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Brett Dean discusses his new work Fire Music, forming the centrepiece of a Stockholm festival devoted to his music, taking the stage with Australian Ballet, and featured in a Total Immersion day in London.

How were the starting points of Fire Music rooted in the natural world?

When first considering writing a piece of music in response to the disastrous ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009, I set about learning more of the science of fires. I corresponded with Dick Williams, a scientist from the national science research institute, CSIRO. The material which developed even included specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about half way through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009.

How did you balance descriptive and abstract concerns?

As the composition progressed I moved beyond the original trajectory of the fire itself and the piece started to follow its own internal, music-based logic. Nevertheless, the character of the force of destruction and ultimately rebirth that comes from such a fire remained the energetic source of material. It’s not an uncommon working process for me; strong extra-musical ideas, after providing an initial stimulus, then recede into the background as the piece evolves in purely musical terms. The remnants of original ‘programmatic’ ideas become a point of reference only.

From the onset you knew that Fire Music would also be choreographed. How did this affect your composition?

I was approached almost simultaneously by both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for a new orchestral work (co-commissioned by the BBCSO) and the Australian Ballet for a new score for Australian master-choreographer Graeme Murphy as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2012, and it was my suggestion to combine these two projects into one. In first discussions with Graeme, he stressed to me that he wasn’t planning a narrative ballet and didn’t want its dance use to influence how the work might unfold. This was liberating as choreographers often come to composers with very specific ideas of subject matter and even timings. The accompanying thought that the music I was writing was destined to determine the unfolding of a new ballet and its language of movement helped shape and inform Fire Music’s energy flow and dramaturgical nature.

Your music vividly captures mood or situation. Where do you sit between Strauss and Stravinsky on the expressive potential of music?

The ability “to describe a teaspoon” (Strauss) on the one side, and “nothing whatsoever” (Stravinsky) on the other! That’s a very interesting question. The original stimulus for writing Fire Music came from my emotional response to an event and my own desire to respond to those emotions. But in order to do so,
I had to step back and deal with musical material. So as Stravinsky said, “to be put into practice, music’s indispensable and single requirement is construction”.

In their comments about musical expressivity Strauss and Stravinsky obviously had vastly diverging ideas, but listening to their works actually tells a different story. I’ve found it interesting to observe how and when both of these masters choose to turn an emotional tide, often by the use of large ‘brushstrokes’. In a contemporary music scene which is perhaps at times unwilling or afraid to embrace large, emotional musical gestures, I draw conviction from composers like Strauss, Stravinsky and others, who didn’t shy away from this fundamental potential of music.

How have your experiences as violist with the Berlin Philharmonic and in the electronic studio influenced your individuality as a composer?

I think my early apprenticeship – working in electronic music studios and live improv clubs in Berlin in the late ’80s – was the ideal counterbalance to any potential influence my ‘day job’ with the Berlin Philharmonic might have had on the originality (or otherwise) of my own compositions. Despite the enormous amount of orchestral repertoire that I have played, these early experiences helped keep my ears open to sound in any form as a possible compositional source. The orchestral years taught me about shape, breath, gesture, energy, whereas improvising and playing around with embryonic ideas in a studio allowed me to discover my own way of handling musical material. My lifelong immersion in the Western canon is certainly part of who I am as a musician but I hope I’m able to impart something of my own voice and personality to how I make, organize and respond to sound. Electronic sound is in itself nothing new nowadays, but it is a colour palette that knows no bounds and has always been an important tool for me to stretch the possibilities of my own sonic world.

As a performer you’re aware of practical barriers. Does this help or hinder composition, for instance in your concertos?

Schoenberg apparently wrote upon completing his violin concerto, “There we are, another unplayable work for the repertoire!” I see my practical experience as a performer as of huge benefit in my day-to-day work as a composer but it’s true it can make one overcautious. Nevertheless, no performer of my concertante works has ever complained to me of the pieces being too easy, nor do I see much point in consciously writing music that I know to be physically unplayable. For string works at least, I can check myself if something is workable. What has also helped me is the wonderful assistance of colleagues willing to show me the possibilities of their instruments and how well or not a passage may ‘sit’.

You actively swap musical roles and perspectives. Does this help explain the creative tension between composer, performer and listener?

These tensions can indeed be creative, and I find the greater the knowledge base, the more constructive they’ll be. For example, I always encourage young composers to involve themselves, wherever possible, in the act of performance; if not at a sufficient level as an instrumentalist or singer, then as a conductor. Similarly, it’s hugely beneficial for performers to try their hand at composing or improvising and for all musicians to be able to articulate thoughts through written or spoken words; in short, we all need to be more flexible and well-versed in other aspects of the art-form, and avoid building a rigid comfort zone around ourselves.

With Fire Music joining Water Music and Pastoral Symphony, is there a series emerging?

This brings us back to the opening question, the extent to which the natural world influences my work.
I guess there is a series emerging, but in an occasional and coincidental way as the ideas present themselves, not as part of a planned cycle of works. Shadow Music, Winter Songs and my “Night” pieces could also be included in such a list, and it may of course continue to grow, as my own elemental experiences of the physical world influence my musical expression.

Interviewed by David Allenby, 2011

Brett Dean
Fire Music (2010-11)
for orchestra
Duration: 20 minutes

10/12 November (world premiere)
Konserthuset, Stockholm
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/
Sakari Oramo
Brett Dean Composer Festival (10-16 November)
> Tonsatterfestival 2011

24 February (Australian premiere)
Arts Centre, Melbourne
Australian Ballet/Orchestra Victoria
Choreographer: Graeme Murphy

17 March (UK premiere)
Barbican, London
BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Robertson
Brett Dean Total Immersion day

>  Further information on Work: Fire Music

Photo: Mark Coulson

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