Benedict Mason

by George Steel

Benedict Mason, Berlin, 2006. Photo by Astrid Karger.

Benedict Mason is one of my favorite composers. His music is infinitely inventive, gleeful, and always a happy surprise to hear. He is a brilliant manipulator of form, perception, and of the basic materials of music. Mason came to composition (in the late 1980s) at a time when composers seemed to have an unwholesome preoccupation with manipulating pitches (As, F-sharps, and their 10 friends) and little else. Mason responded by focusing his boundless sense of invention on other too-long-ignored musical parameters: rhythms (many of them, simultaneously!), space (literally having musicians front and back, near and far, inside and outdoors), timbre (an entire aviary of noises from known and unknown instruments), and, most important of all, style. His was the first music I heard (from the late 1980s) that seemed to be actually “post-modern”; he is a perspicacious polyglot who is able to reference, parody, and idolize another musical style in a single gesture. His works can be deeply moving, and they spark with the finger-in-an-electrical-socket energy—an admixture of Terry Gilliam, Conlon Nancarrow, and S. J. Perelman, on one of his early stream-of-consciousness jags.

In 2004, I was pleased to produce a Composer Portrait concert of Mason’s music at the Miller Theatre of Columbia University, where I produce the programs. The group Alarm Will Sound played his incredible work Animals and the Origins of the Dance, a dozen 90-second “polymetric” dances, each with up to 12 different tempi (coordinated by 12 different click tracks). The second half of the program was a site-specific adaptation of his work Fifth Music: Résumé with CPE Bach, a fully spatialized work that had 24 or so players running inside, in and out of, and around the theater and included solos for air compressor, dog, and Barbie® Boombox. Yet for all the madcap fun of the piece, it revealed itself to be a carefully constructed essay in sound, color, and space, and in the coordination and non-coordination of tempo and style. The piece ended (or, rather, failed to end) as the musicians left the theater one by one, climbed aboard a double-decker bus, and headed off into Harlem, still playing. When they reappeared some 20 minutes later, still playing (!), the audience, by then at the reception, broke into an uproarious ovation.

In May 2005, Lincoln Center gave the US premiere of his work ChaplinOperas, three Chaplin shorts with a live score (and parallel narrative) by Mason. In 2006, we gave the premiere of the Double Concerto for Tuba and Double Bass that we commissioned from him. It was a sensation, in all senses of the word. This year sees revivals of Second Music opening the SPOR Festival in Denmark; a completely new version of his opera Playing Away to premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele; as well as new commissions for Germany’s top orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, led by Jonathan Nott (well known to New York audiences) and a new installation for orchestra in the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm.

George Steel Shall we begin with what you are up to now, or should we start with your history?

Benedict Mason At the moment my head is spinning with revision of the opera.

GS Well, let me ask some distracting questions, and then we’ll talk about the opera. You began your creative life as a filmmaker.

BM That’s really where it all started. I was much more interested in other forms of time-based media than music: theater especially, but also the idea of montage. It seemed that working with time-based images—chopping up frames of film, rather than quarter-inch tape—was more enriching. Working with video and early computers didn’t appeal.

GS Did you make films?

BM Yes, but they were very poor. I wish I had pursued that path, but economics didn’t allow it. I’m a filmmaker manqué. I was in a proper practical filmmaking program for three years at the Royal College of Art in London. The emphasis was on experimental filmmaking: Frampton, Brakhage, and Snow as well as Sharits and Gehr. There was a lot of investigation into narrative and acting as well, all the way from Kuleshov to Godard and Straub. It was all very exciting. I made films with such a strong emphasis on the sound track, the film was almost secondary—films that mapped a landscape with camera processes “interpreting” a pre-existing sound track, or that investigated onscreen and offscreen sound, and whose sound sources were re-created in performance with the projected film . . . It was all very “investigative” and experimental. I got more and more involved in doing sound for people’s film projects, and I found myself gravitating toward sound montage and music.

GS Had you had training as a musician?

BM To some extent. I played instruments very badly. I would never have thought I had any potential to be a composer, but coming at it later from film gave me a very particular construction process. When you build a score, too, you’re trying to make it a wholesome entity at the end, full of pleasing and relevant steps along the way. That’s always stayed with me, that fundamental idea of montage, and editing, and putting it all together.

GS Do you think the advent of film has changed the way in which people compose music? I mean, with filmic techniques like jump cuts, which I think of as Stravinskian.

BM Absolutely—every composer has been influenced by film since its invention. It is such a ubiquitous, available medium, and there’s something about 24 frames per second: each frame is a long enough lowest common denominator to do anything you want with time, perception, process, and so on.

I remember doing another film that relates to my work as a composer. Even then I was interested in people performing—musicians, actors, acrobats—at different tempos, and I had musicians play with a film. The film was like a conductor: four conductors/images locked into a projection of one split-screen print. And I did a film where I shot people on different kinds of swings (from circus and playground), and of course played with the film speed to make them swing with the tempi—swing like pendulums, à la Steve Reich. Then I could have groups of performers (not necessarily musicians) following the screen in a kind of multi-tempi thing, which of course I did much more easily after commercially available computers came in.

GS Did you know Reich’s Pendulum Music [in which microphones swing back and forth as pendulums, producing feedback as they come near one another] when you were working on that piece?

BM Yes, I did know that. All the experimental music that was going on was very close to what the filmmakers were doing as well, and we were all talking about it. Art magazines like Studio International had issues devoted to experimental music or avant-garde film. Those were heavy times.

GS What about the work of Conlon Nancarrow? His music I love, and it seems to me that his work has some significance for yours in terms of the free placing of simultaneous events in time.

BM No, I found out about him much later, when I was already producing pieces and entering composing competitions.


Felt | Ebb..., No. 11: For Gongs Drums and Cane. Performance, Klangspuren Festival, Schwaz, Austria, 2006. Photo by Astrid Karger.

GS So how did you make the transition from being a filmmaker to being a composer?

BM It was slow. I gained very good experience making sound and music for people’s films and theater productions. You have to be incredibly disciplined if you’re having five paid musicians come to the studio the next morning to play something that sounds like “Paris boudoir in 1890” or “Indian Dance band in 1930.” But I quickly found that very limiting, so then I tried to put pieces together. Montage again! The first thing I did was a very experimental piece using one note only; everybody plays the same pitch, but within a very complicated rhythmic investigation. That was quite easy to do because I could shrug off the harmonic responsibility—half the problem of being a composer was out of the way at a stroke! (laughter) But it made the piece very intriguing in terms of the listener’s perception. There were competitions, and I would use them as deadlines. I would construct pieces; they were very constructed—I wouldn’t say they were greatly inspired. I was doing it on a second remove, as it were. But I had no language hangups, which can block composers, and so they were by default very postmodernist. I didn’t care.

GS Postmodern is the very word I think of. When I heard your first Double Concerto for Horn and Trombone, it was the first time I had heard music that delivered on the promise of postmodernism. People always talked about postmodern music, but none of the music I heard that claimed that label seemed to embody “postmodernist” characteristics. Do you think your Double Concerto is a postmodern piece?

BM Very much so. It is at times very Stravinskian (in spirit, not language). I suppose he was the first postmodernist. My piece synthesizes a lot. And it got away from “modern” music. I hated modern music—the sort of gritty, ’70s gray discordant stuff that everyone was doing and was well past its sell-by date. Fulfilling the Darmstadt expectation was what both inhibited me and turned me off. It’s not that I didn’t respect it, but I felt it had had its day. So it was a reaction to that.

GS Were people shocked to hear those kinds of sounds coming out of your piece?

BM Yes, but a lot of people got a sense of fun from it. And I enjoyed using those two solo instruments in such a context.

GS It’s an enormously fun piece. And apparently enormously difficult. I’ve showed the score to people who say it’s one of the most difficult pieces they’ve seen. Did you find that to be the case?

BM (laughter) I think it’s difficult because—I hate to say this—because they can’t fake it. Because there’s a difference between modern music where you can’t perceive the over-complex rhythms, and music where the rhythms are absolutely naked, where crossing over between three in a beat or five in a beat, has to be done right, otherwise people don’t sync up together. And no disrespect intended, but in some other music I’m not sure the rhythmic processes are so apparent. That’s one reason that piece is difficult to play. You can’t cheat or waffle. But it is not at all unplayable or impractical.

GS Well, I’ve heard it.

BM I do remember Oliver Knussen, who conducted the first performances wonderfully fast and with typical mercurial flair, saying it was one of the most difficult pieces he ever had to conduct. I mean, in every bar, the beats and their subdivisions were constantly changing—but in a perceivable way.

GS It seems striking to me that someone who came out of film would write music that is so, not only intellectually but musically virtuosic, music that is so difficult to play. I wouldn’t imagine a filmmaker internalizing rhythms like the ones you write.

BM Well, dividing 24 frames into two, three, four, six, eight is not so different from what I just described. But there were quite a lot of years of struggle between filmmaking and actually delivering a piece like the Double Concerto! I must say that that’s something that was helped by studying scores—I used to study and study and study scores, to look at the way something was done and try things out and hear the result. The best and only way to study composition. Again, it’s a fun piece, but I think that lots of the “runarounds” in it are quite intellectual: you end up dividing beats, dividing up harmonics series, things like that. I was always fascinated by the way instruments worked on a theoretical level but also used them for what they did on a practical level.

GS You seem to have a love affair with instruments of all kinds, crazy and obscure, not only as musical things but as contraptions and as theatrical characters.

BM Yes, I think they are theatrical only secondarily. You have to have a lot of money to build instruments properly, so mine tend to be what you can build rather simply, and it tends to be using simple materials like strings and tubes and rods.

GS Your scores are filled with these invented and obscure instruments.

BM I suppose I am quickly bored. I like to try to find things that people have not seen before or done before . . . or done recently, as there’s nothing new under the sun! It also goes back to the beauty of sound made by raw acoustic means, because I feel that the electronic medium has also become very tired, pace perhaps the use of the sampler. There is something special and beautiful about normal sound that is un-amplified, like in the instrumentarium I built for “THE NEURONS, THE TONGUE, THE COCHLEA . . . THE BREATH, THE RESONANCE,” first performed with the premiere of the Ligeti Horn Concerto, under George Benjamin. Part of the goal was to achieve the things that people were achieving in electronic music using acoustic means—even if it did involve cumbersome, theatrical instruments. I would say the main research was timbre, but inevitably, the microtonal—building instruments outside Western scales and tunings—also became a factor. We could talk about Presence and Penumbrae for Les Percussions de Strasbourg; or the big installation with 48 solo musicians, each playing in different tempi, on different invented instruments.

GS Yes—“felt | ebb | thus | brink | here | array | telling,” which premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in 2004, by the Ensemble Modern.

BM Yes, that’s a real concert installation from over five years ago. It’s in 12 sections and it lasts about an hour and 40 minutes. The musicians play in lines, in circles, and so on, and they move through and around the audience. The whole instrumentarium is about 600 different instruments.

GS Oh, my God.

BM (laughter) In a way it is very cumbersome because conventionally you would have one person playing the vibraphone, all the bars controlled by that musician in one location, but here you have a piece where each musician is one bar of that vibraphone spread out in several locations.


Felt | Ebb..., No. 8: For Metal Tubes With Resonance Holes. Rehearsal, Klangspuren. Photo by Astrid Karger.

GS Tell me how you moved from music of multiple tempos and odd instrumentaria into compositions in space, which, now that we talk about it, seems like a natural extension. Let’s talk about your series of music for concert halls.

BM I was bored with traditional music theater where musicians came onstage for a piece, waited for the conductor, sat there and read their music and then went offstage. I wanted to use the whole hall. I was very touched by the sound of offstage music. Whenever there was something far away, it was always terribly tantalizing. Distance, movement, direction, and resonance in the real or illusory use of sound are underused parameters. I used offstage instruments in earlier pieces like my Horn Trio, my Rilke Songs, and things like that in a very simple way—someone would go offstage and play—in the traditional 19th-century things, like in opera, when you hear something far away.

GS Mahler, one thinks of.

BM Yes. So for the first piece in the series, I had a commission for an orchestra piece, and I decided to bring in an actor, Udo Samel, to go around running the show in a kind of subversive way. I was determined to break up the orchestra, so I got everybody off the stage except for the basses and the percussionists. I put all the strings in lines around the audience, so that the audience faces a row of cellos; and the side seats and back of the parquet were taken up with the violins and violas, and then a series of six horn players starts to come in and out of the side entrances, and the remaining brass were put outside in a resonant foyer. I used a hall where I knew the piece was going to be performed, in Frankfurt. I mean, that first piece was still fairly conventional, but I made things much more radical in a piece that happened a year later, which was for the Freiburger Barockorchester and peripatetic solo modern musicians. Right from the start, they’re already going outside—

GS How did you end up writing for the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra? Seems like not the obvious choice, for you or for them.

BM These things always come about by commission. It was for a concert in the Frankfurt Festival that was supposed to be about old and new, and they invited the FBO to come and do a concert with the Ensemble Modern. So they asked me to do a piece involving both groups, which I relished the thought of, because I love the sound of period instruments played in the style of their time. I had previously written a piece called Sapere Aude for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment that juxtaposed contemporaneous scientific texts from the late 18th- and late 20th-centuries. At the same time, I wanted to do something more radical, to get people coming in and out and playing far away. My dream was a synchronized sound of present, absent, and distant musicians choreographed across the audience via the elaborate placement and movements of the performers in the whole building. Corridors, elevators, stairwells, cloakrooms as well as external spaces like the roof and even adjacent parks and waterways, like I did later in Amsterdam—every space was fair game, so long as it was audible to the audience, who remained in their normal seats. The audience’s whole acoustic perception of the musicians is emphasized in a way that we don’t normally have in a concert, because normally everything is focused on the stage. I’ve never found it very successful when the old avant-garde used to put musicians close to the audience. The further the space expands beyond the listening area, the more poetic things can be, and the more inventive and acute people can be in their imagination when they’re listening—they’re not confronted by the distraction of musicians in close proximity. It gives the audience much more freedom to invent in their own mind what they want to interpret from what they’re hearing, in the way that you interpret a novel personally in your own mind much differently from how you interpret a film where the interpretation is given in front of your eyes. One never dreams sound in close-up. I’m after sound that floats our way from the background of deserted places; the voice that suddenly materializes from some forgotten corner of our memory. . . .

GS I’m surprised at the degree to which you can layer sounds from distances on top of each other. It makes polyphony incredibly clear when you have players on the stage and off the stage and very far outside the hall. It’s extraordinary.

BM Absolutely. That was another concern, because my music is very dense and there can be quite a lot going on, and if it’s all coming from the same sound source, that can be a problem. I find it fascinating to hear somebody playing really quietly inside the hall against somebody who’s playing very loudly a long way away. 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.” All those things, our sophisticated human ear can cope with in a fantastic way, whereas an ordinary microphone can’t. Our world has been so transformed by the use of recording technology, but we’ve lost a lot. When you can use a space in such a way and do it right, and be inventive, the audience has quite an interesting time. It’s very difficult to do in concert halls, because they’re not designed for that. Doing this kind of thing is so much easier in an art gallery or in a theater. Concert halls, sadly, are more restrictive. They have a group coming in the afternoon, and they do their rehearsal, and they do the concert. And then they go away and another group comes in the next day. Also the idea of musicians who have to learn and work as actors is very rare. It’s a great pity, because that’s how music can take off now, and become an interesting thing for audiences who are much more interested in film and art than music anyway. In a way, music has sort of gotten left behind.

GS Do new kinds of venues need to be built, or is it primarily the sociological quality of concert halls?

BM It’s sociological. I find every hall interesting. There’s always something you can do with it, and I prefer to have these pieces confront the conventions of a concert-going audience.


Felt | Ebb..., No. 8: For Metal Tubes With Resonance Holes. Performance view, Kabelwerk Oberspree, Berliner Festspiele, Berlin, 2005. Photo and lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel.

GS You’re working now on remounting your opera, Playing Away, for this summer. Was that an outgrowth of your moving players around the space, or does the opera precede that part of your work?

BM The opera precedes it. It had been commissioned with a planned production in view, so it was still in fairly conventional mode. It was always intended as a kind of 19th-century piece.

GS A proscenium piece, you mean?

BM Exactly. Going through the conventions of opera, doing it, again, as postmodernism. It was always going to be like that. It’s an opera about opera. It’s also an opera about Germany, and about pop music. It’s a simple story about a brilliant soccer player (a tenor of course!) who is married to a pop star.

GS Based on any famous football players married to pop stars that we know?

BM (laughter) Well, the strange thing is that it was written when David Beckham and Posh Spice were only just out of high school, still unknown. So I delight in feeling that life imitates art! In the opera, their marriage is breaking up, she uses him purely for promoting her music; she’s doing a video promo for her album Sex and Sport. This all takes place during an away match where England is playing Germany. In the first scene, the English team arrives at the Munich airport, and all the English fans are behaving appallingly—again, life imitating art. These English fans seem to promote my opera every time they go to a football match! So anyway, she does the video promo in the footballers’ shower room in the second scene, and the third scene is in a Bierkeller on the eve of the match, and the fourth scene is the actual match, where England loses, and this brilliant footballer is very badly injured (in a foul ignored by a Mephistophlean referee) and the pop star sells her husband and goes off with other characters. It is a very straight, rather Faustian narrative.

GS How do you stage a football match on an opera stage?

BM It is difficult. Lots of choreography, and there are non-singing dancers, plus a coloratura ball dressed from head to toe in black-and-white latex! This time we’re going to do it on a very large non-proscenium space, only slightly smaller than a football pitch. There will be the orchestra at one end and there will be audience mingling with fans around the sides, and then a larger audience area at the other end. So it will be a little more naturalistic. There will be quite a lot of video, and there’s actually a TV crew in the dramatis personae of the opera: Austrian television will be this film crew as part of the action, at the same time recording the piece for later broadcast.

GS So they adopt the role? Amazing.

BM Yes. And there will be lots of live video playback when there’s a goal, lots of action-replays and that sort of stuff. It will be very good fun, I think. It’s quite good to get away from a proscenium setting—I mean, opera in the round and all that stuff, it’s all been done. So for this piece, it needs to open out in an interesting way. The director, David Pountney, is excellent at this kind of thing. He did a wonderful production of Die Soldaten last year for the Ruhrtriennale in a long-disused steel factory. The action took place on what seemed like a long runway or catwalk, but what was amazing was that the audience, who are on a kind of raked, constructed seating, was transported along this runway as if in a train. It gave a whole new effect, in terms of an intimacy with the singers that you don’t get with a proscenium stage, and also a kind of narrative that went past you. You would be moved past a singer or somebody reading a book by a table who then became another part of the narrative. It was enormously effective. There was lots of clever work with sound amplification, which is also necessary for my piece because it’s meant to be more like a musical than an opera. It’s written like opera, with orchestra and singers and stuff, but—

GS In what ways is it like a musical?

BM Well, trying to get away from the high, bel canto, deafening, vibrato-trained opera singers. Trying to use more of the pop voice, the lower voice, but amplified. And trying to use a voice delivery that’s a little more connected to the word rhythm in the way that musicals are. I have a huge problem with opera where you just can’t understand the words. In this piece there’s a good story to follow, which I want the audience to pick up on. So there’s a lot of musicalized spoken material, there’s a lot of recitative in many forms and guises, with different levels of accompaniment, and then of course singing songs, full numbers, arias, quintets, and so on.

GS Extraordinary.

BM Inevitably there’s a certain dichotomy of trying to do a piece about football and pop music in such a high-culture context like opera. Although all those borderlines are being subsumed within each other in deliberately outrageous ways nowadays. Anyway, I’m completely rewriting it now. It’s a very strange situation—I’m taking out pages of carefully written, pencil manuscript that I had packed away in boxes 12 years ago, and just chopping them up. I’m being totally ruthless. It’s like a palimpsest; I’m writing over and rubbing out, cutting and pasting and deleting with an eraser and a razor blade. I’m doing a lot of “decomposing,” actually!

GS Are you changing the music a lot?

BM Yes. It’s a lot more filmic now, with jump cuts, a lot of inserts, a lot of changes. Also, at first I didn’t give people quite enough time to be expansive in their expression, so that they have time to act. Opera singers need that. I don’t like people standing around for too long singing the same phrase. I tried to make things more exciting, changed the orchestration a bit, added stuff I found: objets trouvés. I’m trying to also be the person I was 12 years ago—otherwise it would look very strange, what I’ve done to it—so I’m having to be careful on that level.

GS Stravinsky had that same problem with Nightingale, didn’t he?

BM Yes, indeed. (laughter) I try not to be too precious with it.

GS And when will it premiere?

BM August, in the Bregenzer Festspiel.

GS And after that, what’s your next project?

BM Well, there’s a new orchestral piece for the Bamberger Symphoniker for Jonathan Nott, which I started and then had to stop to rewrite the opera. It’s an uproarious parade of dances, but very different from Animals . . . And I’m doing a kind of orchestral installation for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which is a wonderful, lovely modern art museum looking right over the city. They’re being very open, allowing the musicians to come in and play among the Picassos and Duchamps. It will be of course very spatial, but it’ll be treating space and acoustics within an art context. The audience will be structured in their movement. They will also move with the musicians, but not at the same time, so they will be sometimes far away from the musicians, sometimes close to them. It will be a little bit like the “felt | ebb . . .” piece, but using orchestral musicians, using normal instruments.

GS Let’s go back quickly to film. Do you imagine making films again yourself?

BM I would love to. I’ve done it a little bit in some of these concert hall pieces. In Szene für drei Frauenstimmen, drei Spiegelstimmen, Orchester und Film for the inauguration of Jean Nouvel’s hall in Lucerne, I made sequences of film that were projected on an orchestra dressed in white that swept across them—the projector acted as a conductor. And with the last thing I did, I used all the documentary material that was shot from the “felt | ebb . . .” rehearsals. Lots of people had shot film and I’d shot lots of film on video, so I made that into a movie, using documentary material but in an art way. There were lots of effects, lots of montage, and it turned the piece inside out from the concert version, made another story. I enjoyed doing that very much. It’s simply a question of commission and finance. If somebody said tomorrow, Here’s the money, go make something—I would go like a shot. I’d drop composing completely.

GS Really?

BM It’s much more fun than writing music. Music is such a bore_. (_laughter) It’s such a bore to write this stuff! Filmmaking is not so concentrated. Okay, all the work is concentrated, I’m sure, but you can edit ten seconds of film and you don’t have to do it frame by frame, whereas in composing it is frame by frame, because it’s semiquaver by semiquaver, 16th note by 16th note. It takes so long to write this stuff. All those little dots that go past in five seconds.


BOMB 100
Summer 2007
The cover of BOMB 100