RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

15 Questions to Benjamin Dwyer

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi, I’m fine. Right now I’m in the barrio of Gràcia in Barcelona where I live at the moment.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Well, every day is different. Tomorrow I fly to Dublin primarily to participate in the launch of the National Concert Hall’s contemporary music festival, called Composers’ Choice, which will take place in September. It’s really a unique festival where six composers get to choose a programme each. I’m particularly pleased to be involved as I have chosen for my concert a major work of my own called Scenes from Crow  for amplified ensemble, tape & video. The piece took me five years to write and this new version with amazing new visuals by  David Farrell will be a première. It’s a work based on the apocalyptic poems of Ted Hughes and is my most theatrical work, rather dark,  and it meditates on death, love, lust, murder (the collective noun for a group of crows is ‘murder’ - ‘a murder of crows’. Strange that Scenes from Crow is receiving its new performance on 9/11!! The work is inspired by Ted Hughes’s poetry but the music specifically is constructed from material taken from John Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell  so I am also including in the concert a number of lute songs by Dowland, including, of course, In Darkness.

Other things on the schedule? Well, I’ve just started working on a new work which is a commission from the Office of Public Works in Ireland to celebrate the 125th. anniversary of the opening of St. Stephen’s Green to the public (for those of you who don’t know Dublin,’s our Central Park!). The Green, as it’s locally known, is really quite a haven at the centre of a really crazy little city and it has a huge amount of monuments and statues celebrating Irish literature, politics, social history, the famine etc., and the idea of the work is to parallel that role the Green plays in Dublin. To write a rather manic work which contains a more peaceful, contemplative centre section.  So it will be highly text-based. It’s early days though...

If you hadn’t chosen for music, what do you think you would do right now?
Difficult to know. I have never worked for anyone or any business in my life (apart from a family business when I was younger).  I am infatuated with literature - and now I am beginning to really enjoy Spanish literature (in Spanish, of course) which is a vast world - so I think that perhaps I might have become a writer. I often think about the differences between music and literature and I wonder if I could be as explicit as a writer as I feel I am as a composer. The great thing about music is that nobody can be certain about what you mean when you’s a rather safe way to expose yourself!

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist?
It’s impossible to mention just one person. I continue to be influenced - that’s an ongoing process, or I believe it should be. But if I had to make a list it would certainly include Jimi Hendrix, Julian Bream, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Berio, Alfred Cortot, Sviatoslav Richter, Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes and Federico Garcí a Lorca, David Mamet...Tristan Murail is making his presence felt....

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?
The hardest part about being a musician is that you also (if you want to eat!) have to be a very good business person. The starving genius in the attic doesn’t work anymore. The best thing is control. You have control of your thoughts. As a performer, you spend a life time trying to reach perfection, to understand it. That gives you a template to live for (especially when the uglification of the world is so far advanced).

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
Do you mean in terms of language?? Well, we certainly don’t have too many ‘isms’ any more - serialism, neo-classicism, pure minimalism etc. We seem to generally be (and this is general) at a place where we can absorb the whole history of music into our own work. Nothing is exempt. When you consider how we can move about the globe now, how we can download information about, let’s say, Gandarva Veda music, to see multiple cultures simply by watching television, it’s no surprise that we no longer work (or live) within a beneficially controlling paradigm. I am an Irish composer with a rock background, who has inherited a classical musical education from an old British colonial ruling system. I have not been at all influenced by central German intellectual movements emerging from the 1950’s or the traditional music of my country and I live in Spain, just as likely to be influence by Argentinean poetry as by John Coltrane! I think it would be wrong to consider this eclecticism as something negative.

Now, if we are talking about the gap between the general public and contemporary music, that’s another question and has as much to do with modern educational practices as anything else. People in first-world countries are no longer (and here, we take our example from the United States) educated for culture, to develop an aesthetic sense, to understand how our social myths are metamorphosing, but rather for the workplace, to provide fodder for modern industries.  This lies at the heart of the ‘crisis’.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them?
I don’t understand the question. First of all there is new ‘classical’ music being written every day. But the real question is that of understanding what interpretation is. So anyone who seriously asks this question simply doesn’t understand the subtleties of music interpretation. This is almost the definition of a masterpiece - a work you can come back to again, and again, and again, and you will always find something new, something deeper. When you read a great book or listen to (or perform) a great piece of music, you are engaging with the work almost as a co-author. You are forced, again and again, not only to reassess the work in question, but also to reassess yourself, you are constantly being challenged, forced to delve deeper. Steiner captures it perfectly when he says that you don’t read a masterpiece, it reads you.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
There is a contract that needs to be made when music is performed. It involves three categories - the composer, the interpreter and the listener. Of this triumvirate, the performer is the one that links the whole contract, it is he or she who, in the moment, brings the music alive. A good live performance is one which enlivens most this contract. Obviously, technical skill is extremely important. However, in my opinion, it has in recent times played too central a role. Despite the technical wizardry of modern pianists, few come close to Richter’s (flawed!) live performances (Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Sofia 1958, for example) or Alfred Cortot’s ability to somehow ‘recompose’ on the spot the music of Chopin.  The best performances are not always an issue of technique but those which amount to more than the sum of the notes!
My own approach to performance is centred around creating a space. As a guitarist this is essential. Projection is, well, I shouldn’t say a ‘problem’, but it does force one to consider space in a different way. So, instead of trying to project out to an audience, I always try to draw the audience into the more intimate sound space of the instrument. It runs contrary to most modern concepts of communication. In this small, intimate space wonderful things can happen.

What does the word “interpretation” mean to you?
Well, this is a similar question to the one before. To restate: in my view, it is one that enlivens or recomposes the music anew, one that offers more than the sum of the parts, one that creates an intimate space where time seems to stall. At a very fundamental level, interpretation is an attempt to capture, in the moment, the mystery of human consciousness, the reach of human possibility.

True or false: It is the duty of an artist to put his personal emotions into the music he plays.
Well, this is a dangerous question full of traps!! First of all, the ‘True or False’ proposition has to be rejected! However, having said that, I feel that it is dangerous for a performer to place his or her personal emotions into the music performed. The music may not require additional and spurious emotions. What ‘emotions’ are we talking about? The first ‘duty’ is to the music - to recreate the work accurately not only in terms of technique but also in relation to style, form, architecture, understanding of harmonic movement etc. Music, in truth, is too beautifully ambiguous to ‘mean’ anything we might be able to tell ourselves. Thomas Mann called it ‘ambiguity as a system’. There is nothing so appalling as watching someone swaying to their own performances in a self-indulgent manner - this is kitsch! I am not calling for rigid performances. The interpreter, in my view, has to serve the role of conduit for the music, to understand intuitively the meta-messages within the ambiguity, and to re-project those without clogging up the message with personal baggage.

True or false: “Music is my first love”
There goes the ‘True or False’ again! In truth, music is my first obsession! But not the only one. Life, in my opinion, should be an obsession. It’s the only one we have! Some day we’ll wake up and it will be over. What a shame to have let it pass passively.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.
This is an interesting question and one that causes much confusion. I believe that people do, indeed, need to be educated to appreciate classical music more. Let me clarify this. Anyone, can appreciate classical music. But as I said previously, great art requires us to return again and again. With each return we learn more, we discover more, and, as a result, we appreciate more. It’s a matter of aesthetics. One can (and does) spend a lifetime growing with art. But this is the very point that is so often hijacked by modern day ‘egalitarians’ - that classical music, high art, is somehow elitist. In this case the word elitist is negative. Classical music is for the upper classes, contemporary music is written from an Ivory Tower etc. Elitism is, on the other hand, praised in relation to sport, fashion, cars, the human body, well, in almost every aspect of modern human life (particularly where a profit can be made!). There is, of course, a political agenda lurking behind all this and it runs (simplistically) as follows: anything that might develop personal intelligence, individual thought, engender enlightened thinking etc. is elitist in the negative sense, while, anything which draws one to conform, to purchase the best item, to pay to have the most beautiful body, to ‘buy into’ the creature comforts of modern consumerist society is positive elitism. Put simply, modern ‘democracies’ are not concerned with the ‘development’ of humanity, but rather the control of the masses and the money.
People will refer to the fact that throughout the history of Europe, art has been paid for by rich dynasties and royal courts while the masses suffered. This is true. But it’s a confusion to consider that art should be implicated in this imbalance. The investigation of human consciousness has always required time and investment, indeed it still does. And it is the duty of modern societies that all people have the opportunity to reach their full potential through the appreciation of art.

You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your program for this season?
A concert hall should serve its public and represent its time. So many artistic decisions are made under pressure of getting ‘bums on seats’. This is the world we live in and I suppose I sympathise with concert hall directors to an extent. However, they also have a remit to serve their public and the present vision seems to be extremely narrow nowadays. Beethoven cycles, Spanish nights!, Rachmaninov’s ‘Second’ get the picture. It’s all so safe, particularly in Ireland, but not exclusively. Take the guitar, for example. Whenever, there is a guitar concerto it is always Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, always! In 1995 I performed the Guitar Concerto by Heitor Villa-Lobos in Dublin and it was an Irish première! Even though Villa-Lobos is not an unknown composer and the work was written in 1951! And of course, concert halls today seem so much like museums displaying well-known works from the past with little or no reference to the present. So, what would be on my programme for this season? Well, as well as the standards, I would include a tribute to Berio (recently passed away), a healthy cross-section of new Irish work,  a series exploring the history of electronic music.....well, just thinking about it excites me, but alas....

What’s your favourite classical CD at the moment?
I’m enjoying (again!) Berio’s Laborintus II (the 1970 recording on Harmonia Mundi)......never fails to blow my mind!

Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
I have! I tried for many years to play the piano. However, as a guitarist with long nails on my right hand I ended up developing a very strange technique and always looked quite deformed while playing. I had a flat hand approach with my right hand (Horowitz?) and a more ‘from above’ approach with my left (Gould?). Impossible! I did get as far a some Haydn Piano Sonatas (the easier ones!) but they always had a strange clicking sound!

Benjamin Dwyer

Related articles

György Ligeti: Remembering Ligeti
A festival in Dublin is ...
Richard Lainhart: Cheats on his Moog
Ever wondered what all those ...
15 Questions to Morton Subotnick
Morton Subotnick, to make it ...
Interview with Graham Bowers
More than a year has ...
15 Questions to Bernhard Gal
You can, of course, listen ...
15 Questions to Andrew McKenna Lee
Regarding the profession of composer ...
15 Questions to Frank Rowenta
There are several signs that ...
15 Questions to Carl Stone
Nowadays, laptops have become the ...
15 Questions to Alejandro Viñao
Alejandro Vinao does not like ...
Interview with Bjerga/Iversen
Most of the best things ...
15 Questions to Steve Layton
If there were something like ...
Interview with Jay Weigel
To New Orleans, a city ...
15 Questions to Jakob Riis
To some, sound is merely ...
15 Questions to Aaron Cassidy
Wolfgang Schurig, who curates the ...
15 Questions to Alex Shapiro
If Alex had a vision ...
15 Questions to Aaron Krister Johnson
Does Britney Spears bow to ...
15 Questions to Kenneth Kirschner
A couple of years ago, ...
15 Questions to Photophob
The story of photophob disproves ...
15 Questions to Joseph Benzola
Joseph Benzola's philosophy towards music ...
15 Questions to Paul Moravec
Complaining about both the artistic ...
15 Questions to Trip Wamsley
Trip doesn't give much about ...
15 Questions to Mystified
It may be hard to ...
15 Questions to Aalfang mit Pferdekopf
Welcome to a world, where ...
15 Questions to Hauschka
Awarding only your second album ...
15 Questions to Mark Hamn
You will be hard pressed ...

Partner sites