John Crawford interviews Peter Billam
The following interview with Peter Billam and Andrew Sweeney was broadcast by John Crawford on New Music Australia, ABC FM, 16 Nov 1994. Apart from this transcription into html, there is also an old cassette recording of parts of the original broadcast, recently rescued into mp3 form.
John Crawford (recording of opening of Trombone Quintet) And this piece is by Peter Billam, from a concert organised by Andrew Sweeney in Tasmania with the co-operation of the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. This is Peter Billam's Trombone Quintet, and if you were listening to this program last week you'll have heard the whole work then. . . . (more of the recording, then talks with Andrew Sweeney . . .) . . . Now Peter Billam is a composer who we've brought into the studio with us tonight; what was your first contact, Andrew, with Peter ?
Andrew Sweeney Well, yes, I met Peter about ten years ago now, when he first came down to Hobart to lecture at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music, and he said he composed, and I heard some of his works; and then a few years later I commissioned Peter to write a piece for trombone and piano; and I enjoyed the way he wrote, it was a different style, and recently I asked him to write a piece for trombone quintet, and he received a portion of the Arts Tasmania money to do that.
John Crawford Peter, let's bring you in here, welcome to the program; would you say that your impression of what's been happening in Tasmania in the composition scene, the composition community, I suppose, is in agreement with what Andrew was saying ?
Peter Billam It probably is, it's sort of hard to know, because that concert, that was probably the first time that so many Tasmanian composers had been in the same room. I mean it was certainly the first time I'd met three or four of them. The concert's certainly brought the thing alive; I think the composers were probably there already. But, er, just like there was a time in Hungary when within a month or so there was a concert of Bartok works, a one-composer concert, followed - no, it was preceded - by a concert of Kodaly's works, and that was the time when Hungarian music really lifted off at the beginning of this century. The concert is new; I think the composers have been around for a while, but it's hard to say . . .
John Crawford How are you finding it, working in Tasmania, because you've come from a much larger pond, really, haven't you ?
Peter Billam Yes; yes, I have; well I've come from, er; I spent a long time in Switzerland, I lived there for eleven years, and knew a lot of musicians there. Before that, I was in London, and I knew a lot of musicians there too; and I think Tasmania is a wonderful place to write music. You don't actually have any needs, apart from peace and quiet, and a piano, and a room, and some paper, to write music; so Tasmania fulfills those needs very well.
John Crawford No distractions, or few enough . . .
Peter Billam That's right . . .
John Crawford Let's return to the concert if we can now, and hear some more music . . . (recording of next portion of Trombone Quintet) . . . Let's return to a bit of a chat with Andrew Sweeney and Peter Billam. Peter, in the past, you have had quite a bit to do with Electronic Music, But you don't seem to be doing that so much at the moment; is that because you haven't got the equipment available to you, or because you're less interested in it now as a compositional medium ?
Peter Billam It's a bit of both; certainly I have a little bit of, well, fear would be too strong; but it's very much the, sort of, the consumer society hits music. It can be a very expensive business; you buy one piece of equipment, but then you have to buy something else to complement it, and before you know it you're maintaining a whole studio. And then the year after that it's out of date and you have to start again,
John Crawford Turn round and spend another ten thousand dollars, yes . . .
Peter Billam Yes, it can get very onerous, as a hobby. But also; my goal is to write pieces of music that people can play, that you can put on your music stand like a Bach Fugue, and just play through; so that it's the human being that's the goal of what I try to write; and from that point of view, bringing out something on a tape, and all you have to do is to listen to it, bypasses the, the element that's really important for me. So I have done electronic stuff before, but that's sort of weaned out of my vocabulary these days.
John Crawford Mmm, might be interesting to see how interactive pieces develop over the next few years - that's going to perhaps cause some sort of revolution
Peter Billam Hmm, . . .
John Crawford Er, Andrew, what about the role of the individual in a community like Tasmania ?
. . .
I've just a little more of this concert left tonight, including the piece by Peter Billam
. . .
Now let's start again with the music of Peter Billam from this concert recorded in Tasmania . . . (remainder of recording of Trombone Quintet . . .) . . . Part of the Trombone Quintet by Peter Billam, in fact the remaining part. We've heard virtually all of it tonight, and it was a work we did hear in it's entirity last week on New Music Australia, and this is New Music Australia on ABC FM . . .
And the composer Peter Billam is still with us in the Hobart Studios of the ABC - Peter, just briefly, could you tell us about yourself - fill us in on your history as a composer - where you trained, and where you worked, and how you came to be in Tasmania.
Peter Billam Ooo, that's a big question !
John Crawford That's not brief ...
Peter Billam I've been through several musical incarnations; I was in London in the middle of the Post-Webern serialism era; I was at University starting in 1966, and with a whole crowd of composers there, Oliver Knussen, for example, Malcolm Fox, who I believe is in Adelaide now
John Crawford That's correct, yes.
Peter Billam Simon Bainbridge, Howard Davidson, who I think was in Brisbane at one time, I'm not sure if he still is; and those were very exciting times. I also played electric guitar as a session musician. And then I went to Switzerland, having decided that the life of a session musician in London was a bit of a mug's game, and worked in Switzerland for a while, and also composed and studied there, studied guitar and composing - those were private lessons. Then I was the musical director of a theatre group, which involved composing the music for all their spectacles, and also conducting it; and even acting in it, in French, which was quite startling for the audience, I'm sure. And I did a bit of work as a recording engineer, then emigrated to Australia. I arrived in Sydney in mid-winter, and it was much too hot for me,
John Crawford After Switzerland, yes . . .
Peter Billam so I decided I'd better move downwards before the summer came; so that's what really brought me to Tasmania. And I've been composing more and more recently, especially the last, oh, two or three years . . .
John Crawford I see, good, well we certainly look forward to hearing more of your music. I'm sure we can arrange that through New Music Australia. Andrew Sweeney and Peter Billam, thank you very much for being on the program tonight.