BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Brendan Colbert is fairly blunt about his entry into music.
“I was a good keyboard player – but not a terribly good pianist,” Brendan smiles.
A couple of decades on and Brendan is now a well established Australian composer, about to have his new work performed for the second time by the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble in this month’s concert Melbourne Made.
The gig will also feature new music by composers who call the city home, including Tim Dargaville, Caerwen Martin, Elliott Gyger and, of course, Brendan’s Like a Maelstrom commissioned by Arcko and recorded at its premiere last year.
Brendan avoided academia, turning away from the “sausage machine” that is university to learn music privately with a few teachers, after starting out in the ’70s playing prog-rock in pubs across Melbourne.
“The biggest teacher is learning by doing,” he says with proven authority and a history of compositional success. When I ask him about his stylistic influences, he reels off favourites from Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Beethoven and even some jazz – but perhaps it’s no surprise that he avoids casting direct labels on his work and says “stylistically, I think of it as just me”.
“It’s a personal piece for me, but when you’re writing it grows and develops from the notes on the page. I was not conscious of writing any part of it…in any given style other than what was coming out of my mind and my pen.”
The composer talks about how the piece is “emotionally raw”. It’s not driven by strong and conventional melodies or romantic themes we often associate with the personal, but instead rides on the wildness of anger.
“It’s dedicated to my late brother-in-law, who was close to our entire family and was a lovely guy. So there’s a lot of anger at his loss, but also the grief. It’s a very volatile mix and that’s pretty much where the emotional subtext of the piece came from.”
Even when composing a work close to the heart, Brendan found himself “developing the music for its own sake, rather than for the sake of the subtext”.
“[I had] a fairly boisterous starting point, then the piece became significantly more violent or aggressive than some of my other stuff, which is much more peace-loving.”
A few alterations to the music occurred in the rehearsal stages when Brendan sat in and watched Arcko’s musicians bring Like a Maelstrom to life.
“In initial rehearsals, I was enormously impressed by the hard work involved that everyone put in to make it sound so damn good,” he says.
He and Arcko, led by Timothy Phillips, first teamed up in 2011. Arcko had collaborated with Speak Percussion for a concert, the latter group performing a work by Brendan that stood out for Timothy.
“It went from there,” Brendan says. They’ve since performed his Floating in the Void and Shades of Futures Past while forming a relationship Brendan describes as “fantastic”.
“The work that Arcko and Timothy are doing around town is enormously beneficial. I’m enormously impressed by the vision that Tim has for what he wants to perform, and the way he’s managed to attract quality players who are willing to put in significant amounts of hard work to realise that ambition.
“Arcko is pursuing this artistic vision and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Anyone who is lucky enough to have something played by Arcko is going to be enormously satisfied.”
For Timothy himself, the feeling is mutual.
“There’s a history of orchestras or conductors being closely aligned with certain composers – and so it is between Arcko and Brendan,” Timothy says.
“He is a unique and highly original voice in the Australian compositional landscape, demanding and uncompromising in what he throws at the musicians. But the end product is so worth the effort and angst.
“We wanted to ensure Like a Maelstrom was able to be heard by as many people as possible, hence recording it, as well as acknowledging it as a serious addition (even with its unusual combinations of instruments) to the concerto repertoire for trumpet and piano.”
See the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble perform Brendan Colbert’s work at 7.30pm, March 19 in Carlton’s Church of All Nations. Tickets and details here.