A music of our own, Peter Walls

Douglas Lilburn, Memories of Early Years and Other Writings 
Robert Hoskins (ed)
Steele Roberts, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927242476

This is the Lilburn centenary year. Concerts are being branded with a special logo – a way of marking the pivotal contribution that Douglas Lilburn made to musical life in Aotearoa New Zealand. The publication of his Memories of Early Years and Other Writings, edited by Robert Hoskins, is thus timely. This volume has a commemorative feel, with its fine reproductions of paintings by Rita Angus and Evelyn Page and historic photographs (albeit on a more restricted scale than Philip Norman’s monumental 2006 study, Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music).

The core of the new book is a series of talks Lilburn gave between 1946 and 1969 – a span extending from A Song of Islands to the Third Symphony and The Return (his first major contribution to the emerging field of electroacoustic music). It is fleshed out with a brief essay on the early history of the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University (written for the liner notes accompanying the CDs of his complete electroacoustic music) and reminiscences of friends and colleagues, most originating as scripts for radio talks and a few as printed obituaries. The only significant later writing is the nostalgic – though richly informative – “Memories of Early Years” compiled between 1986 and 1988 and perhaps (since he sent the draft to James Bertram for comment) intended for eventual publication. The other longer essays were not originally destined for print, so Lilburn felt free to recycle favourite quotations. The same phrases from T S Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, for example, are invoked in several talks. Lilburn was clearly attracted to Eliot’s sense that, even in societies aware of an ancient history, tradition cannot be taken for granted, but must be worked at.

The two most significant essays are well known. A Search for Tradition, originally a talk to the Cambridge Music School in 1946, acquired its title when – at the behest of John Mansfield Thomson – it was published in 1984 by the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust. This was followed up a year later with A Search for a Language, originally a lecture at Otago University in 1969. Both were republished by the Lilburn Residence Trust in an elegant little volume in 2011. What is added in the volume being reviewed here is mostly the interest of placing these in the context of Lilburn’s other writing. There are, too, footnotes that reinstate passages deleted from the original typescript.

Given the availability of the Lilburn Residence Trust volume, it is interesting to reflect on what other Lilburn writings Hoskins might have included in this new publication. Philip Norman in his biography provides a list that reveals some tantalising lacunae: reviews written for the Christchurch Press in the 1940s, “Notes from Darmstadt” published in Composer in 1963, essays on electronic music from Third Stream in the late 1960s, and two unpublished memos addressed to composers, “Thinking of signing a contract?“ and “Thinking of making a will?”, both from 1974.

The Hoskins volume makes available two significant essays. The first of these is Lilburn’s introduction to a broadcast of his score for Journey for Three, a 45-minute docu-drama produced by the National Film Unit in 1950 for British audiences, and aimed at encouraging interest in assisted immigration. This is interesting in a multitude of ways. On the one hand, it draws attention to Lilburn’s involvement, not just with this film, but with a host of magazine-type items produced by the NFU. (His and Denis Glover’s contributions to these parallel those of Britten and Auden to the GPO film unit in Britain in the 1930s.) Given the burgeoning of the New Zealand film industry in recent years, it is fascinating to observe Lilburn’s conviction that, through the “underwriting of visual images of things immediate to our ways of life”, this medium might help our composers to develop a contemporary and identifiably New Zealand style. All of these films – Backblock Medical Service (1948); Rhythm and Movement (1948); Journey for Three (1950); and The First Two Years at School (1950) – are now available on the web. Viewing them from the 21st century demonstrates that, as L P Hartley has it in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If, in 1950, it had been possible to construct a New Zealand musical identity, how would that now resonate with “things immediate to our ways of life”?

Lilburn’s resolve in relation to a national style, expressed almost as a call to arms in A Search for Tradition, was all but defeated by the time of A Search for a Language. The reasons for this weakening emerge in a speech that Lilburn gave at the inaugural meeting of the Christchurch Society for Contemporary Music in 1967, here given the title “A Search for a Sound”. After reflecting on the stylistic diversity with which he and his students had had to grapple, Lilburn concluded that “We have all been good New Zealanders, good parochials, for long enough. Let us now be good citizens of this larger world, and enter into its larger experience.” By 1969, he had accepted that the notion of a distinctive New Zealand musical language was a chimera:

Our composers each speak their personal language with a craftsmanship that I admire. But, if I were listening in an overseas context, I doubt whether any two of them would give me a common factor by which I could identify their origin. Some of them, I suspect, might take this as a compliment, a token of their internationalism.

Lilburn’s personal journey provides a salutary message for artists – and for our state funding agencies. To use the goal of a “distinctive New Zealand culture” as a yardstick for funding the production and performance of art in Aotearoa may not be the best way to encourage genuine creativity.

Rather than providing a context for the writings that he has gathered or beginning an exploration of their themes, Hoskins has written an introduction that is an admiring evocation of Lilburn’s music. In the process, he accepts uncritically the connection between certain kinds of musical language and landscape. It is one thing for a composer to find the images in Rita Angus’s Central Otago (1940) “luminous and rhythmically exhilarated”, and to assert that these, like the chorale theme in his own Song of Islands, “both joyously reflect sunlit coasts and mountains”, and quite another for a musicologist to write of “an impressive peak-like theme”. The first may be read as a statement about inspiration; the second may betray a certain naivety about musical semiotics. In any case, it indicates a reluctance to interrogate the central quest in Lilburn’s composition and in his thinking about music: the pursuit of “a music of our own, a music that will to some extent satisfy that spiritual need I think we all have, that sense of belonging somewhere.” Perhaps in this centenary year, such reluctance is understandable. Even those familiar with Norman’s life and works volume will find Hoskins’s miscellany of essays richly stimulating.

Peter Walls is Emeritus Professor of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.

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