Visionary support—Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside is renowned as a passionate human rights and refugee advocate. Equally he is a passionate supporter of the arts, and much loved member of the Musica Viva family.

Visionary support—Julian Burnside


Julian has commissioned works over more than a decade by some of Australia’s best loved and new composers—Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards, Matthew Hindson, Ian Munro and Gordon Kerry. Yet he doesn’t play an instrument himself.

This year his long-term support for contemporary creativity brings to life two new commissions, the first a piano trioThe Village by Carl Vine, commissioned to commemorate Carl’s sixtieth birthday being premiered by the Sitkovetsky Trio in February and March 2014; the second a string quartet by up and coming Adelaide-based composer Kat McGuffie, being premiered by the Goldner Quartet at the Melbourne Coffee Concert in October.

Musica Viva has interviewed Julian, recently publishing the following conversation.

What inspires you to commission?
‘We inherit a vast treasure trove of music from the past. We owe it to posterity to add something. Being a composer looks to me like a pretty difficult way to make a living (perhaps it always has been). Having hung around with artists of various sorts for a very long time, I know they mostly have a hard time making ends meet: but they enrich us enormously by what they do. It seems only decent to show some gratitude for what they do.’

Why commission through Musica Viva?
‘You know it will get played in a significant number of concerts around Australia. It must be a very dispiriting thing for a composer to write a piece and hear it played only once, or perhaps not at all.’

What do you feel when you hear one of your commissions performed for the first time?
Curiosity to see what has been created, and quiet satisfaction that I had some small part in its creation.’

What input do you have in the process?
When I am commissioning through Musica Viva, I take their advice about who to commission (although I often get approached by composers directly). Occasionally I have been asked by an ensemble to commission something by a particular composer. I generally suggest that the work be chamber music (I don't think I can afford to commission a symphony or an oratorio), although I have commissioned a couple of concertos. Beyond that, I have no input at all, and would not seek it: I do not imagine a composer would gain much from my aesthetic insights!’

Aside from the end product of a new work, is there a greater vision for your commissions?
‘Not really: I just want to see creative artists encouraged and supported. What they do is far more valuable than anything I do.'

We know that contemporary music can be challenging to listen to initially, how do you prepare for your first listening experience?

'I find contemporary music very challenging, and I am pretty sure I do not understand it. I just sit back and let it happen, in the hope that I will a) enjoy it and b) learn something.’

What is the relevance of contemporary music in today's society?

‘All music was contemporary when it was written. The relevance of contemporary music (and contemporary art generally) may not be appreciated until much later. One other thing: I think it is a mistake to try to pick winners. Commission people whose music you enjoy. It may turn out to be the next Shostakovich 8th quartet, or it may sink into obscurity. It should not matter (at least, not to the person commissioning). Following a current trend is probably a mistake.’


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