From a video interview with the composer: “Imagine: you only have two bows, two violas, two human beings…There are eight strings. There is so little you can do with those things, and yet, actually, it is impossible to find a limit…”
From the composer’s note: “My desire at times was to conjure an almost orchestral depth and variety of sound....The implied harmony is intended to be as sonorous as possible, the texture sometimes maintaining four or more parts for sustained periods.”
One of the outstanding British composers of his generation, George Benjamin started to play the piano at seven and began composing almost immediately. He has said listening to The Beatles on his sister’s radio is among his earliest remembered musical experiences, and he tried to create his own songs in his mind, complete with imagined harmonies and instrumentation. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study composition with Olivier Messiaen and piano with Yvonne Loriod, and he continued composition study at King’s College, Cambridge, with Alexander Goehr.
His first orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, was played at the BBC Proms when he was 20 years old, and he has gone to compile a catalog of critically acclaimed and ground-breaking work in most genres and forms of classical music, including the opera Written on Skin, which premiered at the Aix en Provence Festival in 2012 and has subsequently been produced around the world, recorded on CD and DVD, and won a host of awards. Benjamin was Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 2014, and he is also a distinguished and active conductor.
“Imagine: you only have two bows, two violas, two human beings,” he said in a video interview before a French performance of Viola, Viola. “There are eight strings. There is so little you can do with those things, and yet, actually, it is impossible to find a limit. I didn’t want it to be a duet – simple, transparent chamber music. I wanted it to be a huge, multiple-magic viola.”
Benjamin wrote the following note for the work:
“Viola, Viola was commissioned by the Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation of which the Artistic Director was Toru Takemitsu for the opening of the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on 16 September 1997. I was naturally eager to respond to this proposal from my late much-lamented friend Toru Takemitsu. [Takemitsu had died in 1996.] The idea of a viola duo for his friends Yuri Bashmet and Nobuko Imai was entirely his. My initial thoughts of how to solve the many compositional problems inherent within this most unconventional medium may have suggested the viola’s accustomed role as a melancholy voice hidden in the shadows. However, once under way, a completely different instrumental character – fiery and energetic – imposed itself. My desire at times was to conjure an almost orchestral depth and variety of sound. This accounts for the fact that the two viola parts are virtually braided together – indeed, clearly independent lines only begin to flower towards the work’s cantabile center. The implied harmony is intended to be as sonorous as possible, the texture sometimes maintaining four or more parts for sustained periods.”
— John Henken