Biography: James Murdoch (1930-2010)

James Murdoch, arts administrator, author, pianist, and advocate for Australian music, was born in Sydney on 25 January 1930. An only child, the family moved often and he attended 13 different schools, leaving Canterbury Boys High School, aged 14, to become an electrical fitter. After a year, he left to work at the Sun newspaper, but music emerged as the dominant force in his life and he eventually studied piano, composition and conducting at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. Work at the ABC as a script and record librarian and then in the arts archives at the State Library of Victoria provided informal training in documentation and archiving that became a major theme in his life.

His first major music appointment was in 1958 when he went to Madrid as Music Director and company pianist of Luisillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre, for whom he also created the music for two ballets. He returned to Australia in 1962 as Assistant Musical Director and company pianist of the new Australian Ballet company. In the following year he founded the Universal Record Club and in 1964 was appointed Special Assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of the World Record Club Australia. In that capacity, from 1964-68 he produced a monthly magazine and wrote over 200 record cover notes each year as well as articles on contemporary music and artists. He established the Foundation for the Recording of Australian Music and produced the Australian Music Today recordings in 1965.

Murdoch was an active member of the International Society for Contemporary Music throughout the 50s and 60s and variously served as Secretary of its Melbourne, Sydney and Australian branches. In 1965 he initiated the formation of the Melbourne branch and directed the First Festival of Contemporary Music in Melbourne with 69 events.

In 1968 Murdoch accepted an invitation to London to manage Peter Maxwell Davies and his newly formed Pierrot Players, later The Fires of London. Establishing his artist agency in London, James Murdoch Management Pty Ltd., he rapidly expanded his business to represent leading artists, whose work meshed around the British and European contemporary music and festival circles. His artists included composers Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle and Leo Brouer, pianists Roger Woodward and Paul Crossley, singers Cathy Berberian and Mary Thomas, the Budapest Chamber Orchestra and the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. He directed many experimental music theatres pieces and he assisted in organising the music for Ken Russell’s films The Devils and The Boyfriend. As the European representative for the Museum of Modern Art (Australia), he also negotiated on behalf of John Reed in Melbourne with artists and arts organisations to tour artworks to Australia.

By invitation, he returned to Australia in 1972 to become Music Consultant to the first Music Board of the Australian Council of the Arts (1973), chaired by Don Banks. In the same year his book Australia's contemporary composers was published in which he critically discussed the work of 33 composers. As Board consultant, he organised with Don Banks the third National Conference of Australian Composers at the Australian National University in Canberra in September 1973 as well as the National Anthem competition.

However, his key initiative at the Council was the formation of the Australian Music Centre to document, coordinate, promote and archive Australian music and, on its establishment in 1975, he was appointed its founding Director. During its frenetic first three years, with a growing staff, he established a library, produced a series of publications, directories and promotional films and organised over 250 concerts and exhibitions. In 1979 he instituted the AMC’s Australian composition facsimile publishing and copying service and, with Richard Meale, conceived the first summer school for young Australian composers with the support of the ABC held in 1980. Focusing on Australia in its geographic region, he also rapidly built collections and forged relationships to document Asian, Pacific and Indigenous music and brought Peggy Glanville-Hicks back to Australia in 1975 to lead the Asian Music Studies Program supported by the Myer Foundation. His goal was also to represent and stimulate the full gamut of Australian music across rock, folk, country and jazz, as well as classical composition. During this period Murdoch sought to benchmark the Centre internationally, and accordingly participated in the International Association of Music Libraries, Sound Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML) and the International Music Council (IMC), including the first National Minorities Performing Arts Festival as a guest of the Chinese Musicians Association. He remained active in ISCM and in 1980 was elected World President of the Music Information Centres Professional Branch (later IAMIC).

From 1973-79, he also assisted his life-long friends Barbara Blackman and Charles Blackman on the Council of their Chiron College, a small two year matriculation school located in Birchgrove in Sydney.

In 1981, with Australia Council funding to the Centre drastically reduced, he reluctantly left the Centre, again to be consultant to the Music Board where he undertook a number of projects, including a review of the publishing program, the planning of a National Music Council, and the preparation of an international course for choreographers and composers in New Zealand. In 1983 he published A Handbook of Australian Music and was consultant to the Paris Autumn Festival featuring Australian composers.

Deaprting the Council, in 1984 he formed the company James Murdoch & Associates which undertook research projects and provided consultancy services for the Australia Council, Sydney Opera House Trust and other arts bodies. He also managed the Australian tours of visiting musicians and dancers, including Indian and Indigenous artists, and was Artistic Director for the inaugural presentation of The First Australians at the Sydney Opera House. In 1988 he was also Artistic Director of New Directions, a festival in Sydney sponsored by the Australian Bicentennial Authority and Musica Viva, that included 101 performances of Australian and international contemporary and experimental music. Murdoch was appointed in 1989 as the Director of Reading 1990, established by the National Book Council, in conjunction with the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the National Library, to promote reading in Australia during the International Literary Year.

From 1984 Murdoch was actively engaged by the Australia Council in its Archival Film Project to record interviews with leading writers, composers and artists. He completed 60 films for this project, now held at the National Film and Sound Archive, and in 1988 he produced a directory of The Arts on Film. He also co-created 10 more films for the ABC and Juniper, including Notes on a Landscape – a documentary film on 10 Australian composers, with film-maker Bill Fitzwater, in 1980. In 1990-92, he was associate producer for Juniper’s P G-H - A Modern Odyssey. After she died in 1990, he devoted himself to sustaining the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Trust and House as well as several years researching and writing her story, published by Pendragon Press as P G-H: A Transposed Life (2002). From the 1980s onwards, he also began documenting the lives of artists for the National Library of Australia that resulted in extensive oral history interviews with more than 50 artists.

In 1990 Murdoch moved his home to Bali, where he continued his consultancy and management services, as well as his writing and broadcasting on Australian composition. He undertook significant reviews of arts policies and organisations for the Australian government, some confidential that found their way into Prime Minister Keating’s Creative Nation policy. However he also turned his focus towards the wider region, writing on Asian music and creating, archiving and managing arts events within South-East Asia. He produced a Guide to the Arts of Bali, and founded the Bali Film Archive and Bali Film Festival. He was artistic advisor to the Sutra Dance Theatre in Malaysia, and undertook consultancies for the Malaysian government on the development of their Arts Programs and on archiving Malaysian arts. He advised the Byrd Hoffman Foundation on the Watermill Center Summer programs in the USA. His Oral History interviews for the National Library of Australia culminated in the Donald Friend Oral History project and in 2008 he curated the Donald Friend Celebration for the Ubud Writers Festival.

In his last months, though very frail, he spent several weeks in Canberra documenting his Peggy Glanville-Hicks collection as well as personal papers. He died, peacefully, in Bali on November 25, 2010. He leaves a vast legacy in his own manuscript collection that documents the rich, varied and colourful history of his contribution to Australian cultural life over six decades.

Robyn Holmes

Curator of Music, National Library of Australia

November 5, 2010.