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10 - Rotations and Reflections: The Musical Presence of George Benjamin

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 April 2020

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Summary

The most extensive of George Benjamin's published conversations appeared in 2004, just before he embarked on the first of his collaborations with Martin Crimp, the ‘lyric tale’ Into the Little Hill. Asking himself ‘how to write a posttonal opera?’ Benjamin cast a critical eye over stage works by Berio, Ligeti, Messiaen and the American minimalists. He then identified a more productive background in earlier works – Boris, Tristan, PelléasJenůfa, Kát’a Kabanová and Wozzeck – before concluding that for success in the theatre composers need a consistent and very simple harmonic language, coupled with a style of melodic writing that can be productively integrated into that harmony. Nor is Benjamin's commitment to such simplicity restricted to opera: he commented earlier that the aural comprehension of even very simple musical material can become difficult when that material is subject to transposition, superimposition and mutation. To guard against incomprehensibility, Benjamin explains that he has devised a way of stepping back from the ‘terrible situation’ in which there are ‘always twelve different notes to choose from’. His narrative-like forms are animated by ‘cellules motiviques’, small entities which might appear excessively abstract, even dead, ‘yet which seem like real people to me, with the capacity to transmute, combine, confront’. Such relatively abstract material is more malleable than an essentially melodic kind of theme. Even so, the survival of simplicity cannot be taken for granted: ‘a theme tends to imply a hierarchy between melody and accompaniment, whereas my textures (‘écriture’) tend to be much more complex’. In one unusually specific disclosure, with reference to his orchestral composition Palimpsest II (2002), Benjamin identifies a harmonic repertoire of six threenote chords (excluding the major and minor triads) which can all be extracted from a hexachord he expresses in integer notation as [034678]. Devotees of set theory will note that this hexachord, whose prime form is [012458], does in fact contain the major and minor triads [148], while not embracing every single possible trichord after the fashion of Elliott Carter's ‘Chord 35’ – the ‘all-triad’ hexachord [012478].

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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