On Composing Berlin Music
By Brett Dean
As a member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s viola section in the 80’s and 90’s, I had shared the stage with Midori on several memorable occasions when she was our guest soloist. However I first formally met Midori backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in October of 2006 while I was there performing my viola concerto with the LA Philharmonic. Midori had heard some of my music by then and was keen to discuss a new work for violin and piano. I was of course thrilled and excited about the prospect of writing a piece especially for her. Midori commissioned the work herself, a relatively unusual thing in my experience – such funding most often comes from a festival or music institution. It’s certainly a very welcoming gesture towards the composer, indicating a strong sense of personal connection and identification with the project.
The actual writing of the work was scheduled for completion in late spring / early summer 2010. Midori had indicated to me quite early on that she allows time in her summer break for the learning of new repertoire as the demands of the regular season don’t often allow for such preparation. This made a lot of sense, yet despite the best of intentions, life itself can intervene – in this instance a house move in Melbourne as well as the première of my first opera at the Sydney Opera House in March last year. Hence my correspondence with Midori from that time reflects a composer battling the dreaded deadline bug. Berlin Musicgradually took shape however and was completed – somewhat later than planned – in early August, 2010.
The title pays homage to the city of Berlin where I lived and worked for many years and have recently returned to spend part of each year. Whilst not programmatic music, it was a reflection of the inspiration I felt at once more living and working in this extraordinarily cultural city. (programme note)
Through our ensuing correspondence, I asked for feedback should there be any or problems or questions about the work. No news was obviously good news; there didn’t seem to be any major issues arising from Midori’s January rehearsal period with pianist Charles Abramovic. I was very relieved, as the piece makes some unusual demands on both performers. Firstly, the violin’s G-string is tuned down a whole tone to F throughout the entire work, meaning that everything played on that string sounds a whole tone lower than one would expect. The violin part consequently features two lines of music for all of the passages played on the “F” string; one indicating the fingerings to be played and one showing how it actually sounds. Midori mentioned that she’d encountered “scordatura” (or retuning) before, however usually only for short sections within a longer work such as in John Adams’ Road Movies, and not for an entire work as in this case.
Secondly the pianist has to play on two different instruments in the course of the work. In addition to a concert grand piano, one entire movement is to be played on an adjacently-positioned upright piano that features a practice pedal, giving the piano a distant, muted sound. To accompany the necessary movement from one piano to the other, a sustained linking chord is played, with the sustain pedal held in place by a weight or wedge.
It’s one of the privileges of my job to see a work come to life, from dots on a page to sound in a room, especially when being played by such marvellous musicians. I met with Midori and pianist Charles Abramovic in Stockholm on February 12th, the day before the world première. We worked for about two hours, rehearsing the entire piece in considerable detail. In many ways, such experiences are among the most enjoyable and informative for a composer. One grapples with the very stuff of music, trying things out with the players, shaping and preparing it for its moment on stage. Midori and I discussed certain aspects of the violin part and agreed on some small but significant changes. Charles also had a few queries which we were able to sort out quite easily. Apart from a few changes of notes and dynamic details, it was above all the flow of the music in performance that deviated here and there from what I’d written on the page. And it’s not every day that one discusses a new invention for the piano, yet that’s what we experienced in Stockholm. The piano tuner brought along a specially furnished wedge that he’d made out of felt to place on top of the sustain pedal to keep it pressed down for the link passage mentioned earlier. In this way, there were now four of us creatively contributing to the realisation of this new work!
After the weeks and months writing the piece and the hours and days spent learning and rehearsing it, the performance itself, being an ephemeral thing, seemed to fly by in a matter of seconds. Well, it was about 17 minutes to be exact, but for me performances are over in a flash, particularly when it’s a new piece. I was thrilled with how it went in Stockholm and it seemed to be a big success. But as superb a team as Midori and Charles are, any new work takes a little while to “settle in”, and by the time we met again a week later in London, following two further performances of the piece in Spain in the interim, their interpretation of Berlin Music had grown and blossomed further and they seemed to have truly “moved in” to this new house. Their terrific performance in the beautiful Wigmore Hall was one that I will cherish.
I’ve just put the finishing touches on the final version of the score – now ready for print, including all the details discussed and tried out in Stockholm and London: a change of dynamic here, a different note there, some modifications to the tempi, even a slightly longer bar in the fourth movement that I’ve re-written in time for the next set of performances in the States in March. Composing really is a jointly creative process and so my heartfelt thanks go to Midori and Charles for their wonderful artistry in bringing my music to life.