Composer puts heart, soul into last works

Wellington composer Jack Body's works have always focused on the big questions - life, love, death - so a terminal cancer diagnosis has not changed much.

"It's the human condition. We're all on death row," the Victoria University music lecturer of 20 years said.

Despite his grim prognosis, he hopes to complete two final works.

"One will be a very nice last piece. Because it's about what the earth taught me, what the plants said, what the birds said, what the worms said," he joked.

Body, 69, has had a prolific month, working with the New Zealand String Quartet and putting on a performance of his work at Auckland University.

This Friday and Saturday, his Little Elegies will open the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's concert in Wellington and Auckland.

The diagnosis of an inoperable tumour in his spine came while he was in China last year. Just before Christmas his Wellington doctor gave him the bad news: "probably months, not years".

"It didn't make for a joyful Christmas. But since then I've been living with the idea that if I accumulate enough months, they can become years."

At the same time, Body was struck by how lucky he is to have led the life he did. "People are dying all the time under dreadful circumstances, and my heart bleeds for young people and children born with fatal conditions. They haven't had a chance to realise their lives."

Body now accepts he will now leave unfinished business, compositions he will never complete, countries and cities he will never see or visit again.

But time with loved ones, such as his partner of almost 40 years, Yono Sukarno, is more important than external accomplishments.

He also hoped to finish two last music projects. "Both I feel quite passionate about, but they're big, which requires time and energy. I suspect I don't have that time and energy, but I'm going to try.

"There's a dread there - the dread is pain and debilitation and leave-taking. But many people get run over by a bus, or have a heart attack or die in their sleep. But it's a shock for everybody else. So actually to be given time, albeit not such a long time, that's a bonus."

Born in 1944, Body became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for services to music, photography and education.

The Dominion Post