Questionnaire Brett Dean


Please introduce yourself briefly. What is important for you, musically and otherwise?
I'm Australian, lived most of my adult life in Germany and have just returned back home. (It gets to most of us Aussies sooner or later....) I feel very much like I have one foot in each place ("Ick hab' immer noch einen Koffer in Berlin"). I like to see the sky and the stars and show them to my daughters but sometimes it's good to feel the cold. I was in the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years, which leaves its traces, and now I'm on my own..... A change is as good as a holiday.

Can one make a living these days solely from composing?
At the moment I'm finding out if I can live from composition or not....mmmm, we shall see!

How do you compose (approach, duration)?
The starting point can, for me, be any number of impulses. Visual (film, paintings), written word (poems, books, newspaper articles) and of course aural, be it bird song, a squeaky gate of fiddling around on the viola, the piano or on some other instrument or object. Things tend to cook for a while in my head, when I finally start writing it can happen fairly quickly, though nothing is guaranteed.

To what extent do you use traditional forms?
I've written quite a lot for traditional combinations of instruments in what could be called traditional forms, but I'm just about to work with a pop singer and make regular visits to sound studios to keep me sane.

How often do you receive commissions, and how do these come about? Do you wait for a commission and then compose the work to fit the criteria, or do you submit a work you have already completed?
I seem to be writing 3 - 4 pieces per year, all commissioned works. In the end they have to fit into some pre-determined criteria, but I try to take on projects with which I feel I can somehow identify, ie whose criteria seem to suit me.

In your opinion what is the lot of a composer today compared with that of one 50 or 150 years ago?
I think it's a great age to be a composer. 150 years ago there were enormous social expectations and again, strict "criteria" and formulas to somehow abide by. Actually, even 50 years ago the concept of "schools" or "dogmas" of composition made someone either very in or very out. Nowadays the scope for self expression in music is far greater, more democratic, less dogmatic. I think it will lead us away from the concept of the "great composer" that started about 150 years ago, and that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

What music do you listen to in your free time?
My home listening is pretty broad, at the moment I've been listening to experimental Latin music from 70's New York. During my very "traditional" time in Berlin, playing oodles of Bruckner and Mahler, I started listening to all sorts of other stuff, mostly non-classical. I recently heard a live gamelan orchestra in Bali which was a blast.


What is important in a composer's formal training years?
I think one of the most important things for the study of composition is to be able to play an instrument, any instrument well enough to know what it's like to be the one on the stage making the music. It's an invaluable lesson in communication. I welcome the fact that there's an ever increasing return of the idea of player/composers.

As a composer do you need to continue your education, if so, how?
I think the furthering of one's education is vital for every person, whether they compose or not.

What is your opinion of the training offered by the conservatiores or universities?
I had a great time studying in Australia. It was an education that helped nurture inquisitiveness, curiosity and wonder at what the world of music had to offer. I found the instrumental education in Germany very narrow and conservative by comparison. I saw lots of string players preparing for jobs having spent years on just a handful of pieces and still being suspicious of Schönberg at the end of their studies.

Which particular composers did you concentrate on during your study?
All sorts of composers, all sorts of music.


Where do you think New Music stands today? What prospects does New Music have in the future?
I think new music has a very important and optimistic future as long as it remains open and not dictated to by certain schools and dogmas.

In your opinion is New Music today defeated by the laws of the so-called Market?
As more and more people ask themselves (and their politicians) uncomfortable questions about the relevance of publicly funded orchestras and opera houses, it will be increasingly up to new music, in all its different guises, to reestablish a relevance, a sense of inquiry and necessity about music, not just as a pleasant social attribute or pastime but as a reflection of how we see our world. I think the big orchestra dominated aspect of classical music will have to change, that the collective/smaller ensemble concept will be increasingly vital for the survival and furthering of western art music. What is important here is the way in which new music helps us to reassess old music, it reinvents it, if you like. As György Kurtag would say, Beethoven has learnt a lot from Bartok. I also find that new music groups are much more open to trying out different venues, different forms of concertizing, different combinations of art forms. This will be crucial for music's future and give us a better chance of pursuing certain fundamentals of what music can be about: to challenge, reflect, express and emote.
Of course any musical institution is going to be answerable to certain economic realities. Western classical musicians, particularly from the orchestral realm, can display mindboggling arrogance on the question of funding, as if the world owes them a living, hands outstretched so they can put on their next Mahler Festival. If we musicians are so convinced of the value of the furthering of music in general, and new music in particular, then sure, we're going to have to convince people of our message, to encourage them to share our conviction.

Many composers state that they do not write for the listening public. What is your view?
I started this composing thing quite by accident and continued it because I found myself learning so much. That still applies, the most enjoyable times I have in writing are those where I feel I'm learning lots of new skills. So in a sense I write to further my self-education, but to me it has to be about communication aswell. Yes, I like music that challenges an audience, but nevertheless at the same time inviting them into the world of someone else's thoughts. I started as a performer of course, and there I think the attitudes about playing "for the audience" are less fraught with politics. This is one aspect of my orchestral past that I find refreshingly honest and straight down the line: Of course you're playing for the people, you want to be heard.

What role do the publishing houses and recording companies play in New Music today?
In my case, I feel very supported by my publisher. They give me a certain sense of stability to develop as I wish to, and to take on whatever projects I feel drawn to. They seem equally fascinated by projects involving new music groups such as Ensemble Modern and BCMG as they are by, for example, a forthcoming project of mine with a pop singer and a writer/cartoonist later this year. What will be intriguing is to see how both publishers and recording labels react in the next couple of years to new technological developments such as the internet and MP3. These are potentially of great consequence to how new music happens, how it finds new audiences, how it develops. Already for many composers the self publishing thing is working, people can download their works in several different forms off the internet. Who's to say how that will change the institutionalisation of music. Certainly it brings all sorts of grungy, garagey, grassroots implications that could be quite a shot in the arm for the whole scene. The home-studio ethic is starting to take flight amongst all sorts of composers in all sorts of genres and for someone like myself who started composing in low-budget studios, that seems like a positive and healthy development, giving all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds the means to express themselves.


What are your personal perspectives and projects for the future?
Apart from the couple of projects I've mentioned, I'm actually planning to write an opera in a couple of years. The story takes place in a modern world full of advertising, cancer, betrayal and hope, so there's plenty there to get my head around. I enjoy what I do and find the present time to be a wonderfully liberating time in which to write music: free of schools and dogmas, new music can embrace everything from "highly cerebral and tough" to "new age warm and fuzzy" and there are aspects I love about both!


Please describe the piece which the City of Frankfurt and Ensemble Modern has commissioned from you, and your thoughts and reflections on the subject.
What would Beethoven think if he were to return to the present day and write about his feelings on arrival in the country as he did in his Pastoral Symphony of 1808?
I returned to Australia just a year ago after 16 years in Germany. As with every trip back home, I'm always blown away by the bird song when I first arrive. It's miraculous, inventive, colourful, reassuring, threatening, beautiful and raucous all at once! Having now spent more time back in Australia, there have of course been lots of other things that have caught my attention. One strange national trait is the duality of our view of nature. Somehow we're all proud of it and know in our heart of hearts that we have something special that people from around the world admire, and even envy. But at the same time it hasn't shifted the colonial pioneering attitude to land clearance and development that is summed up by the old Australian adage: "If it moves, shoot it; if it doesn't, chop it down!" My "Pastoral Symphony" is then an aural take on the dilemma of human endeavour and the price we pay for it, the piece by piece destruction of our environment and planet. The sampled birds of the opening eventually turn into very harsh metallic sounds and the idyll is gradually ravaged. Having said that, the message "Nature is good and building cities is bad" would be too simplistic for such a complex problem. There are moments in the piece, as civilisation encroaches, that a kind of groove goes through the ensemble, indicating that there are aspects to city life that are extremely tempting and energizing. In a larger sense, my piece could be seen as a plea for balance. It's not impossible to integrate these two extremes healthily.