The Spontaneous Structuralist

The biography of the today 49-year-old George Benjamin resembles the CV of a child prodigy. Without the least interference and at an almost puppy dog-ish age, he achieved in the musical world what for most composers of contemporary music remains only a dream to the end of their days. Since the beginning of his career, he has been getting commissions from the wealthiest musical institutions in the world. His compositions are presented at the most prestigious halls and in the rendition of the most distinguished soloists and conductors. He has won over the philharmonic audience and connoisseurs of contemporary music, as well as critics, who have given CDs with his music (Nimbus Records) an enormous number of recording prizes.

George Benjamin was already composing at the age of 9. Two years earlier, he had begun piano lessons, which he was to continue in tandem with his composition. Years later, he was to take up conducting. His versatile talent has permitted him to successfully tour in a piano duo with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, conduct the world première of Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, and lead Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande from the podium at Brussels’ La Monnaie. And all that before the age of 40!

At age 16, Benjamin joined Olivier Messiaen’s composition studio and Yvonne Loriod’s piano studio in Paris. He remained there a mere two years, until Messiaen retired. Did he not have time for thorough composition studies? Messiaen contended that already as a teenage student, Benjamin had orchestration in his little finger. He was to say about the (at the time) 26-year-old composer: „His sense for tone colour, harmony and rhythm is remarkable and the form is absolutely masterful. George Benjamin is as talented as the young Mozart is reputed to have been!”

His stay in France had a decisive influence on his development and aesthetic choices. Despite his personal inclinations (Messiaen called Benjamin his best and most favorite student) and the indubitable influences of French music, Benjamin speaks with greater distance today about Messiaen’s school: „Now it seems to me that it would probably have been better for Messiaen to pay more attention to counterpoint, polyphony and the structural aspects. He did not do this, which is no doubt associated with his lack of interest in German music.” No doubt the skeptical Pierre Boulez also played his role in the ‘initiation’ of Benjamin and ‘demystification’ of French music. He even contended that mere contacts with Messiaen would not have made Benjamin a good composer. He needed the lesson in German music which he had in… Cambridge under the watchful eye of English composer Alexander Goehr.

Benjamin’s debut took place at the famous London Proms, where his first large orchestral work was performed – namely Ringed by the Flat Horizon, dedicated to Messiaen, for which the inspiration was T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. This concert opened the way to an international career for the twenty-year-old, and Benjamin went down in the history of the Proms as the one of the youngest composers ever to be performed there. In 1981, two new compositions of Benjamin’s were written: A Mind of Winter for soprano and chamber orchestra, inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Snowman’; as well as Sortileges for piano. Right after them, At First Light for chamber ensemble, inspired by William Turner’s canvas Northam Castle, Sunrise; as well as Meditations on Haydn’s Name for piano, a work commissioned by BBC Proms on the occasion of the Viennese Classicist’s 250th birthday. The critics competed to outdo each other in praising him, and the 22-year-old Benjamin was recognized as the greatest hope of contemporary English music.

Boulez, who since his first meeting with him in 1980 ‘could not get this character out of [his] head’, invited him to Paris to the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), of which he was the director, and began to conduct his works. After a few years, he was to say about him: ‘I see a composer who is a master in his craft.’ Benjamin, who previously had not been engaged in electroacoustic music, traveled to Paris for the second time in 1984 to spend another three years there. At IRCAM, he was to compose the work Antara for two flutes, two computer-programmed keyboards and ensemble. The title means ‘Pan pipes’ in the Inca language, for Benjamin had been inspired by traditional Peruvian instruments. With the aid of electronic media, he created imitations of such sounds, starting with the authentic ones and finishing with those theoretically producible on Pan pipes a few meters long. Aside from Antara, as well as the preceding work Panorama, a short study for tape – also composed on the basis of Peruvian pipe sounds – Benjamin never again composed music with a computer part. Electronics and modern sound technologies were not his aim. He returned to traditional musical resources, above all the orchestra, which had from the beginning been the medium closest to his heart.

After returning from Paris, he presented the work Sudden Time for large orchestra, as well as Upon Silence, to texts by William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Long-Legged Fly’ – first in a version for mezzo-soprano and five violas, and then for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra. The première of the second of these works took place in 1992 in Paris, as part of a monographic festival of the composer’s works organized by Opéra Bastille. The titles of Benjamin’s works suggest interest in English literature and painting. In school, he had had a bit of a fascination for the astrophysics of Stephen Hawking, though he admits only unwillingly that science plays any role in his composition: „Chaos theory, which gave me a new, exciting and relatively straightforward introduction to the relationship between order and chaos in the late eighties and early nineties, was an exception. This had artistic ramifications and influenced my understanding of how regular and random beats interact; and it influenced my view on the way large structures unfold and change, how even a minor underlying instability can shape the overall course of the composition.” Traces of these influences are present in the composition Sudden Time, the subject of which is time and its relativity. The expansion, compression and layering of many different pulses, all in all, yields an extraordinarily complex musical process in which a balance is constantly being struck between an almost fluid texture and one that is clearly defined.

The première of his next work fell in 1995. Three Inventions for chamber orchestra was written by Benjamin for the opening of the 75th Salzburg festival. A year later, Kent Nagano conducted for the first time in Manchester the composition Sometime Voices for baritone, choir and orchestra, composed to Caliban’s monologue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The last work he wrote in the past century was the viola duet Viola, Viola , after the première of which Benjamin took off for a residency at the Tanglewood Festival (USA). The first years of the new century brought two new solo works: Three Miniatures for violin, for Irvine Arditi; and Shadowlines for piano, for Pierre-Laurent Amard; as well as the orchestral Palimpsest I and II for Pierre Boulez. George Benjamin’s most recent opus numbers are the exquisite Dance Figures, in versions for piano and for orchestra; the opera Into the Little Hill ; as well as the piano concerto Duo.

Benjamin’s musical language is saturated with the influences of French music: Olivier Messiaen (harmonic mixtures in Into the Little Hill); but also Debussy and Ravel, adored by the English composer (piano works, Three Inventions). The refined harmony, interesting timbral language, as well as complex rhythmic structures, make him, beyond this, an heir of Igor Stravinsky (Sudden Time, Dance Figures). The lesson in German music which he had is confirmed by echoes of Alban Berg (Dance Figures), and even more unambiguous allusions to the technique of Anton Webern (Shadowlines, based on canons). So what in Benjamin’s music is peculiarly English?

The composer sporadically turns to the history of English music: the work Upon Silence is scored for an ancient consort of viols; he has also on occasion arranged compositions by Henry Purcell. He passionately develops the basic elements of composition, such as harmony and rhythm; he also assigns a great role to traditionally-conceived form: „I’m interested in structures that are narrative and exciting, unpredictable but logical. I am obsessed with harmony and perception of harmony, from very simple fusion to extremely complicated diffraction and simultaneity – as well as rhythmical language, which in a way is the bridge between the structural and harmonic level. I don’t write music in which I can’t hear the harmonies, and can’t tell whether the notes are in the right place or not.”

Benjamin’s perfect ear for harmony was pointed out by Messiaen, and Boulez only confirmed this. The sensory aspect, as well as the rules of perception, are equally as important to the English composer as perfect formal construction. Attachment to traditional ways of carrying out musical narration, as well as the peculiar charm of his music, do not interfere, however, with his being a structuralist. About the composition Upon Silence, Benjamin said plainly: „I’ve moved away from the glistening sound quality of French music, from the idea, that structure is a secondary concern.” The structuralist approach to music – especially that written for large orchestra – requires careful planning. For this reason, Benjamin precedes the composition proper with many months of drawing up sketches. In the 1990s, he composed a mere four works; not a few were even worried that the hope of British music had been overtaken by an artistic crisis. Benjamin’s œuvre is basically modest, like the dimensions of the individual works. What stands behind that is great responsibility and – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – economy of artistic work. For every one of George Benjamin’s newly-composed works is a musical event.

Work on Sudden Time lasted for four years; and on Upon Silence, ten years. The time Benjamin devotes to composition translates into the complexity of his works. In his painstaking work on the smallest detail, the artist does, however, leave himself a margin of ease: „I try to concentrate on the rational side of things and trust that the irrational or emotional dimension will emerge naturally if I do my job properly. The inner strength that binds a piece of music together and drives it forwards is ultimately very hard to grasp intellectually. There are moments when it just happens. Inexplicably.”

In the music, thus, there is something that frees itself from the authority of reason. Composition is, in the case of Benjamin, a peculiar alchemy: for a long time and with great care, he chooses elements and awaits with humility the longed-for result which seems always unattainable. One thing he is probably sure of – that the recipe for music is no system.”For minimal, spectral, and in many ways serial composers, organic unity is a process of completely joined-up evolution. That’s one way of looking at unity, but it’s not the only way. There can be organic unity which is made up of disparate objects. I think the completely deterministic musical unfolding is quite dangerous. It suppresses a degree of spontaneity. And that’s the whole point of music for me: to be spontaneous. This idea of a discourse where the music is all but a single argument doesn’t seem an authentic vision of musical space to me now.” Perhaps this is why Benjamin more readily appeals to the developments of pre-war Modernism than of the Darmstadt avant-garde from the second half of the 20th century.

But to return to the question of English music, Boulez summed it up in an interesting manner: „I would venture to say that there is something typically English about George Benjamin’s music and his spontaneity, something ‚amateur’ – and I certainly do not mean this pejoratively. He is a professional who refuses to be straitjacketed by rules and dogmatic systems. There is something reasoned about him, but he knows how to rise above doctrines that might cut short his natural impulses. This is typical of English music generally.”

Tłumaczenie: Cara Emily Thornton

Źródło: książka programowa festiwalu „Sacrum Profanum” 2009


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  1. Pingback: EN | Monika Pasiecznik


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