Indie-pop muso Christian O’Brien talks art music

His composition will be premiered by Plexus this week

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

You might’ve heard of Christian O’Brien from Melbourne indie-pop band ALPINE. But lesser-known are his experiences in the classical music world – and he’s showcasing this side to his musical identity with Plexus this week.

Christian’s work Newid Gywnntoedd will be one of three world premiere compositions taking place at the Melbourne Recital Centre in Prophecy. Ahead of the gig, Christian tells us how he navigates the best of both stylistic worlds.

And before you read on, you might like to check out where this composer is coming from, artistically, via the video below.

 

Tell us about yourself. You’re well known for your work in ALPINE, which of course is focused on contemporary music. But how long have you been interested in classical and art music?

My entry to classical and art music was through the guitar. From when I was about 10 years old, I would write little self-contained works for guitar and that led to a fascination with different combinations of sounds and eventually instruments. I never set out to write music that could fall into such a category – it’s always felt as though I was chasing after more of that initial fascination. Whether writing for ALPINE or composing for an ensemble, my approach is similar; I’m trying to find ideas, textures and rhythms that are interesting.

Why do you compose music that varies so wildly across such different styles?

I think if I were to write only for my band or try and only compose, I would go nuts. After making an ALPINE record or touring with ALPINE, it feels incredibly liberating to compose something new on my own. But I definitely need the balance of both the pop and art world.

It’s difficult to think of the music being in such different styles because it comes from a very similar place.

You’re trained in classical guitar – can we hear any classical influences in your indie/pop music?

Definitely. On the most recent ALPINE record Yuck, I wanted to incorporate a lot more nylon string guitar, mainly due to the strong Brazilian influence – at the time, I was obsessed with Milton Nascimento – but also the classical guitar is my preferred instrument. Some techniques and patterns I use would be very familiar to any classical guitar student; particularly some of the Villa-Lobos patterns I put on the record.

As an artist working across both worlds, how have you found the perception of contemporary popular music compared to contemporary classical music?

I think the stereotypes are a little off the mark in both worlds. There is a sophisticated audience for pop music particularly in Australia that are disposed [to] really complex musical ideas (James Blake, Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, Johnny Greenwood) that just happen to be wrapped up in a beat that makes you dance. And at the other end, there are more opportunities for groove, humour and sonic gratification in contemporary classical music than is immediately evident.

What’s your piece with Plexus all about?

[It’s called] Newid Gywnntoedd (Changing Winds). Over the last few years, I’ve given all of my works Welsh titles because there’s something very appealing about Welsh words and I’m wondering when I’ll stop doing this! I would like to set some Welsh folk text if I find a willing singer.

Newid Gywnntoedd is a set of four dances. The piece came about after I acquired the John Cage estate prepared piano samples. These amazing percussive sounds from Cage’s own instruments have these really beautiful dissonant overtones, so for each dance I used a collection of three or four of these samples and collected the prominent overtones as the pitch content for the other instruments of the ensemble.

How are initiatives like Plexus valuable for you as a composer?

I think what Plexus is doing is amazing and invaluable to the musical culture of Australia. They work their arses off – constantly tour engaging and relevant programs of groundbreaking stuff. Working with them has been a total career highlight.

What advice would you give to young composers who might want to branch out into different sound worlds, the way that you have?

I think audiences have a highly tuned radar for authenticity, and if you’re writing music that feels honest and you think it has a home in more than one arena, then you’re probably onto something cool.

Watch Christian’s composition premiered by Plexus in Prophecy at the Melbourne Recital Centre, 6pm November 13.

 


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