Composer Gareth Farr about being born on Leap Day, visiting Antarctica and the nuclear issue.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wellington but we moved to Auckland when I was two. I attended Auckland Metropolitan College in Mt Eden. It was an alternative school, very informal and democratic, and we called teachers by their first names. I arrived as a shy 13-year-old and turned into a noisy 16-year-old.
What about university?
I had three chunks of university education, at Auckland, Victoria University and the Eastman School of Music in New York. At Auckland, I was trying to find out what I wanted to do. I enrolled as a percussionist without much experience, was encouraged by John Rimmer to work on my composition and ended up doing a double major. At Victoria, I discovered the gamelan and other south-east Asian music. That was an eye-opener, life-changing.
That was my big OE – I hadn't travelled much. I had incredible teachers there and really had to raise my game.
Did you get caught up in political issues at university?
In the early 1980s, when I was at college, the focus was the nuclear issue. I was terrified of the prospect of nuclear war, and nuclear-powered submarines and ships coming to New Zealand – the issue was half my life. We'd leave school and march in the Queen St protests. At Eastman, there was a very strong Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship who were so obsessively anti-gay it had the opposite effect. I chaired a gay group and the impetus for it came as a reaction to the Christian fellowship.
You got a $50,000 grant as a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate last year. I thought composers normally struggled for money.
We do. Getting that grant was indescribable; no strings attached. When they rang me, I thought they were asking for a reference for someone else. The grant comes from the assumption that most artists do freebies or work at well under market rates quite often and this is an acknowledgement that our work is actually valuable.
Tell me about visiting Antarctica.
It's like being on another planet. I'd had eight hours in an incredibly noisy Hercules, then we landed and there was this total silence and vastness – the horizon seemed 10 times further away than anywhere I'd been. It was an amazing place, dangerous and powerful, but fragile. I came away much more aware of the environmental damage we are doing.
I understand you were born on Leap Day.
Yes, I'm actually only 10! I used to celebrate my birthday twice each year, February 28 and March 1, but the birthdays flash by these days. My 40th birthday was a grand occasion – it was Leap Day, so I turned 10 and 40 at the same time. We had a Versailles-themed party and the guests really got into it – more than 100 of them all dressed up Marie Antoinette-style.
Do you ever have writer's block with your composing?
Sometimes it's hard, but the greatest motivation is a rapidly approaching deadline. When you know the work has to be done by Tuesday or else, you get it done. My advice is to write down your first thoughts, no matter how arbitrary they seem, and work from there.
You've been involved in some big occasions, composing music for the Te Papa opening in 1999 and for two Olympic Games.
Te Papa was a great occasion. There were thousands of people queued outside and I was inside thinking, "God, I'll be playing for all those people soon". I had two pieces played at the Sydney Olympics. What an honour. And at the Beijing Olympics, the Te Papa piece was played again.
Speaking of the Olympics, didn't you also carry the Olympic baton?
Yes, I lit the big flame in Wellington. I was No 100 and took the baton from Peter Jackson. It was a thrill, not the sort of thing I'd have imagined myself doing.
Besides composing, you have an alter-ego as drag queen Lilith Lacroix.
Yes. Lilith has been fairly quiet in recent years, but happily Drumdrag is being reprised for two performances at Downstage in March. I love the performing-acting aspect of drag, but I've been too busy to devote the attention needed to come up with new material. However, I'm really excited about the Downstage shows.
You have been described as an "entertaining" musician, almost as if it's an insult.
I do set out to entertain and have used the word entertainer to describe myself, even though people think of someone like Howard Morrison when you do that. It's more that I try to bring colour and life to my music – there's nothing wrong with people being entertained.
Are you happy living in Wellington?
Very much so. It's good for me professionally. I write for concert, theatre, movies, television, and the work is here. I lived in Owhiro Bay for eight years – I loved it, but it was enough. It was a long way from town, no bus, salt air rusting my car! Now I'm in Aro Valley and enjoy the convenience of being able to walk everywhere – that's one of the great things about Wellington.
- The Wellingtonian