Close to the edge: Ben Isaacs

Ben Isaacs studied composition at Huddersfield with Aaron Cassidy and Bryn Harrison. His current work includes a new piece for flautist Richard Craig and a three-glockenspiel piece for the line upon line ensemble.

As Ben says below, silence doesn’t actually feature in his music much at all – but allone gets the nod for this concert because it sits right on the edge of inaudibility and, what’s more, crams that tiny band with a whole lot of activity. It’s a sort of nearly-imperceptible virtuosity that might carry Beckett-like connotations of futility and waste if it weren’t so damned beautiful in its own right.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Ben Isaacs: One of the things that most appeals to me about composing (in the sense of producing musical notation for musicians to interpret) is the particular way it combines individual creation (each score I produce is very much ‘mine’ and no-one else’s) and collaboration (I am completely reliant on others in order to actually hear the music). To me this specific balance is significantly (albeit not entirely) distinct from other forms of music making, and I imagine that this distinction is part of the reason it endures as an art form, and won’t seem too anachronistic any time soon (even if the question does occasionally get asked!).

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

BI: Almost no role at all! Or at least it’s not really an aspect I explicitly consider whilst composing. However, over the last five years I have focused on writing extremely quiet and fragile music, so for an audience it does quite possibly draw attention to the act of listening in a similar way to music which does deal with silence (however the word is understood) more overtly. For me, this is a wholly welcome outcome of the work as I’m very much attracted to the sense of ‘live-ness’ musical performance can engender, though I tend to avoid pauses of any substantial length in order to maintain a continual fragility of sound. I often write in my performance instructions that the sound should be ‘barely there’, with the implication that it is ‘there’ nonetheless.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BI: Aside from their volume, my pieces typically work within a number of other constraints. Most commonly, this involves severely restricting both the range of pitches used, and the physical gestures with which the performers produce sound. Once these have been established, it becomes a question of emphasising the volatility inherent in the combining of the constraints (for example, various trills and tremolos swelling from niente to pppp and back again using only the top seven notes of the piano). Often these gestures will be repeated, with their various constraints ensuring different results each time, or the range of pitches will gradually expand and contract, affecting the variety of available gestures. In any case, the focus is on the minute. I aim to create dynamic and intricate music that presents a constantly shifting surface whilst remaining extremely constricted.

I have also begun to work with longer durations. In February Kate Ledger performed an hour-long version of my piano piece too expanding and I recently finished a glockenspiel trio for line upon line percussion that can last up to two hours. The combination of concert-length durations and extremely constricted music is one I’m very intrigued by.


TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BI: Firstly I imagine I’d transpose it up a couple of octaves, or maybe even three or four. I’m drawn to both the instability inherent in playing winds and strings at low volumes in the upper register, and the thinness of sound and short decay at the top end of a piano or pitched percussion instrument. I’m also keen on homogenous ensembles so perhaps I’d have a string trio drawing their bows too slowly to produce clear pitches, playing very small glissandi towards the top of their highest string, and with an occasional trill in there too. Probably there’d be a number of repeating patterns, with the fragility of the bow strokes cracking into different rhythms with each repetition. I wouldn’t need to add much to that.

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

Here is the previous post on Gregory Emfietzis; coming up: Charlie Sdraulig.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to:

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.


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