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BARRY CONYNGHAM - AN APPRECIATION

At fifty, Barry Conyngham has been a major figure in Australia music for over two decades as composer, teacher and more recently, administrator.  Turning from jazz to classical music in the mid-1960s, Conyngham found an early mentor in Peter Sculthorpe, who encouraged all his students to explore the musics of Australia's near neighbors.  In 1970 Conyngham travelled to Japan on a Churchill Fellowship, where, as well as having produced the score for Horizon (a film shown in the Australian pavilion at Expo 70) he commenced studies with Toru Takemitsu. Two of Conyngham's most significant early works date from this time: Water...Footsteps...Time..., and the concerto for amplified violin and four string orchestras, Ice Carving.  The latter work, inspired by seeing the traditional carving of monumental ice sculptures in the Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, demonstrates many of the concerns with which Conyngham's subsequent music has had an ongoing engagement: The notion of extending the expressive range available to a soloist through unusual means of sound production and the use of amplification, which has its counterpart in a work like Monuments, where the soloist plays both piano and DX7 synthesiser; an interest in the music of non -European traditions, particularly Japan, which we can also see in a work like Basho, written for Jane Manning; the exploration of the concerto as a vehicle for dramatising isolation, which is also relevant to many of Conyngham's music theatre works; and the idea of the interaction between human perception and the 'natural' world.

One of Conyngham's most consistent preoccupations has been with the creation of an Australian idiom, but this has never meant a rejection of other musical ideas, but rather an open‑minded synthesis of influences varying from the traditional Japanese to lush sound worlds of recent European music, such as that of the late Witold Lutoslawski.  Thus, much of Conyngham's orchestral music eschews traditional techniques of musical development in favor of a more gestural approach, where gestures are frequently allowed an incandescent dissolution achieved through allowing a progressive degree of freedom for the individual performers.

A large part of modern Australia's quest for a musical identity has been concerned with a response to our various natural landscapes.  Many of Conyngham's works have such explicit references, such as the concerto for violin,piano and orchestra Southern Cross (1981) or Waterways for viola and orchestra (1990).  Indeed, some earlier works deal with even more ephemeral natural phenomena - pieces like Sky (1975), or Snowflake (1973), where musical relationships (including those of the soloist's four keyboard instruments) are developed through structural analogy with snowflake formation.

A particularly personal slant on the landscape issue, though, is Conyngham's pervasive interest in the relationship of the human to the natural world. This is a major motive in the early music theatre work Edward John Eyre about the great explorer, but it is no less important to the creation of a work like Monuments (1989), where each of the three movements forms a meditation on a pair of formations, one natural and one constructed like Uluru and the Sydney Opera House, or Ice Carving, generated by the idea of the hand shaping the ice.  Conyngham's score for the dance piece Vast, written to celebrate the Australian bicentenary,  likewise moves from the sea floor, through the landscape to the cities.  Isolation is inevitable in a continent as large and sparsely populated as this, but Conyngham's essential humanism extends equally to the ways in which isolation can occur within a community.  The Apology of Bony Anderson is a profoundly moving examination of unaccommodated man in the form of a brutalised convict chained to a rock in Sydney Harbor, and the full scale opera Fly, commissioned by the Victoria State Opera for the opening season of the State Theatre in 1984, explores the isolation and misunderstanding of the visionary inventor Lawrence Hargrave within his own family and society.

Countering isolation with synthesis is perhaps behind Conyngham's major contributions to music beyond his own composition.  As an advocate for the profession he has held important posts such as chairman of the Music Board of the Australia Council.  He has taken active roles in music education as Reader at Melbourne University's Music Faculty, Chair of Creative Arts at Wollongong University, and now in a unique appointment for a creative artist, as Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University. My experience of Conyngham as a composition teacher was of a person who treated students as colleagues, who clearly valued one's ideas, and whose criticisms were also considered, and offered with a mixture of care and diffidence.  When I first met his wife, Deborah, she asked if Conyngham had ever finished a sentence in my presence.  The answer was (and I think remains) 'no', but it says something about the endearing energy of one of Australia's major musicians.