14 Nov 2019

NZ Biography: Douglas Lilburn

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:25 pm on 14 November 2019

Described as "the father of New Zealand composition" Douglas Lilburn was a composer, conductor, critic and teacher whose work earned him our highest award - the Order of New Zealand.

He taught many of the country's leading composers and was a central player in the local  arts scene.

Composer and author Philip Norman charted Douglas Lilburn's legacy in the book Douglas Lilburn: His Life and Music.

Douglas Lilburn

Douglas Lilburn Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: PAColl-7737-3-04

What was your connection to Douglas?

Well, I was a student of his. Not in the sense that I sat at his knees and learned how to compose, but in the sense that I studied his life and his works as a musicological student. It was a historical thesis at a PhD level that I was first introduced to his work.

Did you get to meet him?

Yes, I did. I started this thesis in 1978 I think, and Douglas still very much alive, well... and I won't say kicking, but very vital then.

I had quite a few interesting interviews from him, but funnily enough, he preferred me to do most of my interviewing by letter, because he wanted to think about his responses before committing them to the hands of a student who was going to write about him - very wise too I think.

He called himself "the musician with the farmers hands" so that might tell us something about his upbringing? 

Yes, he came off a farm in the middle of the upper Turakina valley, east of Hunterville and a little bit south of Taihape - the place where they throw gumboots. And it was beautiful countryside.

One of the more memorable days of my life was spent on the Lilburn farm at Drysdale, having a look around the area and enjoying the views of some beautiful waterfalls and lush pastures etc. A charming idyllic place to grow up I'm sure.

And some food for the creative mind later probably?

I think so. He was the equivalent of an only child. He was from a family of six or something. But there was this big gap between him and the person older than him. And so there was a lot of alone time, imagining things, and I think that awoke his creativity because somewhere like that is not a cultural centre. In a way it's quite extraordinary that somebody came off a very isolated farm and was very interested in a particularly urban, people-centred occupation like composing for orchestras.

When did Douglas Lilburn get interested in music?

He went to Waitaki Boys' High School in Oamaru. At the time they had a remarkable headmaster called Frank Milner, who was noted for turning boys into men, as only those schools were able to do way back then.

He started playing the piano and a visiting pianist played at the school, and Lilburn remembers that as being the first time that he really wanted to be a musician.

But he really didn't compose until he was at University of Canterbury College. In 1936 a flamboyant Australian composer called Percy Granger arrived in New Zealand and challenged the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (as it was then) to hold a competition for a local composer to compose something for orchestra.

Lilburn had never written anything for orchestra before, but he gave it a go and he won! And that was really when his career started and took off as a composer. He would have been 19 or 20 then.

For most people living in this era, the second world war plays a pretty big part. What was Lilburn's involvement, if any?

Douglas Lilburn was over in London at the time they declared war. He had been studying for three years at the Royal College of Music.

War was declared, and he tried to enlist but his eyesight wasn't up to army standards and so he volunteered for the Air Force. But of course, at the start of World War Two nothing much happened. Well, Hitler decided to carve up the eastern countries, so London was left alone.

During this time his parents or older brothers called him back home to help on the farm because there was a shortage of manpower on, and the Lilburn's had several farms.

It would have been quite a change from the Royal College of Music to heading back to the farm to milk cows.

Oh, yes, it was way back to the solitary life, on a farm near Taihape. He has pleasant memories of it, but memories like singing at the top of his voice on top of a windswept hill with nobody around for miles except the sheep and the cows to listen to him. So, it's a far cry from the madding crowd of London.

Let's talk about some of his early recordings. I know that you group his compositions into a few different eras. We're going to start with 'Sings Harry', so where does this fit in?

Well, almost on the cusp between his first and second periods, where he started to explore different techniques in music, but it's very definitely a first period composition in the sense that it's very tonal, modal and it is speaking of New Zealand concerns, which it had to really, because he chose Dennis Glover's wonderful sequence of poems 'Sings Harry' and that was all about a back-blocks character who strummed his old guitar to the cabbage trees.

You describe Douglas Lilburn's early compositions as nationalistic or nationalist... tell us about that.

It's a misleading word really, he wasn't a patriotic tub-thumper. He was more somebody who's really intent on trying to capture the essence of New Zealand or being a New Zealander in music.

It was all part of trying to develop a separate cultural identity to the motherland - Britain, back then. And one of the ways that Lilburn tried to do it was to capture the essence and the ambiance of the physical environment. New Zealand being - in European Pakeha terms - a very young country. We didn't have the resource to centuries old folk songs that European countries did.

Also, Lilburn decided that there was no commonality between his heritage and the Māori heritage. So initially, he didn't make any use of the Māori heritage but rather tried to capture the drama of the landscape in his music.

He was doing well in Christchurch as a guest conductor at this time. There were a few people around at that time in Christchurch. Allan Curnow, Rita Angus...

Oh, it was a fantastic time. Yes, the list goes on and on, especially in the visual arts. Denis Glover was another one who was there.

That was the period where Lilburn was really trying to capture New Zealand-ness in his sound and for a good many years Lilburn's sound from that period came to represent a New Zealand sound, even though to an outside listener it probably sounded like an English composition, or even a Finnish one, because Sebelius was quite an influence on Lilburn's work at that time.

What about his second period, internationalism and serialism you call it.

Well, he was rather forced down this track by his mentor and colleague head of department Freddie Page, who really liked ultra-modern contemporary music and insisted that everybody around him at least have a go at listening to it, and so Lilburn felt that he had to get up to date.

So, he experimented with 12 tone music, which is basically a row of 12 notes, none of which are the same. And you have to write your music going in a particular order without repeating any notes until you've gone through all 12.

It was a way of composers making sure that you couldn't hear any key in the music.

Lilburn experimented with that, but it really wasn't his natural language. He was a composer that like to be in charge of his music rather than his music being in charge of what he was writing.

That's a good way of putting it. We're going to play something from the National Orchestra. Symphony number three, what are we listening for here?

Well, it was considered really radical at the time and the first few notes of it if you're diving in at the deep end or is it at the shallow end, I'm not too sure, but at the beginning, if you listen really intently you can hear one of these note rows, but I wouldn't try and count them. To us now it's quite a tonal melodious piece. It certainly wasn't the discordant, agitating sound that the audiences in the early 1960s felt. Just listen and admire the technical craft.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

I imagine that, in the 60s, electronic music would have sounds pretty weird to people who had only ever heard the orchestra. But Lilburn was keen to try out these new techniques.

Yes, he was. I think he decided that that was his way out of trying to write music that took control of the composer rather than the other way around. He found in electronic music, especially what they call Musique concrète, which was essentially mixing sounds from the environment and sometimes with some electronic work as well, he was able to pinpoint the environment-particular sounds and pull them into his compositions.

That had an obvious appeal as you would imagine for somebody who had been searching to create a New Zealand sound in his first period. The first major work that came out of that was one that he set a poem by Alastair Campbell to called The Return and in that you can hear it's very simple but a very effective sort of sound wash in the background of seagulls and the sounds of surf and, you get a narrator who starts talking in mysterious languages, which actually turned out to be a list of Māori tree names. It is very atmospheric, and I think works very well as a piece even though it's very electronic at that stage.

We've got Carousel next

Here he's in a zany sort of mood and uses those electronic instruments that came out late 60s and 70s that really you had no control over. You press a key and random modulations of sound would come out. So, like all early computers you didn't get what you want. You wanted what you got. And he would work with these quite arbitrary sequences that would come out and, in this case, it's quite a crazy little number.

You can guess what the traditional symphonic audiences thought of what he was doing. But funnily enough, if any of his music is surviving in a big way now among the youth, it is those early electronic pieces. He's become something of a sort of father figure to the ambient music composers who look back at his early works using the environment and see them as sort of models, really.

New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn giving a demonstration of a work composed in the Electronic Music Studio at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, in 1970. Lilburn is demonstrating the sounds produced for a modern dance performance that include the electronic reconstitution of the sounds of the extinct huia bird.

I imagine it takes a certain lack of ego to tear up what you know about composition and everything that you know you're good at, and embrace this new electronic form. Is it a big step away from the orchestra into something like we just heard?

A huge step. Most creative artists manage one sweeping change to their style in a lifetime. Some don't even manage that - they start off and they stay the same, but Lilburn managed it twice, really.

He had, in a sense, had a split personality. I'm talking metaphorically here. He liked his traditional tonal music and he would listen to Bach before he listened to contemporary music.

But on the other hand, being part of the lecturing tradition, the intellectual side of him felt it was really important that he lead the way in exploring new sounds.

So he was sort of caught on this between the brain and the heart, and the brain kept on winning out most of the time.

But funnily enough, one of the loveliest pieces he wrote was just shortly before he died. He didn't write anything after a certain period but 15 years later, he wrote this piece in honour of his old piano that kept him company right through his career and it's just a simple, tonal series of arpeggios just up and down on the piano. It's really rather moving.

In the end his heart for his music won out. Not just in that, but also in his funeral where he didn't have a single note of music from the 20th century. It was all back to Bach.

Lilburn as teacher as well as a composer had an influential role, probably a formative role at Victoria University School of Music.

Yes, when he arrived his presence doubled the University Music Department because it was only Fred Page at the time.

Fred Page was a bit of a renegade for that time. For anytime, really. And instead of getting some academically trained harmonist to teach the students harmony, he felt it would be much better to get a composer.

I think he said something like "if you want to get some plumbing done, get a plumber. Don't get a different sort of person." So, if you want to get harmony taught you get a composer who actually practically uses the harmony. And that was his reason for appointing Lilburn at that time.

That persuaded most of the universities eventually to fall in line with it and to employ composers as teachers of music, harmony and counterpoint rather than academics.

We have a clip of Lilburn speaking. This is from 1975. He's talking to another famous name in musical education, Jack Body, about his profession.

Jack Body: When you have to fill in your tax form, and occupation, do you put composer?

Douglas Lilburn: No, in fact, I don't. I would use a word like musician, which seems to have a general coverage of what I do, and the word’s readily understandable to anybody, even tax collectors.

JB: Have you never used the term “composer”?

DL: Oh, yes, I'm sure I did, especially in early years because I think when one's young one takes oneself much more seriously, and it seemed quite a natural thing to do, then.

JB: Did you find at any point that you felt that you had to assert yourself as a composer as a as a valid profession.

DL: It was perhaps a bit of a strange occupation when I began it, here. But on the other hand, as a student in London it seemed perfectly natural thing to be, and later in Christchurch there was a large group of people who took themselves quite seriously as painters as writers as poets and musicians. And so it seemed to me quite natural thing to set up business as a composer then.

JB: What do you think are the responsibilities of being a composer?

DL: I think by and large, like those of being anything else, one gains a lot during the course of a career, and certainly I think you have to return for what you were given. This is why people in professions do a certain amount of teaching. This is a way of maintaining a tradition that you both get from it and give back to it constantly.


The Aotearoa Overture is Lilburn's most famous composition. What should we know about it, Philip?

Lilburn wrote it for the 1940s centennial celebrations that were going to take place in London. He wrote it on spec for an orchestra that (NZ-born) Warwick Braithwaite was going to be conducting at Covent Garden.

He didn't call it Aotearoa Overture himself, that was suggested to him by Warrick Braithwaite. So, all those people who have been trying to discover the New Zealandness in Lilburn's music, seizing on the Aotearoa Overture have got it wrong because it was titled after the event. Nonetheless it has come to conjure up New Zealandness so when you talk about New Zealandness in music most people think of these magical opening bars.

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