Could you give a brief account of your life and development as a composer?
“In 1975, I began studying the piano, and it was soon thereafter that I developed an interest in composition. My first work, my Opus 1, at the age of eleven (which still survives today as an original manuscript, but I don’t actually include it as part of my oeuvre) was a solo piano work. I continued to compose instrumental music as well as songs throughout my teens, and at about the age of seventeen became fascinated with film music. As a result of that, in the 80s, I was commissioned to write works to accompany more than twenty documentary and short films, television programs, as well as commercials, computer games and stage productions. Highlights of this part of my career include composing for documentary films presented both locally and overseas, such as East Meets West (1984), The Murray River Quest (1985), Hope Street (1987) and The Australian Ballet (1990).
What began as an interest in ethnomusicology and scale forms and tuning systems of Eastern Europe, Northern and Southern India, The Middle East, and North and South-East Asia ultimately led to me undertaking formal music education. In 2007 I completed a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree at the University of Melbourne on Tweddle Trust, Australian Postgraduate and Melbourne Research scholarships, studying composition under the guidance of Brenton Broadstock. Today, I am a freelance composer, Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (University of Melbourne), and have been teaching composition at the Faculty of the VCA since 2006, where I currently conduct the lectures for two composition subjects.”
What do you regard as your most notable achievements so far?
“Among my notable achievements I would certainly consider my work ‘Symphonie de guerre’ to be at the heart of the matter. This composition is part of a two-movement work (essentially a war symphony), which philosophically represents not only a personal statement in condemnation of the general act of war, but a collective reaction encompassing the artistic world at large. ‘L’assaut sur la raison’, the first movement although directly inspired by the 2003 Iraq war, also intended to have a connection with more general world events, and the illogical thought process behind war, hence ‘The assault on reason’, while ‘Bénédiction d'un conquérant’ or ‘Blessing of a Conqueror’ on the other hand clearly intended for the portrayal of the final act of war – the blessing – and composed in direct response to the global protest against the illegal occupation of Iraq.
In 2004, L’assaut sur la raison was recognized in the US with the Louisville Orchestra Prize (the first time for the prize to be awarded to a non-American in its 30-year history), and in Australia with the APRA Award for Orchestral Composition (2004 3MBS FM National Composer Awards). In essence, this work has been performed in part or in whole by the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tetsuji Honna (Hanoi, Vietnam), Orquesta Sinfónica de Chile conducted by Francisco Rettig (Santiago, Chile), Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frédéric Chaslin (Jerusalem, Israel) Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico conducted by Maximiano Valdés (San Juan, Puerto Rico), Orquestra Petrobras Sinfônica conducted by Rodolfo Fischer (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Franz (Terre Haute, IN, USA), Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young (Hobart, Australia), and Canberra Youth Orchestra conducted by Dominic Harvey (Canberra, Australia).”
“Notable awards include the 2012 Jean Bogan Prize (Newcastle, Australia) for Luz meridional, Twenty-four Études for Pianoforte (2009-2012), which was commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC and composed for Australian pianist Michael Kieran Harvey as part of a 2009 State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship. This prize is significant as it is generally recognized as the most prestigious award for piano composition in Australia. Adding to that is the Boston Metro Opera ‘Mainstage Award’ (USA), ‘John Cage Centennial’ Wolf Museum of Music and Art Composition Prize (USA), Friends & Enemies of New Music Composition Prize (USA), Betty Amsden Award, and Oare String Orchestra Judges’ and Audience Prize (UK), among many.
Significant commissions on the other hand include Una danza chilena for violoncello and pianoforte (2011) commissioned by the Corporación Cultural de Viña del Mar as the ‘Compulsory Chilean Work to be Performed by all Competitors’ of the 2011 Concurso Internacional de Ejecución Musical ‘Dr. Luis Sigall’ (Viña del Mar, Chile), Iluminismo, Concertino-Doppio for Alto Saxophone, Harp and String Orchestra (2012-2013) commissioned by the American Harp Society (New York, USA), and A borboleta for Robot Orchestra (2009-2011), incorporating thirty-seven automats (electromechanical computer-controlled acoustic instruments fitted with additional MIDI-mapped lights) of the Logos Foundation Robot Orchestra (Ghent, Belgium).”
Are there some significant composers, teachers and cultural influences in your life?
“I was born in Chile, to a Chilean mother and a Slovenian father, and this mix of cultural backgrounds had an enormous impact on my musical life. Even at a young age I was being exposed to many diverse musical forms – from the local folk music of Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay to that of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well the classical music of Tschaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Puccini, Chopin, Beethoven, Dvorak, Sibelius, Grieg, Wagner, Mahler, Respigi, Verdi, and many others. My brother Alex is also a musician (a percussionist) and because of that I not only heard every Santana record upon the day of its release, but also the countless variations of Latin jazz that are available.
There is no doubt that Australian composer Brenton Broadstock has had a significant influence in my life over the past fifteen years or so, and not only as my composition teacher and supervisor during my MMus in Composition and PhD in Composition degrees at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (University of Melbourne), but also as my ongoing mentor and friend. I still make every effort possible to attend the premiere performances of each of his works, and we get together often to chat about the nature of composition. I am also extremely appreciative of the fact that Brenton represents the first formal recognition of my potential as composer. His lineage, that of the late Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), and the fact that he was not only composition professor at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Music (today the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music) for the greater part of his twenty-five years there (1982-2006), but that he is also recognized today as one of Australia’s most celebrated living composers are quite significant factors in the history of Australian composition.”
It would be interesting to have some insight into how the commission to write this new work ‘Angustam Amice’ came about. Perhaps you could indicate the guidelines you were given and how much freedom you had as you set out on the composition.
“Mario Dobernig is a great supporter of Australian music, and has been a great supporter of my music for several years; and because of that fact alone at some point in time we ended up speaking about the possibility of a new work for Victoria Chorale. It was also a great current interest of mine, the idea of composing a new work for choir. With regards to the guidelines, there weren’t many, although the new work was intended as a companion piece to Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) For the Fallen (1916) – the third movement from The Spirit of England, Op. 80 with a text by Laurence Binyon (1868-1943). It was also agreed that I would arrange For the Fallen for Choir and String Orchestra.
With this in mind I began to formulate a plan for the general aesthetic of the composition. I did of course not want to base it in any way on Elgar’s work, but wanted to somehow reflect some of its musical sensitivity, meanwhile creating an essentially modern work. And by ‘modern’ I mean exactly that (the literal interpretation) as opposed to ‘modernist’. I believe that it is important for the composer of today to create music that is a reflection of the present, that it is relevant today, and therefore not some feeble attempt at recreating a type of nostalgia from the past; yet one must take note of the context – in this case, the context being a new work for a choir that does not perform very much ‘modern’ music, and certainly no ‘modernist’ music, or what some people refer to as ‘new music’. So the challenge for me became how to create a new work that embodies modernity yet is relatively accessible. And that is essentially why I selected the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt as an inspiration for the piece, who for me certainly represents a modern composer with a uniquely individual voice.”
Could you explain the links between this work and Arvo Pärt? How would you describe the pitch organization that you have used for the work?
“Angustam Amice adopts an interpretation of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style within its utilization of a Dorian #4/ Lydian b7 two-octave scale (O and RI forms for ascending Dorian #4, R and I forms for descending Lydian B7). In other words, I have created a synthetic scale, or invented a two-octave scale by combining two ‘jazz’ modes that then in this new form serve as my basic pitch material. In an article entitled Musical Archetypes: The Basic Elements of the Tintinnabuli Style, contained within the publication of The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt Leopold Brauneiss describes the essential ingredients of the musical language of Pärt thus: ‘Tintinnabulation: the joining of scale and triad: In tintinnabulation, every single note of a melody voice formed by scales (which English conductor Paul Hillier calls the M-voice) ideally gets assigned a note of a triad at a certain distance to this M-voice. In the so-called first position above (+1) or below (−1) the M-voice, this produces diatonic dissonances of minor and major seconds and also thirds and fourths; in second position (+2, −2) we get fourths, fifths, and sixths.
By this method, a second voice develops consisting exclusively of triad notes which sounds throughout the whole composition like the peal of bells. From this we get the terms tintinnabuli-voice (T-voice), and tintinnabuli triad (T-triad), which itself consists of three tintinnabuli-notes (T-notes).’ In essence, what I have done is utilized Arvo Pärt’s ideas for the harmonization of my melodic material, but readapted the methodology for my own personal usage, and therefore a work clearly not intended as pastiche epitomizing Arvo Pärt’s music. The result is a series of contrasting consonances and dissonances that within my own sound world become more and more pronounced towards the end of the composition. Fittingly, the work has been composed in ‘Celebration of Arvo Pärt’s 80th Birthday’, and also ‘In Memory of the First World War (1914-1918)’ as part of the 100th Anniversary of the ANZAC Landings at Gallipoli (25 April, 1915).”
Could you explain how you went about writing this work and what its distinctive features are?
“The work sets to music a poem by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 B.C.-8 B.C.) from the classic text of Carmina (23 B.C.) – a collection of four books of Latin lyric poems, more commonly referred to as the ‘Odes of Horace’. The fourth stanza of Liber III.2, or Book 3.2 opens with the famous line ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (or ‘Sweet and proper it is to die for your country’) utilized by English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) in his October 1917 anti-war poem where, as Kenneth Simcox from the Wilfred Owen Association explains, ‘the title is ironic’ and ‘the intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.’
The work follows in this tradition, and hence, is certainly not intended as a means of glorifying war, but nevertheless hope that it will stimulate reflection. It must be remembered that the First World War was ‘one of the deadliest conflicts in history’ and that World War II was to be prematurely proclaimed as the ‘war to end all wars.’ With regards to its distinctive features, apart from the contemporary interpretation of Arvo Pärt’s musical language, I would say that from an extra-musical point of view, the work attempts to project sensitivity, to project some of the benevolence that exists within human beings. That is the ultimate goal of this work. It is quite easy to be the ‘brash and loud’ composer, and so in this particular case the challenge that I set out for myself was to try to create music that facilitates an emotional connection with the audience; to create an emotive music. A Latin text was selected as a Romance language seemed to possess the appropriate linguistic colour for the work.”
Members of the choir have been interested in the use of wordless ‘ah’ sounds in the vocal part. What is their function? Are there similar special or unusual effects in the orchestral parts?
“The general function of the ‘ah’ sounds of the composition are to provide a series of drones, or pedal points for the melodic material, which is a feature in two sections of the work. These drones are transformed via tessitura as well as timbre and density, beginning in the ‘A’ above middle C of the sopranos, later juxtaposed with the ‘A’ below middle C of the altos, while later in the work, the basses (‘A’ two octaves below middle C) are juxtaposed with the tenors (‘A’ below middle C). ‘Ahs’ are also utilized in another section of the work, but in this particular case ornamentally (as an effect) as descending glissandos, marked in the score as ‘sotto voce (breathy) indeterminate pitch.’ The orchestral parts do not feature similar special or unusual effects, as their role or function is essentially to provide ‘vertical’ harmonic colour for the vocal melodies.”
What other current projects are you engaged in?
“I am currently working on an arrangement of Digressioni modali (2003) for Tenor Saxophone, Trumpet and Pianoforte for American saxophonist Noah Getz for a presentation at the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC entitled ‘3Stream: Where Classical and Jazz Converge’.
I have also just completed a new arrangement of Bhuwana Agung for Soprano Saxophone and Gamelan Orchestra (2008) for Manolete Mora and the University of New South Wales Balinese ‘Gamelan Semar Pegulingan’ Orchestra (a work commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC for the Hong Kong University Balinese ‘Gamelan Gong Kebyar’ Orchestra), which is going to be presented in Bali, Indonesia at the governor’s invitation.
The Orquestra Cia Bachiana Brasileira conducted by Ricardo Rocha recently presented Navigating the Labyrinth for String Orchestra (2002, Rev. 2010) at the Planetário de Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and Bénédiction d’un conquérant for Symphony Orchestra (2004) is receiving its second Chilean performance in June 2015 by the Orquesta Sinfonica de Concepción conducted by Dutch conductor/pianist Jan Schultsz at the Teatro Universidad de Concepción in Concepción (Chile’s second largest city).
I am also about to start on two composition projects commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC: a Sonata for Flute Ensemble (including alto, bass, contrabass and subcontrabass flutes featuring ‘low flutes’ specialist and director of Monash University Flute Ensemble Peter Sheridan) and a new work for clarinet, violin and pianoforte for extraordinary Melbourne group Plexus (Monica Curro – violin, Philip Arkinstall – clarinet and Stefan Cassomenos – pianoforte).
In June-July I will also be travelling to Paris, Budapest, Split and Bari with the focus being a lecture conducted on my piano compositions at the 6th World Piano Conference (WPC) in Novi Sad, Serbia.”
Interview with Andrián Pertout
by Christopher Ellis
The next concert to be given by Victoria Chorale with Orchestra 21 on 18th April at Deakin Edge, “Music in War and Peace”, will include the world premiere performance of a specially commissioned work for Choir (SATB) and String Orchestra entitled Angustam Amice by contemporary composer Andrián Pertout. This interview with Andrián gives some background.