Thomas Meyer: George Benjamin, you told once that when you as a child read the old Greek sagas you imagined operas.
George Benjamin: A few years ago I found the book again with European myths going back thousands of years. Some of them are very famous: Orpheus, Heracles, Beowulf… all sorts of ancient stories narrated and illustrated in a very communicative way for a child. And I already loved opera at that time. I had a very strange hobby: I would shut out the real world and improvise operas in my imagination. And inside my inner ear I would hear the total texture and harmony, with a Strauss-sized orchestra (I adored Salome when I was young!). It sounds ridiculous, even embarrassing, to me now but it was very real for me then.
So you came very early to opera as a child...
I could remember going to Wozzeck, Parsifal, Carmen and Lulu, Salome and Elektra, La Damnation de Faust...
That’s heavy stuff...
I always loved heavy stuff. My very first operas were Le Comte Ory and The Magic Flute, and I’m a faire I didn’t like either of them. They seemed silly to me, and they had no real drama - and Rossini (but not Mozart!) remains a closed book for me. And then I went (at about 10, 11) to the Damnation of Faust which, though not really an opera, received a very interesting production at English National Opera, and I loved the music and the thrill, the danger, and the drama and the tension. This was a revelation.
Did you start early with music, at the age of four, five?
Yes, but then I only liked pop music, which was particularly good in the early Sixties. When extremely young I often used to invent melodies in my head before going to sleep at night, where I could hear the harmony and the sound in my inner ear - without knowing what such phenomena were. But then I discovered classical music and everything changed completely…
Did somebody make music in your family?
My dad could play the piano a little bit, my mum couldn’t play anything, but both liked music very much, and I remember my mum’s response to music was extremely intense. She loved it. They regularly took me to concerts and operas, until I was old enough to go alone, and by the the age of 12 I went to about three concerts every week. I was a fanatic!
And when did you enter into the New Music?
I can’t remember exactly. I heard Wozzeck when I was really young, and was spell-bound by it. Then I recall the amazing magic of Ligeti in 1969 when my father took me to 2001 – A Space Odyssey. I heard Messiaen’s organ music in Westminster Abbey and asked: who wrote this extraordinary harmony? The answer came: Messiaen, the first time I ever heard his name And then I saw Boulez on television when I was around 12. And so, bit by bit, my repertoire expanded deeper into the 20th century…
All the composers have sensuality in their music, but construction too.
Absolutely – indeed, isn’t that essential? Berg’s approach to construction is close to a miracle. This music is so irresistibly potent on the ear, heart and mind…
You studied in Paris: the piano with Yvonne Loriod and composition with Olivier Messiaen. What was the important thing?
More than I can possibly describe, because he was such an extraordinary artist and man. At the Conservatoire he gave three classes each week, all usually lasting four to five hours. During these immense sessions, students would often bring their scores and I would show him my newest efforts as they grew, week by week. But there was also a huge amount of analysis of a very wide diversity of music, old and very new, European or from distant cultures. At all times he seemed to me to have a magical aura about him. He was a great man, gifted with exceptional simplicity, enormous generosity, enormous curiosity and an unending love for music. I miss him very, very greatly.
What did I learn from him?
Firstly, a completely new approach to harmony. He transformed my ear and taught me to think (and hear) analytically. His approach to rhythm was also utterly fascinating. I was just 16, 17 and very impressionable. He approached musical notes with such intense care and love. I was already obsessed with harmony, before I met him, as a very young person. But my thinking - and hearing - were based purely on instinct and were unfocused and amateur before working with him. Not only did he transform the way I thought and heard, he also acted as a model of musical integrity and purity of vision. Perhaps the overriding message of his teaching was that one must hear every note, every texture, every timbre with utter precision inside one’s inner ear - one must be able to answer for the existence of every single creative step one takes.
It was perhaps the most extraordinary experience of my life to work with this great man, and at such a very young age. But after that, I wanted to do something different - with more tension, more flexibility and more dynamism in form, and this created a problem, as the tools I was using were very much derived from him and the French school, and a mis-marriage of ideas resulted. Eventually it became clear I couldn’t continue with that type of thinking and I had to go back, back, back, back to zero to find what was really the authentic compositional approach for me and then find the tools to realise it.
Harmonic motion is a phenomenon which obsesses me, even when diffracted into simultaneously diverging musical strata. Beyond a certain point human perception cannot register harmony if it moves extremely fast - we perceive it as a timbre, or as gesture enriched by harmonic colour.
In your music it is very interested to discover the different layers, the fore- and the backgroud which are in different motion…
Harmonic motion is a phenomenon which obsesses me, even when diffracted into simultaneously diverging musical strata. Beyond a certain point human perception cannot register harmony if it moves extremely fast - we perceive it as a timbre, or as gesture enriched by harmonic colour. However to maintain a degree of perceptible harmonic motion, the foreground has to move more slowly than the background. This was the almost irresolvable problem problem with serialism where, at root, the surface moves at exactly the same rate as the harmonic content, and a form of static saturation can so easily result. My composition teacher after Messiaen, Alexander Goehr, was able to express fundamental musical phenomena more precisely and provocatively than anyone else I have met. And he explained, in an almost naive way: if you are in a train and look out of a window, the ground near you moves very fast, the middle ground is moving slower, an animal in a field in the background is moving still slower and the sun doesn’t seem to move at all - so there is a hierarchy of perception.
This is an area of musical invention whose complexity doesn’t necessarily show itself. Harmonic continuity, logic, expressivity and colour can be maintained, even across multiple simultaneous textural constituents, but to organise such a multiplicity of perspectives a large degree of hidden organisation is required. And without this subliminal architecture, the imagination can lose itself within an excess of choice and the structure will simply collapse.
How are you thinking about your public? Do you try to make your music accessible?
I dislike the word accessible, a concept which doesn’t occur to me while composing. Of course it pleases me when people respond to what I write and I don’t make my music intentionally inaccessible either, but I write only the notes that please me and that I want to hear. Of course, I want the substance of my music to be clear, indeed I have an obsession with clarity. When I attempt to create multiple structures I want all contrasted elements to be perceptible and clearly differentiated. I hate grey, ill-defined or poorly articulated textures, and love sunlight and clarity in music (and in the world!). It takes considerable effort and time to find the notes I like, and I want them to be perceived. I’m not aiming at some sort of cerebral transparency or detached sterility. Not at all. Sometimes I want my music to be dense, even saturated, and dark - though I don’t want everything to fuse into an ill-defined bouillabaisse…
In the late 80s, there was a kind of a crisis where you composed less pieces.
There was a time where I couldn’t realise what I wanted. And in a way I also didn’t even know what I wanted. And so I went through a challenging and difficult period, and it took me at least a couple of years to surface again. Very gradually, however, things improved, and by the early 1990s confidence and clarity began to return. But such crises are, with regret, all too natural for some composers…
Was that a kind of maturation? Did you compose after it in a different way?
Yes, most definitely, The way I conceived form, my approach to material, harmony, texture, timbre and above all a growing interest in polyphony - all this changed pretty radically. There simply came a point when I realised what I had inherited from my teachers, and the way I conceived musical discourse, was inadequate for my purposes, and I need to evolve in a new direction. At the centre of this was a changing attitude towards an element at the very centre of creativity: instinct. I believe I had strong musical instincts, but they can only lead one so far, and I gradually learned that I needed to develop a more sophisticated approach to construction and abstraction in my work. An easy thing to say - but not so easy to realise! However, your word “maturation” is spot-on - and without an ability to conceive musical structure within a more objective and defined framework, I believe it’s hard to grow.
Let me tell you an anecdote. I had something of a revelation on holiday in Egypt late in 1992, the year that Messiaen died. I had a small orchestral premiere in Jerusalem and then went to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, where many extraordinary ancient tombs have been discovered. Amongst them is one belonging to a distinguished royal official - I think his name was Haremhab - who died earlier that expected. This meant that his tomb remained unfinished when he was buried. In the last chamber, the beautiful mural imagery gradually begins to loose its detail, definition and radiant colouration until, by the final wall, all that is left is a simple cross-grid of straight lines that the designers had needed to map out the construction. It’s 4000-5000 years old and it impressed me how these ancient artisans required such an objective geometric background to create sophisticated visual magic. This was quite an important lesson for me.
When I hear for instance your Relativity Rag, it seems me that you have a strong relationship to Jazz, too.
A little bit. I’m not an expert, but I did play ragtime on the piano when I was a child, Scott Joplin, and I joined a jazz band at school. And I had a job when I just finished at college, for a few months, to play jazz in a night club in order to start making a living. Whenever I played classical music for my own pleasure, the management insisted that I stopped and stuck to more popular repertoire - so I had to play Cole Pole and Gershwin and same other famous pre-war jazz. And virtually no one ever listened while I played, so in the end it was a very dispiriting experience…
Porter and Gershwin wrote good melodies…
Oh yes, they were very gifted.
For some time, you have been very interested in Indian music.
That came when I was about thirty. We have a huge Indian community in London and I always loved Indian food, so I had a degree of contact with this extraordinary culture. Nimbus Records, who have been very loyal to me and my music for over 40 years, released an extraordinary series CDs devoted to the very best Indian music in the 1980s, which they gave me as a gift. More than one of them was dedicated to the great flautist, Hariprasad Chaurasia, whose music I found irresistibly seductive on the ear. He often came to London on tour, and I contacted him and asked him to come to my composition class to play to my students and me - and, unexpectedly, he agreed. So I went to collect him from Ealing and drove him and his tabla player quite a few miles to my home, where they stayed for several unforgettable hours. It was an incredibly beautiful encounter. He had this wooden flute – it could have been 10,000 years old – yet with the simplest means he achieved miracles of melody, nuance, tuning and expression : it moved me deeply and immediately. I asked him many questions about Indian music, about style, about the approach to rhythm, timbre and form and his answers were absolutely revelatory. What do I like about Indian music? Firstly, it moves me; secondly, I admire the rhythmical world, which makes most of Western music seem very primitive in comparison; then the timbral world is absolutely irresistible. But the technical world is also highly interesting - the specific (and often quite complex) rules and limitations associated with each individual raga, which guide and shape the wonderfully ornate approach to melody. This was very provocative to my mind…
The intonation is very important, too.
Yes, the tiny detunings.... and the rules by which where they can be used and where they can’t be used, in which direction. It’s very very subtle. And of course, the relationship of the ragas to metaphysical elements, to the time of day, to feeling, all sorts of things. And I love the way improvisations begin by slowly exploring a raga - first one note, then two, three - and a tension is created concerning what will be the next note and how it will be revealed. And, when it is approached in a good way, a learned Indian audience will literally groan with pleasure at the skill of the musician. Such an approach could easily become didactic if transferred directly to Western music, but it also proved to be provocative for my imagination.
We can’t hear this influence directly in your music, but I think it has an impact on your use of the musical elements…
In my music, it’s very rare that all twelve notes are heard within a bar. And if, say, eight or nine pitches are present at a given moment I’m aware of the ones that are missing, and how they might enter in due course. Quite a few early sketches in my work - particularly for complex passages - consist of a stream of missing notes plotted against time…
At the University, you wrote music to plays like Murder in the Cathedral or the Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I was at school I wrote music for the productions of plays we mounted: George Bernard Shaw, Much Ado about Nothing, Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas, even some freshly created dramas with a schoolfriend... These sometimes featured up to thirty minutes of music, scored for eight, nine young people to play and with me conducting from the piano. And so I had the experience of making theatre, with an audience behind my back, from an early age. That was really an important thing for me. I loved it. And that is one of the reasons why not being able write an opera, for so many years, created a real sense of frustration. I felt the theatre was in my blood.
Do you have a special relationship to movies?
I love the cinema – though I never wanted to write film music. However, while a student in Cambridge, I started to improvise for silent movies, something I greatly enjoyed for a few years. I must have done this around 50 times! I usually performed without preparation – seeing the film for the first time while playing - and not employing the standard pianistic cliches associated with the genre. Occasionally my improvisations took wing, and that was almost always associated with more serious and dark material - particularly the great films of Fritz Lang, Murnau and Pabst… The results had virtually no relationship to my ‘real’ composed music, but perhaps I gained important lessons about the control of tension over large stretches of time, how to shape characterisation and atmosphere, and how to respond to narrative (and, on occasion, subvert it). Perhaps these experiences were not without use to a future composer of operas…
Why did you stop to write for theatre after the University?
I don’t know. I had a lot of technical issues to sort out as a composer. I felt the need to find a fresh approach to the human voice and its relationship with instrumental writing. The solutions around me didn’t satisfy me. The harmonic dimension. And so I had to really go deep down in my musical DNA and find solutions. But I was always aiming, even in instrumental pieces, towards opera. That’s why I periodically wrote vocal pieces, and some of my purely instrumental writing also leaned towards the vocal. But beyond these technical issues and challenges, I also wanted to tell stories, which isn’t always fashionable in new opera. I wanted to tell them directly and clearly, but in a new way. And I didn’t see how to do that. I knew I didn’t want to go back to 19th or early-20th century naturalism, romanticism or expressionism, and yet I didn’t see a solution. And also I hadn’t found a potential collaborator. I kept on meeting writers, poets, film director, yet it almost always never went beyond the first one or two conversations. Until I met Martin Crimp.
And what was the special point to work with Martin Crimp?
Martin is a very special artist and a very special person. At the time we first met, he had just finished a series of plays and so was open to doing something different. He didn’t know opera very well, but he loves music deeply and in fact is a very fine musician himself, a pianist. I think we met at a happy moment - though I wish it could have been 15 years before, so I could have written many operas by now! But I carry on and write as much as I can.
Until now, you wrote three very different operas which have all a medieval background. In your forth opera which will be performed in July 2023 in Aix-en-Provence you try something new...
The orchestra is smaller, 22 players, the cast is five, the duration only a little bit more than one hour. It’s different in tone and very different in form. It’s a fable or a fairy tale, a journey for one woman on a quest through a sequence of destinations and with a crucial purpose in mind. She is the thread that unites the piece and transverses the tale from beginning to end. Each individual scene inhabits a very different world. It’s less concerned – as my previous two large-scale operas - with psychological interaction and continual narrative tension leading towards a tragic conclusion. It’s more a sequence of individual explorations, and that’s very different, in structural terms, from what I’ve done before. And the mood is highly volatile, within and between scenes.
Lessons in Love and Violence, the last opera, was very psychological and realistic. Is this new opera more mystical and magical in a way?
Yes. It would be impossible in real life. The way that things unfold is far from realistic. It’s a fable which inhabits a magic world.
So, you had to change your musical language, too?
Yes, absolutely. The degree of volatility in structure and mood was a real challenge for me… I felt the need almost to change my language from scene to scene.
As you told already, you are teaching since many years. What is the importance for you?
I recall how Messiaen adored contact with his students and how he would say, in the most modest way, that he taught to learn from his young students. It also gave him a very special sense of joy to help his students make progress, not to impose anything on them but to open up avenues so they could find themselves. And I now really do understand that myself. I’ve been teaching at King’s College London for over twenty years and quite quickly individual lessons - along with analysis classes - became the priority for me. And now over a dozen of my students have publishers and are performed and commissioned on the international music scene. It’s impossible to make a composer, but perhaps I’m able to be of use technically, helping their inner ear, understanding of instruments and orchestration, facing the challenges of notation, stretching their minds… If, once they come to me, the quality and quantity of their creative work improves, it’s a wonderful feeling. I’m extremely isolated when I compose and so this contact with young composers means a great amount to me and gives me much pleasure. I now absolutely understand my own teacher’s feelings.
Messiaen and Alexander Goehr which represent a little bit the French and the German tradition for you...
I’m still in close contact with Alexander Goehr. He’s 90 now, but his mind is still as clear as crystal. Before Messiaen, I had another wonderful teacher from the German tradition: Peter Gellhorn, who emigrated to England from Berlin in the late 1930s. His own teacher knew Brahms! Gellhorn was very interested in new music and, in the U.K. of the 70s and 80s, that meant a lot of French music. So, in a way, I was nurtured between Germany and France throughout my musical youth.
You are conducting as well. Is this work in a conflict with your composing?
I love to conduct.and relish close contact with musicians, though I have to plan carefully when I do this. As a composer, I need uninterrupted silence and seclusion in order to write - and conducting is the antithesis of this! I recall my first conversation at length with Pierre Boulez when I was still very young. I always think of this meeting. We had dinner together in London when I was about 25. And I asked him - to this huge figure, great musician, enormous thinker, famous conductor, magnificent composer: „Have you any advice for me? “ And he said „Yes. Write.“ And I said „What do you mean? „Write. Make sure that you write enough. Write lots of music, as much as you can!“ I think a lot about that now.
Now, you’ll receive the Ernst von Siemens-Musikpreis that is called a nobel prize of Music, too. And you are in a tradition, you are the fifth British composer receiving the prize, and the first of all them was Benjamin Britten.
And I believe that I’m the 50th. The second one was Olivier Messiaen, my teacher. I never any direct contact with Britten, as he died when I was 16 years old.
What does that prize mean to you?
A huge amount. I wasn’t expecting it, and I was incredibly surprised when Wolfgang Rihm called me on behalf of the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. I couldn’t believe it. Obviously, it a very great honour, and I’m very touched and grateful. But also I’m a British composer and there’s quite a lot of distance between our musical cultures. There are many wonderful musical traditions in European music, but the German one is the greatest. And so to receive this award was unexpected for me and such a tribute moves me deeply.