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Where words can’t reach

Tim Kroenert  |  14 October 2019

Religious composer Fr Chris Willcock says music has its own little corner of the soul, which it alone can reach.

There’s something about music. Fr Chris Willcock SJ, the acclaimed Australian Jesuit composer, can’t quite put it into words. But he knows it’s there. Music is subjective, in that no two people will have precisely the same response to a given piece of music. But in Fr Willcock’s words, music is ‘subjective and …’

‘Music is not so subjective that it can’t be shared’, he says. ‘Even if people don’t feel the exact same response, you can tell if an audience is swept by something that is beautifully done in the presence of that audience.’

Fr Willcock was born into a Catholic family in Sydney, and knew from a young age that he was interested in becoming a priest.

A love for music

Then, during his formative years growing up in Sydney and in Armidale, NSW, he developed a love and aptitude for playing and writing music. In eventually deciding to join the Jesuits, he found a path on which he could combine his love of music with his priestly vocation.

‘I checked the library, did my research, and found that the Jesuits have had botanists, they’ve had astronomers, poets, hang-gliders, musicians, mathematicians … well, maybe composers as well.’

After joining the Jesuits, 50 years ago this year, he completed further studies in the sacraments and in worship, fields that segued quite naturally with his music ministry, forming part of what he calls ‘the whole ritual side of life’.

‘Anybody who’s open to the power of music knows that the power really can’t be expressed in any other way’, he says. ‘It’s not the same as looking at a piece of art, or reading a fine poem, or reading a novel.

‘There are many things music can reach that many of the other arts also approach. But music has its own brief, its own corner of the soul. It can give voice to things like praise or penitence, giving thanks to God or being sorry for what we’ve done.’

Craftmanship meets contemplativeness

Music’s mystical dimensions are reflected in Fr Willcock’s approach to composition, which combines craftsmanship with a kind of contemplativeness. Many of his works are the result of commissions or requests; often, the task is to set to music a piece of text — a part of the Mass, or a poem. When he begins, there is nary a musical instrument nor a scrap of music manuscript in sight.

‘Whether it’s a text I’ve set plenty of times before, or a text I’ve never set before, my first thing is simply a blank piece of paper’, he says. ‘Even with things I’ve set 20 times before, I write the whole thing out again, up to 15 times. Not on a typewriter, not on a computer; with pen in hand and on blank paper.

‘What I imagine happens is that in the act of inscribing and re-inscribing the text, something inside me acts upon that action. As I’m writing I’m sub-vocalising, and I am able to articulate, where is the text moving from, and to? Does it have major sections? Was it not long enough to have more than just a single arc – begins there, goes to there, and finishes there? Or does it begin there and stay up there?’

Practical focus

Only once this process has been completed does the craftsman kick in; the melody will follow, or the rhythm. Fr Willcock will also bring to bear other practical factors, such as what he knows of the level of skill and experience of the musicians or vocalists for whom he is writing.

‘I try, if I can, to leave as long a time as possible between the action of writing the text out, and the first dot that goes down on the page’, he says. The longer that the ‘unreflective, unconscious inside’ has to work on the physical action of writing the words out by hand, the happier he is with the end result.

As a composer working in Australia, Fr Willcock has reflected on the millennia-long cultural traditions that predate the arrival of white Europeans, and what their bearing might be on his own body of work. (His university studies included a course on ‘ethnic musicology’, which considered Indigenous Australian music alongside the music of Southeast Asia, albeit from a Western perspective.)

It’s a question he hasn’t resolved, but continues to contemplate. ‘People ask, “What does it mean to be an Australian composer?”’ he says. ‘My response is that anybody who lives in Australia, and is a composer, is an Australian composer. Which is cheeky and not very helpful. But it’s not too far from the truth.

‘I’m not aware of any conscious impact Indigenous music has had on what I’ve produced, but I am an Australian composer in the sense that I have been subject to all the influences anybody who’s an inhabitant of this country is subject to.’


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