Double bassist Benjamin Saffir is in his third year of training at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM). In the first of seven ‘Soundbites’, Benjamin, along with an impressive collective of hand-picked musicians, will be presenting Beethoven’s Septet and David Bruce’s Steampunk in a delightful afternoon performance in the Rosina Auditorium.
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1. You have been playing classical music since you were five years old. What do you love most about it?
To me, what classical music offers us in a way that remains unique is drama and gravitas. Think about why some of the most epic film and TV franchises of our lifetimes, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings still choose to use classical scores of all the music genres available to them? I think the answer is because classical music conveys a world in which everything is both heightened and complex, and that everything you hear is signaling something deeply important.
2. Who, would you say, is your biggest musical inspiration?
I suppose it’s a cliche at this point to say J.S. Bach, but I’ll give some reasons that are less commonly talked about!
Firstly, the man wrote on schedule for a quarter-century. He was expected to write a new cantata every week for the two Lutheran churches he worked for, and then rehearse and perform them every Sunday morning! All while having 20 children in his household, half of whom had died before adulthood.
While we can’t ever really know what it was like for him, you have to infer by the speed and volume, that he didn’t concern himself with ‘changing the world’ with every note put to page. Let that be an unsentimental lesson to all the ‘writer’s block’ afflicted creatives out there!
3. How did you go about creating this program, and how does this repertoire reflect your artistic process?
One of my central goals whilst training in ANAM is to introduce audiences to music featuring the double bass that they may have never heard of before. I think that stems from my dissatisfaction with the accepted double bass canon, particularly in solo music, and my conviction that there is music that deserves a bigger place in that canon. In this program, I think a combination of a well-known piece and one that is more novel is fitting, it gives the audience the reassurance of a composer they trust with the promise of something new they won’t know how to feel about in advance.
4. On Tuesday 12 April you will be performing a mixture of classic and contemporary pieces, including Beethoven’s Septet and a David Bruce’s Steampunk. Why did you choose these particular pieces, and what story do you wish to convey?
Beethoven’s Septet is a classic mainstay of the chamber music repertoire that I’ve wanted the chance to play for a long time. It’s surprising to think nowadays that it was the most popular and financially successful work of his lifetime. It’s an early work, written before any of his symphonies and before he first learned of his oncoming deafness. Because of that, the piece is more firmly rooted in the classical style that Beethoven would later challenge and then shatter, taking the structure and air of a Mozart Divertimento. But it’s also longer and more symphonic in scale than any divertimento ever written, and perhaps foreshadows the ambition this upstart composer had even at a young age.
I first heard Steampunk played at the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO) National Music Camp close to a decade ago and the unique compositional style of David Bruce made a strong impression on me. Originally inspired by viewing his friend’s collection of metal tinker-work, Bruce became interested in depicting a musical style to match the steampunk design subculture. I think the piece succeeds excellently at depicting a world that doesn’t entirely belong in the past or the present, but perhaps in a more mechanical, less electric alternate universe.
With this combined program, we have a piece that’s rooted in convention at the turn of the 19th century followed by a piece that looks towards an alternate future. Essentially we have a depiction of what Europe was as the 1800s began, and then what Europe could have been in an alternate universe after 1899. So I think there’s a poetic bookend to the concert, and I hope the wide gulf in style between these two pieces can get us to really understand how much changed in just a hundred years.
5. As the director of this program, you were also in charge of inviting fellow ANAM musicians to perform alongside you. Can you tell us more about the ensemble you put together for this concert, and how you all worked together?
One of the most incredible things about ANAM is the quality and dedication of every musician here. By dedication, I mean that everyone here loves music so much that their default preference is to accept invitations to play new programs, to take on new repertoire.
As I had attempted to put together a version of this program since 2020, I’ve tried when possible to keep people on board who had committed to playing last year. Where that has not been possible, I’ve asked other ANAM musicians to join, all of whom I’ve had experience working with in the past.
I’m really looking forward to working intensively with this group of musicians in April and I have a lot of confidence we’re going to be able to play something incredible!
Joining Benjamin will be:
- Alex Allan (oboe WA)
- Nadia Barrow (cello SA)
- Jack Cremer (bassoon NSW)
- Oliver Crofts (clarinet WA)
- Fiona Qiu (violin QLD)
- Nicola Robinson (horn QLD)
- Ben Tao (viola NSW)
Soundbite: Benjamin Saffir (double bass)
Tuesday 12 April 2022