I DON’T understand music and I can’t sing in tune but I know a good song when I hear it and you’ll find the odd one in my oral history productions. The miracle of recent times is that Larry Hills has stepped in to help. He’ll appear with sheet music arranged for each individual in the cast. The room will ring with the sound of throats warming to the task. At the end of a song I’ll enthuse: “That was splendid!” and Larry will mildly demur: “I wasn’t going to say that actually.”
Larry is a musician, a composer, a conductor who’s also a connector. He helps to make things happen.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Larry grew up in a world in which singing was as natural as breathing. His mother was a lyric soprano. She sang gloriously and freely across the community: in choral societies, in musical productions, in church. ”We chose the church by what the choir was like,” says Larry. The family repertoire – think The Messiah, Camelot and Jubilation T. Cornepone – was rich.
He was in year 11 at high school when his music teacher became ill and asked him to take over the choir. Larry took his young charges to a choral contest. They got first place.
“That put me on my path,” he says. “I realised I could do this.” He applied to do a bachelor of music education at the University of Colorado. I comment on how fortunate he was to be so sure so early, how so many young people never know what they want to do. He agrees. “My brother, who is much cleverer that me, never knew that certainty.”
It was 1970 and the spectre of Vietnam service lurked, chill and implacable, in university cloisters across the country. Larry was drafted at the end of his course. Basic training was followed by a six-week advanced “vocational” course. The closest fit the army could find for L. Hills, B. Mus.Ed. was chaplain’s assistant.
Each week he was there, the units ahead of him were given their final posting. Week 1: Vietnam. Week 2: Vietnam. Week 3: Vietnam. Week 4: Vietnam. It was remorseless. Week 5, the week before he finished training: Vietnam. Week 6: Kansas. Week 7: Vietnam ...
Kansas? How do you explain that fall of the dice? “Luck and destiny,” he says.
When he was finally discharged from the army, there were no teaching jobs to be had but waiting at the university’s placement centre was someone from the Victorian Education Department who told of the deep vocational fulfilment that awaited young American teachers in Australian schools. Did he feel “called”, I brightly inquire. In his young man’s breast, did there leap the certain knowledge that in this far-off land, he was to find his spiritual home?
Well, no. He hadn’t a clue where he was going. “I was young, single; the trip was free. I was on an adventure.”
He arrived at the windswept barrenness of St Albans High School at Melbourne’s outer extremities during the 1972 third term holidays. The state of the buildings and lack of resources was jaw-dropping. But then the term started and everything changed. “I liked the school,” he says. “The kids were just hungry for music. Their parents were working long hours to pay off their houses – some were working two jobs. The kids wanted to stay after school. They had a lot of heart.”
It was at St Albans where he first met his wife, Carolyn Landon. From Chicago, Lyn had arrived in Australia four years ahead of Larry. In the absence of a music teacher, she’d taken over the music room for her home room and she wasn’t giving it up to a rookie Yank. Larry shifted the piano out for a term and allowed rapprochement to take its natural course. By the time he’d left their second school, Warragul Secondary College, he and Lyn had written and produced five musicals and two sons.
Some of those musicals in which Lyn wrote the librettos and Larry the music – including A little Dab’ll Do Ya, (their parody on Grease) and their rock version of Othello – are still performed by schools around Australia. However, Larry’s 1986 appointment as co-ordinator of the South Gippsland Music Program created a different set of conditions. The 18 years in which he managed the music timetables across four, then five, schools with up to 17 teachers left him with little time for composing.
Retirement has finally given him time and space to read and think, to search for subjects that have resonance and power. Now he can draw on all those years of choral singing and conducting, his musical education, to connect a community to its most deeply felt moments.
He was looking for a text about Gippsland and found a book of poems, The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan. “I picked up on the idea of mapping – the Aboriginal dreamtime stories that mapped Gippsland; then, laid over those, the maps that came with Europeans.”
“As I was reading Duggan’s poem, I could hear it musically, express it musically – the interplay of major and minor keys, of dark and light. You think of it as a musical painting.” This fusion of thought and music became his 2009 cantata Starscapes and Vision, which was sung by the combined choirs of the Bass Coast Chorale, the South Gippsland Singers and the Prom Coast Singers.
Wonthaggi’s centenary called for something monumental, a subject that would connect a town to its common heritage. In his 2010 Miners’ Requiem, sung by the Bass Coast Chorale, he sets a particular human story, the Number 20 shaft disaster of 1937, in which 13 miners died, within the formal structure of the requiem mass. It’s a marriage of the utterly personal with the universal: the trapped men’s voices, “Be quiet. Listen. I think they’re coming to save us”; the empty silence that follows; the hymn, “Lead Kindly Light”, played by the Citizens’ Band ... “The hairs on the back of my neck would stand up when I realised exactly what I was writing,” he says.
Currently he is composing a cantata to commemorate the Anzac centenary next year. “I just don’t think that Australian topics have been given enough serious consideration musically,” he explains. Called “They Went With Songs”, it will be sung by a combination of the Bass Coast Chorale and the South Gippsland Singers and is a narrative of a farmer going to war. He’s the universal soldier, his character gleaned in part from familiar war poetry, in part from the diaries and letters of Gippsland men.
“Dear Dad,” the young man writes, expressing his hope to be “an efficient soldier of the king”. The last birdsong he hears before he leaves Australia is a magpie’s. “He’s a good honest bird/ And I look to the time/When I shall hear him/ In Australia again.” In those moments before his death, this young farmer is most alive.
In a world in which we forget too readily, Larry Hills provides a remarkable service. He creates connections between the community and its most important experiences, between voices and listeners. He gives us stories to sing. That’s the gift.
The Bass Coast Chorale performs in the Wonthaggi Town Hall at 4pm on April 27, singing their favourite songs from their first nine years.