"Building a new musical culture together" - Dirk Brossé conducts The Great Escape

'Film Symphonic' is a new concept of the Belgian National Orchestra. Starting this season, two film music concerts will be played every year, a series curated by none other than conductors Dirk Brossé and Frank Strobel. These two experts in the genre present films you won't get to see elsewhere - and certainly not accompanied by a live symphonic orchestra. An interview with Dirk Brossé who will kick off this new concert series on 15 December at Bozar with the Hollywood classic The Great Escape.


Versatile composer and internationally respected conductor... Dirk Brossé needs no introduction in Belgium. A few highlights from his prolific career? His music directorship of The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, of Film Fest Gent and also of the 'Star Wars: In Concert World Tour'. As a guest conductor, he performed with all the major Belgian orchestras, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Shanghai, Camerata St Petersburg and the National Orchestras of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. As a composer, he has written such works as La Soledad de América Latina (written in collaboration with Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Artesia (a universal symphony for orchestra and ethnic instruments), the ethno-classical symphony The Birth of Music, the oratorio Juanelo, the song cycles Landuyt Cycle and La vida es un Sueño, the War Concerto for clarinet and orchestra, and the violin concertos Black, White & Between, Sophia and Echoes of Silent Voices. One of Dirk Brossé's latest achievements is the music for the Belgian nature film Onze Natuur.


Many conductors are eager to tackle Beethoven and Mahler symphonies. You placed an ode to Avici on the programme of the Belgian National Orchestra, recently led a recording session with Stromae (for his album Multitude) and are now curating a series of film music concerts...

Dirk Brossé: Right! Music culture is something that is in constant evolution. In Romanticism, people didn't dwell on the Baroque, so today we don't have to dwell on Romanticism either. And that's not just my opinion ... Did you know that only half of the concerts played by the New York Philharmonic are performances of classical repertoire? So much has changed in recent years!

And now the time has come to give film music a permanent place in the programming of the Belgian National Orchestra?

DB: I've been thinking about programming music for more than 40 years. In that time, not only has 40 years of additional repertoire been added, but the orchestral world has increasingly come to rely on three other pillars in addition to classical music. Performing film music is one of them, along with crossover projects (with the visual arts, animation, actors...) and concerts in which orchestras look over the wall at music by pop artists and then rework their work symphonically, for instance. The fact that an orchestra like the Belgian National Orchestra also sees it this way makes me very happy. Our common goal? To work out artistically responsible projects that appeal to a wide audience!

An attempt to get more audience?

DB: You could also call it 'proactively seeking social relevance'. The fact is that today we have to work harder and harder to find an audience for normal concert programming. In the European subsidised context, that might not necessarily be a problem right away, but in America, where culture depends entirely on the audience that shows up and the sponsors who want to invest in the concerts, that hits like a bomb. In my opinion, as an orchestra, on the one hand you have the responsibility to keep the great repertoire alive - you have to play Mahler and Beethoven - but at the same time it is advisable to build a new musical culture. Today, this can be done by further developing the three new pillars I mentioned earlier - film music, crossovers and collaborations with pop artists. Tomorrow we might add game music as an additional pillar, who knows.

Playing film music concerts is an art in itself ...

DB: Indeed! In terms of tempo, the real conductor is the film itself. Intonation, sound formation and interpretation are factors that remain free, but in terms of timing, we are all in a kind of prison. For film music, it is also very important that the orchestra can play to the conductor's beat. The sound must cannot be delayed.

How exactly does synchronising the film with live music work?

DB: There exist several techniques. A first way of working is with click track. In that case, the musicians and the conductor are given an earpiece through which they literally hear a click while playing. This click indicates the tempo very precisely. If you work with click track, however, you play rhythmically like a robot. This is sometimes desperately needed because in an older film like, say, Singin' in the Rain, a scene is the result of a lot of cutting and pasting. From about 10 to 20 shooting sessions, the best shots were selected, sometimes only a few seconds long. Since the tempo was never exactly the same during the different recording sessions, the tempo of the individual shots also varies slightly - a fraction faster, a fraction slower. And in a way that makes no musical sense. Synchronising something similar with live music can only be done with click track. A second technique is a screen in front of the conductor on which visual cues indicate the moments when music and film should coincide. Commonly used is a system of streamers: vertical lines in different colours that slide from left to right. These tell the conductor when a moment of coincidence is approaching. As an orchestra, you can breathe more within this system. You don't play like a robot, but work towards certain 'hit points'. A third way of working - the technique we will use for The Great Escape - is to look at a large clock on the screen in front of the conductor. The conductor's score indicates at how many seconds a particular point should coalesce. As a conductor, you look at the clock and try to hit the 'hit points'. Like the system with the screen, this system with the clock also gives orchestra and conductor a lot of freedom.

For film music concerts, relatively recent blockbusters like Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean are usually chosen. Why did you choose The Great Escape, a film from 1963?

DB: Frank Strobel, the orchestra and myself first looked at what was already on the market. And indeed, the big blockbusters are performed from time to time, usually as commercial productions. For the Belgian National Orchestra, it would not make sense to do the same. That's why we started to delve into a different kind of repertoire: films that may just not be 'main stream' but are nevertheless - especially musically - particularly interesting. Frank and I made a long list and presented it to the orchestra. From that, The Great Escape emerged as the first film. With music by none other than Elmer Bernstein!

Someone you know personally yourself?

DB: In my capacity as music director of Film Fest Gent, I have indeed met him a couple of times: both in Los Angeles and in Belgium. By the way, he is the man who composed the opening overture and the tune of the World Soundtrack Awards for Film Fest Gent in 1999. In his hotel room! Besides being a very amiable man, Elmer Bernstein is above all a super solid, good film music composer. One of the old school men that composed everything for acoustic instruments and took a lot of inspiration from classical music. In his music for the costume drama The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993), for instance, you can very clearly hear the influence of Brahms, someone Elmer Bernstein greatly admired.

How evident was it to get hold of the score for this film?

DB: We are working with a reconstructed version, because the original was lost. Elmer Bernstein's son Peter, among others, collaborated on this. The reconstruction was done on the basis of a recovered sketchbook and, of course, the soundtrack itself. Elmer Bernstein still belonged to the generation of composers who composed with the piano, on four staves and with all kinds of indications from which you can clearly tell which notes are meant for which instruments. So what you will hear is not the original score but a near perfect approximation of it.

You spoke earlier about Brahms' influence on the score of The Age of Innocence. Was Elmer Bernstein also inspired by specific classical music for The Great Escape?

DB: Taking inspiration from classical music is one thing, but an even more important element is the so-called 'temp track'. In anticipation of the final soundtrack newly composed by the film composer, films are often provided with existing music in the editing process. This gives the film director an impression of what works and what doesn't. That existing music - the 'temp track' - is then forwarded to the film composer with instructions to compose something similar. So the fact that film music often recalls other music should not be surprising taking this practice into account. It would be very interesting to know what the 'temp track' was for The Great Escape, but that is no longer to be found out. What you do hear clearly are the many rhythmic patterns. On the one hand, these refer to military music; on the other, they also make some scenes very funny. And then there is that famous theme that functions as a kind of leitmotiv, incredibly beautiful ...

You yourself have also composed a lot of film music, including for the film classics Daens and Koko Flannel. What is the big difference between that and composing for the concert hall?

DB: The serving function you take on as a composer. Film music is applied art. You don't start from a blank sheet, as with concert music, but you collaborate on a visual story. Very often your music also ends up as auditory wallpaper - you have to be able to come to terms with that. It is only very occasionally that music briefly plays the leading role: most of the film music consists of 'underscores' - during a chase, for instance, the function of the music is to make it all more exciting, not to dominate everything. In recent years, film composers did become more concerned with the 'afterlife' of their compositions. John Williams has played a key role in this: he was the first to bring his film music to the concert stage. Today, the opening or ending credits is often the place for which composers try to write a piece of music that can also stand on its own.

Does film music have the same function today as it did in 1963, when The Great Escape premiered?

DB: It has all become much more complex. In The Great Escape, you hear what you see: a romantic scene gets romantic music. A few years later in film music history, counterpoint was discovered. When a child is buried, you can compose sad music. Another option, however, is to let the sound of children playing enter the building where farewells are being said. That is a knife that cuts even harder. And today, music is often also a kind of mood creation. It does not dictate what the filmgoer should feel: he or she has the possibility to fill things in themselves. Music today has taken on a much greater psychological function. However, seeing soundtracks rather as mood creation also has its drawbacks: after all, the beauty of the score of The Great Escape lies precisely in the fact that rhythm, timbres and, above all, melody play such a major role. All the parameters of (classical) music are present.