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Canberra International Music Festival presents Roland Peelman with creative challenge

Artistic director Roland Peelman wants to give the Canberra International Music Festival his best shot.
Artistic director Roland Peelman wants to give the Canberra International Music Festival his best shot.  Photo: Graham Tidy

When Roland Peelman stepped off the plane for the first time in Australia in 1982, Sydney was sweltering through a March heatwave and there was a rubbish-collection strike. It was, to say the least, a sensory shock for Peelman and his wife, two Belgian musicians hungry for adventure and keen to put as much distance as they could between themselves and their constricted European upbringing.

Time, space and matter: it was a good time to be here, the distance they had travelled was vast and they had a sensory overload to contend with. It was, Peelman recalls now, a life-changing experience. Although their holiday lasted only four weeks, the couple emigrated to Australia not long after, with two small children in tow and a sense of endless possibility.

Now, more than three decades later, time, space and matter are still constant themes, but this year, they will be winnowed down into a coherent, 1915-themed program for Peelman's first stint at the helm of one of Canberra's most diverse and fast-growing arts events.

However, in contrast with the Anzac-heavy refrain of most events in the cultural calendar this year, the Canberra International Music Festival is focusing on another significant and world-changing event of 1915: the publication of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. World War I, in all its vivid horror, may continue to reverberate through the decades, but, Peelman says, it is Einstein who gave us another way to absorb our surroundings, to see the world, to understand time, space and matter.

Peelman has always been an unconventional type, evident not only from what he is wearing today – lemon trousers, a green polka-dot shirt and purple socks. He arrived with a formidable reputation as a musician and innovator – he is about to step down after nearly 25 years as artistic director of The Song Company and is a renowned conductor – but his background and early years were not what one would conventionally expect of a native Belgian.

"People in Australia always think if you come from Belgium, you come from the heart of culture," he says, musingly, kicking back over a chicken salad at the Old Parliament House courtyard cafe.


In fact, he was born in a tiny Flemish village near Ghent, to uneducated parents of peasant stock. It was, he says, a very simple upbringing and one in which music barely featured, at least not overtly. Music was almost an anomaly, and not taught at school. There was not a single musician in his family, but from the outset, it seems, music was everything for a "loose gene" like him.

"I've never been able to work this out," he says.

"Not even remote ancestors, not even a forgotten aunt or uncle, none of that. I've often wanted to confront my mother about that. I think I'm just a loose gene really."

From an early age, he knew that music was a part of him. He recalls, at the age of 10, approaching the only person in the village he knew who played the piano, and begging for lessons.

"He asked me, `Do you have a piano?' and I said no, so we had to find me a piano to go and practise on, somewhere in some smelly church hall," he says.

Fortunately, the world began to open up once he went to boarding school, where he discovered vocal music and various composers. It was clear, by then, that he was going to be a musician.

"My parents thought I was a bit weird, probably," he says. "I have one brother who is completely the opposite of me. He's always stayed as close to my parents as you could possibly stay, and I've gone as far away as possible."

Studies at the conservatorium and university in Ghent followed, and his interests shifted to instrumental and contemporary music. He continued on in Cologne, Germany, before taking the plunge and immigrating to Australia.

In fact, the move wasn't nearly as decisive as it seems 30 years on. It was adventure, above all, that brought him here, but while his now ex-wife had a mission to get as far away from her family as possible, he was more sanguine.

"I didn't really care where I was. I'm one of these people, I'm happy anywhere," he says.

"I'm easy, very easy. I'm not linked to a particular place or to possessions or that sort of thing."

Indeed, he doesn't even own a house and, although he does have a piano, it is with friends. He has wide taste in music, and has had a wide variety of experiences in Australia, but the process has been organic, rather than a life directly informed by his early years.

Time, space and matter: the themes that seem to best define how he got here. Overwhelmed by the smell, the heat and the cockroaches of the rubbish-strewn Sydney of March 1982, the couple boarded a train to Melbourne, where they were to meet a friend of a friend. On that long, slow journey, however, they befriended a woman called Rosemary, from Wagga Wagga. She told them about a couple of Czech musicians who had just arrived in town and were teaching music to her children, and she took the Peelmans' details.

Later, after they returned to Australia, they received a call. "Lo and behold, in Melbourne, after this trip, we got a phone call from this guy in Wagga Wagga, the director of the Riverina College of Education," he says. They accepted an offer to stay with Rosemary in Wagga Wagga, with their two children in tow, and the trip culminated in a job offer for Peelman, albeit one he ultimately didn't take up. The couple officially immigrated in 1984, by which time the position had been filled, but in the interim, they made contacts in Mount Gambier, and settled there initially.

"I did a lot of teaching there. I conducted a local brass band, and that's where I got a bit of experience with brass," Peelman says. He had, by then, finished a conducting degree in Cologne, and was able to practise on the local amateur orchestra, as well as organising concerts.

Within less than a year, he was offered a job with the Sydney Opera, and the family moved to Sydney in 1984. He began in a junior role and expanded his repertoire, particularly in conducting, and ended up staying with the company for seven years, before taking over The Song Company.

He and his wife split up in 1990 and she returned to Germany. The couple have four grown children, two of whom live in Europe and have musical bents.

Peelman has always had plenty of projects on the go. "I became also the artistic director of the Hunter Orchestra in Newcastle, because that had been going there for some time and the board had decided to put it on a professional footing, so I did that plus a lot of freelance work, which I have done ever since."  

Stepping down from The Song Company is something that has been a couple of years in the planning. "I'm not sick of it, I would never get sick of it, but 25 years – it's time!" he says. "It's a hell of a lot of work, because it's a full-time operating company."

Besides, he says, despite the overlap this year as he moves from one institution to another, he wants to give his first festival here his best shot.

"I have to say it's a great opportunity. It's both an opportunity and a challenge, as all these things obviously are – the opportunity to create a festival in our capital that has national significance, that really has a stamp of quality on it to really bring the best of the best," he says.

The festival itself has important roots and has grown over the years into more than just "a simple weekender with some chamber music", thanks to the steady and ever-imaginative influence of former director Chris Latham, who stepped down last year. 

Which brings us, finally, to the theme of this year's festival – Einstein and his great, big, open, naive, wonderful, full-of-wonderment brain. When it comes to music, Peelman says, the links are many and obvious.

"How many scientific papers have that much influence ever, since Newton?

"Newton and the theory of gravity, et cetera, that was an extraordinary thing, but what Einstein did was not just reinvent the way we look at the world, and therefore actually upend Newton's theory of gravity, but find a new way of looking at the big fundamentals in life – time, space, matter."

Einstein was a keen amateur musician – there's grainy footage of him available on YouTube playing the violin – and music, Peelman says, is the art form that plays in space.

"Music needs space and music transforms a space, in a sense, and music relates to space, and matter is music, in a sense, but it's the most abstract matter we can imagine. We can't touch music. We just hear it."

Einstein, he points out, wasn't good at maths and was considered mad by many of his colleagues at the time, but at the same time, he maintained a childlike wonder at the world that allowed him to see things that others didn't, a feature that is vital to the thinking behind the festival.

"He just saw things differently, and this intuition, this reluctance, also, to accept whatever was handed over to him in terms of theory, was what made this breakthrough possible," Peelman says.

"So this is really where I'm coming from. The fact that it happened 100 years ago is neither here nor there. That's just a simple statistic in a history book. The fact that he was a creative thinker, that's really why it's worth doing this, I think, because it's the creative spirit, the fact that we now see the world differently."

The program will run the gamut from Beethoven, and a rare chance to hear all 32 of his sonatas in one sitting, to Philip Glass, played in the National Gallery in close proximity to the remarkable James Turrell exhibition that, in a similar way to Glass, encourages the listener to switch off the brain and go elsewhere.

"Western music, for a long, long time, was structured along the lines of rhetoric, the way an argument was developed," Peelman says.

"You put an idea forward, and then you put another idea forward. Then these ideas conflict or merge or are developed, and then they reach a conclusion."

"The other aspect to music in the West has been architecture, the notion of a piece of music that plays within an architecture – the big churches or cathedrals, for example – but also that holds up like a building … which has fundaments and walls and windows or occasional holes.

"Those two notions have always combined, but the moment musicians and composers started looking elsewhere outside Western culture, they discovered different ideas of music – music not concerned with architecture, necessarily, or with rhetoric or the way we construct sentences or paragraphs."

And what better place than Canberra in autumn to look at all the ways that this need not be so.

"Music is transporting, isn't it? It's a transporting experience. I just really wanted to get some very strong music that takes you to another place, really," he says.

The Canberra International Music Festival runs in various venues around Canberra from May 1-10.