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Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure

A continuing lifetime of composition: John Rimmer. Photo/Supplied

Contemporaries and students are paying tribute to composer John Rimmer and his musical legacy.

New Zealand composer John Rimmer, who recently turned 80, has not forgotten a student encounter with the composer who became his mentor, Douglas Lilburn. In the mid-1960s, Lilburn visited the Society for Contemporary Music in Auckland and played his pioneering electronic piece, The Return. “I was really bowled over,” Rimmer says now, “hearing Alistair Campbell reading his wonderful poem and Douglas’ sound image.”

It was a watershed moment. Rimmer headed off into postgraduate work at the University of Toronto, where he also began combining live instruments with electronic sounds, inspired by Synchronism No 1 for flute and electronic sounds by Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky. “I discovered that electronic sounds increase the range of tone colours of the instrument,” says Rimmer.

A french horn player, he composed Composition 1 for horn and electronics in Toronto, the first of his set of 10 “live” electronic Compositions for a variety of instruments and ensembles written over a decade.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Returning to New Zealand, he got to know Lilburn better. “He was a wonderful mentor. He asked me once, about a little tape piece, ‘How do you know what to do next?’ He said it naturally, a conversation starter, but I thought, ‘That’s one of the fundamental problems of composition.’”

The nature of sound has been an enduring interest. “I use a limited number of different sounds played against each other in different orders and transformations – as if they’re characters in a drama,” he says. “But now my studio has moved outside, to the world of nature – again, a Douglas influence.” Since he wrote his popular piano piece For the kōkako, he says, “Inspiration from nature and protest about environmental degradation have been frequent themes.”

Much of Rimmer’s career was spent at the University of Auckland’s music school, nurturing future generations of composers. In 1978, he founded the Karlheinz Company, a “new-music ensemble” of staff and student musicians. An early concert marked the 50th birthday of the polarising 20th-century German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Rimmer brought his focus on sound and the natural world to his teaching. One of his students was composer Eve de Castro-Robinson, now an associate professor at the University of Auckland and director of the Karlheinz Company.

She remembers her first “Materials of Music” lecture with him. “At the first lesson, he looked at his watch and said, ‘Let’s go outside.’ We spilled out on to Albert Park and he said, ‘Listen!’ At midday, all the city clocks started chiming out of phase. It was our first lesson in soundscape and none of us has ever forgotten it. We learnt to ‘listen out’, and a lot of us teach like that.”

She also recalls Rimmer heading off for lunchtime runs and his shoes and socks airing on the radiator afterwards. “He’s a man who gets out there, alert to sonic nuances around him.”

The programme for John Rimmer at 80, an upcoming tribute concert for the composer, includes pieces by seven former students, including de Castro-Robinson.

Rimmer will make an appearance on the french horn, playing his 1983 composition De Aestibus Rerum, as part of a quintet. The title refers to “the ebb and flow of things” – something he experiences at Tapu Bay, Kaiteriteri, where he retired. There, he still composes, looking out over the estuary. “The tide comes in and goes out twice a day,” he says, “and always leaves different patterns in the sand.”

John Rimmer at 80, University of Auckland School of Music, May 26. Stroma’s Where Sea meets Sky featuring music by John Rimmer, Hannah Playhouse, Wellington, May 30.

This article was first published in the May 25, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.