I have known Gareth Farr for many years through his family (I worked with his Dad in at Mercury Theatre); in the gay community (Queer Nation had honoured him as Queer of the Year); and as an outstanding composer (who could forget the opening of Te Papa, Farr's piece written to celebrate the opening of the Museum of New Zealand?).
But since a lovely life story documentary by Peter Muxlow in the 90s, I felt there was a lack of documentation about Gareth's creative life as a composer. He's a wonderful man to spend time with — funny, open, stimulating and energetic — great elements for television. I called him and asked if we could pitch a doco idea. He screamed: "fab, yes let's do it Johnny!" So I put forward the idea of following him around for six months to Philippa Mossman at TVNZ. She was enthusiastic, especially since the six months included a couple of international events Gareth was to attend, which had cross-cultural elements.
We put the schedule and budget together and started shooting, then a bomb went off in Indonesia. We were set to travel to Bali with a full crew to film Gareth purchasing the final elements of his gamelan orchestra equipment. We couldn't get insurance to cover the crew in Bali as the whole of Indonesia was suddenly under an official 'travel advisory'. No insurance = no travel. We were all devastated. Gareth had planned to take his gamelan teacher and his wife with him, and we were to film the influence of gamelan on Gareth's music with village musicians in Bali.
Luckily we had Gareth's visit to Sydney to work with, and the incredible voices of The Song Company and their concert at Government House. But what could take the place of Bali?
The NZ Army came to the rescue. Roz Mason, the director, and I then developed a storyline around the Farr Blitz concert. It was the first complete concert of Gareth Farr's music. It featured Gareth rehearsing and performing with Strike and the NZ Army Band, culminating in the Gallipoli-inspired piece Onslaught.
It is a credit to Gareth's prodigious output that we were able to link up with another of his activities that still told a fascinating story, when we had lost the Bali tale. The concert at Te Papa was memorable and ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.
- John A Givins began in television in the early 80s, and directed everything from drama to arts shows. In 1989 he established company Livingstone Productions, where he worked on long-running LGBT series Queer Nation and sketch show Laughinz. He has also worked at Māori Television, and Asian TV service Star TV.
"As you've probably gathered, I'm impatient! I get bored quickly, so I always make sure I have plenty of projects on the go. One day I'll be doing a piece of work for the symphony orchestra and the next I'll be doing a TV advert in drag. People aren't quite sure what to expect from me and that gives me a certain amount of license that other performers don't have."
In Farr From Heaven New Zealand's preeminent young composer and percussionist, Gareth Farr, opens up his world as he prepares, creates, rehearses and performs a variety of music works. An arts magazine-style documentary in two parts, it was written and directed by Roz Mason for TVNZ series Artsville. The series brought documentaries on art and artists to the screen during the mid 2000s.
Mason's crew followed Farr's life closely for six months: According to Mason, "keeping the same crew did ensure a consistent look and a cohesive team spirit, but also helped Gareth feel at home with the crew who were so much a part of his life for all that time. He was amazingly candid, particularly about the composition process and I'm sure his knowing the team helped that".
Farr describes the filming experience as "one hellava six months in my life". Part one begins with a fast-moving montage: scenes of Strike, one of New Zealand's leading percussion ensembles, are cut together with Farr discussing his work. Lilith Lacroix — "my alto ego who dresses up in drag and plays the drums" — is introduced, followed by Farr's wry admission "I've got a proper job too. I'm a classical composer".
"Serious isn't a word I'd associate often with my personality — in either capacity. What I enjoy most is challenging people's preconceptions of what a classical musician is."
The first part of the documentary takes in Farr's score for a Toi Whaakari (New Zealand Drama School) production of Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre; his work with the Balinese Gamelan, and Pukal, for Percussion and Brass, a piece for the New Zealand Army Band, commissioned for the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Gallipoli. Murray from Strike says "The only brief we gave to Gareth was to write the loudest piece in the world".
In part two, the crew follows Farr to Australia where he works with leading Australian artists, poet Les Murray and vocal group The Song Company. Farr sets music to the poems creating a song cycle for a performance at Government House.
Throughout both programmes, Farr openly discusses being gay and its centrality to his identity, and also its complications: "As far as [drag alter ego] Lilith goes, it's a very complicated scenario, but I've never felt like a split personality. When I'm Lilith I'm all woman. She's exciting and scary and can get away with things that I wouldn't dare. But when I'm writing classical music, I'm all male... It would be very difficult for me to imagine writing orchestra music in drag!"
Later a conventionally dressed Farr is captured working at his home workstation, focusing on his music notation programme, as he continues his next commission, Concerto for Orchestra and Percussion.
The first rehearsal with all the musicians is a disaster. There are balance problems between the instruments within the arrangement. Conductor Ken Young doesn‘t hold back pointing this out, and Farr goes home with some serious revision work. After three days, the work is represented; the performance, a world premiere, is a success and Farr is finally happy.
Farr's motto in life is "enjoy it before it's too late!" Farr From Heaven is an inspiring testament to Farr's impassioned personality and his commitment to making original music in all its sonic (sparkling sequins or not) glory.
- Michelle Scullion has composed for television, film, radio and stage. Her work includes Peter Jackson's debut feature Bad Taste, sci-fi thriller Eternity, and Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Lemming Aid.