Skip to main content


Friday review
 
  Search this site




Mining for diamonds



As composer George Benjamin prepares to conduct his first Prom, he tells Tom Service about the genesis of his latest work, Palimpsest

Friday 14 July 2000
The Guardian


George Benjamin's career is uniquely related to the music and personalities of the great European masters of modern music. As a teenager, Benjamin was a student in Olivier Messiaen's legendary class at the Paris Conservatoire, which counted Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen among its alumni.

Benjamin then studied at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr, and quickly established himself as a precociously brilliant composer. In 1980, at the ripe old age of 20, Benjamin's music made its Proms debut with Ringed by the Flat Horizon, his first orchestral work. As Benjamin remembers, "When I was 19, I went to the Proms and thought how wonderful it would be to have a piece played there. And then next year, the dream came true! It was an extraordinary thrill."

This year's Proms season sees another Benjamin first, as he conducts a whole programme with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The concert is a digest of Benjamin's first musical loves and formative experiences, and begins with Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune. "It's a work I have the most indescribable love for," Benjamin says. "It was played at the first concert I ever went to. I remember being a tiny child of six or seven, and when the piece began, the temperature of the hall seemed to change. The softness of the harmony made an immense physical impression - I can still feel those sensations. The work, for me, is the definition of perfection."

Messiaen's "wonderful, exuberant and bracing" Oiseaux Exotiques also features in the programme, played by the brilliant pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. As well as Stravinsky's suite from The Firebird, Benjamin will conduct the world premiere of Julian Yu's Not a Stream But an Ocean, the composer's tribute to Bach. Yu may be a more unfamiliar name in this country than his contemporaries Tan Dun and Guo Wenjing, but Benjamin describes him as "one of the most gifted composers to have come out of China. He has a very good orchestral craft, and his music has a harder quality than that of his colleagues".

But whatever the other novelties in the programme, the focus will be on Benjamin's performance of Palimpsest, his latest work, which was written for the London Symphony Orchestra's epic Boulez 2000 series and premiered earlier this year. The Prom will be the first time Benjamin has conducted the piece.

Palimpsest surprised many followers of Benjamin's music at its first performance. The work is short - just eight minutes - and contains stark oppositions of texture and mood. As he says, "I wanted the most radical clarity possible - no mist, no funny lighting, just razor-sharp clarity. I'd been to the desert, where the colours of the sand and the sky were completely delineated and different from one another. So as opposed to more subtle blending, I wanted to write a piece which was more hard-edged."

Palimpsest is a literary term for a manuscript which is successively written over and obscured. "The core of the piece is a strange-sounding clarinet song," Benjamin explains. "For 80 per cent of the piece, that song is simply revolving. But this core is being continually reinterpreted by all of the other musical layers. That's why the work is a palimpsest: because I can write perpetually on top of the musical core." The unpredictability of the music surrounding this "core" creates a sense of massiveness and a range of expression seemingly impossible in so short a space of time.

The elemental concentration of Palimpsest finds an analogy in the way Benjamin thinks of his compositional process. "It's like the way carbon, when compressed and compressed, eventually forms diamonds. When you start on a new piece, you have so many ideas. There are millions of things you have to leave out. But gradually, the ideas coalesce, and then, at the last moment, you've found the DNA for what you want to do. After two years of work, Palimpsest finally emerged with enormous, unbelievable speed and, indeed, violence."

Twenty years on from his first association with the Proms, Benjamin's work continues to provoke, startle and stimulate. With each new piece - which will typically be produced only after many months or even years of reflection, research and refinement - he mines a different area of musical imagination. The contrasts between the deserts and diamonds of Palimpsest are no exception.

• George Benjamin conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Proms, Albert Hall, London SW7, on Monday. Box office: 020-7589 8212.





Printable version | Send it to a friend | Clip

404 Page not found

Sorry - we haven't been able to serve the page you asked for

You may have followed a broken link, an outdated search result, or there may be an error on our site. If you typed in a URL, please make sure you have typed it in correctly. In particular, make sure that the URL you typed is all in lower case.

Search

Browse

Browse our A-Z directories to find a subject or contributor

Subject A-Z

Contributor A-Z

Contact us

If you require further assistance, please contact our user help staff at the following address: userhelp@guardian.co.uk



UP


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2013