Composer / Conductor / Pianist  George  Benjamin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in 1960, George Benjamin began composing at the age of seven. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Messiaen, after which he worked with Alexander Goehr at King's College, Cambridge.

benjamin When he was only 20 years old, Ringed by the Flat Horizon was played at the BBC Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder. The London Sinfonietta and Simon Rattle premiered At First Light two years later.  Antara was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the Pompidou Centre in 1987 and Three Inventions was written for the 75th Salzburg Festival in 1995. The London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez premiered Palimpsests in 2002 to mark the opening of ‘By George’, a season-long portrait which included the first performance of Shadowlines by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. More recent celebrations of Benjamin’s work have taken place at the Southbank Centre in 2012 (as part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad), at the Barbican in 2016 and at the Wigmore Hall in 2019.  The last decade has also seen multi-concert retrospectives in San Francisco, Frankfurt, Turin, Milan, Aldeburgh, Toronto, Dortmund, New York and at the 2018 Holland Festival.

Benjamin’s first operatic work Into the Little Hill, written with playwright Martin Crimp, was commissioned in 2006 by the Festival d'Automne in Paris. Their second collaboration, Written on Skin, premiered at the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2012, has since been scheduled by over 20 international opera houses, winning as many international awards. Lessons in Love and Violence, a third collaboration with Martin Crimp, premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2018; both works were filmed by BBC television, and a related Imagine’ profile on Benjamin was broadcast on BBC1 in October 2018.

As a conductor Benjamin has a broad repertoire  - ranging from Mozart and Schumann to Knussen, Murail and Abrahamsen -  and has conducted numerous world premieres, including important works by Rihm, Chin, Grisey and Ligeti.  He regularly works with some of the world's leading orchestras, and over the years has developed particularly close relationships with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern as well as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who gave the world premiere of Dream of the Song in September 2015. During the 2018-19 season Benjamin was composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Musikfest and at the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

Recent awards include the 2015 Prince Pierre of Monaco composition prize (for Written on Skin) and the 2019 Golden Lion Award for lifetime achievement from the Venice Biennale. An honorary fellow of King’s College Cambridge, the Guildhall, the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music, Benjamin is also an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He was awarded a C.B.E. in 2010 and made an Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2015, and was knighted in the 2017 Queen's Birthday Honours. He has frequently taught and performed at the Tanglewood Festival over the last 20 years, and since 2001 has been the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College, London and was made a Fellow of the College in 2017. His works are published by Faber Music and are recorded on Nimbus Records. Benjamin was elected as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 2018.

==  Biography from the website of his publisher, Faber Music  
==  Names which are links in this box refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


George Benjamin was in Chicago in April of 2005.  As he mentions in our conversation from that time, he was here for a piece of his on a chamber concert.  He then returned to London, only to fly back a month later to hear the world premiere of a new piece played by the Chicago Symphony.  
He will be returning to the Windy City in the fall of 2020 for Lessons in Love and Violence at Lyric Opera.

I was fortunate to arrange for an interview during his busy time, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   We will just chat about our favorite subject...  I assume that music is still your favorite subject?

George Benjamin:   I don’t even think about it because it’s my life, and has been since I was a little boy.

benjamin BD:   There’s no time that you remember when you were not involved in music?

Benjamin:   No.  I can’t remember any time because I was already involved
in an incredibly naïve waywhen I was three or four.

BD:   Was it music at all as you know it today, or did it start very simplistically and just grow?

Benjamin:   It was pop music I liked at first.  It was the really good era of pop music in the
60s.  It’s what started with the Beatles and things like that.  When I shared a room with my sister, she would play that music on her little tiny radio.  Then I just got on classical music, and that put an end to that.  But I was passionate about music from the very beginning.  I can’t remember when I wasn’t.

BD:   Did the classical interest put an end to the pop music for you...

Benjamin:   Yes.

BD:   ...or did it run on a parallel line?

Benjamin:   No, I’m afraid the story of my reaction is comic, really.  I was taken reluctantly to see the film Fantasia, the cartoon, when I was six or seven, and I thought the music was so extraordinary that, on the way back from the cinema, we went to a record store and bought a little record of one of the pieces.  When I got home, I threw my pop records away.  It was a complete pull-anchor version, I felt.  I’d been intolerant of classical music until that point, and then the intolerance switched over, and I became fanatical about classical music to the exclusion of all other music.

BD:   Are you still intolerant of pop music?

Benjamin:   I became milder in my intolerance as the years went by, and there are varied sorts of music outside the classical western tradition, some of which I like enormously.  But my greatest love remains classical music.

BD:   You took the classical music as it was.  Are you trying to expand it yourself?

Benjamin:   That’s the composer’s job
to do something which hasn’t been done before; to write something that is different.

BD:   Is it something you look forward to, or is it something you do reluctantly?

Benjamin:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t think in those terms, just that it’s part of the excitement of composing
writing something you haven’t done before, and trying to give people’s ears something fresh and new.  That’s being a composer.

BD:   As you look at all the classical music that has happened for six, or eight hundred years, do you feel you are part of that lineage?

Benjamin:   Oh, I wouldn’t know.  I don’t think I’m able to say that.  All I know is that I feed off the composers whose music I love from that huge tradition.  But when you can’t follow everything, one has to try and do something of one’s own as well.  Just like those models from the past, whoever they may be, they did the same.

BD:   But you haven’t ignored everything that’s gone before?

Benjamin:   No!  No, no, I love music.  That’s why I write music, because I love listening to it.  I don’t want to repeat what was done before, but sometimes discovering, often by accident, a piece from the recent past, or the far distant past, can be something which instigates a new piece, or a certain aspect of a new piece in me.  Quite by accident, I heard a late Seventeenth Century obscure organ piece by
Nicolas de Grigny on the radio in England, and could not believe what that music was.  I waited to hear what it was and who it was by, and that gave me enormous reason to ponder about what that composer was doing.  It was something incredibly original in his time, and I wondered how I might learn from it.  That contact with something unexpected can be really, really useful to writing one’s own music.

Nicolas de Grigny was born in 1672 in Reims in the parish of Saint-Pierre-Le-Vieil. The exact date of his birth is unknown; he was baptized on 8 September. He was born into a family of musicians: his father, his grandfather, and his uncle, Robert, were organists at the Reims Cathedral, the Basilica of St. Pierre and St. Hilaire, respectively. Few details about his life are known, nothing at all about his formative years. Between 1693 and 1695 he served as organist of the abbey church of Saint Denis, in Paris (where his brother André de Grigny was sub-prior). It was also during that period that Grigny studied with Nicolas Lebègue, who was by then one of the most famous French keyboard composers. In 1695 Grigny married Marie-Magdeleine de France, daughter of a Parisian merchant. Apparently, he returned to his hometown soon afterwards: the record of the birth of his first son indicates that de Grigny was already in Reims in 1696. The couple went on to produce six more children.

By late 1697 Grigny was appointed titular organist of Notre-Dame de Reims (the exact date of the appointment is not known), the city's famous cathedral in which French kings were crowned. In 1699 the composer published his Premier livre d'orgue [contenant une messe et les hymnes des principalles festes de l'année] in Paris. Grigny died in 1703, aged 31, shortly after accepting a job offer from Saint Symphorien, a parish church in Reims. His Livre d'orgue was reissued in 1711 through the efforts of his widow. The collection became known abroad: it was copied in 1713 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

BD:   Are you learning from that piece of music, or are you learning from the direction that composer was going?

Benjamin:   I’m learning from that piece of music.  His melodic line is almost absurdly ornamental and fantastical, and the harmony that he underpins it is just beautiful.  I was just absolutely fascinated to try and understand how he could have composed in such a way, and to learn the paragraphs he makes.  It seems like one great big organ improvisation lasting about five or six minutes.  In the confines in which it is written, and the way that it expands and develops, I liked it so much that I orchestrated it.

BD:   The orchestration really gets it into your head?

Benjamin:   Yes, it does.  Even once I’d finished the orchestration, I still did give it some very, very deep thought indeed, and the results are in the new piece I’ve written for the Chicago Symphony.

*     *     *     *     *

benjamin BD:   You’re both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two very taxing activities?

Benjamin:   Well, I’m also a conductor.  I’m going to conduct in the Philharmonie in Berlin in a couple of weeks.

BD:   Do you conduct only your own music?

Benjamin:   No, I’m doing Scriabin, Ravel, Ligeti, and my own music.  I’m also going to the Berlin Philharmonic next year, doing Messiaen and more Ravel, and contemporary German music, as well as my own.  I do a lot of modern music, and I do a lot of Twentieth Century repertoire, and my things.

BD:   Then how do you balance the three-legged stool?

Benjamin:   Teaching is something which I love to do.  That’s very, very important for composing.  Contact with younger people, but also teaching them something can really open up new things for me.  What I do is conduct in periods when I’m not composing usually.  So, I’m coming out of a composing period now, and I’m about to go into what will be a conducting period, which will last basically until the autumn.  Then most of next year is a conducting-free zone, apart from heavy activity in May and November.  That means no conducting otherwise.

BD:   That becomes the composing time?

Benjamin:   Yes.  I need lots of peace and quiet time to do composing.

BD:   Can you actually schedule the time to compose?

Benjamin:   Yes... well, it doesn’t always actually work.  Last year, I’d had six months completely free, and nothing came out of it.  Then, the piece that I’ve just written came out unexpectedly fast, and it did coincide with a period when I was doing a little bit of conducting.  I remember composing in hotel rooms, which is a good sign, actually, because it means the pressure of the piece is intense, but also a bit strange.

BD:   Does the mood always strike you when you need it?

Benjamin:   No, she or he is very undependable and very irritatingly so.  Sometimes it comes and she strikes very late... not too late, but desperately late sometimes.  Sometimes she strikes not at all, and other times voluminously when you’re not expecting it.  That’s part of the game of a being a composer, at least for myself as a composer.

BD:   Does it help that you know when you’re going to conduct, because those concerts are scheduled so far in advance?

Benjamin:   Yes, but it would be very nice if one had been stuck composing for two months, and you could ring an orchestra and say, “Can I please come round tomorrow?  I’m not feeling like composing.”  [Both laugh]  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.  Also, there’s a time when I have a concert, which in this case is three concerts about to happen next month, and I really want to write.  I really want to write!  I don’t want to move, but you just have to.  One thing I do say is that I have to stop for six months.  I need half-year periods when I just don’t conduct, and you take the risk.  Perhaps that will be a totally barren period, but if it had been a barren period, you would have learned something that will feed afterwards.  I’m quite brutal about that, and I will frequently reserve nine months or twelve months without any conducting at all.

BD:   When you’re not conducting, if the muse doesn’t strike you, do you then study other scores?

Benjamin:   Yes.  Teaching is very useful, because it gets things really clear in one’s own head so you can teach them to your students.  I always do new things for my students.  I never repeat the same classes, never.  I’ve never done that once, so teaching, for me, is like a journey of discovery.  For instance, I adore the end of the Symphony of Psalms of Stravinsky.  The last four minutes is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever written, and I’ve never really investigated it with sufficient depth to try and understand why it works so magnificently.  I gave a long lecture
for which I prepared enormouslyfor my students in King’s College in London last year, and in so doing, learning its background and looking at it from every possible angle, I did learn a lot myself, and that would have been useful.  Conducting is spontaneous musicmakingand is sensual for me, as I love to make musicbut teaching is the thing that feeds composing, because it forces you to remain young inside, and learn all the time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re conducting, do you look at the score differently because you are a composer and not just the interpreter?

Benjamin:   It’s possible, isn’t it?  I suppose when you spend so much of your life writing notes, one after the other, along these five-lined staves, it might influence the way you look at a score.  I can’t be certain in what particular way, but it’s possible, if you’re on the wavelength of that music, that you will have an insight, which someone who doesn’t compose maybe won’t have.  It may not necessarily be better, but you will look at the score in a slightly different way.  For anybody who plays music, it
s good to compose, even if you don’t do very much.  I’m certain to have to tackle the difficulties involved of making paragraphs, and making sound, and making structures would be useful for anybody.

BD:   When you’re conducting your own compositions, do you look at them differently than you would if you were just sitting at the table writing?

benjamin Benjamin:   Yes, drastically, because if you have the same attitude as you’d have when you were writing, you would be quite useless as a conductor.  The first purpose of the conductor is to give time and organization to a performance, the backbone of which is rhythm.  For that, you need to listen and to receive from the musicians, and give, and give, and give back.  I can hear my new piece in my head virtually perfectly, and I’m the only person who has heard it up to now.  So if youre completely locked in your head, that’s not the same as conducting it and performing it.  Therefore, to go from the state that I have it in my head, to the state of performing it, requires a complete change of philosophy.  You have to serve the music when you’re conducting it.  It mustn’t be stuck inside your head.  On the contrary, youre giving it to an audience, and you’re responding to the musicians in front of you, so that needs an entirely different approach.  It’s actually very hard to finish a piece, and conduct it two weeks later.  Thats very hard, very, very hard.

BD:   It’s easier to finish a piece and conduct it a year later?

Benjamin:   Yes, if you can finish pieces that soon, which I have never been able to do.  Then, it
s better to have someone else conducts the premiere.

BD:   But you can come back to it much later?

Benjamin:   Yes.  What becomes easier is conducting a piece that’s ten or fifteen years old, because then you have the distance from the techniques, from how it was written, and from the anguish that it caused you as it was written.  You’ve also lost the fact that it was inhabiting your brain for years when you’re writing it.  Therefore, you can see it in a more detached way, and be more content while conducting it.

BD:   Are you always pleased with your children as you see them grown, and taking on lives of their own?

Benjamin:   While I’m writing them, or after they’ve been finished?

BD:   After they’ve been written.

Benjamin:   Not always, no.  I’ve written pieces that I’m almost ashamed of, but that hasn’t happened in the last ten or fifteen years.  I haven’t written one that seems to be a dodo, a complete bad one, but then I am biased.  On the other hand, there are moments when I do feel that everything is inadequate, and there must be a better way of doing things.  That’s the next piece, though.  That’s why you carry on, because you want to do better, and you want to do something you haven’t been able to do before.

BD:   So you work on a new piece, rather than go back and tinker with the old piece?

Benjamin:   Oh no, I don’t want to tinker, no.  I will tinker during the first rehearsals and performances, just to get a few little details right, but later I’m a different person.  I move on.  It’s not the same feeling, it’s not the same time, not the same world.

BD:   Is it ever frustrating when you conduct a piece that’s ten or fifteen years old, and you wonder why you did that?

Benjamin:   No.  I’m aware of the weaknesses, but, at the same time, that was me then as much as it was a different person who wasn’t me.  So, does it frustrate me sometimes?  Yes, [laughs] but that’s your job as a conductor, to try and improve things.  They can, you know.  [More laughter]  It’s not impossible.

BD:   Does that mean you go to the publisher and leave a set of explanatory ideas for the piece?

Benjamin:   I’ve just thought about that, because my publisher, Faber Music in London, produces the most beautiful scores.  They really are renowned across the world for producing the loveliest scores.  But there are, as time goes by, a few tempo indications, or a few orchestral details that I would like to change, and I can’t change them because the parts and scores are then all over the place.  What I might do one day is write in a copy of those in red ink, just showing that if there were ever a second edition eventually, that perhaps it would be possible to update them.

BD:   Since these are mostly rental scores, could you make an addendum, a hint sheet could go with the parts?

Benjamin:   Yes, it’s true, but they are for sale.  [Laughs]  I don’t know who, but some strange person somewhere will buy the odd one every year, or two.

BD:   But especially now, with the instantaneous communications, perhaps you could put on your website the idea for this piece, or have a download for these ideas.

Benjamin:   I don’t have a website, but I do have website under my publisher.  [Though this interview was held in April of 2005, as it is being prepared for posting fifteen years later, amazingly this is still true.]  But, that’s a very interesting idea.

BD:   I ask all of this because I wonder at what point these ideas will hamstring the conductor, who might otherwise find something new or more brilliant.

Benjamin:   When I was younger and started composing, I heard my pieces, as I do now, very precisely in my head, and I did feel that’s how they should sound in the concert hall.  I was just thinking about this while walking across these beautiful streets, and enjoying this gorgeous weather in Chicago.  Actually, what I’m providing in a score is an awful lot of information.  The notes have got to be in the right order, and in the right place.  All the same, it’s also a springboard for someone to interpret and make music.  I don’t mind it when people bring ideas.  I like it when they bring themselves to the piece, and respond to the musicians in front of them, and do it in a different way.  There’s no perfect way of playing a piece of music, and wonderful as recordings are, the truth of the music is live in the concert hall, and in those circumstances, things can change and things can happen, and I like that.  I like it when people bring aspects.  You can stretch too far and destroy a piece of music by wrong interpretation, but equally you can bring a new angle on a piece that with the composer would not have expected, and that can be absolutely valid.

BD:   Do you ever hear some of these performances, and think that’s a little brilliance?

Benjamin:   Yes.  I’ve heard performances, and it’s sometimes affected the way that I do my own pieces afterwards, yes.  Strange, isn’t it?  But it’s the way music works.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Benjamin:   [Thinks a moment, the sighs]  Ooooo, what a question.  Well, I don’t ask myself that, because I fell in love with music with indescribable depth when I was young, and therefore I’ve never had to really address that question.  It’s just the air I breathe, and it just is what I am.  That’s what I do, and I always wanted to do nothing else.  But, at the same time, we have thousands of people, even millions across the world, who will come to hear it, and vast amounts, huge sums of money are paid to concert halls and orchestras.  In the end, a human being has the need to communicate, and both to make art and to receive it
, and music’s the best way.  Its just that simple.  [Laughs]  It’s the least tangible, and yet it covers the most things.  It’s also, in some ways, the most difficult, the most complex.  Of course, I love reading, I love painting, I love architecture, etc., etc., but there is something both incredibly ambitious and even awe-inspiring about great works of music.  There is the complexity involved, and also the immediacy of communication.  No language is needed.  There is no real reference to the real world needed.  There’s something inevitably mysterious in the fact that we respond so profoundly to music.

benjamin BD:   Is it its own world?

Benjamin:   It is it
s own world, and it’s every world because it doesn’t necessarily have to touch the real world, the actual world, the day-to-day world.  It can spread its wings everywhere.  That’s what’s so wonderful about music.  A great philosopher I once knew said that music is so interesting because it touches everything.  The making of music, the characters of people that do it, and the circumstances in which it’s written covers the whole of human history, and even if you don’t know all of thatwhich is a by-product of philosophyit is also fascinating.  When you’re in an audience in the concert hall, and you’re hearing music, there are a number of different ways it can affect youwatching it as a joy, the relationship of a piece of music to other pieces by the same composer and to the history of music, or to other pieces in the program.  The audience, the listener, can take in such a vast quantity of musical information, more than any other art form.  Think of deep, complex, polyphonic music.  How much information is coherently going across our ears from a mere tenth of a second?  It’s extraordinary.

BD:   Is this what brings us back to it, so we can plumb more and more depth each time we hear an individual piece?

Benjamin:   It depends what the piece is.  With some pieces
a lot of piecesyou don’t want to go there again.  [Much laughter]  There are a few rare pieces which you come back to, and you and never tire of them.  There are not many composers who do that for me, that I can say I’ve never ever gone off that composer.  But in the end, I prefer to go back to my initial answer, which is just that it is the air I breathe.  It just is.

BD:   [Pointedly]  Are you one of the composers you like to go back to?

Benjamin:   Oh, I can’t answer that.  That’s a very nasty question!  [Both laugh]  I have to go back maybe too much, because I have to keep looking at my pieces that I’m asked to conduct here and there.  [Sighs]  I really don’t know where to begin to answer that, except to say that I couldn’t have enough outside distance.  I can’t really forget anything I’ve written, so I can’t come to it fresh and naïve, which I would like do.  It would be very nice to do.  The only time that has ever happened was when I came into a room, and some piece was on the radio, and I didn’t know it.  It was a very dangerous moment, because if you think it’s an awful noise, and then you realize you remember it, that would be revealing.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece, do you have an audience in mind?

Benjamin:   I have the piece in mind, and the idea of a piece involves an audience.  Music is played for people.  There’s music you can play to oneself, but the most intimate and profound musical experiences are usually in the context of people playing for each other, and therefore I’m writing a piece to be played.  I think of the musicians, and therefore someone is in my mind.  Very strongly is the fact that it will be received, and it’s intended to be received.  But I have no idea who that audience is, and I don’t write the piece to please them, or to give them the piece I might imagine they want.  I just write a piece I want to hear, and that, as I just said, involves there being people listening.  The more the merrier, and the more receptive, wonderful.  But I can’t control that.  All I can do is write a piece that I want to hear.  I consider myself, ever since I was a child, part of an audience.  I go to concerts, and I got to hear the music I would like, so I imagine if I would be in a concert hall, and would want to hear this.  I write the piece I would like to hear.

BD:   I assume, though, that you hope it’ll be a vast audience rather than a small audience.

Benjamin:   Depends... I would just say an audience.  Of course, there’s nothing sadder than an empty concert hall.  On the other hand, an unreceptive or bored full concert hall can be also very upsetting indeed.  There are certain types of music that I really, really love but, like Webern, they still haven’t found a huge audience, and are not going to find a huge audience.  I will still prefer their music to Prokofiev, who has a two-hundred times audience.

BD:   That’s just your personal taste.

Benjamin:   Yes, but it means to me that the size of the audience, in the end, is not the issue.  It’s just that some people are interested.  The idea of being populist is something that I never imagine.  I can’t conceive of it.

BD:   Would it distress you if someone came to you and said,
I love your music, and I also love Prokofiev?

Benjamin:   No, of course, not.  Every composer has their own tastes, and is allowed to have prejudiced tastes.  In fact, they need it in order to progress themselves.

BD:   I just wondered if that would give you pause for a moment to re-think the way your music stands in relation to others.

Benjamin:   No.  I’d be touched by the first half of the sentence, and that would put me in a good mood for the second half, whatever it was... up to a point.  I don’t think there is a composer who doesn’t want people to understand and even love what they try to write.  Whether it may succeed, or whether it gets through is so hard.  But even so, of course I’m touched that people like what I do.

BD:   I hope this never happens, but do you take offense when someone comes to you and says that your music is rubbish?

Benjamin:   No.  Actually, I had a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic.  My piece Palimpsests was played this January, and half the audience erupted into torrents of boos.  Then the other half of the audience started cheering, and there was this almighty noise around me on the platform just aimed at me and no one else.  I wasn’t conducting.  It was when I got on the stage, and there was this absolute torrent of noise.  It felt like a football match.  I was shocked, and perplexed, and bewildered a bit, but I’d had a reaction, and that pleased me.  The one thing I’d hate is [claps slowly and boringly] a lukewarm, uninvolved reaction.  They
re wondering about the time, or what the next piece is.  That is horrible.


BD:   So you don’t want people just to be polite?

Benjamin:   No, no!  That noise was very unusual.  I’ve never heard a sound like that in a concert hall in my life, so it was a shock.  It didn’t upset me... or maybe it does now, and I don’t realize it yet.  Of course, you would prefer if someone said that they were really excited by it, or were moved, but sometimes good criticism is also very useful.  I’m pretty critical of myself.

BD:   Too critical?

Benjamin:   Potentially, yes.  I throw an awful lot away, and I redo.  In this recent piece, there are movements which I redid twenty or thirty before I got them right.   But I was right to do that, because they weren’t right.  They weren’t good enough.

BD:   How do you know when it’s right?

Benjamin:   Because it’s the best you can do at the task that you’ve aimed at.  You may be insufficiently good, but you have achieved that.  I knew what I wanted, and it was difficult to achieve, and I just kept going,
“Not right!  Of course, sometimes you can’t get it right, and then you have to throw it away permanently.  That happens a lot.

BD:   Do you throw it away completely, or is it still in the brain?

Benjamin:   No, it’s not in my brain.  It’s in a pack of rubbish in my cupboards hidden away, and won’t be of any use to anybody.

BD:   [Knowingly]  Ahhhhh, but some historian is going to be rummaging around, and will perform it.

Benjamin:   I might burn it!  [Both laugh]  There’s a lot.  It would make a big fire.

BD:   Perhaps things that you don’t want to let out should be burned, but what about ideas that progress into the thing you do want?  Would you let people see your process?


Benjamin:   No, but that
s a very good question, because there’s an awful lot of process, and there’s a lot of failed attempts at writing pieces sometimes.  That can be so sad when you get to thirty pages and it dies on you.  That’s awful.  You have to start again.  That’s so upsetting, but no, they weren’t right.  They weren’t good, and it’s not me being self-critical.  When a piece is wrong, it stops letting me write it.  That may sound very precious, but it really is the truth.  The piece of music fuels me when I write it, and it builds up heat as it progresses inside my mind and heart.  Then, if it dies on me, there’s nothing I can do.  I can’t use all the technique that I’ve learned in thirty years of composing.  I have to throw it away, or find where I went wrong and go back to that point because it will not carry on.

BD:   How much control do you have over what you’re writing, or does it control your hand across the page?

Benjamin:   By saying it controls you, that’s what one wants.  Let it control you, and lead you thrusting into the future, bar by bar by bar.  That’s the dream, and that happens at the end of pieces.  They seem to be writing themselves.  But, of course, it’s all a total illusion, because there’s no piece out there without you writing it.  But there does come a bit when maybe the brain gets into the right state of mind, and the experience of writing the piece, and the technique because so familiar to you, that your confidence in writing in that idiom is such that you do get the feeling you’re skiing downhill.  Having taken forever to reach the top of that mountain, then you’ve got this brief and very thrilling ride when it just seems to pour out, and I can sometimes write half a piece in a matter of days.  When that happens, I may not sleep, and it’s also rather traumatic because there’s so much going on in your mind.  It’s crazy!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you start a piece, do you have an architecture in your mind, or do you wait to see how it would be built, and how long it will take?

Benjamin:   I mainly have many ideas.  I’m very confused when I start.  It’s like you don’t know anything except the vaguest intuitions about a piece you don’t want to write.  You need to find what you would like to attack, and what you would like to do.  I don’t believe it’s possible to start in bar one, and them go to bar two and bar three without looking ahead.  It’s difficult to describe.  I have an abstract.  I don’t like to use philosophical ideas about the nature of the structure I want.  Will it be continuous?  To what extent will things return?  Not at all?  Will they always develop and change, or will things come back obsessively all the time?  Will things come back always identically the same, or will they come back with different things around them?  That is sort of idea about the nature of the structure of writing.  But that does not involve when it’s loud, and how many bars there are, and when it’s fast.  That I discover en route.  But I set the nature of the structure.  That’s very important, but the moment-to-moment drama of the piece, and the vitality of it, is something I like to discover, and, indeed, be surprised by.  You’re working inside with the small material you choose
or that you discover.  That’s a better word.  You don’t choose, you discover.  You find what you can work with, and then, when you’ve married that with the ideas of a big structure, you do find some very strange things happen which you would never had predicted before.

benjamin BD:   When you’ve married the ideas to the structure, is it always the piece that you want?   For instance, if you’re trying to write an orchestral piece, would these ideas, perhaps, go better as a clarinet sonata?

Benjamin:   The piece I’ve just written for Chicago was meant to be a song cycle with an ensemble of fifteen players, and it’s ended up being a nine-movement piece for full orchestra.  So that, I’m afraid, answers it.  You have ideas of what you want to write, but there’s also what you can write at any point in your life.  The two can go harmoniously together, and that’s nice, but they don’t always.  Then, if they don’t, you can hit yourself against a brick wall trying to write the piece you think you want to write, while in fact you should be writing at all times the piece that you can write, and that is correct for you, that your mind is in the right frame of mind to do.  But it’s very hard sometimes.  Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it comes naturally, but other times you have to wander in the dark, and hit some brick walls before you find what’s needed.

BD:   Then a lot of the training of a composer is to release yourself to whatever the piece is?

Benjamin:   Oh, yes!  That’s absolutely it, but you’re not taught that as a composer.  Every composer is different, and some people don’t have this ability.  You’re not taught to be patient with yourself, and to let the best way of trying to liberate or emancipate where your imagination is at any given time.  You’re not taught that, and it’s a very hard thing to achieve.  If you do it the wrong way, you can cause severe problems for yourself as a composer.  You have to learn to manage yourself
how many hours to work in a day, at each stage of a piece.  If you overwork, you’ll lose freshness and you’ll get yourself knotted.  If you don’t work enough, it simply won’t happen.  That’s a profound thing you’ve said there.

BD:   Your pieces are played all over the world.  Would you prefer that they be on all-contemporary concerts, or on mixed programs?

Benjamin:   Again, a very good question.  I like both.  I’m conducting the European premiere of my Chicago piece, Dance Figures, in a contemporary music festival where there is no room for anything but contemporary music.  I love that.  I like to compare different composers, and I like to be confronted with the music of my time.  But I also love to hear the music of my time in the context of classical, romantic, or early modern music, or even very old music.  All contexts are possible, and all are valid.  We’ve not sufficiently adventurous, and we’re too uptight about that issue sometimes.  In the United States, the contemporary music festival syndrome is pretty rare.  There are only a few of them devoted entirely to new pieces.  Usually you hear contemporary music in the context of the repertoire, and there are dangers in that.  When you do a contemporary piece, a concerto, and a symphony, I want to get away from that because that standard format can put the audience in the wrong frame of mind.  They hear the token contemporary piece, which they don’t listen to, and wait for the lovely concerto with a famous soloist, and therefore you have no capacity for really, really profound contact.  I am very, very happy to say that my premiere in Chicago next month, with Barenboim conducting, consists of Wagner’s wonderful Parsifal Prelude, my piece, and then Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.  So, everything is upside down.  The only thing that is bad is routine, and this order turns it upside down.

BD:   I’m a bit spoiled because that order seems to be what we usually get here
an overture or some standard piece, then the new piece before intermission, and then the war horse.

Benjamin:   Then you’re lucky because too often I see orchestras just put their contemporary piece when people aren’t in the right frame of mind.  You need help as a contemporary composer, because people aren’t on your side to start off with.  You’re not dead, which helps [both laugh], and the style is not familiar, and may be abrasive to people who aren’t used to it.  Therefore, you need a special open-minded attitude, and the audience has to give of themselves.  However, they won’t give of themselves because none of us are able to do that right at the beginning of a concert.  We have just come off the street, and we’ve got the last twelve hours of day behind us, which we have to get rid of to really enter the world of music.  It’s very hard to cast that spell from the very first note in a concert.  On the same subject, in Germany they tend to play contemporary music only at contemporary music festivals, and therefore, amongst the great masters of German and international music, it’s quite unusual to find contemporary music.  So, the scandal that my Palimpsests piece caused in Berlin at the Philharmonic, may have some relationship to that.  They don’t have a huge amount of contemporary music, though they are now with Simon Rattle having more and more of it... and certain members of the audience are hostile to that.

BD:   You need a balanced diet.

Benjamin:   I would have thought so.  Just imagine how dull it would be if we could only eat what they ate in the Nineteenth Century
just the same old steak, and a bit of fish, and a few vegetables.  Now there’s Japanese, Korean, and Thai, and Mexican, and...

BD:   What do you say to the people who eat only fast-food all the time?

Benjamin:   The analogy is really to those who only listen to pop music all the time.  They either have no understanding for classical music, or, more likely, hostility towards it sadly.

BD:   How can we get more of the pop audience into the concert hall?

Benjamin:   [Sighs]  I do believe that your greatest works of classical music are the best things that human beings have done on the planet.   I would love to think that everybody would have access to that.  Not everybody has to do everything.  Far from it.  There have been people who don’t like any music.  Other people will like certain sorts of music, and that’s fine.  It would be a horrible society if everybody did the same thing, or everybody liked the same thing.  But it does seem to me that there are very large numbers
the majority of people, some through no fault of their ownwho have no access to the music we’re talking about.  There’s one thing that could help, and that is education, education, education, absolutely!  But there’s the other thing, which are those people who have lots of money and are very wealthy, but who don’t try.  We have that everywhere, and that makes me a little sad... well, the first one makes me sad, and that other one makes me a bit cross, because they’re denying themselves access to one of the miracles of human achievement.

BD:   Is this a conscious decision, or simply that they’re not aware?

Benjamin:   It is most probably not conscious, because their parents weren’t conscious, or they’re rejecting their parents.  It’s fine.  No one has to love classical music except the people who love it.  But, at least I would like everybody to have the opportunity of loving it, and that means they have to hear it when they’re young.

BD:   [Only semi-facetiously]  We should go outside with picket signs that say, ‘Give Classical Music a Chance!’

Benjamin:   You won’t be able to get people to do it by trying to force them.  Human beings rightly resist coercion, but it’s in education.  In the mediaeval age, music was up there with math and religion as one of the few essentials of education.  It’s not used as that anymore.  Music is so wonderful for young people.  I have a lot of experience in this, and it can have a completely transformative effect on difficult, or not difficult children.  Whatever happens, it improves them as human beings, and therefore, I would like to think that it would almost be a birthright that people should have access to at least some form of music.


BD:   Does it please you, then, that a lot of your music is available on flat plastic, which can be had for little or no money?

Benjamin:   Yes.  I’ve had this relationship with Nimbus Records in Great Britain for almost twenty-five years now.  They’ve been very loyal supporters.  I’m not a prolific composer, but almost all my works are recorded.  I still love concerts, but not only can people can hear my music, but also they can hear it before coming to a concert, so potentially they know it better.  Compact Discs are a wonderful thing, incredible.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Benjamin:   No!  I heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in London two weeks ago, and I can’t imagine hearing a better performance.  It was absolutely magnificent, and I also heard a wonderful Mahler Nine.  This is a fabulous orchestra.  But perfection, no.  There are very, very large, maybe infinite numbers of almost perfect performances possible.  It’s not possible to do the perfect performance.  Music needs the personalities of the performers, and the audience, also, affects things, and that’s right that it should be the case.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with most of the performances you’ve heard of your music?

benjamin Benjamin:   No, I’m afraid.  It depends which piece.  Some are more difficult than others.  I’m sometimes not at all happy with the ones I do myself, and sometimes overawed by the wonderful ones that I’ve had by great musicians that have done my work.  I’m thinking of recent performances I’ve had by Pierre Boulez, or Oliver Knussen, or Kent Nagano, or David Robertson, who did fantastic performances.  But I’ve also suffered, as every composer has always suffered, from some terrible performances.  To get over it, after having to sit through your piece when it’s being massacred on stage, note by note, every second feels like it’s half an hour, and you want to get up and say,
This is not me!  Please don’t listen to this!  This is not what I wrote!  I didn’t write this!  This is not the way it’s meant to go!  [Both laugh]

BD:   And yet they’ll applaud, and they’ll acknowledge you as the composer, and think,
Oh, what a wonderful work!

Benjamin:   Yes, but they are unlikely to get the real message of the piece.  A lot of the hostility towards new pieces is done by the fact that they’re not performed well.  So, I mustn’t moan because I’ve had a lot of wonderful performances, but I’ve known both terrible performances and even terrible premieres, and that does haunt me.  I would infinitely prefer not to be there when that’s the case.

BD:   I assume, though, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about to play one of your pieces, that you have great anticipation.

Benjamin:   Great anticipation, of course!  It’s my first American commission that I’ve accepted, actually, the first piece I’ve written for America.  I have been asked quite a lot in the past, and because of the way I write I’ve been unable to it.  The circumstances of the premiere are going to be very hard for me.  On May 18th, I’m conducting a very difficult concert, and playing the piano in London with the London Sinfonietta, and my premiere here is on the 19th.  So, I’m flying out.  I have to leave home about 5:30 AM the morning after a concert, to get an early morning flight to Chicago.  I will hear the end of a rehearsal (if my plane’s on time), attend the premiere, and nine o’clock the next morning I have to leave to go back for another rehearsal for a second concert with the Sinfonietta.  I have these concerts on May 18th and 23rd.  They were programmed years ago in my diary, and we couldn’t move them.  Then the premiere in Chicago was decided recently, and landed on 19th.  So nothing could be done.  But everybody’s been so wonderful... the Sinfonietta in London by allowing my orchestral rehearsal schedule to be moved to allow me to come to Chicago, and Chicago has also been quite fantastic about everything.

BD:   So you are just flying across the pond to hear it, and then immediately go back?

Benjamin:   Yes.  Can you imagine flying to the United States for less than twenty-four hours?  It’s ludicrous, but I have no alternative.  I’ve never done anything like that, so I have no idea.  [With a huge laugh]  If I’m asleep during my piece, don’t blame it on the piece, please.

BD:   [With uncanny foresight]  Let’s think about technology of ten years hence.  Would it be better for you to watch the Chicago performance on a video screen in London?

Benjamin:   No, no, be there.  Be there!  I read a biography of Pierre Boulez, someone who I admire very deeply, and who I owe an awful lot.  It was written in the
60s, and it described a piece of musicthe one I’m going to conduct in May, Éclat/Multiples, a beautiful piece.  It starts with about eleven players, and goes to about twenty-five.  Then he envisaged making a full orchestral version, and but he never wrote it.  The author of this book wondered why Boulez never wrote it.  Perhaps he realized it would be impractical having a full symphony orchestra sitting on stage for half an hour with nothing to do, but this would be a perfect piece to have exclusive use on video.  That’s what they thought in the 60s, that it would be a perfect way, but I thought, “What a horror to have a piece of music locked into video.  The thing about music is that it’s live, and it’s changing, and you have human beings playing it to other human beings.  People in the age of recording don’t realize that one can forget.  One can just think they’re going to hear a live recording.  You’re not!  People are facing you, and you are facing them.  Their eyes are often on the conductor, but sometimes on you.  You are watching them, and they are playing for you.  You are receiving from them.  That is fifty per cent of the equation of music.

BD:   What about an individual case, like a live relay where you’d be watching the concert from another room rather than in this same room?

Benjamin:   No, be there!  You have to be there.  You have to be almost touching the musicians.  The business of music is a relationship, a close intimate relationship.

BD:   A communal gathering?

Benjamin:   Yes, between composer, conductor, performers, or just performers if it’s not an orchestra, and the audience.  The whole thing becomes one when it works, and that sense of oneness, which you get in a concert, you will not get at home, however you are moved by the piece of music.  The fact is that you are being moved, live, with others being moved with you.  Then there’s the danger factor in a concert.  Can you imagine?  Lights burst, desks fall over, strings break, conductors fall over, wrong notes happen in the performance.  There’s so much danger involved.  Subliminally we are aware of that, and therefore, when things go well, there’s great tension, positive tension created.  That is unique for the circumstances of hearing.  It doesn’t have to be in concert halls.  It could be outside, or it could be in a church.  It can be any circumstances, but that business of congregating to hear music together is essential.

[Let me say here, once again, that even though I have collected recordings all my life, and for a quarter century I made my living as an announcer/producer
with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I have always stated, both publicly and privately, that the real music is in the live concert.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Benjamin:   There’s some wood here, so I’ll touch it.  [Both laugh]  Some people have been very kind and have helped me, and I’ve had wonderful teachers, and I am very grateful.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

Benjamin:   [Laughs]  That’s a nice thing to say.  Thank you.  [Pauses a moment]  You’re very good at this.

BD:   [With deep appreciation]  Thank you so very much.

Benjamin:   A pleasure.


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 18, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following month, and again in 2008 and 2017; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005, 2008, and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.