After 21 years presenting Radio National’s The Music Show, broadcaster and composer Andrew Ford shows no signs of slowing. By Caroline Baum.

Radio National’s Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford
Andrew Ford
Credit: Jim Rolon

It’s safe to say that Andrew Ford is probably the only man in the township of Robertson, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, with a sauna. The modest cottage that accommodates Ford, his Finnish wife, Anni, their young daughter, Elsie, and an 1895 Steinway piano is not overly spacious, but the bathroom has been extended to include a timbered steam room, much used during the winter months when it has been known to snow at this elevation.

Not that Ford usually sweats over stuff, large, small, literally or figuratively. Easygoing and genial, with a tendency to absent-mindedness, Ford, 59, is grounded by a jobbing attitude to the two halves of his life, one as composer and the other as presenter of ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, the last bastion of music to survive the recent programming purge on the network. In 2016, the show marked 25 years on air, with Ford at the helm for 21 of them. A remarkable run in broadcasting, by any measure.

While other long-serving RN presenters Phillip Adams and Robyn Williams are regularly feted as National Living Treasures, Ford, who deserves the title every bit as much, is overlooked. Not that he seems remotely bothered about it. He is naturally, some would say infuriatingly, modest. Patron Kim Williams, who has commissioned pieces from Ford on several occasions, says: “He is hopeless at promoting himself. It’s probably to do with being British. He should be better known for both of his roles: as composer, he is versatile and accomplished, driven and distinctive. As a writer about music he is one of the best and most accessible in the world and expresses his love of the totality of music without prejudice or snobbery.”

One minute Ford is shooting the breeze with Cecilia Bartoli about singing the repertoire of the castrati and the next he’s expressing his long-term admiration for Joni Mitchell. A collection of his radio interviews called Talking to Kinky and Karlheinz (Friedman and Stockhausen respectively) is a priceless archive of Ford’s catholic tastes: guests on the show have included Bob Geldof, divas Victoria de los Ángeles and Renée Fleming, David Hockney on his opera designs, Pete Seeger, k. d. lang, Neil Sedaka, Boy George, Wynton Marsalis, Philip Glass. It might be easier to list those he has not spoken to: Dylan, Joni, Beyoncé. Some heroes are best left alone. “We never even asked Van Morrison because he was such a grumpy old bastard.”

The “we” refers to his double-act team of senior producers, Penny Lomax and Maureen Cooney, who act with interchangeable seamlessness behind the scenes despite one of them being in Sydney and the other in Melbourne. During weekly recordings at the ABC’s Sydney studios Ford defers to them with a demonstrable lack of ego. They are a tight unit, but recent cuts at the broadcaster have found Cooney targeted for redundancy, and the impact has been seismic on the threesome’s morale. On the phone Ford sounds indignant but unsure how best to express his dismay.

Due to earlier budget cuts, the show no longer goes to air live except when it broadcasts from festivals, but Ford’s warm delivery has lost none of its energy, perhaps because it is mostly ad-libbed rather than scripted. He only finds out who the guests on the show are going to be the night before and does his background preparation on the train. For the first time in 20 years, he has got back his weekends, which is important for him as the father of a lively six-year-old and suits his stay-at-home personality. “I was never much good at going to things, including concerts, and besides, they can be a distraction: an artist only needs so much stimulus. I get so much more done since I moved to the country,” says Ford, adding that not everything about rural life suits him. “I am still afraid of snakes.”

It’s a pretty thankless task being a composer in Australia. Almost none become household names – Peter Sculthorpe being the notable exception. Fewer than a handful, such as Elena Kats-Chernin and Brett Dean, manage to achieve the kind of international reach that allows them to compose without having to subsidise their creativity through teaching. Ford knew early on that academia was not for him after a stint at the University of Wollongong when he first arrived from Britain in 1983. “I loved the students but hated the meetings, bureaucracy and applying for research grants. On New Year’s Eve in 1994 I made a resolution to extract myself and wheedle my way into the ABC,” says Ford, who is not normally strategic but never entertained the idea of long-term freelancing “as I’m not good with money”. Fate intervened on his behalf when Lomax called out of the blue to see if he would like to replace the departing Christopher Lawrence.

At first a few eyebrows were raised and Ford experienced mild Pommy-bashing “which seemed a bit odd, given that at the time the ABC was wall-to-wall with Pomminess, including Alan Saunders and Robyn Williams. But I understood the sentiment: a lot of the Brits who came out here were pretty mediocre and unemployable back home, so the suspicion was valid. I was not patriotic then, and I am not now, but I think I’ve been accepted as an Australian composer.”

At the ABC, Ford was immediately dispatched to what he describes as “a boot camp for presenters”. “I am not a career broadcaster, I regard myself as an amateur. As soon as I started interviewing, I realised that it relied on the same skill as composing; that is, listening. Interviewing is not about the questions.” Quite. What makes Ford exceptional in the role is that he goes where the conversation with his interlocutor leads and does so with audible curiosity. You never feel he is the professional watering down his expertise for the cloth-eared amateurs among us, nor do you feel he is sycophantically awestruck. “I am expected to ask impertinent questions if they are relevant. You can’t talk to Steve Earle and not ask about drug habits and prison,” he says.

Ford was born into a modest family in Liverpool. “My father grew up in a slum and left school at 14, went to work for British American Tobacco and was a big smoker.” His son did not pick up the habit. At home, Ford’s parents listened to the BBC, Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra and then, inevitably, The Beatles. Although he had a younger sister, Ford was something of a loner growing up. “My mother described me as reserved. I don’t need friends so much,” he says of his self-contained nature. “I liked to listen to music, which was solitary. And I was dreamy rather than sporty. I still feel a sense of optimism and wonder about the world, which I now observe in Elsie. I don’t think I could compose otherwise.”

On a good day, Ford might write 30 seconds of music. His most recent premiere was Raga, a work for electric guitar and orchestra, performed at the Adelaide Guitar Festival and commissioned by Kim Williams. A chamber piece, Scenes from Bruegel, was commissioned by the New Juilliard Ensemble in New York. Other works in his repertoire include operas, a symphony, choral works and song cycles. One of his favourite sources of material is letters: for Last Words – commissioned by the singer Jane Sheldon, who performs a lot of Ford, and scored for soprano, violin, cello and piano – he created a musical anthology of final letters, including Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, diaries and deathbed utterances, supplemented with one fictional extract from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Winton’s words appear in several other works by Ford. Poetry is another favourite seam: in Parabola, for two actors, bass clarinet, percussion and piano, he used verse by Barbara Blackman. “I like the challenge it poses: do you keep the original cadences and rhythms or not?” Elsewhere, musing on the local cemetery and how funerals were conducted in the 19th century resulted in Elegy in a Country Graveyard for mixed choir, instruments and prerecorded sounds and voices, including senior locals whom Ford interviewed.

Meeting his second wife Anni Heino at an international conference of music educators – “she was Miss Finland”, he quips – “has augmented the happiness and wonder in my life”. Is she his muse? “Oh no, she’s much too down to earth for that, but she is my creative partner.” Heino plays the ukulele, but the two do not make music together. “I only fumble at the piano,” says Ford.

The family travels to Finland every year, and while Ford has not exactly mastered the language, he pronounces it deliberately and jauntily while confessing to being “lazy at languages and lazy at life. It’s a paradox: I may be busy but inertia is my natural state, preferably with a book.” His definition of lazy may not match the dictionary’s, given that as well as composing and hosting his weekly show, he has written several books on music and is currently well into his most personal writing to date, a memoir called The Memory of Music.

Ford has embraced several aspects of Finnish culture with enthusiasm, especially the sauna, “but not the rolling in the snow afterwards. I was fascinated to learn that babies were born in saunas and the dead are washed in them. I love the wood-chopping and the fire-making. We got ours from the Sydney Olympics boxing pavilion and use it a couple of times a week, though Elsie is not a fan.”

He admits that fatherhood has been disruptive to composition. “I asked colleagues for advice,” he says with disarming candour. “Brett Dean told me you do in one hour what you would once have done in seven. Damien Ricketson says you learn to have a healthy respect for first ideas.”

But fatherhood has also prompted him to write a children’s opera based on the story of Peter Pan with TV writer Sue Smith as librettist for the Gondwana Voices children’s choir, to be performed in 2018.

All of Ford’s output is commissioned, often by private individuals. “I love it when I get a phone call or an email from someone I don’t know, asking me to write something because they’ve heard a piece of mine.” He’s evasive about cost but after a bit of shuffling through scores, mutters that “around $1000 a minute is a rule of thumb”. Next year sees the premieres of a work for the Monash Art Ensemble with jazz singer Gian Slater and a piece for the National Carillon in Canberra.

Despite his natural reticence, when pushed, Ford admits he would love to be asked to write a second symphony, “because it gives you permission to think on a large, abstract scale”. He recently wrote a string quartet as the soundtrack for a short documentary film by his neighbour, Ben Quilty. The two have become friends and produced a podcast series called Making Art in which they discuss and compare their creative processes.

This Christmas will be a quiet one in Robertson, rather than in Finland where Ford happily follows tradition and dresses up as the local version of Santa – a goat-like creature named Joulupukki. A keen cook, he will prepare cured fish and potato salad – traditional Finnish dishes “that seem very suited to Australia” for the family’s low-key festivities. It may be the wrong time of year for the cleansing heat of the sauna, but for Andrew Ford, it’s full steam ahead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2016 as "Ford motion".

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Caroline Baum is a journalist and broadcaster. Author of Only: A Singular Memoir.

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