Tim Benjamin

In the run-up to its concert at The Forge on 27th May 2014, rarescale’s Artistic Director Carla Rees talks to some of the composers who have recently written new works for the ensemble.
Tell us about the background of your piece – how did it come to be written and what’s it all about?
I had just finished writing my new opera, Madame X (7 performances this summer, please come!), which is a kind of Jacobean revenge drama set in the art world, and musically inspired by Handel, Purcell, and others both later and earlier. I was still very much in the mode of that music as I had been absorbed by it for many months while writing the opera. Originally I planned to write a “sequel” to Strange Loop (a previous rarescale commission), but instead I found myself playing about with an aria from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. This one has a disarmingly simple combination of bass, voice, and unison accompaniment, and all I’ve done in creating this new piece for rarescale is to move sections of these three parts around and embellish them: a “collage” technique one might call baroque Baroque!

How does this work relate to your other compositional output?
It’s one of a number of pieces I’ve written over the past couple of years that are a bit of a new direction for me. I’ve taken to exploring styles of the past to see where they might go in a kind of alternative universe. This one is an oddity however as I very rarely use an actual piece of historical music as a starting point. I’ve used a collage technique like this in several pieces. I borrowed it from David Bowie who used it to write some of his lyrics.

What is your musical aesthetic?
I don’t really subscribe to the idea that new music must progress in some kind of forward march towards a new tomorrow: how one might describe the aesthetic of Modernism or the avant garde. I like to look back at a style or practice from the past and see what can be done with it, or where it might have alternatively gone, given what else has been revealed to us by later composers and cultures. A good example of this is the “expressionist” era, before WW2, the likes of Berg, Schoenberg and others in early 1930s Vienna. A very interesting musical language began to develop at that time which I feel was cut short, and then misappropriated by the serialists after the War. Why not see where else it might have gone, had history not intervened? Is it necessarily a sole product of 1930s Vienna and that particular set of circumstances? Likewise, in recent works I have plundered the Baroque, in particular the concept of the “Doctrine of the Affections”: what is possible if one takes “Affect” as a constraint, but if one develops out of those origins a musical language with and for contemporary ears, rather than 18th century ears?

What made you become a composer?
When I was very young I had free music lessons at primary school. Sadly this is no longer possible for the majority of kids today due to idiotic and short-sighted cut-backs. Anyway, I took up the trombone (there being no trumpets left to take home), and I didn’t like the exercises I was set, so I wrote my own. Indeed I found the writing of my own exercises much more interesting than practicing them. Later, as a teenager, I met the late Steve Martland, and he exposed me to a great deal of music I had no idea existed, and he got me listening properly with my inner ear to my own pieces. I vividly remember being at a performance of Andriessen’s De Snelheid (I was only in the audience because of Steve) and deciding there and then that composing was The Thing I Wanted To Do – everything else just followed, and once I started, I really wasn’t going to stop.

Is classical music dead?
Despite the best efforts of some, no I don’t think it is. I think that large parts of the people who have classical music as their heritage, their birthright, are completely ignorant of it, and that’s a shame. I don’t think it can be forced into people's ears however. What is essential to keep it alive is that people take an active part in it – and for its own sake, not as a “way to get better grades” or to “learn how to be a team player” and so on. By “active part” I don’t necessarily mean as a singer or performer, although that is ideal, but also as an active listener. I think many people don’t know how to engage with the classical music they hear. It’s like being faced with a curry when all you know is fish and chips. How can you judge the curry? You don’t have to learn to cook the curry, but you need to try numerous examples and to share your experience with others. This answer is making me hungry.

If you could choose three pieces of music that have had a big impact on your life or musical development, what would they be and why?
1. Hong Kong Garden by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Just had an immediate, visceral, inexplicable impact and made me see things in a different way.
2. De Snelheid by Louis Andriessen. See above.
3. The Messiah by Handel. I’ve played in it and sung in it and heard it so many times that it’s got under my skin.


rarescale will give the world premiere of Tim Benjamin's si il Ciel mi fa sperar for alto flute, bassoon and guitar on 27th May 2014.