Lyle Chan celebrates 90s life-saving HIV activism in 90-minutes of music.

This month, an extraordinary string quartet 20 years in the making is being premiered in three cities across Australia. Already hailed by John Corigliano as “a serious and deeply felt work of art born out of a seemingly endless plague”, its composer Lyle Chan explains the origins of this work in some of the darkest days of the late 20th century:

I’m a composer who spent six years as an AIDS activist. I saw AIDS transformed from a frightening, nearly universally fatal illness to what it is today, a hopeful, manageable condition. This happened within a mere two decades of identifying the virus HIV; in the whole history of medicine, there had never been progress made at such speed with a disease so dazzling in its complexity.

My story as an AIDS activist in Sydney began when I was still living in Madison, Wisconsin. My first boyfriend, Geoffrey, whom I met when I was 21 in 1988, was HIV-positive. Mine was the first generation of gay men who never knew a time before AIDS. You had a choice: join the growing grassroots movement against AIDS, or be a bystander, but even as a bystander, you still had AIDS in your face.

Yet I don’t think I ever made a conscious choice to be an activist. I was swept up in a movement, one that saw lots of people surrender their normal lives because there was a war. Stockbrokers left the market to fight; the artists who put art aside to be activists were just some of the people. For how long, we just didn’t know.

We couriered AIDS treatments from the US that were unavailable here, we lobbied and protested against the federal government to approve experimental treatments more quickly, and we collaborated with drug companies to design clinical trials of promising new treatments. I met the bravest people I ever knew, people who risked jail or worse to get some little pill across borders or out of laboratories to the bodies of those too sick or too scared to hunt down their own treatment.

During those years, I’d given up music to be an activist. But a composer is always a composer. I sketched a lot of music. The music was my diaries, a way of writing down feelings. I think of music as the sound that feelings make.

Some 20 years after these events, I began turning the sketches into performable pieces of music. Some sketches, like the one written after the long night my friend and fellow activist Bruce died, were almost performable. Others were fragments as small as a single line or a few measures, yet the emotion of the music was clear as day when I returned to compose them into a playable piece of music.

This 90-minute memoir quartet is the result. It contains reflections of historic events and portraits of activist friends now dead. It uses unusual effects like police whistles to recall street demonstrations by ACT UP, the direct action protest group with which I did most of my activist work.

It’s just music that I wrote when I was reflecting on the day’s events or even music to comfort myself. Sometimes it’s agitated, sometimes tender, but always, I realize now, anchored in the beauty of the world that made it worth saving. Now I release this memoir back into the world to honour a people and a community from a long time ago that fought against the odds, and triumphed.


Brisbane: July 5 (Sandgate Town Hall) – Ticket information

Sydney: July 18 (Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo) Free, but bookings required. Ticket information.

Melbourne July 23 (excerpts, Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, introduced by the Hon. Michael Kirby) – free, no booking required. In conjunction with David McDiarmid retrospective exhibition. Further information

Melbourne July 23 (excerpts, Melbourne Convention Centre) – free for attendees of the International AIDS Conference. Further information

Melbourne July 24 (Melbourne Recital Centre) – Ticket information

A version of this article appears on the Australian Music Centre’s blog.

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