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The Music of Benet Casablancas


We hear a lot from politicians (particularly from across the Atlantic) about ‘old’ Europe at this time. For them it is a term of disapproval, of tiredness and ineffectiveness. For some of us Europeans (including the French foreign minister) it is a term of pride. It means the wisdom of experience and profound culture, so profound that we can, if we wish, wear it lightly; but it will still be there, guiding our behaviour from below like the unshowy current of a deep river.

Benet Casablancas’ music is like that. The past is worn lightly, but it guides from deep down. He has absorbed well the culture of old Europe. There is the wit of Haydn, the polyphony of Schoenberg’s third period, the period when he particularly drew on the clarity of Classical phrase structure while at the same time starting a revolution in music. The past was profoundly present to him, even though people, to his dismay, called him a disruption in music. His teaching showed this clearly, he burrowed deeply under the ground.

Benet Casablancas and Jonathan Harvey copia

Benet Casablancas and Jonathan Harvey copia

Casablancas writes with a similarly guided classic polyphonic clarity that is uncommon these days. There are many strands simultaneously and they all echo each other loosely, parodying and transforming as they go. They combine in coherent harmonies and bounce off chords played by, say, the piano or grouped choirs of sound, so that there is a constant play between line and chord.

The clarity is further enhanced by the symmetries and balance of the phrase structures. Often closure is effected by the clearest sound in atonal music – silence. At any rate, a change of texture will appear quickly and decisively long before anyone gets tired of a set-up. That’s why, perhaps, he is so fond of the epigram form – and most of his movements are short. The epigram states an idea briefly, punchily, with wit even. It leaves something to be desired, some mystery to do with unpacking its meaning. This is the music of someone who does not wish to labour points: they should be made concisely and then be done with. A musician talking to intelligent, cultured fellows – ‘old’ Europeans.

The vitality and energy of his work is well-known – sudden switches of direction within a very short span give a superbly exhilarating and exuberant quality in the fast movements. The slow movements, though, particularly ones like the second of the ‘New Epigrams’, or the second of the ‘Three Epigrams for orchestra’ are similarly changeable, but in another altogether different vein. They are softer and more veiled; the bright Spanish light is nocturnal and one hears more blend than brilliant blare. The polyphony here takes on a heirarchical aspect. That is to say, some layers become principal, others are ornamental, decorative. Texture is complex rather than multi-polyphonic (wherein all parts are more or less equal). Atmosphere and mood are subtle and suggestive rather than classically clear, harmonics appear, giving non-tempered pitches. One willingly acquiesces in landscapes of the imagination, with birdsong, perhaps. Even here the form, of the phrases, of the sections, of the movements, remains clear, the attention gripped; but not quite 100% is given, we know there is more to it, below the surface.

I am grateful for Benet Casablancas’ music: and I have no doubt that his students are also grateful for such an imaginatively cultured sensibility in their midst, one with whom the continuities of Western culture will be safe in their spiralling evolution.

Jonathan Harvey
(13 Feb. 2003)
[Published in: ‘Sibila’; Sevilla, 2004]

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