Paul Grabowsky AO is a pianist, composer, arranger, conductor – and one of Australia’s most distinguished artists. Born in Papua New Guinea, Paul was raised in Melbourne and became prominent in the music scene in Melbourne, working in various jazz, theatre and cabaret projects before living and working in Europe and the US in the early eighties. Returning to Australia in 1986, he firmly established a reputation as one of Australia’s leading jazz musicians.
Paul has written the scores for over twenty feature films in Australia, the UK and US, for television and operas and various multimedia works. He is the founder and Artistic Director of the Australian Art Orchestra, awarded an H.C. Coombs Arts Fellowship at ANU and tours both nationally and internationally with the orchestra. Paul has won multiple awards including six ARIA awards, two Helpmann awards, several Bell Awards and a Deadly award.
A former Artistic Director of the Queensland Music Festival, Paul currently is Executive Director of the Monash Academy of Performing Arts and continues to regularly perform with his trio, quartet and sextet.
The Street talks to Paul Grabowsky before his Love Songs concerts with Kate Ceberano.
DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC?
Music has been a confidante, an admonisher, a thermometer, a mystery, a playground, an indulgence and a pathway. It has been a guide through life.
WHERE DID THE IMPULSE TO CREATE LOVE SONGS COME FROM?
In a sense you could say that all music consists of love songs, as all music strives to express something the human spirit finds exhilarating. In our case, it seemed an appropriate way to express a friendship that has spanned thirty years.
HOW DO YOU WORK WITH AN ARTIST LIKE KATE CEBERANO, CREATIVELY AND TECHNICALLY?
Kate is a consummate professional in every aspect of performance, from the technical aspects of singing, pitching, rhythm and phrasing and the emotional and intellectual interpretation of lyrics to her ability to communicate directly and intimately to many types of audience. We talk about repertoire and play and sing many songs. It is very focused, and very relaxed.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE REPERTOIRE FOR LOVE SONGS FROM THE VAST AMOUNT OF SONGS AROUND LOVE?
Kate and I know a lot of music between us. We draw from our life experiences, particularly songs we remember from our early years, but also songs that have come to take on meaning as we have gathered experience.
YOU PERFORM REGULARLY WITH YOUR TRIO, QUARTET AND SEXTET AND RECENTLY RELEASED A SOLO ALBUM ON ABC JAZZ. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO PERFORM SOLO?
Playing solo is an internal journey. Playing in a group in jazz has a conversational element to it. The solo conversation lets the audience share in a private, more personal musical world.
YOU RECENTLY WORKED WITH ACCLAIMED DIRECTOR FRED SCHEPISI ON HIS FILM ‘’WORDS AND PICTURES”. TALK US THROUGH THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS?
I read the script, Fred and I have many talks. The score develops through numerous viewings of the film through various stages of the editing process. Finally we settle on the final shape and content of the music, then the score is recorded and laid into the soundtrack.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE STATE OF THE ARTS IN AUSTRALIA, THE ROLE IN OUR LIVES VERSUS POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC REALITIES?
People may not always be aware of it, but art is fundamental to the human condition, not some kind of entertaining way to kill a few hours. We are as Australians inheritors of the oldest cultural traditions on the planet; these include activities like painting, dance and accompanied song that we now categorise as art. There are those who believe that governments should be run as businesses, with everything marching to the tune of the bottom line. In this vision, art is replaced by entertainment, itself driven by market forces. Art continues therefore to be a political football, even though the stakes are infinitesimally small, compared to say, the economics of the joint-strike fighter. It will continue to exist, but if the nation was to see it as an aspect of its collective health, that would be a sign of maturity.
CURRENTLY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MONASH ACADEMY OF PERFORMING ARTS, YOU ARE CONTRIBUTING YOUR VISION TO THE GROWTH OF THE UNIVERSITY CULTURAL AND PERFORMING ARTS OFFERING. WHAT IS THE ART OF VISIONING?
I am lucky to be working at a university that invests considerably in the arts sector, both visual and performing. We are currently building a new performing arts complex, the Ian Potter Centre for Performing Arts, on our main campus, in the heart of Melbourne’s South-Eastern suburbs. Not being a great one for neologistic gerunds, I never use the word ‘visioning’, but I do nevertheless have a vision for the complex.It involves speaking to, with and about the people who live around us, who in their demographic diversity put the lie to anyone who imagines mythical Australia located in an Anglo-Saxon monoculture.
YOU HAVE A LONG ASSOCIATION WITH CANBERRA (with ANU, Artistic Director Caroline Stacey, The Street and the Capital Jazz Project). FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT DO YOU SEE IS IMPORTANT FOR CANBERRA’S ARTS AND CULTURAL FUTURE AND WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
To really answer that question, I would need to spend more time in Canberra than my usual FIFO experience allows. Canberra does possess some of our most important cultural infrastructure, which is a huge plus; audience development remains an issue anywhere out of the main urban centres. Irrespective of how you view Canberra, it could be considered a special case, given that its history is linked to specifics.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
The traditional ceremonial music of Daniel and David Wilfred, my colleagues from Ngukurr in S.E. Arnhem Land is a constant inspiration to me, and a reminder of the best and most essential of this nation.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I read a lot, especially history. I’m currently reading ‘Agents of Empire’ by Noel Malcolm. I love ‘The Americans’, and am midway through the third series.