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16 September 2021

Margaret Brandman at 70: five decades of music as business and passion

Margaret Brandman Image: Margaret Brandman  

Composer, pianist and educator Margaret Brandman celebrates her 70th birthday this month. In this Q&A interview she talks about her many roles in music, her formative musical experiences and mentors, as well as about some of her major works.

Q. You're known for stylistically playful, eclectic music - and I think you were a multi-instrumentalist early on. Where are your own musical roots? What were your formative musical experiences like?

A. My earliest memories of my family life are of music wafting through every room in the house. My mother Else Brandman was the most influential person during my formative years in music. She had a rich musical life in Germany before the Second World War and then used her skills to begin teaching the accordion and piano soon after she arrived in Sydney in 1949. Her success with students meant that she needed to employ more teachers of different instruments, and soon the Brandman Music Studios operating in the front rooms of our family house in Maroubra were in full flight.

As the business grew in the 1960s, she and my father branched out into commercial premises in Rockdale where they employed as many as 20 teachers and also sold instruments and sheet music. From the age of four, I was taught piano accordion and piano by my mother, and, as I grew older, I also studied guitar and drums from our visiting studio teachers. When I was quite young, we discovered I had perfect pitch which has been quite an asset through my career. I began piano lessons at the Conservatorium on Saturday afternoons from the age of 10, and in my teens I attended the Conservatorium of Music High School, studying piano with Isador Goodman and clarinet with Neville Thomas. My formative years were spent performing in various Brandman studio concerts and giving recitals at the Conservatorium. In my teens, after 10 years of playing, I began teaching. The studio concerts staged at Rockdale Town Hall often featured large accordion orchestras performing music ranging from the classics to some of the favourite Argentinian tangos.

I think this is where my love of Latin-American music and dance styles began. Learning piano accordion as well as piano, I was introduced to more chord understanding than most student pianists at the time. Playing a great variety of music improved my sight-reading skills and improvisational skills. Therefore, as soon as I finished high school, I began my career as a professional musician, performing in various ensembles, playing a wide variety of musical genres and backing top overseas artists - great for improving sight-reading ability! I supported myself by performing and teaching while studying for my composition degree at Sydney University.

Apart from the love of music imparted to me by my mother, my father's family also had a rich musical tradition. My father played piano and violin, and my uncle and aunts played an instrument or sang. My grandfather Fritz Brandman, who had a fine tenor voice and loved singing Italian arias, became the first cantor at the Temple Emmanuel in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra in 1939. Owing to the dire political situation in Germany, culminating in the Kristallnacht event in November 1938, my family was forced to flee from Berlin. Had it not been for the chance meeting with William McKay, the NSW Commissioner for Police, during the Berlin Olympic games in 1936, they would never have been sponsored to come to Australia. After the family arrived in Sydney early in 1939, my grandfather recorded many songs at local recording studios accompanied by my aunt Johanna (Joan) Brandman.

Q. I'd like to ask you to talk about two of your works in particular - can you tell us a little bit about your award-winning Firestorm Symphony - its inspirations and its sound?

Firestorm Symphony received the Artemis Film Festival award for Best Foreign Composition in 2019. I composed the work after experiencing, at close hand, the Blue Mountains bushfires in 1994 and 2001. In 1988, I moved from Sydney to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. The first draft of Firestorm Symphony was composed shortly after the 1994 fires and was initially scored for classical accordion, an instrument which could easily produce the sounds of rushing wind, as well as a full range of orchestral sounds. After the 2001 fires I expanded the work and began work on the orchestration. Although it is a programmatic work - the three movements depict the before, during and after story of the fires - reviewers have commented that the work can be enjoyed on a purely musical level without necessarily following the story.

Roger Dilernia interviews composer Margaret Brandman
about the Firestorm Symphony (YouTube).

This first movement 'Firestorm Threatening' begins with high, rather strident flute sounds depicting the shimmering heat and oppressive stillness of midsummer days. Thereafter the music captures the sounds of short bursts of wind and the cries of the cockatoos, and the lonely monotone call of the Eastern Spinebill, a native bird which I recall hearing in the bushland around my home. This five-note motif is used extensively throughout the movement. During the work, the rapid rolling passages of 32nd notes depict the approaching fire and the birds and native animals fleeing from the fire. The movement finishes quite sadly on a dramatic minor (m/M7) harmony played by the low strings, with the five-note motif played in the haunting chalmeau register of the clarinet.

'Now the Tears are Flowing' is the sombre second movement which begins with the tolling of three bells honouring those people who lost their lives during the fires, after which the descending melodic lines capture the sorrow and tears following the devastation. I chose specific harmonies with the intention of making the work quite atmospheric. Towards the latter section of the movement, the high flutes depict the sounds of birds returning to the forest and the promise of recovery, after which the theme is presented with the flute choir playing a series of diminished seventh harmonies. The movement finishes on an expectant chord which heralds the final movement.

The third movement 'All the Trees are Growing' is one of hope and renewal. This movement begins with the 'all the trees are growing' motif in 11/16, over which the quite jazzy syncopated melody is superimposed. The cross-rhythms help to create energy and excitement of new growth in the forest and the return of the birds and animals. The chordal theme that follows is based on motifs from the first movement and serves to unify and round out the entire work. Quartal harmony is a feature of this movement lending a feeling of vigour and brightness to the piece. After the climax point, the solo flute melody depicts the fluttering wings of a solitary bird flying in the distance towards the sun setting over the vast Blue Mountains, capturing my impressions one evening when surveying the Glenbrook National Park from the Bluff Lookout, not far from my family home.

Q. And another central work, the Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac song cycle - what can you tell us about this work and its background?

In 2015 my Astropoet colleague Benita Rainer approached me with her vision of creating a song cycle of twelve songs, each one capturing the essence of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The concept appealed to me, as did Benita's inspirational lyrics, for instance: the powerful closing lines of our song for Sagittarius - 'Cosmic Fire'

A live concert performance of the duet version of song cycle Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac
in Praque in September 2017 (YouTube).

Cosmic fire shooting higher than others dare aspire,
To where our souls belong,
To where our souls belong.
Higher and higher!

Shortly before Benita approached me with the concept, I had been composing several original songs for baritone Martin Cooke, of the Bavarian State Opera company. When I presented to Martin the music I had composed for the Zodiac songs, he was very taken with both my musical content and Benita's insightful lyrics. As Martin lives in Munich, we initially workshopped the music on Skype.

It was fortunate that Martin had planned to visit his family in Sydney in August 2016 during his annual holidays from the Bavarian Opera Company, so while he was in Sydney we were able to present a concert at Sydney Conservatorium where Martin and I premiered the complete song cycle, as well as several of the other songs that I had composed for him, including Lady of Grace and The Baragoola Sails to Manly, in which the lyrics tell the story of Martin's early memories of travelling from Circular Quay to his home in Manly on the historic Baragoola ferry: Seven miles from Sydney, and a thousand miles from care.

It was quite a feat for Martin to perform all twelve songs, which comprised the second half of the concert. His performance was much appreciated by the audience and following this positive reaction, I decided to compose/arrange choral versions of all twelve songs. On presenting these solo and choral settings of the songs to Parma Recordings, they were very enthusiastic and organised for both to be performed and recorded by the Prague Mixed Chamber Choir and soloists in Prague in 2017. The resulting Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac album (Navona) was released in June 2018. The next part of the story is that, In my CD launch concert in Sydney in August, I was delighted to be able to present the cycle with solo, duet and choral versions of the pieces. These were sung by Coro Austral, directed by Margot McLaughlin, together with soloists Désirée Regina and John Antoniou, accompanied by yours truly on the piano.

At the moment I am also arranging these works for violin with piano, and cello with piano. The Scorpio song, 'The Water Dragon', under its alternative title 'As Blue as Turquoise Pearls' recorded by cellist Ariel Volovelsky and myself has already been released. The Gemini song 'In Two Minds' has just been recorded by Sydney violinist Vov Dylan together with pianist John Martin for a new album of violin and piano works by Australian composers.

Q. Being a music educator is an important part of your artistic life - can you tell us about your own teachers and mentors and the role they have played in your career?

As my family life was very much involved with our family music business, I had from a young age been observing my mother teaching and became interested in teaching myself. When I turned 12 she encouraged me to be a trainee teacher, which included marking the theory books for the students and learning how to communicate with them. My subsequent lessons with a number of instrumental, theory and harmony teachers over the years, including in my six years at the Conservatorium High School, plus psychology of teaching classes as part of the diploma course, prepared me for my TMusA degree in 1970. Dorothy White, keyboard tutor at Sydney University, introduced me to score reading in C Clef and Figured harmony. I had already been teaching for some years, but once introduced to the interval approach required for reading in C Clef, I decided to devise my own teaching method for beginners using a simplified interval system. This aspect, plus my interest in chords, harmony, improvisation and composition, provided the foundation for my teaching method. I then had the opportunity to write a series of articles on the topic of piano tuition for the Journal of Australian Music and Musicians (Jamm Magazine), published in 50 issues from 1977 to 1979.

Composer Dulcie Holland and I became good friends and she took on the role of mentor for my composing, giving me feedback on new works I was writing. I often returned the favour in playing through her new works to proof them prior to publication. After I showed Dulcie my series of articles, she suggested I use the information as a framework for my Contemporary Piano Method and include both original and established works to illustrate the concepts, provide technical and reading skills and pieces for performance. As a result, the nine levels in the Contemporary Piano Method incorporate many aspects of piano technique. In particular, the series guides students through the understanding of harmonic progressions and compositional tools, aspects that I had found very useful when sight-reading or improvising in my career as professional pianist.

I received many hours of tuition from several instrumental and voice teachers over the years. Three stand-out teachers include Isador Goodman, concert performer and piano teacher - I very much related to his way of teaching the music of Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel; clarinet teacher Neville Thomas, also a professional performer who taught not only classical styles but also modern; and Peter Sculthorpe, my composition tutor at Sydney University from whom I learned many valuable skills. I appreciated his approach to teaching, as, although he presented a great program of compositional tools, Peter never tried to impose on me his own style of composition. He allowed me the freedom to find my own compositional voice.

Q. What have been your most recent highlights and what are you working on at the moment?

The major highlight in April this year was when I was awarded 'Best Foreign Composition' for the second time by the Artemis Film Festival in Los Angeles (the first time was in 2019 with Firestorm Symphony). It was for the symphonic tone poem Spirit Visions, recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra for the multi-composer album Polarities Vol. 2 (Navona - watch a video with excerpts and interview on YouTube). I hear that this work is about to receive multiple plays as CD of the week on Fine Music FM, from 27 September.

I am also pleased to announce the inclusion of my work When Spirits Soar for soprano saxophone with piano in the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music 8th grade Syllabus in the UK in 2022, and the inclusion of Jucaro Rhumba D'Amor for violin and piano in the AMEB Series 10, 7th grade Violin syllabus and AMEB publication, due for release in November (watch a performance of this work by Maria Lindsay and Irma Enriquez on YouTube).

Considering the difficulties we have all experienced this year, I was pleased to have had the opportunity to record and release three works for cello with piano on the Modern Classical X label, recorded by cellist Ariel Volovelsky and myself. We recorded them in February, but owing to various lockdowns, our release schedule has been delayed. However, I am trying to stay on track and stay positive by composing more pieces for us to record toward the end of the year.

Lastly, my major composing project over the past six months has been my suite of eight Latin-American works, commissioned by Vov Dylan and the quintet from the Palace Orchestra. Three of the pieces were premiered by the ensemble at a concert in April and I was pleased to be able to attend the concert. I am very excited as the suite is being recorded this very weekend. Vov and his ensemble have major plans in place for concerts and educational workshops with my music in the coming year.

> Margaret Brandman - AMC profile. See also: www.margaretbrandman.com


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