Robert Hasegawa

Compositional constraints and creative process in solo works by George Benjamin

This paper explores the use of strict (but hidden) canonic procedures in two 2001 solo works by George Benjamin (Shadowlines for solo piano and Three Miniatures for Solo Violin), emphasizing the role of rigid compositional constraints in shaping the composer’s creative process. Benjamin has hinted at these works’ canonic conception (Benjamin 2003), but no previous scholarly study has untangled their novel imitation techniques. Indeed, the works’ monotimbral musical surfaces rarely permit the easy recognition of Dux (leader) and Comes (follower) voices—the canons are “encoded” to obscure their imitative nature, and Benjamin often intertwines the Dux and Comes to give the impression of a single, non-imitative line.

Through careful score analysis it is possible to reconstruct the various canonic “encodings” in all movements of the two works. One important category is comprised of one-to-one pitch-class mappings based on pitch-class multiplication (Morris 1977): each pitch-class interval in the Dux is multiplied by 5 or 7 (modulo 12) in the Comes, so that a chromatic scale is answered by a cycle of perfect fourths or fifths. The second category, used only in the last movement of Shadowlines and the Three Miniatures, includes many-to-one mappings that project the twelve chromatic pitch classes of the Dux onto a smaller target set in the Comes: for example, a segment of the circle of fifths (G–D–A–E), a four-note chromatic cluster (C♯–D–E♭–E), or a hexatonic set (C♯–D–F–F♯–A–B♭).

Benjamin’s use of constraints plays a major role in his compositional process, providing a starting point to escape the “terror of the blank page” (Stravinsky 1947) and encouraging “problem finding,” the development of new creative challenges to be resolved (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976). The imposition of constraints is essential to turning a vaguely defined task into a well-structured problem that can encourage innovative and artistic solutions. Though most of Benjamin’s canonic constraints are not instantly comprehensible to the ear, they affect the work’s overall sound in many subtle ways, from the choice of motivic pitch-class sets to the metric patterning of the Dux and Comes. The initial choice of the constraint shapes all subsequent compositional decisions, and often works in unforeseen ways to create musical forms that are new and surprising, even to the composer himself.

As cognitive scientist Margaret Boden notes, “far from being the antithesis of creativity, constraints on thinking are what make it possible” (Boden 2004). The strict rules of canonic procedure function as both a spur and a guide to invention, inspiring new invention to overcome these self-imposed obstacles while simultaneously regulating the structural features of the work under construction. In conclusion, Benjamin’s use of creative constraints will be compared to examples from other disciplines including film (the Dogme 95 Manifesto), visual art (Robert Morris’s Blind Time Drawings), and literature (the writings of authors associated with the Oulipo such as Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau).


McGill University, Canada

Music theorist and composer, he joined the faculty of the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in2012. His research interests include spectral and timbre-based music, microtonality, psychoacoustics, and the history of music theory. Recent projects include studies of music by Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, a chapter on compositional constraints for the Oxford Handbook of the Creative Process in Music, an essay on extended just intonation for the volume Théories de la composition musicale au XXe siècle, and applications of transformational theory to the analysis of microtonal music by Hans Zender and Georg Friedrich Haas. He is Associate Project Director of ACTOR, an international research partnership exploring new approaches to timbre and orchestration.