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Dean: the musicians in mind

Brett Dean was a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic through 1999. His work "Testament" was performed at the 2012 Beethovenfest in Bonn. Dean gives DW his take on contemporary music.

DW: Sometimes working in radio, we have to be afraid of offering contemporary music. I don't have to be afraid that the audience is going to turn this one off. That's a compliment, but maybe mainstream European composers might consider it an insult. Is this something that you think about?

Brett Dean: I think ultimately as a composer, it's about communicating ideas. If you don't have that somewhere in the larger business of what you do, then you're perhaps working in a vacuum, which might be fine as well. But I do think about the fact that I'm communicating with other people.

But rather than thinking specifically about the audience and its expectations, which are often very conservative, I'm thinking perhaps more about the musicians that are playing the music. If the players can understand it and portray it, then the chances are that it will go across that great divide from stage to auditorium.

A work of yours performed at the Beethovenfest - "Testament" - draws its inspiration from a time in Beethoven's life - May to October 1802 - and a letter he wrote, the famous "Heiligenstadt Testament." Is there something your piece that expresses that moment in his life, or maybe a seminal moment in your own life?

I certainly took my lead from the drama and the desperation in the letter, which was addressed to his brothers. Beethoven wrote it around the thime that he realized he was growing deaf. In some ways, it's like a last will and testament. He never actually sent the Testament, and it wasn't discovered until after his death anyway. Part of the sonic inspiration in the beginnings of my piece came about through imagining the sound of his quill on the parchment paper.

I had just gotten a bow of mine back from my violin maker. He'd rehaired it but hadn't put any new rosin on it. So I started to play and actually was fascinated with experimenting with a rosin-less bow. The bizarre thing is how little sound comes out of a string instrument when there's no rosin on the bow. So, I scored the piece so that the entire string section has to come on stage with two different bows - one of which is normal, and one of which has no rosin on it. It gives you this sort of fleeting gliding across the strings without really grasping them.

It becomes music that you can see without really hearing it clearly, which of course was sadly how Beethoven himself spent much of the rest of his life starting about mid-way through the following year, 1803.

If you could sit down with Beethoven and ask him a question, what would that question be?

Brett Dean (c) Mark Coulson

Australian composer and violinist Brett Dean

Over the many years of playing the music, there are so many questions that one would like to ask. I'd very much like to find out from him what a musical accent should sound like. There's still a lot of disagreement about how accents in Beethoven should be played.

I come from a certain orchestral tradition in Berlin. In my early years, when Herbert von Karajan was still the chief conductor, it had that unaccentuated rounding out of the sound. I couldn't stand it, to be honest, even though I hugely admired what Karajan did in other ways.

After at least 50 years of the avant-garde in art music, where does a composer stand today? Is the lack of context - in comparison with when Beethoven was writing music and knew exactly what European music was supposed to sound like - a liberating force, or is it something that you struggle with?

The early and middle stages of my studies were in Australia, a place that was free of developments in the European avant-garde. So I didn't have that as part of my baggage right from the start. Nevertheless, a huge part of my own biography has been being a member of the bastion of Old World values, if you like, the Berlin Philharmonic, so that gave me a point of reference.

I never studied composition formally, and it wasn't necessarily my ambition when I first came to Europe. But I started improvising with a rock musician, also from Australia, and we just started having fun making noise together. I brought that sense of freedom and abandon and the sheer fun of improvising in bizarre clubs in West Berlin in the mid- to late 1980s to my own experiences.

After World War II, composers were expected to compose atonal, twelve-tone music - that was de rigueur. Can a composer nowadays, 50 or 60 years later, get by with doing what you're doing with impunity?

That became its own ideology, and ideologies always get limiting after a while. With the benefit of historic overview, we can see that ideology ended up being a kind of tight and narrow-minded dogma, such that if you didn't fulfil those expectations, you were just a nobody in this country from a compositional point of view. But that ends up bringing its own problems, too, because you're then overdetermining what music should be.

Is that era over now?

I don't think entirely. I think perhaps outside of Germany, the music world has been quite happy to move in all sorts of different directions - many of which owe much of their freedoms and their sound worlds to those people that drove the post-war German world, not all of whom were Germans, of course, but people that came from other parts of particularly Europe to live here and work here. People like Luigi Nono, et cetera. But I'm not really sure, for example, what sway is held nowadays by bastions of new music like Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. There's been so much water under the bridge. In a way, much of the newest of the new sounds quite old nowadays.

Brett Dean is a composer and violist from Australia. From 1985 to 1999, he played in  the Berlin Philharmonic. His work, "Testament," was performed at the 2012 Beethovenfest in Bonn in the context of a multi-concert cycle of Beethoven's symphonies. It can be heard on this week's Concert Hour.

Interview: Rick Fulker

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