Self and Sound: The Music of Phillip Wilcher

Artwork By Jessica MacGregor

Phillip Wilcher is one of Australia’s most industrious composers. His music, which includes over 100 works for solo piano, 60 songs, string quartets and solo pieces for flute, oboe and other instruments, draws on an eclectic range of cultures, images and emotions. It has the ability not only to transport the listener to places as diverse as, in pianist Jeanell Carrigan’s words: “a café in Paris or the top of mountain in Java,” but also, Wilcher hopes, to transcend such temporalities and “speak directly to one’s condition.” Amongst the variety, however, is a sense of unity – “the journey of a life seeking to know itself,” as Wilcher puts it.

Musically, Wilcher’s influences are similarly expansive and the impact of classical composers, particularly J.S. Bach, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, is apparent. Even though Wilcher’s work is notable for its exploration of the East, through his utilisation of Japanese scales in Haiga, Arabic in The Walls of Ukhaydir, and Egyptian in Ushabti, there is never a sense of Wilcher compromising his own musical language. Imposing such strict rules on a composition from the outset might be construed as limiting, such as the Kumoi scale of the Kumoi Prelude comprising only five tones, Wilcher embraces this – “know your limitations and you can fly anywhere .”

One senses that he is employing these musical tools to facilitate his final aim – to know himself – which solidifies Wilcher as a true individualist. “Everything felt second nature,” he said of the exercise. He also questions any notion of conformity to trends or labels – to do so “denies composers their truer sense of self by way of sound.” Consequently, there is an aspect of Wilcher’s music that is free flowing and self-evident.

Wilcher’s journey began at just 14, when he became the youngest published composer in Australia. The piano composition, fittingly titled Daybreak, was printed by J. Albert & Son in 1973. Wilcher went on to study with the then-editor of the company, Franz Holford. He describes this meeting as one of the most important of his career, as it precipitated a professional association that would span seven years. What advice would Wilcher give to his younger self, or to any fledgling artists? “To seek their own truth.” This pursuit is clearly weaved into much of Wilcher’s works – the textures are highly refined, almost barely perceptible, as The Likeness of Wind, or weightless, as A Storm of Petals. Such economy says much of Wilcher and his individuality, which is marked by an absorption with music’s core elements. “But for melody, where would music be?” he asks.

Curiously, another predominant feature of Wilcher’s oeuvre is his use of silence. In Wilcher’s music, as much can be conveyed in the absence of sound as in sound . The prolonged span of silence in his piece Cobwebs is more meditative and musing than, for instance, in Arabia, where the silence is agitated and restless. “I am a composer who prefers silence over sound.” says Wilcher. As much is evident – his music is unified by its transparency, forming a window into Wilcher, the man.

His piano solo, Continual Dew, clocking in at just a minute and thirty seconds, is a fine representation of his skill in shaping sound and capacity to hone his craft, save for its vital elements. This leaves behind a clarity to his message, where the listener can linger over every note. It is music in its purest form, where nothing needs to be disguised and each individual work houses a fully realised, complete world. Wilcher said of Continual Dew, “If a composer can say in a little under a page what Beethoven or Mahler said in an entire symphony, who is to say who has written the large-scale work?” That is not to say, however, that Wilcher’s music is confined to form or structure in any way. More sprawling works include layered piano suites, with such evocative titles as The Sphinx and the Sycamore or The Seven Etchings of Eos and two exciting Rhapsody Sonatas, which were distinguished in the Australian Music Teacher Magazine as an example of “Lisztian grandeur reborn.”

So , with such an immersive and encompassing body of work behind him, what is the magic that Wilcher finds in music? The act of creation itself – when the music unfolds itself to him. “Electric” is how he describes that flash. “You are so alive. In that moment, genius happens to you.” What about the relationship between composer and performer? Wilcher cites the example of Café Bijou. Initially, Wilcher was unconvinced, but on hearing pianist Jeanell Carrigan’s realisation of it, he was captivated. “I love that performers can give of themselves to a work in such a way to make it their own; that they can even reveal something of myself to me I had not previously known; a measure that proves as much part of them as it is of me; that we are of each other.”

The process of composition is also revealing to Wilcher. “Much of the music I have written seems to have come about through trying to write something else.” he acknowledges. The original idea is a springboard, which followed by a period of development and refinement, “way leading on to way,” as Wilcher suggests. What is the greatest challenge Wilcher finds in this process? “Finishing.” he responds. “Once I’ve started a piece and I am immersed in it, my senses are so heightened I do not want to let go of it. Even though I know I could well finish a piece within an hour, I will hold off on doing so for several weeks just to live “in the moment” of it.” This is characteristic of Wilcher – stillness pervades his music, the feeling of being “in the moment” describes this very well. Here is another point that singles out Wilcher as a unique force and distinguishes his work from the ‘goal directed’ music of the past. Wilcher’s music is spacious, vast as well as insular; it is a celebration of the present, of the oneness of being – in this sense it possesses a universal truth.

In recent times, Wilcher has turned his attention towards the written word . Has this change been jarring? Not so, says Wilcher: “Music and words are inextricably linked. Where once I turned to music to compose who I was becoming, I now turn to words to write of who I am. I treat words as I do music. They have a rhythm and a texture. Composers write; writers compose.” No publication bridges this gap more instinctively than The Poetry of the Preludes, in which Wilcher interprets the preludes of Frédéric Chopin through poetry. Other works include Divinity: A dialogue between the self and music at the source and a unique autobiography, Thinking Allowed, framed in terms of a “life in conversation with itself”. Wilcher’s words are as his music, thoughtful but never contrived, sensitive but never overwrought, introspective but never narrow. There is one difference Wilcher recognises, though: “It is quieter composing words than it is writing music.”

What does Wilcher hope listeners can glean from his work? “More than anything, I hope my ‘body’ of work – for better or worse – conveys my humanity; that my belief in Love, being the first act of creation means we are here to create through Love, is evident.” he replies. Whether Wilcher is composing a series of concert études for pianist Simon Tedeschi, or a work for oboe and string orchestra honouring Mozart’s death, his core belief sets his music apart from simply being considered part of the repertoire. His deeply personal journey constitutes, in itself, a vital gift to the world of music. Wilcher’s response to this concept is perhaps the most accurate representation of him: “There is no one more surprised than I that my music has received the reception it has; that performers have been so willing to put their name to my work and afford it some further credibility; the credibility of their belief in it. Needless to say, I am honoured and humbled by the attention my music has been given. But then, what has anyone’s art taught them if not about humility, where to create is to enter an arena larger than self ? When “in the moment”, one is also at the mercy of moment. That is humbling.”

A full catalogue of Phillip Wilcher’s work can be obtained from the Australian Music Centre’s website and can be found in print or sound recording through Wirripang .


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