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George Benjamin--the composer as improviser

May 30, 2010

Just like the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, George Benjamin – profiled in the Arts & Books section here – made his living as a young man playing piano accompaniments to silent movies. As the music director of this year’s Ojai Music Festival, the British composer, conductor, educator and pianist will give festival audiences a rare taste of his improvising skills when he accompanies the spooky 1932 film "Vampyr" on June 11. (No, it's not a silent, but it will be on this occasion, with English subtitles.)

Benjamin developed his skills for movie accompaniment at a young age. “I was always an improviser as a kid,” he said in a phone interview. “From about the age of 8, I would sit at the piano for hours making up music. When I was a student I found I had a facility for improvising to films, so I got a job accompanying silent movies.”

Benjamin asked Tom Morris, the artistic director of the festival, to pick a film for him to accompany that had a lot of atmosphere, drama and potent emotion. Typically, Benjamin doesn’t view the film in advance of the public screening, preferring to plunge in sight unseen, preferably with the aid of a big screen and an outsize piano.

Benjamin accompanies silent films for fun. Although he estimates having played during the screenings of some 30 or 40 films during his career as a pianist, he doesn’t ascribe much artistic value to the activity. However, on one occasion, while providing the accompaniment for the 1929 Georg Pabst film "Pandora’s Box" in Lyon, France, in 2000, he improvised an approach to accompanying the film’s climax that has informed his thinking about the new, as-yet-unnamed, full-length opera that he is currently working on with the librettist Martin Crimp.

“I was playing on the biggest Steinway I’d ever seen and the screen must have been 200 feet wide and 80 feet high. It was an epic event. The film is extraordinary and it moved me immensely. I felt inspired that night.”

He had previously accompanied the final scene, in which Jack the Ripper kills Lulu, with suitably melodramatic, stürm und drang-infused music. But in Lyon, he decided for the first time to move in the opposite direction.

“I decided that I should gradually evaporate the sound in the last 10 to 15 minutes of the film. As things on screen got more terrifying, the music dwindled. There were long silences and I ended with a quiet chord. The accompaniment subverted the melodrama on screen but hopefully added to the emotion by not imitating what was going on visually,” Benjamin said. “As I write my opera, I am thinking about the effect caused by this inverse equation: Sometimes you need to put the throttle down fully to match the drama on stage. But at other times, you can create emotion with subtlety.”



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