When Zappa Met Schoenberg: An Interview with Ojai Festival Programmer George Benjamin

The 64th Ojai Music Festival takes place June 10-13. A four-day series of concerts, symposia and auxiliary events set amid the tranquil oaks of Ojai Valley (also known as California's Shangri-la), the fest famously boasts a bold eclecticism and stalwart championing of contemporary-classical programs that not usually but always prove challenging, enlightening, prescient and utterly captivating.

The heralded British composer/conductor George Benjamin debuts as Music Director of this year's fest, joining a distinguished list of musical giants to have held the position, including Pierre Boulez, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Aaron Copland, Peter Maxwell Davies, Igor Stravinsky and Mitsuko Uchida. The festival will explore the music of Benjamin's teachers and mentors, including works by Boulez, Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus and Oiseaux Exotiques, Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, and will host the West Coast premiere of Benjamin's chamber opera, Into the Little Hill.

In its West Coast premiere, the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern will perform four concerts including works by Benjamin, Varèse and Frank Zappa. Other highlights include the U.S. premiere of Steve Potter's Paradigms, late-night and afternoon raga performances by Aashish Khan, and Benjamin performing improvisational piano to the classic silent film Vampyre by Carl T. Dreyer. 

George Benjamin recently talked with us over the phone from his home in London.

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LA WEEKLY: At Ojai, you will conduct works by yourself, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez, Ligeti, among others. As the artistic director of this year's festival, what was your thinking about the programming?

GEORGE BENJAMIN: I was very much guided by Ojai's artistic director Tom Morris, who I've known for many years and who was for many years director of the great Cleveland Orchestra. And it was a pleasure to plan the programs with him. But also very much part of the ingredients was the fact that the wonderful Ensemble Modern is coming with me, and we have prepared some repertoire that is very close to their hearts and very important to them.

There's also one other aspect, which is that I turn 50 this year, and that Tom wanted to reflect things -- some but no means all of the program -- that were important to me, like my teacher, Messaien, and other composers who've been very dear or important to me, like Boulez, like Ligeti, my friend Oliver Knussen, and a couple of students of mine.

So it's allowed me to have a mixture of new and old modern music, but new and old music which is very close to my heart, plus some other ingredients, like Frank Zappa, like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and even with the mixture of Purcell and Indian music.

You were the original programmer of the first Meltdown fest at Southbank Centre in London, an amazingly conceived mixture of contemporary and contemporary-classical music. But for Ojai, I don't suppose you had quite the same priorities as when programming Meltdown, did you?

Well, Meltdown was sort of my idea, and I was the first one in charge of it, but it changed route, unlike Ojai, which has remained very loyal to its initial foundations. Meltdown became a more sort of pop-rock music festival three or four years after its beginning, and it's now much more "alternative" and mainstream, and a sort of cult thing in British musical life. It was very different when I did it; it was classical contemporary music, mainly, but there was some music from extra-European, non-classical music as well. But it was basically a contemporary music festival.

For Ojai, did you see certain musical issues that were important to address?

Ojai has been a legend to me for at least two decades, and a few of my pieces have featured over the years in the programming; I think I've been asked three times to attend, not as music director but just to come to hear my work played, and I've never been able to, because either I had other engagements or, as often happens this time of year, I'm composing and cannot travel. There's such a myth that Ojai has built up over the years in my mind, and many of my greatest friends have done the job of musical director, such as David Robertson and Kent Nagano, as well of course as Pierre Boulez; my very great pianist friend Oliver Knussen was invited, and ­­-- excuse me for going on and on -- but one of my dearest friends on the West Coast was Betty Freeman, who was a profound, really great friend of mine for about 20 years. And she also would come to Ojai every year and report back to me about what she heard and what she liked and didn't like.

I'd heard so much about the place; it formed a magical image in my mind, so I'm very excited to be coming, and I think it's a real privilege to be invited.

The programming at Ojai is refreshingly non-pandering. Did you or do you have concerns about "reaching a younger crowd" and/or the future life of classical and new music?

Yes, I suppose I do, because I work as a conductor -- well, I've cut back colossally on my conducting, but in a normal year I might do 10 to 15 concerts, and the larger part of the repertoire will be contemporary music. And I do like the idea of presenting to the public as well as I can the classics of modern music and also very new pieces, premieres. And I suppose I do it for the music itself, first of all, but somewhere in the equation is the desire to keep the idea of composing and new music alive. Of course, my role is extremely modest in that, but all the same, a lot of musicians, famous ones, do virtually nothing for contemporary music, and I think it's a shame.

There is a lot of pressure all over the world to go toward populist programming, and I suppose if you're a composer and you don't write like that, or you if perform, you might feel a little bit, just occasionally, that you're resisting that, with no grand pretensions.

I'm curious about your experience in rock or other forms. In fact do you have much background in pop or rock music, or interest in these things generally?

Not much. Well, that's not entirely true. The story is, when I was a very little child, I showed some real enthusiasm for music, and it was for rock music or pop music; this was when I was five years old, in the mid-'60s, the age of the Beatles and various other very good groups. And that was my enthusiasm, and I didn't like classical music until I was taken at about 6 or 7 to see Fantasia, the Walt Disney movie, and I was transfixed and overwhelmed, thrilled by that. When I got home I never listened to my pop records ever again. I was sort of, like, converted in a very radical way to classical music in just one afternoon.

You began study with the masters at the very early age of 16, and at Ojai you'll conduct and perform works by a couple of them, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen. Can you describe your experience studying with Messiaen?

The happiest, most wonderful, enthralling relationship between master and pupil. He was just amazing. I had the most extraordinary luck of my life to have met him and to have been nurtured by him and to be encouraged, and also have so many doors opened by him into techniques and ideas.

It was wonderful; it didn't feel like you were being taught. There's no question he was a radiant and provocative and inspiring teacher. And I can just repeat that -- just like Pierre Boulez would say, or Xenakis and Stockhausen and so many other composers who studied with Messiaen -- that he was just wonderful, and he was tolerant and he was engaged. He was such a superb model by standards which he used for his own music, but at the same time he was very modest with his students, and didn't try to impose himself. He did it because he loved it, he just got tremendous pleasure from it. I was very, very young, and it was just fantastic -- can you imagine, age 16, to be sitting next to Messiaen in class, 16 hours every week?

How would you characterize Messiaen's contribution to modern music?

He was a great original, with a very powerful, authentic, unified vision, who at the same time was extremely open to a huge number of divergent influences, like nature, bird song, his faith, Indian rhythms, gamelan. He was extremely original in everything he did; his perceptions of rhythm evoked a whole generation of composers in a new direction; but also his harmonic thinking is very, very complex, these very vertical sonorities that he built his music out of, like they were blocks of stained glass -- they also were to a later generation of people very provocative and influential. So I think he was a very important figure in the second half of the 20th century. And inspiring too; his music is so full of light and joy, and it's hard not to be swept along by it.

What about Oliver Knussen? How would you rate his importance?

Well, he's probably my dearest musical friend, and we've been friends since I was about 17, so, well over 30 years, and you may find it ridiculous, but we speak almost every day on the phone. So we're good friends, we both conduct, and we both compose, and he plays an enormously important and positive role in musical life particularly in Britain, where he's encouraged two generations of composers with his wonderful capacity for performing, and also for the exquisite, meticulous craftsmanship of his own works, which have also been a model for many other people.

For me, he's just a very dear friend whose musicality and personality I'm utterly devoted to. There's a very beautiful piece at Ojai, Songs for Sue, his most recent ensemble piece, which was originally composed in memory of his wife, Sue Knussen, who many people will know in the L.A. area because she worked for the L.A. Phil for about a decade.

The variety of pieces you've chosen for Ojai is amazing. Interesting how you've worked in music of Purcell as well - a nice juxtaposition with all this other new architecture you've got surrounding it.

I'm very glad that it's in the program; that's his wonderful series of fantasias written in the late 17th century for viola da gamba ensemble. The music is not as well known as may be, but to me it's one of the great monuments in the history of music, and they are just miracles -- austere, melancholy, but also quixotic in mood, and exquisitely manufactured, in just the quality of the notes he chooses, spine-tingling modulations and passages of counterpoint. They're the climax of a tradition going back well over a century, the summit of the whole tradition of consort music in this country. And they had a transformative effect on me as a composer when I discovered them when I was 13, and for those people who don't know them, I might feel them quite fortunate because they're a quite extraordinary thing to discover; when I heard them I couldn't believe my ears.

You'll also conduct works by Steve Potter, a former student of yours.

Yes, he's a student of mine, and a very good student indeed. He's a Californian, and so I thought it's all the more reason to show him to the audience in Ojai. He's a very good pianist, and the piano writing is very inventive, but so is the vocal writing; it's quite unusual to come across piano-and-voice songs that have something new and that seem authentic today. It's a very important form, one which I never attacked -- I've never written any lieder -- and I was terribly impressed by these pieces. They're rather wacky, there's quite a strong and almost defiantly independent personality in these pieces, which I also admire, and I'm hoping that people will be as struck by them as I was when I first heard them.

Did I hear you put them in the tradition of lieder?

They are for a contralto and piano, so yes. And there are some movements that are just for the piano alone, and they're quite eccentric in some ways, which I like; I think they show a real spark of originality.

Your chamber opera Into the Little Hill receives its West Coast premiere at Ojai. What was the genesis of the work and what ideas does it explore?

The genesis goes back a long, long time, when people first asked me to write an opera, and I always said, No, I would love to but I don't know how to do it, and I don't know who to work with. And over 25 years, I've searched for the right person to collaborate with. I can remember in L.A, I had a dinner which Betty Freeman organized with a very remarkable filmmaker whose worked I admired to see if that could work, but amongst like dozens of others it was very cordial, very stimulating and simply failed, it didn't produce anything.

And I'd almost given up about five or six years ago that I would ever write for the stage, much that I love theatrical and operatic music. And then another American friend, Laurence Dreyfus -- who's a Chicago-born, wonderful viola da gamba player who made the best recording, perhaps, of the Purcell fantasies -- he introduced me to the British playwright Martin Crimp, and we hit it off, and it worked; we communicated, began to trust each other, and we embarked on a collaboration.

Now, this collaboration was commissioned by the Festival d'Automne in Paris, which is one of the leading European cutting-edge festivals, purely devoted to new work, or often the most modern new work; and they were going to do a survey of my work in 2006, and the director, Josephine Markowitz, wanted to commission my first theater piece. The Ensemble Modern were part of the commission; the commission was for a tour which would go to several countries, and so the piece had to be transportable, and it had to be simple theatrically, and in the end I chose a 15-piece ensemble with just two voices to recount the story, act and narrate it and also become the characters in it.

It was based on the most universal, famous story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and this strange person who comes to a pact with a politician to free his town of rats; and then the politician breaks his oath to pay the rat catcher, and then of course he takes the children away and destroys the village. It's not at all a children's story, it's quite dark; the idea was to be quite scary in some ways.

But it lasts about 40 minutes, and this will be the first time it's toured very widely since its premiere in November 2006 with the original people who performed it - the Ensemble Modern, and the two singers, the Welsh contralto Hilary Summers and the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, for whom it was really designed. They're very remarkable vocal talents; Hilary has a very honeyed, rich, deep voice; while Anu has a very pure, high soprano, and with the almost surreal capacity to sing very high Cs and Ds, pianissimo. So I exploited every aspect of their voices in the piece.

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