Past Presidents’ Perspectives: Professor Malcolm Gillies

Today, on the 52nd anniversary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, we are introducing a new monthly feature in which we reconnect with many of our past Presidents.

It’s a chance to cast our minds back, learn lessons from the past; weigh up the current state of the humanities; and consider how, as a collective, we can address some of the biggest challenges of the future.

Our first Past-Presidents’ Perspective is with leading Australian musicologist Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM FAHA, who was President of the Academy from 1998-2001.

Early years

Photo of Malcolm Gillies
Official Academy photo of Professor Malcolm Gillies, 1998

Having fallen in love with music in his formative years, Malcolm was easily attracted to musical studies and a degree in the classics at the Australian National University, and subsequently a further degree in music from the University of Cambridge.

He admits, however, that being the son of an economist father and mathematician mother, he could easily have been drawn to life as a stockbroker in London ‘to satisfy my more mathematical side’.

Malcolm’s academic life did indeed take him to London, but it was the city’s concert halls, not the financial district, which captured his imagination and his creative spirit. He is a recognised authority on the composers Percy Grainger and Bela Bartok, and has written or edited a dozen books and more than 100 articles, chapters and reviews.

‘My early research related to how great (music) composers have their greatest ideas, and this still commands my curiosity and research output,’ he said.

Life in the Academy

Malcolm admits he was ‘surprised’ when first elected to the Academy, aged 37, as one of the youngest-ever Fellows. Perhaps even more surprised when he became President at just 43, still the youngest President in the Academy’s history.

‘I think I brought to both these roles both youthful vigour and youthful inexperience,’ Malcolm said.

Looking back, he’s most proud of ‘making the Academy a more active player in Australia’s political and bureaucratic life. Being brought up in Canberra turned out to be very useful in this project.’

He recalls that in his years as President ‘I viewed the Academy as still strongly honorific, through its Fellowship honouring the most eminent achievers, but needing to direct that scholarly heft towards carefully chosen areas of advocacy, for languages, for the arts, for broader Australian culture, and for individual development as well as societal change.

The humanities future

Front cover of an old Symposium newsletter

Like so many in the field, Malcolm worries about the current, and future, place in the world for those, like him, who dedicate their lives to the humanities.

‘The greatest challenge is the current political tendency, especially in the Anglo world, to cast humanists as dangerous enemies. Constant advocacy for our fields and their centrality to our shared humanity needs money,’ he said. ‘One step we can each take is to remember to give – through donations of our time and money, or in our wills – to bodies that continue proudly to stand up for these values.’

With so much uncertainty right now, in Australia and the world – social, economic, cultural and environmental – Malcolm believes the humanities must play ‘the most central of roles; fostering a better understanding of how humans respond to these crucial issues, all of which can only be solved, ultimately, by changes in human behaviour and conviction.’

Biggest influences

Malcolm is a strong believer in the old adage: you’re never too old to learn.

The person he’s admired most during his career was the former ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb. ‘Through working closely with him as a deputy during 2002-07, I learnt so much – as much about what you could do, as a leader, as about what you might not (or never should) do. That knowledge turned out to be hugely helpful later in my own career as a vice-chancellor,’ Malcolm said.

My COVID moment

Photo of Malcolm-GilliesFor someone whose life is music, and music his life, the past COVID-disrupted year has been a struggle for Malcolm, in getting through a lean period for creativity and the arts that has been commonly described as ‘the year the music died’.

It’s been a series of musical moments, however, that has given Malcolm particular joy and the greatest pleasure amid, as he describes it, ‘the carnage of COVID’.

He couldn’t go past the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, ‘which has regularly displayed symphonic playing at its global best’.

This classical music treasure trove features the greatest conductors and soloists of our time and hundreds of archived concerts covering six decades and is available here  He also recommends the many recent Australian digital concerts for keeping the music flowing when lockdowns intervene.

Next up in our Past Presidents’ Perspectives series: Professor Joy Damousi.

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Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.