The Chamber of Musical Curiosities Podcast: Kim Williams
Join us on episode 10 of the podcast as Paul Kildea sits down with the composer, executive, musician Kim Williams. Kim goes through the various careers he's had throughout his remarkable life. They also delve into some of his extraordinary experiences, including having a phone conversation with the great composer Peter Sculthorpe at age 15 as well as discussions with Ruper Murdoch himself.
Kim then delves into the importance of Australian composers and musicians learning and knowing the history of Australian music culture and of Australian musical traditions. Paul and Kim then have a heartfelt reflection on their mutual friend Richard Gill and his advocacy for education and music education in Australia.
A special note of thanks to Kim Williams who donated his honorarium fee back to Musica Viva to produce this episode.
Listen to the full episode below.
Paul: Welcome to the Chamber of Musical Curiosities, a podcast exploring the world in and around Musica Viva Australia. Hello, I'm Paul Kildea the artistic director of Musica Viva. And this is the Chamber of Musical Curiosities, our podcast. And I'm delighted today to be talking to Kim Williams. Kim., hello, I want to ask you straight up, do you remember air travel?
Kim: I do remember air travel. In fact, this is the longest period in my post 20 year old life when I have not traveled. In fact, I used to travel between once and three times a week and to not be traveling is something that is both a blessed relief and a terrible, terrible absence in my life.
Paul: Well, this is a nice way of actually sketching out this lovely life of yours since the age of 20, because I was thinking before about what I used to write on those immigration cards, under the word profession. And I wonder what you have been writing on those immigration cards since the late 1960s when you're young clarinetist at the Sydney Con? Well, I, I've had many, many moments of reflection on what I should put in. I used to daringly put in composer and you could see immigration reflection professionals looking at it, thinking what? I've, I've put arts administrator, I've put CEO and probably put CEO for many, many years, although I'm not sure that's actually a profession. I remember filling out a census form when my parents-in-law were once staying with us and my father-in-law said, what should I put in the profession piece? I said: hey, I'm the head of the household, I'm going to put statesperson
Paul: And how right that turned out to be, Why not be a little bit specific about some of the actual roles that came in under those titles?
Kim: Well, I, I worked as a composer for a period of time and worked as a compositional assistant and student of Luciano Berio's. I worked as a clarinetist and performed in a number of environments as a clarinetist. I worked as the general manager of Musica Viva as it was then called. I worked as the chief executive of the Australian Film Commission. I worked as the chief executive of the Southern Star Production Group in film and television. I was the chairman of the Australian Film Finance Corporation, the chairman of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the general manager of a nascent paid television operation at the ABC. I worked as the director of television of the ABC for about a 14-month period when different people were moving around in different, different positions. I worked as the founder and chief executive of Fox Studios Australia, which is a film studio here in Sydney, which, which I built. I worked as the chief executive of Foxtel itself. I was the chairman of Musica Viva. I was the chief executive of News Corporation in Australia, I was the chairman of a variety of other enterprises and, and still the chairman of some. I'm the chairman of the Reuters trustees of the Reuters news agency and bits here and there.
Paul: I'd probably say to this amazing kind of potted plant outline of your career that millennials would approve entirely of the wide grazing. But it's not something that was so kind of common, I don't think. And when you were starting out, and even though I can see some very logical leaps from this particular position to another, not all of them are as connected as one might think. And I'm even thinking of that your politics, for instance, don't seem a great fit for News Corp, but I wonder if you just kind of managed to compartmentalize that when it comes to being a CEO you just have to, you kind of keep that part of you separate from the work that you've undertaken.
Kim: Well, in fact, when I was informed about my new role in moving from Foxtel to News Corporation, I said at the time to Rupert Murdoch, Rupert, that's a really bad decision. And he said, not at all, that's one of the best decisions I've ever made. And I said, well, I'm not so sure for a start. You know what my politics are, I've never been secretive about it. And who will be in charge. Of course, both things were contributors to that memorable moment when I said to him, Rupert, it's very clear to me that one of us has to go.
Paul: Given your amazing CV, I'm surprised it was you and not him. But -
Kim: He laughed and said that he was glad to see that I hadn't lost my sense of humor. And I said, well, Rupert, unlike some, I am Australian and if you lose your sense of humor, all is lost.
Paul: Yeah, ain't that the truth. I'm pretty interested in how you describe your compositional aesthetic back in in the late sixties, very early seventies. Stravinsky is about to die, Benjamin Britain has still five years, six years to go. I'm wondering if these were kind of towering figures in your life, whether Britten's conscientious objection and involvement with the ISCM appealed to you or whether it was repellent. And I think of this probably in the context of the really beautiful series that you curated for the Adelaide Festival earlier this year, Incredible Floridas, and the different aesthetics that were covered by this, this really amazing and interesting snapshot of composition in Australia in the 20th century. So, a few things there, But can we start with your own particular interests and compositional aesthetics of the late sixties?
Kim: Well, certainly I adore the music of Benjamin Britten and I find Benjamin Britten a really riveting music figure in the 20th century. He was a person of very considerable personal courage and someone who was not shy to express his convictions, particularly his pacifist convictions, which I very firmly share and his music is an endless source of wonder. In fact, I love your book Paul, I think your book is one of the best books I've read about a single composer.
Paul: Thank you.
Kim: And it is a wholly, wholly, compelling and really quite, quite riveting read. Um, Stravinsky is my favorite composer. I absolutely am constantly in awe of the intellectual capacity of Stravinsky, of his innate musicality and of his consistent quest to challenge himself in all matters musical and to completely, stylistically reinvent himself as much as a musical challenge as an intellectual one. And for someone who was avowedly dedicated to the view that music meant nothing other than music and who once said to Robert Kraft, my music means nothing. It's music, a view that I happen to share very strongly. I love that view of music, that music lives in its own plane. Music is something that is wholly ineffable and yet profoundly important. I find Stravinsky a constant source of satisfaction. In fact, I recently, I'm one of the few people who still buy CDs and there are all these marvelous deals, some CDs that are available regularly now. So I recently bought the complete works of Boulez conducted by, our curated by Boulez and I bought all of the works of Stravinsky that Stravinsky ever recorded, which is a really interesting set of recordings because of course, he was a most unusually inept conductor and it's so interesting to listen to his own performances of his own music and there's this marvelous burning personality that comes through. But at times it's such a mash-up of his music. It's um, immensely interesting. I've derived a lot of pleasure in listening to the recordings.
Paul: Which is funny because one of the things, apart from sonority, that we really think of with Stravinsky is the amazing rhythmic precision required to bring these scores to life. And that's not something that one would necessarily associate with Stravinsky's conducting.
Kim: No, not at all.
Paul: So in the late sixties, when you were writing some of these chamber works, necessarily or perhaps through passion, focusing on the clarinet, was there a phase of Stravinsky's composition and continuously reinventing aesthetic that appealed to you?
Kim: I treated every piece as something which was very much about its own place and its own group of musicians. I wrote a clarinet concerto for Don Westlake back in 1970. He was my clarinet teacher. I adored Don. He was one of the first adults who invited me to call him Don. And it was a big thing when your teacher said: Oh stop all this Mr. Westlake business, my name's Don, what are you doing on the weekend? You want to come for a sail? And we used to go out sailing together on his small sailing boat. I suppose what drove most of my compositional star was very much a very rigorous view of time and of tempi and of occupied time. And all of my works were very closely structured architecturally in accretions of time and overlays of time on top of each other. I was very, very, very formalistic in the approach to rhythm, tempo and time.
Paul: What I particularly loved about the series that you undertook and curated for the Adelaide Festival, Incredible Floridas, was it seemed to play out, and I'm thinking of my, I'm thinking of one of my favorite comedians, the drag queen Dina Martina, very heavily made up of saying that, you know, I think diversity is a wonderful thing on paper, but it seemed to me, but this series on paper was one of the great, what-ifs. What if Australian composers, before we really had an ongoing and sustainable music culture in the country, music industry, certainly, what if their relationship with continental modernism had continued unabated. And so therefore we saw all these wonderful composers with whom you have either had an interesting or a relationship with, in the course of sort of your life. And, and so suddenly you see pieces by Margaret Sutherland and Peggy Glanville Hicks before your time. And then of course Peter Sculthorpe, Alfred Hills, again way before your time. And I just found it on paper, the most intriguing kind of, you know, what if story, you know, the counterfactual. What if Australia had kept its relationship with continental modernism? And what if Peter Sculthorpe from whom you had lessons in the, in the early 70s, I think, had not come along?
Kim: Yes. Well, I actually had counsel and, and instruction from Peter from the mid-60s when he moved to Sydney. I sent him a score in about 1966 or 67
Paul: As a 15 year old.
Kim: Yes, that's right. And I wrote him a letter and one night I was at home working and my mother came and said, oh there's a fellow called Peter Sculthorpe on the phone. And I went and took the phone call and of course as a little kid, I was astonished that he phoned me. I had of course included the phone number in the letter to him. Plus Peter was a sort of terrific support and, and stimulation to me over, over a long period of time. We're very good friends right up until his last day. And we have many fun times together. Yes, the concert series was very much geared to respecting elders in Australian music past, because I have a personal obsession that far too many Australian musicians, know far too little about their own music heritage and about the heritage of Western art music in Australia. They don't know about Alfred Hill, they don't know that Alfred Hill was in the second violins of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. They don't know that Alfred Hill played under, under Brahms and under Tchaikovsky and under Brooke and, and many other composers, they don't know about Alfred Hills early, enormously devoted interrogation of Maori music in New Zealand and the several Maori opera, Maori story-based operas that he wrote. They don't know that Alfred Hill conducted the inaugural performance of 10,000 singers and mass brass bands for the inauguration of the nation of Australia on the first of January 1901, and in 1906 went on to write the national song for New Zealand for the inauguration of that nation. And these things need to be known. They don't know that Alfred Hill didn't get the appointment of the directorship of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music when a failed Englishman by the name of Edgar Bainton got it and the runner up applicants subsequently, for the position of lecturer in Harmony and Counterpoint was Arnold Schoenberg, and Bainton had banned having Schoenberg on the basis of his, so-called unsound modern tendencies. But moreover, it's generally believed because he was Jewish. I mean, these are important moments in our music history that we need to be connected with. Margaret Sutherland, this indefatigable advocate for Australian music who had studied in Europe had returned to Australia, had written music all of her life, received her very first commission when she was 67 and so warmly got that commission because Robert Hughes, who was a friend of, a dear friend of mine and a composer, had actually remonstrated with the board of the Australian Performing Right Association saying, and he spoke with a heavy Scottish accent, said, I am not leaving this room until we award a commission to Margaret Sutherland. And then the poor dear had a terrible stroke the next year. So she never wrote another piece. But that's when her third quartet came into being. I mean, these are important things. She was such a warrior for Australian music. And of course, was the first Australian composer to have a recorded Australian opera made in the early 1970s of The Young Kabbarli. She's an important figure in our music history and someone who deserves to be better known. You're right, of course, Paul, that Peter and Richard took music away from a European centered Dino Washington style of Darmstadt style of compositional focus and originated wholly original and different music and oral landscapes for our country. And because they had such a pervasive impact as teachers, they influenced a whole new generation of Australian composers and in many ways liberated Australian music from a kind of coquettish devotion to musics from other places. And this was a good thing, a really, wholly good thing and their imprint on Australian music life was was quite dramatic. It is a source of very, very, very deep trouble to me that Richard Meale's music is no longer well known. And Richard I think, is a consummately great composer and who was in many ways, represented the same kind of courage and bravery that Stravinsky exemplified in the way in which he stylistically went out on new pathways that were wholly uncharted in terms of the kind of prevailing oral and harmonic orthodoxy of his time. There was a piece that was played at the Adelaide Festival earlier this year, which I have a particularly deep affection for called Lumen, an amazing piece of music which was written for the, The Centenary, or might have been the 50th anniversary of the Elder Conservatorium, and you hear a composer at his confident best charting entirely new territory in a very unusual reversion to old fashioned principles of tonality. It's a most fascinating work
Paul: Nonetheless Kim, with all of these amazing affiliations and interests in Australia. You did a little bit more of your wide grazing in going to study with Luciano Berio and I'd love you to talk a little bit about that, not least of all because the folk songs that you programmed in Adelaide still, they just still jump off both the page and the stage.
Kim: Yes, Luciano Berio is, for me the, the great inheritor of the mantle of Stravinsky. I think he is a complete composer. He was equally comfortable in writing simple arrangements, or in fact validly sophisticated arrangements of folk songs, large symphonic works, a series of quite, quite remarkable operas, big oratorios and a range of virtuosic works for solo instrument which are unmatched in the contemporary canon. It was a great, great privilege to work with Luciano. Unlike Stravinsky, Luciano was an exceptional conductor and he, his performances of his own music were almost devastatingly precise. And you could see when he was working with an orchestra that the orchestra would move from a position of being skeptical about the maestra to being completely converted because he heard everything. And he would, he would finger individual players and say you're flat on the b flat in bar 1:28 or your entry. And I mean it was just, it was a virtuosic display of a composer completely in charge of his domain. And when I, when I worked and studied with Luciano and with Cathy Berberian, I had the pleasure of being in the little country town. Radicondoli, or as the Tuscans would say, Radicondoli, which is halfway between Florence and Siena or Firenze e Siena. Yes. And this was a little 12th, 13th century town, a peasant community where the maestro lived in a grand house, which was the old Spanish ambassador's country residence, the Spanish ambassador being the ambassador to the city state of Siena. The house was called Il Colombaio, meaning the Dove, and Luciano and Cathy had lovingly restored this house and Luciano wrote many of his greatest works there. And to watch Luciano walk through this simple little pre-Renaissance town, the townsfolk were completely in awe of him. I mean, it was like having a god living in the town and I remember once that he paid to take the London Sinfonietta to Radicondoli to give a concert of his music when they were on tour in Italy and the whole town came and the town listened to this music which was wildly outside their musical ken until in fact, Cathy did the folk songs which they adored. But for the rest of it they were reverentially silent because they knew this was an important thing and that sense, at least then, I don't know if it's still the case in Italy, that sense of respect for, and reverence for music and its place in society was still very firmly rooted in the society of that small village. It was a remarkable experience.
Paul: That's a very natural segue to a mutual friend of ours who had a huge influence on you and on me and on, in fact many musicians in Australia and he seemed to make it his entire purpose to want music to be respected as part of the society. And that of course is Richard Gill. Richard who taught you when you were at school and Richard who worked with me or I worked with him when I was a young conductor. So talk a little bit about those two things if you wouldn't mind. You have hinted at the value of mentorship, but also Richard's advocacy of education within this country.
Kim: Well, Richard was my best friend and we were, we were lifelong friends. I still get upset when I think about him. I've spent almost every day with Richard for the last 18 months and was his amanuensis in relation to the Richard Gill school which we which, we opened in the town of Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter in January of this year. It took in its first cohort of year K and year one students. And next year we'll add year two and add single or double years thereafter. It is a school which gives life to all the things that Richard was an indefatigable advocate, about that music is the most important subject of all, because it enlivens the brain, it activates more neural pathways than any other human activity. Enormous number of studies have been done on the way in which music activates the brain and therefore has fabulous impacts on other aspects central to learning. People who study music have better memories. People who study music have better confidence. People who are brought up singing are able to actually perform in public in a variety of different ways in wholly beneficial examples of their own self interest in being good students. Music, because of its capacity to impact memory and concentration, I mean the capacity for concentration liberated by music is of course, wholly necessary to the study of other subjects. These are things that we as musicians know. And yet recently I was having an exchange with someone who is prominent in one of them the institutions saying to me, but Kim where is the evidence? Where are your pedagogic studies that prove this to be so? And I must say I had a moment of such, such desperation in thinking, how many times do I, do we need to revisit these arguments in defense of music? And always of course in defense of music because of all of its other myriad benefits rather than in defense of music in and often for itself. Because music is humanising, music is the great sort of vote for tolerance in life. If you are well inducted to musics of the world, you're a naturally tolerant person. You actually, you learn about the rich diversity of humanity and of human expression. Because music alone is this, is at the center of every culture on the planet. I mean, these things seem so self-evident to me, but in Australia, the situation for music education steadily deteriorates and I'm afraid the barbarians are in charge, Paul!
Paul: Yeah, they are, yeah. It's funny when, when you were saying that about empirical evidence, it just reminded me of Malcolm Roberts saying, he's only just discovered the word empiricism. Show me the empirical evidence around the climate catastrophe. It's the same intellectual kind of argument which leads me to wanting to ask you whether you believe in the role of a public intellectual in Australia. I'm thinking of people like Barry Jones, Robert Manne, Philip Adams, Helen Garner. But do you find that a strangely quaint way of thinking about the need for individuals that aren't necessarily associated with the university, Having a public life built around thought and thinking?
Kim: I am an ardent advocate for the public intellectual and for the necessity of intellectual and creative life to the, the future of our nation. In fact, I think the crucible of Australia's future is in it's intellectual and creative capacity. And yet we have an education system which is almost avowedly aggressively poised against those two things. We have far too many examples of the way in which intellect and creativity are not only not celebrated in Australia, but positively opposed. The recent action of our Commonwealth Government against the university sector in the height of the COVID crisis is something that I view with such grave concern. Words fail me. I find it a source of deep, deep distress.
Paul: Yeah, plunder in the shadows. I'm afraid it was. I'm going to ask you, almost as a way of finishing up here about something he said in the Mile lecture five years ago or so. And you said history matters, symbols matter, our social memory matters. Now, interestingly you wouldn't get pushback from young people today on that. But in your lifetime, in my lifetime, there have been people from historians to prime ministers who over the decades have resisted this idea. So I wonder if you could speak how it's changed in your lifetime and how optimistic you are about the potency and the enormous importance and power of these symbols.
Kim: Well, I do believe in the ultimate triumph of the human intellect and of the human spirit. And I think that life has always been populated with troglodytes from time to time who know very little and assert very, very strongly. I mean personally, I believe that there is nothing more empowering in human history than ignorance because ignorant people actually are unfettered with knowledge and unfettered with the burden of history. But history will out and talent will out and good thinking will eventually triumph. So that symbols matter in terms of actually making history live, so that I'm a great believer in recognition of country and invoking ancient society in Australia from the First Nations peoples of our country. I wish we did it in the way New Zealand does it, which is so wholly connected with, with its indigenous history and its indigenous peoples. But I believe there is ample evidence of change taking place. I'm a great believer, the statement from the heart will eventually triumph. Anyone who bothers to read it will understand that it must and that Australians will eventually convert across to the necessity of genuine dependence upon a much richer version of our history than currently pertains. I think these things are verities in life and there are things that we need to continue to advocate. So I'm not pessimistic. I'm down-hearted at times because Australia really has very little in the way of competitive advantage in anything really. I mean in mining technology, in some elements of dry land, agriculture, in some aspects of niche manufacturing, Australia does a brilliant job. But the real future repository of Australia is its people and we better pay careful attention to ensuring that they are properly taught and that they understand the symbols in history that matter to the future of this place and our people.
Paul: Kim I am so grateful for your optimism. But I'm also hugely grateful as an artist working in this country for all that wide grazing that you've done ina very distinguished career because your DNA is part of, certainly the organization that I'm now privileged to be artistic director of, but many aspects of Australian life and culture and long may it continue.
Kim: Love your work, Paul, really love your work.