From Orchestral Player To ‘Experimental’ Composer: Brett Dean in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman

 CanadaCanada From Orchestral Player To ‘Experimental’ Composer: Brett Dean in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman, 26.3.2014

Dean Brett
Brett Dean

The showcasing of five works by Brett Dean (b. 1961, Brisbane) at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival in late January made me recognize just how fine a composer he is, and just how varied and imaginative is his compositional reach. Yet, from 1985 to 1999, Brett Dean was a full-time violist for the Berlin Philharmonic, facing all the pressures of any high level orchestral player.  Historically, we have seen conductors as composers (Furtwangler, Klemperer, Kubelik, and Martinon), but just how often do we see orchestral players burst out with a flurry of compositional energy?  One example of course is trumpeter Malcolm Arnold, originally with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but even he turned fully to composition by the age of 30.  While Arnold left a rich legacy of symphonies, concertos and film scores, what makes Brett Dean’s circumstance so interesting is that he is a modern ‘experimental’ composer.  He already has over 60 compositions, including the opera ‘Bliss’(2010).

The outstanding thing about Brett Dean’s compositions is just how strong and finely-crafted they are, using the orchestra’s full resources with fluency, confidence and imagination. While there are many innovative effects involved, the result is always tightly-argued, texturally-subtle, and intellectually aware, finding a strong emotional resonance.   There is an intensity and ‘life-force’ in Dean’s music and, in my opinion, the composer very seldom settles for routine.

Of the works we heard at the festival, Dean’s ‘Water Music’ (2004) is literally all about ‘life-force’, initially presenting all the subtle properties of water, its bubbling, gurgling and flowing, then moving to its sheer force and power, ending with a portrayal of the desperation of a world without this invaluable resource.  Starting from a very quiet bubbling (created by blowing into water bowls), then eventually combining this with the soft, liquid tones of the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, the work is all about the control of texture and motion.  The orchestration is both vivid and subtle, and emotionally engaging.  The composer also played his own Viola Concerto of the same year, where the demands on the instrument’s range are pretty formidable. Starting from an interval vaguely reminiscent of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, and with an astringency of orchestral texture somewhat in the New Vienna tradition, the work touches extremes, carefully negotiating a tension between a quiet, austere lyricism and strong motion and attack.  This is a complex and tightly-knit piece that one wants to return to. The concert suite from the opera ‘Bliss’ certainly had a host of exotic experimental effects, all trying to recreate the spirit of Peter Carey’s novel about an advertising agent who awakes from a deadly heart attack in Hell and achieves bliss there.  But it was the power and intensity of the music that really stood out; absolutely striking effects from percussion and massed strings and such compelling motion.  Then, on to beautifully-crafted cabaret music, smouldering and jazzy, ending with a lovely restrained lyricism that took us to an unencumbered world of forests and trees.  I should remark how ably and faithfully conductor Bramwell Tovey and the VSO negotiated these works. Both the Water Music and the Viola Concerto have been recorded on BIS.

In this interview, we attempt to understand just how Brett Dean made the transition from orchestral player to composer, what originally triggered his flood of creative energy, and what influences and perspectives drive his inspiration as an ‘experimental’ composer.

Geoffrey Newman: It is certainly rare for a full-time orchestral player to become a serious composer.  Was composing always in your blood, or was it something that grew out of your later experiences?

Brett Dean: My training was that of instrumentalist, although I had been fascinated by the compositional process from quite early on while still at school.  I had a wonderful ‘old-school’ theory teacher in Brisbane who enjoyed explaining larger forms and the architecture of music.  Then, at college (Queensland Conservatorium of Music), I became very engaged with the playing of new music, some of it especially written for me by composition students I knew.  I did have some interest in trying composing myself but I admit that I felt discouraged by the pervading specialist thinking that compartmentalized music at that time: composers compose, performers perform ‘and never the twain shall meet’!  Thankfully that attitude is breaking down more and more and the ‘composer-performer’ is reemerging.  Ironically, it wasn’t from the classical world but a rock-musician-cum-sound-artist who encouraged me most to start composing, something that grew out of our improvising together in the mid to late 80’s in West Berlin in a duo we called ‘Frame-Cut-Frame’.

GN: It must have been a difficult decision to leave the Berlin Philharmonic in the late-1990’s to devote yourself to full-time composition.  Did you have some regrets?

 BD: It wasn’t a decision to make lightly, yes, and the first year was hard, coming to terms with working on my own in a small room without my larger musical Berlin ‘family’ around me. And what a colourful, inspiring and yet complicated family that one is!  But following that period of acclimatization, I’ve never looked back, and occasionally can indulge in the privilege of rejoining the ranks of that great orchestra’s viola section as a casual player.

GN: Your compositions since the mid-1990’s seem to be particularly varied and eclectic.  How would you see your line of development as a composer from then to now?

BD: As I mentioned, it was a non-classical musician (Sydney-born Simon Hunt) that got me hooked on composing, something that grew out of working with him in recording studios and finding musical and expressive potential in all manner of sounds using very early sampling technology.  Those experiences have remained a significant part of my compositional process and I love reentering the world of the recording studio as much as I love rejoining an orchestral string section.  Like any compositional pathway, it’s been a process of finding my own voice, my own way of finding musical solutions and making (hopefully!) original compositional choices. Over time it’s important to keep challenging oneself, striving to emerge from each new work knowing more about music and oneself than one did previously. That’s perhaps how the ‘varied, eclectic’ path that you describe may have evolved; always wanting to try one’s hand at something new, be it a genre, form, instrumentation, stylistic direction – while still trying to be myself.

GN: We often think of composers as living very much in their own world, but they obviously learn from each other.  How much do you think you have learned from other contemporary composers?  Do you still feel that one must pay attention to the lessons of the great masters?

BD: I certainly feel indebted to the lessons I learned playing for 15 seasons in such a great orchestra. Obviously in such a revered yet rather conservative institution, that meant a total immersion in the works of the great masters.  One can’t play that amount of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Bartok, Schoenberg, etc. without feeling — in one’s very body — how musical structures unfold in time.  It’s that visceral act of music-making that I like to keep in touch with, as much as the lessons learned from other people’s music. However, the overriding conservatism of my orchestral life in Berlin did lead me to seek out ways of engaging with living composers, resulting in working with, and being mentored by, contemporary masters such as György Kurtag, Hans Werner Henze, Colin Matthews and Mark Anthony Turnage.  They were all great and formative experiences.

GN: As a composer who has introduced innovative ‘experimental’ effects in your works, do you think of these effects as absolutely integral to the work’s structure or more devices to enhance, and amplify, the basic feeling you wish to convey?  For example, how do you think ‘Water Music’ would be altered if it started without the bubbling water bowls?

BD: A piece like ‘Water Music’ is inextricably linked to its ‘real’ or extra-musical sound-world and was only able to come into being through my diving into that sound-world. (Pardon the pun!)  It was discovering the links between the water sounds (played both live and via recorded material) and the sonic possibilities of the remarkable Raschèr Saxophone Quartet that gave the piece the sonic ‘shove’ that I needed in order to complete it.  Similarly, my work for 12 violas called ‘Testament’ (inspired by Beethoven’s moving Heiligenstadt Testament) started by experimenting with the very particular qualities of rosin-less bows. That became a sonic metaphor not only for the energetic scratching of Beethoven’s quill on the parchment paper in writing this impassioned document, but also for his worsening deafness. The violas playing without rosin on their bows are more seen than heard in the opening pages of the piece.  Again, that sonic image was integral in igniting the compositional process that drove the piece.  Inevitably, the more wedded the sonic ideas are to the larger compositional intention, the more compelling the work will end up being.

GN: What attracted you initially to Peter Carey’s themes in ‘Bliss’ as the basis for an opera?

 GD: I saw the basis of an operatic drama in the ‘warts and all’ foibles of the very human Joy family, revolving around the sympathetic shortcomings of its loveable central character, Harry Joy. It contained themes that interested me dramatically and inspired me both sonically and emotionally: ambition, greed, capitalism vs. social conscience, the dark power, but also the various, often pretty, kitschy sounds of advertising and electronic media, etc. But above all, Carey’s novel had love at its heart, especially a kind of love-triangle, which is why I could see it working on an operatic stage.

GN: It is often said that your works have been inspired by your wife’s paintings.  What is the exact link?

BD: People have said that the works of my wife, Heather Betts, as well as my own, find parallels in their sense of texture and line.  They’ve remarked that Heather’s figurative approach has links with my use of motive or melody, for example.  Certainly, in my early days of sound-studio based composition with Simon Hunt, where our recorded pieces developed in layers of track upon track, I saw a very direct link to how Heather would prepare her canvases with underlying colours and textures (perhaps not even apparent in the end) that were nonetheless critical to creating the ‘glow’, depth and density of her works.  I don’t really see or hear my works as visual representation but am aware of the complementary way in which Heather and I have worked alongside each other for many years in our respective fields. Readers can see her works at

 © Geoffrey Newman 2014


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