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As a teenage musician and incipient composer in the 1970s, I grew up with the axiom that Australian music had only established a 'contemporary' aesthetic in the early 1960s. Furthermore, the orthodoxy went, this was largely the result of a handful of composers (now the senior figures in the profession) of whom one of the most important was Nigel Butterley. Axioms are by definition simple, and orthodoxies are inevitably the target of revisionism (if not heresy), but its is true to say that Butterley has been a central figure in contemporary music in this country since his rise to prominence in the sixties. The composer of Laudes (1963), who represented Australia at the Paris Rostrum in 1967 continues to embody a tradition of metaphysical, musical speculation without which our culture would be much the poorer, even though such concerns are less fashionable than others we meet in the general discourse about contemporary music.

Back in the seventies, the principal source of new music for a lad growing up in the 'burbs was the wireless, and those heady days included the arrival of FM radio. It was through this medium that I first heard any Butterley, and by chance it was two works which could not have been better chosen to demonstrate the breadth of the composer's musical utterance. The first was In the Head the Fire (incidentally, the first piece for which Butterley was formally commissioned); the second was First Day Covers.

In the Head the Fire
is a 'musical collage' for radio, commissioned in 1966 by the ABC to be entered in the Italia Prize - which it subsequently won (ahead of Berio's Laborintus II). With technology which these days seems practically steam-driven, Butterley produced a work of enormous power. Originally in mono, the work was remastered for a stereo recording in the early seventies,and in this form was ideal for broadcast on newfangled FM radio. This piece, like so much of Butterley's subsequent work, explores various ideas of mysticism, and to that end the composer assembled texts from sources as diverse as the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Irish mystical poetry (from which the title is taken), the Mass, and passages in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The texts are sung and spoken, the instrumental parts include orchestral woodwind and brass, recorders, piano, organ, percussion and the shofar, a ram's-horn trumpet associated with Jewish ritual. Through manipulation of some hundred individual recordings, the component parts are layered and woven into a dramatic arch form of a half hour's duration.

While In the Head the Fire impressed my adolescent sensibilities with its visionary qualities, First Day Covers was a salutary reminder that new music can be funny. The work, subtitled 'A Philharmonic Philatelia' was a collaboration between Butterley and Mrs (now Dame) Edna Everage instigated by John Hopkins for the Prom Concerts at the Sydney Town Hall. The wicked wit of the work is evident everywhere: Mrs Everage's poem about the funnel-web spiders which 'dance in St Ives and prance in Pymble' is answered by a piece of post-Webernian pointillism; the great white shark is represented by a conflation of Schubert's 'Trout' with a tuba playing 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor'; the golden sands and 'lots of golden teeth' of Surfers' Paradise is evoked by a humorous burlesque of the Sun Music genre of Butterley's contemporary, Peter Sculthorpe.

The humorous side of Butterley's personality is less prominent, publicly at least, than the mystical or metaphysical: the former more likely to emerge in conversation than in music. As I came to know more of his music of the subsequent years, it was the latter element which dominated. The orchestral Meditations of Thomas Traherne of 1968, for instance, reflects an interest in the metaphysical tradition of English poetry which drove the twenty year old Butterley to write his Six Blake Songs in 1956, and which is in evidence in his use of lines from Henry Vaughan as a superscript for his First String Quartet. Not surprisingly, Butterley has found himself drawn to a poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman on a number of occasions. His Sometimes with one I love, for speaker, soprano, baritone and mixed ensemble sets poetry and prose of Whitman, as does his other radiophonic work, Watershore, but the influence is equally to be felt in a number of purely instrumental pieces. The Second String Quartet is headed by lines from Leaves of Grass, and the solo piano piece, Uttering Joyous Leaves (written as a test piece for the Sydney International Piano Competition) takes its title from Whitman.

An interest in the numinous was something with which Butterley grew up, having been brought up Anglican, and remaining a practising member of that church until 1969. A significant number of works up until that time are choral settings of specifically religious texts. His withdrawal from organised religion, however, did not mean a waning interest in metaphysics as a number of recent works explicitly attest. Moreover, much of Butterley's work throughout the 1970s and 1980s explores notions of reality beyond the immediately apprehended physical world. This, in a sense, is behind a fairly abstract work like Explorations for piano and orchestra written for the celebrations of the Captain Cook Bicentenary in 1970, where the notion of exploring becomes part of the process of composition, or Fire in the heavens (1973) for orchestra, which takes its title from a Christopher Brennan poem.

It is also a major concern behind Butterley's opera Lawrence Hargrave Flying Alone, which the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will present later this year in honor of the composer's sixtieth birthday. You may remember Hargrave from the days when twenty dollar notes were made of paper - an inventor, explorer and scientist whose designs for heavier-than-air flying machines were crucial, though unacknowledged, steps in the development of aviation. Butterley first became interested in Hargrave when he saw a sculpture by Tasmanian artist Peter Taylor depicting Hargrave passing through a solid wooden door (the piece is now in the composer's collection) as a metaphor for the transcendent vision which Hargrave held. Butterley and his librettist James McDonald developed the idea of Hargrave as visionary into a kind of 'miracle play' - that is, a series of self-contained scenes, each of which demonstrates an aspect of Hargrave's character: as a hero in a shipwreck, as a brilliant inventor, as an explorer who sees the destructive potential of exploration. Significantly, the work makes use of a motto from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 'He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast./ He prayeth best who loveth best/ All creatures great and small.' It is of course tempting to see Hargrave the visionary as a kind of cipher for Butterley the composer, particularly in the single-minded way in which each has been prepared to follow a very personal vision, alone.

Butterley's own experience and sense of the numinous often fuels his creative process. The history of the work which signals the beginning of his maturity as a composer is a case in point. Laudes, for mixed instrumental octet, was composed in 1963 at the invitation (these were the days before composers could expect to be paid for their work) of Professor Donald Peart for the Adelaide Festival. Butterley had just returned from a year's study in London with Priaulx Rainier, and had gathered strong impressions of four European churches which formed the basis for the work. The slow movement of his Goldengrove for string orchestra was written at a time of great stress. Butterley was travelling by train to visit his companion of many years, Tom Kennedy (a rock musician and audio engineer, and the dedicatee of Butterley's Third String Quartet) who had been seriously injured in an accident, when the whole movement came into his mind.

For some years now Butterley has had a strong interest in the poetry and critical writings of British poet Kathleen Raine. Raine is of the generation which produced poets like Auden, Spender and MacNeice, though unlike them she has continued a tradition of metaphysical thought which was eschewed by many of her contemporaries. A number of Butterley's recent works are directly inspired by Raine's writings and ideas: the orchestral work From Sorrowing Earth, and the orchestral song cycle The Woven Light, (which received its first performances in 1994) crystallizes recurrent themes of loss and transcendent reality. Common to these works is a musical idiom of great breadth and generosity. Having just completed his Fourth String Quartet for Musica Viva's fiftieth anniversary, Butterley is currently engaged on a commission for the celebration of the Newcastle Bicentenary - the composer taught at the Newcastle Conservatorium for many years. The work will be for soprano and baritone soloists, semi-chorus, chorus and orchestra, and Butterley envisages using more of Kathleen Raine's poetry as the textual kernel of the piece. He also wants to use some of the poetry of Hildegarde von Bingen, and has of late been re-reading Blake, Hopkins, the biblical Wisdom literature and even the ancient Ugaritic Book of Ba'al.

The flying alone continues.