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22 November 2012

Brenton Broadstock in focus

'You keep digging and planting until something finally grows'

Brenton Broadstock Image: Brenton Broadstock  
© Peter Barlow

'Do we really have to do this Stu?' This is how my interview with Brenton Broadstock begins. I assure him that, indeed, we do. He turns 60 in a matter of weeks, and Syzygy Ensemble are presenting a concert of his works at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 29 November - his chamber symphony, Celebration (1994-95), is appropriately the centerpiece of a varied program of new and older works. But back to the interview: this is easy for me (I was a student of his for eight years) but for Brenton it's not something he seeks. He is an unassuming individual and, in perhaps mahleresque style, doesn't want to be misunderstood. Which is fair enough. Answering the question about why he writes music is straightforward though.

'Right from when I was younger, there was something about the act of composing and creating sound - organising sound that I just felt passionate about. There's some sort of adrenaline rush or buzz which fulfills my creative, intellectual and heartfelt, passionate desires that makes me want to write music. There's something about it. And even though people may not listen to it, it's still something that I have to do', Broadstock explains.

Somewhat harder is trying to position that 'adrenaline rush' after the fact in a larger context, though Broadstock certainly is not without strong views on the matter:

'The music surely has to reflect who you are at a particular point in time, and the way you evolve over time and the way you change your attitudes about life and about music and so many other things. That doesn't mean you've "sold out" (which is often applied to composers) or you've become more "romantic" - it's got nothing to do with that. I think it's just got to do with the way you see the world.'

When asked about profound influences, Broadstock names Sibelius, whose music he describes in terms of 'icy romanticism':

'It's quite cold, it's not slushy. It's quite biting. Which to me is a truer reflection of what "romantic" music is. It's that double-edged sword - the feeling of hope and expectation of what can be, as opposed to the reality of what is not always achieved.'

Along with Sibelius, he cites Mahler (especially Rückert-Lieder, No. 5), Holst and Vaughan-Williams; Lutoslawski and early Penderecki - but also lesser-known composers like Hurlstone or Rutland Boughton, along with alternative pop writers Björk and Dido:

'I constantly want to be challenged when I listen, so anything that's too predictable I just don't find particularly interesting. I'm always listening to the orchestration, listening to the melodies and to the harmonies - to those particular elements - whether they're interesting or not; whether they're inventive, whether they're colourful, whether they're creative - and someone like Björk always does that.'

Those who studied composition with Brenton (there are many of us) were taught how to extend and sustain musical material. How to create variations, to keep it colourful and interesting, and how to pace it in time so that the music actually goes somewhere and arrives in satisfying ways.

Broadstock's music is marked by an economy of means. Whole movements built almost exclusively out of small cells and their variations. There is ostinato, but it's not minimalism. The note-to-note construction is highly organic but the narrative is not in a loop. This is music on a journey somewhere and the element of surprise is an equal partner to motivic unity.

This economy of means is embodied clearly in Made In Heaven (2009) - the multi-instrument concerto written for James Morrison and the MSO. It overtly features Morrison's legendary ability to play many instruments (in this case trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone and saxophone). And it does have a cool, slightly jazzy surface, referencing the structure of the Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue (in homage to the 50th anniversary of its making). The opening movement of Made in Heaven is constructed from the simplest of melodic cells (four notes: A-B-C-B) and is a veritable masterclass in variation and invention.

'There's obviously a big difference between the works I wrote in the '80s and what I'm writing now. In terms of the sound world, it's not as harsh. Certainly the notation is a lot clearer than it was then. As you get older, the facility - the technique - becomes much better so you're able to do those things a lot better.'

Broadstock does not view his music as tonal - modal perhaps, and in parts, but certainly not functional tonality. His musical language is probably polystylistic. Other influences that didn't come up during the interview but which are part of his background include brass band music and progressive rock (the trombone and electric bass being instruments he played as a young musician).

Over time, all these factors build a musical artist and reveal Broadstock as a writer of major works, with six symphonies, three concertos, an opera and numerous other large-scale compositions (in 1999 the Dutch Etcetera label released an epic CD box-set of his first five symphonies with the Krasnoyarsk Academic Symphonic Orchestra under Australian conductor, Andrew Wheeler). I ask him what the hardest thing is about writing big works.

'You're looking at a year, maybe longer, to do something which is 35-40 minutes long. So to actually keep control of the direction of the music over that period of time is probably the hardest thing to do . The 6th symphony: that was big and it does take a lot of work. It takes a lot out of you to actually do it.'

The 6th Symphony, subtitled Tyranny of Distance, received compelling reviews, including this from Rachel Orzech (Australian Stage, October 2009): 'Everything about this work was on a massive scale. The music seemed to be forever moving towards a crescendo, then resting momentarily, and then beginning to grow once again. Merlyn Quaife's powerful voice rang out above the orchestra and chorus with richness and strength, representing the individual, the "island", amongst the masses. There was an apocalyptic feeling about much of the music - huge, dramatic choral chords, the chiming of bells and constant orchestral surges and climaxes.'

Since retiring as Professor and Head of Composition at the University of Melbourne in 2007, Broadstock has concentrated his time on writing and working as a freelance composer, including a second stint as resident composer with the MSO. He is currently completing a two-year Australia Council Fellowship writing a number of works, including a saxophone concerto for Michael Duke, a work he is halfway through:

'It's like digging up a garden; and you keep digging and planting until something finally grows. You keep working through lots of ideas until finally something clicks.'

Twelve by Brenton Broadstock, performed by the Sydney Saxophone Collective.

Connections with Sydney and saxophones are not incidental. For a number of years now, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has been working toward its 2015 centenary with an ambitious commissioning project. Broadstock's contribution to this is Twelve (2011), written for that number of saxophones. It was recently performed by the Sydney Saxophone Collective at the 16th World Saxophone Congress in Scotland:

'The numerology was related to where I am right at this moment - 12th December 2012 [Broadstock's birthday] and being sixty. There are 12 instruments, there are 12 movements - and each of the movements is 60 seconds long. So the idea was to create a piece of music that had very strict limitations as to how I would write it. And to use 12 instruments, which are essentially the same sound combination, was also a challenge because you have a limited colour palette. But that's part of the excitement I think.

'There's always something about my pieces that I try to condense or to limit in some way. It's all about finding ways of restricting yourself, or reducing the parameters so you can actually be free to compose. Even though they're all quite separate little movements, particularly the middle ones all link in together, so you have maybe 4 or 5 in the middle that all link. It ends up being like a palindromic shape. It needs to work itself out in a satisfying way in the time-frame.'

Broadstock the artist grapples with human issues: love, equality, the environment, hope, freedom, consolation; and these are personal responses to big issues. Alongside the artist sits Broadstock the craftsman:

'It's still the craft of the individual that is going to make the difference no matter what the technology, no matter what the machine is.'

AMC resources

Brenton Broadstock - AMC profile
'Brenton Broadstock - celebration' - Syzygy Ensemble at the Melbourne Recital Centre on (29 November at 6pm)

Further links

Brenton Broadstock (www.brentonbroadstock.com)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Stuart Greenbaum is currently an Associate Professor and Head of Composition at the University of Melbourne. 


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Presumably the Rückert-Lieder reference is not for No.5, but for No.3 (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen) - given he notably played in his postgrad seminar back in '98. He presumably played the Boulez/Minton recording, the ordering of which has it as the last of the five, hence the 'confusion'. There's my 2c worth of clarification (or 5c, in this case)...