Portrait

Watching and listening to the artistic director of the Australian Brandenberg Orchestra, Paul Dyer. By Sarah Price.

Australian Brandenberg Orchestra’s Paul Dyer

When he tries to draw out sounds Paul Dyer gets physical. He jerks his hands, flicking and pointing the baton with sharp precision. He sweeps his arms in arcs and steps with graceful ease to the left, to the right. He bobs and weaves. Splays his fingers. Lunges fast towards the orchestra until it surges with him. He smiles at the musicians and opens his arms, as if in communion or prayer.

Dyer likes to think of himself as the middleman, the channel for energy and sound between composer, musician and audience. “Energy with people is a wonderful basis for living, for being human,” he says. “There is this lovely idea of flow. When you’re working with a team it’s the energy of the person who is giving over or directing that makes the difference. If that person doesn’t have energy, the whole thing will sink.”

When he started the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in 1989 with co-founder Bruce Applebaum, Dyer was 26. He utilised his contacts, he says. He was bold, passionate, and possessed his mother’s fearless courage. Early on he decided he would try to break down classical music and bring it into the 21st century. He did things his own way: conducted orchestras with more physicality, engaged with the audience, dressed in jackets other than tails. He encouraged female musicians to wear glamorous dresses. Now, his unique style of sculpting music is most obvious when he conducts a foreign symphony orchestra: the symphonies usually have a stern conductor, who looks critically at the musicians. “It is about power – it is all about them,” Dyer says. “I try to liberate the power back to the whole organism: me and the artists of the orchestra.”

At the Brandenburg headquarters in Sydney’s Mascot, the hallways are filled with oversized posters announcing tour dates and performances. Hanging on the wall opposite Dyer’s desk is a picture of Mozart as a child. He sits at the harpsichord, his eyes wide, staring directly at the viewer. Dyer saved up and bought the print at age 15. He says he looks at it all the time. When he is interpreting music, he goes back to the original manuscript as much as possible. The script is beautiful, like calligraphy, he says, and most modern musicians can’t read it. A monk would have scribed it by hand. Written around the edges are notes from the composer. “What happens over 300 years is that layers and layers of people’s own junk goes on top of it,” he says. “Some editor will say: ‘That should be loud, or he meant that, or he should have done that’, and so they put technical specs – like an engineering plan – over the piece. That’s why I always go back to the source, and I think, ‘Okay, Mozart, who were you? You wrote this when you were eight years old… What a genius! What were you thinking?’ I immerse myself in the time – and I always put a Brandenburg slant on the end of it. It’s an Australian flavour: an openness, vibrancy, space, a dynamic feeling. There’s a sense of liberation.”

Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Dyer didn’t do what an average kid did. He began learning an instrument at age four. Time outside school was spent in music and language lessons. Free time was family time. He first performed, alongside his parents and siblings, for homeless men at a shelter in Woolloomooloo. Dyer was six. “I developed my sense of communication through a special gift: my mother and father wanted to warmly and generously give themselves to people. When kids my age were off doing other things I was with my family: all five of us would get up on stage and play.” He learnt his craft in front of men who were in a crisis of alcoholism and homelessness, he says. He learnt how to communicate with people when no one was clapping.

“I like to engage with people and I like to get into the essence of music: why we hear sound and why we want sound. Communication through sound is something very special, almost like a spiritual gift,” he says. “Part of me has to be a machine – I have to give direction – I’m like a policeman. You have a score of what everyone is playing and you have to cue people, pace things. The focus is exhausting. There are moments you have to be technical, but I try to get past that so we can go deeper. Music makes me go into orbit … When you get lost in it, people feel that. You need to take the risk and get lost in it. I will change tempo at a moment’s notice. I will take things faster or slower depending on the mood I gauge. I can hold and suspend things by getting lost, and I can feel, or zone inside, the person or the music. When I feel the sound coming I can massage it and make it longer or shorter or faster or lower – just by my gesture. It’s very exciting. It is a wonderful position to be in.”

The orchestra is his mirror, he says. He uses his eyes to engage every musician and his instinct to understand the audience. You can feel it when you capture something. Sometimes you have a special communication with every single musician: when you look at them you can feel the energy in the room.

Since he started the Brandenburg Orchestra, Dyer says, he has been severely criticised for his style: conductors of classical music are expected to be less physically animated and emotional, more detached. But Dyer is a risk-taker. He wants to demystify the idea of classical music. There is freedom in feeling like he doesn’t have to be pure anymore, he says. He loves working with alternative genres. At home he listens only to pop, techno and talkback radio – and refuses to read his concert reviews.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Conduct becoming". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.