Interview: George Benjamin

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First published in BBC Music Magazine, January 2019

George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. “Setting the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he winces. “And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!” Who can corroborate? The world never heard those 34 precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to create – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence – have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.

Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. He laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they’re fully formed. Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. He won’t make do with sloppiness and, brilliant teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, though. It’s a boyish, eager, clever enthusiasm, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is “so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.”

In his music, too, only the right notes will do. It’s what makes his sound worlds so spotless and so total, but also what has caused him absolute agony at various points of his life when the right notes wouldn’t come easily. “I wrote tons of music for plays when I was a kid,” he says, “so it was a matter of sadness that I didn’t return to the theatre for 25 years.” He couldn’t, blocked by his own creative impasse. Things wouldn’t fall into place for the kind of operas he wanted to write. “I gave it a quarter of a century of thought. I thought about the problems I wanted to solve. How to tell a story. How to produce the right music. How to clinch the vocal writing. I wanted to get rid of the zigzag” – he means the cliche of contemporary operatic vocal lines, darting high and low in jagged ziggurat. “But I didn’t want to go back to tonal language, either. The fusion of voice and orchestra, them being audibly embedded in each other. I wanted to find my own way of doing all of that.”

Our interview becomes a kind of lesson, Benjamin explaining in lucid detail how he went about solving each of these problems of contemporary opera. Lessons in process and ritual; lessons in matchmaking. His teaching is thorough and gently self-mocking. There are only a couple secrets he keeps fiercely guarded: he wont say what piece he’s writing at the moment (“No! Never tell a soul! Something I learned from my teacher Messiaen: never tell a soul what you’re working on!”) and he’s contractually-bound not to say whether there’s another opera in the pipeline, though his long hesitation is an answer in itself. “What I will say,” he smiles, “is that I’ve become so enthused by the medium that I want to keep writing operas until I’m no longer able.”

Lesson one. Make space. In the past, Benjamin has described the period around writing an opera – two and a half years or so – as a kind of purdah. He stops teaching, stops conducting. “I can’t compose all the time during that period, but I never know when the moment will come. I’ve learned to be very patient. It might take three weeks to start a new scene, to find the right technique, the attitude, the momentum, the pacing of it. There’s a lot to decide and there’s only so much I can do in one day. I’ve accepted that in my brain, confusion is the normal state of affairs. Clarifying, that’s the main process. I might make a step forward one day, two steps back the next.”

The important thing, he says, is what to do with the in-between times. “If I taught, if I conducted, nothing would form. So instead, I read. I devour novels. They allow me to put them down, go to my desk, scribble something, pick the book up again. They feed my imagination and keep me quiet. And they stimulate my inner life. If I find a novelist who interests me, I’ll devour their complete work within a few weeks.” Recent such devourees include Marilynne Robinson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy and Vladimir Nabokov.

It sounds a great luxury, shutting out the world and getting lost in books, but Benjamin insists it’s not without frustration. “I’ve just learned how to manage, or at least to cope with myself. I do feel the need to live within the world of the opera but I’m impatient by nature. I would prefer if it came out immediately, but it just doesn’t. Finally I’ve accepted that.”

Lesson two. Choose the right tools. I’m talking to Benjamin at his kitchen table: an open-plan townhouse backing onto a garden in North-West London. This is the house where the purdah retreats happen. There’s a grand piano on the ground floor but Benjamin writes upstairs on a humble upright. If the piano is too good, he says, “you’d listen to the sound it makes instead of the sounds in your head. I’ve happily composed pieces on pianos that have missing keys. It’s just a tool.”

When he’s writing, he is mainly thinking a lot. ”I’m thinking a huge number of things at the same time. I’m always thinking of the form. I can’t write a single note unless I weigh the effect of that note on the whole structure.” It sounds potentially paralysing – all that weight of implication – and in the past it has been paralysing. “And that’s why I invent frameworks. It’s a part of the process that needs very deep concentration because if you get the framework right it’s a huge liberation. If you get it wrong, you’re just frozen.”

“When I was a kid, I used to think that everything should be free. That your sensibility and imagination should be enough. Anything constructivist or objective was anathema to me. And then I learned that was wrong and immature. Ravel said composing is one thing: choice. But the capacity to choose isn’t easy. If you’re totally free, and you’re working in a multiphonic framework like opera, it becomes impossible to choose. There are too many ingredients, too many relationships between them. An ideal framework gives you the capacity to choose the notes you like at any given moment.”

The framework sounds like a scaffold that disappears when the music is finished. Benjamin has a more poetic image: a kind of “ghost behind the music, with its own form. You’ve got to find a good ghost. A ghost that gives you surprises en route. And it’s important you’ve got the illusion of it being an independent entity. Although” – his eyes are twinkling now – “by creating an independent entity there’s always a danger of some kind of existential chasm. Which can be a real pain!”

Benjamin never suggests his frameworks to his students. (“Oh god, no!”) Any technique used by a composer should be a response to his or her own limitations, he stresses. Multiple other composers have made their own frameworks: Berg, Ligeti, Benjamin’s teacher Messiaen, Benjamin’s dear friend Oliver Knussen. “But I think the way I’ve done it is really unlike anyone else,” he says. “It is rather weird. But what justifies it is what comes out at the other end.”

Lesson three. Find the right collaborator. Benjamin looked for a librettist for 25 years. Playwrights, poets, novelists, screenwriters – umpteen wordsmiths were sent his way by well-meaning friends and colleagues and publishers, but nobody was quite right. “Sometimes it would get to six or seven meetings before I admitted it just wasn’t going to work. I’d almost given up before I met Martin.” Martin Crimp: playwright with a gift for cruel, tender, unflinching dramas; librettist for all three Benjamin operas (and counting). The pair were introduced by the viola da gamba player Laurence Dreyfus, and something clicked instantly.

“I find enormous stimulation in the way Martin writes: the concision, the clarity, the ferocity, the subtly of emotion. The amount of colour and feeling he gives me. The crystalline structures that are so economical they almost demand music. It’s what I always wanted. Once I’d found my ingredient X, to my surprise and joy it was a form of liberation. It really opened me up.”

And so it has, because Benjamin is on a roll. He’s conducting and teaching profusely, he’s writing more than ever, and above all he’s besotted with opera. He says he and Crimp are “on a joint project to do drama that involves singing and music” – simple words to describe a mission that’s nothing short of reshaping the genre for the 21st century. Yet for all the ambition, the works themselves are notably delicate. There’s a dark quietness that underscores Lessons in Love and Violence – an eerie, intimate fragility. Benjamin says he loves the effect of silence when there are a lot of people in a room. He loves “the rhythm of silence across a piece, meaning the occasions when the orchestra is allowed off its leash can be really shocking.”

The ultimate aim, he says, is intimacy. “Emotions don’t have to be shouted. I can’t force-feeding people. They’ll switch off. The idea is to open up a space within them. You can block that by preaching or by giving mono-dimensional messages. That doesn’t mean there aren’t beliefs in the work, but we’re aiming for resonance, not spoon-feeding. People resist that. They need their individuality to be respected.” Here, Benjamin pauses. “Maybe the only way is to write what I would want to hear, and to just trust the rest.”

Which brings me to a closing tangent. We spend a good while talking about national schools – initially in relation to Pierre Boulez, whom Benjamin knew well and about whom he’s remarked that “only when he accepted he was fundamentally a French composer did he find his true voice.” When I ask whether Benjamin considers himself part of any national school (or what that even means) I get one of his laughs.

“No idea! I studied in France. It made a huge impact on me. I’ve worked more in Germany as a conductor. This is my home,” he pats the table, “and this,” he gestures the air, “is my language. When I was young I was glad to be a British composer. Dogma, hyper-rationality – those are very foreign to the empirical British way of looking at things. Individuality, eccentricity, lack of dogma. Those are things that are more natural to us. Respect for the individual, delight in individual fantasy without having to be part of a school. A degree of artistic freedom. Those are our strengths.”

“In the end – and this might be a British thing as well – I’m really not interested in things like identity politics in music. For me to get the best out of me, the less I think about me the better. I’m not trying to express myself. I’m not even interested in myself! What matters is authentic, coherent and hopefully beautiful statements. However the work was made, whatever the process and the backstory, that’s the only thing that matters.”