»Into the Little Hill«

A work for stage by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp

Ensemble Modern: You are often called a writer of suspense. But I rather have the impression that your dramas reflect a world of appearances, daily misunderstandings, of futility. Dialogues are tentative, circling around the individual conception of truth. Is there a sort of "meta-storytelling" which finally results in many different truths as well as in detachment and uncertainty? These determine our daily life very much in the private, social and political sphere...

Martin Crimp: I have consciously developed two methods of dramatic writing: one is the making of scenes in which characters enact a story in the conventional way - for example my play THE COUNTRY - the other is a form of narrated drama in which the act of story-telling is itself dramatised - as in ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE, or FEWER EMERGENCIES, recently produced by Vienna's Burgtheater. In this second kind of writing, the dramatic space is a mental space, not a physical one. The consumer-citizen of a liberal democracy generally experiences and is encouraged to experience the world as a set of private choices and personal pleasures (or grievances) - so perhaps this drama-in-the-head is simply a reflection of this state of affairs.

The arts have seen congenial cooperations of composers and authors as for example Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. About a hundred years ago Debussy wrote a drama and that time it was usual for authors to also act as music critics. What do you think of the relation between contemporary literature and music in Great Britain today?

I'm ashamed to say I know very little about contemporary music in the UK, so I can't give you a magisterial overview of this relationship. I can only describe my own sparse and infrequent contact with the (serious - is that the word?) music of my own time. When I was a teenager in a tiny provincial town I belonged to a mail-order record club, and one day, instead of the usual baroque concerto or classical symphony, arrived a piece for two pianos and electronics - Mantra by Stockhausen. I listened to this music obsessively - and loved the moment where the pianists, Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky - began to sing. The second experience was listening to the pianist Philip Mead - who taught me for a while in Cambridge - playing Vingt Regards. My relationship with living composers was then put on hold for - well in fact for the next 20 or so years - until I discovered the music of George Benjamin.

How did the cooperation between George Benjamin and you begin? Was there a particular event that brought you together?

The introduction was made by the excellent musician and musicologist Laurence Dreyfus - writer of one of my favourite books about music, Bach and the Patterns of Invention - who happened to know us both.

Once you said yourself that you follow an unconscious act of writing. Is this also possible while working on the libretto for Into the little Hill?

Yes: unless you submit to an unconscious process, you make no discoveries.

In his oeuvre, George refers to the US-American author Wallace Stevens several times. One line even gave the orchestral piece Sudden Time its title: It was like a sudden time in a world without time. What meaning does this line have for you?

This sounds a bit like an extract from a psychiatric questionnaire... But to try and answer - to anyone like me who works in a real-time medium, the phrase 'sudden time' is likely to suggest the formal-technical-emotional discoveries that allow an art-work to crystallise and detach itself from the background radiation of ordinariness - but that's not a judgement about ordinariness - I like ordinariness.

In his note on Palimpsest, George wrote: "A manuscript on which two or more texts have been written successively, the original surviving only in fragments. The term can also be applied to natural landscapes, even cityscapes, where the visible form is the result of accretion through the ages." Are landscapes and palimpsests a topic you have in common?

I don't think so. But see answer below...

Thomas de Quincy asked: »What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?« ... or fairy tales, legends or dreams. You have already adapted works by Sophocles, Marivaux or Ionesco. What is the attraction of working in this way of superimposing your writings on others?

I don't put these different writings into the same category. There are works that I've translated - by Marivaux, Ionesco, etc - where my aim has been to offer a window onto the original text - so-called transparent translation - theoretically impossible, but recognisable in practice. On the other hand my play CRUEL TENDER - derived from a play by Sophocles - is a re-writing (and here the palimpsest image is more useful). Re-writing means that Sophocles' play is occasionally legible, but has been mostly sacrificed - for better or for worse - to my own purposes. And the same thing could be said of the text of INTO THE LITTLE HILL.

Into the little Hill also is based on an old tale. Could you tell us in a few words what it is about?
Who originally thought about using this material? And how would you describe your work with George on this piece?

The original story is the famous one of the Rattenfänger von Hameln. George and I exchanged lists of possible themes and stories - circled round them for a while - until it was me who returned to one which was, I seem to remember, on George's very first list. It suited us both, being well-known enough to offer an unbreakable narrative, but also - like a myth - terse and unexplained enough to allow each of us - first me - then George - to intervene in our own particular ways. In fact, in order to have no preconceptions about what the story signifies, I went to the earliest English-language source, which is a brief and entirely neutral 'digression' in Richard Verstegen's A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605). This is where I discovered the 'little hill' of the title.

I feel that you and George express yourselves in very different ways. Even if it is hard to specify a difference - if I try to express it with colours, your works reflect pastel hues and different shades of grey whereas George composes in strong and brilliant colours. Almost like the difference between a drawing and a painting. Does this simile apply to you comparatively?

Obviously we express ourselves in different mediums in different ways (though I have never seen myself as 'pastel', which in English = 'sentimental'). But I think what we have in common is a delight in detail, and a similar instinct about the weight and balance of structures.

In your work together, do you take an active interest in the process of composing or instrumentation?

Writing words and writing music are separate trades. The plumber may have a view about an electrical installation, but he'd be a fool to touch the wires.

answers © Martin Crimp 2006