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Dame Gillian's tribute to Jack Body

Mon 11 May 2015 In: Hall of Fame View at Wayback View at NDHA

Dame Gillian Whitehead’s tribute to gay composer Jack Body honours his contribution to the arts in New Zealand beautifully. The open letter was shared as Body was honoured with a prestigious Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award at a hospice in Wellington last week. Yesterday, he passed away. Dame Gillian’s letter: Dear Jack I'm so pleased you've been made an Icon of the Arts Foundation - the first composer to be so recognised - and if anyone deserves such an award, it's you. You have all the attributes of an Icon, and more - a significant body of work of outstanding quality (tick), a major contribution to the artistic and cultural life of New Zealand (tick), an international reputation (many ticks), and so on, and so on. But it's bittersweet to learn of it on the day I also heard that you are stopping chemotherapy, and won't be with us for much longer. Wellington will be a sorry place without your presence, energising, guiding, cajoling. I wonder how many people in New Zealand are aware of the extent of your involvement in the New Zealand and international community? You're best known as a composer, of course, as you should be. Your output has been so varied, and highly original as well as idiosyncratic, ranging from the major works - the wonderful and challenging opera Alley, and the extravagant Songs and Dances of Desire: in Memoriam Carmen Rupe, through a variety of orchestral, chamber and solo pieces. And also the electroacoustic pieces - those exciting early pieces that draw on the music of Java, like Musik Dari Jalan (which won first prize at the prestigious Bourges International Festival back in 1976) and the recent movingly simple intimate Histories (one of which picked up a Bourges award again 32 years later). Then there's the film music (Vincent Ward's Vigil and Rain of the Children), the photography and the sound installations, the theme music for Close to Home, music for dance, visionary collaborations with a huge range of musicians and performers, often conceived against considerable odds. One such was Passio, a visionary piece which recontextualised the first ever setting of St Matthew's Passion (by the 15th century English composer Richard Davy), with the Tudor Consort singing the Davy original, and instrumental commentaries devised by six composers associated with the Victoria University School of Music played by the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band. Performed in the highly resonant Great Hall of the former Dominion Museum in Buckle Street, the audience was able to walk at will around the performance space, and delight in the sound. But, although it could and should have travelled the country and beyond - a true Festival piece - there was just the one mesmerising performance. You've spent so much time in Asian countries since the 1970s, particularly Indonesia and China, undertaking pioneering field work for which you are lauded by the international ethnomusicological community. A born teacher, at Victoria University School of Music you opened the ears of students, colleagues and audiences to the sounds of Asia. There would not be such a strong gamelan culture here without you, nor the Asia Pacific and Gamelan festivals, nor the dozens of visiting musicians you involved in enriching the musical fabric of Wellington. And that's not to mention the steady stream of scores by a wide range of established and emerging New Zealand composers you produced as Editor of Wai-te-ata Music Press - an invaluable resource - nor the nearly 50 CDs, mainly of music by New Zealand or Asian composers, or, like South of the Clouds, of high ethnomusicological significance. And then there's your ordinary life, teaching, enjoying your garden in Durham Street with your beloved and loving Yono, and dispensing hospitality to frequent house-guests. We've known each other for 45 years, since we met in Venice as emerging composers in our twenties. Somehow, we didn't quite connect at the University of Auckland, where the teaching of Ron Tremain was a profound influence on us both - you began there the year I left for Wellington. After Venice in 1970, our paths crossed often. To your mind, everything in a project seemed simple, but in practice never actually was. But usually somehow it came through triumphantly, because of the regard and respect the musicians had for you. I remember when you were recording my Missa Brevis for a CD. You had found a wonderfully resonant space - the rock-climbing room at Victoria University, and the a Capella group Sings Harry were performing. And it was midwinter and bitterly cold. There was a one bar heater and everyone was huddled round it, wearing coats, scarves and gloves, then would move into position for a take, then back to the heater. A bemused rock climber came in and scuttled around the wall for a bit, but soon left. And at the end of the day we had a fine performance - soaring, tranquil and warm. Just one other example. You'd become interested in the music and recent history of Cambodia, and with considerable difficulty set up a collaboration between two New Zealand and two Cambodian composers, a group of players of traditional Cambodian instruments and the splendid NZTrio, to create pieces reflecting the devastating Pol Pot times. So you and I travelled to Cambodia, buzzed round Phnom Penh three of us on a moto, heard a number of distinguished performers and settled on the small group of outstanding and musically flexible performers who now make up the Tray So ensemble. The highlight for me was the day we travelled into the country, to hear the master of the kse diev, an ancient single-string instrument depicted at Angkhor. An elderly man, obviously a master, sat on a low platform in front of his house, with trucks and cars roaring past, playing this incredibly quiet instrument, apparently very difficult to play. A half gourd is held against the chest, which acts as a resonating chamber, and the kse diev is plucked, producing a delicate sound with intermittent harmonics. And in your piece, written subsequently, you replicated the sounds of this instrument in the sounds of violin and cello, suggesting the fragility and vulnerability of both the instrument and of human life. Another visit to Cambodia to rehearse the performers before they came to New Zealand for several performances, including the Auckland Festival and WOMAD, then recently, when sadly you were unable to come with us, a tour to Phnom Penh and five Chinese cities. What became most important was that the younger generations were hungry to hear the stories that the older generations, because they had lived through it, were unwilling to tell, and the student audiences were profoundly moved by the performances. They had not experienced their stories before. So what is your legacy? A lasting influence on students and performers whose ears and minds you have opened to new sounds, new ideas. A treasure trove of publications, recordings. You have fostered so many friendships and collaborations between New Zealanders and others across the world, which will expand and spread. And memories for us all of conviviality, food, wine, music and always enthusiastic plans for new and visionary projects. Thank you, Jack, for your gift of building and sharing friendships, your passion, your integrity, your taking New Zealand to the world and bringing such fascinating aspects of the world back home to us. You are a true and indispensable Icon for us all. Arohanui, Gillian      Dame Gillian Whitehead - 11th May 2015

Credit: Dame Gillian Whitehead

First published: Monday, 11th May 2015 - 9:08am

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