Music for Concert Halls

Interview with Benedict Mason by Catherine Milliken and Roland Diry

Ensemble Modern: The Ensemble Modern is preparing for the world premiere of your work 'felt | ebb | thus | brink | here | array | telling' at the 2004 Donaueschingen Festival in October.
Benedict Mason: Yes! And what a fantastic wonderful preparation! We should ask ourselves if there's any ensemble in the world that would be able take on this project apart from EM. Sadly orchestras don't seem to be able to serve the modern composer in any radical way unless one stays within a largely 19th century framework. And this is not the first time in my career that EM has so heroically come to the rescue! I would also like to say there has been a huge support from SWR who have believed in this very unconventional piece through thick and thin since its commission 3 years ago.

You wrote the piece especially for the BaarSporthalle in Donaueschingen. It is one of many works that you have written especially for concert hall spaces throughout Europe and America. What leads you to write for concert hall spaces and how do you approach writing for them?
Since 1993, I have written a series of works, 'Music for Concert Halls', which explore the relationship of sound to architectural space, where the music becomes a function of the building, and the building is incorporated into the compositional modus operandi.
Interestingly this series of pieces properly came into being with another piece specially written for the Ensemble Modern in the second piece of the series: 'Second Music for a European Concert Hall: Ensemble Modern/Freiburg Barockorchester/Benoît Régent/Mozartsaal'. And I consider this the best piece I have ever written.

I remember how we used all the space of the Alte Oper, and EM also premiered the sixth one in the series: 'Schumann-Auftrag' which we are playing again in July.
Yes! That makes me very happy. In my 'Music for Concert Halls' , musical activity is perceived in three dimensions, interacting with the acoustic phenomena of the concert hall, and expanding off the stage, out of the auditorium and into the surrounding space. The works are conceived as 'concert installations' except that the audience take up their normal seating, and importantly the art 'object' is live and acoustic, and not the old thing of loudspeaker based sound installation.
They are not really site-specific in the old 60's art term definition as some people would have us believe. The pieces can be performed in any hall.
But they are special for each hall within each chosen performance, in the sense that every chosen hall deserves to be used and celebrated for its own idiosynchracies and specialness. The hall is as important as the performers and the composition.
It saddens me that the institutionalism of concert halls seldom permits this kind of exploration of buildings, and that they are often not even thought very interesting as places. Concert halls are much more conservative and restrictive than art galleries or theatres, but I prefer to have these pieces performed within the sociological conventions of a concert going audience.

How do they differ from conventional spatial music?
These pieces are not so much about spatial effects, (Gabrieli, Gruppen) but rather about acoustic phenomena within a given space, and the way a sound reacts to distance, movement, direction and resonance in the real or illusory use of sound.
One reason for doing these pieces is that I feel music has lost its specialness. Some of these sounds are very quiet because they are placed in very far off spaces and therefore so distant that they are virtually unrecordable. I am trying to re-introduce the audience to the beauty of pure sound and live performance, and offer an invitation to acute listening, while celebrating the unparalleled sophistication of the human ear in the age of the ubiquitous loudspeaker and mass-produced recordings.
Adding musicians to all these beautiful spaces make them come into their own in terms of their resonances and individual properties. Every acoustic is objectively germane to the performance: every distance, threshold of hearing, door etc. is different. One treats the material of the hall as an instrument in itself. The musician makes a sound and the building does the rest.
The performers, audience and concert hall are considered as an interrelated spatial organism, but of even more importance, the acoustic experience becomes unique for each listener. The synchronised sound of present, absent and distant musicians is choreographed across the audience and has to be followed via the elaborate placement and movements of the performers, so that the concert takes place within the main auditorium and in the alternative locations of foyers, corridors, lifts, stairwells, tuning rooms, cloakrooms as well as the external spaces of the roof and even adjacent parks, waterways and roads. So if you like, one is questioning the artificial hierarchical structures, protocols and placements within the traditional concert hall.

But these pieces are not just purely musical are they?
No, there is nearly always a specifically defined extra-musical or visual aspect, such as the movement of musicians; film projection; video screens and lighting within the building. I like to do very simple lighting, usually quite dark, and I wish there were enough hours in the day to do more film-making. I started out as a film maker before composition formed the emphasis of my creative activity.

Coming back to our new piece, why the title?

They are all subtitles from a book I wrote for musicians and non-musicians and administrators, about my experiences in trying to realise these concert hall pieces, called 'Outside Sight Unseen and Opened' *. It consists of about 130 of my own texts and drawings to read, perform and imagine, about distance, synchronisation, movement (...and concert halls!). These texts and drawings form a controlled, specific form of notation (like musical instruction) for the performer too.

The piece is for 48 players, it is in 12 parts, and each part requires the players to play either instruments which are developed by yourself, or their own instruments, which have been specifically adapted. How does this instrumentation relate to the composition of the piece?
The instruments continue my researches for a piece I wrote in 2001 for ASKO and commissioned by NDR for a concert with the world premiere of the Ligeti Horn Concerto, called THE NEURONS, THE TONGUE, THE COCHLEA...THE BREATH, THE RESONANCE, where I developed a vast intrumentarium of unusual, exotic and invented instruments, and explored organology and acoustics (I was less concerned with using these instruments for exploring microtonality in the Partch tradition). In some ways it was a new departure, but with an indebtedness and relevance to the acoustical ideas, research and experience of the Music for Concert Halls. I was of course limited by what I could make myself and have made with very limited financial means. But what became important was the beauty of the extremely quiet music (several degrees quieter than Feldmans'!) made by these instruments. And this beauty of quietness came itself directly from the emphasis on the quietness of distant musicians playing in far away spaces in the Music for Concert Halls.
Here in 'felt | ebb...' I have reduced the number of different instruments, but increased the number of performers. And while still retaining my obsession with acoustics, I have reduced the sound materials to the simplest and most effective sonic objects to explore the purest and most basic acoustical phenomena. For example: longitudinal vibration; Helmholtz resonators (or instruments with their own built in resonators); vibrating string lengths; all kinds of harmonics; the physics of different sorts of vibrating tubes; beats; Doppler; first reflections and the early sound; reverberation times; speed of sound and so on - a lot of these things also often explored on a spectral harmonic level.
There are also more subjective, but for me very poetic phenomena coming out of these instruments, like presence and silence. Sound that is born out of silence can exist in the imagination, or in reality, in a nebulous borderland wavering in and out of imagined silence, and real or imagined sound. The moment where this ceases to be imagined and starts to be registered as sound is crucial - opening up a concentration on the perceptual space, thus giving the listener more freedom to imagine - to enter the poetry of the sound.

But were the instruments themselves or the composition the initial inspiration for the piece?
In the end always the latter. I always approach composition and search for the means to achieve the musical perceptual acoustic result afterwards. So all the instruments were made after the initial compositional harmonic idea. There is of course one's duty as a composer (a duty since time immemorial!) to write practically for the instruments available, and the finished instruments dictated some final constraints or inspired further musical considerations by virtue of their charm and quirks.

There are very specific instructions as to where the musicians are placed in the hall or where they must move to. I know there are specific acoustic and compositional reasons for this.
Well there are perceptual reasons: a precise choreography is very difficult to organise with small rehearsal time - an improvised general activity is much easier and this is not my intention. These simple movements have to be absolutely precise because one sets up a situation, and the slightest (always logical) change in that acoustical situation in a space has a cause and effect, and in observing the result play on or with our perception. (Of course this is not scientific experiment, and in the end it is the artistic goal - the pleasure one strives towards - of perceiving these things which is paramount).
Furthermore when I move and position musicians outside the auditorium, or make them move in and outside the auditorium, distance becomes a different parameter from quietness. A less locatable lack of presence to a live sound is more telling, rare and tantalising, and distance then becomes something moving and poetic. The unseen too becomes more mysterious and gives the audience more space for their imagination. So rather than a precisely located left/right, front/back, above/below placing of the sound in the auditorium, it is the poetry of distance that becomes beautiful. Separate from this quality of distance, is the seductive lure of an increasingly fragile, less locatable lack of presence to a live sound, and this forms another important and special parameter.
I find always the simplest things are the hardest. Beautiful things are not achieved without effort, or by cutting corners. These things have to be prepared painstakingly with care and patience, in pre-rehearsal, rehearsal and performance. Then light and shade, lines and angles begin to talk, and music too begins to be heard, that hidden music that one does not 'hear'.
It is instructive to observe an audience during a performance: to watch them silently watching .. thinking .. hearing, and it is the quality of sound in motion which changes in the unconscious, or in the transitional states between dreaming and non-dreaming, or in the in-between hypnagogic state. One never dreams sound in close-up - sound which floats our way from the background of deserted places; the voice that suddenly materialises from some forgotten corner of our memory.

There is not only a choreography for the placement and moving of the instrumentalists but also for the playing of some of the instruments. This movement of the instruments while playing again has acoustic reasons which you may like to comment on, but on another level, how much do you also take theatrical considerations into account. Is there a priority in your decision to favour a compositional moment theatrically or acoustically?
I don't approach music, like some composers, from firstly a theatrical standpoint, but I approach it first and foremost from musical and acoustical reasons. Of course a beautiful, new and refreshing elegant theatre should result from these initial givens, and one strives towards this. But the composer comes before the theatre director even if they are one and the same person. Of course space is one way to articulate theatre musically, these pieces work on the perception, consciousness and awareness and these terms' theatrical connotations for a concert hall audience.

The score for this piece is a work of art in itself - an extremely precise, two dimensional graphical sculpture in part (as well as some conventional musical notation) which afterwards becomes the three dimensional sound sculpture in the performance. How did you devise a method of notating the piece - how has it been realised?
Simply through the constraints of poverty! I have only a laptop which is continually falling apart, and no expensive software! Even for the moments where I needed musical notation in precise graphical positions, I had only a free demo version of Sibelius where it was not possible to save, and I had to resort to using screen shots. And all the rest (the main graphics) was done with Appleworks which came free with my laptop. I decided to try to make it that everything had to be done in a computer for precise temporal measuring. But I still start to wonder why use a computer. I love and hate the things. With Animals and the Origins of Dance (1992) where 22 musicians play Bossanovas and Jitterbugs and what have you, in 12 different tempi, computers were scarcely available, and I simply used chains of A4 pages and measured everything with a ruler and calculated cumulatively, like Nancarrow - though I have never punched holes. I'm not sure if computers save us time, though this piece would not be possible without present day technology which I am happy to make use of. I am no luddite. (However the purity of the initial working process has had to be compromised in post production through the sad constraints of using commercial software designed for commercial music).
In the end any ideal notation becomes both a freedom and a constraint for inspiration. Colour has played an important part in the aspect of notation and in the printing of the score - and of course sophisticated colour in fine definition is cheaply available on the domestic market to everyone now - and in the score the colour provides a variety of functions - mostly musical and acoustical and occasionally artistic, but also to delineate curves and harmonic functions for different sounds moving through the space of the page/the space of the hall.
In addition, each of the 12 parts of the score are interleaved with a purely visual print (as in the book Outside Sight Unseen and Opened). These prints are rather more subjective refractions of the processes and systems involved in the piece. If you like they function as 'wipes' to dissolve what has gone before in preparation for the next section of the piece for the reader or musician, although they are not used in performance, though it would be nice if they were exhibited.
The visual material thus sets up aural images for the reader of the score, which get transformed into precisely mapped 'graphical' sound in real time, finally becoming three dimensional in terms of the sculptural. This is one attempt to put aspects of visual arts into the concert hall and vice versa.
That is why I subtitle the piece visual : aural : acoustical : sculptural music Acoustic space isn't pictorial, boxed-in, framed: it's resonating, in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment. It's a world in which the eye hears, the ear sees, and all the five and country senses join in a concert of interweaving rhythms.

The musicians will be co-ordinated by acoustic signals (audible only to them) giving timing, pitches and other musical instructions. This is not the first time you have foregone the conductor. Is this perhaps also a sociological consideration, theatrical or purely musical?
But of course there is a conductor! The conductor Franck Ollu will be taking the rehearsals assuming exactly the same normal role of a conductor - it couldn't be done otherwise. It's just he is not a 48-limbed Shiva, and we have to use clicktracks to co-ordinate the precise movements of sound in space. He has a terrible job - far worse than waving his arms around: he has to learn effectively 48 separate pieces of music for which I am very grateful!
With all my pieces I forego the conductor in performance only for co-ordination and practicality. People wrongly assume there is a sociological significance, or that I have an aversion to conductors as a species. This is true only when they are overpaid and only do new music as a step towards a career in Beethoven Wagner management.
I like click tracks - they are a part of the art of our age, and their use in pop and film music can lend a very important feel to what we do. Classical musicians are less used to click unless they work in film studios.
But this is nothing new. I have been using clicktracks for a long time - for example in another piece written for Ensemble Modern, Colour and Information (1993). Here the musicians' aural information had an artistic philosophical basis where the musicians responded to private aural information, and where their responses were to some extent unpredictable.
Another important reason for a clicktrack in 'felt | ebb...' is that the presentation is all, and such an installation of performers in proximity and intimacy with the audience must not be hindered by paper, so the musicians must be free from having to look at these awful dots which come between performer and audience. That is why the piece has to be done from memory and the clicks, words and samples can provide important reminders and aides memoires for the musicians.
I'd like to finish by offering my further thanks to you personally for all the enormous work you and Franck Ollu have put in to organising and co-ordinating and directing both the musical and theatrical aspects of this piece with such care and patience; to Norbert Ommer on the technical side; Thomas Schmölz and team for making the click tracks; to Monica Cordero and Stephan Buchberger whose calm and clear heads are dealing with very complicated logistics; Michael Schmidt for a nightmare of stage management (48 musicians playing 14 different instruments that have to be sent out all around Germany); all members of EM and JDP who have a lot of music to learn before October!; and last but not least Roland Diry as Geschäftsführer of Ensemble Modern who has given such strong and positive support to this project all along.

(*280 pp. Published in English by PFAU-Verlag, 2002. ISBN 3-89727-206-7.)