"but always precise..."

On the Musical Thought of Benedict Mason

The times are not propitious for radical innovations in music. After the revolution of the musical means in the first half of the century and the subsequent enlisting of the electronic media in the service of music, in the last thirty years younger generations of composers have explored a variety of styles and modes without decisively altering our conception of what music really is. In the 1950s and 60s, the Fluxus movement broke out of the narrow confines of Structuralist composition and pointed the way to the first key works in the genres of experimental musical theatre, multimedia installation, and Musikperformance. Today, however, this close cooperation between the arts already appears as part of an historical epoch. Sound Art, on the other hand, whose origins as an art form extend back a quarter of a century and may be credited with overcoming the division between the different artistic genres, has had little effect on music. Whether because composers fear an art form that implicitly threatens their own, or because Sound Art really does render music obsolete and has nothing more to offer it, only a few artists today are active in both fields.

One of them is the British composer Benedict Mason, who was trained as a filmmaker before he began composing in the 1980s. From 1986 on, a series of works originated in close succession, many of which have been distinguished with international prizes. These compositions exhibit a wide range of instrumentation and great stylistic variety, though this fact has not prevented critics from seeking to circumscribe Mason's style with respect to these complex, extraordinarily dense pieces. As a result, his concentration on extremely differentiated, sometimes tonally austere space musics since 1993 has been interpreted as a break with his personal style, though the latter never actually existed in the exclusivity sometimes attributed to it. Consideration of Mason's sound installations and most recent visual works, however, allows a more unified picture of his artistic production to emerge.


Since his first major composition in 1986 - Hinterstoisser Traverse for chamber ensemble, winner of the International Prize for Composition of the German radio broadcasting service Westdeutscher Rundfunk in 1989 - Benedict Mason has repeatedly used geographical associations to describe his music, thereby placing the expansive dimensions of entire landscapes into relation to the orders of magnitude inherent in the musical space itself. Hinterstoisser Traverse establishes a tonal relief in which different levels are set off from one another, proceed from each other, or vanish again through variation in rhythm and sound. In this process, the composer avoids precisely those musical devices by which spatiality is usually evoked. He reduces his store of tones to the single note g", so that the space cannot be constructed using the parameter of pitch; nor does the dynamic structure permit association with proximity and distance. Only the complex layering of differing meters, changing degrees of density, and instrumentation provides for the spatial differentiation of the sound.

In the preface to the score, Mason compares his own situation as a composer to that of the Alpinist Hinterstoisser in the Eiger Nordwand. Yet for Mason, the mountain climber's movement through space - which fails to attain its goal, the summit (Hinterstoisser died tragically due to a change in weather, though other mountain climbers after him have successfully used his passage) - becomes a groping exploration in time, without any real goal ("you cannot be teleological with one note"). The restriction of the musical material focuses attention on the problem of the compositional decision, which here occurs in small steps rather than great formal movements - like the mountain climber who inches from hook to hook.

The orchestral work Lighthouses of England and Wales is likewise based on a journey. In the summer of 1987, Benedict Mason visited most of the lighthouses between Solway Frith and the Farne Islands, carefully documenting the exact frequencies of their signals. In an almost impressionistic piece, he portrays individual beacons, but also opposes different signals in complex rhythms of interference.

At the same time, however, the music about lighthouses also alludes to the symphonic tone paintings and poems from earlier periods of music. As in other works of this period, Mason employs an older musical language, though without merely replicating it in a style copy. Rather, in postmodern, ironic fashion, he questions the possibilities of this language and transgresses its boundaries: in this case, by patterning the musical form after the rigid, indeed random structure of the beacon signals. The complex rhythmic layerings that emerge in Lighthouses of England and Wales are to be interpreted not as shimmering, impressionistic instrumentation, but as the manifestation of a contemporary mathematical concept of additive rhythm. Yet it is precisely this sense of duplicity that appeals to the composer. In its historical character, the surface texture of his work is appropriate to its object, the lighthouse, which in the age of radar and satellite navigation is of merely nostalgic interest.

Mason's work The Four Slopes of Twice among Gliders of her Gravity of 1997 likewise alludes to the realm of geography. The work, premièred recently in Donaueschingen, is composed for a pianist on two partially out-of-tune and prepared grand pianos and two self-playing grand pianos. This time, the composer focuses his attention on the arbitrary cartographic division of the globe into degrees of latitude and longitude. In a manner reminiscent of this contingent cartographic grid, Western music theory establishes the twelve paths of tempered tuning within the universe of possible acoustic events. On an out-of-tune and prepared piano, however, interesting and always surprising sounds lurk behind the 88 keys. In The Four Slopes..., four analogous grid systems are contrasted with one another, thus alluding to different realities. In this extremely quiet piece, rich in repetitions of individual tones and simple intervals, all that is audible at times is the rattling of the player piano mechanics with no notes being struck. The four grand pianos that dominate the stage appear as individual, self-contained worlds, whose music-making remains mysterious.

Concert Halls

Since 1993, Benedict Mason has pursued the mystery of musical performance in a series of works entitled Musics for European Concert Halls. Already in the 1960s, John Cage diagnosed the symphony concert as a theatrical event; now, Mason carries this observation a step further and "stages" his new orchestral works like theatre pieces. This development was foreshadowed in 1990 when Mason gave the title "Dramatis Personae" to the list of instruments for his Concerto for the Viola Section accompanied by the Rest of the Orchestra. In Ohne Mißbrauch der Aufmerksamkeit of 1993, commissioned by the German radio broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk for the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, the composer specified the exact spatial distribution of the ensemble over the entire concert hall for the first time. The strings surround the audience (the violins are seated at the ends of the rows), with only the double basses and five percussionists located on the stage. The woodwinds sit in the three loggias of the broadcasting hall of the Hessicher Rundfunk, the brass play in the foyer, and six horns move throughout the building in precisely defined routes. At the beginning of the work, one of the double bassists on the stage identifies himself as an actor and throughout the piece recites fragments rich in association, reminiscent of an author film of the 1960s. Meanwhile, a music develops which is structured in atonal thirds, full of tension and expressive emotion.

"There is nothing intentionally humorous in this piece," notes Benedict Mason in the preface to the score, thus distancing his piece from the light-hearted Happenings of Fluxus days. His intent is to provoke neither audience nor musicians, though their sometime vehement reactions may be considered a sociological aspect of his performances. (Mason carefully documents the extensive correspondence that originates in the context of such performances.) Rather, his sole concern is to fully exhaust the available means in a concert performance, which entails conceiving not only the orchestra, but also the concert hall itself as an instrument. In the Musics for European Concert Halls, the individual acoustics of lobbies and staircases, tuning spaces and cloakrooms, colour the sound of the various, generally synchronised remote orchestras.

The point of departure for Ohne Mißbrauch der Aufmerksamkeit was the Romantic painting Spreeufer bei Stralau by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. In a view through a classicistic round arch, the picture shows the river at twilight, stretching away to the horizon. A young man pushes off a rowboat from the shore, in which two seated hornists play. The painting aroused Mason's interest in moving sounds, produced by roaming musicians rather than multi-track loudspeaker systems. In addition, his consciousness of the natural sounds surrounding the hornists, such as the wind and the slapping of the waves, leads to an increased concentration on the sound of the hall with its many technical background noises, resulting finally in exact specifications for the treatment of air conditioning and water systems during the performances.

This concern is manifested with particular clarity in the Schumann Auftrag (Live Hörspiel ohne Worte), the 6th Music for a European Concert Hall. When asked to write a clarinet trio for a Schumann concert series, Mason responded by decomposing probably the only composition by Schumann in which clarinet, cello, and piano appear together. His piece is based on these same voices from the piano concerto, excerpts from which are now played live as well as in various recordings on eight-track tape over loudspeakers, in part mounted outside the concert hall. The synchronization track is an old recording from the 1950s, with its bad sound quality and interpretive peculiarities. The new tracks for Schumann Auftrag were likewise recorded in the broadcasting hall of Hessischer Rundfunk, a process in which the microphoning consciously incorporated the acoustic qualities of the hall. To the horror of the sound technician, Mason sometimes placed the microphone at an extreme distance from the instrumentalists, so that the signal was not only very weak, but was also heavily masked by the acoustic phenomena of the space and other extraneous noises. Thus in the Schumann Auftrag, a sonorously rich work, Mason calls attention to the conditions of musical performance as well as those of the recording and broadcasting process.

"No composer knows as much about concert hall doors as I do," Mason once said, explaining how he uses the opening angle of the doors to exactly regulate the amount of exterior noise penetrating into the hall. At the beginning of the Fifth Music for a Concert Hall (1995), for example, the instrumentalists of the chamber ensemble - with the exception of the second violin - exit the concert hall one by one, until the sound of their runs played in rigid four-four time or of their slower repetitions filter into the hall from the outside. Even the sounds from four of the eight loudspeakers of the multi-track tape reach the audience only indirectly. The musical and scenic material is here arranged in an extremely diverse way. Radio receivers "played" live are used, as well as 16 Walkmen, on which the orchestra parts of a symphony by C. P. E. Bach are distributed. The musicians deliver ethnological observations on the use of radio in the Third World, which Mason humorously confronts with folkloristic rhythms. Even the changes in lighting and the almost choreographic movements of the musicians are exactly specified in the score.

The most recent works in the series Musics for European Concert Halls, on the other hand - especially Carré, Nederlands Kamerkoor, Scheonberg Ensemble. Eighth Music for a European Concert Hall (First Music for a Theatre) of 1996 and the Trumpet Concerto (Reinhold Friedrich, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, SFB, 16. Berliner Bienale), premièred in 1997 at the opening concert of the Musik-Biennale in Berlin - use extremely reduced musical means to focus attention almost exclusively on acoustic phenomena. The orchestra emits austere single tones, which only occasionally join into two- or three-tone groups. This, together with the simple rhythms, results in the "unmusical music" the composer here strives to attain. The ensemble plays almost entirely in pianissimo, thus causing the listeners to begin to doubt their own perception. Here Benedict Mason is no longer writing music about music, but music about listening.

Listen listen

The sensitization of listeners to their own listening is often the object of sound installations. Unlike many Sound Artists, however, Benedict Mason came to this genre neither through Cage's silent piece 4'33" nor through tendencies in the visual arts that explore visual perception itself. His concentration on everyday background noises, sharpened in the Musics for European Concert Halls, induced him to make this the theme of a sound installation, which - not surprisingly for a composer - also possesses the character of a performance.

For the installation gastronomic amorous gymnastic etc. music (1997), Mason arranged thirteen air conditioners in the four rooms of the DAAD-Galerie, some of which receive a sculptural character through their presentation on pedestals. Each of them is labeled with a first name, which appears to refer to a modern artist or composer. (Does Pierre stand for Boulez or Henry, Luigi for Nono or Russolo?) The characteristic whirr, hum, and rumble of the machines orchestrates the gallery when the units - triggered by visitors crossing photoelectric beams--are switched on for three to four minutes. In addition, throughout the entire course of the exhibition, a clearly perceptible, six-track generative music recorded from samples of the air conditioners plays in the four gallery spaces, on the balcony, and in the garden.

It would be trivial to characterise this as an interactive installation. To be sure, it is the visitors themselves that trigger the air conditioners as they pass through the exhibition in order to view Mason's visual works - themselves sometimes barely visible - and the artistically presented documentation of his Musics for European Concert Halls. Nonetheless, the arrangement does not conduce to the "trying out" typical of interactive installations, the playful "composition" of the sounds. Rather, the cooling units play individually for the viewers as soon as they enter one of the spaces. The acoustic colouring of the DAAD-Galerie through the artistic arrangement of everyday noises (which, moreover, do not necessarily accord with the season) does not constitute an ambience, but rather a performance. Thus Benedict Mason undertakes his musical exploration of space and perception in the genre of the sound installation as well. For him, Sound Art is the continuation of composition with other means.

Volker Straebel 12.97

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translation from the German by Melissa Thorson Hause
© Volker Straebel no reprint without author's written permission