From Win­ton to Arm­field and Gur­ru­mul to Meow Meow: why com­poser Iain Grandage is the great col­lab­o­ra­tor

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IAIN Grandage has such an ea­ger­ness to play with oth­ers that you won­der if there’s a sand­pit big enough for him. He’s one of our most ami­able mu­si­cians. You may have seen him con­duct­ing a sym­phony orches­tra, at a con­cert head­lined by one of his friends, Tim Minchin or Gur­ru­mul.

Cabaret vamp Meow Meow and co­me­dian Ed­die Per­fect also call on his mu­si­cal ser­vices. He has done ar­range­ments of songs by the likes of Sinead O’Con­nor, Ben Folds and Tim Freed­man, and has writ­ten a raft of or­ches­tral and cham­ber mu­sic.

Or you may have seen him on the the­atre stage, tick­ling and scrap­ing mu­si­cal com­men­tary from a stripped-down up­right pi­ano. He’s like a goa­teed Mozart, adding mu­sic’s benev­o­lent smile to the hu­man dra­mas on stage.

Be­fore a strange, pitch-warp­ing deaf­ness de­scended on his left ear, he was also a fine or­ches­tral cel­list, but the all-round lis­ten­ing re­quired of orches­tra mu­si­cians be­came im­pos­si­ble for him. Th­ese days, he sticks to wav­ing a ba­ton in front of the band. But that’s as lonely as it gets for Grandage, for whom col­lab­o­ra­tion could be a mid­dle name.

His lat­est part­ner­ships are of an op­er­atic kind. He is work­ing with another im­pos­si­bly ver­sa­tile artist, singer-song­writer Kate MillerHei­dke, on her opera The Rab­bits, which opens in Perth and Mel­bourne next year.

On Tues­day, Vic­to­rian Opera will present Grandage’s first evening-length opera, an adap­ta­tion of Tim Win­ton’s novel The Rid­ers. It is the gift of com­posers to hear mu­sic where other read­ers see only the silent page. Grandage hears mu­sic in “the rhythm of a line, the rhythm of the ver­nac­u­lar” that Win­ton de­ploys so dis­tinc­tively in his fic­tion.

Grandage uses a hunt­ing in­stru­ment — the horn — to evoke a man’s odyssey across Europe for the wife who has de­serted him. (Frus­trat­ingly for that man, Scully, and many of Win­ton’s read­ers, the elu­sive Jen­nifer never ap­pears.) And Win­ton’s quo­ta­tions from an Ir­ish poem about painful love, On Raglan Road, sug­gested a folky id­iom to the com­poser, a sound­world of guitars, pi­ano ac­cor­dion and recorder.

We catch up with Grandage at Vic­to­rian Opera’s head­quar­ters in Mel­bourne after a morn­ing of re­hearsal. It’s more than past lunchtime, and Grandage heads to a cafe for pep­per­mint tea — he’s al­ready had three cof­fees to­day — and a pulled-pork roll. He takes mouth­fuls of lunch be­tween telling the story of how a cel­list and com­poser from Perth be­came the the­atre an­i­mal he is to­day.

He’d al­ways been in­ter­ested in drama. After univer­sity he au­di­tioned for the role of the pi­anist Zac in Louis Nowra’s play Cosi. He got the part, but told Black Swan the­atre company’s di- rec­tor, An­drew Ross, that he re­ally wanted to be a the­atre com­poser. He ended up cre­at­ing the mu­sic for Black Swan plays for six years.

That in­cluded, in 1998, the cel­e­brated adap­ta­tion of Cloud­street with Syd­ney’s Belvoir St The­atre. Grandage, then a 26-year-old, and not quite be­liev­ing his luck, found him­self in the company of some of the most cre­ative minds in the business: di­rec­tor Neil Arm­field, play­wrights Nick En­right and Justin Monjo and, of course, Win­ton.

“We met Tim a lot as we were cre­at­ing Cloud­street,” he says of the fa­mously pri­vate au­thor. “Tim drove us around in a van and showed us the spots he was talk­ing about, gave us the ground­work ... It was at that point that this opera started as well, strangely. He wrote Cloud­street in Ire­land, at the cas­tle where The Rid­ers is set.”

The seeds were planted for fu­ture ven­tures with Arm­field and Win­ton. For Arm­field he did mu­si­cal hon­ours for The Se­cret River and The Book of Ev­ery­thing. He also pro­vided the mu­sic for one of Win­ton’s orig­i­nal plays, Ris­ing Wa­ter, for Black Swan and Mel­bourne The­atre Company.

Grandage, 44, was born in Bris­bane but the fam­ily moved to Perth when he was seven. Both par­ents were sci­en­tists: his fa­ther, John, founded the vet­eri­nary sci­ence school at Mur­doch Univer­sity, and his mother, Linda, was a haema­tol­o­gist. “It was that clas­sic, mid­dle-class up­bring­ing for a per­son who pur­sues clas­si­cal mu­sic: deeply sup­port­ive par­ents who ferry you to youth orches­tra con­certs end­lessly.”



He had started on pi­ano but soon picked up the cello, it be­ing a more so­cia­ble in­stru­ment. The string play­ers in the Western Aus­tralian Youth Orches­tra be­came a close cir­cle of friends. At the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia he was in­tend­ing to study law but never en­rolled. Mu­sic had taken hold: cello stud­ies, and com­po­si­tion with Roger Smal­ley.

Smal­ley showed him “what it was to write mu­sic of the high­est qual­ity”, but Grandage was never a con­vert to the Euro­pean mod­ernists his teacher cham­pi­oned. In­stead, he had one of his for­ma­tive ear-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ences when play­ing cello with the West Aus­tralian Sym­phony Orches­tra in a per­for­mance of Ravel’s Daph­nis and Chloe.

The bal­let’s sun­rise scene gave him tin­gles, send­ing him to the li­brary to con­sult the full score. He wanted to see how Ravel — one of the great or­ches­tra­tors — cre­ated such lu­mi­nous ef­fects, “almost like an im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing”.

The mu­sic im­pressed him for other rea­sons, too. Ravel was us­ing the orches­tra as a to­tal in­stru­ment in which all the in­di­vid­ual parts work to­gether. There was no hero of the orches­tra, no horn player trumpeting the dawn. It ap­pealed to Grandage’s ethos of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, some­thing he finds oc­curs more nat­u­rally in the the­atre.

“That’s what I love about col­lab­o­ra­tion,” he says. “If you give ev­ery per­son — in any par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment — the op­por­tu­nity to speak, then ev­ery per­son has own­er­ship of it. There­fore, they con­vey more of them­selves to the au­di­ence, and the au­di­ence will re­spond. When I’m writ­ing mu­sic, I’m try­ing to write for the per­form­ers. With­out them, there is no com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the au­di­ence.”

When, after sev­eral years of work­ing in the the­atre, Grandage be­came com­poser-in-res­i­dence at WASO, he found it strange to be mak­ing “ar­bi­trary de­ci­sions” on be­half of mu­si­cians who had no say in what they were play­ing.

His love for col­lab­o­ra­tion, for muck­ing in, is ob­vi­ous when you see Grandage at work. I first met him two years ago at re­mote Gnar­aloo Sta­tion north of Car­navon, in Western Aus­tralia. Grandage was then the fa­ther of five-weekold daugh­ter Asha, but he had dragged him­self to this surf-and-salt­bush out­post to work on the Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra’s film The Reef. With the wind and sand blow­ing out­side, Grandage was camped in his cabin writ­ing

mu­sic with didgeri­doo soloist Mark Atkins. When you see him on stage in, say, the beau­ti­ful fam­ily play The Book of Ev­ery­thing, he’s not the dumb pi­anist but almost an ac­tor in the show. He ev­i­dently un­der­stands mu­sic not as some­thing re­mote or su­per­flu­ous but as part of the glue of hu­man re­la­tion­ships.

He re­calls see­ing Gur­ru­mul play­ing in a tent at Queens­land’s Wood­ford almost a decade ago, with about 50 peo­ple watch­ing. “I was rail­ing at the in­jus­tice that he wasn’t in­cred­i­bly well known,” Grandage says. “For me, he has that quin­tes­sen­tial thing that mu­sic can do, in its ab­strac­tion, of speak­ing to some­thing that you can’t ex­press.” Last month Grandage was on stage with Gur­ru­mul and orches­tra at the Dar­win Fes­ti­val, this time be­fore an au­di­ence of 3000.

We’re perched on stools at one of those trendy cafes with great food and con­ver­sa­tionkilling loud mu­sic. Grandage finds the noise chal­leng­ing: be­gin­ning in the late 1990s his hear­ing started to de­te­ri­o­rate in his left ear. The dam­age was to the nerves, rather than the eardrum, but no one has been able to ex­plain what hap­pened.

Suc­cess­ful deaf com­posers are not with­out prece­dent — “I’m half as good as Beethoven,” he quips — but he has had to make ad­just­ments. “It’s tricky in sit­u­a­tions like this, or if there was a ta­ble of six peo­ple,” he says of the noisy room. “You lose the abil­ity to tune into a con­ver­sa­tion.

“In work, it’s been no prob­lem, touch wood. I gen­er­ally play am­pli­fied mu­sic now, not purely acous­tic mu­sic. In any sit­u­a­tion, I tell peo­ple, and we or­gan­ise the en­sem­ble ac­cord­ingly. I can’t play in an orches­tra any more: you hear the winds and brass beau­ti­fully, but you can’t play with the rest. That is tricky.” Grandage ac­quired the opera rights to The

Rid­ers seven years ago, amid on­go­ing talk of a film of the novel. Arm­field was in­volved in the early stages, and helped give Grandage “the­atri­cal courage”. Ali­son Crog­gon has adapted Win­ton’s story into a poetic li­bretto and Malt­house The­atre’s Mar­ion Potts will di­rect the pro­duc­tion.

The opera makes at least one sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture from the book. Scully’s wife Jen­nifer, who never ar­rives in the novel, is made a so­prano in the opera (Jessica As­zodi). The rea­sons are dra­matur­gi­cal: in­stead of mak­ing an op­er­atic Wait­ing for Godot, Grandage and co de­cided to give Jen­nifer a voice. He says it changes the ques­tion from “Where?” to “Why?”

“What I hope is that you will see the mis­matched qual­ity of the re­la­tion­ship,” Grandage says. “That plac­ing of Jen­nifer on a pedestal, by Scully, makes it im­pos­si­ble for it to be a healthy re­la­tion­ship.”

The cast fea­tures Barry Ryan as Scully and Is­abela Calderon as his daugh­ter, Bil­lie. Grandage also has as­sem­bled an orches­tra with three fine soloists in Doug de Vries (guitars), Joe Chin­damo (pi­ano ac­cor­dion) and Genevieve Lacey (recorders). Vic­to­rian Opera’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Richard Mills will con­duct.

“I still feel like a young com­poser, I don’t feel on any level fully formed,” Grandage says. “I think I’m in for a long jour­ney. I’d like to be Richard Strauss, and still writ­ing at 80. Not that I’m hold­ing any cook­ies dry, I’m aware I’ve still got a long way to go.”

The Rid­ers is at the Malt­house, Mel­bourne, from Septem­ber 23 to Oc­to­ber 4.

Iain Grandage, above, says he hears mu­sic in the rhythm of Tim Win­ton’s ver­nac­u­lar; the com­poser played cello un­til de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of his hear­ing made or­ches­tral play­ing im­pos­si­ble

Clock­wise from above, re­hearsals for The Rid­ers; Grandage has com­posed mu­sic for The Book of Ev­ery­thing, The Se­cret River and Ris­ing Wa­ter; Kate Miller-Hei­dke, be­low left, has col­lab­o­rated with him on The Rab­bits

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