Kiwi composer John Rimmer: An instrumental figure

by Elizabeth Kerr / 24 May, 2019
A continuing lifetime of composition: John Rimmer. Photo/Supplied

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

RelatedArticlesModule - John Rimmer nz composer

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.

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.

Latest

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art
107286 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's por…

by Roger Hall

On an Australian art tour, playwright Sir Roger Hall found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Read more
ANZ boss's departure: 'What was the NZ board doing to monitor expenses?'
Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more
Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fortunes?
107279 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Can defending free speech boost David Seymour's fo…

by Graham Adams

The policies announced at Act’s relaunch are mostly standard party fare, but freedom of expression is an issue that could pull in new voters.

Read more
Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the public in full
107264 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Oranga Tamariki inquiry won't be released to the p…

by RNZ

Oranga Tamariki's inquiry into its attempt to take a newborn baby from its mother at Hawke's Bay Hospital will not be released to the public in full.

Read more
Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis who crossed the ditch
106770 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Writer Stephanie Johnson on five pioneering Kiwis…

by Diana Wichtel

Stephanie Johnson likes a good story and she’s found one in a collection of colourful Kiwis who made their mark in Australia.

Read more
The science behind finding the perfect sports bra
107091 2019-06-17 00:00:00Z Health

The science behind finding the perfect sports bra

by Ruth Nichol

Insufficient breast support is a barrier to exercise for many women, but with the right sports bra, there can be less bounce in your step.

Read more
Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in Mayfair
106986 2019-06-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Jessica McCormack: The Kiwi jeweller sparkling in…

by Clare de Lore

Diamonds and books are New Zealand designer Jessica McCormack’s best friends.

Read more