Up close and personal with Kim Cunio

Associate Professor Kim Cunio. Image: Peter Damo.
Wednesday 13 March 2019

Associate Professor Kim Cunio contains multitudes. There are many – and competing – facets that make up who he is. He has spent a lifetime reconciling these parts of his identity and trying to heal rifts that he sees within society through music.

Physically, he says that he's a middle-aged man of mixed heritage. He's a Mizrachi Jew. A spiritually-inclined social activist composer / musician. A musical anthropologist. And, he adds: “I'm also a guy who loves eating hot, spicy, Indian food.”

His multitudinous identity began before he was born. It began with his mother, who was born in Myanmar (which he still calls Burma), but grew up in India. And also with his father, who is of Iraqi descent but born in China and grew up in the French concession of British-influenced Shanghai. Both were refugees from the Second World War: his mother escaped with her family from Burma to Calcutta at 13, and his father a prisoner of war who had to survive Japanese torture and flee China, made stateless after the Communist takeover.

Those dark years left a permanent scar on both his parents. Their suffering could have bred bitterness, passed on to their children, but instead they inculcated in Associate Professor Cunio and his sister the need to try to make the world a better place.

His family lived in a condemned house that, in a very Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sort of way, was due to be bulldozed to make way for a freeway, the Sid-Einfeld Drive. Somehow the bulldozers never arrived and they stayed happily in the home through his childhood.

Those halcyon days were passed like so many other kids, with many trips to Bondi beach in his childhood. One way in which his experience differed from some of his peers though, was the entrenched racism he experienced during his childhood.

“At school, I was punished; I got caned all the time for things I didn't know I'd done, and only later did I realise I had been targeted. I had systemic racial abuse from some of my high school teachers.”  Associate Professor Cunio says.

This led Associate Professor Cunio to think consciously about race in Australia as a determinant of privilege. He was vilified and called an Aboriginal, which spurred him to mix with the Aboriginal community in Sydney. 

“When I made Aboriginal friends I saw that the racism I received was nothing compared to the systematic cultural destruction faced by our Aboriginal populations,” he says. “I wondered why this had never been taught in school, how we could have a concept like ‘terra nullius’ when we could still meet the descendants of the inhabitants of this land.” 

“That had a profound impact on me, hearing about the dispossession of this country from its first inhabitants. It helped to give me my activist leanings.”

**

Associate Professor Cunio turns 50 this year. In his time, he has published more than a dozen albums; composed significant works for the screen, opera, music theatre, been commissioned to write music for the Opera House, the ABC, the Olympics and many festivals. Cunio has set some of the world’s premier art collections to music, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Louvre’s collection of Egyptian antiquities, the Khalili collection of Islamic art. And he has performed all over the world – including the White House in the last days of the Clinton administration – and has just returned from a project setting the sounds of space with the British Antarctic Survey.

He has accrued numerous and myriad accomplishments in music, yet didn’t study music academically until he was 25, which he feels offers great hope to his students.

Growing up though, he received a diverse musical education. He spent Saturdays at the synagogue, where his father would sing either in the Ashkenazi choir or intone 2,000 year old tunes to the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish communities. On Sundays, Associate Professor Cunio went to his father’s opera concerts.

When he turned 7, he put his boy soprano voice to use. He joined his father onstage and sang. From ages 7 to 11, he performed in hundreds of concerts. His childhood nights were filled with opera and jazz. He tagged along with his father to a 78RPM record club where there would be “all these Eastern European Jews arguing over which of the great opera singers of the early 20th century was the best”. 

Jazz performers made up his mother's side of the family. Every few months they would get together and jam. 

“I'd try to concentrate but would wake up in the middle of the night in the car or would just fall asleep on the floor with everyone just making music around me,” Associate Professor Cunio says.

His childhood singing career was interrupted when his voice broke, very badly, at 12. He went from practising singing each day to struggling to sing. To get over this, he listened to his father's singing students, whom his father taught out of their living room. Although, as Associate Professor Cunio adds with a chuckle, he really had no choice: the house was so small he didn't have his own bedroom.

“I would listen to at least 25 singing lessons a week,” he says. “I was at a point where I could go, 'Sharp / flat. The vocal production has moved too far to the throat or nose’. I could just anticipate what my dad would say to his students.”

In Year 10 he started playing the guitar, then the harmonica and recorder. But it came too late for him to do HSC music. He therefore did what many kids do who haven’t formally learned music: he joined bands, which he did until he was about 20.

Associate Professor Cunio states: “Then came a day where I discovered classical music again and my life changed forever.”

**

He was 19 and doing a Communications degree at the University of Technology. He'd moved into a share house that had a piano.

“The first few days the neighbours rang the police because there was this guy who wasn't very good just wanting to play the piano six hours a day,” he says, smiling at the memory.

He found a practice pedal and was able to continue practicing without more tangles with the law.

A year and a half later, he could play.  His mother arranged a visit with her cousins, acclaimed classical violinist Kelly (Maurice) Isaacs and legendary jazz guitarist Ike Isaacs. They listened to him play the piano and inspired him to take music as his life’s path.

“Both Maurice and Ike were deeply compassionate men who saw music as an almost holy vocation,” Associate Professor Cunio says. “This really appealed to me, as I had been very religious as a child and was looking to remake myself without losing my essence.”

They helped him plan the next 20 years of his life. Associate Professor Cunio was given a choice: to drop everything and become a concert pianist, or do almost anything else in music. He took the second option and became a musical journeyman, learning to play over a dozen instruments from many cultures, singing in a variety of languages, and composing more and more over time.

At 25 he was accepted into the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music, where he started a double degree in composition and voice. The ‘Con’ was similar in size to the ANU School of Music and had a real family atmosphere: “I got so well looked there,” he says. 

After he graduated, he freelanced for a while before returning to the Con for his Masters degree because he “missed university so much”.

His thesis explored how to navigate a space for inter-cultural music-making. In particular, Associate Professor Cunio wanted to understand how he could be both a composer of western music and lead an authentic, inter-cultural life in Australia.

“I came to terms with the contradictions that I'd railed against in my childhood through an academic experience where I was able to make a whole lot of music, and then write discursively about it,” he says. 

“The process of undertaking exegetical research really changed me, and I champion it in my students.” 


“By the time I did my doctorate, I could articulate a position for myself as a sacred composer, and state that there might be a point in living a sacred life and writing sacred music concurrently; that there could be a type of whole-life methodology to making sacred music.”

**

In Associate Professor Cunio's early university days, he'd tried to bridge the differences inherent in his identity. He'd been brought up in a community that was strongly Zionist, but tried to understand Islam because as well as being Jewish, he is also Arabic. That opened up a love of comparative religion that has remained to this day.

He has devoted years to studying the music and culture of other religions: six years as a serious student of Tibetan Buddhism; ten years with Hinduism; and intermittent periods exploring Sufism and Christianity. Underlying it all, significant study of his own birth religion of Judaism and interfaith dialogue. All this has culminated in his second Doctorate, in interfaith studies, which he will defend in June in New York.

Not long after he finished his first Doctorate though, and shortly after the Global Financial Crisis hit, Associate Professor Cunio was hired as a composer in the technology area of the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University.

“I had taught as a casual academic for many years, but moving into academia full time was a great change for me. Over time I moved into the composition department, and trialled something I'm really committed to doing at the ANU: healing the separation between technology and composition,” he says. 

**

In early 2017, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Brexit negotiations commenced, and Associate Professor Kim Cunio joined the ANU School of Music as a Senior Lecturer in composition. He was conscious of what he was signing up for.

“I'd known about the amazing history of the School of Music and I'd also known it had had some troubled times,” he says. “I thought: 'This could be a real adventure as this school can be rebuilt from the ground up.”

When he arrived, he immediately fell in love with the place.

“It sounds a bit sentimental, but I'd never met so many smart people before,” he says. “And ethical smart people.”

In the time Associate Professor Cunio has been here, he's taught composition, worked with the Gyuto monks of Tibet, set the first recorded Gravitational wave to music for the British Antarctic Survey, and founded an ANU record label. Then in January 2019, he was appointed Head of School.

“I was deeply humbled by the fact that both our management and our staff could put trust in me after only two years here at the ANU,” Associate Professor Cunio says.

He views the opportunity the school has to re-build with “quite a lot of space” as exciting. He cites developments there such as the new major in film and game composition, the embedding of technology throughout the curriculum, and tearing open the traditional boundaries between composition, performance, technology and musicology as a quiet revolution in music education. He’s also relishing the “joyful challenge” of rebuilding classical performance at the ANU, and wants to prove to the sector that it is possible to value both the old and the new at the same time.
 
“I'm just so proud we have those things in place, and now I have the honour of working with our wonderful staff to dream up the next period,” he says.

Associate Professor Cunio is prepared for the job ahead of him not only in teaching and research, but on a more holistic level. Cunio wants to foster a “culture of kindness” at the School of Music.

“I'd like us to develop a music school that is kind to every student,” Associate Professor Cunio says. “I can remember the many acts of kindness I received when I was a student and I want our students to have a similar experience.”

That goal extends to the staff within the school: “I think it's really important that we build more than a working culture – that we build the deepest culture of respect, and empathy for our staff, that we value the unsung heroes of our universities, the general staff who make everything happen, and we understand that music academics have a fourth sphere of work, practice, that they have to do in addition to their teaching, research and service.”

“This starts with me,” he says. “If I'm going to expect other staff to be their kindest, I have to be understanding and kind to them.”

Associate Professor Cunio took up his new role well aware of the scrutiny it attracts. Which, he adds, speaks volumes about how deeply the community cares about the school.

“Is there any other school in the ANU that is either on, or close, to the front page of The Canberra Times, whenever there is a change in director?” he asks. 

“It's amazing that the School of Music, one small school in our university, can command that attention. It shows how important music is to all of us.”

He has a message for everyone in Canberra: that this is their music school, an institution run by him and his colleagues. And, he wants the School of Music to be a hub that sustains all of Canberra’s music.

“I want to see our students and graduates making music all through Canberra and beyond,” Associate Professor Cunio says. 

“I want us to inspire the community and the country, to be the national music school, and to be the institution that make the case for music to be fostered in our age of neoliberalism. I want us to be the most inclusive music school in Australia; the music school that champions Aboriginal music and musicians, and that allows students to find their passions beyond music even as they master it, and a School that makes dazzling music research.” 

“Watch this space,” he says with emphasis. “Watch our students and staff as they follow their dreams – and prepare to be amazed.”

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Updated:  13 March 2019/Responsible Officer:  CASS Marketing & Communications/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications