Composers Edition’s Dan Goren talks with Ed Bennett about his major new album and upcoming projects.
Dan Goren: Congratulations on Psychedelia, another fine NMC album, this time featuring works for larger forces. It opens straight in with the pulsating, vertigineous Freefalling. Inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 world record free fall from the edge of space it inhabits a psychological territory of intense and singular experience – a familiar thread in your music.
Ed Bennett: I’ve certainly written a fair bit of music that explores pulse and rhythm so in that sense ‘Freefalling’ could be seen as a continuation of this interest. It was commissioned as the opening work for the RTE NSO’s 2013 series at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and it felt appropriate to compose something energised and driving for this occasion. I’ve also been interested in using the orchestra to create a kind of huge mass of sound rather than jumping around into smaller episodic constellations. Perhaps this relates to your idea of a psychological and intense singular experience, I like to be overwhelmed by music, trapped in a kind of ecstatic state. I image Felix might have felt a bit overwhelmed and ecstatic as he fell to earth!
DG: It’s followed here by the Song of the Books which with its three movements and use of recordings of birdsong and sea is perhaps one of your more traditionally narrative works.
EB: I think it certainly has a narrative feel in the sense that it has a quite conventional three movement fast, slow, fast structure, but generally music for me always creates its own narrative no matter what the composer might say about it. The primary thing for me is still really the musical material, its energy and how it behaves in a structure. This may be influenced by some other elements which help to create a poetic space for the work to inhabit, which can be inspirational and useful for composing the work. ‘Song of the Books’ uses the traditional Irish air ‘Amhran na Leabhar’ as its starting point – the original tune commemorates the loss of a cherished collection of books belonging to the nineteenth century poet, Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (who, perhaps significantly, worked at a Hedge school in Kerry secretly teaching children Irish history and folklore which was otherwise banned under British rule). The music here moves from thick, noisy and energized textures to more lamenting and elegiac aspects of the original tune. The performance recorded here by Decibel and Kate Ellis is everything I could hope for and as always my appreciation for these wonderful musicians skill and dedication is huge.
DG: The orchestral Psychedelia is the newest of the works on the disc brings us back to another singular moment from which seems to develop slow-motion or out-of-time. It’s an immersive 18 minutes!
EB: This work was something of a departure for me, whereas my previous orchestral works where loud, fast, rhythmic and punchy affairs, I felt I needed to try and say something else in this music, and so it’s a patient, slowly evolving piece which utilises the orchestra as one vast instrument where there are no real hierarchies, every performer adding to a unified soundworld (at least that’s the idea!). ‘Psychedelia’ is ultimately an optimistic work, beginning with a simple open violin string and slowly and deliberately moving forward on a single-minded path, eventually bringing the whole orchestra with it and losing itself in a sea of rotating pulses and patterns. I hope the listener can lose themselves in here as well.
DG: Long-term close working relationships are at the heart of your work, as with Orkest de Ereprijs who give a brilliant performance here of Organ Grinder and of course Decibel who perform Song of Books. You’re development seems to work hand in hand with these collaborators.
EB: It’s always been important for me to be closely involved with the musicians I work with and to have a vehicle to develop my work. Decibel has been this vehicle for several years now and there is a huge respect and trust between myself and all of the performers, we have fun and they become an integral part of the work and its soundworld, this in turn feeds into works for more conventional situations like working with an orchestra. It’s similar with Orkest de ereprijs, there is a relationship that has built up over years and you kind of feel part of the group rather than an anonymous composer. It’s nice to walk into a room where all of the musicians create a warm feeling and you and you feel at home.
DG: The disc is brought to a close with Jack McNeill and Eliza McCarthy performing your 2010 Magnetic for bass clarinet and piano. Here, paired down to a duo it’s clear how important fine dynamic and timbral details are in your compositional practice.
EB: I guess the devil is always in the detail, especially with very reduced material, every little subtlety can make the difference. Wonderful performers like Eliza and Jack really understand this and bring it out in the music.
DG: The whole album is an engrossing listen and one of the last to be released by NMC under the guiding hand of their outgoing Executive Director Anne Rushton. There’s a lot of change in the air. What are you working on now?
EB: These are strange times and everything is upside down but I’m currently working on commissions for Chamber Choir Ireland and the Belfast-based Hard Rain Ensemble. We’re hoping to have a premiere of the choral piece in November and the Hard Rain work in January but things keep shifting and sliding! I’ve also been working with cellist Kate Ellis on a cello octet which is very much a product of the lockdown situation, she will record all eight parts and we’ll release it digitally for now, it’s called ‘Strangeness Untitiled’. I also have a new website up and running which you can see here edbennett.co.uk