a course on Australian music and organizing a number of musical events. In February, the Camerata Australia Chamber Orchestra, an elite group of young musicians, will premier at Harvard Conyngham’s latest composition, a concerto for marimba and strings called “Seasons.” Conyngham also plans a lecture tour of American universities this year, as part of his duties as Harvard’s 23rd chair of Australian Studies.

After his one-year term ends here, he will return with his wife, Deborah, to Lismore, where he will continue to compose music.

More shapes and patterns for Conyngham, then.

“Do they have butterfly houses here?” he asks. Australian zoos breed and display butterflies in glass structures that are something of a cross between an aviary and a greenhouse. “I often think that writing music is like creating a butterfly house,” he says. Picture the composition as a whole, as one structure, and all the moving parts within it, flitting around, forming beautiful patterns with the others.

In all art, Conyngham says, “I like the idea that you establish a kind of creative, artificial world that’s perfect. And I think that’s why art is so important to us, that things can be rich and complex, but they can be resolved. Often in the real world you don’t get a chance to do that, you don’t get a chance to sort that all out. And I think as humans we need to do that. We need to hope.”