Composer George Benjamin and Project San Francisco
Rel. 1 Jan 2006
From Thursday, January 7 through Sunday, January 17, 2010, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will spotlight the contemporary British composer George Benjamin in a series of concerts, lectures, and special events, as part of its new Project San Francisco. Benjamin (b.1960), who is the current Phyllis C. Wattis Composer-in-Residence of the SFS, will conduct several of his own orchestral works – including the West Coast premiere of his 2008 Piano Concerto, Duets, with pianist Nicholas Hodges – as well as works by his two composing "mentors", Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen. To begin the series, American conductor David Robertson will lead a set of Benjamin-spotlighted concerts with the SFS, which will include the West Coast premiere of Dance Figures, from 2004. A chamber music concert and lecture will then close the series, featuring two Benjamin works, Piano Figures (2006) and Viola, Viola (1996). For a complete schedule and access to tickets, visit: www.sfsymphony.org/projectsf.
To help shed light on Benjamin's music, as well as Project San Francisco (which later in January will feature performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma), Classical Archives is please to highlight the composer's music – via the album presented here as well as those on our Featured Composer tab, along with a recent article on Benjamin – presented below – by author Thomas May, a frequent contributor to the SFS program notes.
George Benjamin's Musical World
In an era obsessed with image management and instant makeovers, George Benjamin's music serves as a restorative: a reassuring example of the integrity of the artistic quest, however varied its manifestations. Benjamin is among the least predictable of contemporary composers—each new work represents an opportunity to embark in a different direction, with nothing taken for granted.
Benjamin's Project San Francisco residency this month samples nearly the entire span of the composer's career to date. It reveals a tireless transformation of perspectives, from the extraordinarily vivid gestures of Ringed by the Flat Horizon—Benjamin's first orchestral essay, which propelled him to international fame in 1980—to the condensed clarity of his most recent composition, the piano concerto Duet. His music reveals a unique balance of international influences yet never seems eclectic; one can hear the influences of fellow English composers, of French and German traditions, and of American trailblazer Elliott Carter.
Yet underlying the manifold beauty of Benjamin's catalogue is a consistent perfectionism, a signature quality found above all in his concern for a score's inner structural logic; Benjamin attends unerringly to local, passing details that beguile the ear. Reconciling the two—structure and surface, harmonic organization and individual event, the big picture and the sensuous moment—gives Benjamin's music a fundamental sense of continuity, even though each work addresses a different challenge. His individual compositions, for all their variety, are at the same time rooted in a sense of aesthetic purpose to which he has remained true since his days as an emerging composer.
Coming of Age
Benjamin, now nearly fifty, chuckles when mentioning the childhood event that piqued his hitherto nonexistent interest in classical music. Seeing Disney's Fantasia when he was around seven—right in the thick of the Beatles era—had an absolutely mesmerizing effect on him. "It probably decided my life as a musician" Soon he was avidly collecting records of Beethoven and Berlioz, his two earliest musical loves. Another film—Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—pushed him in the direction of contemporary music. Along with records, Benjamin had begun buying scores to study. He recalls purchasing the score to Ligeti's Atmosphères (evocatively used in the Kubrick film) at a time when the mammoth Ligeti score was taller than Benjamin himself. "As I started to play the piano and learn to read music, I began to compose," he says. "It seemed the most natural thing. I'm sure many children have the same instinct."Benjamin, now nearly fifty, chuckles when mentioning the childhood event that piqued his hitherto nonexistent interest in classical music. Seeing Disney's Fantasia when he was around seven—right in the thick of the Beatles era—had an absolutely mesmerizing effect on him. "It probably decided my life as a musician" Soon he was avidly collecting records of Beethoven and Berlioz, his two earliest musical loves. Another film—Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey—pushed him in the direction of contemporary music. Along with records, Benjamin had begun buying scores to study. He recalls purchasing the score to Ligeti's Atmosphères (evocatively used in the Kubrick film) at a time when the mammoth Ligeti score was taller than Benjamin himself. "As I started to play the piano and learn to read music, I began to compose," he says. "It seemed the most natural thing. I'm sure many children have the same instinct."
At first, Benjamin went about his composition without an instructor, while he pursued piano studies with Peter Gellhorn. Impressed by his gifts, Gellhorn engineered an interview with Olivier Messiaen, who was then approaching the end of an enormously influential career teaching at the Paris Conservatory. The master accepted Benjamin into his coveted composition seminar.
Generations of composers had made the pilgrimage to Paris to imbibe wisdom from the seemingly ageless Nadia Boulanger. For his part, Benjamin crossed the Channel to embark on a period of life-altering study with Messiaen. The world-renowned composer had been a legendary mentor to a generation of influential disciples, but it was Benjamin whom he prized as his "favorite student." Benjamin continued his keyboard studies as well, under the guidance of Messiaen's second wife, the esteemed pianist Yvonne Loriod. Messiaen's classes consisted of thoroughly spellbinding analyses of the classics, of works by Stravinsky, Ravel, and Debussy (six weeks alone devoted to a "bar-by-bar" close reading of Pelléas et Mélisande), and of contemporary composers, including pieces by Messiaen himself. Meanwhile, Benjamin was directed to write out hundreds of pages of chords. The process helped develop his remarkable sensitivity to harmonic color and shape—an ongoing characteristic of his music.
"Messiaen had a huge impact on me when, aged sixteen, I started my studies with him in Paris," says Benjamin. "He was a great force of inspiration, and a wonderfully enthusiastic and generous teacher. I can't imagine a happier relationship between pupil and master. He wanted to liberate the imaginations of his students in the most humble way. Messiaen opened up so many new avenues for me and changed my mind—and my ear, above all." When summarizing what he learned from the French maverick, Benjamin points to a combination of technical issues and overall philosophical stance: "In his class I learned a new way of looking at rhythm, where passage of time in music could be seen as an independent thematic element in its own right. That can liberate all sorts of new thought. His harmonic thinking particularly fascinated me. He was one of the few composers of the second half of the twentieth century who had an original, coherent, and expressively potent harmonic language."
When Messiaen retired in 1978, Benjamin decided to return to England and complete his studies at Cambridge. There he encountered a very different—and in some ways "contradictory"—musical point of view from his primary mentor, Alexander Goehr (himself a former student of Messiaen), as well as from Robin Holloway, who is sometimes characterized as an early "neoromantic."
For Benjamin, Messiaen had above all provided a potent example of an enduring musical vision in action, particularly since the teacher explained so meticulously what made his compositions tick. Yet the younger composer began to incorporate other significant influences as well. "Messiaen's approach to structure and polyphony, however, was perhaps not as developed as other aspects of his musical language," he explains. "For that I had to turn to my last teacher in Cambridge, Alexander Goehr, and to what I learned from studying Debussy, Berg, Webern, Boulez, and Ligeti as well as the classics. My contemporaries and friends amongst composers have also been very important for me over the years – Oliver Knussen at home, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail in France, amongst many others from further afield."
Soon Benjamin enjoyed a career-launching breakthrough, following a handful of solo and chamber pieces dating from these years. Ringed by the Flat Horizon—which he had written for the Cambridge Musical Society—impressed critics when it was featured during the BBC Proms in the summer of 1980. It was one thing to be a star student of Messiaen, but at twenty Benjamin became (and remains) the youngest composer to have his music performed at the famous London summer festival. Even more, his first orchestral statements were already revealing a formidable musical personality: a brave new modernist who was not allergic to the beautiful. A year later came A Mind of Winter—an exquisite setting of a Wallace Stevens poem, evoking a Zen-like landscape strikingly different from the New Mexico thunderstorm of Ringed. In 1982, At First Light drew from Benjamin's response to the painting of William Turner, with its alternate gestures of clear definition and dissolution.
From today's perspective, it's easy to forget how bleak the concert hall scene for new music must have seemed during that twilight era of blandly international serialism—an aesthetic that Benjamin resolutely disliked for its "coldness" and "grey dissonance." His early works demonstrated the arrival of a meticulous artist who was not content to follow molds but insisted on discovering a unique path with each new project: not originality for its own sake, but as the result of a rigorous process. Moreover, despite his powerful mentors, Benjamin had successfully come out from under their shadow and avoided merely cloning their techniques.
Even as he was developing a style tending toward ever-more-complex layering of textures, Benjamin fulfilled a commission for youth musicians with Jubilation (1985). The Project San Francisco residency offers an opportunity to hear this least-played of his orchestral works. Its rarity results from the unusual scoring (calling, among other forces, for chorus, a massive percussion section, and a large choir of recorders). "Jubilation is a rather delicate piece, with a clear spotlight on each group. The challenge I set myself here," says the composer, "was to try to maintain my identity despite its simplicity."
For the 10th anniversary of the music research center IRCAM (which critic Alan Rich memorably tagged Pierre Boulez's "fabulous Paris toy shop"), Boulez invited Benjamin to write an electro-acoustic piece. Benjamin deepened his acquaintance with the emerging area of "spectralism"—a compositional approach that centers on close investigation of micro-intervals and the acoustic structure of timbres (as pioneered by such composers as Murail and Grisey). The result was Antara (1987), which transformed the pan pipes of local buskers into a synthesizer concerto. "Benjamin did not come to the IRCAM to rehash or sample other people's compositions," Boulez writes, "but to expand his vocabulary and enrich his experience." The experiment with electronics moreover confirmed Benjamin's highly valued ear for the effect musical sounds have as actual, live experiences—as opposed to in theory. For Boulez, Antara was a reminder that it's "essential that composers do not simply put fictional ideas down on paper, but ideas that reflect reality."
Subsequently, Benjamin turned his gaze backward to the world of early music—in particular Henry Purcell's enchanting pieces for viol consort—to compose his setting of the late poetry of Yeats, Upon Silence (1990). Only a handful of pieces followed in the 1990s: the long-gestating Sudden Time (1993), an orchestral masterpiece that is central to Benjamin's catalogue, inspired by a dream experience and by another Wallace Stevens poem; Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra (1995); Sometimes Voices, a vocal setting of lines from Caliban's speech on music in The Tempest, written for the opening of Manchester's Bridgewater Hall (1996); and the duo Viola, Viola (1997).
Bound by a drive for impeccable precision in each new piece, Benjamin typically accepts only a tiny number of commissions. But after the two sets of Palimpsests (2000-02)—orchestral works that explore a fascinating overlay of textures and harmonic complexity—the last several years have seen an outburst of creativity centered around what are entirely new genres for the composer. Two of these are large-scale works that in a sense complement each other: the orchestral/ballet piece sequence Dance Figures (written in 2004 and choreographed by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker for her Brussels-based ensemble Rosas) and the "lyric tale" Into the Little Hill (premiered in 2006 in France).
The latter is an especially revealing example of Benjamin's capacity for patient, long-range thinking to arrive at his artistic goals. Writing an opera, in fact, was something he had intended to do for a quarter century. During his youth in London, before the Conservatory days, Benjamin had written incidental music for the many plays his school put on; theater (as well as film) remains one of his passions. But the lack of an inspiring libretto proved to be an insurmountable roadblock until a mutual friend suggested the work of experimental British playwright Martin Crimp. "One of the major blockages for me to working on opera," Benjamin explains, "had been that the standard, natural, almost filmic theatrical style of Puccini, Strauss, or even Janáček simply doesn't seem to function now. It appears artificial." With Crimp, he settled on a chillingly evocative, multi-layered retelling of the Pied Piper legend. "I wanted to tell a story in a simple, direct way but couldn't find how to do it until I met Martin Crimp, who has a very original style of narrating." Currently, Benjamin is at work on his second operatic collaboration with Crimp—a project tightly under wraps and slated to be unveiled in 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. (The composer will be on hand for the West Coast premiere of Into the Little Hill, one of the featured works planned for this summer's Ojai Festival, where Benjamin will serve as artistic director.)
As with his opera, Benjamin had long thought about writing a piano concerto for Pierre-Laurent Aimard—"my oldest musical friend," whom he met when he first arrived at the Paris Conservatory 1976. Indeed, over the years Benjamin has written three other piano works specifically for Aimard (including Shadowlines and Piano Figures, also from this decade). He came to realize that a work for piano and orchestra was "inevitable." His 2008 piano concerto Duet partakes with Into the Little Hill of a new-found economy and transparency of texture. But here the delay resulted from Benjamin's characteristic refusal to revert to the default, established musical discourse. Despite the long tradition of the piano concerto, Benjamin had to find his own solution to a paradox he believes is inherent to this particular genre: "It was very difficult to find a sound world where the piano—a wonderful monster instrument—could combine with another monster instrument made of fifty people, the orchestra. In acoustical terms, these forces are so radically different."
The Right Notes
Referring to his need to rethink things from the ground up when he undertakes a new composition, Benjamin matter-of-factly observes that, "It's simply my character. I come from a family which is somewhat obsessed with detail, something which I have inherited. I also perpetually feel the need to challenge myself and love the idea of journeying into new territory. I can only write when I get excited about something. If I don't have such a sensation, things simply don't work."
This kind of open-ended curiosity has guided his music down the unpredictable paths that make up his career to this point. Each offers a new variant on Benjamin's underlying aesthetic, which might be summed up as the search for the right note in the right place—not unlike Flaubert's preoccupation with "le mot juste." Articulating what is in effect his artistic credo, Benjamin remarks that "the thing that gets me most excited is finding notes that I like: the absolutely precise, utterly specific note at any given point. It might sound banal, but that's the one thing that has remained constant for me, although I've changed a lot over the years."
Especially important here is the relation between the particular note and the whole piece—what Benjamin often addresses in other contexts as the relation between "the vertical and the horizontal," between spontaneity and logical continuity. Attempts to describe his music often focus on the continually arresting details of his orchestration. (It's no coincidence that, like Sibelius, a composer he much admires, Benjamin writes sounds out in full score instead of approaching orchestration as the last stage). Yet this represents merely the surface—or rather, the manifestation of a greater whole. Benjamin considers the perfection of timbre often associated with a French aesthetic to be a "priority." But for him the very concept of timbre itself is intimately tied to structure. "Timbre is not something that you add on to the music at the last stage, like a sauce, to make it sound pretty. Timbre is an extremely important aspect of a musical language's DNA. The behavior of timbre is a metaphor for the whole idea of structure in a piece, in every dimension, and it is the treatment of it on the largest scale which makes possible a seemingly spontaneous frisson of delight in sound itself at a particular moment."
The individual moment can only have true resonance as part of its larger context within a piece's structure. Benjamin points to Debussy—another composer he admires deeply, whose Prélude à L'Après Midi d'un Faune contains what he deems "the best notes ever written." For him Debussy represents the pivotal figure who has influenced the course of modern music through his approach to form. "In program notes in the nineteenth century, form was usually portrayed as a traditional shell containing the elaboration of musical themes. I've never liked that as an idea, and I think it's hard to accept it in the early twenty-first century. It was Debussy who really broke such conventions by envisaging forms which generate themselves and seem to be built from nothing except their unique material. They give the illusion of complete spontaneity, of the unpredictability of improvisation. Such unpredictability and spontaneity matter to me hugely, but at the same time I aim for large-scale architecture which is highly structured: Music whose freedom is anchored in roots which are not as free as they sound."
Over his career, Benjamin has continued to develop an internally organic sense of structure. The overall evolution of his work reveals an increasingly nuanced and confident approach to establishing the coherence of a composition on its own terms. "In my earlier pieces there was a strong and stated influence from outside music—particularly poetry and visual sources, photography and painting. That perhaps was a reaction against the standard contemporary music scene of the time, when all titles tended to be forbiddingly abstract. And the tone of my early pieces also departed somewhat from the prevailing post-serial style—their focal point was the harmony, which was intended to be highly varied, with a palette ranging from extreme dissonance to the purest consonant." Yet, he continues, "priorities change, and in the last two decades the simple theater of music making itself has been the core of my work; there are extra-musical impulses though, if the piece isn't written for the stage, I usually keep them to myself. In Duet there is a drama, but it's a drama about how incompatible things—the piano and orchestra—can combine with each other. That creates a sort of tension, but it's a specifically musical one that has to do with the concert hall, not something outside it."
A Musical Life
The Project San Francisco residency presents Benjamin in the multiple roles that make up his rich musical life in addition to composing. As a student of Gellhorn and then Loriod, Benjamin for a time even considered a career as a concert pianist. Over the years he has continued performing not only in traditional venues but as a silent-film accompanist, improvising from the keyboard. "It's absolutely the opposite of composing," he says. "There is no forethought, and sometimes I don't even watch the film in advance." (His appearances at the summer Ojai Festival will include one of these film improvisations.)
Benjamin has also followed the path of his early mentor, Messiaen, in coupling the creative life of composing with the responsibilities of a teacher and is himself now a mentor keenly sought out by hopeful young composers. After teaching through the 1990s at London's Royal College of Music, he was named to succeed Sir Harrison Birtwistle as the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College in London. "Now pupils of my own are establishing themselves as independent voices on the new music scene," he says, "something which gives me great pleasure."
His duties not only keep him abreast of the latest developments and trends in composition among his peers but also afford opportunities to explore music history in a way that can shed light on Benjamin's own current compositional projects. While writing Duet, for example, he offered a series of lectures exploring the Mozart piano concertos, which led him to a closer understanding of how this great pioneer of the genre approached the basic acoustical problem of piano combined with orchestra.
And, like a number of his fellow composers, Benjamin devotes significant effort to conducting. As a contrast to the inevitable solitude of composing, he says he finds it important to reconnect with his roots as a performer. "I love conducting: It's such a delicate science; with every rehearsal you learn something." Benjamin is a significant advocate of other living composers, but in recent years he has also turned to more familiar repertoire, such as Schumann and Wagner. Although working from the podium can spark some ideas for his own music, Benjamin tends to consider conducting to be "more the antithesis—an antidote to composing. To be able to come out of the solitude I need for writing and make music with others is very nourishing emotionally. It has given me much joy over the years to perform new pieces by my contemporaries and friends as well as repertoire works. I often miss that when composing."
(Article by Thomas May, a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Symphony program book, and author of several books on music, including Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.)