George Benjamin was granted the fourth Roche Commissions award in 2006. His composition, “DUET”, had its world premiere in Lucerne on August 30, 2008.
George Benjamin, born in 1960, has close ties to the French music community. He was one of Olivier Messiaen’s last students, studied piano under Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, and later accepted Pierre Boulez's invitation to work at the IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a laboratory in Paris dedicated to the study of traditional and electronic music. At the age of 20, the youngest composer in the annals of the BBC Proms, he caused a sensation with one of his early works. Today, he is a celebrated star of contemporary music.
When George Benjamin received the fourth of the Roche Commissions in spring of 2006 he also visited the firm’s Research and Development Center in Basel. During this visit George Benjamin and Jonathan Knowles, then Head of Group Research at the company, engaged in several fascinating discussions. The following text is based on a later conversation between the two men which took place in London on 11 January, 2008.
An excerpt from the conversation:
Jonathan Knowles: When you start to write a piece, do you start with a note?
George Benjamin: Not always, often you start with a rhythm. It depends what drops into your mind. You would not normally just start with one note; you need a bigger plan for what you are going into. I like to think that I am investigating a space when I am composing, and that the space has a colour and a field to it, both horizontally and vertically, before I enter it. Of course, I have had to invent the space before I go in and start composing.
Jonathan Knowles: Conceptually, this sounds similar to what happens when you go about creating a medicine. You start with a lot of external context, an existing body of knowledge. Here too, you never start in a vacuum. But what does the next step look like, once you have said: “Okay, now I can fly with this”?
George Benjamin: Basically, it is related to things that would have been sketched on paper – over months sometimes. But it is a state of mind; it is bits of my brain working in harmony together. And it is also connected – because it is not entirely rational – to expressive things and to purely intuitive things, if I like the sound in my head.
Jonathan Knowles: And could you explain to someone why you thought it worked?
George Benjamin: No, it’s a space you just have to have experienced …
Jonathan Knowles: Does that mean you could not write it down?
George Benjamin: I could rationally explain. But when it came to: “Why does it work for you, George, this time?”, the answer would probably be fairly intangible. Something like: “Because it’s what I want, because I have found what I want, and I have also found a way to realise it.”
Jonathan Knowles: Do you know what you are expecting beforehand?