I’m a composer who conducts

A conversation with Sir George Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin is not only one of the most renowned composers of our times, but also a highly esteemed conductor. Ensemble Modern looks back upon almost 30 years of collaboration and friendship with the British musician. In March 2019 he conducts Ensemble Modern and the full-size Ensemble Modern Orchestra in seven concerts in Frankfurt am Main, London, Cologne and Hamburg; the tour repertoire includes his own works ›Into the Little Hill‹ and ›Palimpsests‹. What Sir George Benjamin says about ›Palimpsests‹ for large orchestra also applies to his entire oeuvre: his desire is to make the orchestra, that »mass of wood and brass«, produce »crystalline, transparent, enchanting, unromantic yet still passionate music«. Christian Fausch, Artistic and General Manager of Ensemble Modern, spoke to him about the upcoming tour and its programmes as well as his double role as a composer and conductor.

The upcoming collaboration is the first between you and Ensemble Modern in eight years, but there is a long common history with the ensemble. You have known it for about 30 years ...
Yes, I was at a concert the Ensemble played in London with Helmut Lachenmann in the late 1980s. The first collaboration was then in 1993 with a really big tour, in Austria, Switzerland and Germany: György Ligeti’s piano concerto, my work ›At First Light‹ and a new piece by Wolfgang Rihm. We did Badenweiler, Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, Basel. It was one of the biggest tours in my life. From the beginning, I was astonished by the commitment, energy, brilliance, and force of Ensemble Modern. They always give 200 per cent in their concerts. It was a completely thrilling experience to work with the musicians. I usually don’t write several pieces for the same ensemble, but I’ve written three pieces for Ensemble Modern, which is the most I’ve ever written for any group in the world. One of these was my first opera, ›Into the Little Hill‹ ...

Which we now are going to play...
... which I’m so happy to play!

In February 2000 you conducted the Ensemble Modern Orchestra for the first time, performing Olivier Messiaen’s ›Des Canyons aux étoiles‹ in Gütersloh, Frankfurt and Berlin.
Yes, and we did other tours with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra in 2000 and in 2003. The Orchestra is sort of like a dream, because you have the same qualities as Ensemble Modern itself, but blown up five times! You have an orchestra of soloists, an orchestra of experts and enthusiasts of contemporary music. It’s an exceptional, I would even say, unique concept and vision.

What makes it so unique?
Everybody is there to play modern music, everybody is committed to contemporary music, enthusiastic to play this music. The fact that Pierre Boulez gave you so much of his final conducting years proves how exceptional that is. The quality of the recording of his ›Notations‹ is just incredible. The refinement and punch, energy and confidence, brilliance of the performances is absolutely extraordinary.

Which place does the Ensemble Modern Orchestra occupy in the whole world of symphony orchestras?
There are many orchestras that do not play enough contemporary music. There are some orchestras that play it reluctantly and not very well. There are some fabulous, marvellous orchestras which programme contemporary music with enthusiasm, played with commitment, and I have had the fortune to work with some of those. The Ensemble Modern Orchestra not only has a fantastic standard, but also excellent conditions; we are given plenty of time to rehearse, as much time as needed. It means that the orchestra can do any modern repertory – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Helmut Lachenmann, Gérard Grisey or anything else – at the very highest level. They bring this particular energy and sound quality.

Now we are going on tour with two programmes, one with Ensemble Modern, one with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra. How does it challenge a conductor to be on one and the same tour with such completely different ensembles?
To take at the same time an ensemble and an orchestra – I think it’s a world premiere for me, I’ve never done it. And instead of having five pieces in my head, there will be nine (laughing). Fortunately, some of the pieces I know very well. It will also mean an extremely intense preparation and rehearsals, in terms of weeks. That is an exciting challenge for me. I suppose the type of conducting and music making when you have 50 musicians is different from that when you have eight. And that will be an interesting experiment. But even though I haven’t seen the members of Ensemble Modern for a long time, they are my friends. Going back to one of my musical families is different than working with people I have no history and experience with. I trust them, I know their devotion and commitment to the music we do.

We had several discussions about the programmes. I think we have two very different and very exciting programmes. Certainly, we have one piece by you in each programme ...
... That’s nice. (laughing). Ensemble Modern has a relationship to both pieces. I wrote ›Into the Little Hill‹ for you, you gave the world premiere in 2006 and you have played it about 40 times around the world. ›Palimpsests‹ I finished in 2002, we took it on a tour with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, as well as to the London Proms in 2004. Both pieces are strongly associated with Ensemble Modern in my mind.

In the Ensemble Modern Orchestra’s programme, we will combine ›Palimpsests‹ with a somewhat bizzare piece by Galina Ustvolskaya, both for eight double basses.
Yes, the piece by Ustvolskaya, ›Dies irae‹, has a very eccentric scoring, in some ways similar to my ›Palimpsests‹. It’s a piece of almost uncompromising bleakness; extremely violent, dissonant and harsh, even cruel in sound with just a couple of brief moments of respite. It’s not a piece I would like to conduct every day, and I have never done it before. It’s a testament of a very isolated, alienated woman living in the Soviet Union, and a testament of incredible independence.

Between these two double bass-focused sound experiences, we put György Ligeti’s ›Ramifications‹.
The piece by Ustvolskaya sounds like someone hitting rock with a hammer. It’s good to have something very contrasted, more fluent, delicate as well. ›Ramifications‹ is a short piece from the late 1960s, with an interesting texture and tuning, scored for two small groups of strings, tuned approximately a quarter tone apart. The interference between the two separably tuned sides of the ensemble makes a very magical, strange, eerie and mysterious sound. I think that will contrast very beautifully with the more percussive, dark colours of the rest of the programme. It’s something the ear will be grateful for. Also, we have to say that we also start with brass, with Pierre Boulez’ ›Initiale‹, a late piece which is very rarely played, and where the writing is extremely virtuosic.

At last but not least, we have a piece by your teacher Olivier Messiaen ...
Yes, a wonderful piece which I conducted here in London in the mid-1980s with Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife, playing the piano part, and with Messiaen himself present. It was performed by students of the Royal College of Music. This evocative and original piece is scored for an eccentric group of instruments: a large number of winds, an important trumpet part, lots of percussion, a big piano solo part and eight solo violins. It’s quite hard to play as well!

That also represents something typical for the Ensemble Modern Orchestra. We have the possibility to have bizarre scorings, as we are totally free in organizing our musicians. So the Ensemble Modern Orchestra will perform a piece by your teacher Olivier Messiaen, and in the Ensemble Modern programme we have a piece by your student Christian Mason, bringing the programme full circle.
Yes, I’m happy to include ›Layers of Love‹ by Christian Mason. He is one of my most successful and talented students, with a very fine instinct and imagination for sonority and sound.

We combine his work with a piece by Luigi Dallapiccola, which you felt strongly about including in the programme as it developed.
I love some of Dallapiccola’s music, not all of it, but some of it feels very precious to me. His music is among the most underestimated of the 20th century. He is a miniaturist, a composer on a small scale. ›Piccola musica notturna‹ is a short, incredibly atmospheric, delicate and poetic piece.
And finally, we have commissioned a work from Cathy Milliken.
Cathy is someone I have known for many years, because she was the founding oboist of Ensemble Modern, and sadly left the group over ten years ago. She devotes most of her time to writing now, and I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing and seeing the score.

As we do! Two years ago, Ensemble Modern performed another piece by Christian Mason as part of the project ›CONNECT – The audience as artist‹, an initiative which includes the audience in the performance. I know you care a lot about issues of contemporary music education. How can we arouse the audience’s interest and bring listeners into concerts of contemporary music?
To get the audience to participate is a lovely idea on paper, but it’s quite hard to make it work. As for attendance at concerts I have thought about this a lot over the years. I don’t know if it’s an illusion, but in our days the audience for contemporary music seems to me much bigger than it used to be. Of course, we want as many people to know and enjoy, to be interested by and hopefully to love the music of their own time. Formerly, I spent a lot of my time organizing festivals and concerts with contemporary music, conducting much more than I do now, being involved in radio broadcasts – doing everything I could. But since 2000 I want to use my time in the best way I can, teaching individual composers, occasionally allowing myself out for exciting conducting events or tours such as the one we have coming up. However, I feel the best way for a composer to engage with the world of music, and eventually an audience is simply to write as many pieces as possible and, of course, to write as well as possible. As a result I feel myself retreating from a more active role in the world of contemporary music in order to concentrate on my own compositional work.

It’s easier for you as a conductor and composer to bring the music to the audience?
Of course, I do gain as a composer when on occasion I conduct my own works. It’s a great pleasure to make music, but now I’m 58 years old and I want to write. For me, that means that a lot of the time I have to withdraw from the world. When I compose, I need complete solitude, away from basically everything. So, I’ve made a choice, which is: I’m a composer who conducts. I love to perform contemporary music, but I must restrict this to specific periods.

We will be on tour in Frankfurt, London, Cologne and Hamburg.
Yes, it will be a joy to return to Frankfurt and perform there. Also, I’m so happy to go back to the Cologne Philharmonic, who have so warmly welcomed us in the past. At the Elbphilharmonie, I have a residency across this whole season which is tremendously exciting for me. Finally, we come to my home town, and this is really great. There are two institutions inviting us. Wigmore Hall plays an incredibly important part in British musical life, but also internationally is considered as one of the most prestigious chamber halls in the word. It has perfect acoustics. When you are performing on the stage, it feels like floating in honey. The sound is so clear, and so sweet. It has an incredible radiance and resonance. The Roundhouse is also a marvellous space to perform. It has been renovated in the last few years and it looks and sounds magnificent inside. It’s an exceptional pair of events in the UK.

It’s not the first time we will be performing with you in London, but it’s the first time we are together with »Sir« George in London. How has your life changed?
Not at all. Except that I’m deeply honoured. It was wonderful to be recognized in my own country. However, when I’m working with an orchestra or I’m sitting at my desk, trying to find the next note, it doesn’t occur to me. I don’t have a sword or a suit of armour at home, and I don’t even have a horse (laughing). If I had bought these things, perhaps my life would have changed more than a little.

We look forward to working with you – thank you very much for this conversation!