• Queensland Music Festival

The biography of John Rodgers

John Rodgers is a musician, a composer, a creator of shows, and a producer.

Over thirty years John has been one of the most productive musicians and composers in Australia. His performances as a soloist in classical music and his improvisation on violin are legendary. His body of compositions for theatre, alternative bands and new music showcases his unique and extraordinary versatility. His range of interests and passions is reflected in early highpoints that include leading the Australian Youth Orchestra, co-creating the art-rock ensemble Madam Bones Brothel and becoming a founding member of the Australian Art Orchestra.

The artist’s story

John’s musical biography is as unique as his talent.

John began learning violin and piano as a child. In his early teens, living with his family in North Queensland, John migrated to flamenco lessons with Joachim Gomez, an accomplished Spanish gypsy guitarist who made his living teaching as he travelled up and down the coast of Queensland. Flamenco is an incredibly demanding and subtle artform that John thoroughly internalised at a formative period and has continued to use in his work. After moving to Brisbane with his family, John trained on violin at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. His extraordinary talent was recognised there, and John became the leader of both the Queensland Youth Orchestra (1981) and the Australian Youth orchestra (1983-1984). The uncanny combination of intensity and expressive freedom that were celebrated in his performances of Bach and Bartok, have remained characteristic of his work ever since.

In his early 20s John became dissatisfied with the pathways offered to the classical soloist. He made radical moves away from the mainstream, carving out new territory and approaches to playing and writing that formed a foundation for the work that would follow. John laid claim to aesthetic freedom through experimentation with punk-inflected song writing for alternative bands, firstly with Choo Dikka Dikka (1987-1989) and then with the long-lived cult sex and death-themed Madam Bones Brothel (1989-2010) with long term collaborator, singer Pearly Black. These groups are still fondly remembered by fans for their audacious, scene-stealing performances. Consequently, John has written many works specifically for the exquisite singing of Pearly Black, including the two Madam Bones Brothel albums and in a string of later projects. During this period, John was also composing, improvising and recording with clarinettist Anthony Burr, and with a close-knit ensemble of experimental musicians in the Brisbane-based Artisan’s Workshop including Ken Edie, Elliott Dalgleish and Jonathan Dimond. Drummer Ken Edie became a close, long-term collaborator in explorations of contemporary art music techniques.

In 1994 John became a founding member of the Australian Art Orchestra, contributing brilliant performances and compositions to the development of that project and forming strong musical relationships with Artistic Director and pianist Paul Grabowsky, trumpeter Scott Tinkler and many of the other virtuosic musicians in the group. With Anthony Burr he developed ‘The Mizler Society’, a burlesque on early modern music theory, J.S Bach and the Art of Fugue, which was presented at the Melbourne Museum in 2002. Other compositions for the ensemble include the Finale for ‘Passion’ and ‘Moras’ in collaboration with the Sruthi Laya Carnatic music Ensemble. In 2000 the Elision ensemble commissioned ‘Inferno’, based on John’s reading of Dante’s classic, and this daring work premiered at the Adelaide Festival. This was the beginning of a long run of commissions for Elision and others, including recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey. In 2005 John was the Associate Artistic Director for the Australian Art Orchestra. In 2010 John was commissioned by Paul Grabowsky to compose a new work for The London Sinfonietta to perform at The Adelaide Festival. The result was ‘Glass’, an extraordinary musical reflection on the sounds captured by John and Ken Edie by scraping objects on glass. In performance, ‘Glass’ featured the improvised solo trumpet of Scott Tinkler.

From the late 1980s onwards, John has also been outstandingly productive as a musical director and composer for 40 theatre productions. Highlights include ‘The Sunshine Club’ (1999-2000), a musical co-written with Wesley Enoch, and ‘Exit the King’ (2007-2009), directed by Neil Armfield and for which John won the 2007 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Score. This production toured to New York co-starring Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon. John has worked with Neil Armfield for Company B Belvoir on nine productions, as well as contributing to many productions for State Theatre Companies and The Malthouse. In 2010 John created a score featuring singer Pearly Black, violinist Erkki Veltheim and pianist Marc Hannaford for the Expressions Dance Company production ‘Where the Heart Is’. This score was nominated for a Helpmann Award in 2011. He’s also collaborated on many independent productions. John’s contributions to cabaret and revue include international tours with Penny Arcade and collaborations with Robyn Archer. John’s history of composing for music and theatre productions by Indigenous companies and featuring Indigenous stories is extensive, including work with Kooemba Jdarra, Wesley Enoch, Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, William Barton, Black Arm Band artists including Lou Bennett and Dan Sultan, Tom E. Lewis, and the BIG hART Company.

John has mentored a number of younger musicians and singers, including his very close association with Erkki Veltheim. John was the composer for the 2003 Queensland Music Festival Mount Isa community project ‘Bob Cat Dancing’ which featured the 18-year old singer Megan Sarmardin. A group of John’s favourite singers including Pearly Black, Megan Sarmardin, Andy MacDonnell and Leah Cotterell went on to perform ‘The Ultimate Prize’, an anthology of John’s song writing for the 2004 Brisbane Cabaret Festival. Megan also worked with John and Pearly, didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton, Genevieve Lacey and flamenco ensemble Arté Kanela on the 2007 Queensland Music Festival Innisfail community project ‘Dream Catchers’. This work was a lush meditation on flamenco music, Indigenous history and the unique Spanish heritage of Paronella Park. Over a number of years, John, with Leah Cotterell as producer, mentored Megan in the multi-stage development of a song-cycle, ‘Little Birung’, telling the story of four generations of her proud Indigenous family. This project again allowed John to reconnect with North Queensland stories when it debuted in the 2010 Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair.

Much of John’s music-making, writing, recording and performing has been independently produced, including his beloved cult band Madam Bones Brothel, his bold explorations with Artisan’s Workshop and The Antripodean Collective, and his own album releases ‘A Rose is a Rose’ (1997) and ‘The Uncaring Wind’ (2011). His collaborations with the cream of Australia’s improvising musicians have continued over decades. In 2013 John produced three beautiful concerts with friends who also happen to be among the finest musicians in Australia. The ‘Life and Music’ concerts featured percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson and Scott Tinkler, William Barton and Genevieve Lacey, and singer Kate Miller-Heidke and guitarist Keir Nuttall. As a band musician and singer John has always enjoyed the soulfulness of robust folk styles. His party pieces as a singer show off his lush baritone voice, particularly his interpretations of Johnny Cash classics, ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Boy Named Sue’. These talents were often on show at celebrations in John’s participation in the Tell Heaven Gospel Revue (1997-2012).

Recently John has delivered commissions for the Sydney Theatre Company (“King Lear” 2014) and Katie Noonan (“Failure of Communication” 2015). His Doctor of Philosophy was awarded in 2018 by Griffith University Queensland Conservatorium. John has made the artistic decisions in this Queensland Music Festival concert program and has collaborated closely on the orchestrations and musical direction with Erkki Veltheim.

About John’s acquired brain injury

In May 2014 John contracted pneumococcal meningitis and then cerebral vasculitis as a complication. The vasculitis caused extensive cerebral infarctions resulting in serious brain damage. As a result, John now experiences ongoing physical and cognitive difficulties. John has retained his capacity to make his own decisions along with his characteristic joyful, irreverent world view. John lives independently in Melbourne with support and a National Disability Insurance Scheme package. He visits Brisbane several times a year and remains connected and involved with family, friends and community.

Click here to view more out The Genius of John Rodgers.

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Queensland Music Festival 2019