Nigel Butterley

Nigel Butterley

Taking audiences on a journey of discovery across our great musical continent, the Australian Voices series looks to Australian Composers past and present: those who brought us to where we are today and those who are shaping our future. The 2015 Australian Voices series begins with an exploration of composer and pianist Nigel Butterley’s lesser-performed repertoire. Curator Elliott Gyger talks about the program he has put together for the musicians from ANAM.


Nigel Butterley celebrates his 80th birthday this year. Among his fellow musicians, he is widely considered one of Australia’s major composers, but performances of his work are relatively rare. This may in part be explained by the qualities of his music: it is subtle, expressive and expansive, largely avoiding grand statements or spectacular contrasts.

I was fortunate to get to know Butterley’s music in my 20s through performing it, as a choral singer and conductor. Many composers of his generation either avoided choral music entirely or kept it partitioned from the rest of their output, feeling that the medium imposed practical limitations which quite literally cramped their style, particularly in terms of harmony. For Butterley, however, there was no such division; his vocabulary makes use of tonal and modal materials in flexible and distinctive ways, and its overarching concern with melody is also highly vocal.

The central place of the human voice in his oeuvre is closely associated with his love of poetry and philosophy, which is also evident in his instrumental works, many of which bear poetic titles or epigraphs. Walt Whitman was an important literary influence in the 1970s and early 1980s, while since about 1990 he has written much music inspired by the 20th century English poet Kathleen Raine; each is represented on the Australian Voices program by two works. Whitman is exuberant and prolix, while Raine is elegant and reserved; yet they share a mystical sense of awe at the beauty of the natural world, and a spiritual yearning which finds expression outside formal religion. These traits are echoed and amplified in Butterley’s music.

The works for which Butterley is best known are probably his orchestral scores, such as the 1968 Meditations from Thomas Traherne and From Sorrowing Earth of 1991. However, his chamber and solo instrumental output is also full of riches. In pride of place is a cycle of four fine string quartets, one per decade from the 1960s to the 1990s. The String Quartet No.2 (1974) will feature on the Australian Voices program: a powerful and unusually extrovert work, it incorporates a wide range of influences from 20th century giants such as Tippett, Messiaen and Lutoslawski, as well as a direct quotation from a Chopin Nocturne.

This major contribution to the Australian quartet repertoire is seldom performed, perhaps owing to the technical and expressive challenges it poses for the players.

The other two ensemble pieces featured are much gentler products of Butterley’s maturity. The Wind Stirs Gently (1992) is a meditation on age and experience, bringing flute and cello into sonorously beautiful dialogue. Butterley’s most recent ensemble work, the quietly luminous Spindles of the Stars (2005) for mixed quintet, takes its cue from Raine’s title image – a metaphor for hidden order underlying the apparent chaos of everyday life.

Butterley himself is a fine pianist, and has written much for his own instrument – although interestingly enough mostly in miniatures: there are no extended sonatas or other solo works. Grevillea (1962) is one of just two pieces written during Butterley’s formative year of study with Priaulx Rainier; it shows the composer, then in his late 20s, coming to grips with modernist materials in his own idiosyncratic way. At the heart of the program is one of my favourite Butterley pieces, the piano solo Uttering Joyous Leaves from 1981, a brilliant encapsulation of the composer’s world in five minutes of lyricism and dance-like energy.

Composer Elliott Gyger is Senior Lecturer in Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, an active conductor and has recently completed a book for Wildbird Press on Butterley’s music.

Australian Voices one: Nigel Butterley

Wednesday 18 March, 6pm

BUTTERLEY String quartet no. 2
BUTTERLEY Uttering Joyous Leaves
BUTTERLEY The Wind Stirs Gently (for flute and cello)
BUTTERLEY Spindles of the Stars

Elliott Gyger curator
ANAM Musicians 

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