'One need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition': An interview with Brett Dean

BrettDean600In our last concert at the Judith Wright Centre - 'Modern Music in Exile' - Kupka's performed Brett Dean's epic sextet, Old Kings in Exile. The work will be heard in Australia several times this year - Melbourne's Ensemble Cathexis also recently performed it in their May program 'Reckless Abandon'. In a special collaborative interview Kupka pianist Alex Raineri and Cathexis flautist Lina Andonovska both posed some questions to Brett about the work, his life in self-imposed 'exile' in Germany, and his reading list. ALEX RAINERI: The theme of our last Kupka's Piano concert was 'Modern Music in Exile' which is derived from the title of your sextet Old Kings in Exile, a work which is receiving a considerable amount of airtime, with SYZYGY also performing the piece later in the year! Much of the Australian repertoire we play (by established and the younger generation) are by composers who have relocated either to Europe or America and I'm always interested to know whether there is for composers a conscious intention to find a musical language which still represents a uniquely Australian sound, and what kind of role this plays. What are your thoughts and is this something you would associate with your works?

I am interested in creating a sound that is uniquely mine, that expresses something specifically personal. However I'm not sure that necessarily constitutes something uniquely Australian per se, nor do I pursue that consciously. When I consider what sounds around us are absolutely and uniquely Australian, however, then indigenous music and language, the Australian-English accent and birdsong come most readily to mind. Aspects of all of these things have been sources of inspiration for me one way or another; indigenous culture in rather oblique ways, the latter two quite overtly at times in specific pieces. In fact, the last movement of the sextet wouldn't have come about in the way it did without a timely encounter with my most favourite of Australian sounds, the song of the pied butcherbird. There's one particular song that I seem to hear every time I visit my parents' place in Brisbane which closes the piece.

LINA ANDONOVSKA: Following on from this, I'd like to know what excites you the most about Australia's contemporary/newly composed music scene? You obviously spend a lot of time in Europe and know the scene there intimately, but what do you think is different or perhaps unique about the Australian new music culture?

For musicians growing up in Europe, there can be a sense of tradition constantly looking over one's shoulder. Whilst I've loved coming to grips with this wonderfully rich cultural heritage throughout my professional life, it can be a heavy weight to bear and can manifest itself in a very profound conservatism, not only in orchestras (where it's not so surprising) but to a certain extent even in new music circles. In German orchestras for example, the standard repertoire and the western canon seem set in stone for all time, never to be questioned or tampered with. Many players wish, with an almost messianic zeal, to "protect" their cultural heritage and seem to perceive anything "modern" (in some cases this means anything post-Schönberg, even post-Brahms!) as a threat to their long-perfected ways of making music. The new music scene in Germany can, however, also seem stuck in its ways; specifically in the post-war period of innovation where cutting ties with a weighty and troubled past and a redefining of artistic purpose were of such importance. I feel that times have changed and yet new music in Germany still seems to have to fulfil certain expectations and parameters born out of that period. At times, the lack of acceptance of different voices that don't fit in with the overriding, "Darmstadtian" aesthetic can seem every bit as reactionary a world view as that of their symphonic-orchestral counterparts. By contrast, Australia's "outsider" position in the musical world means one need not be dictated to by an overbearing sense of tradition. Whilst the music scene, including the new music scene, has some very conformist aspects to it, In many cases this "traditionlessness" has led to the emergence and flourishing of some highly original thinkers and sonic explorers, genuine mavericks and nonconformists; artists such as Anthony Pateras, Jon Rose, Ross Bolleter, Liza Lim, The Necks and Richard Tognetti come to mind, for example. That is one of our great strengths and something to be cherished.

ALEX: The middle movement of Old Kings in Exile is called Double Trio. It's not uncommon for composers to feature groupings of instruments within works for this 'Pierrot' sextet - such pieces come to mind as Elliot Carter's Triple Duo, Franco Donatoni's Arpège, Gerard Grisey's Talea - and I wonder with this kind of history of core repertoire how you as a composer would approach writing for this instrumentation which seems to have become the 21st century piano trio?!

The Double Trio title of my middle movement is a conscious "doffing of the cap" to Elliott Carter's remarkable Triple Duo, a work that was a particular source of inspiration in writing my own sextet. The colouristic and textural possibilities and instrumental combinations became in and of themselves a significant part of my approach to the piece, especially in that middle movement. I certainly agree with you about this instrumentation becoming a kind of 21st century standard ensemble; in fact, I think that the remarkable sonic possibilities of the Pierrot-plus-percussion combo will see it emerge further as a standard go-to ensemble for composers in years to come, especially as many orchestras retreat away from commissioning new art music in favour of financially more lucrative cross-over projects, live-music cinema presentations and backing-band type appearances, much to our communal cultural impoverishment in my opinion.

The sextet form is a grouping that allows any number of approaches, whereas by comparison it's much harder to liberate the piano trio from its overtly 19th century, romantic salon music laden sonic heritage. It could be argued that Schönberg turned to this highly original and (at the time) unusual quintet formation for Pierrot Lunaire in 1912 because he (and his followers) were either ignored by orchestras altogether, or treated with hostile contempt by them, as they were by critics and audiences as well. He later formed the Society for Private Musical Performances in order to address these problems. Over a hundred works by a vast array of contemporary composers including Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky - as well as by Schönberg himself and his followers - were performed over a three year period before the high inflation rates of the early 20s made it impossible to continue. Even large scale works were presented in specially-made chamber ensemble reductions along the lines of the Pierrot quintet combination, further proof of its durable versatility. (In an interesting parallel to the aforementioned money-making ventures of today's symphony orchestras, Schönberg, Berg and Webern staged an evening of their own arrangements of Strauss Waltzes in 1921 in an attempt to bring some financial security into the society's coffers, with their manuscripts auctioned off after the show. The society lasted only another 6 months...)

LINA: On another topic, I know that your music is often very influenced by the literature you read, so I'd like to know what you are reading at the moment (and what you're listening to as well!)?

I've been delving into the different versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with a view to an operatic treatment in a few years. In fact my most recently premiered new work is a take on aspects of the Ophelia character, scored for string quartet and soprano and to be performed around Australia by the ASQ and Greta Bradman this coming November. Also, Harold Bloom's "Poem Unlimited" provides a fascinating analysis of Hamlet and thoughts on the nature of theatrical illusion. I also recently enjoyed reading Haruki Murakami's latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

I've been listening to quite a bit of new music from Canada in preparation for a residency there as composer/performer/curator for the Toronto Symphony's new music festival in a couple of years and have been enjoying getting to know two new English operas; George Benjamin's Written on Skin and Julian Anderson's Thebans.

LINA: Finally... I would like to ask where your inspiration stems from? Some of us have moments where we are really disheartened with ourselves and our creativity, and it is often hard to find momentum to get the energy levels back up. Do you experience this, and if so, where do you regain the momentum from?

Well, without some honest self-criticism, I don't think any composer or artist of any kind will get very far. But it can be dangerously debilitating as well if it gets the upper hand too much of the time; one has to keep it grounded and real. Three things in the battle with creativity and search for inspiration for which, on a daily basis, I'm very grateful are: firstly, that my wife, Heather, is also a creative artist; secondly, that she has an informed, yet profoundly individual understanding of music and, thirdly, that she isn't a musician herself but a visual artist! The constant, inter-disciplinary dialogue that has evolved between us over the years about what we're up to, where we might be stuck, ways to solve problems, how someone else may see/hear what we're up to, etc, keeps us going and, if needs be, can pick us up from the floor. As a consequence, if something isn't working for me, I find it helpful to distance myself from music altogether and immerse myself in something else creative, be it a film, an exhibition, reading a good book. Not surprisingly, these are common and reliable sources of inspiration for me, to which the titles of my pieces attest. (Cooking a meal while listening to John Coltrane or PJ Harvey also seems to help....!)

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