A Life Set to Music,
the Autobiography of Edwin Carr, New Zealand Composer
Blanchard Press, $42.95,
With the recent death of Douglas Lilburn, this country was reminded that the vanguard of creative artists, those who first brought attention to New Zealand’s musical, literary and other artistic productions, had all but passed. Lilburn himself was in his ninth decade, and many of his partners of the inner life had already disappeared.
Edwin Carr is of the generation after Lilburn. He will be 76 in August, and unlike those who, in the early part of the 20th century, did a brief stint in Europe and then returned to carve out a place for the arts in their own land, Carr has ambivalently sashayed to and from, first, Europe and home, and later Australia and home, deciding only after he was in his sixties to finally settle back in New Zealand. This itinerancy reflects the love-hate attitude the composer has forever articulated when speaking out about New Zealand’s particular brand of philistinism, and he has stirred up both the artistic philistines and the arts community with his fierce and uncompromising brand of candour. (Not very long ago he blasted in print the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s assumption that it was up to a tour of Europe, a judgement which has never been tested.)
His criticism is not always constructive. In this, his autobiography, he has to some extent created a forum for his discontent. In 1958, he returned to New Zealand after ten years in London, years in which he was still forming opinions and was demonstrably impressed with what he viewed as the superior cultural attitudes of the English. His impressions of Auckland were not flattering:
There was a slightly down-trodden look about people in general. Was life in this far-away isolated place an unconscious strain on people? The hotel clerk’s mode of speech seemed Americanized in its nasal quality and inanimate around the mouth and jaw. He seemed to avoid eye contact and was unable to pass the time of day when the essential registration was completed.
Carr has the reputation among his friends and colleagues of being a marvellous raconteur, and his prose style is rather like a conversation over dinner, mostly with the aim of directing attention at himself. The composer is ever on show, the real Edwin Carr remaining covert. It is a life anecdotal, and feelings are avoided in preference to opinions. For example, he makes one short reference to the death of his mother, whom he has earlier professed to love dearly. In the next sentence he goes gaily on, “To take my mind off this great shock to my system my father and I had a short break in Auckland … and we enjoyed a hilarious Guy Fawkes night, letting off fireworks …”
But, like most accomplished and interesting people, Carr can entertain with his stories. His peregrinations have been peopled with well-known figures, and he relates his experiences with some of them. He was completely uncowed by their fame, even inferring that he was on a first-name basis with Edith Sitwell, some of whose poems he set to music, against her initial objections. He likewise refers familiarly to composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger, who once critiqued his compositions. Carr’s pouting, sultry pose as a model for film producer Ken Russell in 1952 is another reminder that he hobnobbed with some very famous figures in London.
As a record of an era, if not of his own inner thoughts, Carr’s chronicle is valuable, or it would be if it had an index, the want of which is merely one of the many shortcomings of this book. It cannot have been proofread, for there are more mistakes here than in a week’s worth of daily newspapers, some of them rather embarrassing. Glaring errors in spelling go unchecked, including the names of people with whom Carr has worked. The pianist Margaret Nielsen’s surname is spelled “Nielson”, and the number of foreign words and names wrongly written is shocking (Saracini instead of Saraceni, for instance, and Shering for Szeryng). Punctuation and capitalisation suffer, too, and there are often full-stops in the middle of sentences.
In his foreword, Christchurch critic Ian Dando refers to Carr as as having “a direct style with its feet on the ground – a music that reaches all”, and points out that Carr is intolerant of some of the gigantic names in modern music: “The missiles fly when I mention my love of Ligeti, Birtwistle and Varèse.” He concludes by confessing that he has not read the book for which he supplies the foreword, but “if [Carr] writes exactly as he speaks in real life, fasten your seat belts and enjoy the turbulent air pockets of an arrant but fearlessly honest thinker.” It is a prescient remark, for Carr does write as he speaks and his words are not always as attractive on the page as when they are left in the air to vaporise.
Laurence Jenkins is a writer and musician who lives in Kaeo.