Portrait: Gareth Farr - Composer, percussionist, entertainer, drag queen

Gareth Farr, acclaimed New Zealand composer and percussionist.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Gareth Farr, acclaimed New Zealand composer and percussionist.

As a kid, Gareth Farr played the piano as if it had committed some sort of misdemeanour. He hit those ivory keys like they were a contrary set of drums. The guitar didn't get off lightly either.

He whacked its strings and thwacked its body to extract the pure resonance he craved.

Percussion was his destiny.

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The composer recalls the allure of a drumbeat from an early age.

There's a scene deep down in his memory of his mother playing Mozart's Rondo alla Turca when he was eight. He got her to play it over and over again while he'd pick out the tune using one finger.

He loved ABBA (Bjorn was the object of his desire), adored Nana Mouskouri and was partial to a bit of reggae, but it was English folk rock band Lindisfarne that struck a chord in the future composer's heart.

"They had this song called When the War is Over. What I liked most was the orchestral arrangement that comes in at the end. It gets bigger and bigger till the violins are soaring away and there's these huge epic horn lines and it turns into this massive orchestral piece. It was magnificent."

Currently he's working on three new works, including a concerto for a French cellist Sebastien Hurtaud, which will be performed in France and New Zealand.

He's just booked his ticket to Paris - terrorists be damned - and he's busy trying to sidestep that notorious artist's foe - the blank page syndrome.

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"I have a trick when I'm really, really stuck and the possibilities are too infinite and the page is really, really blank. I put myself in the audience at the premiere of my piece and I picture the musicians on the stage and I ask, what do I want them to do?"

At this, he gives an invisible drum an almighty bash then an imaginary harp the most delicate strum.

"Right now I'm trying to hack my way in. I'm trying to find an entrance, trying to pick through the ice to get into it. Once you're in you get more and more obsessed with the piece and conversations with people make less and less sense and the week before it's due, don't even bother calling me because every waking moment is about the piece."

He delivers this spiel without coming up for air. Every once in a while he flails his long limbs about in some wild gesticulation as he tries to describe one thing or another. It's a pity there's not a drum kit around.

Even when the composition is finished, it's still just dots on a page until the musicians play the the notes, he says.

That is the big buzz. That is the reason he does what he does, ultimately to get the reaction from an audience when the musicians fire up.

"You can always tell how it's being perceived, especially if they start coughing and dropping things and eating lollies and you think to yourself, 'whoops, I've buggered that up!'

Farr grew up in Auckland with his father, Don, who was an actor with the Mercury Theatre Company, and his mother Jan, a writer.

He was a quiet kid, effeminate, curious - qualities that attracted savage bullying at school during his intermediate years.

"It was only two years but it affected me badly. They used to call me poof and fag and ironically it wasn't till later on in life when I thought f*** it, how did they know?

"OK, I had a crush on Bjorn from ABBA and I thought Andy Gibb was beautiful, but I didn't equate it with sexuality. I wasn't aware of any of that till I was about 14.

"I just knew I was different from them and they hated that.

"I wish it hadn't happened and I wish it hadn't affected some of my adult decisions because you can't be having revenge dreams in your 40s."

Percussion really took hold when Don McGlashan came to teach at Auckland Metropolitan College - an alternative high school in Mt Eden that Farr attended.

At the time Farr was tiring of piano lessons, playing Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, badly.

"Music, for me, was all starting to screech to a big halt then Don magically appeared. All of us students were like groupies. We couldn't wait for him to come back each week. That's when I really took percussion seriously."

Farr went on to study composition and percussion at the University of Auckland. The experience of hearing a visiting gamelan orchestra in 1988 prompted a move to Wellington and Victoria University. He continued with postgraduate study at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

It was during his time in America that his alter ego Lilith LaCroix made her entrance.

He'd heard there was a drag show at a club in the town every Sunday night.

"I couldn't believe it. This was not New York City, this was Rochester, a small American town. What was it going to be? Football players with dresses on?

"Eventually I went to a show and it blew me away. To this day, it's probably the best drag show I've ever seen."

He thought it would be a piece of cake lip syncing and shimmying. After all, he was used to performing on stage.

"It. Was. Not. Easy," Farr says spelling it out for effect.

"I bombed. I forgot all the words, I was blinded by the spotlight. I had a moment when I thought 'I'm on stage, in women's clothing, what an earth am I doing?'

"I got off stage and instead of thinking 'I'll never do that again', I was hooked and I wondered how I could get good at this."

He used to walk to the club in his drag outfits. It was only a 15-minute walk from his digs but that was tough going in the snow, in heels, dodging muggers.

Lilith lives on and comes out from time to time performing her Drum Drag show.

He loses any fear of the world when he's playing his alter ego.

Farr met his partner Salesi Le'ota, an actor, at the famous Paterson Street Ball - an annual shin-dig in Wellington's Mt Victoria in 2001.

"We met on the dancefloor and it was love at first sight." He doesn't recall the song. His beautiful face erased all musical memory that night, he says dreamily.

They have been together for 16 years and live in Aro Valley with their cat. The ashes of past pets sit on one of many bookshelves along with framed photos of various moggies. 

Farr has composed for a huge variety of orchestras during his career. There has been a constant stream of music flowing out of him since he was 20, he says. In 2006 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit and in 2010 he was a recipient of the NZ Arts Laureate Award. He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from The University of Auckland in 2014.

He'd laugh at all that and say he sounded like an over-achiever.

Others might say: destiny fulfilled.

 - Stuff

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