Benedict Mason

Briton Benedict Mason is doubtlessly one of the most unique and original figures on the music scene today. Born in 1955 he had already completed three years’ training as a filmmaker at the Royal College of Art when, in his mid-thirties, he decided to train as a composer at King’s College, Cambridge. His first acknowledged composition, the Hinterstoisser Traverse of 1986, already caused a considerable stir. Based on one single note – the compositional space arising through varied rhythm, dynamics and sound design – the piece was awarded the WDR’s International Prize for Composition. His conscious limitation of the musical media is a constant feature of Mason’s artistic process, thus focalizing the problem of compositional decision. His first orchestral piece Lighthouses of England and Wales – for which he analyzed the signal frequencies of lighthouses along the coast of Great Britain turning them into complex rhythmic strata – also won a prize. In quick succession this was followed by mainly dense, fully structured pieces for the most varied orchestrations.

Since 1993 Benedict Mason has particularly focused on the spatial dimension of music and the relationship between sound and architectural space. He writes a whole series of highly original works, each composed with a particular venue in mind but never restricted to these, which he summarizes under the genre heading Music for European Concert Halls. In these pieces he questions venues where music is played as to their quality as resonance bodies so to speak – the hall thus becoming the instrument. In so doing he often arrives at surprising ideas that in many ways exceed the traditional framework of a musical performance. Mason calls these productions “concert installations” differing from sound installations primarily in that the listeners take their seats in the hall, like at a concert, and the sounds do not come from loudspeakers but are a live, acoustic production. For instance, for his 1993 orchestral work commissioned by Hessischer Rundfunk entitled Ohne Missbrauch der Aufmerksamkeit (Without Misusing Attention) the composer spreads the ensemble out over the entire concert building and gives the audience the acoustic version of the third degree as it were. In another work he positions the players on swivel chairs so that the sound can be focused in different directions during the performance. The composer often pushes performances to the verge of audibility like, for instance, in his Trumpet Concerto of 1997 where he positions the entire orchestra – with the exception of the soloists – outside the performance hall and via the angle of aperture of the doors he precisely controls what can be heard in the hall itself. Mason, obsessed with perfection, bringing many an organizer to the point of desperation with his precise demands, sometimes goes as far as to include the slamming of doors or the noise of the air conditioning in his compositions.

He summarized his experiences from the realization of the now fourteen concert hall pieces in a book entitled Outside Sight Unseen and Opened containing over 130 texts of aphoristic brevity and sketches – designed to be read, watched and performed. From the subtitles of this book he generated the cryptic title felt/ebb/brink/here/array/telling for one of his most impressive productions of recent times, performed for the first time in 2004 at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. 48 musicians – the Ensemble Modern joined by players from the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie – were used, arranged into small mobile units moving according to a precise choreography and controlled by click tracks within the space playing a variety of exotic and self-built, sound-generating devices alongside traditional instruments. Mason calls this piece with its fascinatingly colorful, subtle and poetic world of sound “aural, acoustical, sculptural music”.
Benedict Mason’s most successful artistic productions without doubt include his ChaplinOperas that combine three of Charlie Chaplin’s short films Easy Street, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. For these classics he composed music that goes far beyond what accompanying music for silent movies generally achieves – using subtitles and song he allocated texts to the roles, speckling his work with literary, historic and cultural references, and thus added to the medium of the silent film a totally independent level of expression. Mason’s music is anti-realistic but provides a subliminal, multi-layered intellectual or culturo-historical commentary. This can be seen, for instance, at the end of The Immigrant when he makes reference to Eisler’s famous film score Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of Describing Rain) not because it is raining in the film – that would be too cheap – but because in this way he also makes reference to emigrant Hanns Eisler’s attempts to gain a foothold in Hollywood and his friendship with Charlie Chaplin. Using these processes he invented a new genre so to speak – that of the “semi-operatic filmspiel” – whereby Mason immediately incorporated into his pieces the letters of complaint about his unorthodox treatment of movie classics, not always to the pleasure of the film historians writing them.
Whatever Benedict Mason will bring us back from his trip to the Pearl River Delta – it will most certainly not be what we are expecting.

Heike Hoffmann/June 2008