George Benjamin on Between the Bars

25 August 2021
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Ever since he was a child, Sir George Benjamin wanted to be a composer. At only twenty years of age, his piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon was played at the BBC Proms. Fourty years on and the MCO, under George’s baton, will present the world premiere of Concerto for Orchestra at the same event.

Tune in as host Yannick Dondelinger explores the uniqueness of this new work – composed for and dedicated to the MCO – and delves into the utterly fascinating mind of one of classical music’s most beloved and inspiring creators.

Transcript below. 

G. BENJAMIN, Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, and BBC Radio 3.


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TRANSCRIPT

Yannick Dondelinger here again for another episode of Between the Bars.

„Eat, Sleep, Dream,Compose“, George Benjamin.



George Benjamin: I think you can't underestimate, at least with myself personally, the degree of confusion when starting at a piece. I have to find an idea, which is pregnant within itself of huge possibilities – both in itself, and its capacity to transform and combine and mutate into lots of other material.


And more important than anything, I have to find something that I like. A sound that touches me, that means something to me, that speaks to me. And to find that – it doesn't happen every month.


[G. BENJAMIN “Concerto for Orchestra”]


YD: Composer George Benjamin describing with impeccable honesty and clarity, just how brutally challenging the process of composing a piece of music can be. You're listening to a sneak preview, fresh from the very first rehearsal of his latest work Concerto for Orchestra, which there will be more of throughout this episode. 


Since early childhood, George Benjamin has produced dreamlike worlds of sound and story. From a mind and an imagination that have been his closest companions, through about a half century of painstakingly figuring out the key to unlocking musical jewels that are in his mind’s eye, and thus giving them to the world. This may all sound a bit much, but it isn't. As a craftsman, Benjamin has sometimes taken years to produce minutes of music. While as a listener, one can read entire universes in every bar of what he creates. He is the real deal. Sit back and enjoy as we dive into the utterly fascinating mind of one of classical music’s most beloved and inspiring creators. I ask him about how he lives, how he breathes, how he feels music and his relationship with the ensemble that Concerto for Orchestra's composed for, dedicated to and who will finally – after a long Covid delay – present the world premiere of, with George conducting, at this year's BBC Proms Festival. That will be us, a very proud Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Thank you George. 



GB: Yeah I'm really sorry it's over. Because we have just done two full rehearsals of my new Concerto for Orchestra, about three months prior to the premiere at the Proms in London, at the end of August. And we've done this, partially because we don't have a huge amount of time in August and this is quite a big new piece of mine and it's difficult. So your marvellous management at the Mahler Chamber Orchestra organised to assemble for a couple of sessions, just to get used to the music, have it played through. For me to make a few little adjustments, and so that the music can sink in and be as it were quicker and easier to put together again at the end of August. And we also were incredibly, almost miraculously fortunate that the Kölner Philharmonie gave us the hall for two sessions, so we had a marvellous acoustic with tonnes of space around and wonderful circumstances in which to do these two sessions.This is something that has never happened to me before, it's unique. And all the more unique as it’s taking place in the middle – or one hopes, greatly, passionately hopes – towards the end of this pandemic. This is the first time I’ve picked up a baton, since I was last with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in early September last year. So I have literally not seen a musician, or performed or done anything except compose in the intervening nine months. So it's been a shock to the system, seeing musicians again, working with them and hearing something that's been locked in my mind for, on the way to two years, for the very first time. And it's extremely thrilling and mesmerising – and my mind and my brain I suspect is whizzing around in all sorts of different directions at the moment. 

 


YD: From my perspective sitting in the ensemble today and yesterday, you had an intensity of focus that at times seemed almost a little bit scary. How do you view this, kind of, giving birth stage of a composition? 

 

 

GB: Well I hope I'm not. I don’t intend to be scary. No, I just, I know how wonderful the musicians are in front of me and I'm just trying to shape things so that my piece sounds like I want it to sound like. Like I imagine it sounding. The sort of level of concentration and fixing the whole attention and mind on music, on a piece of music, on a minute of music, a second of music, it is what I live in while composing. The degree of, depth, almost hallucinatory concentration, to pick the right notes, in the right place, with the right rhythms and the right term etc. In a way I believe that a whole piece lives within a single beat. That a beat of a piece, has to be a fragment, a portion, a small portion of the whole thing. And the whole thing is made out of myriad of smaller subsections, smaller details. So a whole and the atoms are in a way the same thing. So if it seems like I'm really concentrating and wanting concentration I suspect it comes from that. 


[G. BENJAMIN "Concerto for Orchestra"]


YD: You have a grasp of such a complex – a concrete grasp of the landscape of your piece, in your mind, whole, complete. How does it feel when such a complete picture is transferred to the outside world? From the inner ear to the outer ear, on a first play through for example?



GB: It's an extremely strange situation for me and it's not something that happens every year because I'm far from a quick composer. My last premiere was almost exactly three years ago, an opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, in mid-May 2018. And here we are, three years and two weeks later. The thing is that's so strange, is that to create a piece, to create any piece that I write, just takes a long, long time. Including an awful lot of time spent very lost and rather confused and when what you want is extremely far from being clear, until you reach a stage where really, one hopes, one desperately hopes, is continuously clear, even when it's confusing in sound, intentionally there's moments when things reach overload. All the same, I desired an extreme degree of clarity in the conception of what I'm writing. And that just takes such along time. I mean thousands of hours in a year just, just thinking, hearing and trying and sketching. And then you reach the stage with these lovely, wonderful musicians in front of you and you start, and eighteen minutes later you've ended. And what was revolving in my mind and in my inner ear for such a long time, is no longer locked in between that small space between my two ears (physically I mean, not my brain). And, it's weird. I don't really, at least as I am now, after lots of activity and rehearsal, and therefore my mind is buzzing – but it’s a very strange, it's like you go through all the thousands of hours within a period of eighteen months/two years, and it's compressed within fifteen, eighteen, twenty minutes. Everything you've done and lived through, mainly in that pervious period is suddenly there and it's very hard to grasp. And it's a bit scary for me. And yet it's also really, really so nice as well, when bits – you get the feeling that yes it's sounding like I was hoping it was going to sound. And some people are playing so nicely and interestingly, that it’s: "Oh that's a little bit, that I wasn't expecting that nuance there". And at the same time, I've got to be cogent, and hopefully liquid,and clear as a conductor for everybody. And a conductor who listens as well, so it's very demanding and yet a great thrill. There's one thing I will add, which is that once it's been played once – even not totally precisely outside my mind– something closes. The process of the piece is forever over. 


 

YD: You mean the process of the creation of the piece? So you're giving the pieceaway?



GB: Yes. It's gone. It's gone. And I've never been able to start a new piece until this has happened. I've never been needed to, because I don't write pieces continuously. I don't start a new piece immediately after finishing another one. But this as it were, happening now, means that I can go home and eventfully, I suspect, I'll feel ready, beginning of the process of changing skin and starting something else. 


 

YD: Is MCO written in a way into the DNA of the work? I'm thinking maybe the title is a giveaway at this point. Is it a clear statement calling it Concerto for Orchestra or am I reading too much into it? 



GB: No, I think you're not. This orchestra has qualities that are absolutely exceptional. In all sorts of different dimensions, but above all, thankfully in the way that you play. And I wrote my opera Written on Skin for the MCO. This is my second big piece for you. There is more coming in the future as well. And there's two things about the MCO which I find just exceptional – well the human quality as well – so three things. I like the orchestra. I like the people who run the orchestra. I like the attitude in rehearsal. I like the attitude in performance. The glow of sound of the orchestra is really something special, it's so sheerly so beautiful. Tremendous range. Can be extremely powerful as well. But there's something really, something golden, about the sound quality of the orchestra. Plus the orchestra has a fantastic and rather incredibly characteristic degree of articulation.You can hear, there is something to do with the phrasing and the crispness of every line, that gives music played by the MCO a sort of zest of lime, or some sort of breath of fresh air, which I also love. And when I'm composing – I can't say this is the case every single day or every week even – but behind me is the glow and freshness of sound of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. And yes, it seems to sustain me, and it seems to inspire me. And the fact that this is called Concerto for Orchestra and it's dedicated to the orchestra is one of the ways I can say thank you to what the orchestra has given to me in the last decade. In fact more than a decade, we've known each other thirteen years now.


[G. BENJAMIN "Concerto for Orchestra"]


YD: Written on Skin, it was the first composition of yours that MCO was intimately involved with from a very early stage. It's an amazing psychological horror thriller of an opera. To me, playing it in the MCO, the music lazes its way through the mind’s eye of the main characters. Spilling the action into the pit, and it felt MCO was very closely engaged with what was going on in the plot so to speak. If that makes sense. Concerto for Orchestra, it's a very different creation, being a purely orchestral composition, and I've read – I hope it's correct – was it 2008? Was the last time you wrote in this genre? 

 

GB: Yes, everything I've written since 2008 has involved voices. That's two big opera's and a sort of cantata for countertenor, women’s chorus, and orchestra called Dream of the Song. So yes, it's my first abstract orchestral composition in thirteen years and a concerto is different. The piece we're talking about is called Duet and it's a miniature piano concerto with orchestra. So if we're talking about purely orchestral music, with no soloists and no stage connection, it's actually twenty years. My piece Palimpsests, since that, I wrote as an abstract piece for orchestra. 



YD: What are the specific challenges when creating a work of this sort? As opposed to, with an opera there's an obvious narrative, plot drama. 



GB: The narrative that Martin Crimp, my collaborator in my opera’s gives me, not only the narrative, but the narrative techniques that he uses and the rather complex labyrinthine structure that he invents for me, which is so full of emotion and so steeped in atmosphere. They're incredibly useful for me in writing. When I'm composing operas, I've worked something like six to ten times faster as a composer. It accelerates me to an enormous degree. I love the human voice, I love setting words. So I've relished the task in the last fifteen years of writing three operas and I intend to write more. But there's one thing, a very useful thing – when you're writing for the stage, it's very important that the singers are audible, and that the words are usually audible, and as a result the orchestra has to be quiet a lot of the time, when the singing is happening. When they're no longer there, the singers, I can let the orchestra be more raucous and more active and that is very much the case in this piece. Also because of the absence of singers, the instrumental writing in this piece is considerably more virtuosic, than anything I've done for a long time. And that was deliberate, I really wanted to enjoy the virtuosity of musicians in the foreground – instrumental musicians. On the other hand, the absence of plot and of words and the form of words, let alone the direction of narrative, is when you suddenly have nothing like that anymore and you really, really have a completely empty page on day one, that is something that is quite scary for me, and that was responsible for the first nine months of composition on this piece, not exactly being very productive. I didn't keep a single bar from that period. And when I finished the piece in January, I also completely rewrote the first quarter, or a third of the piece entirely. 



YD: Why? 



GB: It wasn't good enough. 


 

YD: Is that something that often happens? Is it a part of the process? 



GB: In this precise way, no its never happened before. Every experience and every journey of a piece is different and you start, you're able to start in different places within the structure. I think you can't underestimate, at least with myself personally, the degree of confusion when starting at a piece. You say, a pieceof music starts with a cell or some idea. I have to find an idea which is pregnant within itself of huge possibilities, both in itself and its capacity to transform and combine and mutate into lots of other material. Or else the piece won’t have, a piece of music has to have cogency and coherence and it also has to have diversity and variety and contrast. And those two things don't necessarily work automatically together. And also more important than anything, I have to find something that I like. A sound that touches me, that means something to me. That speaks to me, and to find that, it doesn't happen every month. And you have to keep on trying, you can't just sit around doing nothing, just try, and try, and try, and try, and try more, until something lights up and then a flame is started and there is something to work with. 


[G. BENJAMIN "Concerto for Orchestra"]


YD: To my mind you're a composer – very exacting standards – I don't think that's a secret at all. I have the impression the composition is printed in the very front of your brain while you're conducting it. Even here in the Kölner Philharmonie at its first run through, but eventually the piece goes forth out into the world and starts a life of its own. I hope it's acceptable to say that. I've always been interested in how composers react to this. What's your perspective on, I guess, giving it away to its next stage in life? 


 

GB: Oh I like that lots. I like it lots. I want to conduct and tour around not very much in the years to come. I want to be able to stay home and write more pieces. But I like my pieces to be heard and to be played, of course, so I like it very much as an idea. But not only as an abstract idea when I hear my work performed under the arms and baton of people who are sympathetic of my work and capable of brining all sorts of new facets to it. I love that as an idea. I love that as an idea. The only one thing is that, if they’re not either capable or sympathetic towards it, and the circumstances aren't right and it's played – both not with the right spirit and not exactly with the right details – that's an experience I would do anything, anything to avoid. Because it's really, really horrid. And I've heard some wonderful performances of my works in my life as a composer, and some awful ones. And the awful ones leave a mark, and so I would do anything to avoid them now. 



YD: So you feel very much like a parent to the piece? 



GB: Yes. Yes. But soon children have to leave home as well and go on their own road. I don't know when I am going to hear this piece played by someone else conducting it, I don't know at the moment. I'd be very excited to do that, because it's a very different feeling being sat in the concert hall rather than being at the front of the orchestra. There's one thing in particular, which in a way – it's a hard decision – but I like being responsible for the first performance. There's some reasons when it's good to have someone who's outside the piece, who isn't the composer, there's many reasons that would be a positive thing. But, perhaps you noticed I did some fine tuning. I changed some dynamics. I even shifted one or two pitches which I've been thinking about that I wasn't absolutely happy about. And I shifted the tempo and drew back the tempo in a place where I hadn't absolutely been certain of before. And so I was doing some fine tuning to the actual structure, not the structure, but the stuff of the piece itself, and that could not happen if someone else was conducting because I couldn't interfere to the same degree and it would drive everybody, including the conductor mad. And I think that's quite useful for the future of the piece, because it means I can just fine-tune things to get them exactly, exactly, like I want them. And then I might even do a little bit more of that in London when we meet again prior to the premiere. 

 

YD: Having composed Concerto for Orchestra partly during Covid times, the isolation of last year is starting now to be documented and analysed. The U.K. where you live has had on occasions, particularly heavy periods of lockdown, and I think the psychological burdens will be seen in a lot of cases as being heavy for people. We're after all social animals. Ironically when I read articles about your own composing regime, many elements of isolation that you, yourself desperately actually need to create the sound world of your music – to climb into your inner ear for example– many of those elements, are what a lot of people during Covid have considered very testing. And you can do these regimes for years, as you've described earlier in this interview. But I also understand this way of working is also taxing for you. I'm interested in what you've learned about isolation through a lifetime of being a composer. What it gives you, and maybe sometimes, what it also takes from you. 


GB: Debussy said you either compose or live. Meaning that if you decide to be a composer a large, very large, proportion of your life has got to be spent alone, in silence, thinking, hearing, imagining. A large proportion. It doesn't mean one has no life at all. One would have nothing to write, if one had no life. But all the same it does mean that one's inner world has to be fostered and lived within for long uninterrupted periods. And that has meant that this incredibly strange and disturbing and often terrifying period of the last sixteen months –that the aspect of being locked away is much more familiar to me and many of my composing colleagues – than to most members of the population, with whom it will have come, I suspect, as a terrible shock. Also it depends exactly how people's lives are, if people are old and alone it must have been really quite, quite awful. But as it were, I think I am more solitary when composing, then perhaps normal for a composer. I mean I really don't go out. I don't go to concerts. I don't go to operas. I really will spend weeks and weeks and weeks, and fortunately I have a wonderful partner and wonderful family existence around me of just a few people – less than eight to nine people – who I do see, and who sustain me and give me much, much happiness, while I'm writing. But the outer world, is almost completely excluded. You know, as someone who writes books or writes operas, or I don't know, paints – you have these and those fields. You have to learn what works when you're a solitary artist, not like an architect or a filmmaker. You have to learn how to get the best out of yourself, under which circumstances your muse and your imagination can work best. And I've just learnt that these circumstances – I've not forced myself, no one is forcing me to compose – but that I've found for myself, and I just keep to them. If I have a very busy social life and a lot of contrast, and seeing lots of people, and going to lots of concerts, I'll never focus in on the sound world and its dreamlike quality that's required. It just won’t happen. It just won't start. I just won't be able to do it. I've had to cope with who I am and what I give in. 



YD: Does it ever feel scary being in this tunnel? 



GB: No, no. Scary I wouldn't say. When it's not going well after a few months, it's not pleasant.Very far from it. And actually, the moments of eureka and being thrilled are also almost non-existent. It's a question as if, as it were devoting yourself to a task. I suppose it's a bit like being an Olympic swimmer or marathon runner, that you practice maybe early morning's 365 days a year, for two or three years, and then comes the actual race or performance. It's all in preparation for that and everything else is subordinate to that, at least as much as you possibly can manage. Of course life intervenes in all sorts of ways and in different ways, and you can't stop that, you don't actually want to stop that. But I wanted to be a composer when I was very young, about seven years old, and I never changed my mind. And I found this is the way in which I can write the sort of music that I want to write, and that's how it is, so I just get on with it. 



YD: That kind of focus can be very addictive as well, can't it? 


GB: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I mean, falling into pattern and habits is something that's both normal, while being creative, and maybe necessary. But I don't find it addictive. Put it this way, if I'm allowed out, or I break out, I'm very happy to do that. It's not addictive at all. In fact I can't wait to reach the end of a piece and then I can have a few weeks or months of complete freedom. Because not only is the solitude, but the other aspect is that the weight of the piece on ones – as it were, shoulders (speaking metaphorically) – is heavy. And it's gnawing away at you all the time. Almost without break, till you reach the last bar. And today, really the last two days, is really the final stage of that. Because now, we've played it, I've heard it externally and I see that despite it being rather challenging, it actually is playable. Almost all of it, I think. And it functions, so it really is close now and that's very, very nice to be at the end of that. 


[G. BENJAMIN "Concerto for Orchestra"]


YD: One last question. I always ask the importance of music and live music – of course, in your life is obvious – it gives deep meaning to your talent and secures yourw ellbeing, as we talked about, and it's a major, major nourishment. But especially after Covid, what would you see as the wider importance of music and especially live music to people and societies? 



GB: Exactly as before. But much more intense, at least for a short period. The absence of music, live music in our world is a terrible thing. That we haven't been able to assemble, both as ensembles and as audiences, together to relish and enjoy the wonder of this art form. I watched the MCO a few hours before they came to meet with me here in Cologne, playing the most fantastic performance of Beethoven's First Symphony. I'm a composer because I fell in love with Beethoven's Symphonies. They mean the world to me. They changed my life and they found the purpose in my life. And if you'd asked me what the favourite thing in the world was for me, when I was eight years old, I wouldn't have hesitated for a half a second, it would have been Beethoven and his nine symphonies. I don't encounter them that often now, but they mean so much to me. Yesterday afternoon's performance which I watched on the television here in Cologne was absolutely superb, as I'd expect from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Brilliantly conducted by Daniel Harding, and it brought back all the love and all the enthusiasm and the thrill, the sheer thrill and delight I had, when as a child I got to know these pieces off by heart. And hearing the piece played with such freshness and such articulation, and such elegance and delight, yesterday. But it brought another thing to me. During the music it fed my inner life as a child and did something that nothing else could do in the world. Nothing else could give me this burgeoning sense of inner, not peace, it's far from peaceful – it's dynamism and it's a feeling of almost moral intensity. And Beethoven is perhaps unique among composers in being able to give that. And that came back to me very, very strongly yesterday. Partially it came back to me, is that I haven't heard a live performance of a Beethoven Symphony for a good eighteen months and I suspect you haven't played one for a good eighteen months, or a long time. So this music meant a huge amount, it meant a huge amount. And I think at this post – hopefully, completely, we hope – pandemic conclusion, that everybody who in society likes music, will take a moment to just consider how fortunate we are to have this phenomenon in our existence. How precious it is, what a glory it is. What awonder, a miracle it is that you can put so many instruments together and make them sound in rhythm and harmony to such an extraordinary degree. And value it for being such a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon. It also might speak to the hearts of a few politicians, all over the world, how important it is to foster and maintain this wonderful thing that we have. And how vulnerable it is, and how it could be so easily silenced. And to give it support so that it can be reborn and can foster again. And also, this gap, will have cut back on that dreaded thing routine, which is such an enemy to any form of artistic communication. So the audience will all be hungry in a way they've never known before. But also musicians will want to communicate in a different way. And maybe programming and the nature, and the way that music is listened to and performed and programmed, might shift a little bit as well. And that will be a healthy thing. And maybe for a few months after the pandemic is really over, some good will come from it. 



YD: Well at the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, we are counting the days until we can play Concerto for Orchestra again, and be at the Proms with you. And I want to say a huge thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Thank you George Benjamin. 

 

GB: Great pleasure Yannick. Thank you. 



YD: As you just heard the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by George Benjamin will give the world premiere of his piece Concerto for Orchestra in London at the BBC Proms Festival, and continue on to Musikfest Berlin and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Check out the MCO website for details.


The Between the Bars team is changing. A huge MCO thank you to Mark Parker for all his commitment, energy and personality. He leaves us to continue life’s journey of learning at Chicago Booth. And welcome Laura Thompson, into the hot chair, MCO's new Communications Manager. From Matthias Mayr and me, Yannick Dondelinger till next episode, keep listening.  


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The Mahler Chamber Orchestra's appearance at the 2021 BBC Proms is generously supported by the Karolina Blaberg Stiftung.


Appearances at Musikfest Berlin and Hamburg Elbphilharmonie are with the kind support
 of Klangwert – Aventis Foundation Musical Ensemble Promotion, the Rudolf Augstein Foundation and the Ilse and Dr. Horst Rusch Foundation.


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