20 October 2014

Following the Dean string quartet III

The Artistic Director’s Office
5 August 2014

The third in a series of interviews with Paul Dean.
First published in Flinders Quartet: October update 2014

Paul played me an electronic version of the first three movements of the quartet. I found it, especially the third movement, emotionally very powerful. I wondered how much my response depended on knowing ‘the back story’. But he wanted to talk first about his place in history as a composer.


When Mozart finished his quintet for piano and winds he wrote to his father, “This is the greatest piece I’ve ever written”. Beethoven knew that but still wrote his own piano quintet about eight years later.

Paul had talked to Andy Ford and other composers about being weighed down by monsters like Mozart sitting on your back when you are writing. Their view? It is essential to take “a bit of a Beethoven response”. ‘He just went and wrote it.’ Paul said. ‘There was no sense of “Oh god! I can’t compete”’.

‘Rather than just try to ignore the past I took the scores and CDs of Bartok second, Ligeti first and Janacek second quartet to Apollo Bay. I got a lot more out of just looking at them than listening, particularly the Bartok second. Miraculous! How did he get that sound? How did he transition from that to that? That was a really big turning point for me.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzsWlJwjrHQ

Paul knew Richard Pollett as a brilliant violinist very well – he was a student at ANAM – and he is a close friend of Richard’s parents. Did the tragedy that is the impetus for this new string quartet overwhelm its writing? Paul is very clear that he has dedicated the piece, not in homage to Richard, but to Patricia and Phil. in Richard’s memory.

That created the biggest problem: the nature of the quartet’s sound world. Originally, Paul’s ‘corny first thoughts’ involved dialogue between violin and viola because he regards Patricia as one of our great viola players. But the music didn’t come out that way. ‘I just let the music go where I thought it was going,’ he said, ‘and that got me into troubles because I went off on tangents that didn’t work (laughs) and didn’t have logical consequences.’

Paul Dean

‘I have tried to make the start of the first and third movements beautiful,’ he said,’ but beautiful in my language rather than in the sense of a lush G major or G minor chord and a luscious tune. I wanted to write an expansive work with expansive sections and that’s been the challenge. I’ve tried to use my language and that’s one of the complicating things.’

‘The second movement will be just totally ferocious’, he said, ‘and I’ve given Shane*’s nimble fingers lots of work. The fourth movement will be fast and frenetic but a different sound world to the second movement. I wrote a chorale for the last movement but I’ve ended up using it in the third movement. Maybe the last movement will be a violin solo to finish the piece; the violin playing with a practice mute so it will have the feeling of being the sub-voice to the others.’

‘It’s just my quartet and it may only have one week of performances or it might be the piece that is my breakthrough. If it’s good it will have a life. If it’s not, it will sit in the Australian Music Centre Library.’

*Shane Chen, violin Flinders Quartet

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