John Carmichael

Composer and pianist




Born in Melbourne, John Carmichael studied piano with Raymond Lambert and composition with Dorian Le Gallienne at the University Conservatorium before continuing his piano studies at the Conservatoire National in Paris with Marcel Ciampi. Contact with Arthur Benjamin while he was still in Australia led to a period of study with him in London, studies in composition continued later with Anthony Milner.

John Carmichael was a pioneer in the field of music therapy; he developed music teaching and music appreciation projects at Stoke Mandeville Hospital (where the Paraplegic Olympics was born) and Netherden Mental Hospital in Surrey. Then followed a period as Musical Director of the Spanish dance company Eduardo Y Navarra, with extensive international touring including an Australian visit during which ABC Televsions recorded their dance program Fuego en la Sangre (Fire in the Blood). The contact with flamenco, expressed both in dance and by the flamenco singers and guitarists, led John Carmichael to encapsulate the experience in his Concierto Folklórico, released on ABC Classics with the composer as piano soloist.

In 1980 James Galway premiered John Carmichael’s Phoenix – Concerto for Flute & Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House; he gave the American premiere at the Hollywood Bowl a few months later and included the work in his Flute Masterpieces series released by RCA to celebrate Galway’s 60th birthday. HisTrumpet Concerto, recently released on CD with John Wallace and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, was originally written for Australian trumpeter Kevin Johnston and also released on ABC Classics, together with his Country Fair for clarinet and orchestra.

Writing for the piano has always stimulated ideas for compositions, including works for four hands, and has led to collaborations with Australian pianists such as Victor Sangiorgio and Antony Gray, who gave the premire of Carmichael’s Piano Quartet Sea Changes in London in 2000 with Australian string players Belinda MacFarlane, Morgan Goff and Matthew Lee; the work was later released on the ABC Classics CD Sea Changes.

Concentration on melodic and thematic development within well-wrought musical structures has always been a feature of Carmichael’s music, something remarked on by both listeners and reviewers. In 2007 on the release of the ABC Classics CD Solo Flights, a complete recording by Antony Gray of Carmichael’s music for solo piano, it was selected as CD of the Week on the ABC network and was reviewed in the Classic FM Magazine in the UK as ’77 minutes of enchanting music’, while Rob Barnett in Classical Music on the Web, reviewing the CD Sea Changes, remarks that Carmichael is ‘completely serious in his pursuit of discovery in melody – blissfully accessible and often sheerly beautiful’.




What does music mean to you personally ?

For me it is a language which transcends all languages - the masters of this language convey their personal stamp, their delight and skill in using this language, their place in the history of this language - from its primitive beginnings through growing complexity and enrichment stemming from new discoveries, new revelations. It is a language which has no barriers, reaching both heart and mind to surprise and delight.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy ?

I do believe that fantasy, if that means creating imaginative scenarios in sound, is very much part of music, but the fantasy has to be pinned to a firm structural base otherwise it will disintegrate into incoherence, and achieving a balance between these two elements is essential.

If you were not a professional musician what would you have been ?

I have always been keenly interested in languages, as can be seen from my answer to the first question. The power of language to influence, persuade, engage, and the exotic beauty of a foreign language spoken authentically entrances me. Living in France gave me the opportunity to gain fluency in French, and now I am seeking, but will never achieve, the same fluency in Mandarin Chinese so, if not a musician, I would have been a language teacher or a translator/interpreter.

What do you envision the role of music to be in the 21st Century ? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role ?

The cultural changes in the 20th and 21st centuries have impacted on all the arts and most particularly perhaps on music in the entertainment industry. Originally, film music was considered merely a background to the film; composers like Korngold were ostracised by their ‘serious’ contemporaries for writing film music. Now, the best examples of this music are appreciated at their true worth - and have become part of the regular repertoire of major orchestras. The music written for video games, again, is raising its profile in the same way. Of course writing music for this purpose, TV also, provides work for composers, but in this role music is re-inventing itself by upgrading itself from background to foreground and producing music of the highest quality. Hopefully this will allow the power of music to reach a wider public without betraying the highest aspirations.

Do you think the musician today needs to be more creative ? What is the role of creativity in the musical process for you ?

With the fast changing pace of the digital age upon us, perhaps creativity for the musician is in his/her ability to see what the future possibilities or opportunities this technology can offer in the field of music; just as language teaching has adapted itself to on-line teaching, so music can embrace this, and, in fact, already embraces, this new dimension of reaching out: posting your performance, your composition, your teaching method, all of these, on line, attract interest; Sibelius and other music programs have made it easy to produce printed scores, but the opportunity for gifted composers or teachers is to show that this technology is not just a convenience but a truly creative tool for those gifted with musical ideas.

Do you think we as musicians can do something to attract the younger generation to music concerts ? How would you do this ?

Already musicians are initiating ways of attracting the younger generation; orchestras, instrumentalists, soloists, opera companies, all of them have Outreach programmes where they demystify the musical processes and engage the interest and enthusiasm of young people. The musician, whether he be composer, soloist, conductor, or member of the orchestra, who talks to the audience and manages to break down this barrier which for some young people makes the classical music scene seem remote and ‘uncool’, can elicit a truly genuine response where previously there was little or none. Workshops where musical skills at a simple manageable level are taught can reveal unsuspected musical talent to the surprise and delight of the achiever. I once talked to a class of Primary School youngsters, telling them the story of The Fire Bird, then played them the recording of the music for the dance by the minions of Koschei, telling them he was a monster and that I now wanted each of them to draw me a picture of Koschei. It truly inspired their imaginations to produce the most frightening images which I assured them would be suitable for any production of the ballet. This kind of approach, I believe, is the way to reach those who believe classical music is not for them.

Tell us about your creative process. What is your favourite piece (written by you) and how did you start working on it ?

Invariably the creative process begins with finding a melodic element, a motif, a distinctive sequence of notes which will develop into something more substantial. In fact it would be truer to say that I am finding out as I go along what it is that I am working on - a large scale work, or a short piece, and what instruments I am writing for - is this for the flute, for solo piano, for orchestra ? It is a process of finding out what the material I have found, often while improvising at the piano, is best suited to. Of course in the case of a commission, for example my Sonata for Oboe & Piano, the instrumentation was already established, but the same process followed - looking for the melodic element that would start the creative work. With my Piano Quartet ‘Sea Changes’, again a commission, the same process, except that the melodic elements I found suggested to me the sea and its changing character and so from the very beginning of writing it the focus was on finding and developing ideas and material in keeping with that overall plan. In fact, that particular work is a favourite of mine.

Can you give some advice to young people who want to discover classical music for themselves ?

It is rather that I would like to give advice to the people in charge of education to stop cutting the funding of the arts in the school system; as I saw for myself, working in the school system and in Music Therapy - so many young people who had had no exposure to music will, when the opportunity is there, respond with enthusiasm, and many discover unsuspected talent which leads them to gain performing skills, but without the stimulus in these crucial years at school they may never come to discover how music can enrich our life.

Do you think about the audience when composing ?

No ! But I do review objectively, as if I were the listener, what I am writing - and my aim is to keep this ‘listener’ engaged in the narrative as it unfolds.

What projects are coming up ? Do you experiment in your projects ?

A Trio for violin, cello and piano - two mvts. completed . Further down the line a commission from a London orchestra, and a Sinfonietta (started and hanging fire.) Every work is an experiment.