In Conversation With . . . Dinuk Wijeratne, Part I

Dinuk Wijeratne is a prolific composer, a brilliant pianist, and a musical visionary with an aesthetic informed by the Buddhist principle of balance. With a sensibility honed by one of the best musical educations?both academic and autodidactic?imaginable, Wijeratne is now 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. Complex Stories, Simple Sounds, his CD collaboration with Kinan Azmeh, is soon to be reviewed here in The Voice. He recently took the time to talk with Wanda Waterman St. Louis about jazz, Robert Altman, and the Zen of Mozart.

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.

A Space for Doing

You can’t be that busy in Halifax in the art scene because It’s a small art scene, but I do work with people here a lot. And of course I have the youth orchestra here, which is a very important part of my life. But most of my life is now freelance composition and performance.

I’ve really cut back on the conducting. I was a New Yorker for four years and while I do miss the stimulus of New York it was really stimulus overkill. Halifax is not as stimulating but I value this time in my life just as much because now is the time to reflect on everything and create.

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