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