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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Brett Dean: Turning Point – How Composition Found Me

Written by: Brett Dean

It was a fortuitous day, that day in West Berlin back in May, 1986 on which I first met the Australian rock musician, Simon Hunt. I’d been living in Berlin for a couple of years by then, having moved there to study further as a viola player after graduating from the Queensland Conservatorium in 1983 where I’d studied with the late, great (and much missed) John Curro.

Through family connections, Simon had reached out to my wife Heather prior to his arrival in Berlin, travelling as guitarist and keyboard-player with the Australian band, Bring Philip. This four-piece group from Sydney had enjoyed some initial success back home, having just released an EP as part of Triple-J’s “Live at the Wireless” series and getting some regular airplay. Their next step was to seek further connections, opportunities and a record deal in Europe.

The choice of Berlin as a cultural port-of-call was not a typical one for Australian artists in those days and proved to be ahead of the curve. It wasn’t really until the fall of the Wall in 1989 and Germany’s reunification the following year that Berlin began to develop its truly magnetic pull on artists from all corners of the globe, a phenomenon that has continued to this day through its generous support of the arts, its welcoming cosmopolitan and bohemian spirit and, until more recently at least, surprisingly affordable rents.

The city’s attraction was famously summed up by former Lord Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, as being “poor but sexy”.  That was certainly true of the West Berlin that I first encountered when I moved there in 1984. It also aptly describes the alternative-music scene which Simon and I became immersed in together a short time later.

Heather and I had both enrolled at the West Berlin Hochschule der Künste (College of Arts), she in the visual arts faculty and I in the viola class of Prof. Wolfram Christ, the young, recently-appointed principal violist of Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I greatly enjoyed my studies with Wolfram and I was full of an instrumentalist’s ambition. He instilled some good old Prussian discipline into my practice routine, drawing my attention to the extent to which, no matter how nimbly one’s left hand might whizz around the fingerboard, it’s the bow that is “der Meister”, leading the way, sonically speaking, like a singer’s lungs and diaphragm.

He fostered an awareness of a whole-body, organic physicality in playing a string instrument, an understanding of arm-weight application without force, of bodily balance and physics, of leaning into the string to draw out the sound as naturally as possible, something that was reinforced further on seeing the Philharmonic and other German ensembles in action. There was no sitting idly by in this music making.

Certainly without Wolfram’s good-natured but very systemised approach to working on my playing throughout that first year of studies with him, I doubt I would have been in a position to audition for a position in the Berlin Philharmonic’s viola section, which I did successfully in May of 1985.  I started playing full-time with them the following September, initiating a heady, exhilarating time of learning not only lots of orchestral repertoire but also improving my German skills and assimilating the social signals and mores of a very different orchestral culture than I had ever encountered before. At that stage the Philharmonic’s average age was somewhere in the early 50’s, it was overwhelmingly (and overbearingly) male and, although undoubtedly an international orchestra, by today’s identity-obsessed standards it wouldn’t exactly have passed muster in the diversity stakes. Of course what mattered most above all else, at least back then, was the quality…and that was simply mind-blowing!

Brett Dean plays viola in the Berlin Philharmonic

Within a short amount of time, I’d played a large chunk of the standard repertoire, I’d enjoyed some extraordinary highlights with some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, (Puccini with Pavarotti and Karajan, Mahler song cycles sung by Fischer-Dieskau, Messiaen’s  opera, “Saint François d’Assise” conducted – from memory – by Seiji Ozawa in front of the 80 year old composer himself ; these were just some of the initial highlights) and I was invited to join the enterprising and versatile Scharoun Ensemble, a collective of Berlin Philharmonic players that embraced a wonderfully refreshing attitude to programming, playing more contemporary music than all of the orchestra’s other regular chamber ensembles put together.

But something was missing. Strangely, for all the excitement of winning this prestigious position at such a young age and the promise of an exciting and financially secure career ahead, it didn’t take me too long to realise that, for me, it wasn’t going to be the “job for life” that it seemed to be for so many of these wonderful colleagues of mine. I needed different challenges.

It was at this serendipitous moment that Simon Hunt entered my life. The first point of intersection that he and I discovered in comparing our highly contrasting yet also surprisingly adjacent musical directions was the fact that our “day jobs” could be both immensely enjoyable and satisfying whilst also seeming at times tight and myopic in their scope. For Simon it was way too much IV-V-I in e minor and 4/4 time with too few questions asked. For me it was the all-too-ubiquitous assumption among too many of these formidably gifted instrumentalists around me that music history stopped with Stravinsky and Bartok. It turned out that Simon and I both sought more flexibility, creativity, even uncertainty on our divergent but oddly parallel paths. So we started jamming together and it seemed to click.

The first larger project we took on was providing the music for a 45’ experimental film entitled “Nobody Just Talks”, made by ex-pat Australian filmmakers Maryanne Redpath and Martin Haywood. The musical initiatives for this came firstly from Simon who’d been approached by Maryanne and Martin, had seen an early draft of their film and had subsequently sketched some embryonic sonic ideas. He wanted some string sounds so notated some motives. We discussed some possible strategies and then simply went for it in unedited takes, with me playing around with Simon’s ideas and responding to his highly virtuosic plucking, pounding, cajoling and scraping on piano-frame, the “giant zither” standing beside me, created from stripping an upright piano of its keyboard and external wooden paneling. Sometimes things worked, oftentimes they didn’t. It was scary and thrilling.

Like the film itself, the soundtrack side of things was an absolute no-budget affair. We recorded with an ageing reel-to-reel tape machine in the practice rooms that Simon’s band shared with several other bands in the cellar of a bleak 60’s apartment building near Checkpoint Charlie. I don’t know about sexy, but it was definitely poor!

We had one instrument each: viola and piano frame. And we had two contrasting acoustics to work with: on the one hand the deadened sound of an acoustically dampened band room with its foam and egg-cartons and, on the other, the several-second natural reverb of the cellar’s long, bare concrete corridors.

The music is by turns skeletal and direct, driving and percussive, quiet and ghostly, even oddly lyrical and song-like at times. The premiere took place in Kino Eiszeit, a tiny Kreuzberg cinema. We synched the sound with the film simply by starting projector and tape player on the count of three. We weren’t more than 4 kms from my orchestral home, the Philharmonie, however the experience couldn’t have been more removed from the high-tech world of Karajan’s international video telecasts.  And that was what I found so enticing.

Our duo, by now named Frame-Cut-Frame, continued to flourish from these unsophisticated beginnings. We performed live at some of West Berlin’s diviest dives; alternative music venues such as the Fisch-Büro, hidden away in dilapidated rear courtyards which looked like World War II had just finished earlier that afternoon, bullet holes and mortar damage visible everywhere.  These shows started late so I’d often find myself playing Bruckner with Barenboim at 8pm then, swapping the tails coat for a leather jacket, hot-footing it to Schlesisches Tor for the midnight hour.

Brett Dean (r) and Simon Hunt

We’d regularly meet and record material in whatever spaces availed themselves with whichever instrumentarium was at hand. A particularly fond memory from this time was “Musik für Ofenheizung und Bratsche”, a short, brutal work improvised in a friend’s apartment featuring closely-mic’ed snap pizzicatos from me on viola whilst Simon drummed the crap out of a large, reverberant, classic-German tile-heater in the corner of the room. Such moments were intensely liberating, pivotal in their awakening of the latent composer lurking inside me and breaking the shackles and conventions of my classical music training and upbringing.

Even now, the performer in me remains central to how I think and respond as a composer.  And decades later, “HIT HEATERS!” has remained a rallying cry for both Heather and myself, like a talismanic card pulled from one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s creativity-prodding “Oblique Strategies” packs.  These words have been scrawled onto the walls of various studio spaces we’ve occupied in different parts of the world over the years, a reminder always to free oneself in the creative process, especially if things are getting bogged down or becoming too precious.

An important development that also serendipitously accompanied our sonic adventures in this period was the advent of affordable sampling technology. Simon was quick on the uptake, purchasing an early “Emulator”, a digital sampling synthesizer that accessed and stored sounds via floppy disks. (Remember floppy disks?!) This brought a new level of sophistication, of timbral and textural complexity to the music we made together. Simon began to utilise snippets of homemade field recordings from around Berlin as building blocks for his innovative and often exceedingly witty sampled patterns and riffs.

Brett Dean (r) and Simon Hunt 

These exciting improvisatory possibilities in turn drew my own attention increasingly to the musical and dramaturgical potential to be found within all manner of sounds, from the flapping of a bird’s wings or the metallic scrape and grind of the Berlin U-Bahn’s wheels as they rounded the corner from Wittenbergplatz into Zoo Station (still a favourite) through to the bizarre public service announcements from AFN, the American Forces Network in Cold-War-era West-Berlin.

Even in its pioneering days of clunkiness and limited data capacity (by 1987, floppies could accommodate a staggering 2.9MB!), sampling technology allowed even home-studio novices to construct fascinating, multi-tracked walls of sound that could acquire hyper-orchestral dimensions. These formative studio-based experiences have remained important “inner-ear-extenders” for me to this day, even when writing for conventional and non-electronic instruments or contexts.

After all too short a time however, with Bring Philip’s plans for European exposure not progressing as hoped and their dreams of pop stardom evaporating, Simon Hunt decided to return to Sydney in early 1988. Our duo activities became instead mid-year holiday projects, not unlike Mahler writing those huge symphonies during his summer down-time away from orchestras. Well, a little more modest perhaps…and without the cow bells…

Following these two years of intermittent yet serendipitously spontaneous music-making together in Berlin, we now entered what became, for me at least, the most significant and consequential phase of our time together as a duo. Whilst many of the initial impulses for our pieces had come hitherto from Simon, whether in the form of intricately assembled backing tracks, or hastily scribbled sketches, or a bit of both, this time he encouraged me to bring along some sketches of my own as well for our next studio encounter. This, I soon realised, was the boot up the bum the composer inside me had been waiting for. Within days, I put aside all procrastination and excuses and started trying out ideas.

The resulting first piece, which I recorded with Simon’s assistance one night in July, 1988 in a typically makeshift “studio” above a chemist’s shop in Newtown, Sydney, was scored for multiple violas. I called it “Turning Points”; I’d been bitten – well and truly – by the composing bug and there was no turning back.

PS Frame-Cut-Frame’s two commercially available CD’s, featuring a total of 19 original works by Simon Hunt and Brett Dean, can now be found on Bandcamp under the links below. The first, originally released in 1991 by Belgian jazz label Sub-Rosa, includes music for the film “Nobody Just Talks” as well as my “opus 1”, “Turning Points (Homage to F.C.)”, both mentioned above. The second album, “Night of Short Lives”, was released by Sub-Rosa in 1994.

c) Brett Dean 2022



Brett Dean studied in his hometown, Brisbane, before moving to Germany in 1984 where he was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic for fourteen years, during which time he began composing. His music is championed by many of the leading conductors worldwide, including Sir Simon Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, Simone Young and Sakari Oramo. Much of Dean’s work draws from literary, political, environmental or visual stimuli, including a number of compositions inspired by artwork by his wife Heather Betts.

Brett Dean began composing in 1988, initially concentrating on experimental film and radio projects. It was through works such as his clarinet concerto Ariel’s Music (1995), which won an award from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers, and Carlo (1997) for strings, sampler and tape, inspired by the music of Carlo Gesualdo, that he gained international recognition.

In 2009 Dean won the Grawemeyer Award for music composition for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing and in 2016 was awarded the Don Banks Music Award by Australia Council, acknowledging his sustained and significant contribution to Australia’s musical scene.

Dean enjoys a busy performing career as violist and conductor, performing his own Viola Concerto with many of the world’s leading orchestras. Dean is also a natural chamber musician, frequently collaborating with other soloists and ensembles to perform both his own chamber works and standard repertoire.

In the 2020/21 season, Dean began a three-year tenure as Composer in Residence of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which sees an immersion in Dean’s music and Dean working with the orchestra across multiple strands, as conductor, violist and mentoring the Young Composer scheme. His opera Hamlet  receives its highly-anticipated US premiere at The Met in May 2022.

Brett Dean’s music has been recorded for BIS, Chandos, Warner Classics, ECM Records and ABC Classics. Highlights include a BIS release in 2016 of works including Shadow Music, Testament, Short Stories and Etudenfest performed by Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dean. The DVD of Hamlet was released by Glyndebourne in June 2018 and won a Gramophone Award in 2019.

The works of Brett Dean are published by Boosey & Hawkes.

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