Debbie Kruger
March 2003


Debbie Kruger finds out how a classical music icon and a rock raconteur found each other and made beautiful music together.

Tim Freedman’s knowledge of contemporary Australian classical music was limited until recently. “I didn’t learn the piano classically. I had a lady on the other side of the suburb who gave lessons and she taught by giving me a piece of music that I enjoyed playing. So consequently I’m a black stump musician, and it wasn’t until I did some formal classes at high school that I became aware of Peter’s work. The music teacher played us some of his compositions that reflected the sounds of the Australian bush. I think that’s generally where Peter gets talked about at high schools. I had only one album before I met him. And then when I started hearing some of his work with the ACO I bought three or four CDs so I was aware of the Laments and “Port Essington” and his String Quartets. So I came to Peter late in life.”

Now Freedman has just completed a tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, in a program that featured not only new arrangements of songs made famous by his band The Whitlams, arranged by Richard Tognetti, Daniel Denholm and Peter Sculthorpe, but also works by John Adams, Nicolò Paganini and Arvo Pärt. For someone whose only experience of a classical concert was occasionally taking overseas visitors to the Opera House, it’s been quite an evolution for Freedman, and he has his friendship with Sculthorpe to thank for it.

Prior to meeting Freedman, Sculthorpe’s only serious forays into the world of pop and rock music were music theatre pieces he wrote in the 1950s for the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney, and an interesting collaboration with rock group Tully in 1970, for whom he wrote “Love 200.”

“That was for rock group and orchestra, words by Tony Morphett,” says Sculthorpe. “And we had LSD fog and smoke in the Town Hall. And that was really exciting because a lot of the kids slept on the Town Hall steps the night before to make sure they could get tickets for the concerts.”

The vast number of works Sculthorpe has composed and/or arranged in his lengthy career is breathtaking, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He is also working on a book – on the history of music in Tasmania encompassing classical, rock and everything in between – and then there is his work with Freedman. Which is much more than just work. The legendary classical composer and the rock songsmith have forged a relationship that is as natural as their musical backgrounds are diverse.

They met at the 2001 APRA Music Awards. Sculthorpe had won Most Performed Classical Work for his composition “Between Five Bells”. He kept leaving the glass-framed award lying around – under tables, behind other people’s chairs – and Freedman took it upon himself to salvage it and carry it and himself along with Sculthorpe through the night to various watering holes. So what did Sculthorpe think of Freedman on first meeting?

“Well, I’d probably had too much to drink and I loved the world. I mean, I love the world even when I’m sober. But I thought he was great. It’s as simple as that.” Sculthorpe’s assistant had a collection of Whitlams albums. “I was certainly familiar with the music. I was thrilled to meet him because I admired his work so much. I like his tunes, his melodies are wonderful. I tend to be a melodist myself. And I especially like the fact that you can hear the words and the words are so good, too.”

“I was just surprised that this name from my past education was at the APRA Awards,” says Freedman of his own impressions. “So I was thrilled to meet Peter.”

What began as a cheerful drinking companionship inevitably turned into a mutually inspiring working partnership. “Some of the Whitlams’ songs have attempted and sometimes managed to display an Australian flavour,” Freedman says. “And Peter had been doing the same thing in a completely different world and so when he said he would be open to a collaboration I just thought it could be serendipitous because we both try to do the same thing in different ways. I think we first started thinking about it seriously when Peter had to do a piece of music about the ocean for that Sun painting down in Canberra. So he rang me and said, ‘Do you have any words?’

It was for the John Olsen painting “Sydney Sun” and Sculthorpe had been asked to write a piece about it for the National Gallery’s 19th birthday. “I thought it would be good if I could do a laid-back poppy piece combined with my own kind of music for that,” relates Sculthorpe. “And that’s where our collaboration began, with a real object.”

“I was half way through writing this tune about getting back into the water,” says Freedman, who has arrived at this interview straight from a day’s surfing. “So I brought it over and said, ‘This is what I’ve got at the moment, which fits your purpose.’ And I left it with Peter. And he went to town. He wrote a beautiful introduction and then he wrote about four movements in the middle of the song, which are very sultry and different for Peter, in fact. And so that’s where that came from, a sort of commission he had.”

“But as it happened, I had so much other work on I couldn’t finish the piece for the Gallery, so they played something else instead,” Sculthorpe admits.

“But then he finished it for the album,” says Freedman, speaking of The Whitlams’ Torch The Moon. The song in question was “Out the Back.”

“I based my harmonies on Tim’s harmonies in order to give it some kind of connection,” Sculthorpe explains. “Tim’s first harmonic progression is from a C major chord to a B flat 7 chord. And ‘Out The Back’ oscillates a lot between those, so so does my piece. Otherwise I didn’t try to relate too much to Tim’s piece. But Tim’s piece is in there.”

The result is not so much two separate works glued together – even though Sculthorpe and Freedman describe it that way – but one seamless piece that carries the listener through a series of moods. Ironically, Freedman says he was trying to decrease the use of strings when he was writing for Torch the Moon. “I was actually on this album trying to make it a bit simpler, just the four-piece band. But that particular song was suited to the dreamy strings that he could have written so well, so there are lush moments in an otherwise bit broader record, I think.”

“Ease of the Midnight Visit,” was instantly Sculthorpe’s favourite, so when the opportunity came up to write orchestrations for two of Freedman’s songs for the ACO tour, that was an obvious choice after “Out the Back.” While their work together is actually done separately – Sculthorpe taking Freedman’s finished song and embellishing it – there is plenty of dialogue and feedback. Sculthorpe, for instance, was discussing his intention to have the first third of “Ease of the Midnight Visit” as a duet for ACO artistic director and lead violinist Richard Tognetti, and Freedman has some thoughts about what he wanted to follow.

“I asked for some buttressing in the chorus. I always imagined there would be a slight swell in the chorus. So I respectfully asked Peter if he could do a bit more work.”

“I’m really pleased about what Tim said,” Sculthorpe responds. “I think I can really do something beautiful there, because it’s such a lovely chord.”

Beyond exchanging ideas for the work in hand, Sculthorpe and Freedman have not talked together about their individual writing methods. “I think what it is, is that you look up from the piano and you put your pencil in your mouth,” says Freedman. “You can’t really dissect that. You just imagine the sounds. Peter has such a magnificent ear that he probably thinks – like a good chess player –12 moves ahead. Peter is probably thinking eight bars ahead, whereas I go two beats at a time. I go that far and then I try and put another brick on the melody.”

So will the two work on a larger project together? An album of collaborations a la Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, perhaps?

“We haven’t got any plans at the moment but I’d love to develop my ear and my writing for the knowledge that Peter has and do some stuff in the future,” says Freedman. “I don’t see us doing a whole album – I’d have to move in for a year.”

Sculthorpe recoils. “Oh my god, I’m moving out.”

Freedman suggests a project in reverse could be stimulating – if he were to take one of Sculthorpe’s completed pieces and do something with it. He suggests “Djilile,” which he heard performed last December in Canberra when Sculthorpe gave his extensive archive of papers to the National Library.

“‘Djilile’ arranged for percussion. I think you could easily do something with that,” the elder composer says approvingly.

Sculthorpe is happy to acknowledge some tangible effect of his experience of working with Freedman. “I had to write a piece for obo and piano for the Cheltenham Festival last year. And that was very influenced in style by ‘Out the Back.’ Harmonically, melodically and so on. It’s just a very relaxed piece. There’s one part in the middle called ‘At Circular Quay’ where we begin with the sounds at night in Circular Quay and then an aria starts drifting across the water from the Opera House. Well, I don’t think I would ever have written a piece like that if it hadn’t been for Tim or just working with Tim.”

Freedman beams. “It makes me feel glad that we’ve been able to bump each other sideways and move along different tangents than we may otherwise.”

So what of Sculthorpe’s effect on the rock songwriter? “Peter’s total spectrum is much broader than mine so I just try and digest these strange dissonant sounds. Because Peter’s not trying to make things palatable to a mainstream audience he merely answers to his own aesthetic. And that makes for very interesting tonal flavour and colours which I need to develop so that my writing keeps interesting me.”

Sculthorpe then looks at his young friend just a little sheepishly. “I don’t plan to be unfaithful to you, Tim, but at the last APRA Awards Bruce Rowland and I were carrying on that we’re going to collaborate with some country music.”

Look out Kasey Chambers.

Photo by Tony Mott


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