Tim Benjamin (photo credit: Gabrielle Turner)
Who or what inspired you to take up composing and make it your career?
It was my first instrument, the trombone, that led me to composition. I was unhappy with the exercises I’d been set to practice after my first few lessons, so I decided to write some alternatives. I found this much more interesting than practicing, and so that’s how I started composing!
After that I couldn’t get enough of it. I would write alternative harmonisations of hymns while not singing in the choir at church, and I went through one phase of about a year of writing a new little piece every day (for the exercise rather than for performance).
Although things like this account for about my first 7 or 8 years of composing, I only became “seriously” interested when the composer Steve Martland visited my school for a BBC education project and decided to take me under his wing and encourage me. So I’d say he was one of my first inspirations to make a serious go of it.
Who or what are the most important influences on your composing?
The most direct influences are other composers, in particular the German late romantic / early modern tradition, from Wagner through Mahler to Schoenberg, and in particular Berg. Not a huge amount of newer music, but certainly that of Messiaen, Xenakis, Andriessen among relatively recent composers. But I am also influenced by music that I play (I do a lot of playing, at an amateur and occasionally professional level), which can be anything from wind/brass band music to jazz standards to a wide variety of orchestral and chamber music. Music that I play has a habit of finding its way, heavily filtered, into music that I write. At the moment for example Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is spending a lot of time in my head as we’re learning it in the quartet in which I play viola!
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I hesitate to describe my composing as “a career” as that implies there is a) some structure to it and b) some financial reward, whereas in reality there is neither. The greatest challenge is probably the same for any composer – to simply keep writing, and find a reason to keep writing, in the face of public indifference! And of course, to persuade people to perform your music.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Without question, the first moment of hearing your piece come alive. While it’s the first time the players might have seen it, you the composer have come to know the piece intimately from its first sketches, so you have to be patient and wait for it to emerge. Sometimes the reality can turn out to be quite different to what you imagined, but over time you try to get better at accurately imagining during the composing process.
I really like the process of working with performers. It’s the unexpected touches they put in that really bring a piece to life – their “interpretation”, notes that are fractionally late, rhythms slightly slower than written, their frustrations with it, or whatever; it’s the unplanned bits that make music come to life and make it infinitely more exciting than hearing a computer play it!
Which recordings are you most proud of?
I haven’t got many recordings of my pieces, but I usually get at least one for each piece that’s performed. The one I’m most proud of would be the London Sinfonietta playing my piece Antagony, which won the 1993/94 BBC Young Musician of the Year award for composers – I was 17 at the time and writing a 20 minute piece for two wind bands, amplified strings, and 6 percussionists seemed quite practical. Fortunately, for the BBC and the Sinfonietta, and conductor Martyn Brabbins, this posed no problem! And today I have a great recording and a great memory of a special occasion.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
The Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre – I first played there in a brass ensemble at 15 and have played there (and heard my music played there) many times since. There’s something timeless about the backstage area and things like the odd signs for performers in Russian that they used to have that’s really special, and the staff are really friendly and professional. I also think that the leather seats in the auditorium are the most comfortable in any concert hall in the UK. I’d much rather my listeners were comfortable when being confronted with my music!
Who are your favourite musicians?
They are the ones I play with most regularly – my quartet, local brass band, etc. They are definitely not well-known international concert artists but some of them are really outstanding musicians and great fun to play with!
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Hearing Louis Andriessen’s De Snelheid and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex played by (I think) the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall when I was a teenager. I was brought there by Steve Martland (see above) and it was the moment when I vividly remember thinking “THIS is what I want to do with my life”.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
To play – perhaps boringly, I really enjoy playing the music of the old masters: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc. There’s a reason why they are considered great composers and it’s so clear every time you play their music. There’s also so much that can be learnt by playing music like that!
To listen to – I have very broad tastes but I actually don’t listen to a huge amount of music. At the moment I enjoy listening to random avant-garde electronic music by people on Soundcloud or to odd online classical music radio stations and just seeing what’s on. I’m a great believer in serendipity!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
To follow what you want to do; don’t get put off by public indifference and by chasing easy fame by playing (or writing) crowd-pleasers. If you aren’t moved by what you do then no-one else will be.
What are you working on at the moment?
An opera about the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, for premiere in July 2013, 100 years after her famous / notorious death under a racehorse while protesting at the Derby. Please have a look at: http://www.emilyopera.co.uk!
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Taking a curtain call to a rapturous audience at Bayreuth after the successful premiere of my latest opera. Failing that I’ll settle for being happy, healthy and not too poor in some part of the world with nice landscape!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being outdoors somewhere spectacular without any worries about anything or anyone.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you enjoy doing most?
Other than carefree time with my wife and daughter, I’d say playing great music with other people – music that everyone finds challenging but just within their technical ability…
What is your present state of mind?
A state of constant restlessness.
Tim Benjamin (b. 1975) is an Anglo-French composer, and has studied with Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music, privately with Steve Martland, and with Robert Saxton at Oxford University where he received a doctorate. He is the founder and Director of the critically acclaimed contemporary music group Radius.
Tim Benjamin was winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer’s Award in 1993, at the age of 17, with his work Antagony. He also won the Stephen Oliver Trust’s Prize for Contemporary Opera, for his first opera The Bridge. Benjamin’s music has been widely performed, by groups including the London Sinfonietta, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and at the BOC Covent Garden Festival, and broadcast on BBC 2 and BBC Radio 3.
Past commissioners include the European Community Chamber Orchestra (Möbius), the Segovia Trio (Hypocrisy), the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Un Jeu de Tarot), the London Design Festival (The Corley Conspiracy), and CNIPAL (Le Gâteau d’Anniversaire). Tim Benjamin lives and works in Todmorden, Yorkshire, and also plays the trombone.
Tim Benjamin is also the co-founder of Clements Theory, the leading e-learning resource for ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall Grade 5 Theory. Tim has written a comprehensive set of Grade 5 Theory study guides which are used on the website, and he also designed and edited many of the questions. Further information here