Felix Werder and the Accidental Australian Adventure
— Warren Burt
The German-born Australian composer Felix Werder was born in Berlin in 1922. His father was Boaz Bischofswerder, one of the leading cantors and Jewish liturgical composers in Berlin, and a member of Schoenberg's circle. When Felix was 8 years old, he started copying his father's scores, and considerable musical experience ensued. All this came to an end in 1934, when the family emigrated to England to escape the Nazis. For 6 years, they lived in England, and Felix began to study music, fine arts and architecture in a series of English institutions. At the outbreak of World War II, the family, along with almost all the other German-Jewish refugees in England, were declared enemy aliens, and offered a chance to emigrate to Canada, where they would work for the war effort. For some reason, the ship, the Dunera, headed for Australia instead, where Felix and his father, and 2000 other German-Jewish refugees were placed in internment camps, and held prisoner for the rest of the war. (It is regrettable to state that Australia's draconian migration and internment laws are still in effect today.) In the camps, in defiance of their captors, they began a musical life. Felix and his father were in demand to supply music for a wide variety of occasions. It was under these circumstances that he wrote his first Symphony, in 1943. On his release from the prison camp, he worked for a while as a jazz bassist in Sydney, before moving to Melbourne and beginning his musical career. In the 1950s, along with fellow composers Margaret Sutherland, Dorian Le Gallienne, and later, Keith Humble, they formed the core of Melbourne's small, but active new music scene. From 1955, Felix taught music and art history at the Melbourne Council of Adult Education, as well as privately teaching many generations of Australian composers, and he was music critic for The Age newspaper from 1960 until 1977. He became involved with radio in the mid 1970s, producing new music programs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1970s, and community radio in the 1980s and early 1990s. For 20 years, his performance group, Australia Felix, gave concerts of new Australian music both in Australia and in Europe. His 1969 opera for TV, "Private", broke new ground in Australia in the broadcasting and presentation of music theatre on television. Possessed of an omnivorous musical curiosity, over the course of his career, he has explored many of the issues of concern in contemporary music, from serialism and aleatoric techniques, through opera, improvisation, graphic notation and electronics, always through the lens of his intense expressionist aesthetic. He has also written several books of essays on music in which his incisive and questioning mind is revealed, including 1991's "More than Music", which bears the motto, "To understand a work of art we must ask who paid for it." Today in Melbourne, he is still composing, and teaching privately.
Although he was acquainted with developments in electronic music overseas from the mid 50s, such as Gottfried Michael Koenig's work in the Koln studio, he was introduced to the use of electronics in the late 1960s by his friend Bruce Clarke, whose Jingle Workshop was the first commercial electronic music studio in Australia. He shortly thereafter acquired an EMS VCS3 analog synthesizer, and incorporated electronics into his performances. His group gave some of the earliest live electronic performances in Australia, two of which, "Banker" and "Oscussion", are recorded on this CD. In 1974, he worked with the EMS Synthi 100, a large digitally controlled analog synthesizer in the studio at the University of Melbourne, where he produced his electronic masterpiece, "The Tempest - After Giorgione's "Tempesta". By the late 1970s, however, he had largely stopped working with electronics, as he devoted himself more and more to composing chamber works for his ensemble (and others) to perform. A long series of chamber, orchestral, and music theatre works occupied him throughout the 1970s and 80s. In the early 90s, with my urging, and assistance, he made one foray into the world of computer music, with the contrapuntal fantasy "V/ Line." And although he has, on a number of occasions, regretted not continuing with his electronic work - "Selling my VCS3 was one of the worst mistakes I ever made", he once said to me - he has not returned to the medium since then. His electronic work, then, forms a small but unique part of his output. His command of timbral composition in "The Tempest" is quite striking, and sections of "Banker", with its electronically distorted instruments, strike one as almost prescient foreshadowings of the improvisation with electronics work that occurred in New York and Europe in the late 1980s. And although "V-Line" explores quite different musical territory - the use of instrumental sampling and "unnatural" tempi - it, too, has its moments of timbral interest and wry humor.
"Banker," "Oscussion" and "The Tempest" were all released on LP records in the early 1970s, by Felix's friend, the Melbourne publisher Greg Young. Unfortunately the master tapes of these pieces were all lost in the ensuing years. And the pressing of "Banker", unfortunately, was substandard. However, with considerable work (over 100 hours) on my part, the works were able to be recovered from their LP recordings. In the case of "Banker", a degree of surface noise, and pressing distortion remain. This is also true, but to a much, lesser extent, with "Oscussion" and "The Tempest". The listener's indulgence is therefore requested if at times the sound quality is less than contemporary standards dictate. The quality of the works themselves will, hopefully, shine through, regardless of whatever technical flaws remain.
Werder is a very literate composer, and his works frequently refer to historical, literary and artistic models. His conversation is peppered with references to classical and contemporary philosophy and art, and he frequently demands of his friends and audiences a similar level of engagement. "Banker" is a piece of political music-theatre from the early 1970s, where the individual instruments serve as symbols for the political archetypes in Aeschylus' "Agamemnon." This is a play Werder would return to again, in his opera "Agamemnon", performed in 1977. Werder's original liner notes to the LP edition of "Banker", which featured a cover painting by his Australian Marxist artist friend Noel Counihan, read:
"Banker" is a music theatre based on the opera "Agamemnon" after Aeschylus. The title is taken from a passage in the play in which the poet talks of the futility of war. "And angry hate prevails, they send forth men to battle and what now returns. Their vacant armour and a little dust in urns. For war's a banker, flesh his coinage." The plotting of the events in this work is fairly obvious. The two synthesizers, combining four patched musical events (programmed on the synthesizer as sound sources) are treated structurally yet allow much room for improvisational impulse and angry aleatoric passages. For dynamic balance and tonal mixing, the information from the protagonist instruments - guitar, piano and percussion - is fed back through Synthesizer 1 to produce blurred outlines and indolent movement. Synthesizer 1 - Patch 1 operates a deep gong quality which breaks up into menacing chord or drum rolls as well as in the third event explosive noises by use of sequencer and keyboard. Synthesizer 2, using three patches, creates a sense of polyphony, both isolated and mixed, of dynamics and distance which characterizes this music. In the final phase there is merging of block sounds and the loss of patterns as the gong patch virtually swallows all.
The classical instruments are symbolic of humanism which is eventually destroyed by the machine at the service of war. It is sound elaboration consistent with the music of today. The keyboard instrument is treated pretentionless favouring the legitimate expectance of the worldly ear in the prescribed glamour style, but as the plot thickens, the aesthetically decorative with its cinematographic memories is driven out by the music drama. On the whole, the various sound sources are used as plastic material and the events take place in an open form.
1. Synthesizer 1 introduces the menacing song of war.
2. Synthesizer 2 brings in the structural harp (produced by feeding the information of patch 1 through a random generator) on which is built the authority of Cassandra's primeval song.
3. The gong merges imperceptibly into the total sound complex.
4. The humanism and the symbolic strutting of men on the classical instruments still dominates the sound events.
5. A Bridge to a more dancelike, Brechtian event as Synthesizer 2 changes to a merry measure.
6. The futile struggle of men's vain glory to maintain itself against the realities of life.
7. Synthesizer 1 takes over swallowing all in outbursts of white noise, while Synthesizer 2 changes to the inane laughter of the Gods who, as Neitzsche has it, die laughing.
8. In the end, only Synthesizer 1 remains with its gong stroke and even that chokes on itself.
Note: It must be stated that the synthesizers are used as performance instruments and should not be confused with the more frequent practice of using synthesizers in a studio where repeated dubbing builds up a performance of layered sound.
Felix once told me that his work with electronics had changed the way he thought about instrumental music. This was especially true in his understanding of timbre. This is most clearly revealed in "The Tempest - After Giorgione's "Tempesta". This is a long analog piece in which Felix uses the Synthi 100 to make electronic timbres that instruments are incapable of making. This is most clearly revealed in the upper parts of the sound. Acoustic instruments have most of their energy in the lower parts of the sound. In the sounds he made for "The Tempest", Felix puts most of the energy, and activity, into the upper parts of the sound. This makes very brilliant sounds with an edge and an inner life. These are then arranged in a very spacious manner. As much at home in the visual arts as in music (he is also a painter, and has lectured for many years on art history), his use of Giorgione's curious allegorical painting as a visual model for a sound structure is no surprise here. What is surprising is how effective the model is, and how the work, for me at least, sustains its duration magnificently. "The Tempest" can stand comparison with any of the other analog works made at this time, not only in Australia, but internationally as well. In this work, Felix showed his understanding of the implications and intrinsic possiblities of the electronic medium. Which is not to say that the work is totally abstract. An echo of jazz bass lines, for example, can be heard in some of the "walking bass" sequences in the work, but for the most part, the work is refreshingly abstract and austere. This work with analog electronics is the work that Felix said he most wanted to continue. For a variety of reasons, he didn't, and the "The Tempest" stands as his solitary example of a work for pure electronics.
Felix's music often comes in waves of activity - thick, active gestures followed by sparse, slow stretches. This is especially true of "Oscussion" a live performance work for 2 synthesizers and percussion from 1973. In this work, the synthesizers perform a series of wonderful high frequency pulses and striking hits against the lively gestures of the Australian Percussion Ensemble. Delicious moments abound in this work, such as the duet with sustained chords in one synthesizer against almost droll "wah-wah"-ing melodies in the other, that happens about 9 minutes into the work. And at the end, I hear electronic references to the sounds of the lyrebird and the whipbird, common inhabitants in the forests around Melbourne. This may be merely fortuitous, but given that Werder's co-sythesizer player, composer Peter Mumme, is known for his high-quality wildlife recordings, and given that many of Werder's works have sly quotes and references hidden in them, I think my perception may have some substance to it.
The final work on this CD, "V-Line" comes from a very different era, where Felix's concerns were very different. In 1992, I showed Felix a computer sequencing program, and played for him some examples of contemporary sampled instrument playing synthesizers, such as the Emu Proteus. I asked him what, if he wanted to, he would do with this new technology. The result was a 5 part contrapuntal score with thousands of notes in it. Programming this score took me several weeks of work. Some of the score could just as easily have been played by traditional acoustic instruments, but other parts, with their noise, ring- modulated tones, and humanly impossible tempi, could only exist in the computer medium. Like his other music, "V-Line" is multlayered, with events coming in waves of activity and repose. But the overall sound world is very different. Hearing this difference, in contrast with the other works on this CD, Felix good-naturedly accused me of leading him astray, into a musical world which is in some ways more conservative than the world inhabited by his electronic works from the 1970s. "V-Line" not only refers to the 5 contrapuntal lines of the score, it was also, at that time, the name of the Victorian State Railways, and onomatopoeic references to train sounds occur throughout the piece. These references are much more overt and humorous than the usual references in Felix's music, and have given me many smiles ever since I first heard them in 1992. "V-Line" was previously issued on the CD "Machine Messages" from the Australasian Computer Music Association. The original notes from that CD read:
Discussions of technique and dubious metaphysics belong in tutorial rooms, or the local pubs, and certainly have played no part in my compositions since my nappy days. Of course form and structure are there but they come not as something wilful, but as the product of years of emanations produced by a guilt complex, the product of harmocide. Music is contrapuntal, the instruments of execution are irrelevant. V-line is, as the name implies, a five line composition, separate and yet interrelated. It may be played by any instrumentation to present an informal sonorous object. In this case the computer is simply another instrument with its will enslaved, and realized by my good friend Warren Burt, with assistance from Graeme Gerrard.
As musically remarkable as his work is, what is also remarkable is the social context in which this work occurred. Although continuously admired and respected by a small circle of friends, for most of his career, the Australian public's relationship with Werder has been, at best, oppositional (and usually worse), and he, in true fashion, has returned the compliment. The waves of destructive and negative criticism directed at Werder throughout his career is astounding. Even (or especially) among members of the music profession, he has had to endure continuous charges of charlatanism and incompetence levelled against him. It is almost as if the anti-immigrant attitudes he encountered in the 1940s lingered on for decades in the form of engrained negative cultural attitudes. To this abuse he has often responded with vitriol and sarcasm, a behaviour completely at odds with the prevailing polite blandness of Anglo-Australian social relations. (He once told the head of a federal arts funding body that he was dedicating a work to her because works of art remained, while the work of administrators was quickly forgotten, and the only way she would ever live on in history is if a composer dedicated a work to her!) Today, in his 80s, he is bemused by all the honours flowing to him, often given by the very people who were so scathingly critical in earlier times. Bemused, but not fooled, as he continues to produce musical and literary works that are marked by his incisive, probing and critical mind. l
for Synthesizers, Percussion, Guitar and Piano
Synthesizers: Felix Werder and Keith Humble; Percussion, John Seal; Guitar, Jochen Schubert; Piano, Dennis Henning; Technical Realization: Peter Mumme
From LP Felix Werder's Banker, Discovery Stereo GYS 001 (Greg Young Production)
The Tempest after Giorgione's "Tempesta" (1974)
Realised by the composer on equipment at Melbourne University Conservatorium of Music.
From LP Music by Felix Werder, Volume 2, Mopoke GYS 002 (Greg Young Production)
A concert recording of a performance given at the Great Hall, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, March 1973. Synthesizers: Felix Werder and Peter Mumme; Australian Percussion Ensemble, Leader, John Seal.
From LP Music by Felix Werder, Volume 2
for computer. Technical realization, Warren Burt.
From CD Machine Messages, ACMA Vol 1, 1992.
Digitally cleaned up from LP masters, August 2005, by Warren Burt.
Mastered by Tom Hamilton
CD design by Matt Schickele
Cover painting: “Boy In Helmet No. 7” Noel Counihan, 1967