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Lumen Winter 2005 Issue
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Music pioneer celebrates milestone

A late start didn't stop Tristram Cary forging a pioneering career in music.

At age 80, Tristram Cary is still actively composing music and continues to inspire new talent at the University of Adelaide's Elder School of Music.

Cary, a pioneer of electronic music, has managed to make a name for himself despite starting his career much later than he would have liked.

Born and raised at Oxford, England, Cary decided he wanted to become a composer while he was in the navy during World War Two.

"I was brought up with music. My mother was a wonderful cellist, singer, pianist... we all played the piano, we all sang. It wasn't until I got in the navy that I was taken away from it. I suddenly realised there was no gramophone, no piano," Cary said.

Having been a radio enthusiast during his teens, and working in the navy as a radar specialist, Cary possessed a great deal of technical knowledge. While in the navy he became aware of a new technology that enabled the recording of sound onto magnetic tape.

"I was told that there was this linear method of recording that was easily cut--you could chop it with a razor blade, stick it back together again, it was very editable.

"It occurred to me that instead of just being a reproductive medium, something to record a concert with, for instance, that here was a chance to have a new sort of music altogether. The editing capacity meant that you could cut sounds together that were not normally together. Also, if you were writing a piece for orchestral music you could say, 'Well, we won't have drums here we'll have a recording of thunder instead'. Those were the first ideas that I had."

But Cary's dreams of becoming a composer had to be put on hold for some years. After the war, he returned to Oxford in 1946 to finish his undergraduate degree, then moved to London to study at the Trinity College of Music. In 1952 he bought his first tape recorder and began composing electronic music as well as orchestral music.

Cary's work on music for BBC radio plays led to his first film score: The Ladykillers, a black comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The film became an instant classic, with critical and public success (it was recently remade in the United States, starring Tom Hanks).

"I was very lucky to get straight into my first feature film, and a good one too," Cary said.

More film and television work followed, among them two movies for the Hammer horror studios and the Disney feature The Prince and the Pauper. Cary is also famous for being the first composer to score music for Doctor Who's arch enemies, the Daleks, in the first series of the 1960s TV show.

As well as being a composer, Cary was one of the founding members of the company Electronic Music Studios (EMS), designing and building some of the world's first electronic synthesisers. His work on one of these synthesisers eventually led him to Australia in the 1970s. Having spent some time in Melbourne to instruct music lecturers on how to use one of the devices, he was offered a one-year visiting composer position at the University of Adelaide's Elder Conservatorium.

The move to Adelaide seemed to make sense for Cary, who could not only make the change into academia but also concentrate on composing his own music.

"I suddenly realised in the early 70s that I was approaching 50, and I had hardly any concert catalogue. Most young composers put together a symphony or two, or a concerto or two, or a string quartet or whatever, so that by their mid 30s they've got a bit of a catalogue. Well I hadn't. I did have a few things... but mostly if the phone rang and it was a job in film, television or radio, I just dropped what I was doing and did it."

His one-year term as visiting composer at the University of Adelaide instead became 12 years as senior lecturer, teaching orchestration and composition. Following his retirement in 1986 he was made an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow.

"I'm still very much attached to the University," said Cary, who still undertakes some higher degree supervision. "I like to know what the students are doing, I keep in touch with the staff, and I'm a life member of the Staff Club." A University of Adelaide Masters student, pianist Gabriella Smart, is currently writing a thesis about Cary's work, and to celebrate Cary's 80th birthday, a concert was held in the University's Elder Hall in early May.

A member of both the Australian Music Centre and the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, Cary continues to compose music in his studio at his Adelaide home. In 1991 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Australian music. In 2001 he earned a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Adelaide.

While commercially available CDs of Cary's music can be found at good music stores or on the internet, Cary himself has been creating a full archive of his work on CD. So far he's filled 68 CDs, with many more to come. He's also writing an autobiography in his spare time.

"Now I'm 80, Adelaide is a nice place to live. It's reasonably quiet, you don't get traffic jams much... and the food and wine here are wonderful.

"I've done what I meant to do, which was to compose a lot of concert music," he said, "and I'm expecting another commission any minute..." ■

Story David Ellis

Tristram Cary in his home studio

Tristram Cary in his home studio
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