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DEREK STRAHAN - biography

Strahan was born in Penang, Malaysia on May 28th, 1935. His early childhood was spent in colonial Malaya until the age of 5, when he, his mother and sister were evacuated to Perth, Western Australia, as Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942. From 1946 the Strahan family was based in Northern Ireland, where Derek Strahan attended and completed his schooling over a 6-year stint as a boarder at Campbell College, Belfast. At this institution, from the age of 15, Strahan experienced considerable conflict with authority and with community mores generally, resulting from his interest in music and desire to become a composer, and also as a result of developing views on religion and politics regarded as radical.

This point is worth elaborating with two anecdotes by way of previewing Strahan's autobiography, which is currently being contemplated. Strahan passed examinations qualifying him for a scholarship to study modern languages at Cambridge University. To achieve this he was obliged to discontinue his musical studies.) He remained at school (unhappily) as a senior student. Vocal expression of radical views and refusal to attend church lead to severe corporal punishment inflicted on Strahan (then aged 17) by his then house master, a retired military gentelman, now deceased, whom we shall refer to as the Major. During the infliction of said punishment the zealous Major so lost control of himself as to exceed the legal limit of 12 blows. Strahan himself terminated the punishment by moving out of the way of the assault. Later Strahan gave a talk to the Literary Society on the work of George Bernard Shaw, in which he compared the work of Jesus Christ in his society, debunking social hypocrisy, with the similar work of Shaw in Victorian England. The English master who organised Strahan's "talk" apparently had three sleepness nights worrying that Strahan had committed blasphemy by saying that Bernard Shaw was Jesus Christ. Such is the paranoia of religious bigotry in Northern Ireland. Strahan was quickly summoned to his housemaster's study and spoken to by the Major in his imitiable fashion, lips pursed and displaying a curious inability to look one straight in the eye (at the crucial moment of eye contact the Major's eyes would roll upward to the ceiling). "Derek, we think you've been working too hard at your exams. We think you should go away and have rest". Strahan departed Campbell College, Belfast, never to return.

There is, however, a post script. To cover themselves, the authorities arranged for Strahan to see a psychiatrist, an unnerving experience, of course, for an adolescent. The "friendly chat" over, Strahan was given no feed back. However, some mysterious impulse drew him, at a crucial moment, to the waste bin under his father's desk at home. There he found, crumpled up and discarded, a report from the psychiatrist which it was no doubt deemed inappropriate for Strahan to read (lest he might develop too good an opinion of himself?) The text of this letter is imprinted in Strahan's frontal lobes. It said, in part: "I have read the text of Master Strahan's talk to the school Literary Society about George Bernard Shaw' work, and find his ideas to be, if anything, in advance of Shaw's. I find it surprising that the school should object to a student becoming imbued with ideas to be found in books contained in the school library."

One cherished friendship dates from these years. Strahan's study mate at school was Derek Bell, well known now as harpist for The Chieftains, and a distinguished composer and performer. Bell, then a child prodigy, was influential on Strahan's development. After losing touch for many years Strahan and Bell are again in contact.

At Cambridge University, where he was directed to enrol in an Arts degree in modern languages, Strahan developed an interest in theatre and cinema, and acted in a number of university productions. His musical activities were restricted to playing the piano for pleasure and teaching himself the guitar. In 1954, he graduated with a BA Cantab in Modern Languages. For the next 6 years, in London, Strahan worked as relief teacher, actor, and for a few months as Assistant Film Director with a company making commercials. During this period Strahan's interest in music composition re-emerged, ironically, through his admiration for the work of Rabelaisian French chansonnier Georges Brassens. While the rest of the English-speaking world was preoccupied with rock 'n rollers and folk singers, in the 1950s Strahan was writing and performing English-language songs conceived in Gallic style, for which he composed instrumental accompaniments. He persisted in this activity until the mid-70s, earning a small income singing at coffee bars and folk venues in London and, from 1961, in Sydney, Australia, where he married and became resident.

During 1969/70 Strahan appeared on TV occasionally for ABC's This Day Tonight, and, for 9 months, in a weekly morning spot on ATN7's Breakfast Show, singing topical songs of his own composition (music & lyrics), accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica (until a song about Vietnam got him the sack - "Domino Rag" - "Eanie-meani mighty Mao, Catch a Tiger by the Tao ...") From 1962 Strahan combined composing film music with work as, variously, film director, scriptwriter, actor and teacher. He also began composing concert works, one of which, 'Mutation II' for Wind octet, was performed at the 1964 Auckland Festival, in New Zealand, where he was working directing TV documentaries for AKTV-2. From 1980 he resolved to give greater importance to composing and increased his output of works for concert performance. At the same time, he maintained contacts in the Australian film industry and has been involved in the production of three Australian feature films for which he has written script and music, and two of which he has co-directed. He has conducted courses in script writing and acting.

Strahan has released three programs of his music on his own CD label, Revolve, and his recorded works are frequently broadcast on ABC and other fine music stations. His work is also featured on the Jade label, on 12 CDs to date. For ten years from 1986, Strahan was active as a polemicist on music topics and has had a number of articles published, mostly in music journals, and mostly concerned with improving the socio-economic position of composers. From 1984 to 1990 Strahan broadcast weekly on 2RES-FM (Radio Eastern Sydney) contributing reviews and comment on music events. He resumed this activity in 1994 contributing reviews of opera, music theatre, and drama, and now also writes a weekly music review column for the Sydney Bulletin.

As a composer, Strahan does not subscribe exclusively to any particular school, style or set of musical dogmas. He feels that none encompass the full range of his interests which as composer include music theatre, concert, popular and ethnic musics and, as librettist, the esoteric, the reinterpretation of ancient history through modern scholarship and the psycho-sexual basis of personality. Strahan is concerned to retain melodic lyricism, and to achieve harmonic liberation through a synthesis of melodic and rhythmic polyphony achieved through an evolving use of polytonality and polyrhythms. For music theatre and for concert performance Strahan plans a program of work which will require his survival for at least three more decades to fulfil. A Faustian bargain has been arranged.

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