Catherine Peake talks to Margaret Brandman about her music
For Australian composer, performer, and educator Margaret Brandman, 2021 has been a year of noteworthy events, not the least being her recent 70th birthday. But there have also been musical highlights; performances, awards, new compositions, and travel – via Zoom at least, if not via an actual plane.
Earlier this year Brandman was the recipient of the Best Foreign Composition award for her symphonic tone poem Spirit Visions, conferred by the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival in Los Angeles. Brandman says that she first composed the piece for two pianos which she later orchestrated.
Based on an expansive theme that came to Brandman as she was improvising on the Sydney Town Hall pipe organ, Spirit Visions interprets the sounds of the organ with its changing stops that inspired both the melodic content and orchestration. With the Covid restrictions meaning she could not be there in person, Brandman engaged with the recording of Spirit Visions by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra using technology, overseeing the recording remotely. The subsequent June release of Spirit Visions on the CD Polarities Vol. 2 is a testament to overcoming the restrictions of Covid. (See Paul Cooke’s Polarities Vol. 2 review in the current edition of Fine Music Magazine).
In discussing Spirit Visions, Brandman says, “The exciting, syncopated dance-like rhythms played by the marimba create an irresistible urge to dance – at times you may think you are visiting Mexico or Cuba!” She comments that while influenced by many styles she has a particular feel for Latin-American music.
The Latin American influence is an integral part of others of her pieces, such as Warm Winds in Havana written for saxophone quartet. Brandman is also currently working on a suite of eight Latin-American works, commissioned by Australian violinist Vov Dylan for his ensemble, the Quintet from the Palace Orchestra. The suite will be part of a stage production incorporating music and dance, with her music ‘weaving a storyline through the work’.
In another highlight this year, Brandman was the recipient of the 2020/2021 Prestige NSW Business award, Music Educator of the Year. As a music educator and piano teacher, she has developed her own method of teaching and has produced a series of music education resources. In a drawing together of her work as composer and educator, several of her compositions have been chosen for the AMEB syllabus, including Minnamurra Rainforest Dreaming, Spider on the Mirror, and Jucaro Rumba.
When talking about her music more broadly, Brandman expands on the composition process: “I find the challenge when composing any work is to get a balance between the unity of thematic material and the introduction of enough variety for interest. Writing music is a puzzle at the best of times, and I take ideas and I interweave them, while striving to create a structure so that the music feels like it’s taking you on a spiritual journey and bringing you safely home again.” Focusing on the aspect of her music that connects with experience, Brandman adds: “I very much enjoy the exhilaration in the process of sculpting sound, and I’m inspired by lyrics, landscape, love, and life experiences both dramatic and uplifting.”
The piece Firestorm Symphony from her CD Sensations shows how Brandman illustrates life experience through music, taking as her starting point the bushfire she experienced in the Blue Mountains in 1994. The first movement sets the scene with a depiction of the searing heat, the birdcalls, the fire moving in; the second movement with its introductory three bells reflects a facet of later bushfires in Victoria, an echo of a memorial for those lost in the fires, a depiction of devastation and loss; the third and final movement celebrates the regeneration that comes after bushfires, with life and energy returning. The entire work illustrates a life experience in total, as well as being a depiction of landscape through music.
Brandman has regularly performed and recorded her music in Australia and internationally, and in addition to numerous orchestral, chamber, solo and instrumental works, her compositions for voice have been received with acclaim. Baritone Martin Cooke, who has premiered many of her vocal works, says: “Margaret’s compositions for singers display an innate understanding of the attributes of the human voice that are necessary in the art of singing: the use of language, breathing technique, tessitura and legato phrasing.”
For the remainder of 2021, Brandman plans to be as busy as ever. She says, “I predict a [continuing] lively year of composing, recording, and performing new works.”