Martin Ross-Hall: I wanted to ask, firstly, about your years with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and your sudden departure in mid-2017.
Philip Powers: Oh, they were great years. There have been many great years but those were the best. So many incredible talents. I was lucky. Really lucky.
MRH: But then at the end, I take it there was some, how can I describe it, resentment?
PP: Not from me. Do you mean there's resent from them? You know, I have only the greatest respect for the orchestra and its musicians. I've worked on probably - close to a hundred - actually, I have no idea, it might only be eight or ninety projects with them and this is an orchestra which on its best day is almost as good as the very best in the world.
MRH: So, why did you leave?
PP: I'd been there almost nine years, a new Director of Artistic Planning took over, they looked at my role - as Technical Media Producer - and decided that when balancing all of the things the orchestra was likely to want to emphasize in the next three years, while moving out of the Opera House, my role was now redundant.
MRH: And there's no resentment on your part?
PP: No, no, no. You are mixing up two completely different things. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is completely different from the people who manage the SSO. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra - at least in my mind - is the collective of players who comprise the orchestra. The SSO is a brand. It's a recognizable brand which has marketers and support staff, and box office staff and administrators keeping it alive. The conductors and the players have always been completely - 100% - supportive of my role. I wouldn't describe the administrators in the latter years the same way. [pause] Can we move on?
MRH: I can sense your need to move beyond this, so I'd like to know more about your years as a Music Producer with the orchestra.
PP: Okay, firstly, if I could still be working for the orchestra, I would be. I love this orchestra and I have done everything to represent them, audio-wise, as best I can, audibly, you know, with sound. Administrators come and go and their priorities change. Hell, I worked for 6 years on annual contracts, renewable based on my annual performance, then I worked without a contract for seven or eight months and signed a new contract in 2015 with them for three years. Then they decided after 16-months to terminate it with 20-months still to run. That's their call. Secondly...
MRH: Sorry, sorry. I've got to interrupt. How can you have a three year contract and then have your organisation say that it's over after 16 months.
PP: That's the world in which we live these day. I answered an add for a permanent part-time position as Recording Enterprise Executive and they gave me a job on a contract, renewable or not, on December 31 each and every year. It is a great way to incentivise someone.
MRH: And that doesn't rankle?
PP: Anytime you lose a job, whether it is through not being renewed or being fired, of course, it pisses you off. What really pissed me off was the fact that I couldn't finish my two Foxtel projects. I even offered to work on them for free just so that I could take them to completion. They offered me three months pay for severing my contract when they only need to give me four weeks, and I said "Well, why not let me work for those 12 weeks and complete these contracts. They took 10 weeks to get back to me to say 'No'."
MRH: Backtracking then, to get a sense of what you achieved in those years, how do you see your productivity?
PP: Well, finally a question I can answer. The productivity speaks for itself. I honestly have no idea how many CDs I produced for the orchestra, but it's more than fifty and probably less than a hundred. I did around thirty or forty for SSO Live, seven to ten which ABC Classics or ABC Music released, another twenty which Exton released, give or take, and CDs for Melba, BIS and, oh, I honestly forget, some other labels. I know, Universal Music, the Dream of Gerontius and Elgar Cello Concerto, and some others.
MRH: And ARIA Awards?
PP: Twice I sat in the audience for ARIA-nominated albums. The first was the Brett Dean disc that was produced before I started at the SSO and the second was Kalkadungu, which won. William Barton on winning thanked everyone except for the orchestra. It was an oversight. Afterwards, the producer, Virginia Read was given many congratulations, but it was like William Barton and ABC Classics had made this recording without the Sydney Symphony Orchestra who were co-performers with Barton. I said to Laura Bell, the ABC label manager, "Actually, this was a win for the SSO as well."
"Oh", shamed-face, "of course."
These people think its all about them despite the fact there's an-eighty-piece orchestra who are co-performers with William Barton. That sucks. Still, that wasn't my recording. I wasn't even there when that was made.
MSH: That's twice. But there was the third, when you won.
PP: That would be the Josh Pyke album. I - the Recording Manager for the SSO and the Music Producer of the album - wasn't invited. In fact, I didn't even know the awards were being announced and presented that day. A lovely girl, Christie, from work, the designer of the artwork, sent me a text congratulating me. I received it simultaneously with a text from Josh Pyke, which he'd sent me - as a joke - sitting in the audience - 'from the future', congratulating me on our win. I didn't understand it. I thought he was telling me that in two months time, November, we were going to win.
MSH: That would have been cool.
PP: It would have been cool if I'd known that the ceremony was happening that day. I thought it was Josh celebrating a win - from the future - at another date. I turned up in the office and everyone was standing around congratulating me for a win that I didn't even know I'd achieved. I'm saying, "But that was the nominations, right?" They're saying, "No, that was the award." It was weird.
MSH: Was that the highlight for you?
PP: Not of my life. No. The highlight would have been meeting Bruce Smeaton, talking with Richard Franklin on the phone, and having people like Simon Wincer, Tim Burstall, Patricia Lovell and Brian May, support my label, without a thought of putting a monetary value on the project. Add to that Garry McDonald, Tony Buckley and Simon Walker and Nigel Westlake, Guy Gross, Mark Isaacs.
This was smell-of-an-oily-rag productions - which was, incidentally, how I pitched the Josh Pyke album to Bob Scott, the engineer.
My entire life has been working on pet projects for fuck-all and lots of people assuming I made money out of it. I can count the 1M! CDs I was paid to produce without using either hand and the rest of them using my fingers and toes. I did almost everything for the love of the business.
MSH: Why would you work for free on so many albums?
PP: Aargh. There lies the rub.
PP: Some people have talent, are recognized, paid, and produce the right product at the right time. Offers roll in. Other people have a bit less talent - or even the same - but, they are not recognised, do it for free, and produce a product that hardly anyone wants.
MSH: For instance?
PP: Josh Pyke with the SSO. The budget went down from $80,000 to $35,000 and everyone dropped out. It was dead in the water. He had a studio album in the pipe and everyone - his management and label - thought 'lets not confuse people by recording another album for release at the same time'. So, I said to Greg, 'What if we record the concerts and release it when there's no competing Josh Pyke album?' Greg went back to Sony.
"No." Sony didn't want anything else from anyone and had no interest in Josh doing a Classical album with the SSO. And this is the strange thing. This entire project was Josh's idea - playing his music - arranged as classical music - in front of an audience at the Opera House, like Lior and Gurrumul did, and he couldn't convince anyone to even pay $25,000 to record it. It was $12,000 just to get the SOH Recording Studio to record two concerts. Post-production, conservatively, was $20-50,000.
This album was dead in the water. The SSO had no money for it, nor did Wonderlick or Sony.
A good question to ask right now, would be why did I give a flying fuck about this Meet the Music concert which I had nothing to do with?
MSH: So, why?
PP: History. [And that's anther story about why history has always been important to me.]
MSH: Okay, let's leave the other thing alone.
PP: Alright, this is the scenario: Josh Pyke is going to perform twelve, fourteen songs with arrangements for the SSO and him. It's going to be performed without a recording. ABC FM won't record it for broadcast because it's not classical music. There is going to be no historical record of these two concerts.
So, I got creative and made a few deals, which only happened because of two great guys (and Des, I am so sorry that you never got your proper credit for your part in this. But then, seriously, proper credit is the wish of people who believe in fairies and I didn't get it either).
PP: Well, now I'm on a roll. This is a lesson in the money involved to produce an album. We've - I mean - SSO - have done albums with Burt Bacharach, Warner Bros (with Bugs Bunny), Lalo and other superstars and the buyout is in the tens of thousands for us, the SSO, for the secondary rights. Then there's the studio, the engineers, the record company. It's a lot of money.
It's a hundred thousand dollars unless the orchestra throws in for a percentage - you know, waiving their fee.
If you're a little person - like me, far down the food chain, you can have conversations with various people who are directors within the SSO and appeal to their sense of duty, or the importance of the project.
I appealed to a bunch of people - through emotional reasoning - and convinced everyone who required enormous fees to waive them. Sony agreed, SSO agreed, Josh agreed and I excluded the SOH recording studio by bypassing them. The last thing, was to lock in an engineer who would commit to a ridiculous fee for two hundred hours of work. The one last thing, after the other last thing, was to get some dumb sucker to producer the album, from the downbeat of the opening chord until the last word was corrected in the notes on the slick. I found the previous person in the form of Bob Scott and I found the dumb-sucker in the form of myself.
The givens in the record industry is that 1,000 CDs cost $2,000 - with all the hidden costs. Then there's the artwork. That's costly. Just delivering artwork ready for printing is significant. All of those costs amount to $4,000. That's the fee - the undeniable cost - for any album to be produced for release.
I've produced maybe sixty CDs - seventy - eighty - a hundred - I have no idea - for printing and I know that's the cost.
So this was the deal:
I offered Des $800 to do a multi-track recording from the output of the mixing desk for amplification in the auditorium. He wasn't happy with the coverage with those mikes - God Bless him - and asked for another few hundred to rent extra mikes. [Thank you Des.]
I offered Bob $3,000 for 30 hours works, and if he chose to spend more time than that, it was his decision.
I offered myself the challenge of doing more, on top of a heavily mandated contract which was goal oriented, and I didn't even ask myself if I would work for free - yet again.
Any interpretation of my contract with the SSO will support these claims, and any examination of the CD release of SSO performances will show that I'm erring on the side of caution, rather than overstatement.
I offered myself the opportunity to work for free on arrangements of music I'd never heard.
Gurrumul (which the SSO wouldn't give me two tickets, so I didn't see) and Lior, (which they did which didn't make sense because I was in the recording alcove with Bob Scott and didn't need a seat) were successes. I thought the importance of the act of recording by ABC was important. The fact that ABC considered Josh Pyke unimportant, annoyed me.
[CONSIDER THESE FACTS:
1. THE ABC CAN PAINT A PICTURE OF ME AS A DISGRUNTLED PERSON WHO REPEATEDLY APPLIED FOR JOBS AND WAS REJECTED - TRUE.
2. NO ONE CAN DENY THAT I WORKED FOR THE SSO FOR 8-YEARS WITH VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY, ZIMMERMANN, EHNES, OHLSSON, AMY DICKSON, ROSS EDWARDS, PETER SCULTHORPE, DAVID ROBERTSON, JOSH PYKE, AS A PRODUCER.
[FULL DISCOLSURE: I APPLIED FOR AN ABC CLASSICS JOB IN 1989 and 2013-14-15-16 AND DIDN'T GET IT. I DON'T HAVE REGRETS. IN FACT I CAN VIEW THESE FAILURES AS TIMES WHERE I DIDN'T GET MY WAY AND I STILL GOT TO DO OTHER THINGS - SOME OF WHICH WERE NOT WHAT I COULD HAVE ACHIEVED - ELSEWHERE - IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES..]
The hint of something equally important with Pyke, like Gurrumul and Lior, made me pursue this. What if this was equally ground-breaking?
And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul and I asked myself, What's next?
Someone who is on a salary can add things in to their schedule, knowing they're being paid no matter what they do.
Someone who is being paid to start and finish projects can only do extra work if they're considered an employee, and can ask other employees to do extra work, beyond what they're asked, and be denied. If they ask and they're accepted its okay.
I was working on deliverables but achieving those and then creating new projects every year on top of that. You look at my contracts and what I was responsible for and you look at what I delivered, and it is nothing short of remarkable.
James Harvey: Where we left off last time was the beginning of the 1M1 label.
Philip Powers: That's right. I remember. I was talking about the jobs that led to my first recording producer credit of an album. I'd been producing recording sessions of film scores, but this was my first credit on an album. I think the first credit was The Wild Duck and Frog Dreaming. However... and this is strange...
There's a different story from Bruce Smeaton, which is kind of weird, because I know I didn't have anything to do with John Lasher's album of A Town Like Alice. And yet, Smeaton tells me that he loved the edit I did of the music of A Town Like Alice. I told him I didn't do it. He tells me that I did.
JH: So, he's wrong or you're wrong.
PP: Well, if there's anyone's recollection of any event I would put my faith in, it is of Bruce Smeaton. There's never - in my experience - been a clearer memory of what happened in life, than his. There are some people who tell a story about something that happened when you were there, and it's not at all what you remember. Not with Smeaton. His version is the same as what my version would be. I've argued with him about this memory, because I know I never worked with John Lasher before 1987 and the CD of A Town Like Alice is 1986.
When I recently - because of this interview - listened to the CD and the edits, I know that I would never have left those pauses in there as they are. It's so clumsy. I'd never have made everything so unrelated.
JH: And so your explanation is?
PP: If I had anything to do with it, then it dates back to 1985 when my girlfriend, Kathy, and I visited Melbourne and Bruce invited us to stay with him and Polly and Barney and Mary in Carrum, Melbourne. He gave me, like, ten or twelve cassettes of ten different scores of his music. Over the next 12 months, I transferred the cassettes to quarter-inch, then cut cues together and made suites of the scores, discarding some pieces, and re-ordering some cues. I probably sent a rough compilation of my edit to Smeaton - which had my own re-ordered cues, with some very precise edits of very small tracks, and large gaps between other - different - meldings. Definitely not something I would have released for a CD for the public to buy.
Recently, having listened to the compilation of the CD I know that I would never have allowed those long silences in between cues. I've always tried to bring unrelated pieces together and match them and integrate them. This soundtrack album is just a horrid vomit of cues without any thought to knit them or show how they relate to each other.
And the reverb on the instruments is awful. The piano is so full of reverb that it's a caricature of how a piano should sound.
JH: So, lets move on to your first album as producer, The Wild Duck.
PP: I listened to that CD before this second interview and I hear everything that I would always do, Knit pieces together where they fit. Then at 5m30s I left a longer pause because they didn't flow. Then at 6m45s I left a pause. Then we start again. 7m40s, was a difficult edit, because it was a short cue but I wanted to include it because it was a virtuoso display of orchestration and the theme.
Everything that was wrong about the CD of A Town Like Alice, compared with the dovetailing of ideas, emotions and thematic material in The Wild Duck, illustrates my attempt to tie everything together as much as possible.
JH: And the other score, Frog Dreaming?
PP: Before we get on to that, I want to say, that although I would tighten the edits in The Wild Duck, rather than give them more space, I still love the concept of the edit at 15:50. It's a hard juxtaposition balancing cues that rise to a climax and how soon to start the next cue. It's a brilliant marriage of a climax and cutting to a developing climax from another cue. Then again at 19.09. I'd do a crossfade now, but it was all hard edits in 1987. Seriously, listening to it 31 years later I'd only finesse the edits.
JH: You're passionate when you speak about Simon. Can you tell me more about your working relationship?
PP: I'd prefer to move on to whatever the next question is. That's a whole other tale.
^ Martin Ross-Hall is a non-de-plume for Alison Powers
James Harvey: Tell me about 1989 when you started doing several film soundtracks in one year.
Philip Powers: It was a bad two years and although I remember doing two CDs consisting of five scores for John Lasher, I don't remember much about For the Term of His Natural Life in 1988. I do remember it cost $8,000 because it was half of the capital that James and I put up, as it was only mixed in mono for television, but the unmixed tapes were multi-track, so it required a big mixing session to mix and master the tracks. Simon was brilliant. He never was overbearing. It's kind of crazy, but he left a lot of the mix of the multi-tracks up to me. He was there, and he's a pretty opinionated guy, and it was his music, but he made suggestions, and I was kind of along for the ride, but I really got to make decisions - overriding any other opinions - and then I relied on the engineers to give me the best-sounding CD, with EQ, and Mastering. That's what putting your money where you mouth is gets you. Control.
JH: Why was it so bad?
PP: It was a train-wreck of three different major events colliding over a period of 6 months. Plus I was writing two films scores over the same period and they were screening on television, during the December 1987/January 1988 period, if I remember correctly.
JH: What were all of these things which were happening?
PP: Oh, it was very tragic. You know... (laughs)
JH: You're almost tongue in cheek saying that but it was something more emotional than you let on.
PP: I was doing everything to make my unpopular decision to finish my university degree after two and three-quarter years a winner, justifying my decision not to do a fourth year to get a Dip Ed.
JH: Such as?
PP: To do everything and anything to overshadow my father and brother's achievements.
JH: In music?
PP: No, they had science or accounting or computer fortés. I had a piano (laughs) forté. I've been confusing chemists for years by asking for panadeine forté.
JH: Did you do your mum proud?
JH: What did she know?
PP: Yeah, she wasn't that smart - as a joke - she knew I was the ailing baby who wasn't thriving and she nursed me but never believed in me. I never realised until I was fifty-years-old that she nursed me through my first year of life because I was hanging between life and death. It is one of those facts of life that you will never know what your family did for you from years one to five. From zero to up until your first series of memories, you have no idea. At five, six, seven - they're memories but, still, not reliable memories.
James Harvey: Tell me about 1988 when you started something unique in Australia.
Philip Powers: You mean the record label, 1M1?
JH: Yes, the origin of your Australian film soundtrack label.
PP: In 1988, I was in a terrible situation where I was suddenly in between jobs. It probably all happened with 12-months. A great period, followed by terrible period, mixed with a creative period mixed with another terrible period.
JH: What do you mean by in between jobs?
PP: Ah. Well, there’s a bunch of Australians, probably elsewhere equally, where we’re never employed as such, but where, we are, um, live by contracts and commissions. My goal was to turn my Film Australia job (through making contacts) into a composing career, whilst always being careful to never put my name forward, and always suggesting composers I thought were a good fit for a project.
JH: So where did the creation of 1M1 Records fit into that?
PP: That’s was, like, three or four years later. Prior to that I was a music producer/director who was trying to match a director’s thoughts and style with a composer’s style. My job was to either 1) select music from music libraries, 2) clear music that was in copyright – recordings and copyright. 3) propose composers for projects. 4) make up cue-sheets for every Film Australia production which separated original music and music from a library from source-location music.
JH: Okay, I don’t know what that means, but we’ll come back to that later. Can we skip ahead to the period where you started producing film soundtracks for CDs?
PP: Yep. Of course. But, everything I did in that regard was a product of accidents. Outside of Film Australia, all the other things that happened where sheer dumb luck. You know, 1M1 Records didn’t even exist at the beginning of 1988. In 1987 I was still contracted as Music Officer with Film Australia and I was responsible for the music in their films. Like I said, sometimes I hired composers, sometimes I wrote music for the films for free, or when they had $1000 for music as opposed to $500 for clearances I worked overtime to compose a coupla scores, but most of the time we used music off disc. Whenever there was outside music appearing in the films, or chosen to feature, I had to get clearances from the publisher and the record label, and negotiate a fee based on the number of seconds it ran. I still had an ambition at this point to be a film composer, but the opportunities to write music for films and not be paid for it, outweighed the opportunities to write music and be paid for it. The former were “many” and the latter were “hardly ever”.
JH: So, what happened in 1988?
PP: It was more about what happened in 1986 or 1987. Someone approached an associate of mine in the industry and asked them what scores of Australian feature films were worth releasing as soundtrack albums. That person suggested that I would know the answer to that question.
JH: And that was Southern Cross, an American label?
PP: Absolutely. And when I was interviewed by John Lasher I was asked what scores came to mind. I mentioned The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Also, another two scores which I thought were terrific which were from films which were a few years old, but two of them interested John, one because it was from a film which starred Liv Ullman, and the other because it was by the composer of Mad Max. I mentioned several titles to him. I’d been seeing every Australian film made from 1984 on, at the AFI for several years, every year, so I knew almost every score since about 1980. I mentioned a bunch of titles and John chose the two films he thought would be most appealing – or had the most things, like, names, stars, that’d be known.
JH: And, I’m assuming this was the score for the television miniseries, For the Term of His Natural Life?
PP: No, no. That was certainly one of my suggestions but the score was by the same composer, but for a film called The Wild Duck.
JH: That wasn’t for your label?
PP: That was a Southern Cross release. Not one of mine. I just produced that one. I suggested it and then produced it. I suggested Frog Dreaming, and produced it.
JH: What’s the difference when you work for another label as opposed to your own?
PP: In those instances, nothing. It was amazing. I got to choose every cue of music, and edit every cue to any other cue, and deliver a finished result. I don’t even know what they would sound like now. I’m pretty obsessive, so I’m thinking I’m gonna be as happy with my choices in 2014 as I was in 1987.
JH: That’s a bold statement.
PP: Not so much. I hear a score and I can visually see where the bits can fit together to make a bigger piece of music than 32 seconds followed by 1m54s, followed by 16 seconds. The soundtrack albums that I bought from the 1960s and 1970s often had really short tracks. Like The Blue Max or The Midas Run. That’s where my frustration came from. I wanted some kind of development in a cue, even if it wasn’t there in the film. I would find a way to knit together 5 cues into a satisfying two-minute track. Those kind of releases that separated every track, no matter how short, did my head in. I was going to make sense of short cues and make them longer even if they were out of order.
JH: So, where did your idea of doing something with Australian music that was quite renegade, come from?
PP: Between 1973 and 1977 I was exposed to several very influential films. In 1974 when I was eleven, I remember seeing Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, but I didn’t understand the film. In 1974 I also remember seeing The Parallex View. The ending of that film left me stunned. I asked my dad and then my mum, “but he didn’t die, did he?” That was my first experience (other than Bambi) where the film doesn’t have a satisfactory ending.
Unfortunately, it was a down ending, but fortunately, it was a different way of looking at life, from that point. It was extraordinary that a hero died, because all of my literary heroes solved crimes and were congratulated for it. Parallex View confused me. All the President’s Men confused me as well because there was no hero. Well, not a hero I understood, because the person who deserved praise, was a nameless person in a carpark.
Heroes die in 1974, and have to hide in 1975. And in The Conversation they are seduced and robbed. Those three scores were sparse on all levels and it was really intense as well. I wanted to write my own film scores and do something between those films and Logan's Run and Jaws. I was really into Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Beethoven and Mozart.
From there, I had an idea to produce scores - even sparse ones - for CD with no other idea than to get the music out of Australia. That's all I cared about. Giving Australian film scores the same life as an Italian or French composer, or foreign film scores.
Sorry. I’m sorry to stop here, but that’s the end of what we can talk about now. Sorry. I’ve got another appointment in, like, 45 minutes.
JH: No, no. I understand. That’s fine. Thanks for your time.
PP: No worries.