Words About Music participant Christopher Healey explores Albert Schnelzer’s A Freak in Burbank (2007) and its phenomenal international success.

Composers draw the inspiration for their music from many sources. A work might be born of the excitement of a blushing romance, the hazy atmosphere of an impressionist painting, or from the simple ‘what if?’ of a technical idea. In other instances, the commissioner of the work might propose a starting point for the composer, and such was the case with A Freak in Burbank.

According to Schnelzer, the work was originally intended as a “piece for chamber orchestra with a sort of Haydn twist on it.” Perhaps fortunately, given the rather bland nature of the initially proposed idea, the composer found himself seized by the life story and works of American film director, Tim Burton, best known for such peculiar, playful, and sometimes creepy films as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands: “The humour and the burlesque qualities [of Tim Burton’s films] were something that I found interesting… When he entered my mind, he more or less took over the piece.”

Schnelzer (who at the time of writing this piece was reading Burton’s autobiography Burton on Burton) tried to imagine what life must have been like for Burton as a young, “moderately destructive” boy who grew up in Burbank (California). Burton has described his experience growing up in quintessential suburban American as that of an outcast, his love for monster movies leading him to feel “kind of different and isolated… you don’t feel like you fit into your surroundings.”

Schnelzer suggests the work ultimately turned out to be roughly 90 percent Burton and ten percent Haydn. While the listener is unlikely to make an association between the music of Haydn and Schnelzer’s music, the work’s chugging rhythms and unexpected interjections masterfully capture the zany, startling and unsettling qualities that have become hallmarks of much of Burton’s oeuvre.

A halting cascade of notes opens the work and seem to conjure an impression of a faltering machine, perhaps that of a wind-up toy soldier (Burton was apparently fond of removing the heads of such toys), while short flurries throughout the orchestra hint that some sparks of life remain. A second cascade of notes is followed by more flickerings, from several different instruments; these now build to a climactic moment. As though a light has been switched on, a sudden mechanical chugging seems to illuminate not a single toy solider, but an army of them, all now brought to life. The relentless rhythm builds to another climax, complete with stabbing interjections that would have satisfied even the “Master of Suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The second half of the work changes direction, introducing an atmospheric section of weaving musical lines and glistening string sounds that grow increasingly fraught, the drama heightened further by unpredictable interjections from the winds. The mechanical rhythm returns in fits and starts, and the work ultimately concludes with a mischievous bang from the timpani.

A Freak in Burbank, has become immensely popular. While many composers struggle to achieve so much as a second performance of a work, this Schnelzer has had more than 60 professional performances to date, including a performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. How did this work – indeed, how does any modern work – achieve such meteoric success? It was A Freak in Burbank that established Schnelzer as an international contender as a composer, and the 2010 BBC Proms debut was largely responsible for this, but how does a composer come to be included at such an event? Generally speaking, being selected for the Proms involves being championed by a major music publishing house, and it was almost certainly Schnelzer’s own publisher, Gehrmans Musikförlag, that pushed for the work’s inclusion; they would have done so in partnership with Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Örebro, and their conductor, Thomas Dausgaard. So, even at a time where self-publishing is entirely possible or even preferable, established composers continue to jump at the opportunity for representation by a major publisher; this is often the only way to have a seat at the table for major, career-making musical events.

This work was performed by the Alexander Orchestra at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s National Music Camp 2019, conducted by Giordano Bellincampi.

If you enjoyed this work, you may also enjoy the works of the composers Thomas Ades and Michael Gandolfi.

Composer and Words About Music participant Christopher Healey smiles at the camera. He is outside and surrounded by lush green plants,

Christopher Healey is a composer and trumpeter who participated in the Words About Music program at AYO National Music Camp 2019.