From Winton to Armfield and Gurrumul to Meow Meow: why composer Iain Grandage is the great collaborator
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.”
IF YOU GIVE EVERY PERSON THE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEAK, THEN EVERY PERSON HAS OWNERSHIP OF IT
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