Charles Camilleri 

World Traveller


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

I first met Charles in the sixties when he was living in north London. Not in person initially but through a photostat of his Mantra for piano which'd been sent to me by the Australian pianist Ruth Nye. She’d been given the manuscript with a view to performance, but wanted a second opinion. Unprepared for its content, I delved deeper and warmed to the thought processes and sound world – even if pianistically it lay awkwardly under my fingers. Charles was then in his late thirties, an energetic, energising unipolar force. That British music was ruled by Glock, Keller and Boulez at the BBC, that Birtwistle, Goehr and Max Davies were the rampant 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 premières of even the smallest works, irrespective of how great or humble the player. Sometimes, I used to think, he lived only for how many performances he could chalk up.

Talk to any musician forty years 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 from Southgate to Malta in 1983.Visits to London were bustling, tightly scheduled affairs. A rapid hour at a fish restaurant, a Soho steak-house, a coffee shop, the Swiss Centre, 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 defeated me. His catalogue, after all, was complex and substantial – and hand-written. Was he like Czerny, I'd amuse myself, did he keep drawers full of rhythmic sequences,Western chords and Eastern modes which unseen apprentices would cobble together into new patchworks as long or short, difficult or simple, dissonant or consonant as occasion demanded? All that visits to 24 Orchard Avenue ever showed were masses of scores, proofs, paperwork and random sketches crowding the Bechstein. (I never went much: he was a man who liked to keep his personal life private.)

At his profoundest Charles was inspired by Teilhard de Chardin, Eastern mysticism, things cosmic. Stravinsky, Bartók and Messiaen came often into our conversation He was no 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. Notably the poet-architect Richard England and the philosopher Peter Serracino Inglott (who saw him academically as a 'practioner-critic' à la TS Eliot). For me, a scattering of hints and allegories – Teilhard, Indian music, Middle Eastern modes,African rhythms – was reason enough to excavate further, enabling a germinal idea, an external impulse, to be analysed, clothed and contextualised in specifics.

Opening page of Mantra, published in 1973 © 

'There is so much I could say, but I haven't got enough silence to say it all'. Aphorisms, quotable quotes, came naturally to Charles. His letters to me were strewn 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'. 'Everything is presented to us in chaos. The artist does not impose order in chaos but rather discovers the order already present in that chaos'. 'Folk music is made up of the sound and silence of its people'. 'Rhythm is motion and motion is life'. 'Music is like truth; and truth is like rain. It does not concern itself with who gets wet when it pours'. 'I am so ignorant about music that I try to keep a very open mind to any form of sound whatsoever'. 'Improvisation is inherent in all living beings. Without improvisation there is no creation'. 'Music is a means to understand the complexity of man and the simplicity of God. Music is a way to reach the Supreme Being'. 'Order-disorder relationship is a crux of the contemporary world'.

'World traveller in time and music', the supreme eclectic, Charles journeyed from light entertainer to esoteric fantasist to faculty professor. Folk song, jazz, theatre-land, white diatonics, modality, serialism, Scelsi, Xenakis,African drumming, bar-lined phraseology, metric liberation, 'atomisation of the beat', 'controlled aleatoricism', Led Zeppelin... 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 were assured 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... Blurred borderlines (and borders), colliding vocabularies, ascerbic harmonies, artless melody. Other people's raised eyebrows (and bemusement) weren't Charles's problem. I remember him at the piano jazzing a 'break' one moment, running through 'atomised' rhythms the next, linking both, body language in fifth gear. In the studio the range of works I produced - from (the Indian) Mantra, (Islamic) Taqsim and (Teilhardian) Noospheres to Stone Island within... from the youthful Mediterranean Piano Concerto and populist Malta Suite to African Dreams, the piano Études and Flower and the Wind – was as diverse as you could get.

Typically, Charles's schedule encompassed anything. Evenings at the RFH... high philosophy... pantomime in Worthing... Sailor Beware! at the Strand... his compatriot Edward de Bono... the UK festival circuit... BBC Radio 3... the Eurovision Song Contest... Accordion Times photo-shoots... a 50th birthday celebration at the Purcell Room... lecture tours... conferences (most historically, the Mediterranean Crossroads 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...

Autograph inscription

Contemporary Art in Malta, ed Richard England, October 1973 © 

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 album (with the Royal Philharmonic at Abbey Road), and my début as a composer (at the Wigmore in '72). Much later, come the nineties, he had me appointed External Music Examiner at the University of Malta. 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 London and Toronto (Harold Fielding vintage), he was the quintessential studio man – disciplined, tight beat, eye on the clock, economical with words, headphones on. In 1980 I got him to hack some orchestrations for the young Max Early's Enchanted Orchestra spectacular at the Royal Albert Hall. Sponsored by Hohner (for whom Charles's father had worked in Sydney following the war), the occasion paraded an extraordinary cast – from John Mills, Fenella Fielding, Miriam Karlin, Max Wall and Barbara Windsor to Loris Tjeknavorian and the LSO. Hustled by musicians and 'act-awrs', face-lifts and grease-paint round every corner, 'Charlie boy' in the fray was the master diplomat - deft, un-obtrusive, un-fussed, getting on with the notes, knowing his place.

Charles Camilleri, legatus legionis, New Age Argonaut, was an irrepressible adventurer. Music for him was about affirmations, excitations and contradictions of silence and heartbeat, about mono-homo-polyphonic soundscapes circling distant points, free-wheeling through time, coming home to rest. More than once his imagination took us to Saganesque 'worlds that never were'. No 20th century figure bridged so many styles and disciplines nor engaged such a wide cross-section of society. I'm glad to have known him.  

'The Age of Nations is past. 

The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth' 

~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin ~

Adapted from material published originally in 

The Times of Malta and the Camilleri Festival commemorative programme book

January 2010

with thanks to Maria Blanco

© Ateş Orga 2010, 2015

not to be reproduced without permission