Tuesday 19th February

Phoenix: Q&A with the Composer

To mark the very special occasion of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra returning to the central city and the restored Christchurch Town Hall, we commissioned a piece from Christchurch composer Christopher Cree Brown. In the lead up to the world premiere, we caught up with him and had a chat with him about Phoenix and composition. 


When the CSO first approached you for the commission, what were your first thoughts about it?

I felt very honoured and priviledged to be asked to write a work that would be the first piece the CSO would play in the rebuilt Auditorium at the Town Hall.  This is a significant moment in the rebuild of the city and a cause for both reflection and   celebration.


What was your inspiration for Phoenix and what was on your mind the most when you wrote it?

Gretchen La Roche suggested that the proposed work could be a ‘celebration of the new (rebuilt) performance space’.  That suggestion inspired me to incorporate recorded sounds of the Aeolian Harp.  Having worked with Aeolian Harps for the past three decades, it was a wonderful opportunity to marry these beautiful sounds with the orchestral colours. I envisioned the sound coming from high up in the auditorium.

I thought it best to write a piece that suggests the earthquakes and the rebuilt Auditorium, but only in a very oblique and abstract way. However, there major emotional upheavals within the music which could be intepreted as mirroring the major upheavals the 2010/11 earthquakes caused the city and it’s inhabitants.

At the same time, the piece is sufficiently abstract to be played at any other occasion.

The work is in three sections, the first and last being very active and dynamic - even violent. Nested within the first and last section is a quieter more reflective section, although it still embodies some veiled tension.


How did you choose the name?

The first musical concept I had for the work was a series of upward moving scalic passages.  Much of the work is based on this idea. At first, it wasn’t really associated with the phoenix rising until the piece was nearly finished. This seems to tie in with the idea that the Auditorium in the Town hall was being in a sense, resurrected.  Phoenix, then seemed the logical title. 

I think the piece and its title are finely balanced between being an abstract work and one that hints at the earthquakes and the subsequent rebuilding of the city. I didn’t want it to be a one on one mapping of the musical idea of the earthquakes.


How do you go about composing a piece for orchestra? What are the most challenging aspects of it?

For me, writing for orchestra is the most rewarding of all genres.  There are a myriad of colours (and combination of colours) one can choose from and there is a wide range of expressions from the power of a full orchestra to the delicate soft sounds of say, a solo glockenspiel played with cloth beaters.  I love juxtaposing high sounds with low sounds, high-pitched sounds with low-pitched sounds, loud with soft etc.  You can hear that juxtaposition near the beginning of the third part, about a minute in, where the piano, glockenspiel, and the marimba are all playing the scalic passages. Probably the biggest challenge I face is ensuring the balance is right.  Sometimes I go through and change a mezzo piano to a piano, or an forte to a mezzo forte, only to change it back again the next time I go through it. 

Another challenge is to ensure that the musical journey makes sense, not only in terms of the eloquence of the musical argument, but also in terms of the exploration and relevation of what I want to say in the piece.


Who are the composers you most admire and who inspires you in your work?

The music of Bach is always fresh and offers me something every time I listen to it, but I also think some New Zealand composers such as Lyell Creswell, Gillian Whitehead and Chris Gendall are wonderfully skilled and have something cogent to say about the life, place and times in which we live.


What made you decide to become a composer?

From a young age I always wanted to be a composer; but I wasn’t sure if I had the talent.  In the end, I plucked up enough courage to “followed my bliss” (as the American writer, Joseph Campbell penned), and I have been very fortunate to spend a large part of my life doing what I love.  I am also very fortunate to have had somee wonderful musicians play my work: there is nothing better in life than making music!