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Brett Dean

One of a Kind 
Composer: Brett Dean
Conductor: Brett Dean
Performer: Michael Askill, Brett Dean, et al.
Ensemble: Berlin RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Chamber Choir Channel Classics (Hol) - #12898

Unless you follow the Berlin Philharmonic or the Australian classical music scene or have stumbled into the late night underground experimental music scene in Berlin or onto one of his very hard to find recordings, you may never heard of Brett Dean (b. 1961).  But, you will.  You will.

A violist and composer, Dean studied in Brisbane with Elizabeth Morgan and John Curro, graduating from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 1982 as Student of the Year. After four seasons as Principal Viola of the Queensland and Australian Youth Orchestras and numerous solo performances throughout Australasia, Dean traveled to Germany in 1984 with the financial assistance of the Australia Council to further his studies. He became a permanent member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1985.

While living in Europe, he appeared at major festivals such as Aldeburgh, Bath, Berlin, Frankfurt, Salzburg and Vienna's 'Wien Modern' series. He has collaborated with artists such as Marcus Stenz, Oliver Knussen and Sir Simon Rattle. For the celebrations of Paul Hindemith's centenary in 1995, Dean was soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, in Hindemith's Viola d'Amore Concerto, a performance that won him special critical acclaim. He has also recorded this work for CPO and appears on other commercial CDs released by Nimbus, ABC Classics and CPO. 

His particular interest in contemporary music has led to well over 50 premieres of new solo and chamber pieces by some of the leading composers of our time, including Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Kurtag, Colin Matthews, Wolfgang Rihm and Isang Yun.

While living in Europe, he appeared at major festivals such as Aldeburgh, Bath, Berlin, Frankfurt, Salzburg and Vienna's 'Wien Modern' series. He has collaborated with artists such as Marcus Stenz, Oliver Knussen and Sir Simon Rattle. For the celebrations of Paul Hindemith's centenary in 1995, Dean was soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, in Hindemith's Viola d'Amore Concerto, a performance that won him special critical acclaim. He has also recorded this work for CPO and appears on other commercial CDs released by Nimbus, ABC Classics and CPO. His particular interest in contemporary music has led to well over 50 premieres of new solo and chamber pieces by some of the leading composers of our time, including Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Kurtag, Colin Matthews, Wolfgang Rihm and Isang Yun.

Dean began composing in 1988, making largely improvised film music and radio projects for the ABC in Australia, and various independent filmmakers. Ten years on, his works are attracting considerable attention throughout Europe and Australia, including successful performances in major venues such as the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls in London, the Lyon Opera, the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Berlin Philharmonie. A broad selection of his music has been recorded in Australia, Sweden (by BIS) and for the Belgian label Sub Rosa as part of the composerˆperformer duo Frame-Cut-Frame. His music has also been featured by the English music quarterly Unknown Public. He has written commissioned works for the Festival of Sydney, the English pianist Imogen Cooper, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the twelve cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic. His work for strings, sampler and tape, Carlo, was described in the Sydney Morning Herald, after its premiere at the Huntington Festival last December, as perhaps the "most forcefully striking achievement in Australian writing for orchestral strings" in over thirty years.

Dean’s recent orchestral work, Beggars and Angels, has been travelling widely since its premiere by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Markus Stenz last November. January and February brought the orchestra to Europe for an extensive tour, with ten concerts including performances in Zürich, Geneva, Stuttgart, Munich, Frankfurt and Linz. The new score takes its title from a 1994 exhibition in Potsdam exploring the contrasts between a series of sculptures of beggars and paintings of angels. 

This is what the Melbourne Herald Sun had to say about the work:

"Beggars and Angels brings together the airy, ethereal world of angels with the grounded, oppressive reality of beggars. This collision of opposites has sparked an imaginative attempt by the composer to both contrast and reconcile images of seraphic beauty with those of brutal baseness. Dean employs economy for maximum impact, creating transparent layers of sound which are ruptured by touches of searing orchestral colour. Silence, stillness and space are skillfully integrated into the texture, and there are moments where time seems to stand still."

We caught up with Brett Dean who was very gracious in agreeing to talk with us as he was passing through New York for a couple of days. He was on his way from the West Coast to Montreal and then Europe and then back to Australia, the place where he is from and where he has recently returned with wife and child to again call home. We had a really wonderful chat one late spring morning.

Part II

Bret talks about his start and early days on the composition path.

I recently went through some of those old assignments; they are still at my parent’s house. And it really struck me how much that set me on a path that I really didn’t take up for many years. So I really didn’t start composing until about 1988. In 1987 I met another Simon, Simon Hunt, who was in Berlin trying his luck in the European world of rock music with a rock band from Sydney. But Simon wasn’t your really traditional rocker, in fact he’s gone on to be a performance artist, filmmaker and he achieved notoriety by impersonating a female politician. And actually he became quite a hero in some ways. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the woman, Pauline Hanson, who had a very anti aboriginal, anti Asian immigrant [stance] and kind of formed this party called the One Nation Party, which was extremely right wing. And Simon took her on in the sense that he made a couple of songs using her voice from radio interviews cutting them together in ways that she says completely outrageous and ridiculous things. The first [song] he did was for the Gay Mardi Gras in Sidney, which is this enormous gay festival that we have every summer. It [the song] was called “I’m a Back Door Man” and that got banned from radio. And then he made a second song which was; [well] interestingly, his father is a supreme court judge and so he had the best possible legal advise really, so he was able to check, absolutely to the letter, the next song for whether it was defamatory or not. And so he made the second song which actually became a top ten hit and effectively ridiculed her publicly to such an extent that her party really lost a lot of support and won nothing in the next general election so she’s kind of gone thanks partly to Simon. That’s kind of getting of the track but that was fascinating, really fascinating. 

But, Simon was really the person who then got me into composing because we, as I say, did a lot of improvising and experimental film music; some very weird little films by film students and that sort of thing that were studying in Berlin. But that didn’t really matter. What the really fascinating thing was, was to be able to explore sounds ourselves and that led to regularly getting together and improvising and even doing some live performances in some very, very weird sort of in the scene places in West Berlin in the late 80’s. Very sort of “black leather jacket in dingy cellars near the wall” kind of places. Fascinating, and it was a great time, meaning that I was able to live out another side of myself that the Philharmonic just didn’t allow. I mean the Philharmonic is a fantastic institution but I found it stiflingly conservative particularly in those days. It’s opened up a lot more now. 

I mean this sort of electing Simon is the sort of thing which would have been in those days absolutely unthinkable because he just would have been to modern for them. So the orchestra has really changed a lot in that time. But when I first joined I was the youngest player there for a couple of years. There were not that many young people there. It’s undergone a revolution and change over in that time, really. So I had this experience of playing a Bruckner symphony at 8pm with my tails on and then take my tails off and put on my black leather jacket and then off to the  play in the Fish Laboratory. And this was just what I needed because I think I otherwise could have gone on a very conservative, very correct sort of classical music student kind of path.

S/21: …cross your T’s and dot your I's…

BD: Absolutely! And yet some how, thanks to Simon’s influence he somehow got me into improvising and doing outrageous sort of musical theater pieces with sampled violin and viola and piano frame; we had a piano frame (piano without the keyboard) that we’d bash and pluck you know, and it was quite fundamental really. And then after a time he returned to Australia so we were then only able to work together when I was back there on holiday. 

So we’d always try to set aside as much time as we could to get into a studio while I was in Sydney. And around that time it was his suggestion to actually write a piece [together] and prepare something because he’d prepared several things for us to work on while I was there. He’d gotten basic tracks and gotten kind of a basic shape of a piece and organized it. So I said, well I’ll try and do the same and work on some ideas and we’ll work on it and record it in the studio while I’m there. So that ended up being our first official composition which was a piece called “Turing Points” and it was then just scored for five violas and I recorded all the parts by re-tracking and over-dubbing and it was a great way to sort of come to in very hands on way to know how one sound will react when another sound is added to it and that kind of thing. So yea, that was how it started really. 

First it was a hobby kind of summer holiday activity. And it was very much studio bound really. It was about building things on tape, writing things before hand but really leaving a lot of it open to see what happened when you started putting this stuff down on tape. And we had the good fortune of having some valuable studio time offered to us by the ABC (Australian Broadcast Co.) who kinda thought hey, these guys are doing something wacky lets help them out. Which was great actually. And so we actually got enough material together to put out two cd’s which were eventually released by a Belgian label. The name of “the group” was called “frame Cut Frame” The first cd was called  “Nobody Just Talks” and then the second cd was called “Night of Short Lives”. And, certainly by the time we were doing stuff for the second cd; on the first on there was this one viola piece of mine and also another one called “The Vigil” and then otherwise a little improvising on one track but most of the other stuff was Simons. By the time we did the second cd it was much more of a mix of both of us and my compositional aspirations were sort burgeoning by that time. I was really sort of getting bitten by the bug.

And then it gradually branched out into writing music for performance rather than studio. I was then planning a tour with my brother Paul who is a clarinetist. We organized tour of trios with piano, clarinet and viola of which there are some charming, charming pieces in the repertoire. There are not a lot, but things like the Mozart and the Schuman etc. And we put together a recital program around this combination and were then asked to do a record by the ABC at the same time. They [also] commissioned me to write a piece and originally my thoughts were, “right, I can track eight clarinets and can have ten violas and have five pianos and it’s just going to be wild”, and then I realized, “no, hang on, I’ve got to do some writing and discipline myself and really put my thoughts towards writing a piece that we can play on tour and really perform it. And that’s how it came about for me something which in many ways is my opus one which then was recorded; we played it like a dozen times [and] really got it in our blood and made a recording of it. And that was really a very important experience [for me]. 

And so from then on one thing has sort of led to another. That commission led to a commission for a clarinet concerto, which was my first orchestral piece. And so on. One thing has generally led to at least one another thing if not more. [After a few of the commissions for the ABC] the people in Berlin started taking more notice and I was commissioned to write a series of chamber music pieces for groups of people who were in the orchestra. The first was a quintet, like the Trout Quintet of Shubert. And then the next year I was commissioned to write a piece for the twelve cellos [of the Berlin Philharmonic] and that was called “Twelve Angry Men”, based on the film by Sidney Lumet.

S/21: I’m not really familiar with that film.

BD: Oh, it’s great. It’s a classic. Absolutely. Henry Fonda is extraordinary. It all takes place in one room and the twelve men are the twelve members of the jury. And they are deciding the fate of a young Puerto Rican kid who’s been accused of murdering his father. It’s kind of a strange title for a chamber piece where all these men are playing together.

S/21: Some of the sonorities you get from these instruments together sound so unlike the cello. Some sound like violins etc.

BD: Well the cello is amazing and it’s such a great instrument to write for. I can’t imagine writing a piece for twelve of any other instrument. 

Never-the-less, I’ve been asked also to write a piece for four trombones and for the eight [french] horns of the orchestra. One a year as I say, and it’s been a wonderful chance as it’s been to present my work in a kind of yearly view and also to get to know the instruments inside out and know what they are capable of particularly the brass instruments. That was really fascinating. And next January (2001) is the premier of another piece for the Philharmonic Chamber Group and that is for chamber group and tenor. It’s settings of poems of E.E. Cummings. So that’s sort of a continuation of the cycle of Berlin pieces. And that was a great opportunity as well. So I have felt a lot of support between the ABC and various people in Australia on the one hand and colleagues and management in Berlin on the other. I was getting lots of encouragement and opportunities. And then Boosey and Hawkes became interested in publishing some of my works. So all this has sort of given me courage to take the plunge to become a free-lance composer.

S/21: It seems to me like your are poised at the best place; were you’re ready to explode, so to speak, onto the world scene.

BD: Well I mean above all I feel one of the things I’ve felt [since] early on when I started composing was that composing was sort of opening doors of learning for me; it’s a new way to learn more about music. In playing with the Berlin Phil I’ve gotten to know the standard repertoire really well, not the exotic things so much but a good understanding of the classics. And then composition was to take me to new places and open other doors. I just now feel that I’ve got the basis or if you like the word, am poised, to learn more and that’s what’s really exiting and now I have time to take in things, in a way, as well. In a way, I think it is important to listen to what more composers are doing. That’s how I’ve always studied. I like to see how other people solve problems. 

Part I

We started by talking a little about Brett’s leaving the Berlin Phil after being there for some 16 years as a violist to move back to Austria and build a home near the ocean. There he and his wife plan to raise their family and devote more time to their passions; composing for him, painting for her. Not a bad place to hang and wait for the muse to come calling. A small irony is that shortly after Brett gave notice and left the Phil. his very good friend Sir Simon Rattle was appointed to be the musical director and conductor there. It is a bit of an irony but not really.

BD: Well I was there for 16 years, in the orchestra for 15 years and at some point you have to say, well, it’s time to move on. Also for the family and just to just have more time to compose and just see where that can take me. So it’s somewhat ironic but in a way not. Simon’s still not there for another two years or so. It would have been [almost] another three years before that would have happened. I kind of think, were he beginning already the next season I probably would have stayed on at least to see  that he… But time moves on. And I hope that we’ll get to see the occasional concert or even play in the occasional concert. And we’ll be in touch in some form or another.

S/21: I hope he gets to also do some of your music there as well.

BD: Well, obviously, that would be a real thrill. We’ll have to see. He’s always taken a keen interest in what I’m writing. He has been one of the few people that have extremely followed every piece I’ve written right from the very first things I wrote. He has been a constant source of encouragement the whole way so yea, we’ll see.
S/21: Tell us a little about growing up, your early influences culturally and musically and how you came to be interested in music.

BD: I grew up in Brisbane (Australia) and at that stage, it’s changed a lot since then [in that] Australia has gone through quite a, particularly culturally, quite a revolution since that time. But I grew up in a family where music, although not practiced professionally, was very much a part of family life. My mother actually studied music at a tertiary level but then elected to have a family and so on. And it being the 50’s it was kind of a done thing. But she’s remained kind of actively in music in some ways. She still sings and plays the piano and so on. My dad tried to play the violin but that was apparently pretty disastrous but he none the less maintained a keen interest in music and his mother was musical. There was music all through the family. My grandfather was a bandleader. My parents were big enthusiastic supporters of the youth orchestra in Brisbane. And the youth orchestra was actually fundamental in my choosing a career in music. It was quite an extraordinary institution. [But] I started on the violin at the age of eight. And at about the age of twelve or so I started to play a bit of viola but I was still playing violin in the youth orchestra. And I’ll never forget a particular concert where in the middle of the concert I was sort of taken away by the music and I said hey, this is what I would like to do. This is a buzz.

S/21: Do you remember what it [the music] was?

BD: Yea, it was The Planets by Holst which is sort of a very direct piece, a very good youth orchestra piece and it blew me away. I haven’t really heard the piece since then. I’ve played it a couple of times in the orchestra. But it was one of those moments where everything really just honed in and I felt completely taken by the whole idea and just sort of [thought], hey, it beats working for a living. This could be my life. And then I changed to viola which was also a good move really because it was at a time where I was still enjoying playing music, as I said, but the violin itself was starting to frustrate me. I was not getting as far as I would have liked. I was just a little frustrated. So I changed to the viola which was suggested by my teacher. That was a really good move ‘cause somehow, with the viola being sort of inside the music more so than the violin, that really appealed to me. That really spoke to me. 

And [I then] got into a string quartet. I really enjoyed playing viola in a string quartet. It was really magnificent. A source of inspiration and I got quite involved in chamber music then around and through [the] conservatory. And as I left to go overseas the quartet that I was a member off, they were planning to join me in Germany. But that actually never happened the way we’d planned.  But at first I was definitely planning a career in chamber music in a quartet or something. That was my real goal. 

So as I went to Berlin I wasn’t really dreaming of playing in the Berlin philharmonic. I wasn’t sort of a goal or ambition. It wasn’t something that I particularly thought about. And somehow the idea of playing in an orchestra, although I loved playing in the youth orchestra, doing it full time really didn’t enter into the scheme of things. I really wasn’t thinking along those lines. But then I played a bit in the orchestra and of course it really was an enormous thrill to play there. And then doing an audition I kind of felt well, I’ve got nothing to loose. The quartet thing didn’t seem to be happening and what the hell you know. Which was a really good attitude to go into an audition to the Berlin philharmonic with. They [auditions] are really kind of daunting thing anyway really. It was nice to think, well, it’s been good to practice this much and a good thing to prepare for and if it works out, fine, and if it doesn’t work outs, that’s also fine. So then it worked out and so the two-year sojourn to study in Berlin turned into sixteen years. [I] got into a lot of chamber music then through connections in the orchestra and with colleagues in the orchestra. 

I started to play in a [chamber] ensemble which did a lot of new music. We even did a concert with Simon [Rattle] doing a Schoenberg chamber symphony. And that was also very exiting doing lots of travel and playing at major European music festivals and so on. In the course of doing a lot of these new pieces that was on of the things that awakened me to a desire in me to compose. I should also say at that point, that while I had studied at [The] Queensland Conservatorium of Music, which at the time also provided an interesting very open, sort of, education particularly with a view toward learning compositional techniques even though I didn’t formally study composition; I still haven’t had a formal composition lesson to this day. But the last couple of years of the conservatorium course that I did, the specialty course that I did, were incredibly helpful in that regard without me sort of thinking about it in those terms at the time. But we did a very broad study of compositional styles of the 20th Century particularly in the last year and a half. We’d have to do assignments in the style of different people each week. Write a string quartet in the style Morton Feldman. Write a piece for two pianos using Bartok axis harmony. Orchestrate a piano piece of Schoenberg, all sorts of things without fear or favor. I mean the good thing about Australia, in that regard, is that we’re not burdened by any sort of particular traditional lines so David Tudor and John Cage were just as important to learn about as Shoenberg and the Viennese school. So that was really like preparatory studies in composition I guess, without recognizing it as such at the time.