Today is Australia Day, so i’m marking the occasion with an orchestral work by one of the country’s most well-known composers, Brett Dean. Fire Music was composed in 2011 as a response to the disastrous ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires that spread across Victoria in February 2009. At least, that was the starting point, involving discussions with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, though the piece swiftly took on its own internal logic and narrative not so much irrespective of but in parallel with its emotive point of inspiration. In this respect, it’s interesting to note that, in addition to being a regular orchestral commission (by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), Fire Music was also commissioned by Australian Ballet for a choreography by Graeme Murphy titled Narrative of Nothing. Nonetheless, Dean has stressed the personal connection to the 2009 tragedy that certain aspects of the work hold for him, stating that some of the work’s material includes “specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about halfway through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009”. Dean has augmented the orchestra with three satellite groups that surround the audience: two trios (flute, trumpet and percussion) on each side and a string quartet behind.
In practice, the real life events that sparked Dean’s imagination do not force themselves in any meaningful sense on the listener. Having said that, as in all Dean’s music there’s an unavoidable, in this case imposing, dramatic sensibility at play throughout. It begins from nothing: low, rumbling vagueness that surges and ebbs, with only the barest hint of timbre, let alone pitch. While a thunder sheet sounds from somewhere distant, woodwind trills emerge, becoming a catalytic device that draws in more instruments and ends up turning aggressive. Four minutes in, and only now does the orchestra sound as though it’s occupying the foreground, with fanfaric brass material decorated by the winds and punctuated with timpani and a glockenspiel. Dean keeps things textural though; when the strings finally get involved, they’re obsessed with a scurrying idea more than anything else. But it does bring about a meaningful sense of clarity, holding the orchestra together in a collective pulse that, despite after a time starting to feel a little superficial, is irresistibly exhilarating. This all has to lead somewhere, but it’s something of a surprise, not to a conventional full-blown climax but instead to the most momentary high point before immediately becoming more sparse, its impetus stubbornly continuing while it simultaneously clatters and fizzles out.
A strange, lyrical interlude—initially lilting but swiftly turning black and brooding—as if from afar off, ushers in the work’s epicentre: a lovely episode featuring electric guitar which acts as a focal point, even a mouthpiece, for the players as a whole. Its notes are continued and beautified (chiefly by the satellite flutes and sustained string chords) and briefly placed at the centre of rich muscular movement from the orchestra before it recedes to be replaced by the flutes in the spotlight. Fire Music is at its most spare in what follows, bursts of intense, introspective counterpoint that become complex before themselves dissolving essentially to nothing. These are brave compositional manoeuvres by Dean, arriving at the work’s mid-point with its impressive earlier momentum now all but dissipated. Yet something new is brewing, stirring, taking hold: the string chords return and an iambic rhythmic cell starts up, prevented from sounding gentle by Dean’s slightly edgy harmonies. The rhythm grows, swells, overwhelms, explodes in a lengthy, semi-chaotic climax that has a whiff of tribal ritualism to it, before, once again, the music peters out through descending woodwinds, back to the quiet nebulosity with which it all began.
This could have been an ending, but Fire Music begins anew. Via handbells and a wind machine, that iambic cell reignites a bullish, swaggering demeanour in the orchestra that becomes increasingly reinforced—the strings scurrying notes now sounding like rapid-fire stings or slashes, as though they were all downbows—and accented by brass and percussion, leading to a wild orchestral dance. The music’s ebullience splinters into rapid, mellifluous woodwind lines, over which the brass loom, becoming dominant and disruptive, culminating in a sequence for trumpets and snare drum that triggers the work’s final tutti climax, hugely dense but where all parts of the orchestra feel both present and audible, yet specific details are hard to discern. As with Fire Music‘s first climax, no sooner has it reached its zenith than everything starts to fall apart, collapsing to a quiet tremolando coloured with wind and string figurations before closing in curious granular noise.
There’s something decidedly symphonic about the way Dean’s musical argument gradually unwinds, with ideas recurring in new guises or working towards differing ends, and exploring a vast dramatic and instrumental range. Furthermore, whether you approach it from a purely abstract or extra-musically charged angle, the title holds true: notions of fire, both real and figurative, permeate every aspect of the the work. Vivid, shocking, beautiful, unpredictable and above all seemingly difficult to contain, Fire Music is hugely involving, conveying a palpable, searing narrative. Premièred in Sweden in late 2011, the UK première was given in March 2012 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson during the Barbican’s Brett Dean Total Immersion day.
Fire Music was written in response to the disastrous “Black Saturday” bushfires of 2009. As part of my background reading while writing the piece, I studied the uses and restorative power of fire in Australian and other indigenous traditions. Fire was (and still is) used in Australia not only for land management purposes (controlled burning), and as an agricultural technique (fire-stick farming) but also as a significant part of indigenous ceremonial and cultural life, such as in Aboriginal smoking ceremonies.
Whilst the 2009 fires obviously had utterly disastrous consequences, fire can also cleanse and replenish; these thoughts, as well as its use in ritual, informed aspects of my Fire Music, especially in the slow middle section. The material which developed even included specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about half way through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009.
As the composition progressed I moved beyond the original trajectory of the fire itself and the piece started to follow its own internal, music-based logic. Nevertheless, the character of the force of destruction and ultimately rebirth that comes from such a fire remained the energetic source of material. It’s not an uncommon working process for me; strong extra-musical ideas, after providing an initial stimulus, then recede into the background as the piece evolves in purely musical terms. The remnants of original ‘programmatic’ ideas become a point of reference only.
From the onset, I knew that Fire Music would also be choreographed. I was approached almost simultaneously by both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for a new orchestral work (co-commissioned by the BBCSO) and the Australian Ballet for a new score for Australian master-choreographer Graeme Murphy as part of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2012. It was my suggestion to combine these two projects into one.
In first discussions with Graeme, he stressed to me that he wasn’t planning a narrative ballet and didn’t want its dance use to influence how the work might unfold. This was liberating as choreographers often come to composers with very specific ideas of subject matter and even timings. The accompanying thought that the music I was writing was destined to determine the unfolding of a new ballet and its language of movement helped shape and inform Fire Music’s energy flow and dramaturgical nature.
The orchestration affects the entire space of the hall: in addition to the orchestra on the podium, there are three satellite groups of musicians placed around the hall, in order to let the audience be swept into the soundscape of Fire Music.