Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
There are of course many influences. My mother played music when I was young and both of my parents always encouraged me to find out what I really wanted to do with my life rather than following the more formulaic route prescribed by school at the time. I went to art college and played in bands, then when I was in my teens I met the Irish composer Brian Irvine who was full of energy and very inspiring. Brian was the first person in an educational context who told me it was okay to create weird things and express myself even though I hadn’t been playing piano from the age of two. At that point I thought composers were old guys with wigs but Brian introduced me to a whole world of living composers which really excited me and then I realised the guys with wigs were pretty amazing as well. I’ve been fortunate to come into contact with many great mentors over the years, including Michael Finnissy, Diana Burrell, Jo Kondo, Barry Russell, Chaya Czernowin, Louis Andriessen and others, and were all very inspiring in different ways. I learn a lot from my colleagues as well: I’m fortunate enough to know many gifted composers and performers who inspire me regularly. There is so much good work around.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Keeping going is always difficult for an artist. Financially it’s a difficult route to follow so time is always precious and I think we’re all juggling various aspects of our work trying to carve out that time to just focus on creating. It’s tough and you have to persist, and resilience is an asset in this line of work, especially at the moment. Nothing comes quickly; it’s a long game and staying power is important. Developing as an artist also takes a long time; there is so much pressure today for young composers to be fully formed straight out of school, it’s not healthy, music is not a sport.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
The opportunity to create something new that you know will be performed is always exciting. I think it’s very disheartening in this time of a pandemic for composers as well as performers where most things are cancelled or put on indefinite hold. I must admit that it’s much harder for me to be enthused about my work because of this, but maybe that’s okay, maybe it’s good to have this reflection even though it’s difficult. In any case I think most composers are terrified of the blank page and have many demons and doubts about their work constantly, however the challenge is what keeps it interesting and exciting, if it was easy I wouldn’t have to do it anymore.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles or orchestras?
It’s always exciting to work with great performers and I’ve been lucky to have plenty of opportunities to do that. Working with soloists is such an intimate thing, you work closely with them and really get into their individual sound, personality and approach. Pretty much all of my pieces with individual performers have been written with them in mind and so they very much inform the work. I formed my own ensemble Decibel around 15 years ago and it has been a constant in my work ever since. The group is made of wonderful musicians who are also good friends. We’ve been through a lot together and I feel I can write anything for them – there is a sense of trust and fun between us all which makes it a very rewarding experience. Working with an orchestra is a different experience altogether, it’s a much more anonymous affair and you have to have a thick skin; however I still enjoy the experience and I love the energy of this huge group of people coming together to create a unified sound.
Of which works are you most proud?
‘Psychedelia’ is an orchestral work and the title track of my new portrait record on NMC Records. It was premiered in 2017 by Thomas Adès and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and I feel I got close to something in that work. ‘Song of the Books’ for cello and ensemble written for my ensemble Decibel and soloist Kate Ellis is another recent work which features on the new disc. In the middle movement I again feel I got close to something.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
A difficult question as I feel it’s a constantly evolving process, I’m always learning. I suppose I’m interested in a kind of clarity and perhaps simplicity although I really like dense sounds which feel like they might overwhelm you. I’d like the music to be ecstatic, I think I got close to this in the aforementioned works, although I’m not sure that ecstasy is a language.
How do you work?
I tend to work quite regular hours. I have to be quite disciplined about it; ideally I compose in the morning for three or four hours and then I often have other work to do in the afternoons, teaching, admin etc. When it gets close to a deadline I try to clear as much space as possible to get whatever I’m working on finished. I sketch a lot and I often make multiple versions of pieces, only one of which will see the light of day. Sometimes I’ll almost complete a piece and then decide it’s not right and start all over again! It’s probably not the best practice but the inner critic can be difficult sometimes. Other times I just can’t make the piece work the way I want so I take a different route. I make lots of notes and take long walks and runs also help the process. Composing is going on at a subconscious level all the time really.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To be able to be able keep going – that is a feat in itself.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
It’s an old one but follow your own path. Staying power is important. You have to put a roof over your head but there is no rush to be the next big thing. It’s a marathon not a sprint and the fashions of music come and go, year in and year out. Do not be seduced, do your own thing. I would also say don’t wait around for things to happen, work with what you’ve got – if no one will play your music, play it yourself or start your own group – eventually someone will notice. Get informed about and involved with other artforms as well – we all have a lot to learn from each other.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
This is a complex problem and I don’t have all the answers. Orchestras, opera houses, arts centres, radio stations and other institutions have not done a good job of moving with the times. There is a very safe attitude which seems to involve giving audiences what they think they want and regurgitating the same thing over and over, which is a bit of an insult to the audience’s intelligence really. I believe that people like to be challenged, they like to be surprised and shocked as well having the familiar. Music education is of course hugely important and has suffered greatly in recent years for all sorts of music. If only the wealthy can afford to have their kids learn about music or taught a musical instrument, then how will an audience grow for the future? This is the most serious issue and we need to address it urgently.
Ed Bennett’s new album Psychedelia is out now and focuses on a number of his larger-scale works. In ‘Freefalling’ – inspired by Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 world-record freefall – the music plays on the sense of falling at high speed. The sound is propulsive and heaving, with hammering cymbals, drums, brass and strings. ‘Freefalling’ features the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with conductor, David Brophy. The title piece, ‘Psychedelia’, was premiered in 2017 by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Adès conducting. It builds slowly from a solo violin open E string to a whole orchestra ‘losing itself in a sea of rotating pulses and patterns’. ‘Psychedelia’ features the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with conductor, David Brophy.
Irish composer Ed Bennett was born in Bangor, Co.Down. His music, which has been described in the press as “anarchic” (Irish Times), “stunningly intense” (The Quietus) and “thrilling” (Gramophone), is often characterized by its strong rhythmic energy, extreme contrasts and the combination of acoustic, electronic and multimedia elements. It was described in The Guardian as “unclassifiable, raw-nerve music of huge energy and imagination”.
Artist photo: Rachel McCarthy