Click here to go back the main mag page

Australian Musician Issue 17 Autumn 99

Burkhard Dallwitz by Rob Walker

Melbourne based composer, Burkhard Dallwitz, was recently awarded a prestigious Golden Globe Award in Hollywood for his music score to Australian director Peter Weir's film 'The Truman Show'. He got the nod over Hollywood luminaries like Hans Zimmer, Randy Newman, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Bemoaning the fact that a little known composer from Australia had been plucked from obscurity, Randy Newman was heard to be asking How do we put him back there! Burkhard kindly found some time to speak to Australian Musician's Rob Walker soon after his triumphant return home.

Dallwitz arrived in Australia from Germany 20 years ago with the intention of taking an extended working holiday, he never left. After 12 years working in film and television, periodically sending out his latest score to film and TV producers, he finally struck gold. After completing the soundtrack to an Australian science fiction movie, Zone 39, he routinely ran off the tapes and labels, one destination being Peter Weir's office, the renowned film director. As luck would have it my tape ended up in the right basket (not the round one at the foot of the desk obviously), After Peter returned to Australia upon completion of filming of the Truman Show, he sat down to listen to tapes he had received, liked my work, contacted me and it went from there.

Burkhard's music career started in a similar fashion to many. Prior to leaving Germany he was playing in acoustic duos and trios, scouring a modest living, belying his classical piano training.
I always wanted to combine music with something else reflects Burkhard. My initial thoughts were live music theatre. But when I came to Australia I began studying music at Latrobe University in Melbourne and had Cinema Studies as a minor subject, to complement music theory and composition. My wife's contacts as a freelance film editor gave me an entree into film and television, mainly doing Australiana type documentaries. There were lots of government tax and funding incentives flying around then and there was lots of production going on, giving opportunities to people like myself, and it provided a great learning ground.

I experienced the hard times as well after that. Entering the industry was not hard, but I had to endure the hard times that most professional artists do once I got started.
My decision to concentrate on this area was a combination of two factors. First I was performing around Melbourne in pubs, and after nearly two years decided that performing mostly covers in beer barns was not for me. I was gradually getting a home studio together, and felt that composing was what I wanted to do, inspired by my Cinema Studies experience.

The process of composing films scores is one where I write to pictures. As the composer you get involved in the post production stage after the film has been shot and is being edited. Sometimes your get involved when the film is in its early state, and sometimes at the final cut stage. The composer receives video tapes, you have a spotting meeting with the director where you go through the whole film and discuss which scenes require music and which don't - the video tape is striped with time-code which is burnt into the picture, so that you have reference. This is often done with a music editor who takes down all the paper-work and number crunching involved, and once you've decided on what scenes, where the music starts and stops and so on, you basically start composing the music - I play the tape, and I usually have a brief to go on from my discussions with the director. I sometimes start with a melody idea or just some sounds and I slowly build up the composition by then. Essentially my job as the film composer is to underscore the emotions within the film - you have to relate to the characters in the film and understand what they are going through - whether it be drama, tension, emotional release - that is the seed of inspiration from which you start.

Whilst he is classically trained Dallwitz must respond to whatever brief he is given, even if that brief requires the composition of music in unfamiliar territory like rock, techno, rap, or grunge.
As a composer you have to be around all styles and genres - I was not a techno fan, but I'd been listening to it and there were certain aspects I thought I could get into. There are many composers who can handle any style that is thrown at them - I would not call myself that versatile, but my interest in film music is to do original music and express my own inspiration, so I would steer away from films where a genre I was not comfortable with, but you must have the ability to adapt.

Burkhard plays keyboards on all his compositions and uses a variety of musicians His latest work is the score for an Australian movie, Paperback Hero, where he used Darryn Farrugia on Drums, David Herzog on guitar and blues harp player Justin Brady, for that part of the soundtrack which was blues influenced, together with a romantic orchestral score using the Victorian Philharmonic Orchestra.
Having a background of piano is an advantage for most film composers as so many of them now work at home in midi studios which are keyboard based. Having a performance background, Burkhard tends to play all his parts consecutively when recording, rather than programme bar by bar - this playing expertise assists greatly in his composition - I very much enjoy the playing side of composing, so I use the computer very much as a glorified multi track recorder rather than as a tool to play the music.
The development of music technology has made the job of a film composer very much easier over recent years. For me it's ideal, as even if I write an orchestral score, I can mock it up using orchestral samples and fine tune it, before I present it to an orchestrator and a conductor when it comes time to record the composition with an orchestra. So I don't have to compose on piano and try to imagine what say the strings will sound like for instance before we go into the studio to record it with musicians.
The quality of the samples are getting better and better - when you mock something up, for the purpose of giving a director an idea of what it will sound like, it is an impressive way to present a demo. Technology has been great for me. I have used the same software for 10 years called Hybrid Arts - it does everything I want it to. But recently I was thrown a late task to compose a hard core techno score which I'd never done before - I hired a programmer who was up-to-date with the latest technology - once you start working with loops and stuff like that there is whole different way of going about it - you've got to build up your textures, editing, and so on - the programme was called Recycle and it allowed you to edit loops to the exact tempo you wanted regardless of the original tempo.

Burkhard engages both an orchestrator to check his scores for accuracy and a conductor, usually Darryl McKenzie the music director of 'Hey Hey It's Saturday'
Film has given the contemporary composer an opportunity for employment and to get your music published and heard. You can experiment with many varied areas of music - but I have always seen it as a way to get your music played. I observed these opportunities early, rather than sitting in your room all day composing music that will never get played.

Hollywood is a strange place - there is so much politics in big studio films. It isn't really an artform - its big business. Peter Weir always brings his films back to Australia for post production, so The Truman Show almost felt like an Australian film.

What did it mean to you to be nominated?
I thought that being nominated in the company of Randy Newman for a Bug's Life, John Williams for Saving Private Ryan, Hans Zimmer for Prince of Egypt and Jerry Goldsmith for Mulan - was a great honour; they are really some of the heavyweights - I couldn't see any chance whatsoever of winning, so it was amazing. It probably means that now films that were never really a possibility for me, will be.. I have signed up with a very good agency which is bearing fruit work-wise. It will make my agents job a bit easier.

Burkhard's home studio is as you would expect well equipped. He takes us through his gear.
We have some old analogue gear which doesn't get used a lot - but we've got a Roland Jupiter 8, my very first synth, and a Prophet moog on top, lovely old gear which is making a bit of a comeback today, My main keyboard is the Roland JD800 which I use as the master keyboard. The reason I like it is that you can programme all the parameters in real time, it's got a slider for each parameter, so that when you want to do some editing you don't have to go into a whole bunch of pages and scroll through them. My mixer is a Mackie 32 channel which is pretty much a standard mixer these days, but its very clean, nice EQ, and simple and straight forward. For multi tracking I've got a Tascam DA98, which I use basically instead of a DAT machine most of the time because I can slave it to the video via a time code and I can do my rough mixes onto anything between two and eight channels, lay it back on that, then slave it to the video and the computer. My main samplers are the Emu samplers, E64, E6400, both with full compliments of 128 meg of RAM and 2 gig internal hard drives, The monitors are Mackie HR824 which are powered boxes, and I've found them great to work with - you can use them as near field monitors and you get a good bottom end a truer reproduction than most studio reference speakers. I've got a whole stack of Roland modules like the JV2080, JD990, Some older ones too, In the outboard gear I've got the Roland SRV2000 which is a lovely digital reverb particularly for electronic sounds, Yamaha SPX900 multi effects unit for delays and a dedicated Roland delay as well. Finally, I've got a Tascam DA30 as a non time code DAT machine.

Ideally Burkhard would like to maintain his Melbourne base, however it's looking more and more unlikely as LA beckons loudly. Persistence is Burkhard's mantra for the struggling musician. Believe in yourself, persist and doors do start to open. A huge gate has opened for Burkhard Dallwitz and good luck to him.

Return to our Home Page