Ed Bennett is a Northern-Irish composer based in London. His collaborators include the BBC Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestras, Crash Ensemble, Fidelio Trio, Garth Knox, the London Sinfonietta and RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. Bennett is the artistic director of Decibel ensemble and lectures in Composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. He is a recent recipient of the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize for the Performing Arts and is currently composer-in-residence at the Royal Holloway, University of London.
Your musical background is extremely diverse, ranging from playing bass in rock and jazz bands to studying composition with Louis Andriessen and Michael Finnissy. Can you sum up some of these influences?
I had no formal musical training until the age of 18 when I met the Irish composer Brian Irvine, who became a great mentor and friend. Before that I was essentially a self-taught rock musician with fairly eclectic tastes. I played in rock, punk, pop and jazz groups and even had stints with country and western bands and Northern Ireland’s premiere Elvis impersonator (who was a taxi driver when he wasn’t being Elvis). I also stacked supermarket shelves in ‘Crazy Prices’. Brian didn’t teach me composition as such, but rather introduced me to a diverse range of weird and wonderful music and made me realize that there is no real hierarchy in music – as long as you had passion, energy, commitment and discipline you could potentially achieve anything, so I started to have some belief in myself and worked hard.
I wouldn’t say I studied with Louis [Andriessen], I only had a few lessons and later I worked with him with my ensemble, but his music has always been important for me as have my connections with the Netherlands over the years. With Michael Finnissy it was much more focused, dealing with aesthetic issues and getting rid of stuff I didn’t need (all those tuplets!). He is great composer and teacher, and made me think a lot.
I am curious about extra-musical inspirations in your work. What about your relationship to the art of Marcel Dzama, which is referenced in some of your compositions?
I studied visual art and design before I acquired formal music education, so it has always been important for me. Dzama was labeled as an ‘Outsider Artist’ – a ridiculous term often applied to work which seems somehow eccentric or roughly crafted – of course, this is just on the surface, his work is very finely crafted and characterized, simultaneously full of humor, darkness and wonder. These are opposing qualities I love in music as well: serious, but not serious!
Your music is often characteristically rhythmical, toying with minimalist approaches, cycles and regular and interrupted periodicities (I am thinking of the recent orchestral work “Freefalling” and ensemble pieces such as “Sometimes Everything Falls Apart” or “Stop-Motion Music”). What would be your personal response to something like Stockhausen’s (now quaintly old-fashioned) advice to avoid metric and periodic rhythms in “art music”?
It would seem strange to me for someone coming from my musical background to disregard pulse and rhythm, I wonder if it would even be possible to remove it from my system? I have gone through periods of writing intricate tuplets, but in the end it wasn’t me. A student said recently that an old teacher of hers told her to “avoid pedestrian rhythms”, I found this hilarious. Who wrote this rulebook? “New music” in that sense is not new anymore, composers growing up today have a multitude of influences. I would prefer to avoid academic or dogmatic approaches to composing and draw upon my experience and the world around me. In saying this, I think Stockhausen was a true genius, I met him in Belfast, and I wish we had more visionaries like him today.
You wear several hats that include directing your own ensemble as well as mentoring young composers. How does it feel to switch between them, and how does it all fit into your own creative practice?
My ensemble is hugely important for my creative practice. I’ve always had some sort of band, there’s nothing quite like working with a group of musicians who are friends and who have complete commitment to both your work and you as a person, you develop a sense of trust which is difficult to achieve in more anonymous situations. Much of my recent music would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the group. For example, “Dzama Stories”, a 45-minute work for amplified ensemble, electronics and improvising soloist would not have been taken on by the usual new music groups in this country.
Teaching is hugely important for me and I’ve taught in lots of different contexts, I know what it did for me when I was younger – it was life-changing, so I take it very seriously. I am a firm believer in the wider implications of a positive music education and how it can enhance you not only as a musician, but also as a human being. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day, but somehow it is all connected and important, and I wouldn’t want to just do one thing.
You recently published a list of top 10 classical recordings for the Gramophone. Will you list some non-classical favorites for ICIYL?
I’ve always been interested in improvisation, so there is a lot of jazz and free improvisation in my record collection (although I prefer to experience this music live); Irish folk music is also important for me. I like a lot of electronica-type artists such as Boards of Canada, Fennesz, Mum, Efterklang, Kraftwerk, Björk etc. and plenty of guitar bands such as Sonic Youth and Mogwai. There are also songwriters of course: Joni Mitchell, Joanna Newsom, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, David Byrne and a recent discovery, Soley, whom I just heard in Iceland. This list will go on forever so I better stop… how could I forget Johnny Cash, though?