I find great satisfaction in the fact that we - Australia - have one composer who can succeed in a medium of sensitivity in spite of the ugliness and violence predominating in so many countries.
Thus wrote Dr. Miriam Hyde about the music of Australian composer Phillip Wilcher.
Born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 16 March 1958, Phillip Wilcher commenced piano studies at an early age with Gladys Woodward and Jean Teasel. At 14, his first piano composition Daybreak was published by the publishing house of J. Albert & Son Pty Ltd making him the youngest published composer in Australia at that time. This piece has been recorded by John Martin on a CD titled Ancient Rivers, released by Publications by Wirripang.
As a result of this piece, Wilcher was accepted as a student of Dr. Franz Holford. It was this association with Holford, spanning seven years, which expanded his musical horizons to take in other genres of creativity including art and literature. Further studies with Elpis Liossatos - a graduate of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, and Neta Maughan, together with the valuable guidance from mentors Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland rounded off his education.
His music encompasses a broad stylistic range and incorporates harmonies and textures from many different cultures.
“Musically, Wilcher’s influences are similarly expansive and the impact of classical composers, particularly J.S. Bach, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, is apparent. Even though Wilcher’s work is notable for its exploration of the East, through his utilisation of Japanese scales in Haiga, Arabic in The Walls of Ukhaydir, and Egyptian in Ushabti, there is never a sense of Wilcher compromising his own musical language. Imposing such strict rules on a composition from the outset might be construed as limiting, such as the Kumoi scale of the Kumoi Prelude comprising only five tones Wilcher embraces this – “know your limitations and you can fly anywhere.” One senses that he is employing these musical tools to facilitate his final aim – to know himself – which solidifies Wilcher as a true individualist. “Everything felt second nature,” he said of the exercise. He also questions any notion of conformity to trends or labels – to do so “denies composers their truer sense of self by way of sound.” Consequently, there is an aspect of Wilcher’s music that is free flowing and self-evident.” (Samuel Bugeja, Lot’s Wife Magazine, Monash University)
Pianist Jeanell Carrigan has recorded quite a considerable amount of his piano music to CD. Dr. Carrigan said of Wilcher: Whether he wishes to transport the listener to a cafe in Paris or to the top of a mountain in Java, his skilful use of harmony, rhythm and tempi creates the perfect atmosphere.
Wilcher exhibits a strong structural sense, maturity and innovation all within a unique stylistic framework, composing for all levels of difficulty ranging from educational music for young children to pieces of supreme intricacy and difficulty. He has received two Australian Record Industry Awards for his educational contribution to the 1991 debut album release, The Wiggles.
His music is broadcast by ABC-FM and 2MBS-FM. Two documentary presentations on his music have been broadcast by 2MBS-FM:"Wilcher and the French Connection" by Mike Smith, and "Wilcher's World" by Jan Brown.
He has written a full-scale piano recital for the virtuoso pianist Simon Tedeschi, and his music has attracted the attention of, and been performed by pianists overseas, notably Gerhard Eckle, Eduardo Fernandez, Lemuel Grave, Adam Jackson, and Emanuel Rimoldi.
Simon Tedeschi: Phillip Wilcher's music dreamily evokes another time, another place. It has a searching quality that conjures up images of the great Romantic composers. Phillip wrote a recital for me, which I hope to present soon. Included in that are the ‘Etudes Tedeschi’ which have all the flavour and technical imagination of similar great works in the piano repertoire. I am proud to watch the evolution of this musician and composer who I count as a great personal friend.
Other musicians who have performed and recorded Wilcher’s works include John Martin (piano), Rachel Tolmie (oboist), Marina Marsden (violinst), Justine Marsden (violist), Elizabeth Neville (cellist), Emily Long (violinist), Melissa Doecke (flautist), Martin Cooke (singer), Neil Fissenden (flautist), David Wickham (pianist), Minah Choe (cellist).
Soprano Ayse Goknur Shanal premiered songs written for her by Wilcher at the Sydney Opera House, “In The Nape Of a Dream” and “Spirit Song”, both published by Wirripang.
“Spirit Song”, was specifically written at the request of Goknur Shanal for inclusion in her 'Songs for Refugees' concert.
“The idea for this concert was a seed I have been watering since September 2015 when I saw the image of the Syrian toddler with the tiny jeans shorts and red t-shirt washed up on the Turkish shores. It broke me,” Goknur Shanal revealed. Together with cellist Kenichi Mizushima and pianist Harry Collins, this monumental evening, was organised by the grassroots network, Mums 4 Refugees, with the proceeds being donated to the charitable law firm, Human Rights for All, which represents refugee cases, on pro bono basis.
"The concert includes works by, Massenet, Puccini, Giordano, as well as the world premiere of Spirit, written by Australian composer, Phillip Wilcher." (Sydney Opera House press release)
His composition Ballade for Clive Robertson is featured on the ABC Classics CD "Felix and Me".
Phillip Wilcher is an Elected Life Member of APRA and a Board Member of the Australian Music Teacher Magazine for whom he has written many articles on the music of Chopin, Brahms, Ravel and music education generally.
In 2003 he delivered a paper and workshop at the inaugural Keys Competition in Brisbane on his studies with Dr. Franz Holford called "Himself a Landscape."
Wilcher has also turned his creative attention towards the written word to include the authorship of several books, Dialogues, a narrative on the oneness of being; Divinity: A dialogue between the self and music at the source; The Poetry of the Preludes, in which Wilcher interprets the preludes of Frédéric Chopin, and his autobiography, Thinking Allowed: a life in conversation with itself.
Wilcher: “ I took everything that was taught me about Music by teachers and mentors far greater than myself, and held it with reverence in my heart as one would place a white dove in a gilded cage. I cared for my dove. I observed its every movement. I studied the incline of its neck as it tucked its head snuggly underwing so as not to face the fall of night. I measured the expanse of spirit sails; the fluttering of silver feathers. I listened to the intonation and inflection of its song. Once my learning was complete, I opened the cage door and I set my white dove free. I watched it soar. Would it come back to me? It was not long before my white dove returned. No longer white, it. was splashed with the colours of every rainbow through which it had flown. It came back to me, this beautiful thing, so quickened with the breath of Life to make its song my own and set free what I had been shown. My dove, my love, the symbol of peace and divinity.” ("Divinity" Wirripang, 2016)
These are telling words. A testament of Faith that were to serve as a healing power for Wilcher following two dramatic incidents, the first of which occurred in 1997, and the second one in 2003. Both incidents were to broaden even further Wilcher’s life-long perception of the Divine as the source for all things.
On October 11th, 1997, at 39 years of age, Wilcher was admitted to Concord Repatriation Hospital following a five day history of progressively increasing altered behaviour. A summary of events archived at the National Library of Canberra taken from hospital records and listed by Dr. M. G. Roxanas, who treated Wilcher at the time, touches upon accelerated speech patterns and "flights of ideas", mentioning anyone and everything from a Liberace concert Wilcher had attended as a child with his mother, jumping to other topics appropriate to his life including a Wiggles-related article by Melbourne-based journalist Di Borrell writing for Aussie Post Magazine. The article titled "Too Shy To Wiggle", appeared in print on October 25th, 1997, while Wilcher was at hospital. A diagnosis of Mania was made and Wilcher was treated with Stelazine 5mgs nocte, Valium 5mgs nocte. After several weeks of treatment, Wilcher returned home and to normal employment. Remaining ever steadfast within his Faith embracing his dove, his love, the symbol of peace and divinity, Wilcher recovered.
On March 20th, 2002, Dr Roxanas wrote Wilcher in light of his achievements: "I was thrilled that you are now receiving recognition and furthermore that mental illness is no barrier to a normal lifestyle. I am glad to hear that you are keeping well and I hope that international recognition will also come to you. Please let me know of your progress in life."
In May of 2003, Wilcher was assaulted not far from his home. Three youths wielding a plank of wood with rusty nails in it, beat him about his head and body. Wilcher sustained many injuries including an arterial bleed and a dislocated shoulder. He was near death on admittance to hospital in the early hours of Sunday morning, May 11th, 2003. Wilcher pressed no charges, choosing forgiveness his sole/souls means of recovery, both for himself and for his assailants. Following the attack on him, he penned a letter in Concord's local Courier newspaper offering his concern for, and forgiveness to his assailants.
Brennan Keats, co-owner of Wirripang Pty Ltd, contributed some insightful and supportive thoughts about Wilcher’s Faith in the liner notes of Wilcher’s CD Spellbound : "Phillip Wilcher is a man 'spellbound' by a profound spirituality that he rationalises with a natural philosophy that transcends most who live in the superficial world that confronts us today. There is a depth in him expressed by gentleness, kindness and demonstrated by the great love he exudes. All this is tempered by discipline, precision, delicacy and firmness of touch that only the truest, yet finest of musicians can expound. Of all the discs that he has produced, this is the most aptly named, in that it summarises a composer, musician and writer of integrity, and one of those rare beings who rises above all he encounters and yet remains very much one of us."
Closest to Wilcher’s own heart are the three volumes or writings collectively titled “Heart Matters” in which he addresses the concerns of Life and Love in light of Spirit to embrace Music as his primary source of education. Published by Wirripang in 2019, 2020 and 2022 respectively, they represent a side of Wilcher he can only hope his music reflects.
From the preface of “Heart Matters Volume 3” subtitled “Within the Sense of Arrival” Wilcher writes: “I have spent my life studying myself. It is what I do. Even more, it is what I feel I was meant to do. I have always had this feeling, that nothing of Perfection would be achieved so readily in the absolute if ever at all, rather step by step as does way lead on to way even at times all too waywardly but to backtrack a bit and then, to review my view of the world accordingly, stripping each layer away even from itself each day with the thought that possibly, just possibly, there would be nothing left to say. It was never the case.”
“Wilcher’s words are as his music, thoughtful but never contrived, sensitive but never overwrought, introspective but never narrow. There is one difference Wilcher recognises, though: “It is quieter composing words than it is writing music.” (Samuel Bugeja, “Lot’s Wife Magazine”, Monash University)
Photograph: Bridget Elliot
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