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Following the 2010 world premiere of Brett Dean’s opera Bliss, which took 10 years to come to fruition and has since made its way to the Edinburgh Festival and around the world, one might expect the Australian composer to rest on his laurels a while before taking on another large-scale project. Instead, he has been labouring over his first complete orchestral score for dance: a new project to be choreographed by Graeme Murphy as part of Infinity, a triple bill of new works commemorating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Dean is no stranger to such occasions, having celebrated his own 50th birthday last year with a seemingly endless stream of international concert engagements.
When invited to contribute to the program, veteran choreographer Graeme Murphy leapt at the chance to collaborate with an important Australian composer for such an important milestone in Australian dance. “I immediately suggested Brett Dean because I’d worked with his music before, selecting existing pieces for a ballet company in Shanghai.
“It was challenging and it was hard because they weren’t easy works to count. But they had a beautiful quality and an amazing sound. I was longing to work with a commissioned score and I knew that he would produce something quite beautiful.”
Dean says he was given a great deal of trust and free rein throughout the process. “Graeme made it clear from our very first discussions that he wanted me to write the piece that I wanted to write and not to feel constrained or directed by a narrative imperative of storytelling for the ballet. Having said that, it was of course a very inspiring thought, knowing that the work was ultimately destined to be the vehicle for a new Graeme Murphy choreography for the Australian Ballet!”
For Bliss, he took a work of iconic Australian literature to the stage; this time a tragic event in Australia’s recent history was his starting point for an orchestral score entitled Fire Music. The composer was “intensely moved and saddened” by the Black Saturday fires of 2009. “Even in the relative safety of Melbourne,” he recalls, “we awoke that day to weather of unprecedented ominousness – extraordinary temperatures and demonic hot winds.
“Visiting the property of friends near Kinglake two months later allowed me to see the full extent of destruction first hand, a most confronting experience. But the first signs of regeneration and regrowth were also hard to miss and were equally moving. It was at that point that I felt compelled to write Fire Music.”
Rather than exploring an overtly emotional response, Dean focused on fire as a physical phenomenon and force of nature. He spoke with a fire-researcher from the CSIRO, seeking data that might help him structure the work, but found that “the musical material started to unfold according to its own energetic dramaturgy.”
To Murphy and many other listeners, Dean’s music often seems like an elemental force in its own right, and it is this intensity that the choreographer has focused on, rather than any programmatic or literal description of the events; hence his abstract title of the dance production, Narrative of Nothing.
When Fire Music premiered in Stockholm in November 2011 in a purely orchestral concert performance, Murphy was listening intently on the radio, allowing steps and concepts to emerge as he heard the piece for the first time. What was going through his head?
“I was thinking, ‘I hope I like it, I hope I can work to it!’” he laughs. “I love the fact that it’s driven and that it’s powerful and rhythmic. But I think I love more than anything the great waves of textural colour Brett brings to the music – it’s beautiful for choreography.
Murphy also admits that it “overwhelmed” him initially. “I think being a choreographer, I’ve often said that I don’t hear music so much as see it. It was 30 minutes, but it was so dense it felt like it was much longer and enormous in scope. And it took me a while to feel that the different quality would be manageable for my creativity. He wrings every ounce of sound from the orchestra, and I’m consequently having to wring every last ounce of energy from the dancers to match it.”
The vast, spatial quality of Dean’s music will be heightened in the Australian Ballet’s performance with several instrumentalists positioned in the theatre’s balconies. In addition, subtle, electronically manipulated noises (derived from thundersheets and groaning doors recorded in the corridors of Old Melbourne Gaol, among other sources) will envelop the audience in a sense of foreboding.
Murphy is confident the stripped-back production will help focus attention wholly on the relationship between intricate sounds and movement. “There’s something about not surrounding the dancers in a space, but just bathing them in light, which I think is perfect for this score.
He says Narrative of Nothing reflects “a time in my life where I really want to challenge an audience more. I’ve had a beautiful time doing some of the great classics, and this is the time to acknowledge the great classics of our time and the composers of our time.
“The 50th anniversary of The Australian Ballet is our opportunity to be brave and to face the future, to look forward to an audience that is developing with the company and ready to go for the ride.”
And now, back to rehearsals. “I’ve only got a couple more weeks to try to get my head around all that amazing sound.”