It's important to experience other cultures

Interview with George Benjamin

Franck Ollu talked with George Benjamin about German and English music culture.

George, we have had a very close relationship with you over the last eight years. We had you here before as a composer as well as a conductor. This year, when you visit us to conduct the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, we are going to spend a whole month with you. Perhaps this year we could call you the most German of English composers?
It really will be a German year for me. After our seven concerts together I will return in the summer for further events in Cologne and Berlin - and, in the Autumn, I will move to the capital for a whole season.

You will be coming to live in Berlin because you are going to be "Composer in Residence" for the Berlin Philharmonic.
I will take up the post of "Composer in Residence" with the Berlin Philharmonic and residency at the "Wissenschaftskolleg" in Berlin. This post is a joint venture between the two bodies which in recent years has been given to György Kurtág and to Wolfgang Rihm.

It is unusual for an English composer to have such a reputation in Germany. For your part, is it because of your teachers Peter Gellhorn and Alexander Goehr that, more than other English composers, you are attracted to German music?
I have always passionately loved German music and I admire the depth, the seriousness and the importance that music has for German culture, which in some ways is unique in the world. Many of my pieces have been played in Germany but I have perhaps received more performances elsewhere - in France, Italy and America, for instance. So this coming year will be quite an adventure for me and, of course, I feel it is an enormous privilege to be offered the post in Berlin.

How would you describe your relationship with Germany from your composer's point of view?
There are three things which I would immediately like to mention. My first ever major performance outside Britain was given by the Südwestfunk Orchestra, when Josef Häusler programmed my "Ringed by the Flat Horizon". For almost a decade, Klaus Lauer's wonderful Römerbad festival in Badenweiler has supported my music with great loyalty. And then there is my exceptionally warm relationship with the Ensemble Modern which has been tremendously valuable to me. We've performed a great variety of modern music together and the ensembles intense concentration at rehearsal and passion in performance is always thrilling for me. I wrote my "Three Inventions" for this group in the mid-1990's, and I hope that piece testifies to my intense affection for them.

Would you like to say a few words about young composers in Britain? Would you say that there are new and interesting things happening in British musical life?
It's a lively time in Great Britain and there has been a real flowering of talent, both amongst composers and performers. Indeed, I believe that a larger number of British composers have substantial international reputations than at any point in history. And yet this state of health is fragile - just a handful of philistine political decisions could destroy it - and I don't believe that, like art from a few unique institutions, new music gets the support it deserves in the UK.

It sounds as if you think that British composers have to go abroad to be able to work and be played under better conditions.
No, that's not the case. We have some wonderful ensembles and orchestras. And yet, it's ways tremendously stimulating - even essential - for a young composer to go abroad, experience other cultures, different ways of doing things. Britain (despite the tunnel) remains an island and there is always the risk of provincialism, even in the age of the CD and e-mail. It's difficult for me to describe how valuable I found my several years of study in Paris, whether at the Conservatoire with Messiaen or in IRCAM.

In more recent years you have met such composers as Helmut Lachenmann and Wolfgang Rihm. Would you say that this was a new discovery for you, a new experience, having met mainly French composers when you were young? Have you been in contact with Lachenmann?
Yes, several times, and I'm very grateful for the cordial contact I've had with both composers.
I'm particularly proud to have conducted three Rihm world premiers. I would also like to mention Müller-Siemens, who was a fellow student with me in Messiaen's class. The aesthetics of modern French and British music, where I suppose my roots are most firmly planted, are quite far from those of contemporary music in Germany. In fact, that's one of the reasons I am most looking forward to coming to Berlin, in the expectation that a new artistic environment will be stimulating and provocative for me.

You are going to conduct Messiaen's "Des Canyons aux Etoiles" which you know particularly well, since Messiaen was your teacher. How would you describe this work?
It's a wonderfully uplifting piece to perform, a piece of sonic splendor. We did it five years ago, and I'm very glad to be doing it again with you next year. The orchestration with about forty musicians is original. The piano part is very brilliant and virtuosic, as is the solo horn part.

And then you will be doing a tour with the full Ensemble Modern Orchestra.
I'm very excited by the prospect of working with an orchestra of soloists, all of them devoted to modern music. I believe we've chosen a challenging and varied programme - a beautiful 1980's work by Tristan Murail (a representative work of "spectral" music), Magnus Lindberg's dynamic new piece for the Cleveland Orchestra, a commission from Hanspeter Kyburz and my own (very difficult) Sudden Time.

Next year is going to be a new start, suddenly a very important time in your life. Perhaps it will be particularly special because of the new Millennium?
Well, it is a remarkable moment. But more important than the dates on the calendar is the independent movement of one's imagination and one's skill as a musician. This is much more arbitrary, unexpected. When you're a musician, I believe the outside world affects you strongly - but it's often a contrary effect to what you expect. The relationship between such things and the inner world of creating music is far from direct and very unpredictable.

You are a famous leading composer although you are only 40 years old, and it's a privilege to be celebrating your 40th birthday in January - you know we tend to do concerts for people when they are 60, 70 or 80...
It's wonderful that we do a concert in the Concertgebouw right then. I've conducted in Holland a few times but never in Amsterdam, and it's very nice indeed that the Ensemble Modern is giving me this birthday present.

And you'll probably get... cake!