Sydney’s CYRUS MEHER-HOMJI is awarded OAM for service to the performing arts, particularly through music
Pianist, musicologist and record executive Cyrus Meher-Homji has carved a niche for himself in the classical music scene in Australia. He has made outstanding contributions to the record industry and to the advancement of classical music, especially with his own record label Eloquence. He talks to us here about his life in music.
What drew you to music, classical in particular?
Growing up in Pune, I was surrounded by classical music. Both my parents enjoyed it and my paternal grandfather had an enviable record collection. He also played the violin (and dealt with the buying and selling of instruments) in his spare time.
He was a dentist – staring into people’s mouths wasn’t a profession I was remotely interested in pursuing! – and as an amateur violinist also a very good friend of Mehli Mehta (Zubin’s father). Zubin, although based in Mumbai, would take theory lessons from an Italian violinist, Oddone Savini, who had rented premises on my grandparents’ property in Pune, so classical music had always been in the air. I was passionate about it, even obsessive, and started piano lessons at the age of five. I collected and listened to whatever records I could get my hands on and still vividly remember various aunts who encouraged me and gave me records to listen to. I always knew that classical music had to be a career path, but realising it was, at the time, another thing…
Tell us about your work at Universal Music Australia, and about Eloquence, your record company.
I am General Manager of the Classics & Jazz division at Universal Music Australia. I work extensively with artists and repertoire. I work with my team to market and publicise recordings released by our parent companies – Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Verve, Blue Note, ABC Classics. I sign artists to the Australian label. Touring artists is a new and growing part of our business.
Eloquence was launched in 1999 to make great classical recordings from the rich archives of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon available to the wider public at reasonable prices. As the label has developed, it has explored the farthest recesses of recording history, unearthing recordings previously only on vinyl (or even shellac) and making them available on CD, and of course, digitally, on download and streaming platforms – many for the first time, internationally. Over 2000 titles have been issued. I’d previously launched a classical music magazine, Soundscapes, in 1993, shortly after graduation. It lasted six years, aged me a good twelve (entering the shark-infested waters of publishing, having trained as a pianist and musicologist was another experience!); it became a victim of publishers’ whims, and when it folded, I needed something like it that I could nurture, and Eloquence provided the perfect replacement.
You’ve been a presenter on radio and TV, a teacher, producer, writer and critic. Which role have you enjoyed the most?
I think all these roles feed into each other. At the heart of it is my passion for music and my great will to communicate this to as wide a public as possible. On radio, and now on TV/online with my program Good Listening (SBS and Foxtel) I introduce new classical recordings to the public. My lecturing days at universities in Western Australia, were yet another outlet to share this wonderful world – likewise critically assessing it when I wrote for The Australian and for specialist international magazines. As producer, I want to harness great, new, exciting, different and creative talent – again – so it could be experienced to its fullest. I’m sure that all these activities are linked – the essence of all being communicating the joy and wonderment, the discovery and rediscovery of music. I trained as a pianist, and the discipline that demanded is something that’s been rechannelled into my activities as a record executive today; my lecturing prepared me for public speaking and presentation, essential in my current role; my research and writing helped me develop techniques to delve into the Aladdin’s Cave of recordings from the past and to help revive them and write about them.
How would you advise young Indian-origin Australians regarding a career in the arts? Is it easier now than when you began?
Find your passion and create your own niche. I never went for a traditional job in my career. I started a magazine because there was a gap in the market and it was the perfect way of harnessing the wonderful world I was involved in. That brought me in touch with recording companies around the world, as Soundscapes enjoyed international circulation. You know, there was a wonderful man who was responsible for bringing me to Australia as an eighteen-year-old: Sir Frank Callaway, one of the great men of music in this country. I remember my parents – like all doting parents, wondering what kind of a living I would earn having chosen a, shall we say, untraditional path – asking him where he thought I’d end up in order to earn a crust. And he said to them that they needn’t worry. That I’d find my own path and my own channels and somehow turn them into a profession. He was probably right. But you need these guardian angels in your life, someone to guide you and encourage you. Sir Frank, his successor at the University of Western Australia David Tunley, my piano teacher in Sydney Elizabeth Powell, my loving parents, and presently, our company President George Ash, have all been seminal to the development and evolution of my career. They’ve given me wings and encouraged me to fly – sometimes I might fly too close to the sun, but better that than staying dormant.
Is it more difficult today than it was in my own time? Yes, there is a great deal more competition today, but that’s because there are more platforms and in turn, more opportunity.
Are you involved with the music scene in India at all?
I do know about the wonderful work the Mehli Mehta Foundation under Mehroo Jeejeebhoy does in bringing musicians, orchestras, great artists to India. As a child, we regularly went to recitals (and occasionally orchestral concerts), and it was seminal to my development. I’m glad the tradition has been kept alive. One of my closest musical friends, Roxane Anklesaria, is now one of India’s leading piano teachers. Pianists like Pervez Mody (we shared a piano teacher, Farida Dubash) have carved a wonderful career for themselves. And then, of course, there’s the doyen of all Indian-born classical musicians, Zubin Mehta, whom I regard as a friend, and the reissue of whose magnificent recordings for Decca was one of the first projects I undertook when launching the Eloquence label.
But, of course, the scene has expanded greatly. One of the newest forms of classical music is ‘neo-classical’, blending alternative music with classical, and led by such composers/performers as Ludovico Einaudi, Joep Beving, Max Richter and Peter Gregson. I think a lot of traditional instrumental Indian classical music could morph or cross-fertilise into this area and it’s something I’d really like to explore. This new genre/movement enjoys links with health, meditation, relaxation, and I can just hear how beautifully Indian instruments could be integrated into this soundworld. Given that so much music discovery is led by mood, this would work perfectly.
More traditionally, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, both children of the great Ravi Shankar, are signed to us as part of the Universal Music Group.
What do you hope to achieve with your OAM honour?
When I tell people that I’ve been working for Universal Music Group for nearly 21 years they often gasp in surprise. How can anyone last so long in such a rapidly-changing environment? The answer is that you’re never the same two months ago as you are today. You can’t afford to be. Every month or week, even day, is a new experience for me. New platforms are embracing the styles of music I care about, making it so much more accessible and discoverable. We have moved into the roles of presenters, so that we’re not just making, marketing and distributing records, but also giving the public to see these artists in concert; regional touring in Australia is a very important part of our gambit, as it allows us to take our musicians into areas sometimes bereft of this line of entertainment. We’ve started a classical publishing division to bring composers, new and old, into our family. We’re producing more and more content to demystify, defrost classical music. I am humbled to have been honoured in this way, and hope it might further assist my efforts to completely remove the sometimes self-imposed shackles that western art music finds itself bound by.