Into The Collective Memory: Interview with Dirk Brossé

Dirk Brossé (Photo © Luk Monsaert)

Esteemed conductor and composer talks the music of John Williams and his own personal collaboration and friendship with him over the years

By Maurizio Caschetto

Dirk Brossé is a multi-faceted composer and a respected conductor on the international music scene. He is currently Music Director of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and Music Director of the prestigious World Soundtrack Academy at the Ghent Film Festival in Belgium.

Maestro Brossé guest-conducted many top orchestras around the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s also a versatile and prolific composer, whose works include many pieces for the concert hall and also for film, tv and stage theater, including the Emmy Award-nominated score for the acclaimed BBC/HBO mini-series Parade’s End (2012).

Maestro Brossé has always been an enthusiastic champion of the film-music repertoire in concert. In 2009, he was hand-picked by John Williams to conduct Star Wars In Concert, a world tour that encompassed more than 100 cities around the globe featuring selections from the iconic scores of the Star Wars films accompanied by film clips with scenes from all then-six films. From that moment onwards, Dirk became one of John Williams’ most trusted collaborators when it comes to present his music in concert, both for standard symphonic programs and live-to-film presentations. Brossé championed the music of John Williams also in his tenure as music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, where he presented rarely performed pieces such as the “Essay for Strings” from 1965.

In October 2018, Maestro Brossé substitued an ailing John Williams at the last minute to conduct the much-anticipated concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the LSO. In that circumstance, he showed all his love and respect for the music of Maestro Williams in a performance filled with joy and elation.

Brossé also toured many cities around Europe to conduct several John Williams’ live-to-film concerts such as Jaws, Home Alone and the Star Wars series. Last week, he stopped by in Milano, Italy, where he conducted the 21st Century Orchestra for the Italian premiere of Star Wars: A New Hope – In Concert at the Teatro degli Arcimboldi. He gladly accepted to talk with me about the music of John Williams, his relationship and friendship with him and what he thinks about his legacy.

Dirk Brossé conducting (Photo © Luk Monsaert)

Your history conducting the music of John Williams in live concerts is quite long now. So can you tell me what was the first time you ended up working for John to conduct his music?

I think it was in the mid-1980s, when the first cues of his music were available to perform through his publisher Hal Leonard. Before that period, it was virtually impossibile to get hold of the scores and also there was no tradition [of performing film-music in concert] yet. But I remember starting to conduct some of his music in the late 1980s at the film festival in Ghent (Belgium) where I am music director. There were several pieces that were still from the handwritten scores, as they weren’t published yet. We had to hire the material from the film studio libraries. We performed Indiana Jones, Star Wars and other famous pieces, it was a concert with the Belgian Radio Orchestra. Forward to a few years later, the first big John Williams concert I did was in 2008 at the Ghent Film Festival, an entire tribute evening to [his] music. That [concert] was already a mixture of published pieces by Hal Leonard and handwritten scores. I had met John a couple of times in Los Angeles during the ASCAP Award galas, but it was just handshaking and saying hello. The very first collaboration came when he asked me to do the Star Wars In Concert world tour. It’s a very interesting story because this show was produced by three American producers from Los Angeles. Apparently there was already a conductor working on the project, but this person – I don’t know who he was – had problems to get the music in sync with the film clips. So he invited me to Los Angeles to be basically the representative of him in those 180 concerts around the world. I went to the 20th Century Fox recording stage in Los Angeles and John Williams was there, George Lucas too and also various producers and lots of other people. They asked me if I could take over and everything was ready to be performed with click-track. So the first thing I said to the orchestra was “Ok, we’re not using clicks, we’ll get rid of that. I will do it just visually and from the heart”. We started playing and everything was perfect. After we did a few cues, John came to me and said “Fantastic, you got the job!”. But I didn’t know what the job was! I thought it would be just one concert, but apparently it was a whole world tour. So, that was my first collaboration with him and I had several since then. Now I think it’s 11 years since we started. I did the European premiere of a couple of film concerts like Home Alone and also a couple of other films with orchestra in London, Liverpool and mainland Europe. And then, of course, the concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the LSO last October. He got ill at the last minute and had to be recovered in a hospital in London, so he asked me to take over and conduct in his place. This is, in a nutshell, the story of our collaboration.

In your approach to the music, what is the main difference between conducting a concert of film-music repertorie without any visual aid and a live-to-picture presentation type of concert like Star Wars?

The power of John Williams’ music, first of all, is that he writes music that serves the film. But when you take the music away from the film and listen to it just as concert music, it’s still strong and powerful enough to survive, especially the themes. This is the great thing about his music. He has his own language, his signature style, he’s really great at that. One of the secrets of his music is that he’s referring to the collective memory and he does it with his own language, especially his own orchestrations. You can immediately tell the colour and see the power of his music. This is very unique in the history of film-music. A lot of it does not survive when you play it on a concert platfrom without the picture. But the music of John Williams is really concert music.

Yes, there is the same amount of dexterity and complexity we usually find in the great symphonic music of the great masters. I always thought the music of John Williams is a kind of mixture of a true American spirit and a great knowledge and respect of the European romantic tradition.

Yes, absolutely. American music is still something new. For me, the godfather of American symphonic music is Aaron Copland, without any doubt. Of course there is also George Gershwin, who had a lot of influence on a lot of composers. But I think the founding father of American classical music is Aaron Copland. Also, don’t underestimate George Antheil, a composer who worked in the early 20th century. Then we have a direct line to Leonard Bernstein, who was a great catalyst. And then we have the areas of new music, like minimalism, with Philip Glass, Steve Reich and others. And finally there is film-music, which is a huge flagship of American music culture. But I think the music of John Williams is closer to the European composers than the American composers. When I listen to the orchestration, the harmonization, to the musical language, he is probably the foremost “European American” composer. More than Bernstein, for example, who was more American, more of the Aaron Copland school than John Williams.

It’s interesting that you mentioned Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. I always thought that there is a kind of direct line that connects the work of Copland, Bernstein and John Williams. In my personal opinion, Appalachian Spring, West Side Story and Star Wars are probably three of the greatest symphonic works of American music of the 20th century.

It’s true, yes, absolutely true. Well, there’s also Gershwin—Rhapsody in Blue, American in Paris and the Piano Concerto in F could fit in too. It’s interesting to note the connection with European classical music in Star Wars, especially to Gustav Holst, but this has to do with the technique of the temp-track. As you know, a lot of films are temp-tracked with existing music, which in the case of Star Wars was The Planets by Holst and other pieces. But this is absolutely okay. This is the advantage of knowing a little bit about music history, but if you listen to West Side Story and then immediately after you listen to Copland’s Rodeo, or Billy The Kid, or the Piano Concerto by George Antheil—which work was written first? There is so much influence. I think it’s a little bit of the same thing with John Williams. If you listen to Haydn you hear Mozart, if you listen to Schubert you hear Beethoven and if you listen to Brahms you hear Schubert. It’s natural that people are influenced by each other. The art is what you do with it.

Dirk Brossé conducting “A Celebration of John Williams” at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday October 26th, 2018 (Photo by Christie Goodwin, courtesy of Royal Albert Hall)

Star Wars is considered one of the best film scores of all-time. Now that you studied the full score and conducted it in concert, is there something you discovered when studying the full score of these films? It’s music so famous, but a lot of people are aware only of the most famous themes and pieces.

A few things. First of all, the reason why I do these projects (and the reason why these projects are so successful) is because you hear the live orchestra, which is already something unique. But it’s also because you can hear the hidden parts of the score. Usually, once the music is put in the film, then a lot of it disappears because of the mixing and the sound effects. It’s there, but it’s in the background. Now the advantage is that every note comes upfront. There are a lot of hidden treasures that we could never hear because of those reasons, and this is fantastic. So, what I discovered is the great craftsmanship that goes in all the details. It’s not wallpaper. In every second, there is inspiration, there’s something going on—a nice melody, a beautiful orchestration, a nice chord or transition, an interesting superimposition of two different themes, or noticing a theme in the background or a theme that is streched out and exposed in a very different way. The other thing is that the moments when you really hear the main themes are very short actually. A lot of times in John Williams’ scores all the big tunes that we know are usually heard in their full version during the opening credits and the end credits, but actually you don’t hear them so much in the film.

Yes, he has a very clever way of writing themes. He usually uses just a few notes so that you can recognize the tune, it functions as a trigger for the audience. He knows he doesn’t have the full attention of the audience, so he has to find a way to grab the attention through a short motif, like Superman, or Star Wars. He spoke several times how the work to craft the actual tune is the most difficult for him.

Yes, absolutely. Another great thing that people tend not to talk about is the psychology and the knowledge to decide where to put the music. This is also fantastic, because writing is one thing, but putting the right music in the right place is another artform that he’s very great at. Being able to capture the story and the soul of the film in one single theme is amazing—just look at very different films like Minority Report, or Schindler’s List, or Home Alone and listen to the themes. I mean, there are only a few melodists in the world of classical music who could do the same: Mozart could do it, Beethoven could do it, some other composers could do it… to capture a theme in a few notes.

Do you think presenting film-music in this format live-to-film is the best way to present film music to an audience?

For an audience who normally never listen to soundtracks, or to orchestral music, yes, this is a great thing. By doing these shows, we reach out to people who normally wouldn’t go to an orchestral concert. So, this is absolutely great. Another new thing that is going on now, as we speak, is that composers who usually write for film are now starting to write more for the concert hall. It’s a sort of a new wave. John Williams already did that a lot. Besides his activity as a film composer, he has a lot of orchestral music in his repertoire, like concertos for violin, for viola, for harp, for tuba and so on. And they’re absolutely amazing.

John Williams and Dirk Brossé at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (2010)

You also have a personal friendship with Mr. Williams. Does he give you any insight about his music when you’re preparing a concert?

No, it’s a relationship built on trust. He knows I’m a conductor and that I know his music inside out. He’s also aware I’m a composer, so it’s all about trust. If we have conversation, we’d rather speak about other composers’ works than his own music. He’s really very, very modest. I remember the very first time I met him on the Star Wars tour, I said to him “John, it’s so nice to meet you, I realize now I’m in front of the god of film music!”. He looked at me and said, “Maybe… maybe film music, but the real great masters are truly others”. For me that was the perfect way to get into his head and realize that he knows very well who he is and who the others are.

I think this modesty and humbleness is one of the specific traits of his character and one of his own main qualities. It seems that it truly informs also his approach to music. What do you think his legacy will be for future generations and what will be his place in music history?

His music will survive, definitely. His tunes are deep into the collective memory of this generation, so it’s already part of music history. He will always be associated with film music and with great themes. I’m sure his name, his themes and his music will survive forever, like Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Johann Strauss. I don’t compare the music of course, but I compare him as an exponent of his time. At the time of Johann Strauss, for example, they were writing popular music, like operettas and waltzes. This has disappeared now, but John Williams will survive as the master of film music, just like Andrew Lloyd Webber will survive as the master of the musical, or Strauss will forever be associated with Viennese operettas and waltzes. In that sense, John Williams’ music is already part of music history. The most powerful thing you can achieve as an artist and as a composer is that your art is part of the collective memory. If you paint the Mona Lisa and everybody recognize it, I mean, it’s the greatest achievement. And it’s the same thing with John Williams. Everybody knows all the tunes and we’ll hand them over to the next generation, and then the generation after that, and so on. Children are still discovering the music of Star Wars, there is always a new audience hearing those tunes for the very first time.

There is another interesting thing happening now, as composers of concert hall music are writing pieces clearly influenced by film-music and also to John Williams’ music, while instead music for big Hollywood films is going in a very different direction.

Evolution is what it is. We know that 99% of composers writing for films are copying mostly one composer, or a couple of composers. Everything sounds like the same, there is no melody, no rhythms, it’s mostly atmosphere. You cannot recognize the music, or remember it. I miss the identity, the signature. Everybody is copying one or two composers. But I’m not judging. It is what it is. I think it’s a pendulum. I’m sure one day it will be back to melody. At the moment, melody is banned.

Linking to this and to cap off our conversation, I’d like to touch briefly on your activity as a composer, as you also wrote several scores for film and television. To my ears, you’re certainly closer to the generation of composers who write a clear melody like John Williams, at least in terms of approach.

Absolutely, I’m a child of my time. One of the composers who inspired to become a professional musician is indeed John Williams. Composers like him and Leonard Bernstein are my great role models, they brought me to the music. I grew up playing  trumpet. Playing this instrument means that if you play in a band, or in a chamber music group, or in an orchestra, very often you’re carrying the melody. The trumpet is not an accompanying instrument. You’re playing either the powerful brass moments or the melody. This is why I’m influenced by my instrument when I compose, an instrument I played so many years ago and I still play now. I’m a melodist and I’m not ashamed about it. I want to write melodies that please myself in the first place, I want to write music that I love. If I don’t love what I do, then why other people should love it? As a composer and as an artist in general, you have to be honest with yourself. You cannot lie. Some composers live their entire lives in a lie, because they do what society thinks they should do. A lot of composers do that. Schoenberg was one of the greatest composers of his generation. Of course we know him for the dodecaphonic music and the twelve-tone system in which he wrote many great masterpieces. But at the end of his life, he went back to tonal music. For me, it’s a great example. Just observe and think about it. More composers who during their lifetimes were experimenting and then, at the end of their careers, they went back to something different.

Yes, music is like a fountain from which we can take something nurturing for the soul in our whole lifetime. Thank you for your time, Dirk. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

You’re very welcome, we’ll speak again soon!

Dirk Brossé (Photo © Luk Monsaert)

A very special thanks to Alice Atkinson (Air-Edel Associates) for the help and support in setting up the interview; thanks also to Tim Burden for the friendship and support. And many thanks to Maestro Dirk Brossé for his kindness and friendliness.

Dirk Brosse Official Website

World Soundtrack Academy

Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia

Dirk Brossé on iTunesé/76029119