The Dinuk Wijeratne Interview

Back in 2010 I had the privilege of interviewing composer Dinuk Wijeratne, whose music I’d recently discovered and come to adore. A prolific composer, a brilliant pianist, and a musical visionary with an aesthetic informed by the Buddhist principle of balance, Dinuk’s artistic sensibility was honed by one of the best musical educations—both academic and autodidactic—imaginable. When I interviewed him he was still welcoming the quiet of his newfound home in Nova Scotia as an opportunity to focus on composition and his duties as director of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra.  I was struck by his amazing serenity and zest for life as we discussed jazz, Robert Altman, the Zen of Mozart, concept-driven composition, and the importance of music in education.

Until Something Clicked

My parents sent me for piano lessons and I hated it for about three years, until something clicked. I started playing the piano at nine and when I was about 12 I heard Mozart’s music for the first time on an audiocassette I had bought. It had an incredible impact on my life. I remember thinking, This is the greatest thing!

I was listening to this one piece, Piano Concerto No. 21. It has a famous second movement but I had started from the beginning and I remember thinking that this was the most perfect balance of elements I’d ever heard. Whatever it was, somehow I needed to get close to it.

Interestingly, Mozart’s music has probably been my greatest influence. I’m not saying that because of the musical language, because of course the language is something from the past and no one writes like that anymore. But he wrote in a language condensed to only the best elements, so that nothing in his music is superfluous and everything is in perfect balance. His music is as exquisite as it gets in terms of paring everything down.

When people describe Mozart’s music they often say that it’s divine, as if he had been copying something that came from heaven, but I believe that he was just one of the greatest geniuses. People like him go through all the processes of development that everyone else goes through; he was just remarkably accelerated.

Irrelevance of Struggle

I know this is an odd thing to say, but I connect with Buddhism in a musical way through Mozart. Buddhism is basically about finding balance in life, and I see this reflected in his music much more than anyone else’s.

With Beethoven’s music the idea is one of struggle—for example the struggle of humanity to overcome the odds—and that’s why it appeals so much. I admire that, but I don’t connect with it in the same way because I find that the Mozartian idea is a much more Buddhist thing, that struggle is ultimately unnecessary because there is a constant balance of cause and effect which means that everything will balance out over time. So philosophically Mozart’s music is huge for me.

Significant Experience

There were no significant musical experiences again until I became an undergrad and was being exposed to music very regularly. I remember going to summer camp in the UK just before college and that was huge because every day I was hearing top artists.

I think from that point in my life I can count the big concerts that changed my life, like hearing Mahler for the first time live.

The first week I landed in England for my undergrad studies the opening concert for the season was Mahler’s 8th symphony. If you haven’t been exposed to that of course it’s just going to blow you sideways.

I ended up in Nova Scotia because my mother decided to immigrate to Canada. I was in New York at the time so I thought Canada was the next logical step.

It so happened that after I moved, the job with Symphony Nova Scotia came up. I had been thinking that I might have to go to a bigger city to get work, and I had relatives in Toronto. But I auditioned and got the job.

Nova Scotia as Artist’s Terroir

I really enjoy Nova Scotia for the easy access to tremendous natural beauty (the lake near my home is a daily visit spot in the summer and fall). There’s a calm and solitude that is really conducive to creative work; you can work in relative isolation and get deeper into your work. Then there are the personal qualities of the people here—warmth, an easygoing nature, and a lack of pretension—that I hope will never change.

Lessons from a Renegade

My favourite film director is Robert Altman. His attitude was always that he would just do a project if it interested him even if he had to give studios the runaround (which he did with M*A*S*H*). He was a real rebel who ultimately had a lot of compassion for actors and for his work, and he would use or avoid the studio system to suit his own interests. He suffered for it, yes, but he created great work.

I read a lot about his method of directing because directing films and conducting orchestras are very much analogous. Because I’m a performer and also a leader, i.e., a “director,” I have to figure out the differences between all of those things. For instance, when you’re creating you have to have something in mind regarding the practicalities of how it’s going to be performed. But once a work is created you have to summon a kind of leadership and then work with your actors to bring it to life.

Kevin Spacey said the genius of Altman was that he allowed actors to think that they had more freedom than they actually had, which I think is fabulous. Altman probably got something even better than he wanted because he had the flexibility to listen to actors’ suggestions.

That’s the kind of leadership I aspire to. But it’s actually much harder in the classical music industry than it is in film because we’re working with a text with less of a margin for freedom. I have to say I find this a frustrating aspect of working in the classical genre as opposed to a genre that involves improvisation.

All of a Piece

The biggest cultural influence on my music has been Indian classical music, and it’s not, to be honest, the melodic influence so much as the rhythmic influence. My melodic influence is a mainly modal language that comes from modern Western classical music and from some world music. My rhythmic language comes from north Indian music, particularly the sounds of the tabla, which have hugely changed my language.

And then there’s the whole Middle Eastern thing that I got into because of Kinan Azmeh. I’m not really much of an expert on any of that but aurally I know the style. But when we work together we’re not trying to create something traditional at all, whereas my approach to the Indian influences are much more rigorous because I know a lot more about the actual workings of those genres.

I love combining musical influences. I’m basically an eclectic in every way. I was taught by eclectics and I only seem to work with eclectics. But I never do synthesis for its own sake. I never think consciously, “this needs to be mixed with that.” Ultimately everything is concept-driven, so if I think something needs a certain element for the sake of the concept and just because I’m moved by it then I’ll use it.

The fun part for me is the concept stage, when I get to plan what happens in the piece. My attitude toward what I create is that everything must have a unity about it. If you want to achieve something very Mozartian you have to trim the fat and you can only do that with a clear vision.

Educating the Whole Person

Daniel Barenboim is my favourite musical philosopher and his big credo is that music is a metaphor for life. I believe absolutely in that; music is the perfect tool for understanding yourself and the world, not in terms of specific events but in terms of how human beings function in society and in themselves. It’s escapism and also a window to understanding. People can reach this understanding even if they don’t play an instrument.

Counterpoint, for example, is a means of presenting an opposing argument that can freely express itself and still be harmonious. If you listen to even a very simple Bach piece that has just two lines, the two lines are expressing themselves without compromise. That’s just one of many examples in music.

There is no other discipline that so thoroughly combines every aspect of being human than that of physically playing an instrument. You’re combining the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. But educators need to understand that music is so much more than a fun, extracurricular thing. It is fun but they need to know what else music can offer, which is just as important as mathematics or any other subject.

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