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Benjamin - Copyright Betty Freeman

George Benjamin

George Benjamin's Dance Figures

Sunday 20 January 2008 17:00-18:30 (Radio 3)

Stephen Johnson meets one of Britain's leading composers, George Benjamin, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to explore some of the ideas behind his orchestral pieces Dance Figures and Sudden Time.


1 hour 30 minutes

George Benjamin

Composer and Conductor


George Benjamin is one of the outstanding composers of his generation. Born in 1960, Benjamin started to play the piano at the age of seven, and began composing almost immediately. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Olivier Messiaen (composition) and Yvonne Loriod (piano), after which he studied under Alexander Goehr at King's College Cambridge.

His first orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, was played at the BBC Proms when he was just 20; since then it has achieved a remarkable international performance record, as have his two subsequent works, A Mind of Winter and At First Light. Antara was a commission from IRCAM to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Pompidou centre in 1987. Benjamin conducted the first performances of Sudden Time at the first Meltdown Festival in 1993, and Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra at the 75th Salzburg Festival in 1995.

The LSO and Pierre Boulez gave the world premiere of Palimpsests in 2002 to mark the opening of the LSO's season-long retrospective of his work at the Barbican, "By George", a project which also included the premiere of Shadowlines by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. In recent years there have been numerous other major retrospectives of his work, including Brussels (Ars Musica, 2003), Tokyo (Tokyo Opera City, 2003), Berlin (DSO, 2004-5), Strasbourg (Musica Festival, 2005) and Madrid (Spanish National Orchestra, 2005). The centre point of a large-scale portrait at the 2006 Festival d'Automne in Paris was his first operatic work, Into the Little Hill, a collaboration with the English playwright Martin Crimp which has been greeted with international acclaim. He has accepted the fourth Roche commission, which will be premiered during his tenure as composer-in-residence at the 2008 Lucerne festival.

Benjamin Conducting - Photo copyright Michiharu Okubo
He has built up a close relationship with the Tanglewood Festival in America since his first appearance there in 1999. As a conductor he regularly appears with some of the world's leading ensembles and orchestras, amongst them the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, the Cleveland and Concertgebouw orchestras and the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1999 he made his operatic debut conducting Pelleas et Melisande at la Monnaie, Brussels and he has conducted numerous world premieres, including important works by Wolfgang Rihm, Unsuk Chin, Grisey and Ligeti.

George Benjamin lives in London, and is the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College, London. He was artistic consultant to the BBC's three year retrospective of the 20th Century music, Sounding the Century, and was invited to become an Associate Artist at London's South Bank in 2006. He was made a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996 and was elected to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, only the fourth time such an honour has been bestowed on a British composer. In 2001 he was awarded the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester's first ever Schoenberg Prize for composition.

Copyright Faber Music September 2007

Sudden Time

The gestation period for this orchestral piece was lengthy - the first sketches date back to 1983 and the last bars were completed shortly before the premiere a decade later. As this period progressed my ideas for the type of piece I wanted to write gradually crystallised - this process involved the invention of a new technical approach as well as the rejection of certain concepts very much tied to my earlier works.

Above all I wanted the music to flow with considerable agility, the material evolving across the orchestra, sometimes in several different directions simultaneously. To achieve this the texture throughout is conceived in linear terms, the audible harmony being created by the fusion of separate lines.

The resulting structure oscillates between focused, pulsed simplicity and whirlpools of complex polyrhythm. An organic sense of continuity between these extremes is made possible by the fact that all material, however plain or elaborate, is based on a few musical cells of great simplicity.

Sudden Time basically divides into two continuous movements, the first (lasting about five minutes) acting as a turbulent introduction to the second, where a subliminal metre is perpetually distorted and then re-assembled.

Even through an exceptionally large orchestra is employed, my intention at times was to achieve a transparency akin to chamber music. Material was directly conceived into full score and there is no decorative padding or conventional doubling. Some unusual instruments are employed, including a quartet of alto flutes, a pair of miniature recorders, a muted piano and a plethora of mini-tablas which accompany the extremely difficult viola solo at the work's end.

The title is a quotation from a Wallace Stevens poem, A Martial Cadenza, 'It was like sudden time in a world without time'. Some of the concepts behind this piece can be illustrated by a dream I once had in which the sound of a thunderclap seemed to stretch to at least a minute's duration before suddenly circulating, as if in a spiral, through my head. I then woke, and realised that I was in fact experiencing merely the first second of a real thunderclap. I had perceived it in dreamtime, in between and in real time.

Although this is but analogy, a sense of elasticity, of things stretching, warping and coming back together, is something that I have tried to capture in this piece.

George Benjamin 1996

Benjamin Conducting - Photo Copyright Michiharu Okubo

Dance Figures

Nine choreographic sketches for orchestra (2004)

This work - my first conceived for dance - consists of nine short movements which contrast strongly in character, form and colour. The first six play almost without break, as do the final three, so the piece basically divides into two parts.

I - Spell
A simple introduction, exclusively for divided high strings, leading through a suspended chord to:

II - Recit
A long, ornate melody shared amongst the winds, underpinned by a sonorous harmonic background. The doubling of the melody in wide, parallel intervals intentionally evokes organ registration.

III - In the Mirror
A brief polyphonic movement, divided into two halves, the first legato and plaintive, the second more energetic and pointed. Both sections are canons by inversion - hence the title.

IV - Interruptions
Various musical materials cross-cut and superimpose in this volatile movement: virtuoso woodwind flourishes, heavy chords in the lowest regions of the orchestra, a fierce quartet of horns, a hesitant oboe solo. On its third appearance a distant, slow chorale links to:

V - Song
A more flowing movement, with the main line shared between solo viola and muted trumpets. An abrupt change of atmosphere marks the coda, where an E-flat clarinet takes the foreground.

VI - Hammers
The full orchestra, employed as a single mass, placed almost entirely in a high register. Monolithic pulses are disrupted by abrupt changes in pace while blaring melodic fragments hocket across the brass.

VII - Alone
A complete contrast - a veiled texture, subdued and low in tessitura. A major third in low muted trombones leads to:

VIII - Olicantus
A longer movement, also reflective in mood and scored for chamber-like resources. A dark-hued canon between bass clarinets and cellos prefaces three statements of the same, simple melody. At each recurrence the tempo slows considerably while the melody is harmonised and embellished in ever more elaborate ways.

IX - Whirling
A very short but energetic presto, exploiting a play of perspectives across the full orchestra as a melodic line, mainly in the first violins, spins its way through a mass of other textures.

George Benjamin, 2006.

Dance Figures was commissioned by the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie/Koninklijke Muntschouwburg, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Music NOW and Strasbourg Musica.

Dance Figures was conceived as a ballet to be choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and was given its first ballet production at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in May 2006. The world concert premiere was given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim on 19 May 2005, and the European concert premiere by the Sudwestrundfunk Orchestra under the baton of the composer, at Strasbourg Musica on 23 September 2005. 

George Benjamin's Dance Figures and Sudden Time, the online audio is edited for rights reasons.

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