Form and Meaning

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Interview with George Benjamin

Invited to ManiFeste during the academy, the composer and conductor George Benjamin evokes the question of form and harmony in composition. The practice and the passion for transmission can be read in his comments, shedding light on the composer’s current work. A lesson by a master.

During the ManiFeste-2014 Academy, you will address the question of form and harmony, and the connection between the two. Is this a central question for you when discover a score by a young composer?

There are musicians who are interested in harmony and others much less. I do not try to impose my taste, nor my personal preferences. But if I see a young composer with a gift and a sensibility in this domain, I can encourage it and give him opportunities. I can make suggestions, teach him techniques, train his ear like my teachers did for me. The question of form is essential. It does not depend on an aesthetic, it is primordial, found in all the arts. You must always think of inventive forms. Form is everything: harmony is form, orchestration is also form. If an orchestration works well, it is not due to a choice from a mix of instruments, but is due to a formal conception through the instruments. Most young students I meet do not understand how to create form, despite an aesthetic or a style, and often they make mistakes with the form, leading to confusion for the listener’s ear.

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George Benjamin © Matt Llyod

Is the question of form a strategy that precedes the rest?

What precedes everything is more like confusion! For me, the forms of variation are an atrocity, when we understand from the beginning until the end the proportions between the movements, the rhythms of changes, etc. Total predictability is not desirable ! There are composers who begin in a fog and feel their way forward and others who have big strategies; others write the first sketch quickly that they rework again and again. The challenge for every composer is to find the route that provides them with the best results. It is not a question of style: it is about knowing and understanding oneself.  How should you draw up the sketches? With a large score or with just a few lines? By section or by paragraph? Can we truly talk about a strategy here? In this case, it would be an open and flexible strategy. Personally, I change my way of doing things as I go along. The term “strategy” seems too efficient for me. On the contrary, I think that confusion (I don’t know what I’m going to do, nor how I’m going to do it) is a part of creativity.

Certain composers function very differently. For example, Stockhausen’s objective was macro-forms. This is very far from my way of seeing and doing things. It is a serious mistake for a professor tries to impose a way of doing things. We see certain students who always use the same strategy and end up going in circles. They can be inventive with sound, with orchestration, or with rhythm, but they always have the same basic way of “starting” a composition.

Young, you were influenced by very antagonistic impulses, Olivier Messiaen’s classes in Paris, and Alexander Goehr’s in Cambridge. Would this diversity be fertile ground for a young composer?

That depends. There are people who are more closed-off and that should be respected. In my opinion, that’s too bad, because the world of art is vast and one should have several aesthetic sources. Young, you should be open to a wide horizon because we find ourselves in the reflection of others. With only one model, you risk becoming an epigone and losing yourself. You risk not stimulating variety in yourself. Art is born of internal conflicts and external contrasts.

Now a professor yourself, which would be your dream: to meet a student close to your style, or to meet somebody who is in total contradiction with your earlier concerns?

I had several extraordinary professors, but the true genius was Olivier Messiaen. His modesty in front of his students was very surprising.  He said, “I want to serve my students, open doors for them, I want to help them find their path and then let them go.” It is always easy to say and very difficult to do. The most beautiful thing for a professor is to see a student’s rapid and creative evolution. We do everything to give him the reflection, the technical mastery, but what is essential is seeing him bloom. Of course, there are aesthetics that I don’t necessarily understand and the relationship is more difficult.

Do you see an obsession with sound material and less interest dramaturgical, discursive, or formal questions today?

When I was a student, the emphasis was on the constructive aspect. My vision was contrary to that vision that was perhaps too academic. But it is nonetheless very important that works of art be architecturally sound: I have become more constructive with time. Since then, we have seen a focus on the sound effect of music, timbre, instrumental playing modes, but maybe not enough research on a more in-depth formal conception. For example, there are very few studies on phrasing, an essential, inevitable element.  What is a phrase? Whey is there enough melodic vitality in today’s music? One remark on this subject: young composers do not have enough contact with singers! Before, composers – from Mozart to Schönberg – wrote for voice and worked with singers. That an entire musical society, as is the case today, is not, or hardly, interested in singing is troubling. Personally, I was interested in singing very young. Today, it has become an obsession with opera.

In you opera Written on Skin it is striking that you can hear everything, yet nothing is simple: a transparence that is never unequivocal!

There is ambiguity. Why sing? Why speak? We want to say something. When I was blocked during the composition of Written on Skin “putting text to music”, Martin Crimp, who wrote the libretto, suggested something simple: think about the intent behind the words. There is what we say, and there is the meaning. We can say something kind in a very unkind way. The meaning of words is very complex. When music adds another world behind that, it reinforces the complexity. The meaning, emotion, rhythm of the words, speed, composition of the intervals, accentuation, phrasing, silences, harmonic poles, etc. The entire architecture is very complex without disturbing the transparency.

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  • GEORGE BENJAMIN