Jack Body – lightning leaping from the pages

JACK! – celebrating Jack Body, composer
edited by Jennifer Shennan, Gillian Whitehead & Scilla Askew
published by Steele Roberts, Aotearoa, 2015

Available from:
Steele Roberts Publishers,
Box 9321, Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand
e-mail: info@steeleroberts

Wednesday 10th June 2015

This beautifully-prepared and richly-annotated volume contains a remarkable array of testaments of love and regard for a man whose life and work deeply touched not only immediate friends and colleagues, but many people involved with music in New Zealand, throughout South-East Asia and around the world.

Happily, it appeared while its subject, Jack Body, was still very much alive, by all accounts – an acknowledgement is made by the editors to the composer’s “stamina and concentration” in making every effort to assist with the work. Hence the opening pages proudly carry the dedication “To Jack and Yono, with love” (Yono Soekarno being Jack’s long-term partner).

Appropriately heading the list of names on a subsequent “Acknowledgements” page is another Jack – a long-time friend and supporter of Body’s, and much-esteemed arts patron Jack C.Richards, recipient of the 2014 Arts Foundation Award for Patronage, and whose support for this project made the book’s publication possible.

A feature stemming directly from the attitude of the book’s subject to biography is its avoidance of what one of the editors, Jennifer Shennan, calls “conventional ordering”. In citing Body’s “low tolerance for boredom, cliche and comfort zones”, she relishes all the more his initial response to the project – “Oh, I don’t need a book – better to have a concert!” – before recording the composer’s inevitable “day-follows-night” movement towards interest and enthusiasm for it all.

It follows that the finished work is, like its subject, a unique phenomenon, inviting no comparisons and following no formulae – it assuredly won’t be the last word on Jack (other biographers will see to that!) but his proximity to its “making” gives it all extraordinary resonance, his presence almost talismanic throughout its many adroitly-woven parallel strands which cluster around and about “pools” (well, oceanic lakes, really!) of deep-currented osmotic activity.

The composer’s actual biographical details can be found amid these different contexts, both via a section of its own called “Beginnings: family and music” (significantly, NOT at the book’s very beginning!) and a transcript of a landmark interview of Body’s with Elizabeth Kerr, as part of Radio NZ Concert’s “Composer of the Week” Series during 2014.

So, Jack himself tells some of his own story, but by far the bulk of the observations regarding his life, activities and achievements are made by the hundred-plus people whose contributions (mostly the written word, but also photographic and musical) give the reader something of the true measure of the man’s manifold accomplishments regarding his own and other people’s music, his range and scope of things in those areas alone being positively Lisztian!

One would think that the impression made by such and so many laudatory statements would begin to pall upon a reading-through of them – but Jack’s net of contact with people was obviously cast so widely and deeply (and cross-culturally), that one is struck as much by the variety of response as by its positive consistency. As individuals recorded their responses so must they have been encouraged from the start by Jack’s openness and warmth to be themselves with him deeply and utterly – so what comes across is a rich diversity and vibrancy of response that simply encourages one to read more – and more……..

There are more gems of individuality among the tributes than I can list, but I offer a few, nevertheless – “musical spark-plug” – “a true rangatira” – “visionary nation-builder” – “bottomless bounteousness” – “a great “zhi yin” (bosom friend) of Chinese music” – “the song-catcher” – “totally subversive” – “gift of a man” – “changed my life by 180 degrees” – “wonderful Body-parts”……one senses that Jack’s inspiration often gave rise to creative impulses of affection and admiration for which music was only the starting-point.

Speaking of starting-points, one such is the direct initial impression made by the publication, a volume without a dust-jacket but still nevertheless eye-catching in appearance with its gold-leaf title “Jack” embossed upon an (appropriately?) burgundy-hued cover containing also a white-pencil sketch of the composer’s face, featuring the characteristic moustache. Inside, the paper is pleasing to the touch, and the fonts with their few variants are attractive and clearly set, invariably on white backgrounds, and never against colours or hues which clash with and obscure the letters.

The words having been given their dues, the accompanying graphics are telling and vivid throughout – each of the sections features an introductory title page bedecked with designs or motifs characteristic of and readily suggesting its subject, and almost every contributor is represented by a photograph, colour, sepia and/or black-and-white. Some bring a smile, while others raise the eyebrows with a start – a particular favorite of mine features Body as a mad, google-eyed gamelan player delightedly unnerving two hapless members of the ensemble.

In short, it’s a book which to my mind has considerable visceral appeal, even before one begins reading – one enjoys the ready “chaos of delight” of colours and textures which blaze forth, but is then drawn into the “mix and mingle” to find method in the tumbling warmth of it all, the strands encircling the different pools and resonating with the sounds of voices and music suggested by the words.

Cleverly, we’re taken to each of the different areas of exploration and activity Body involved himself in and with, beginning the process with a section devoted to Indonesia, the first of the composer’s “exotic” explorations, and here subtitled “discovering a new sensuality”. As well as warm and grateful tributes from his indonesian mentors and students, there’s a detailed appreciation of his work from a fellow-ethnomusicologist, who did work for the Smithsonian “Folkways” set of recordings from the USA. This was inspired by Jack’s recordings of the country’s ethnic music, his American colleague admiring the “integrity” of his gathered material and his methods.

And so the book proceeds through the various “theatres” of Body’s work, by way of similar sections devoted to China and to Cambodia, as well as activities and projects back in New Zealand and elsewhere.  In the “China” chapter, events of vital significance to this country’s cultural heritage, such as the premiere of Jack’s opera “Alley”, are highlighted. The premiere’s conductor Peter Walls thoughtfully and beautifully equates the genesis and societal context of the work with that of Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” in seventeenth-century Italy. Another section, “In performance – embracing the world”, brings into focus Jack’s relationship with groups such as the Kronos Quartet, for whom he wrote a number of works that have since been performed in places far removed from New Zealand.

Running alongside and through these sections is the inspirational Radio NZ Concert interview with Body, conducted with insight and sensitivity by Elizabeth Kerr – again, no mere retelling of a life’s minutae, but one furnishing so many insights per minute (rather than the other way round!). I found most illuminating the sections where the composer outlines and explores his compulsions to firstly explore material and then use, or (as he puts it) “reinterpret it”. He goes on to confess, openly and modestly, that the music is transformed through his actions  to reveal something of himself, with all his limitations.

What’s refreshing is the candor of the man, a composer who doesn’t hesitate to express his creative angst of having to fill emptiness, and therefore turning with relief to something that’s already there and refashioning it “nearer to the heart’s desire”. And what about any associated “crises of confidence”? – in the same utterance they’re characterized as “no bad thing” for a composer, which is remarkable as a metaphor for strength of will overcoming self-doubt. It’s also part of the demystification processes which Jack Body saw as central to his particular “heart’s desire”. And this book gives us many such instances of the essence of Body’s particular no-holds-barred brand of creativity.

The most complimentary thing I can think of saying about the book is that it’s enabled me to feel as though I now know Jack Body a whole lot better than I did. People who knew him well will be far less surprised by what’s covered here, but to others like myself whose contact with him consisted of meeting occasionally at concerts, registering, however briefly, his warmth and friendliness, and who know some of his music through live performances and recordings, the sheer range and depth of his activities here presented is nothing short of revelatory – as fellow-composer Helen Bowater said about meeting him for the first time, it’s like “being struck by lightning – never the same again!”.

Editors Jennifer Shennan, Gillian Whitehead and Scilla Askew can, I think be extremely proud of the result of their labours, in tandem with Steele Roberts Publishers. Together they have done for Jack what he himself repeatedly did in his own work – expressed essential and enduring things, which his friends already knew, but which people such as myself can now discover and realize more fully for ourselves throughout these lively, warm-hearted and inspiring pages.