The National Library has a range of Fellowships and Scholarships available to researchers, writers, artists and younger scholars, and we always enjoy hearing about what the recipients have achieved in the years since completing their research with us.
Recently we sat down with Chris Williams, the inaugural Creative Arts Fellow in 2015, and asked him a few questions about his time at the Library, and what he has been up to since completing his Fellowship.
When did you complete your Fellowship at the National Library and what were you researching?
I finished my Fellowship in 2015, and I was looking at the papers of Australian composer Nigel Butterley (1935-2022). Nigel was a musical mentor, teacher and friend of mine. He told me, when his papers were going to the National Library, that he was surprised to find substantial manuscripts for an opera he didn’t remember starting – abandoned in the early 1970s – on the story of the Snow Queen. I was intrigued, and Nigel told me that if I ever wanted to do anything with it, I had his blessing. That was the starting point for my Fellowship. I wanted to know more about the piece, the circumstances surrounding it, and create a work in response to it. This work, The Truth of the Flowers, was subsequently performed in workshop by The Sydney Chamber Opera.
Nigel passed away earlier this year and is to be posthumously awarded the Richard Gill Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music, at the Art Music Awards on 31 August.
Why did you want to study at the National Library?
The Fellowship is an extraordinary opportunity, and the blend of research and creative work seemed to be perfect for my own interests. At the time, I had just finished my Masters in composition at the University of Oxford and was looking for what was next. I was particularly looking for any substantial creative work I could get that would bring me home to Australia. I’d always known I wanted to spend some time looking at Nigel’s papers, and so the timing seemed perfect.
How has your time at the National Library helped you to advance your research?
I’ve always said that the most valuable commodity a composer can have is time. Being granted the time to be a full-time composer is rare in Australia, and especially so for a young composer. As much as the research I did, it was the Fellowship's investment in me as a young artist that had the most profound impact. It afforded me time to think, to work, and develop as an artist on a full-time basis. The research I was doing changed my view of what a composer is, their relationship to their society (and history), and my own sense of my Australian compositional forebears.
Being immersed in the records of the daily lives of Australian composers from a definitive generation, several generations before me, was formative and eye-opening in a way that I could never have predicted at the start of the Fellowship. It gave me a profound insight into the unfolding of histories of Australian music that I had thought I knew, but which were, in fact, far more complex and interesting than the simple narratives I had been taught.
Even more so than my time at Oxford, my time at the National Library was the start of being able to lay claim to the perilous idea of being a professional composer, and of being able to take composition seriously as a professional pursuit.
What do you hope people learn from your project? What did you discover that you want to share?
I don’t think Australians are good at telling their own stories, and this is a two-pronged problem when it comes to our historical record. We don’t know the stories of the people who have struggled to tell our stories over time. I think Nigel is one such person, an artist of the most visionary integrity, who followed his own path and persisted unwaveringly despite the difficulties of just existing as an artist in Australia. That persistence created some of the most remarkable works of Australian composition, still too little heard and known.
But as much as an individual story, he was also caught in the most fascinating moments in Australian cultural history that were much larger than Nigel’s own work, and so influenced it; for example, the opening of the Sydney Opera House and the founding of funding bodies for the arts and major performing groups. The research I did gave me a much clearer sense of the fragility of the past and what that means for our fragile present, especially in the arts. Nothing is certain and the fixed stories we tell about the past are full of elisions, near misses, and ‘only justs’ that can perhaps never really be fully accounted for, outside the National Library’s collections. It is a much richer tapestry than can always be captured succinctly.
Why would you recommend the Creative Arts Fellowship program to others?
It is a unique and invaluable opportunity for the right person and the right project at the right time, it’s a lifetime connection to an extraordinary cultural institution, and it is also an investment in our cultural heritage as Australians. What is there not to recommend?
I’d particularly recommend the Fellowship to artists or researchers who have not had the privilege of spending time at the National Library before, as I had not. The breadth of collections is staggering, and the interwoven network – the connections between collections – across the Library is as fascinating as it is inspiring. Beyond the collections, the people who work at the National Library are also extraordinary and so invested in sharing their expertise and the Library’s collections. The genuine dedication and care of the employees at the Library is uplifting and rewarding.
What are some of your career highlights since completing your Fellowship in 2015?
I’ve composed music for a number of productions with the Sydney Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company, I have been nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award, I’ve been commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. In 2021 I won the Musica Per Archi international composition prize, stemming from a performance by musicians from the Lviv Philharmonic in Ukraine. In 2017 I won the composition prize of the Australian International Chopin Competition, while in 2018 I was an invited composer at the Takefu International Music Festival in Japan.
Can you tell us a bit about the creation of your latest work with The Song Company?
The main text for my Song Company piece, I pray the sea, comes from Behrouz Boochani’s book No Friend but the Mountains. Despite being one of the most remarkable Australian books of the past decade, its author has never been allowed to set foot inside Australia. The book was written entirely via text message from a contraband mobile phone, while Boochani was detained offshore on Manus Island. It is a remarkable, and harrowing, first-hand account of acts done in our name as a nation.
My piece places Boochani’s words amidst historical and contemporary texts that seem to somehow resonate with, and reflect upon, his thoughts and experiences. My piece is fundamentally about what it means to seek refuge, what it means to be forced by the cruel indifference of circumstance from the safety of the shore, into the terrifying beauty of the water and the uncertain beyond. As such, it almost unavoidably contemplates notions of home, love, loss, humanity, and nature.
Listen to The Song Company’s Director Robert Macfarlane interviewed as part of ABC Radio National’s The Music Show.
Find out more about The Song Company’s current national tour.
You can read more about the National Library’s Fellowship and Scholarship programs on our website, and you can find out more about upcoming Fellowship talks on our Talks and Lectures page.
The Creative Arts Fellowship is supported by the Friends of the National Library.