George Benjamin’s At First Light (1982)


Sounding Now 2018
A Festival of Contemporary Musical Practices
Sunday, 22 April 2018 @ 5pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory • Orchestra Hall

Contributed by Christopher Sim (BMus1)

George Benjamin (1960) began composing at the age of seven. The child prodigy’s talents were recognised in the 1970s, and by the time he was sixteen, he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire under the tutelage of Olivier Messiaen (Faber Music Limited 2018). A wunderkind, his Ringed by the Flat Horizon for orchestra, performed at the Proms in London at the age of twenty, established him as a young composer on the rise. After a stint working under Pierre Boulez in Paris, in 1985, Benjamin composed Antara; the first composition published using the Sibelius Notation Program. It is a piece that on the get-go sounds like a neo-romantic work containing strong tonal tendencies, but its respect towards Greek enharmonic microtones seem reminiscence of his 1970s penchants. Benjamin faded into obscurity around the late 1990s somewhat uncontended with his musical style. Until the 1990s, George’s total musical output did not exceed 3 hours. Nevertheless, inspiration struck him with numerous travels to India and a few revisits of baroque works. While he did compose a few works during the 1990s his full re-emergence into the music scene came about when he composed Into the Little Hill in 2006, his first opera. At the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, Benjamin’s second opera Written on Skin was premiered and has since become one of his most renowned works.

At First Light reflects a constant state of soul searching and a flourishing of ideas from fixed structures. It explores the ways one could shape a motif, as well inflect colours and timbre through the myriad of extended techniques, augmentation and diminution, klangfarbenmelodie, exploration of the harmonic series, and microtones. A typical performance lasts 20 minutes and is scored for the typical new music sinfonietta consisting of one player on each orchestral instrument. Written in three movements (without breaks), the first movement is characterised by jarring music as if the initial structure is trying to tear itself down – the chaos emphasised by the percussive effects on all instruments. The second is a slow and beautifully neo-romantic with passages of tonal and modal music. The final movement is a moment of ‘contemplation’ as the piece exhausts its last bit of ‘fuel’ to sustain itself, sometimes with violence, and other times with calm.





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