by David Bruce
I will always remember the lessons George Benjamin gave us at the Royal College of Music in the early 90s. In fact, they weren't lessons and they weren't at the Royal College (though they were paid for by them) - they took place roughly once a month at George's home, usually on a Sunday, and were somewhere closer to lecture, informal chat, intellectual debating society. They were the kind of events as a young artist you dreamed of being able to attend - like those given by Benjamin's own teacher Messiaen in Paris. There were great sandwiches at lunchtime (free food was always the way to any student's heart), in fact the only thing that prevented them being truly legendary was the lack of alcohol. If they'd taken place in a smoke-filled back room of a North London pub, I think it would by now be a shrine. But for George - always boyish in both appearance and in the giggling delight he took in his subject - well, I guess smokey pubs just weren't his style.
So on these Sunday mornings somewhere between ten and twenty usually rather gaunt composer-types would file in to George's house. There would generally be a morning session and an afternoon on a separate topic. In the morning he might take half an act of Janacek's Kata Kabanova and pick apart the ingenious ways he stretched and pulled a main theme, less a straight-forward 'thematic development' and more theme-as-elastic-band which maintained its most general shape but could be stretched to snapping point anywhere along its length. Then in the afternoon he might invite somebody amazing from the music world to come and talk. To this day I can't believe I missed the one when the great Indian bansuri flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia came - I knew and loved his playing even then, and can't think what could have been more important.
What made these sessions so riveting was George himself. He was so enthusiastic and full of passion it was impossible not to get caught up in it. I used to bring even non-musician friends along just to feel the extraordinary atmosphere of excited learning. I think they were the first events where I actually felt someone was teaching me things I needed to know as a composer, there was no waffle, this was visceral, direct injections into the nervous system of composing. Indeed I think the main thing I took away from all those sessions was how to learn, which, in a tritely simplistic way you could describe as 'quality not quantity'. I think until that point, as quite a late starter in my knowledge of classical music I had always felt a little daunted by the Julian Andersons of this world, who could expound at length about the fascinating second theme of Glazunov's 3rd Symphony. But here I realised that a day spent by yourself looking - really looking - at a single page of a Beethoven Symphony could yield more priceless information than a lifetime of academic textbooks. And I think it's the self part of that equation that is particularly important. We're all as artists trying to discover that thing which is as sickeningly easy to describe as it is unbearably hard to understand - our 'true voice'. And it's only by looking at things with your own eyes rather than through someone else's that you can start the process of finding it.
And it's strange now to realise that that mantra applies to George's lessons themselves. However much I loved those sessions, looking back from where I am now I can see that my 'true voice' is quite a long way from George's and that deeply inside I even knew that back then. I remember, for example, taking some pieces along to show George. One little piece 'Baka Studies' played around with some African rhythms. It was by far the best thing I had ever done, but although he said nothing negative, I could sense that it was too straight-forward for George, he called it 'cute'. For quite a few years after that I attempted to follow the path I admired rather than my own inner calling. What a paradox. One piece from that time ended with a great little interlocking hocketing groove. It sounded great, and was the moment everyone picked out from the piece - "loved that bit at the end". That was my own voice poking out, but I wasn't ready to accept it at that stage, I dismissed that moment and binned the piece. I wanted to write something that George would have called something better than 'cute'.
What George would think of what I'm doing now, I really don't know. But the important thing is, it doesn't really matter. I have to trust what I do, and what I like, follow my own path. People usually say that, meaning "even if it's so obscure no one will like it", but in my case, the bravery has come from accepting that my own path might be something that speaks much more simply and directly and that I should follow it, even if it leads me far away from people whom I still greatly admire, like George.
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