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This memoir is a passionate account of a conductor’s lifetime enthusiasm for music. 

Give Me Excess of It is an immensely enjoyable book. Richard Gill and I are much of an age, both NSW Conservatorium students (though we never met there), and so many of his memories are mine as well: the glorious cacophony (usually sopranos and pianos) emanating from the windows of the old Con as you approached along Macquarie Street, and the delightful labyrinth of the building itself; the deeply suspect Continental films at the Savoy Theatre; espresso coffee, bodgies.

I admit that I opened his autobiography with some trepidation; I had expected, from my few sightings of the author over the years, pompous over-confidence. There is a bit of that, but what shines through is his clear-sighted honesty and absolute passion for music. He is brutally open about his early ignorance masked by bravado. And so happy is he in sharing his discoveries in the various fields of music that he makes us happy too.

Gill’s portrayal of his mother is affectionate and funny. His recollection of his Catholic schooldays chimes with that of many others in its description of brutal cruelty – the cane, the strap; one wonders how any child came through it without bitterness. Yet Gill himself somehow manages to forgive and pity his persecutors.

He is fierce about government policies on music education, and frequently laments the crushing of initiative on the part of teachers in the name of standardisation of the curriculum, of the creation of ‘norms’ and ‘targets’. His own teaching methods, despite his years of training, seem to spring from his own ideas and discoveries.  He is generous with his opinions on teaching and explaining music to youngsters, whom he obviously loves.

He condemns what we might call the Derrida deconstructionist approach to music, that Britney Spears and J S Bach are of equal value, yet in the same chapter gets annoyed with those who divide music into highbrow and lowbrow when somebody criticises his liking for In a Monastery Garden. Inconsistency? So what? The book is full of his enthusiasm. For non-musicians he gives useful explanatory parentheses (fugue, four-part harmony, etc.), as well as longer expositions of such subjects as tonic sol-fa and the use of ‘period’ instruments.

Sadly, bitterness creeps in around Chapter 14, with accounts of his being edged out of the Sydney Con, and later out of the Perth Con and other positions. An awful sabotaging prank is wreaked on him as he conducts a performance of Turandot for Opera Australia. He seems to have matured into a person many people rather detest. He must frequently look over his shoulder for the stiletto from boards of directors, from government funding departments. We are given a lot of self-justification, and there is probably much truth in what he says, but I wonder if, as the same situation arises so frequently, he might at least consider that some fault lies within himself? His occasional remarks about his wife’s constant patience and loyalty hint at strains there, too. We are not given enough of the other side of the story to judge – but this is, after all, an autobiography.

I was surprised that, particularly as he started his lessons on a Duo-Art roll-playing instrument, Gill makes no mention of the huge roll collection of the late Dennis Condon (a distinguished schoolteacher himself), whom no musician in Sydney could have failed to know.  He is rather too fond of exclamation marks in his text, and I don’t think the captions to many of the photographs need be quite so self-deprecating. He gets his French genders wrong in quoting a proverb in that language. He also evidently feels compelled to name virtually every singer he has worked with (all have run, so all must have prizes), as well as appending admiring epithets to most of them (‘splendid’, ‘brilliant’, ‘wonderful’, ‘exceptional’, and so on).

The book will be of interest to any Australian musician, full of familiar names and incidents, and full of Gill’s exciting ideals with regard to the teaching of music. Non-musicians and general music-lovers will also find much of interest.

By the way, with regard to that wholesome ABC children’s programme The Argonauts, Gill is mistaken; we were not named after Jason’s ships, but after his crew.

Richard Gill Give Me Excess of It Pan Macmillan 2012 HB 400pp $44.99

Tony Bremner (Anaxagoras 42) was born in Sydney and now lives in London, where he is a composer and arranger.

You can buy this book from Booktopia here or from Abbey’s here.

If you would like to see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.