An Interview with George Benjamin
George Benjamin was once the boy wonder of British classical music. A composer at nine, he became star pupil to Olivier Messiaen in his teens, the youngest ever composer to see his music performed at the Proms while still a student. And then, for a long time, nothing.
After a brief stint at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM institute in the mid-‘80s and a single work for electronics and chamber orchestra, “Antara,” transforming the sounds of the panpipes he heard in the square outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris, he wrote barely 30 minutes of music in the following five years—and only another couple of hours during the decade that followed.
Then, in 2005, he met Martin Crimp in the restaurant of the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Benjamin was flustered, eagerly clutching a notebook stuffed with potential opera plots; Crimp, four years older, a string of Royal Court successes already under his belt, confident, laidback. It was Laurence Dreyfus, the American viol player and founder of the Phantasm consort, who introduced them, “and indeed,” Benjamin told me, “we owe our collaboration entirely to him.”
The first fruits of their collaboration, “On the Little Hill,” premiered the following year. In 2012, they produced their second work, “Written on Skin,” already now the most widely performed opera of the 21st century. On May 10, the Royal Opera House in London will debut their third opera together, “Lessons in Love and Violence.” Reuniting Crimp and Benjamin with director Katie Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer, both of whom worked on “Written on Skin,” “Lessons in Love and Violence” pits concerns of the heart against those of state in a bloody tale inspired by Elizabethan drama. Amid intensive rehearsals in Covent Garden, Benjamin submitted to our questions via email.
VAN: How do you start a work like “Lessons in Love and Violence”? What’s the first step?
George Benjamin: Once we’ve agreed on a subject and Martin [Crimp] has completed every word, I search for a place in his text where I can start composing. It’s never at the beginning. My musical ideas come from my desire to match the dramatic evolution and architecture inherent in Martin’s text.
Has your relationship with Crimp changed or developed since “Written on Skin”? Or, indeed, since “Into the Little Hill” a decade ago?
Yes, I suppose it has. Our mutual trust has grown over the years, and I search for his guidance while writing—to do with formal issues, or concerning the psychology or intentions of characters—to a larger extent than before. But there still remains something intangible to me about his gifts, and many of the most important aspects of our collaboration go unmentioned throughout the creative process (and, indeed, afterwards).
What do you think people familiar with “Written on Skin” might find most surprising about “Lessons in Love and Violence”?
It’s hard for me to say, as the earlier score wasn’t a major preoccupation for me while writing this new one. But I suspect the new work has something of a denser degree of invention than its predecessor; maybe it’s more active and less suspended in feel. Its tone is also somewhat darker—probably because of the presence of more deep voices, and the orchestral/harmonic environment in which I’ve felt impelled to place them.
What was the most challenging part of putting this new work together?
Writing every new note! While aware of both its immediate presence and its influence on the structure at the largest scale…
And what was the most enjoyable or exciting part?
…writing the very last note! Though the second half of the third scene involves a fairly complex, large-scale polyphonic structure which was a real challenge.
Do you tend to compose on paper, at the piano, or at your computer? Do you have any particular working habits when you’re composing?
I work all the day, every day—though often a week (or more) can go by when I’m unable to write anything acceptable. Most of my work takes place in my head, though I do use the piano on occasion. I create a vast quantity of sketches before I arrive at the finished result, and I don’t use Sibelius or any other computer program. Paper and pencil (and sometimes colored pens) are my preferred tools.
What’s the earliest memory relating to music that comes to mind now?
Hearing “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune” in the very first orchestral concert I attended (aged perhaps seven or eight?) and feeling the temperature in the room seeming to rise mysteriously through the influence of Debussy’s magical sound world.
Were there any particular formative events during your childhood that you now feel pushed you towards a career in composition?
There’s another crucial memory—seeing Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” as a young child. I can still recall the thrill that the works by Beethoven, Dukas, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky gave me.
Do you come from a musical family at all? What kind of music do you remember being played in the house or in the car when you were growing up?
My parents loved music, but there weren’t any musicians at all in the family. I shared a bedroom with my sister when very young, and remember loving the mid-‘60s pop music which she used to play on a small portable radio. That all changed, however, once I returned from the cinema after seeing “Fantasia.”
What do you think is the most important lesson you learned from your teacher Olivier Messiaen?
Many things, but perhaps above all: “You have to hear.” For him the most severe musical error for a composer was not to internally imagine every note, rhythm and timbre. He taught innumerable things of the greatest fascination and value—but perhaps his greatest lesson was his utterly sweet nature, and the musical values he breathed and lived.
What are the works by other composers that you most enjoy conducting? And in what ways might these works have informed your work as a composer?
Conducting is an activity much further removed from composition than many would imagine. In many ways they are completely disassociate, and yet, of course, there are also substantial overlaps which can be extremely useful to both crafts. I learn from studying and conducting the works I admire and love, and I also learn from the errors I have made in my own scores. But—as you find me currently shaping my new score in rehearsal with the Royal Opera House Orchestra—I have to admit that conducting is an activity which I love. I relish the direct contact with musicians and sound, though I have to ration my appearances severely in order to maintain time for writing.
You seem to be drawn to stories about magical musicians: “Into the Little Hill” was based on the story of the Pied Piper, and “Written on Skin” features the legendary figure Guillem de Cabestany, even if you changed him to an illuminator of manuscripts. Do you believe music has magical powers?
Yes, absolutely, though that is far from an original thought. Music has an extraordinary power to transcend time and provoke the deepest emotion; yet in essence it’s weightless, transient and invisible. This phenomenon seems to be both mysterious and poignant. ¶