Benedict Mason gained a scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge, and, after graduating, took a degree in film making at the Royal College of Art. He turned to composition relatively late, but immediately attracted attention with his first acknowledged work, Hinterstoisser Traverse, and was awarded the Guido d’Arezzo Prize for Oil and Petrol Marks on a Wet Road are Sometimes Held to be Spots where a Rainbow Stood. His first orchestral piece, Lighthouses of England and Wales, won the Benjamin Britten Competition in 1988. Subsequent awards include a Fulbright Fellowship, the 1995 Paul Fromm Award (for Steep Ascent within and away from a non-European Concert Hall: Six Horns, Three Trombones and a Decorated Shed), and the Third Britten Award (for Rilke Songs) in 1996.
Mason’s early works display a characteristically post-modern stylistic diversity, which arises in part from their “investigative” intentions: String Quartet No.1 examines various modes of traveling, Lighthouses of England and Wales analyzes the phenomenon of “sea music,” while Oil and Petrol Marks… collates and classifies children’s games. Works around 1990 betray an increasing interest in polyrhythm, culminating in two highly virtuosic ensemble pieces. Playing Away, a grand opera about football, opera, pop music and Germany also dates from this period.
A particular feature of Mason’s later music is its spatial dimension, which goes way beyond the “multi-ensemble” approach pioneered by Brant and Stockhausen. Since 1993, Mason has written works for particular halls, which then act as highly diverse resonators for the sounds produced by the musicians (and vice versa—the musicians also articulate the acoustic and architectural properties of the halls). The main outcome of this preoccupation is an extended series of pieces—mostly much more austere than Mason’s preceding works, but all featuring a strong extra-musical or visual input, generically entitled Music for Concert Halls. In many cases, the musicians participating in the Concert Hall pieces are located outside the main auditorium. For instance, in Trumpet Concerto, only the solo trumpeter is inside the auditorium. They also perform at the verge of audibility (in terms of the audience). Thus the pieces not only break with the ceremonial aspects of the traditional concert—one could regard them as “concert installations”—but also become an invitation to acute listening. Such pieces are, by their nature, virtually nonrecordable, reflecting the composer’s current insistence on music as something to be produced, “by live musicians in authentic acoustic environments, as opposed to the artificiality of music conveyed via domestic loudspeakers.”