‘Revealing layers of profound and human emotion’—interview with Christopher Bowen, composer and conductor

On the eve of the premiere of ‘An Australian War Requiem’, composer and conductor Christopher Bowen kindly shares his thoughts on the significance of this work to him.

What was the initial spark for you to undertake this project?
It occurred after the premiere of my Liberdade Requiem in 2000 which was dedicated to the East Timorese who had given their lives in their struggle for independence.

I was astonished to realise that there was the complete absence of a major work dedicated to those who had sacrificed so much for our own nation—so my thoughts turned to writing a work commemorating the centenaries of the World War 1 in 2014 and the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.

Christopher Bowen OAM

Christopher Bowen OAM

What has been the most poignant aspect for you of working on the Requiem?
To be honest, the process has given me a rare and privileged opportunity to get inside the minds and feelings of the soldiers whose words appear in the Requiem and to realise that what appears to be mundane on the surface can reveal many layers of profound and human emotions on closer inspection.

What are you hoping An Australian War Requiem achieves?
I am hoping that people will walk away from the performance with the desire to find an answer as to why our world has to be continually forged and shaped by the brutality and selfish desire of the powerful and ambitious, and to realise that bigotry , prejudice and self-righteousness lead us continually along the path to destruction and misery.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on 10 August?
The actual experience of performing the work and sharing it with the performers and audience.

From where did you draw inspiration for the sound (the musical texture) of the Requiem?
The musical textures of the Requiem are varied.

The music sung by Atatürk is definitely tinged with music from the Islamic world which I have always found incredibly beautiful. There are many other elements in the work as well with the deliberate intention to explore the tensions created by opposites. For example: harmonic consonance and dissonance; lyricism and angularity of melody and not forgetting the interplay of regular and irregular rhythmic patterns.

Certain intervals play an important part in the music’s language and I love using hexachords.

Do you have a personal connection to the Great War?
I have never really felt the urge or desire to explore that part of my ancestry so I really don’t know. But I do remember talking to some wonderful old men who had fought in the war—understandably they really didn’t go into the details, but they were adamant that war was not a ‘thing to recommend’.

After the premiere, what then? Are you hoping the AWR will be performed widely by the SUGC and other choirs over the next 4 years?
It would be wonderful to have the work performed again both here and overseas in an effort to bring an ‘Australian’ perspective to the various commemorations.

This is the culmination of a number of years’ hard work for you. What have you learnt from the experience?
I have learnt that humanity is diminished by such pig-headed devotion to our supposed cultural, religious and political differences. Until we understand the futility and pointlessness of absolute power then unfortunately we will continue to experience such events as the ‘war to end all wars’ and creative artists such as myself, will have to find new ways of telling the same story, over and over again.

What is on the horizon for you, post-premiere?
I want to write a piece of music-theatre based on an extraordinary true story which occurred in Sydney in the 19th century. Obviously I don’t want to divulge anything about this project at the moment but it really is ‘special’. Many Australians don’t realise what an incredible history we can share with one another and the world—a history which stretches beyond 60,000 years.

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