Good Weekend

The naked man: why composer Andrew Batt-Rawden was nude at his own premiere

Beetroot juice drips; the string quartet plays. And a canvas is created as this composer bares all. Amanda Hooton looks on in wonder.

Composer Andrew Batt-Rawden, 31, and I are at a cafe on the edge of Sydney Harbour. Batt-Rawden is saying no to a muffin with his mineral water. "Are you sure?" asks the cafe person. "Look, they have choc chips!"

"Wow!" enthuses Batt-Rawden in his very clear voice. "But I've got to be naked tonight, so I can't."

I can vouch for this. I met Batt-Rawden – composer, festival director, arts administrator, magazine owner, and once-was-oboe-player – last night, at the world premiere of 27, his work for string quartet. And he was, indeed, naked.

Actually, "met" is not quite the correct term. 

I was in the audience for the Australian Art Quartet's Butt-naked Salon concert at Sydney's Yellow House. As the show began, the quartet came in and sat down. Nearby, multidisciplinary artist Clementine Robertson was lying motionless on a dais with vials of beetroot juice dripping all over her. Then, in the silence, Batt-Rawden entered wearing a fluffy bathrobe, à la Muhammad Ali. With him came Archibald Prize-winning artist Wendy Sharpe. Batt-Rawden walked to a low white box, took off his robe, climbed onto the box, and struck a pose. The quartet played, Robertson dripped, and Batt-Rawden stood starkers while Sharpe painted him onto the walls.

I can't tell you how weird this was. Wonderful, and weird. But not as weird for me, I'm guessing, as it was for Batt-Rawden. "Yes," he agrees, sitting down at a sunlit wooden table. "At one point, I thought I might actually be having a heart attack."

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I don't really know the etiquette for interviewing someone in whom your main interest is that you've recently seen them naked. I'm conscious of an ignoble desire to ignore Batt-Rawden's many claims to legitimate fame, and just keep talking about the naked thing endlessly. In a supreme effort of will, I ask him about his background as a composer.

"I decided to be a musician at eight, because mum had a recording of Ennio Morricone's The Mission," he smiles. "Gabriel's Oboe. I got spine tingles. But my school didn't have an oboe, and my parents couldn't afford one, so I didn't actually hold one 'til high school. Then I realised I wanted to be a creator rather than a performer." So he became a composer. "Then I realised, 'No one's going to produce what I create.' " So he became an artistic director, of events including the Bellingen Music Festival and the Aurora Festival. "Then I thought, 'Who's going to protect the government funding that allows the production of creations for performers?' " So he took on roles with Arts NSW and the Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group. "And then I thought, 'Who's going to communicate about music and foster the audience?' " So he bought Limelight, a classical-music magazine.

It would be easy – oh, so easy – to despise someone with such extraordinary levels of millennial chutzpah. But perhaps Batt-Rawden knows this, because he charms you by being both frank and self-deprecating. "I bought Limelight by taking on the subscriber liability and 20 grand's worth of credit card debt," he says wryly. "But I did it because it's important to the arts scene in Australia. And also because," he switches to self-parody, "a world without Limelight is a world without a magazine that could put me on the cover!"

I laugh, and he adds quickly: "Of course I would never do that. I'd never say to my editor: 'Have I got a story for you!' " Then he laughs. "The sad thing is, I really do have a story now."

Hurrah! A legitimate segue into nakedness! So how on earth did it happen? "Well, I got a call from James Beck [artistic director of the AAQ], and he said, 'Mate. We want to do 27, and it's in collaboration with Wendy, and she's agreed if there's a life model.' And I was like, 'Great! So you're going to get a nude model?' And he was like, 'Well, actually …' And I cut him off and said, 'Yep, I'll do it.' "

No hesitation at all?

"Not a second thought."

Why not?

"Well, I did think, 'Hmm, I could be accused of narcissism here." Batt-Rawden smiles. "It's my music, I'm the model, I'm naked, and I'm being painted! 'Me! Me! Look at me! And here's another aspect of me!' " He laughs again. "But professionally, I've been exploring the idea of identity for a long time, and having that reflected in multiple ways was intrinsically interesting. Plus the emotional athletics of being nude, in front of an audience, at your own premiere. 

I mean that's like, 'Can I actually do that?' "

Now, of course, he knows he can do that, as well as everything else.

You still have two naked concerts to go, I reflect as he drains his mineral water. Then what?

"Oh, well, I'm talking to people," says Batt-Rawden blithely. "I think we should take it on tour."