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Immersed in the music of Brett Dean

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 00:03 UK Time, Sunday, 8 April 2012

Photo of Brett Dean

Brett Dean. Photo: Pawel Kopczynski

Hear and Now has begun broadcasting recordings from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recent Total Immersion featuring the music of the Australian composer Brett Dean. Radio 3 listener blogger Rosalind Porter reflects on her experience of attending the event

This was a particularly fascinating day to dive ears first into, as it featured Brett Dean himself not only in conversation with Tom Service, but also as a virtuoso violist, a conductor and last but not least as
an ensemble player. Certainly I found that being able to observe himin these differing roles helped to intensify my personal understanding of his music.
It was revealing to hear Brett Dean discuss the importance of his career as a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic when it came to his subsequent decision to concentrate on composition. He talked candidly of his experiences in the orchestra and how much he learned from the Berliners. As the day went on, these comments on the practicality of writing for orchestra and the aural impression he gained as being part of the inner texture of the sound were repeatedly emphasised in his compositions.

Musicians will always tell you it is hard to talk about music, but it is even harder to talk then pick up your instrument and without so much as warming up, play a complex and virtuosic piece! As a violinist I found Brett Dean’s solo viola piece Intimate Decisions absolutely gripping. It was perfectly constructed in the way it developed from a small rhythmic seed into a flurry of ideas and expression, utilising demanding technique such as harmonics and multiple-stopped chords, but always in a way that served the music rather than pure display, before it faded away to a dying whisper of the original rhythmical motives. This is a piece any accomplished violist interested in contemporary music should explore and add to their repertoire. It got the day off to a brilliantly vivid start.

After such an impressive start the first ensemble concert of the day featured the talented students of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble, under the direction of Brett Dean. The three pieces on the programme were each composed for a different combination of instruments, providing overall an excellent choice of music which gave the audience an intriguingly varied insight into Brett Dean’s sound world in the space of one comparatively short concert. This is undoubtedly complex music, which stretched the abilities of the young players to their limits, but under the undeniably inspiring direction of Brett Dean himself they could be very proud of their performances. It is hard to think of a more esoteric choice of inspiration for music than that of Polysomnography - the measurement of sleep and brain science! Scored for an ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, the five movements have academic titles such as Theta Waves and Sleep Spindles, but the composer approaches these studies of sleep patterns in a much more abstract way in his music. I have to admit that along with the 2nd piece of this concert – Voices of Angels, which was inspired by a Rilke poem, I found that listening to and watching the performance first and then reading the programme notes in detail afterwards, I believe I got more out of the initial total listening experience than trying to follow the notes during the performance.


As a violinist myself I especially enjoyed Voices of Angels, with its evocative writing for strings and piano with the clever use of eerie effects such as using timpani sticks on the strings of the double bass. But the highlight of the concert for me was Wolf-Lieder featuring the impressive soprano Jenavieve Moore with the largest ensemble of the concert. It was our first encounter on this Total Immersion day of Brett Dean subtly using the music of another composer, in this case Hugo Wolf. Moore’s committed performance and clear German ably communicated both the tragic and comedic elements of the varied selection of texts, supported by animated playing from the Ensemble to
provide a worthy climax to this concert. This is definitely a piece to listen out for!


  • Brett Dean’s Carlo and Fire Music will shortly be available to listen to by following this link to the Hear and Now programme page.
  • Watch a short video introduction to Brett Dean's Total Immersion day.
  • Find out more about Brett Dean and listen to a Radio 3 Discovering Music programme exploring his music.



  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Roger Wright,

    I have no doubt that you will do justice to Wagner in 2013 in your regular R3 way.

    Will you also be noting the fact that he has more sound track listings than any other composer alive or dead? The Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com has the number as 762 but this continues to grow. This is remarkable because he died in 1883. See the list here.

    Wagner's music used directly or his style copied has been responsible for the way music is used in film or TV drama. No other composer has had so much influence in dramatic music in popular culture.

    Three examples to start you thinking.

    The film 'The New World' (2005) starts with the opening of Das Rheingold and it runs right up to the point where the singing starts. On screen you will have seen a full screen credit reading 'Music by James Horner' who did much incidental music but not what the audience is hearing at that point.

    The film 'Excalibar' (1981) used "Prelude to Parsifal", "Prelude to Tristan and Isolde", "Siegfried's Funeral March from The Ring"

    'Melancholia' (2011) used lots of Tristan und Isolde.

    Lorin Maazel's 'Ring Without Words' is like the sound track for an adventure film.

    I suggest that R3 makes a thorough study of Wagner's influence in popular dramatic music.

    I am certain that if Wagner was alive today he would have his own Hollywood studio and have Oscars in every discipline of the film industry. I cannot pretend to like Wagner as a person, but I think he has done more to shape popular dramatic forms than any other person. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven seem to be played on the radio more often than Wagner, but it is he, often uncredited, that has written music that best suits the dramatic form of film.

  • Comment number 2.

    Fascinating comment, Tony. I'll pass it on (and you didn't mention Apocalypse Now: Wagner as soundtrack and as plot element!).

    Steve Bowbrick, Interactive Editor, Radio 3


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