George Benjamin: It is so difficult to write music, almost impossible to write it well
Photo credit: Matthew Lloyd
Born in 1960, British composer 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. 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 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.
We sat with George in his house a few months before his 60th Birthday to talk about his career and the nature of composing process, and within an hour and a half he let me understand the sheer intensity of his inner world and the challenges and happy moments of his work. It was a long, profound, comprehensive and immensely insightful talk sparkled with George’s brilliance and eloquence. I hope it will help the reader to literally step into the mind of a modern classical composer and envision his unique perspective on music in general and on music that he creates – out of nothingness.
Could you describe the moment in your childhood when you singled out a wish to compose from wishes to express yourself in any other form of art? How do you think composing is different from creation in other spheres of human activity?
I didn’t decide to express myself – it didn’t occur to me, and I wasn’t making a choice between different forms of art. I was a young child, I was 7 or 8. I discovered classical music, and my enthusiasm was without control. And if that’s the case, the child copies naturally what he or she likes: you do football, you do tennis, you do birdwatching, you do painting or you do music. For me it was unquestionably music, and very quickly. I liked Beethoven more than any other composer – I wanted to be Beethoven (laughs) when I was seven, fortunately later I learned a bit more about the history of music. So it wasn’t a question of expressing myself – may be it was, but I didn’t know that consciously. I just wanted to do music because I loved it more than anything, and I carried on, but I never asked that question, it just seemed natural to me, it seemed to my world.
How does your perception of external world translate into the composition that come from the inside? What are the connections between different life events and your compositions?
These two spheres are not separate, not at all, but the way the outside world finds its way into music is – at least for me – not a straight line. I don’t do it consciously, I don’t consider my music a reportage on the current state of the world or the expression of my political, intellectual thoughts. I want to find the music I want to do, and if there is something of the world in it, then it comes involuntarily, not by decision. Things change a little bit when you write an opera for the stage, because there are words, opera needs drama, and for instance my last opera indeed was a political drama. But the idea was not to preach to the audience, tell them what to feel or think – the idea was to get them interested in the abstract nature of power and the concrete relationships between people through music. So I am not very comfortable with the idea of an artist proclaiming to the people what he or she believes and what they should believe. My view is – you concentrate on the abstract stuff of music, and the truth comes through that, behind the surface.
What in your experience does one need to be composer? Was there a point in your life when you felt that you had all the techniques you needed, that you mastered this medium of expression and could freely say what you wanted to say?
I don’t know what I want to express most of the time, and I couldn’t say it in words, because music does it better than words. And I don’t have all the techniques that I would want to have. Interesting thing about having a life as a composer is finding new techniques, and finding mistakes and fauls and inadequacies in your previous work, then trying to solve them to get better. So the artist who says I’ve discovered all the techniques I need – something has gone wrong there – because it is so difficult to write music, it it almost impossible to do it well. Every piece is a sort of attempt, but you never will realize everything to do with music, it is far too great a challenge. And again, I prefer to express myself involuntarily, it is not the first thing I think about, I don’t know what I want a piece to say when I begin it, I don’t know anything, I walk in the dark and I discover things. And I am always my final judge of my works – who else can help me? Who else can hear and imagine what I am feeling and thinking? One person I could go for advice was my dear, dear friend Oliver Knussen – very sadly he died last year, so now I am alone in that. But I don’t mind that solitude, I think it is part of the job, part of its nature.
At a very early age you went to study in France with Oliver Messiaen – could you describe how that decision came about, his influence on your work and that ‘Boulezian’ period of your life?
I was 16, I was very, very young. I was Messiaen’s youngest ever student. He wasn’t here, he was in Paris, so I had to go to Paris which was a very strange thing to do when I was so young. But he was such an extraordinary, radiant figure – I did it with enormous enthusiasm. I stopped being his student when I was 18 and came back to the UK, but I stayed in touch with him until he died in 1992. It is the greatest good fortune I’ve ever had in my life. He was the most devoted, wonderful, inspiring teacher. It was impossible as a student not to love him. He was generous, kind, fascinating, very gentle in his comments, very enthusiastic. His analysis of Debussy, Stravinsky and his own music was extraordinary for a 16-year-old, it was a revelation. I’ve grown since those days, but he was a good teacher – none of his students became little Messiaens, he would have hated that. And then of course I knew Pierre Boulez very well – he wasn’t my teacher, but I knew him. I met him first in Paris in 1978, and I last saw him in Baden-Baden in 2013-2014, so there was a long friendship there. We didn’t agree on everything, we had discussions and sometimes arguments, but there is no question he was a phenomenon in modern music of the last century and a wonderful conductor. He conducted my music magnificently several times, and I conducted many performances of his music which I am very fond of. In aesthetical terms we didn’t agree, but that’s normal, we belong to different generations.
Did that period instill in you the interest in contemporary French music?
My interest in French music came a bit earlier – as I said, at 7 Beethoven was my hero, and then I discovered Berlioz, and then Mahler, then Berg, then Ligeti, and then I discovered Debussy and Ravel, and that is when I felt great love for French music, as well for Russian music. Stravinsky was already there when I was 10 years old, and I knew Shostakovich’s music, and I had enormous enthusiasm for Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. I was very open in my tastes as a child. But of course there is no question that French music, particularly between 1976 and 1986, made an enormous impact on me. It was not only Boulez and Messiaen, I also knew Dutilleux very well, also spectral composers – Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey – I was close to them, also performers – particularly the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard – and many others remain important to me, but I am not a French composer. I am a composer who has been influenced by French music, but also very much by German music.
How does a composer build his or her taste in understanding music? How does one come to understand the world’s heritage in music? What was your routine of going to concerts, listening to recordings, going through scores?
Without any self-conscious decision, two things – love of music and curiosity – helped me here. I went to concerts three times a week when I was a child. It was my greatest thing – to go to the concert. I would often go with the score and follow the music. I loved following scores. My birthday and Christmas presents were usually scores – I can remember how thrilled I was to get a score of Mahler’s Second Symphony when I was 10, and the score of Salome by Strauss when I was 12, and the scores of all Beethoven Symphonies, and La damnation de Faust by Berlioz… The Rite of Spring – I had this score when I was 9. Also it is natural to be interested in one’s own time, so already when I was 12, I saw Boulez on television, and I heard Messiaen’s music when I was 13 or 14. Children tend to be enthusiastic and curious – and as soon as I found something I liked, I would devour it. I was very obsessional – I would listen to pieces hundreds of times if I liked them.
Were you aware of having been a precocious child? I guess not all children at the age of 9-10 would peruse the scores of Mahler and Stravinsky.
I do remember one thing – I entered an English class in my school when I was about 7 or 8, and the teacher said that I should write an article about something I liked very much. So children wrote about football, aircraft carriers, cricket and many different things, and I wrote about Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz which was my current obsession. It was completely natural to me, it was my favourite thing at the time, and I remember that teacher was interested and very surprised – ‘what a strange child’. But I didn’t feel like being a strange child, as it all seemed so natural to me. I just loved music so much, it was the best thing, I didn’t have time to think if I was special in anyway. I was practicing the piano, playing the oboe and flute very badly, I played percussion, I wrote music, I studied theory, and with my normal schoolwork all of that kept my very busy. I was on radio in the UK when I was 12 – I played a piano piece, and then I won a competition when I was 16 and got on television, so I began to get some attention, but I thought that was natural because composers should get attention (laughs). So I was impatient I suppose, but I didn’t think it was unnatural.
Why did you decide to go to Cambridge to continue your education? What did this time give you?
My parents were interested in me going to Cambridge, also Cambridge at that time was very strong in music – I still think it is. There was a teacher there – Alexander Goehr – a pupil of Messiaen before me by 20-30 years, who was an important person of big reputation. Though I loved my time in Paris, I loved it because of Messiaen, and he retired in June 1978, he left the Conservatoire for good, and I didn’t want to stay after he left. So I stopped my degree and all my other studies in Paris and came back to the UK, as I was there for him mainly. In Cambridge I did a BA in Composition. Then came a little more fame – my piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon was premiered in Cambridge in March 1980, and then it was played at BBC Proms in August 1980. It was a huge thing, a dream come true for me, and that was very exciting.
From that time your relationship with the audiences started, as you were not that aware of them (for your own works) before. What did you feel when seeing your audiences? Did they bring something into the performance, or were they only perceiving what you had written?
I was already aware of the audiences because I had performed as child in my school, and more importantly I’d written music at school – I wrote incidental music for theatre many, many times, sometimes with the ensemble of 15 people, and we would perform it 3-4 times for productions of the play, and I would conduct or play the piano. So I knew quite well what it was like to play for an audience – smaller audiences of parents and children, but I do remember what it was like, and I remember the excitement of it. I remember that audiences always made an important part in the equation of what makes musical life and musical culture. Plus I’ve been a member of that audience hundred of times before that. I’ve gone to see Mahler, Beethoven, Berlioz, Stravinsky – I’ve been on another side, I’ve been with that audience. So I just took it for granted – it is wonderful to have an audience. At the premiere in Cambridge conducted brilliantly by Mark Elder there were 500-600 people, and if I remember clearly, the piece was a big surprise and made impression on public. And then I had an idea that it was very exciting to speak to people, so at Albert Hall there were 3000 people, it was a moment of great excitement and tension, and for three days of rehearsals and performance it was thrilling. But then comes the business of writing another piece and you forget it (laughs).
So you were not spoiled by this thing called fame, were you?
I don’t think so, no. In classical music, at least here in the UK, fame is not big, one has to be realistic. In the Proms it is big, it is an important festival in the world of classical music, but all the same a composer’s life is mainly spent being alone looking at paper.
Could you describe your collaboration with IRCAM? What do you think of their work with electronic music and how did it influence you even if you didn’t continue on this path?
I like electronic sound very much – you can make such beautiful sonorities, rhythm and harmonies without any restriction in tuning, extraordinary things can be done. What is not so great is melody and gesture – it is not human in the way that it is with natural instruments. I was not a great enthusiast of electronic music when I went to Paris – Pierre Boulez invited me to IRCAM, I was a little bit reluctant, but still interested in the adventure. I spent three years there on and off. It was very stimulating, I wrote two pieces – one little piece (2.5 minutes) for electronics only, and a big piece for an ensemble of electronics. Afterwards I didn’t go back, it’s true. It doesn’t mean that experience didn’t have a big effect on me. It must have changed my ear and made me think about sound in a different way. It also – and this I wasn’t expecting – made me think differently about form, and the biggest influence it had on my progression since then was in terms of structure – how to organize structures in music. Since then, although I can like electronic sounds very much, I think my own gifts are in writing for real instruments, and that is where my real enthusiasm and my capacities are, and therefore I follow that line.
Photo credit: Matthew Lloyd
Am I right in understanding that between 1980s and 1990s there was a period when you took a pause in composing and concentrated on conducting?
I started conducting when I was in school – it was also natural for me, I think I first conducted a piece of music – my own – when I was 10, and it was a terrible performance (laughs). But the idea of conducting started at about the same time as composing. And then in my mid-twenties people began to ask me to conduct one piece, two pieces and then a concert, and I began to get some experience and enjoyed it very much. Plus I was quite agitated about the progression of modern music at that decade – I wanted to participate, I was responsible for many festivals. I was an Artistic Advisor, a consultant to the BBC Radio 3 celebration of the whole century of music – it was called Sounding the Century. It was an enourmous thing – 500 concerts, it was gigantic. That interests me much less now. Also after IRCAM I had a couple of years when I was not at all productive. In 1986 there was a premiere of Antara, and I don’t think I produced anything till 1989 – a short orchestral piece – and then 1990 – a more important piece for viola da gambas – Upon Silence. Those were not the most productive years, as I had a lot to sort out in my mind about the technique, about the philosophy I wanted and needed for composing, and how to find the right structure and the types of forms I was interested in. When you have a crisis like this, you don’t see it with great clarity and you also don’t see its end, so it is very confusing, you feel lost. And gradually – if you persevere – you gradually begin to see things. It is like the sun coming up in the morning, but over the course of 2-3 years. You realize what you need, it is a very important time, and I am not the first composer to go through that, many have had such crisis, particularly in the modern era. Fortunately I came out of it and bit by bit I felt what I wanted – not that I ever know exactly what I want, but I was much nearer to it.
Could you describe that new philosophy and vision that you found over those years?
I was taught by Messiaen to think vertically – in harmonies and single harmonic sounds. He was immensely gifted in terms of melody as well, but he considered harmonies as vertical sonorities. Spectral composers whose music I really like and admire are also very vertical in terms of thinking. And if you like, French music also does that – French composers like Debussy and Ravel are also perceived vertically, very much so. That lost its magic for me, and I couldn’t do the types of form that I wanted with that style of thinking. And so, by studying Webern, Purcell and a little of Bach and Berg I began to understand that I needed to go deep, deep back in my inderstanding of how to write music, really to almost the idea of one or two notes. I had to try and find the technique that would permit me to write music that my instinct was searching for. And that meant – in a way – destroying the music that I had written before, and starting – not completely again, but re-assessing it, and fortunately bit by bit I discovered what I needed.
Can you name the pieces of that period that were examples of this new synthesis?
The first one is very modest, it was a piece that I wrote in complete isolation – from outside world and outside aesthetics. It was a piece influenced by Purcell in some way – it is called Upon Silence, it is not my most played piece, but it has had a lot of performances. It is for mezzosoprano and viola da gambas – gorgeous instruments, I love them. It is much more linear than my previous music, and it is more polyphonic, and the form is much more unstable and much more volatile. Things are pushing horizontally throughout it, and the relationship between sense of time in a horizontal way in music is at its root. And the harmonies – the vertical sonorities – are usually the results of interconnections of that linear material. And that’s a huge change for me, huge change in the way that I conceived and thought of music before. And then from that gradually all the pieces that I’ve written since have come.
Could we call this transition also the source of your future operas?
Yes, definitely – in terms of vocal writing, dramatic setting, relationship between voice and instruments – very much so. I would not have been able to write operas with their polyphonic sense of flow, their size and their drama without that change in my technique.
At that period your works were very much inspired by art (say, William Turner) and poetry. In your opinion, how do other forms of art that you experience serve as inspirations for your music? How did they have input on your work when you have worked out your new philosophy?
I don’t have my own philosophy, I don’t define it as strictly as that. I have discovered what interests me and I know what I like (laughs), but it is not something strict which I have codified. You have to be open as a composer – it is hard to start pieces, to write them, and you need help from other music, from abstract ideas and sometimes from the real world (nature) and other art forms. Nowadays I read a lot of fiction – novels – as well as history, philosophy, science – and that does give me ideas. Occasionally I discover a painter whose works seem to be in harmony with what I am trying to do. It is not normally that I see a painting and think ‘I’m gonna make a music piece about that painting’ – I don’t think this has really ever happened to me. But more often I start composing and on the journey, out of the confusion, an image or a painter’s character or style will occur to me more and more. And then I suddenly see that that is part of the DNA of what I am trying to do. That happened with the piece At First Light when Turner was the model, the other important painter was Vermeer – for the piece Upon Silence. Picasso was important for Palimpsests which is an important piece in my catalogue, but even more important was a German-American painter Lyonel Feininger. I have a very visual imagination, and when I am composing, I do consider that I am creating that has a visual side as well as musical. So, painting, photography and real world could be helpful in my creation.
Could you say the same about architecture? Could a modern building say by Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry inspire you?
I know architects, I have some friends among them. From the architects you have mentioned, I had dinner once both with Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry and I find them fascinating. My next door neighbour was a distinguished architect before he left 20 years ago, and Richard Rogers is a good friend of mine. I am fascinated by the architects and their works, The Alhambra in Grenada is possibly my favourite work, after my visit this July I have to say that The Hermitage in St Petersburg is not so bad also (laughs), and I adored St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. I think of music as architecture, and I think of music literally having architecture, a sceleton of scaffolding, an underneath structure under flesh of an animal. However, I don’t usually make the direct link between these art forms.
I want to turn to your piece Palimpsests that used the idea that you can have several writings on one parchment. It is usually mentioned in your biographies as your important piece, and I’ve heard it under your own baton in March 2019 in London. Can you describe why it is so important and whether it constituted a certain step in your development?
Yes, indeed, it is a very important piece, although not the most played one – I have conducted it recently also in Lozanne and Stockholm. It was a piece that was very hard to write – all in all I spent three or four years writing it, while it only lasts 19 minutes. It has a very special world – a very clear one that gets quite violent sometimes. And the juxtaposition of the different types of material is quite uncompromising, I think – and also the way the form evolves. But one of the things that it is nice to think about when you compose a piece is that when you invent a world, it lives in a piece within its borders and doesn’t sound like anything else – that is the ideal model for any composition. One doesn’t achieve that every time, if at all, but I got a little bit near it with this piece. I think it is singular. It is very difficult to conduct, but also very exciting. So I’ve enjoyed chances to perform it, it really is as the title says, it remains true to that idea all the way through, and there was a visual image that was very much behind it. I did see the medieval slate of a musical palimpsest that was a real source of the technique of how I wrote that piece.
You mentioned that you worked 3-4 years on this piece. Could you describe the everyday routine of composition process? What happens exactly when you compose? Is there place for doubts and self-editing, why do twenty minutes of music require 3-4 years of work?
I wrote at least two other pieces during that time, so it wasn’t the only time. The first movement was incredibly hard to write – I worked 18 months on it, then I threw everything away and wrote the whole movement in 23 days which was crazy as it was very complicated. Coming to your question on composing routine – it is going into the unknown, and so it should be, I think. You are confronting yourself with the mystery, and when you manage to find something, then it gets exciting. When you can’t find it, it is just normal – you can’t find something special every day, you don’t receive an epiphany very often. I go backwards and forwards, with some pieces more than others. I don’t do that because I am technically unhappy with what I’ve done – you have to be convinced that what you do is of some quality, otherwise you wouldn’t write the next note. But the piece sometimes dies for me – it dies and I can’t write the next note. Then I know there is a problem, so I have to go back and find where the problem is. People are creatively different, I wonder if say German composer Wolfgang Rihm ever feel blocked for one day, and he can write an orchestral piece in three weeks. It is incredibly quick. I have a specific sensibility, I have a demanding ear – I was taught that, as well – and I have to answer for every note that I write. I can’t help it: it starts very slowly, and I am in the dark, and I am confused, and it is usually best that I go slowly and be very patient. And then when I find the language, emotional feeling and the pacing, the breathing of the piece, then it goes very quickly with me. It was always the case, even when I was a little child.
Photo credit: Matthew Lloyd
Can you describe what you hear when you listen to the playback or look at the score that you have written in the process of composing? Are you your own orchestra or do you play individual instrumental lines in your head? How do you listen back to what you have written?
I hear everything, that’s my job. At the rehearsals of Ringed by the Flat Horizon it was the first experience of hearing my own work outside my ear and to hear it in real life, and also to hear that it sounded as I had imagined. This was incredible. But now hearing something for the first time is usually how I had imagined it, so it is not a surprise anymore. Occasionally one makes mistakes in balance, but I know it is my job to realize what I have inside my head, and to notate it and present it in a way that’s the most practical and useful for the musicians. I hear the harmonies and rhythms and imagine the form, and I envision tempi and their combination.
So does the mind of a composer have every pitch of every instrument ready to sound on his or her demand? Do you have tubas, violins or clarinets in your head when writing?
Yes, when I write a note, I imagine the tempo it will be in, and I imagine its combination with others – what’s simultaneous, what comes before and what might come afterwards, and what is most important, I imagine the formal effect that decision will have. Everything in music is form – and so everything, even the smallest things have the influence on a big structure. So that’s why it is slow – because there are lots of possibilities, and there are not many right ones (laughs).
Can you describe your collaborations with particular performers? I know that one of your pieces was premiered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Duet for Piano and Orchestra) and you collaborate with singer Barbara Hannigan in your operas. How much responsibility do you invest in the performer?
More and more it interests me to write for a certain performer. When I write my operas – all three of them – I’ve written my vocal parts specifically for the artists who were going to do the first performance. I’ve known them from recordings, but they also come to my house and I listen to them and I interrogate them for hours about their voices, and I accompany them in Lieder and operatic extracts to understand what I can do with them, what are their weaknesses and strengths. I love to hear the eccentricities in their voices, and the qualities of different registers, what they don’t like and like doing, everything. Sometimes I exploit the things they don’t like doing for expressive reasons. That really helps me to compose. When it comes to my friend Pierre-Laurent Aimard – we’ve been friends since I was 16 – it is very simple. I used to write my piano pieces for myself, and since 1990 every piano piece I’ve written for him, including Duet. Yes, I find it inspiring to write for specific people, really, very much so. And the orchestras also – everything I’ve written in the last 20-30 years has been for specific ensembles and orchestras. Written on Skin was written for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra which is a unique and magic ensemble, and the sound quality of the piece is somewhat reflected in their talents.
So actually while composing in solitude, the life of the pieces thus composed is then developed in partnerships and friendships? So it is not through individuals that the history of music is built but through such clusters of people?
I don’t know about the history of music, and I know composers who are more inclined to think with abstract ideas and who are not so interested in particular performers of their work. May be Scriabin wrote the Poem of Ecstasy for himself, really – he was so self-obsessed and had his great ideas. Berg’s Wozzeck was also written without a performance in mind, and it is one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music. Mozart wrote for specific people, Verdi wrote for specific people, while Wagner was writing for imaginary performers – there was no one who was able to perform a part of Tristan when he was writing it. It depends, while friendships have been indeed instructive for many composers – Ravel, Brahms, Messiaen – as they have been inspired by performers. Sometimes one writes an abstract, at other times one is inspired by other people, and that’s normal, that’s human.
You have mentioned attending concert experiences as a child, but was the role of operas in your life?
I loved opera when I was a child. I can remember so clearly my first experience of going to the opera. My first opera which I saw as a little child was The Magic Flute, and I found it very boring – I love Mozart but not that piece. And then I went to see Le comte Ory by Rossini which I also found impossibly boring. And then I went to see La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz – and I loved it. Then I discovered Salome and Electra, then Wozzeck, then Parcifal, then Pelléas, then operas by Janaček, then Boris Godunov, then Tristan. So I loved opera when I was a child, I wrote music for plays – so I loved the idea of theatre and music existing together. I wanted to write operas but I couldn’t when I was young. It took me a long time to find my way to them. Opera is my favourite form – when it works, it has a magic that is greater than any other form of human endeavour.
Could you describe working on your first opera – Into the Little Hill? How did your collaboration with Martin Crimp start – as it seems to be developing into the life-long one now? Which were your goals and what were the results of this first experience of writing an opera?
There I did indeed have specific goals – you could even say I almost had a philosophy. I was not so happy with general approach to the voice and relationships between a voice and an instrument, and the question of narrative that was accepted generally in opera. Having gone to opera during the previous 25 years, I was storing up information – what I loved, what I wanted to do, and especially those things that others were not doing. I also noted some critical things – I didn’t want to follow this, I didn’t agree with that, I would prefer to do something else. But all these things would have meant nothing without meeting a collaborator. And I met 50 or 100 people over the decades – nothing ever seemed possible. And then people almost put Martin Crimp and me together – and it worked. I had this feeling during our first meeting – it was someone interesting, someone mysterious. I felt integrity, imagination, will for innovation there. I felt that it was somebody interested in telling stories, but in a different and new way. He is also a fantastic musician himself, he loves music. And yet we are also very different. So there is tension between us, but also many things in common. And it did work, and it is incredibly good fortune for me that I have found whom I can collaborate with. He writes a word on paper, and it starts to create music for me – it is almost like an electric shock. His approach to structure is very similar to mine, his analytical and crystalline approach to detail in words is in harmony with mine, his aesthetics is very different from mine, at least it was 15 years ago. And that was a challenge and it was interesting. When we first met, I gave him a list of 60-70 subjects for operas that I had considered since I was 25 years old. And he saw the Pied Piper of Hamelin and said that he liked this one, so we went for that one.
So in a way you follow his ideas of a story, of the future opera’s plot? All three operas are his original ideas and initiatives, aren’t they?
Yes, actually. Before each one we had discussed a lot and followed many subjects that became died on us before coming to the one we found. You are lost when you are searching, so sometimes two of us are. But then eventually we seem to have found something. But yes, the choice of three subjects, at least the suggestion of these three ideas came from Martin.
Would you agree that your operatic style could be partly compared to those of Janaček and Debussy in terms of using voice writing that is close to intonation of real human speech?
In opera we can’t use straightforward speech patterns, as there are melismos and moments of lyricism. But in terms of drama I think it is very important that words are understandable. Also I don’t consider the dramas that Martin and I write to be vehicles for vocal fireworks, and I don’t consider an orchestra’s function as simple accompaniment. Neither – as this is the case sometimes with Wagner – do I consider an opera to be a fabulous orchestral piece on which the vocal line is added. The voice is in the centre, but it is not the belcanto centre. If I had a model – I don’t really – but if I had, it is no question that amongst very favourite operas of mine are Pelléas and Katya Kabanova. And what is behind those two operas and those styles? There is a mysterious ingredient – a composer whose attitude was radically antagonistic to the 19th century tradition of opera compising. Another composer whose view about language and expression in opera was completely original and very important for 20th and may be even 21st century was Modest Mussorgsky, a truly great genius, mysterious, radical, extraordinary, profoundly moving, vulnerable, tender, a great composer. Messiaen loved his music – I love his songs and his Boris Godunov, and I’ve read about him, so I could say I am influenced by his music, too.
Lessons in Love and Violence (ROH, 2018). Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey
I remember reading about how you work with Martin Crimp and how you gradually develop a vision of your opera. You say that the two of you meet at several stages of the working process and how you gradually, in layers, start to get the full picture of how the opera will sound. My impression was that with the opera it is more difficult to imagine the final sound of your work, as the number of layers increases, is it correct?
No, it is actually not the case. With orchestral writing it could be really slow, while I write the whole opera in just over two years. It goes much more quickly – I’ve done some calculations – actually eight times faster, because the structure that Martin gives me is inspiring, the characters, the drama, the narrative are terrible exciting and they really fire my music. I don’t just set words to music, the structure of the language finds its way into the real, true, deep structure of the music. I take ideas from the text and make them into sound and rhythm. It is not just the expression or narrative, it is also pure structural thing. I find it very inspiring – it has been the case with all three operas.
So in theory every play by a modern playwright could find its resolution in an innovative opera with its unique and innovative structure reflecting the specifics of the text?
Yes, but you have to find a play that works for me, that gives me the atmosphere, the style, integrity, architecture, words, power and emotion that I need. I only found that in Martin – it hasn’t been near otherwise. Coming back to your question about process – we are friends now, very good friends. We meet, we have dinner together, we talk, sometimes we meet abroad, sometimes in town, we play piano duets at each other’s houses, we write to each other a lot. A lot of the time nothing happens. I recognize now that with all three operas there were moments wnen conversation suddenly became extremely intense between the two of us. And for about an hour or two the outside world disappears, and our joint imagination are suddenly, unexpectedly envisaging a world. We have immense discussions about all possibilities. And then after that he disappears. We don’t meet, we don’t talk, and I wait. And then in nine months or a year – a long time later – there comes an envelope through the door (laughs). I read it, and each time I’ve been thrilled, moved and exited, and then we meet and talk, he explains things a little bit, and then it becomes my text, I want it for myself, and then I disappear – now for 2,5 years. And when I worked on Into the Little Hill, we almost had no communication when I was composing. Now as trust him so much, I do ask him when I am writing: ‘What do you mean by this?’, ‘I need more words here’, ‘Do you mind if I cut that?’, ‘I need some advice about the structure’. Perhaps in the future this process will change, but I like the business of collaboration very much. Not only with Martin – I have collaborated with Katie Mitchell on two last operas. She is such an extraordinary artist, so powerful and clear in her thoughts. Visually I myself also imagine things when I write, but I know that she will interpret the opera material in her own way that makes good theatre, while neither Martin or I would be capable of doing that.
Do you agree that powerful theme of sexual exploration, starting the pattern that was not expected by the society, discovering your humanity through opposing the expectations runs through your two last operas? In a way, I was taken closer to my libido by these operas than by any others in my recent experience, however strange that sounds.
I am very touched to think about that, Yulia (laughs). Ok, Martin and I never had a conversation about what we want to express and what we want to confront – never, never, never. But he has an interesting attitude when he works for me that is very touching – he always thinks not about whether it will make a beautiful word in a nicely written text, but whether it will get music from George. He aims everything at me – with the goal to get the best music out of me. It is almost like a catalyst – he wants to make me write music. So we never discuss issues like that, but I suppose he is guessing what will excite and provoke my imagination and touch my heart. And there is one other thing – what do operas talk about since the beginning? What do Greek tragedies talk about since the beginning? Love. Sex. Jealousy. Power. Suffering. I am afraid these are natural ingredients of the form. Opera is not something light, it is not entertainment. It can be, and some operas are funny and charming and gorgeous, but I’ve always thought that its main purpose is catharsis, and to confront not only something that is deep and frightening within us, but also what is interesting in us as human beings. What I need to write music and what Martin gives me is not elegance and not cleverness, but it is depth of feeling and dramatic tension – that what makes me write the next note. Tension which is unbroken till the end, and the sense of conflict and drama. People tell me: ‘Lessons in Love and Violence is really dark as a piece’. It is really terrifying and it is really living in agonized and difficult world, and it is not my nature as a person, so people ask me: ‘How could you live in that world for so long?’ My response always is: ‘I don’t want nice things, I need fuel, I need fire’. I need dramatic tension, and the text gives me this. If it was relaxed and charming, I couldn’t write my music, I would just become depressed, as there would be nothing to write about.
You also mentioned that you wanted to revolutionize the relationship between voice and the orchestra – what is it about?
Revolutionize is not the word that I would use, but I wanted to concentrate on several issues. Firstly, what is the role of the orchestra? What are they portraying? Do they always follow the emotions on stage, do they always paint them? Do they sometimes subvert them, do they sometimes ignore the emotions on stage? So I’d been thinking for a long time about the nature of expression within the orchestra – what is its purpose? And what is also the purpose of singing? So I didn’t want that to be a filmic relationship between stage and pit. Sometimes you have to be as violent as the drama, but sometimes they talk about terrible things, while the music is almost non-existent – to make it interesting, not to make it predictable and generic. That is the crime – to do something predictable and cliched as most first ideas are. More importantly than that, there is a harmonic relationship between the voices and the orchestras. If the harmonic fabric of the orchestra, as it is the case with a lot of contemporary music, gets too complicated, the ear can perceive with ease the integration of voice and instruments. The results is that singers on stage sometimes sing a semi-tone sharper or a fourth higher and nobody is troubled by it. That is so sad for me, because the most moving thing in this orchestra-voice relationship is the melodic, sung contribution to the total harmony. So the route of my harmony when I compose operas is not like it was before in classical music – in the base line – but it is in the vocal line itself. It becomes the catalyst for the creation of the whole texture and the type of harmony. But as the result, the harmonic vocabulary of my operatic works is simpler than that of my orchestral works. Singers are ‘naked’ on stage. That’s another thing – too many orchestras are too loud, so you can’t hear the singers and their words. Also the singers have to vibrato and force their tone in order to fight with the orchestra.
So you actually consciously create the space for us, listeners, to hear the voice in the opera.
Very much so, that’s the idea – so that you can hear the voice, you can understand the words, perceive the contribution that vocal lines make to the harmony, which is my major priority, and also that the singers can know that they are singing the right note, so that they can find the right note without perfect pitch, and so that they can sing with confidence and without excess vibrato. It is impossible to ask them to sing from memory, with movements, with costumes, with the conductor and also overpower the orchestra – it is so difficult to do that, and I aim to change that.
Could you describe the challenges and highlights of conducting your own works – you are doing it rather frequently. What does the conductor in you think in the operatic pit?
First of all, after so much solitude of composing process and so much introversion it is just gorgeous to collaborate with singers and director and orchestra. It is so lovely, it is such a present, I adore it. It is so wonderful being part of the team bringing the piece to life. Also as I know the piece very well, I can ask for the things that I had imagined and I can change small details very quickly during rehearsal – balance, type of mute, tempo – I can do that. Those are the things that I love. I have to say that the whole process for the big opera is usually six years – the first idea, discussions, the written text, composing, preparation and rehearsals… So to go out into the pit for the first night is truly quite something wonderful and exciting (laughs). But the two minutes before you go out – I wouldn’t want to live my life in that tension, it would be impossible (laughs). I also love to see my work presented by others – for instance, the performance of Lessons in Love and Violence in Mariinsky Concert Hall was almost miraculous. With only one week of rehearsals and completely new cast singing by heart, they did a marvellous job. Also I had the joy of hearing Kent Nagano conducting my opera in Hamburg in March 2019, and in May 2019 I heard Alexander Bloch, a very talented French conductor, do it in Lyon. There are two dangers in conducting your own music. One is you know the music so deeply inside your ear that you may be find it quite hard to externalize it and give it the needed clarity and to respond to the way musicians play it. As you know it so well at first, you haven’t got the right distance from it. It is useful for a conductor to discover it from ignorance, from nothing, and then inhabit it as a performer – and as a composer I can’t do it. And another thing I suppose that there is a degree of tension because as a composer I’ve spent so many years working on the piece, and that tension is not useful for conducting. You need to breathe freely with musicians, and that’s something that one learns every time you conduct. That is also why if the performer is good and he or she understands my music well, I am also extremely keen to hear other people conduct my music.
Could you say something about the general nature of music as form of art? We can have books on our shelves, paintings on museum walls, while music is live, performative, happening in time and fleeting – if you haven’t heard that opera, then only the recording remains, and it could be argued that it is not the same as live performance. So when you are composing and conducting, how do you feel about the fact that say six years of work disappear into nothingness after several hours of performance? How does that fluidity still allow music to form a certain history of its existence?
Today we have streams and broadcasts, and CDs and films, and I am extremely fortunate that all of my operas have been recorded in that way – that’s fantastic, and people can hear and even see them without having to go to a performance. There is also a printed score – I have a wonderful publisher who produced beautiful printed editions of my operas, so they exist as paper, as books, as notation, and that gives me enourmous pleasure. But the thing that I love the most about music is the fact that you can hold a score, touch a CD, but the real thing – you can’t really physically approach it. The power of music which is so profound on our hearts and our psyches is in the end the invisible vibration through the air. We see it being performed, we know that musicians perform it for us – and I do believe that live performances are in the end the best things that give music its depth, and the unequaled fire of experience, although they are full of dangers and could be catastrophes – this invisibility, this intangibility of music is something unique to itself. I find the fact that at the same time it can give you goose pimples and can move you to tears – that is genuinely mysterious, and I find it incredibly beautiful.
What is your advice to modern generations of listeners, to younger people starting to appreciate music – how one can develop the ability to concentrate on music? I feel that we lose it now because of all possible distractions, as we are momentarily distracted by small things and can’t keep a progressive line of attention.
We live in a moment, in and out of our mobile phones, in a way that is unique for our time, and that is changing the psyche of humanity, yes, indeed. It must be having some very big influence on us. But I am not pessimistic about that reducting our capacity to appreciate music, as the ability to be moved my music is, if you like, is natural thing for human beings, and that won’t disappear. And another thing is that people are aware of this and I try to arrange submersive experiences when they cannot look at their phones and when they have to concentrate. Such experiences are valued even more as they become the antithesis to the modern world. You can’t look at your phone during the concert. But it is true that we are now living very nervously. It will probably affect our approach to time, as mobile phone creates nervousness – ‘Is someone contacting me? What should I respond? I should respond quickly’. It is constant desire for information and contact that becomes unending except when we are asleep, they require our unending attention – this is probably not a good thing, no.
But in practical terms – could we do anything about it to deepen our perception of music?
My advice is to go to concerts and operas, where you are forced not to look at your phones. If you have moments, moments and moments experience of everything, then I don’t think you can produce or perceive a work of art, because what makes the work of art live is its totality and unity, its sense of structure reflected on a bigger scale and smaller scale. And if time is nothing but an extreme and rather brutal collage, it is rather difficult to achieve that. Of course, collage and editing as influenced by modern cinema is very important for modern art and modern music, and is reflected in works by Stravinsky and Berg – looking at time as something cut up. So it is not a completely new phenomenon, and it also can have a very positive and unexpected influence. Would my piece Palimpsests have been possible if I hadn’t worked with computers and seen how the imagery could mutate and superimpose with such ease on screen? Also the screen of a computer has all these different things constantly and simultaneously available – so good ideas can come out of that, as well. But the lack of concentration – the dangerous thing is that children from the age of 3 literally don’t develop the capacity to concentrate in time – that is very dangerous. It is not only children, we are all influenced by it, and we have to see how it all develops in future…
Thank you for your intelligent questions, Yulia, it was a pleasure to talk to you!