Our People: Burning bras, brutal reviews

Dr Philip Norman has been granted a $100,000 Michael King Fellowship to pursue a lifetime project abut New Zealand composers. He spoke with Gabrielle Stuart about burning bras, brutal reviews and making money out of music.

OUR PEOPLE: Composer Phillip Norman has created more than 250 works, ranging from operas to musicals.

How how did you get the news of this grant?

I got the call about a fortnight ago. It was a lovely surprise. Who wouldn’t like to be offered $100,000 to pursue one of their projects? This is something I’ve been working on for a while, but the fellowship means I can concentrate on it, turn down other work, and get it done.

How long have you been working on this?

I would dread to think. I started this project in 1978 when I began studying for my PHD at the University of Canterbury, before I realised it was too big a project to do in that time. So I put in a year on it then, and add to that another 10,000 hours every few years since.

You’ve already written a bibliography with stories of about 120 New Zealand composers. I have to confess, I didn’t know we had so many composers here.

You can actually add one or two to that – there are about 1200 people out there composing. If I listed all of them that would be the whole word count of the book right there, but it would look like a phonebook. So this will focus just on people who have had a real impact with their work.

It’s funny really, today we’ve got many, many people composing because computer technology makes so much possible. But go back 100 years, and there were thousands of people composing then. It was something you had a go at, because of course there was no radio or music recordings, so for many people that was their source of entertainment. Many people were something else by day and composer by night.

Is being based here at the bottom of the world, an advantage or disadvantage to composers?

I found it to be a huge disadvantage, principally because the world’s cultural traffic flows southward. It comes from London and New York and trickles down until it finally one day arrives in Invercargill. It makes it hard for New Zealand composers to swim against that tide, because you don’t have that huge promotional

machinery behind you that they do in those cities. Having said that, I wouldn’t wish to live in London or New York. The advantages of being here outweigh the difficulties.

Your pieces have been performed in some amazing theatres and venues across the world – what are some that have stood out?

I’ve actually hardly ever been overseas. The life of a composer is not well remunerated, so it’s not something I could afford to do.

That’s a real shame.

I think it’s very sad, although I’m biased of course. But the reality is the royalty I get for a piece performed at a concert wouldn’t be sufficient to buy a programme, let alone fly across the world.

But actually, what excites me the most is having my pieces performed in front of my own audiences, my own people here. It’s nice to say something you wrote has been performed in Timbuktu, but it’s more special to have people you love watching it. It gives me great pride to see someone take the time to learn and put their heart and soul into performing my work, it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 100.

What was the first instrument you learned?

I learned the cello when I was eight or nine, so it was taller than I was. My mother was a music teacher, and a great source of inspiration and help. But what really lit my fire was Gilbert and Sullivan musicals at school. My friends and I used to write comic operettas during our school holidays – I’m not sure if that’s a normal pastime? But one of the first we performed at school was all about the women’s liberation meetings at Parliament. I still remember the opening line: Burn the bra, burn the bra! That was very risqué then, so we loved it.

After school, did your family ever tell you to get a real job?

My father often used that line. He was a headmaster, so that made for an interesting childhood. But my father also always had a creative streak, so he had admiration for the fact I was using my creativity. I was determined, even at 18, to make a career out of music. So at university I wrote, again with friends, a series of musicals. One had a wonderful title, Stiff Luck to the Undertaker, and it went quite well. It was difficult at times. I was privileged to be part of the team writing the Footrot Flats musical and, after the hours of work spent on it, I said if I couldn’t get a decent return, I would give it up. But fortunately it did well.

Have you ever had to turn to other work, to pay the bills?

Actually no, I haven’t had to do the traditional things like flip burgers at McDonald’s, so I count myself enormously privileged. I haven’t really ever undertaken something just because I have needed the money, either – I have always been interested in it. But perhaps that’s also because I have wide interests.

What are some reviews of your work that have stood out to you over the years?

You mean times I’ve been roasted? There have been many. One I really rather relish was from one of the London critics, who are known for their savagery. One said I should be noted for writing one of the world’s first tune-free musicals. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I do rather appreciate that now.

You’ve also earned many honours and accolades for your work. Which has meant the most to you?

Receiving the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. That was something really quite special.

Outside your work, what are some of your pet passions?

Well, pets actually. My current delight is a pet rabbit by the name of Harvey. Harvey Norman. There’s something about this rabbit, he’s been a real joy. My children are also a real source of joy. It’s incredibly interesting seeing them develop into skilled and fascinating young adults.

What are your musical guilty pleasures?

I’m of the belief there are no musical guilty pleasures. Whatever you enjoy is worth listening to. I admit I get very moved by the sound of bagpipes, and jazz has been something I’ve loved for years. So I do have eclectic tastes.

So you would listen to a rap song every now and then?

I’m full of admiration for some rap, actually. This is the street poetry of now, and the voice of youth. I predict before too long there will be university studies of rap, there probably already are. With all styles of music, there are bad examples and well done examples. With rap some of the worst is terrible, but in the best there is a lot to admire.