Timothy Kain An Interview
Interview by Australian Guitar Journal
“On a realistic level one has to stress the importance of making music as an everyday thing and the importance of it to a community.”
AGJ: Can you give our readers a brief sketch of your career, Tim?
T.K: I first got a guitar when I was eleven years old. I, like so many other guitarists, started with pop music, learned it mainly of records, and quite a bit from my older brother who already played. Then I moved on to playing flamenco when I was fifteen.
AGJ: That was with Lindsay Churchland?
T.K: Yes that was with Lindsay, he was a great influence on me at the time and also a terrific guitar maker. And then a couple of years after that I started lessons with Sadie Bishop at the Canberra School of Music and subsequently did the four-year diploma course. That was a very comprehensive course coving all aspects of music with a strong accent on performance. Looking back over the years, Sadie was probably the biggest single influence on me. Her continual encouragement, belief in my ability and her unshakable belief in the importance of the guitar as an instrument and the role of each of us in establishing and promoting it are all things which have sustained me to the present day. Following graduation I had a year here in Australia performing and doing various related things. I got an Australia Council Scholarship and then went to Spain and studied with Jose Tomas for over two years. Whilst there I won the international competition which was held in Alicante and then moved on to England.
AGJ: What do you think was the best feature of life in Alicante at that time, especially for guitarists?
T.K: One of the main things apart from the big influence of Tomas who I must say was not as accessible as I might have liked in terms of regularity of lessons, but there were some benefits to that in that one was thrown back on one’s own resources and had to do a lot of thinking, reading and listening. The students exchanged ideas with each other a lot and occasionally organized concerts in which they would all come along and play to each other.
AGJ: Did the students themselves organize these concerts?
T.K: Yes. And there were students from all around the world, so they moved in and out fairly regularly. It was really quite a stimulating environment in many ways.
AGJ: And after you had been in Spain for that time where did you go then?
T.K: Then I moved on to England to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where Gordon Crosskey was the teacher and John Williams was at the time and for many years after, the visiting tutor there. I had heard a lot about Manchester from guitarists coming to Alicante and read about it before I had left Australia and was very keen to be influenced by the British way of playing which seemed to me to be very different from the Spanish approach.
AGJ: You did very well at the Royal Northern College didn’t you?
T.K: Yes, I have to say I did land a scholarship at the end of my first year there and was able to have a second year and passed with all the honours as one of the top students of the place and won the Bach prize for the time that I was there.
AGJ: What exactly was that?
T.K: The prize award for outstanding interpretation of the works of Bach, but that happened quite incidentally really. It wasn’t a sit down competition where you play a piece, I play a piece, that sort of thing.
AGJ: Were there other benefits to living in Manchester that you could tell us about?
T.K: Well, musically speaking it is probably the second most active city in the United Kingdom after London. The Royal Northern College has a reputation for being the College in England so it was enormously stimulating. There was opera and all sorts of concerts, the Halle are there, no end of things to go to, plus it is a big centre for guitar players from all around the world. One of my students Carolyn Kidd who won the Australian guitar competition a couple of years ago and was given a very hefty sum by the Churchill Trust, went to Manchester to further her studies and is enjoying it very much. No doubt I will have others in the future who will go.
AGJ: When you finished in Manchester you came straight back here didn’t you?
T.K: Well eventually, yes after two years at the college, I freelanced in England and did numerous tours outside of England.
AGJ: Where did you go?
T.K: Well, United States, Canada, back to Australia a couple of times, a trip to Italy and various other places like that. Used to go to Ireland quite a lot too. And actually I had thoughts about moving to the U.S. I was looking for a position exactly like I have in Canberra. In a way I was channeled into what you would almost call a fully-fledged performing career. I got fantastic experience as a soloist virtually all the time I was in Manchester. Then eventually a position became vacant in Australia. Canberra School of Music is the top institution in Australia and its reputation has really grown in recent years. It’s quite a fantastic place to work, with the highest possible standards and the best place obviously in the country for a performer to be. The staff is encouraged very much to get out and play.
I’m happy to say that the guitar is very much valued as one of the strong areas in the School. Sadie Bishop started a strong tradition here which has grown over the past seven years to the point where our two present post graduate students, Peter Constant and Richard Strasser, are both already very highly accomplished players at the professional level. They were first and second prize winners in the 1988 Australian Guitar Competition. Sadie is still doing quite a bit of teaching here in the guitar department, as is Fiona Walsh. Fiona has been getting consistently exceptional results teaching very small children so the future looks good here. She is also one of the main driving forces behind the Canberra Guitar Ensemble.
AGJ: Can you tell us a bit about the different sorts of groups you have been performing with?
T.K: Well, the two main groups that I have played with most regularly for the past three or four years are the Austral Trio and the Canberra Guitar Ensemble. The Austral Trio is flautist Virginia Taylor and violinist Miwako Abe and it’s a group which has been tremendously successful, very popular with the public I think partly because of the freshness of the sound – the instrumental combination. The Canberra Guitar Ensemble was formed in 1986 as a result of an idea put forward by Canberra luthier Graham Caldersmith. For a long time, he has had the idea that the guitar should be branching out into a family rather like the string family did four to five hundred years ago. So we put in a joint application to the Australia Council under Innovative Projects to have different size guitars made and were successful. Graham then went ahead and made a treble and bass guitar. He had in fact already made a baritone some years earlier. The treble sounds a fourth above the standard, the baritone a fifth below and the bass is a whole octave below the standard guitar. I should mention that the Australia Council have given tremendous support to the whole project, providing funds for the making of two generations of instruments and the commissioning of new works. They see the whole concept as a major new development.
AGJ: Do you see this as a future trend in guitar playing in Australia? What do you see as the future of the guitar in Australia from your present vantage point?
T.K: Well, that is a very good question. I don’t like to make too many hard and fast predictions about the future, but from where I am now, this guitar ensemble idea looks to me to be a very big part of the guitar’s future. It is quite important, maybe even crucial that it does develop and become established and respected. Not least of all because of the large number of graduates over the years that are coming out of music institutions all around the world. A very small percentage of those are going to be soloists. The ensemble of different sized guitars could provide an important and musically satisfying career option, and I hope a big part of the future for the guitar. The guitar family opens up an enormous range of possibilities. The increased pitch range alone makes many more works accessible for arrangement. The whole string quartet repertoire for instance, is at least in theory, open to performance on guitars. There is also an increased colour and dynamic range with the four different guitars. The ensemble is highly integrated yet each instrument has an individual voice.
AGJ: You have also had some music that has been especially commissioned for you?
T.K: This is the other really exciting facet that is also a whole new area.
AGJ: Who has been writing works for the guitar ensemble?
T.K: Well we have so far commissioned two new works that are not completed yet. One is from Nigel Westlake and the other is from Larry Sitsky and these are two of Australia’s very best composers. Graeme Koehne, the Adelaide composer, who is also an absolutely first rate composer by anybody’s standards, has sent us a piece he wrote for a string quartet just last year. It is a one-movement work, a kind of homage to Bach, a very beautiful piece of music, and he has re-dedicated it to our ensemble and we performed that recently. It’s a piece in Bach style, and it went absolutely beautifully on two treble guitars, one standard and one baritone which is incidentally exactly equivalent to the string quartet set up of two violins, viola and cello.
AGJ: Do you see that there is some sort of trend developing away from the atonal music that people tend to turn off?
T.K: Yes, but that trend hardly needs any comment from me. It has been happening quite a long time now and is recognised by all musicians.
AGJ: Is there any explanation that you can give for that?
T.K: The bulk of the population simply does not like very dissonant or complex music. It tends to be a barrier to communication, and there is a big accent now on communication at as wide a level as possible. But I think there are possibly more sinister reasons why music in one sense has stopped developing. We are increasingly feeling as performing musicians and I am sure composers are under the same pressure, that we need to entertain. The concept of music as art is lessening and weakening over the years and this seems to fit in with a tendency toward superficiality in all sorts of areas in our society. You can still have good music that everybody likes but I’m not totally without suspicions about the correct developments of ultra melodic music, as much as I like tonal music and good melodies. I’m not totally in tune with the pressures that are making composers feel they have to write this sort of accessible music.
AGJ: You can see advantages, disadvantages and drawbacks?
T.K: Yes, I can very much.
AGJ: You mentioned the Graeme Koehne piece and talked about new music which was inspired by Bach. Have you found many recent developments in baroque interpretations? Are you still interested in that Because I know you were at one particular stage in your career?
T.K: Yes in a sense that one plays baroque music and Bach But I suppose I have stopped delving and reading as much as I did. At a certain point I found that there was so much argument going on that I became confused rather than enlightened by all the opposing opinions. Ultimately it’s the music that yields the answers that guide the interpretation, though I do think that one should certainly listen to the very best baroque performers today. The specialists have a lot to teach us but at the same time you still ultimately come back to yourself and the music. As to how you interpret it you need to be informed but interpretation still comes from a basic human impulse, a good musical intuition as well as understanding, I found beyond a certain point for me personally knowing the three or four different opinions that leading musicologists might have about French overtures and articulations in fast movements stopped being helpful at a particular point.
AGJ: Some of the students that you have done extremely well. A couple of them are doing post graduate studies with you and will be going overseas shortly. What do you see as the future of these young people when they return to Australia?
T.K: The future of these young players who are leaving now, and the future of the guitar in general, are very much related. It is a difficult one because the very good young players are really excellent and when they return to the country they need openings. They need to be able to find some full time employment with the guitar and as we know that usually means teaching, but the openings are most likely not going to be there. It’s not for me to comment on the level of individual teaching around thew country but it would be fair to say in some cases these young people are going to be well ahead of the level of some institutions currently on offer. So it’s a bit of shame that they are not going to reach the position of influence that their talents and achievements will merit, although who knows what the future will yield. But if the guitar is to move ahead in Australia, then the standards have to rise much more. The goals of teachers in the country have to be lifted considerably. Of course there are notable exceptions but I find travelling around, generally speaking, standards quite disappointing. So what the young players of the future would appear to be able to do if they cannot find full-time employment in our music institutions is to set up as private teachers.
AGJ: That is a very precarious existence though isn’t it?
T.K: It does not need to be precarious if one approaches it in a very business like manner. I have seen it overseas, where people organize the business side of a private teaching practice very well. I knew a harpsichordist in England who moved from one town to another and he sold his teaching practice much like one would sell a milk run or something like that.
AGJ: That is an interesting idea.
T.K: Yes, and it is certainly what more and more young musicians are going to have to do, to set up teaching privately and do it on a very serious basis, but this is not perhaps as stimulating particularly for a first class young player to do as to work in the environment of a music institution with daily contact with musicians who play other instruments, where the leading students of the country are coming for their full-time tertiary education and where they are in an environment where all aspects of music are taught, so his teaching is being supported by the other members of staff in the institution and the whole weight of the institution is behind what he does and supports him and so on. I have seen a couple of cases o really good players coming back to the country and then having to set up in the suburbs and teach the neighbor’s kids. What we are leaving out of this is the possibilities of performing in the country, teaching has to be the bread and butter and performing is extra on top of this.
AGJ: What are the options of a solo performing musician in Australia?
T.K: As a soloist they are extremely limited because of huge distances and the cost of travel, the small population and probably the most devastating, the fact that the two main music promoters in the country, the ABC and Musica Viva, do not support Australian soloists other than offering concerto performances to the best with the ABC orchestras. Musica Viva is a touring organization for chamber musicians and they do offer wonderful support to Australian players as chamber musicians and the ABC up until twelve months ago did the same but they have now cut out most of their country touring which again was the backbone of the Australian musicians performing activities. Other than orchestral musicians, those two areas don’t offer much excitement or support so that the solo performer is thrown back very much on his own devices. What it means is that you have to be very versatile in Australia as a musician. You cannot afford to put all your eggs in the soloist basket because you’ll starve if you do or at the least get bored. That forces you into something that turns out to be really quite a virtue and that is having to play together with other people in ensembles. And that has tremendous benefits. It’s a whole new challenge. You can be a really good soloist and a fairly indifferent chamber player. It’s a skill that one acquires with experience. So it’s not bad, but many young guitarists get rather besotted with the soloist ideal – I know that certainly at one point I was. Perhaps it’s necessary at a certain stage in one’s career to develop the necessary skill on the instrument and to know the solo repertoire well. But then branching out into the chamber area has all sorts of tremendous benefits as I have said. This guitar ensemble area which is forever growing opens up a whole new arena and one I have found to be very exciting.
AGJ: No doubt the guitar makers in Australia are also excited by this prospect of guitar families developing?
T.K: Well, we hope so. It is happening overseas too of course. This idea of Graham’s is slightly different in that the instruments are largely built by one maker in a rather integrated fashion, and in close collaboration with the players.
AGJ: There are other ways of construction that are worth considering to meet the demands of the ensembles?
T.K: We have actually branched out a bit from Graham to Greg Smallman. Many of us in Canberra play Smallman’s guitars and I have certainly had one for a long time. I’m on my second one in fact. We approached Greg to build us some trebles and his friend/apprentice, Eugene Philp, built two treble guitars for us with the lattice top bracing under Greg’s supervision. That has been a further development. Graham built us second generation baritone guitars. Again, these are an improvement on the previous one. He also built an excellent bass guitar, very rich and singing, a really individual instrument in its own right that also provides a strong support for the ensemble.
AGJ: That has a special name doesn’t it?
T.K: I think that one is called Wombat.
AGJ: Is it carved into the rosette?
T.K: Yes, on the bass it is. Graham has a great sense of humor; he is a bit of a cheeky character, and that was just one of his little jokes.
AGJ: Talking about the future of young musicians who are going overseas, many of them will try for guitar competitions in England, France, Italy. I know you are not a great devotee of them. Are they necessary and do they really help one’s career?
T.K: Well I think they undoubtedly help one’s career – they certainly don’t do any harm! But I do advise my students, the ones who are considered to be very good, that they must enter the competitions and go for the big ones and as many as they feel comfortable about doing. I’m quite unequivocal about that. The positive element that I see in them is that they do allow a young player a chance to begin on the concert circuit. You can be a fantastic player but that doesn’t mean anything to a manager or concert promoter. They need to know what you have done, the achievements that you can list, and winning a competition is quite a big one, so I encourage the musicians to look on the competitions very much as a means to an end. And the end is the concerts, a platform, and an audience to play to. I encourage the players to look on them as a business venture which from my point of view is really all they are. They can’t be taken seriously on a musical level or any other level. They are very much part of a system which has rapidly developed worldwide over twenty years. It has been part of the commercialization of music that we were talking about earlier. And around all this has developed what you might call a promotional rat race which no young player or any musician today can afford to stand outside of entirely. But unfortunately what can too easily happen is that people lose sight of their original ideals, the reason why they took up music, if they get too involved in the business side.
AGJ: So you feel that they need to maintain the objectivity about their attitude to getting into the big time?
T.K: Yes, I do, and realize that if they don’t become a world famous soloist, which seems the ideal that is pushed at us, that they have not in any way failed. The importance ultimately is music making for its own sake and I think that must be stressed. I am certainly trying to do that in my own teaching. It certainly at one point must be learnt and linked to the earning of an income, but fame and fortune does not have to be the ultimate goal. The competition perhaps symbolizes more than any other aspect of music, the commercially, the competitive nature of music making today. I don’t think that they are a good sign. I think that they exist and are proliferating is symptomatic of something wrong, rather like the CO2 levels in the atmosphere and these other insidious things which seem to whittle away our world. Somehow these are symptomatic of something similar happening in the music world, a type of musical pollution for want of a better world. It’s unfortunate that they have become close to being essential for a young player to participate in if he is going to establish himself in an international concert career. They also sometimes carry big prizes these days which certainly can be very helpful. Put a bit of bread on the table or buy a new instrument or whatever.
AGJ: Do you think the proliferation of the competitions means that to some extent they have lost their prestige?
T.K: There is no question about that, they might kind of turn in on themselves and be their own death anyway by that happening, by there being so many that nobody can take them seriously anymore. I know that when the Sydney Piano Competition was on last year somebody mentioned that a piano competition takes place somewhere in the world every day. Which means that every day there is a winner.
AGJ: Quite a list of piano competitions, like scalps on your belt?
T.K: Exactly, it becomes less and less meaningful to win.
AGJ: But the guitar scene is not like that yet?
T.K: No the guitar scene certainly isn’t, but it has happened to the piano and violin to a large extent. Winning one is not such a great deal, it has to be two or three or four and they have got to be the big ones. Then someone will say that this guy might be worth hearing. But we are looking at things on the international level when we talk about competitions and fully fledged performing careers. On a realistic level one has to stress the importance of making music as an everyday thing and the importance of it to a community. Players should see themselves as important parts of the society and community in which they work. This should be seen as part of their goal with their music making, that they do perform part of an enriching function and contribute very positively to the society in which they work. This is something very much to be focused on. It’s a bit like the Bachian ideal of the craftsman, the man who works within a small community who does his job for it’s own sake.
AGJ: Larry Sitsky is a person who’s very much in this craftsman mould. You have had quite a lot to do with him, haven’t you in one way or the other?
T.K: Yes, Larry has written a number of pieces me over the years. I’d say the best of these is the guitar concerto which he wrote in 1984.
AGJ: That was the one with the Armenian influence?
T.K: Much of it was based on Armenian folk melodies, a very beautiful concerto in four movements, and I first played that with the Queensland Symphony and Ronald Zollman, and later for television with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Dobbs Franks. The ABC recorded both of those concerts and it quite often comes up on the radio. It was on a few weeks ago and I know it’s scheduled again for July. They are beginning to discover that it is really is a very good piece. There have been other pieces, the solo sonata which is much more 60s style, more avant garde. He is a good example of a composer who has turned around and started to write very tonal melodic music.
AGJ: Do you see a need to support Australian composers?
T.K: Yes, very much so. I have a natural interest in Australian composition anyway. But obviously in relation to the guitar it’s of central importance that the repertoire expands, and regularly commissions new pieces, not always solo pieces. I also commission various ensemble pieces and you know, I’m doing my bit to gradually build up a body of works by Australian composers.
AGJ: Just last year you performed some pieces by Hollier didn’t you? Some rather controversial?
T.K: Yes that’s right, they were very theatrical pieces. In 1982 he wrote a set of twelve preludes in twelve different tonalities for the guitar and I’ve played those a lot over the years to all kinds of audiences and they always get a good response. They are very varied pieces and they make a good concert item, very substantial. The full book runs to thirty minutes and the same with book two which goes a step further, introducing quite a few extra musical things.
AGJ: Can you give us some examples?
T.K: Well, a bit of shouting, and foot stomping. One piece has a very strong sexual overtone and the last piece uses two guitars, one of them as a drone effect and is a very effective piece, it makes a nice culmination to the set with an increased body of sound, one guitar resonating while the other plays the real substance of the music.
AGJ: As for playing on your own, can you manage to play two guitars?
T.K: Well, yes, the other one is open strings, used as a drone. It’s placed just off to the right side of the player on the guitar stand and you reach across. It’s fairly easy to manage except at one point he really wants it to accelerate between the two guitars, but otherwise it’s quite manageable and very effective. Richard Charlton is another very interesting composer, he is Sydney based and a member of the Sydney Guitar Quartet. Rick wrote a very effective piece for me a couple of years ago, Threnody for Chernobyl, which incidentally is on the Australian Guitar Music LP.
AGJ: What was this piece inspired by?
T.K: Well, the Chernobyl disaster – Rick had the piece completed about three weeks later. Again, that has had a good audience response. Nigel Westlake, as I said, is in the process of writing the first fully original piece for guitar quartet. He is a terrific composer who does write accessible music. Really very interested in the concept of the guitar quartet, the guitar family of different sized instruments. We find that in fact most composers are very stimulated by the idea and really keen to write for it, because it is new and has so many possibilities. It’s not just the extended range that is interesting; it’s also the sense of four voices with an extended range. I guess it’s in some ways good for a composer to begin writing for guitar ensemble rather than the rather daunting prospect of the solo instrument. He gets to learn about the guitar gradually, because it’s a bit much like writing for four instruments of any kind but obviously with different problems as well, but it’s going to be very interesting to see what sort of effect this has on the composer’s imagination. We are hoping to make a compact disc at the end of the year with the Canberra Guitar Ensemble. One other thing I might mention about the ensemble is that apart from how we feel about the whole project and possibilities of the future its been extremely well received by the public and the critics wherever we have played. We have done a great deal of playing but where we have played it’s been fantastically received.
AGJ: Your first concert with the Guitar Quartet was filled to such capacity that you had to repeat the program right after the concert.
T.K: There was such a huge number of people turned away that we announced that if they came back in a hour and forty-five minutes time we would do the program again.
AGJ: That must have been tiring for you?
T.K: It was extremely tiring, but well worth it because most people did come back and we played to an almost full hall again and that interest has been maintained right through our performances. Just a couple of weeks ago the Canberra School of Music again was packed with extra seats brought in and long queues, so the interest has been maintained. The ABC have supported the idea well, we have recorded for them on a couple of occasions. Other people are certainly exploring this idea in other countries and I know that Jochen Schubert in Melbourne, has a big guitar group, the Australian Guitar Ensemble. I know that from talking to Jochen that they are not as committed to the different size guitar concept as we are but nevertheless they do use them. If we are playing a Mozart quartet for instance we use two treble standards and a baritone. We have some Grainger works that used three standards and a treble and we add the bass for one of them. We mix it around according to what we are going to play which also gives a different sound to each arrangement. So you have got big dynamic and colour possibilities and this extended range plus also a kind of freeing up of the instrument that can be approached very much for what it is and that is in many senses a melodic instrument. I am thinking of an idea that John Williams has put forward in the past the guitar is in a technical sense a melodic instrument you use two hands to make one note, so that as opposed to the piano where you use one finger and the other half of the note is completed mechanically. The guitar is like a violin or a wind instrument where both hands are tied up in making one note, therefore it’s more suited to playing melodies. Over the years it has evolved and of course is capable of playing contrapunctally and harmonically. This has become more complex and in some cases imitating the piano, making something very fiendishly difficult to play well over the course of the whole program. So the guitar ensemble kind of redresses that balance a bit. There is a certain freedom in playing for the most part single melodic lines. Now I would have thought that it was very much easier, but it has its own problems as I was saying before, as distict from solo playing.
AGJ: Fun as well?
T.K: Oh yes, tremendously enjoyable.
AGJ: More fun than playing on your own?
T.K: Well yes in a sense, but I think it is very good to be able to do both things because there is nothing like giving solo concerts. In some sense you’re able to give more totally of yourself in the interpretation when you are playing on your own and not dependant on what happens in other parts of the group, but it’s just a different sort of experience altogether, a very pleasant one I must admit.