Old languags, new vernaculars

Rachel Campbell talks to Brett Dean

Brett Dean

Brett Dean

After spending more than a decade as a viola player at the top of his profession–in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and as a soloist and chamber musician–Brett Dean started composing. He began with forays into Berlin’s improvisation scene, substituting a leather jacket for his orchestral tux and “slamming the crap out of the viola.” Since then his ascendancy in the world of composition has been meteoric, sparking interest and commissions from the Melbourne, Sydney and BBC Symphony Orchestras, the Los Angeles and Berlin Philharmonics, the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He is currently writing an opera based on Peter Carey’s novel Bliss for Opera Australia. I spoke with him during his recent visit to Sydney in which he curated the chamber music program for the Sydney Festival.

What might your initial idea for a piece be? Is it sometimes a texture or sometimes a motivic idea?

It might also just be a title or a story.

Something that you want to reflect on?

Mmmm. Definitely with 12 Angry Men [for 12 cellos, inspired by the American stage play and film] I had the title long before the piece was written. The Berlin Philharmonic cellists thought it was about them when I first gave them the piece.

Your program notes seem to focus on the inspiration behind the works, such as works in other artforms and contemporary events, but a lot of your titles don’t directly refer to those inspirations. If someone doesn’t read the notes, what do you hope their experience of the piece is?

I must say as far as writing program notes about a piece or talking about a piece, one thing I really couldn’t stand in Germany was this heightened sense of having to go into what a composer is doing technically in a particular piece. It’s so boring. Go and put your underwear back in the drawer, we don’t need to see it. If you’re writing about it for a musicological journal that’s different. I find that it’s led to a kind of over-intellectualisation of music. Which isn’t to say that those techniques aren’t valued and aren’t worthy–and I’m using a lot of the same techniques myself–I just think that’s got nothing to do with what a listener needs to know about a piece.

The listener may not need to know the story behind the emotional side of the piece either. And for that reason I’m always hopeful that, although most of the pieces have some sort of a story behind them, ideally that’s just for me to know how to shape the piece. It’s very useful to have when you’re in the process of writing. But I’m always fairly confident that the pieces can stand on their own, that hopefully they’re musically interesting enough just to follow and see how the ideas unfold.

Vernaculars and syntheses

Do you feel that process is possible because although you’re using an expressive language which is certainly unique, some of its elements come from musical language that’s more widely known?

A vernacular? Well to some greater or lesser extent everyone feeds at the same trough, human experience as seen through sound or as heard through sound. And that can also be something you might hear at the What is Music? festival–on one level you might think that’s as removed from that vernacular as it’s possible to be and perhaps also consciously endeavouring to make a new vernacular. But I think also its strongest moments are when there’s a synthesis of something forging ahead in a completely new direction that’s still making somehow the remotest wink or nod at some kind of formal structure or something from the past. That, I find fascinating. And I would argue that it’s not even possible to completely remove oneself from what sound has been before. Even the sound world of the most avant-garde sound exploration is also bound up in some sort of pre-existing language. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a desirable thing to forge ahead and find something entirely new, I’m trying to do that myself in some way or other too. But I think there’s just this common thing in the way humans respond to all sound, some sort of accumulated reservoir of sonic experience.

I’m quite fascinated actually in the whole soundtrack-soundscape thing, which isn’t to particularly forge a new direction. However, I do find that the combination of that with an orchestral ensemble is something that no one else I know of is doing in quite the same way as in [my orchestral piece] Moments of Bliss, for example. So I find there’s a new avenue I’m wanting to explore there.

So I’m as interested as the avant-gardists to find something new, it’s just that I have come from a much more conservative musical background and upbringing. I played in the Philharmonic in Berlin, you can’t get more conservative than that! There were things about that that were incredibly frustrating and that was probably what made me turn into a composer. I just couldn’t stand some of the conservatism. And I got bored playing in the Philharmonic to some extent. I was getting to a point where I thought, “Mahler 9 today, ho hum.” But that piece of music is too magnificent to get to that point.

Having lived with a visual artist I guess there was always this niggling desire to do something creative myself. I felt that it was all very well to play the viola in the Philharmonic but that couldn’t be it, could it? On the other hand there were parts of it that I loved and acknowledged because they were honouring a wonderful artform. If people don’t give their life to it, it would die, and that would be a tragedy. So I find that there are wonderful ways of reconciling all of these worlds.

A figurative expressionism

How would you describe your aesthetic? What do you want your music to do in the world?

Look, I want it to touch people. I think that musically and compositionally there’s hopefully enough interesting things going on for the pieces to be worthwhile from the musicological point of view. But I’d rather they be worthwhile from an emotional point of view, simply because that’s always been my way of taking on music myself. I’ve always found it a particularly beautiful career to be involved in, a beautiful profession. And playing in the orchestra was a very emotional thing, it was very cathartic to be in that kind of sound and really dig in. That real hands-on gutsiness of playing in an orchestra like that was incredibly emotional and I guess that went over into how I’ve written music.

My wife Heather talks of her work as being a particular type of figurative expressionism and I think that that also relates to my music. It is figurative in that you can recognise figures in it, you can recognise motives in the way that if you’re looking at an artwork of figurative expressionism you’ll be able to see what the story is that’s being told. It might require the viewer/listener’s imagination but it’s not entirely abstract. It’s got its moments of sonic onslaught and can sound quite ‘new’ at times, but basically it still has an acknowledgement of the whole musical tradition behind it. I think I’d most like it to somehow touch a nerve somewhere.

ACO interludes

Can you tell me about the piece commissioned by ABN AMRO that you're writing for the Australian Chamber Orchestra to be premiered in July?

It’s for an ACO tour with the flautist Emmanuel Pahud playing an array of 6 Vivaldi concerti which will then be recorded. In each concert 4 of the 6 will be performed. They wanted some little, spicy sorbets to be played in between, so I was asked to write interludes. It’s a good challenge because most of my music so far has been in fairly major statements with movements at least 10 minutes long. I’m intrigued by the idea of limiting myself to one musical idea per piece. Each interlude will explore only one sonority.

In my works I sometimes revisit things from previous pieces that I would like to extend. In the string quartet Eclipse, for instance, there is a particular sonority of very high arpeggiated pizzicato chords that I could revisit in a string orchestra setting. The ACO was keen to be able to perform the interludes as a freestanding piece on other occasions, so this is my first purely string orchestra piece.

Brett Dean, Three Interludes (world premiere), Breath Taking Vivaldi, Australian Chamber Orchestra, July 2-13, www.aco.com.au

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 49

© Rachel Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005