In 2015 George Benjamin, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, female singers of the Dutch Chamber Choir and countertenor Bejun Mehta brought the world premiere of Dream of the Song. On 17 and 18 January this highly successful song cycle sounds again. Now it forms part of a programme around the idealistic architecture that was initiated in 1919 by Gaudí in Spain and the Amsterdam School in the Netherlands. Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions.
What, to you, is the relationship between architecture and music – if any?
In essence, they could not be more different. Architecture works with physical materials within space, while in music intangible sound passes through time. Yet architecture is often used as a metaphor for music. And indeed, musical structures need foundations – deep rhythmic and harmonic underpinning – to function; some modern music requires something akin to scaffolding in order to be realized. If you look at it on a formal scale, the proportions in music are not far removed from those of architecture. So there are many analogies, but also vast differences.
How important is architecture in your own work? Do the structures arise intuitively or do you make a design in advance that you ‘fill in’ with notes?
For me, architecture is essential. Indeed, even the most beautiful musical invention is worthless if it is presented within a flawed global structure. I will never simply design prefabricated structures and ‘fill up’ them with music. This is an idea contrary to my nature, although several composers I highly respect have worked along these lines. The crucial concern here is what precisely the pre-designed model involves, and with what attitude (and liberty) it is applied.
Personally I appreciate too much the potential of detail, the spontaneity of invention and the element of surprise to let myself be imprisoned within too rigid a frame. Equally, I don’t simply grope my way forward into a piece, merely improvising from moment to moment. I need a fairly detailed conception of the nature of a composition – above all on a technical level – before I can actually start composing. Perhaps a good analogy to my own personal procedure is this: I invent a musical ‘organism’ without having accurately defined far in advance how it will behave.
A hundred years ago, both the Catalan Antoni Gaudí and the architects of the Amsterdam School developed a new architecture with the aim of providing workers with better living conditions. What do you think of their architecture?
I admire both schools for their eccentricity and exceptional individuality. In Gaudí’s work I’m also touched by the way the study of nature has tangibly influenced and inspired his work. When I was in Amsterdam last summer for my opera Lessons in Love & Violence, I was taken to Museum Het Schip, dedicated to the Amsterdam School. I was very charmed by the building’s sense of fantasy, both in detail and in the overall scale. Especially the brickwork exudes a capricious sense of delight, humour and charm. – Characteristics that I would not necessarily expect from a twentieth-century building with such utopian social ambitions.
Oliver Harrison designed images to be shown along with ‘Dream of the Song’. Are they related to Gaudí and/or the Amsterdam School?
No, the visuals around the Amsterdam School are tailored to Christiaan Richter’s new composition, Wendingen. Oliver Harrison’s work is related to my own piece and is in a different direction altogether. Harrison plays with calligraphy in highly imaginative and playful ways. He deconstructs and multiplies individual letters, exploiting them as mere particles and regrouping them in ways that evoke figurative images in a semi-abstract way. This relates in particular to the first song in my score, ‘The Pen’, which is about calligraphy.
What do you expect from the interaction between the images and the music?
It simply depends on how it is done. Music that sounds simultaneously with song, dance and play has achieved universal acclaim over centuries, so why not music with animation? It remains such a fresh and fascinating art form – as it happens my passion for classical music was triggered when I saw the film Fantasia as a young child.
In Dream of the Song the animation functions as a frame. The visuals only appear in the interstices between movements, announcing the titles of the individual songs with a flourish of intricate calligraphy. Except for one single moment, the images never coincide with the singing. So hopefully they will not detract from the rapport between our great soloist Bejun Mehta and the audience.