Even though I was keen for this new work for piano and strings not to be defined by the Coronavirus and its endless accompanying news cycles, like the proverbial elephant in the room it was somehow there anyway while I was composing, winking at me rather rudely, flaunting its new, continuous cough, high temperature and loss of taste and smell.
During this past year or more of dramatic and unprecedented change, I found myself turning increasingly to music of energy, directness and verve in an effort to counteract consciously the at times almost overwhelming sense of global tragedy. These lockdown listening habits, often including guilty pleasures of old pop, rock and dance music favourites, somehow crept stealthily into this new piece.
Thus, what started out as an abstract chamber music piece for the classic piano quartet combination became an “Imaginary Ballet”; a suite of fast, rhythmic, dance-like movements. Bearing titles such as “Obsessions”, “Stretto Dance” and “Skittish”, these dances inhabit a buoyant, bullish and effervescent space, full of both driving, reassuring repetitions and abrupt changes of tack, of surging waves of quasi-orchestral energy and slivers of sneaky secrecy.
“Caprice” opens the work with a provocatively bouncy, recurring major ninth motive in the piano, a gesture of openness and possibility in this time of shut-down, enticing the strings to join in one after the other. This motive reappears in different guises throughout the work’s nine brief, interconnected movements, informing note choices, melodic shapes and harmonic directions.
During the composition process, a series of slower interludes between the dances also began to emerge, bringing with them quietude and endowing the work with oases of silhouettes and shadows.
One of them is a chorale that doffs its cap to Charles Ives. It was inspired by the mysteriously foggy winter twilights of Donnington, the beautiful village in West Berkshire that I escaped to between lockdowns and where this piece was composed. Another is a short elegy in memory of my dear friend and former viola teacher, the remarkable Australian musician, John Curro.
“Imaginary Ballet” is about 20 minutes long. May it intrigue you. Dancing is permitted as far as I’m concerned, socially distanced of course...
Brett Dean, April, 2021
"You could listen to a wandering waltz in the light-footed, teasingly twisted opening movement, but Dean's ballet was not about traditional dances. But about angular, hopping, elegant and pounding rhythms, in a fanciful cohesion that constantly developed in an organic way."