A VI­SION SPLEN­DID

What do psy­che­delic drugs, the trom­bone and one of Aus­tralia’s most un­ortho­dox com­posers have in com­mon? More than you’d think, says Brendan Ward

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - — Hunter S. Thomp­son

Hal­lu­ci­na­tions are bad enough. But af­ter a while you learn to cope with things like see­ing your dead grand­mother crawl­ing up your leg with a knife in her teeth.

He was some­where be­tween Syd­ney’s Hordern Pav­il­ion and Bal­main when the drug be­gan to take hold. He re­mem­bers think­ing “that ec­stasy’s been laced with acid. Maybe I shouldn’t drive.” Sud­denly there was a land­scape of pink and pas­tel hues all around him. Hun­dreds of pink hexagons filled his field of vi­sion. The trip lasted an hour af­ter he climbed out of the Mazda 323.

Carl Vine was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing on his first LSD trip. It was 1989 and he was 34. The for­mer cham­pion de­bater, prize-win­ning physics stu­dent, BBC trainee sound en­gi­neer and unloved sup­port act for Spike Mil­li­gan was ful­fill­ing a prophecy pub­lished a decade ear­lier. In the ex­hil­a­rat­ing 80s, the in­flu­en­tial Bulletin mag­a­zine reck­oned, Vine would be top in his field, most talked about, and best able to cope with rapid change. The Perth-born mu­si­cian was emerg­ing from Aus­tralia’s small but highly com­pet­i­tive clas­si­cal mu­sic pool as our Co­p­land, our Bar­tok — a very mod­ern clas­si­cal mu­sic com­poser.

Around the same time, in a far­away city once de­scribed by Hunter S. Thomp­son as “an el­e­gant rock­pile mon­u­ment to ev­ery­thing stupid and cor­rupt in the hu­man spirit”, Syd­ney-born trom­bon­ist Mick Mulc­ahy was ful­fill­ing a child­hood dream — join­ing one of the world’s great or­ches­tras, the Chicago Sym­phony. Vine and Mulc­ahy had crossed paths a few years be­fore the com­poser’s acid trip. Thirty years would elapse be­fore those pink hexagons and su­per­star con­duc­tor Ric­cardo Muti re­united them.

“If I had my life over,” Vine tells me, “I would have stud­ied neu­rol­ogy.” It is Christ­mas last year and he is 61. Long gone are the beard and hip­pie-length hair that helped him stand out from the pack of mug shots in The Bulletin’s 1978 roll­call of “News­mak­ers of the 1980s” (among them Paul Keat­ing, Gina Hay­ward, Jenny Kee, Gil­lian Arm­strong and John Wa­ters). He is stand­ing in a 10th-storey apart­ment fronting Syd­ney’s Hyde Park. The rear win­dow frames a rec­tan­gle of ho­tel rooms and bal­conies from where in­quis­i­tive guests might catch sight of a big man stand­ing at a key­board fac­ing a large com­puter screen filled with black lines and dots. Vine is com­pos­ing his lat­est work, Five Hal­lu­ci­na­tions for Trom­bone and Or­ches­tra.

The com­poser’s fas­ci­na­tion with neu­rol­ogy is em­bed­ded in the thoughts of Oliver Sacks, neu­ro­science’s pre-em­i­nent physi­cian and writer who died last year. Vine holds the best­selling au­thor of Awak­en­ings and The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat re­spon­si­ble for his deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion of art in gen­eral and mu­sic specif­i­cally but, more im­por­tantly, of how the brain func­tions. “You can lose the abil­ity to hear mu­sic and your brain can dis­cover the abil­ity to hear mu­sic,” says Vine re­fer­ring to Sacks’s Mu­si­cophilia, which he re­gards as “an awak­en­ing book in terms of brain func­tion and mu­si­cal aware­ness”. A ca­pa­ble pi­anist him­self, Sacks be­lieved hu­mans to be es­sen­tially and pro­foundly mu­si­cal. “I haven’t heard of a hu­man be­ing who isn’t mu­si­cal, or who doesn’t re­spond to mu­sic one way or an­other,” he once de­clared.

In the brass sec­tion of an or­ches­tra, the trom­bone is unique. Trom­bon­ists slide as well as blow. They need full frontal space to play the seven po­si­tions of three tubu­lar me­tres that, ac- cord­ing to the French Ro­man­tic com­poser Hec­tor Ber­lioz, gen­er­ate “all the se­ri­ous and pow­er­ful tones of sub­lime mu­si­cal po­etry, from religious, calm and im­pos­ing ac­cents to sav­age, or­gias­tic out­bursts.” Mulc­ahy’s me­tre-long in­stru­ment grows 70cm when he plays. Mulc­ahy plays beau­ti­fully. So beau­ti­fully, he was ap­pointed prin­ci­pal trom­bon­ist for the Mel­bourne Sym­phony aged 18. The ABC was the MSO’s mas­ter, and af­ter five years Mulc­ahy’s feet grew itchy. Europe beck­oned. He ap­plied for a year’s leave with­out pay. A ju­nior em­ployee de­liv­ered the ABC’s ver­dict — leave re­fused. He headed to Cologne any­way. It was 1981.

By that time Vine was flaunt­ing his ex­per­tise in con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic. An em­pha­sis on the elec­tronic was sub­tly giv­ing way to more acous­tic reper­toire. His team­work with Gra­ham Mur­phy’s dance troupe had won him fame through the mu­sic he wrote for Poppy, Aus­tralia’s first full-length bal­let. He was quickly shed­ding a patch­work past as mu­si­cal di­rec­tor for club acts such as Mar­keeta Lit­tle Wolf, part­time pi­anist for Joseph and the Amaz­ing Tech­ni­color Dream­coat, and the re­lief act as a blind­folded pi­anist for Mil­li­gan. “Spike didn’t like me,” he says, sigh­ing, re­call­ing a three­month tour of Aus­tralia he’d rather for­get. “He kept call­ing me Clive to ex­press a kind of dis­dain and he kept sug­gest­ing I had a boyfriend. At the time I didn’t have a boyfriend.”

He does now. Vine’s part­ner of 24 years has scant in­ter­est in clas­si­cal mu­sic, guar­an­tee­ing the com­poser an iso­lated free­dom for the three days a week he has the time to ply his trade. The rest of Vine’s week re­volves around cham­ber mu­sic or­gan­i­sa­tion Mu­sica Viva, where he is artis­tic di­rec­tor; the Syd­ney Conservatorium, where he lec­tures in com­po­si­tion; and his home, where he chairs a body cor­po­rate re­spon­si­ble for 240 apart­ments. Com­pos­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic is a highly co-or­di­nated neu­ro­log­i­cal ex­er­cise that pro­duces a mul­ti­tude of dots on a man­u­script to cre­ate an ef­fect. “I nor­mally start with some sort of cloudy idea of what I want the mu­sic to achieve,” says Vine. “And then when I am ac­tu­ally com­pos­ing it’s tak­ing this cloudy idea and try­ing to make it real.” There was a time Vine’s cloudy ideas were way out on “the bleed­ing edge”, but not any more. “I re­alised it didn’t feel like me, I was be­ing some­thing that other peo­ple thought I should be.”

Con­cep­tu­al­is­ing those dots is not the most lu­cra­tive oc­cu­pa­tion. Vine writes only what he is paid to write, but cau­tions would-be Vines “you have to be well known be­fore you can write to com­mis­sion”. He re­gards him­self as so­cially in­ept, “a fair way down the autism spec­trum”, and prefers com­mu­ni­cat­ing through his mu­sic. “There are no verbs, there are no nouns, it’s this com­mu­ni­ca­tion mind to mind, com­poser to au­di­ence. There are no rules. That to me is mag­i­cal.” His crit­ics de­nounce his mu­sic as “too lyri­cal”; many of his com­mis­sion­ers com­plain it isn’t lyri­cal enough. “The only thing I can do is please my­self.”

The Chicago Sym­phony’s brass sec­tion is in a class of its own. A decade af­ter the leg­endary Ge­org Solti ap­pointed Mulc­ahy to its il­lus­tri­ous ranks, the Aus­tralian made his solo de­but with the or­ches­tra, per­form­ing the first con­certo cre­ated for the trom­bone fam­ily. “It’s won­der­ful to have some­one so alive and cu­ri­ous in the or­ches­tra,” Solti’s suc­ces­sor, Daniel Baren­boim, en­thused to the tele­vi­sion cam­era. Mulc­ahy spoke af­fec­tion­ately to the same cam­era about “the most beau­ti­ful tune” writ­ten for his in­stru­ment, ex­horted the au­di­ence to en­joy its lyri­cism, then played the Con­certo for Alto Trom­bone in D com­posed in 1756 by Mozart’s father, Leopold.

So im­pressed was the or­ches­tra’s hi­er­ar­chy with Mulc­ahy and his per­for­mance, the Chicagoans de­cided to hon­our their Aus­tralian im­port with a re­mark­able of­fer. He could choose any com­poser from any­where to write a work for trom­bone and or­ches­tra. The Chicago Sym­phony would com­mis­sion it and he would pre­miere it with the or­ches­tra.

It was early 2000. Mulc­ahy and his trom­bone were fast be­com­ing a sought-af­ter duo in North Amer­ica and Europe. In Chicago some­one sug­gested turn­ing the con­certo com­mis­sion into a three­some for trom­bone, horn and trum­pet, but that idea didn’t fly. Years passed. Then Baren­boim left the or­ches­tra, and by the time Bernard Haitink came and went, Mulc­ahy fi­nally had a “very im­pres­sive” list of com­posers from which to choose. “I was so, so ob­sessed with the idea of find­ing the right com­poser.” Vine was but one of 20.

Mulc­ahy’s eureka mo­ment came in a record­ing stu­dio in Mel­bourne. He had re­turned home to record a CD of Aus­tralian trom­bone compo-

I NOR­MALLY START WITH SOME SORT OF CLOUDY IDEA OF WHAT I WANT THE MU­SIC TO ACHIEVE

CARL VINE

Carl Vine in 1976, left; Chicago Sym­phony Or­ches­tra’s mu­sic di­rec­tor Ric­cardo Muti, below left

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