CHARLES CAMILLERI REMEMBERED

~ 1931-2009 ~





'The important thing in life is the journey, not the destination'





I first met Charles Camilleri in the sixties when he was living in London. That British music was ruled then by Glock, Keller and Boulez at the BBC, that Birtwistle, Goehr and Max Davies were the lions of the Establishment, that the press largely understated his voice, didn't bother him. ‘When they’re all gone, we’ll still be here,’ he'd impishly quip. 

Self-effacement wasn't a Charles trait, any more than casual socialising. Forever promoting his ideas and music, scheming with publishers, getting commissions, talking to the media, being seen, he voyaged the world – from Europe to the Far East, the USA to the Soviet Union - expending vast amounts of energy attending premieres of even the smallest works. Sometimes, I used to think, he lived only for how many performances he could chalk up. 

Talk to any London musician a generation ago and it wouldn’t be long before ‘Charlie boy’ came into the conversation. The archetypal networker, he had the greatest address book in town. Getting together wasn't easy, though. You needed a reason, and you had to book well in advance, particularly after he moved back to Malta in 1983. Visits to London were bustling, tightly scheduled affairs. A rapid hour at a fish restaurant, a Soho steak-house, a café, pursuing a quick-fire agenda, was his style. Cursory courtesies, facts on the table, proposition, deal? … that’s how he worked. 

How he found time to compose I never knew. Scores, proofs, manuscripts, loose sketches littered his Bechstein. Maybe he kept drawers full of rhythms, Western chords and Eastern modes which unseen hands would cobble together into patchworks as long or short, difficult or simple, dissonant or consonant as occasion demanded ... ? He could take a joke. 

Teilhard de Chardin, Oriental mysticism, Africa, India, the cosmos were Charles's inspirations. Stravinsky, Bartók and Messiaen came often into our conversation He wasn't a stereotypical 'intellectual', however. Generalisation, simplification, couching his thoughts in the broadest of brush strokes, using shock tactics to impress and provoke, was more his modus operandi. He left it to others to objectify the message – in particular Richard England the architect-poet and Peter Serracino Inglott. 

'There is so much I could say, but I haven't got enough silence to say it all'. Quotable quotes came naturally to Charles. His letters were littered with them, some finding their way later into articles and books. 'When I am in the dark I try to see. When I don't see I imagine ... then I listen'. 'The artist does not impose order in chaos but rather discovers the order already present in that chaos'. 'Music is like truth; and truth is like rain. It does not concern itself with who gets wet when it pours'. 'Music is a way to reach the Supreme Being'. 

'World traveller in time and music', Charles was the supreme eclectic, journeying from light entertainer to esoteric fantasist to faculty professor, jazzing a 'break' one moment, running through 'atomised' rhythms the next, body language in fifth gear. His hunting ground was open, his 'trans-cultural cross-fertilisation of musical languages' (Serracino Inglott) global. So long as your passport was stamped 'music' you had his attention - from Frank Sinatra, Hoagy Carmichael and Art Tatum, through Malcolm Arnold and Johnny Dankworth to Orff, Cage, Feldman, de Leeuw, Stockhausen ... from street busker to concert luminary ... child to old man … Other people's raised eyebrows weren't his problem. 

Typically, Charles's schedule encompassed anything. Evenings at the Royal Festival Hall ... high philosophy ... pantomime in Worthing ... Sailor Beware! ... Edward de Bono ... the UK festival circuit ... BBC Radio 3 ... the Eurovision Song Contest ... Accordion Times photo-shoots ... lecture tours ... conferences (most historically, the Mediterranean gathering in Valletta in November 1989) ... tin-pan alley ... Camilleri's Musical Terms ... films ... metaphysics ... The Camilleri Complete Modern Accordion Method ... the Unesco Foundation of International Studies ... 

Warm and optimistic, always smiling, a raconteur with a touch of the nomad, Charles never short-changed his friends. Through him came my first credits as a record producer, my first orchestral production (with the Royal Philharmonic at Abbey Road), and my public début as a composer. Recording his music was interesting. As a composer he rarely intervened in my decisions. As a conductor who'd been apprenticed to the pit/wireless trade in post-war London and Toronto (Harold Fielding vintage), he was the quintessential studio man – disciplined, tight beat, eye on the clock, economical with words, headphones on. 

Charles Camilleri, New Age Argonaut, was an irrepressible adventurer. Music for him was about affirmations, excitations and contradictions of silence and heartbeat, about sound-scapes circling distant points, free-wheeling through time, coming home to rest. No 20th century figure bridged so many styles or disciplines nor engaged such a wide cross-section of society. I'm glad to have known him.