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22 April 2014

A brief interview with Brian Howard

A brief interview with Brian Howard

Next week sees the premiere performance of Brian Howard's Voyage through radiant stars at the opening event of the Aurora Festival in Parramatta. The performance on 30 April will be of two works interleaved: Voyages 1-8 for solo saxophone and Voyage through radiant stars for ensemble. Saxophone soloist of the concert, James Nightingale, interviewed Brian Howard about his new work as well as about his life as a composer.

Brian Howard has been an important composer in Australia since the 1980s, and many of his works have received critical acclaim, including the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a work that deserves attention from Australia's orchestras. He has been Dean of the Western Australian Conservatorium, President of LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore and composer in residence with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, where he composed Gravity's Rainbow and Earthshine.

James Nightingale: What was the inspiration behind Voyage through radiant stars?

Brian Howard: I have written a number of works that refer to the heavens. These works go back to the Italian poet Leopardi contemplating the moon (Il Tramonto della Luna for orchestra - a work I wrote in my twenties) to more recent orchestral works Earthshine and Starburst. When I started thinking about a work for solo saxophone (Voyages 1-8) and then a companion work for large ensemble (Voyage through radiant stars), the idea of a solo saxophone undertaking a voyage through radiant stars appealed to me greatly. The solos are obviously linear: suggesting a voyage through time and space. However, given an ensemble of 18 instruments for Voyage through radiant stars, a depth of colour, texture, chiaroscuro, interplay, climax and decay opened up, allowing me to write seven sections, each one being a radiant star.

JN: Do you have a particular interest in astronomy?

BH: I don't have an interest in astronomy in the scientific sense, as that is obviously a very specialised activity. However, I do wonder at the vastness of what lies beyond our solar system. What is out there? Are there other life forms, other civilisations, other composers?!! For me, the beauty and the vastness of the heavens are breathtaking.

JN: How do you start a new piece?

BH: I work on the architecture. When I was a boy and I was given a vocational test, the result came back that I should be an architect. That interest is ever with me. So I work out the proportions of the spaces, the placement of windows and the use of colours first.

JN: Was there a reason for choosing the size of ensemble that this work requires (18 instruments:5 strings, 6 winds, 5 brass, 2 percussion)?

BH: An ensemble of 18 instruments enabled me to write a work that is sometimes chamber music and sometimes chamber orchestra/sinfonietta in nature. In fact, the sixth section of Voyage through radiant stars is for string quartet alone... so there is a real chamber music section. When combined with Voyages1-8, there are solos, chamber music and ensemble music at various times during the performance... adding to the musical diversity that combining these two works achieves.

JN: Do you have a reason for writing for the saxophone?

BH: There is a wantonness about the saxophone that I find very attractive. I would love to write a work for saxophone and orchestra one day.

JN: Do you think of your music as fitting into a particular style? What are the main influences on your music?

BH: There are many influences on my music, but the strongest ones are assimilated early in one's career. I used to listen to music around the clock when I was in my teens and at university. I think that is when you form your identity. If you don't have a musical identity by 30, as a composer or as a performer, your road ahead is going to be a very difficult one. My style is my own, I hope... though that still remains unmeasured. I think if I were to live on the moon, I would write more or less the same music... though I would undoubtedly worry about who would perform it. I take my mix of emotions, creativity, problems, hopes and fears with me wherever I go.

JN: Was it easy to balance being a composer when you held the high responsibility jobs in Perth and Singapore? What is it like being a composer in Australia today?

BH: Australia doesn't really have a place for composers... artists: yes, you can buy and look at their work; writers: yes, you can buy and read their books; 'classical' composers: errr, excuse me, you're a what? Being a composer in Australia is rather like being a servant to an ungrateful master. Most composers in Australia work in tertiary education, become responsible citizens. That tends to knock off the edges and it often slowly deadens the creative drive. That situation is not universal. Many composers outside Australia still live a life comparable with their artist and writer colleagues: living from a range of activities with composition as the principal one (composition plus perhaps conducting, or performing, or writing, or some teaching).

I enjoyed having 'high responsibility' jobs. They are fulfilling in the short term and disturbing in the long term. However, the need to create gradually becomes unbearable. Roland Peelman came to Singapore while I was at LASALLE College of the Arts and told me that everyone had more or less forgotten me as a composer in Australia. He might as well have stuck a knife into me. I returned to being a composer. It is a frustrating existence being a composer: only the demons inside tormenting you every day keeps you going.

JN: What are you currently working on?

BH: I am writing a string quartet for the Goldner String Quartet. It will be the first in a series of pieces taking inspiration from paintings.

JN: How do you assess the state of music in Australia at present for composers today?

BH: Australia has some wonderful composers and performers. Certainly the gap between what composers write and what performers can play has virtually closed. Gone are the days when performers would tell you 'you can't play that on the piccolo!!' Now performers go away and work out how it can be played. However, the heavy hand of conservatism lies fatally on much music programming in Australia. This is always excused with all sorts of budget details and a negative attitude to potential audiences' intelligence and receptivity to fine performances of new work. As a consequence, it is very difficult for composers to have large-scale or even medium-scale works performed in Australia at present. Other than Elision, Australia doesn't have a professional contemporary music ensemble that can perform repertoire for 10 to 20 musicians. I would like to see more opportunities to write for this size ensemble in Australia. Certainly, internationally, there is a considerable repertoire already in existence and there is a need to hear this music in Australia.

The chance for composers of opera in Australia to have a work performed has come to a virtual stop, with the argument that none of their works has entered 'the repertoire', whatever that means. To my knowledge, none of the operas of Henze, Rihm, Birtwistle, Ad├ęs, Turnage, Andriessen, etc, have entered 'the repertoire' here either, though they seem to be doing pretty well internationally.

JN: Advice for young composers?

BH: My advice for the 2014-16 composition stock exchange... opera: sell; orchestral music: hold; chamber music: buy; choral music: buy; solo music: buy. Good luck.

AMC resources

Brian Howard - AMC profile

Event details

Voyage through radiant stars - opening event of the Aurora Festival
Wednesday 30 April at Riverside Theatres Parramatta, at 7:30pm
All event details (AMC Calendar) - see also the festival website and the Riverside Theatres website (tickets)

Subjects discussed by this article:

James Nightingale is a Sydney-based saxophonist and member of Continuum Sax. He is the soloist for the premiere performance of Voyage through radiant stars by Brian Howard at the Aurora Festival 2014. James is also the President of the New Music Network.


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