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Ben Richter: Interview
Recently, Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer interviewed Ben Richter, whose piece Water’s Edge will be premiered on Saturday, February 28, 2015 at the Center for New Music in San Francisco about his piece, his varied travels, and inspirations. There is also a fun video at the end of the interview! More information on Ben’s music can be found at his website.
What are you doing in Germany right now?
Working on my German, cycling around and trying not to get lost. I just moved from New York where I have my group “Ghost Ensemble” to Berlin. New York was pretty exhausting and hectic living there. I’ve been to Berlin many times. It’s really cool. There’s a lot of awesome art going on. I’ve been to a couple of concerts and for a new music concert there will be 50 people packing into a room and it astonishes me every time. People are actually coming to the concerts, so I was excited about that. It’s a lot less expensive, you can cycle around everywhere and it’s the vegan capital of the universe.
As a fellow Bardian i’ve gotta ask…What was your involvement in music at Bard? You graduated in 2008?
I was there at an interesting time because the Bard College conservatory started there my second year. They still have the music program, liberal arts music majors, like I did. I was pretty much the last year of only having the music department as opposed to the conservatory. The musical scene there was really changing a lot while I was there. So it started with a bunch of weirdos like me building instruments out of plywood and string – that was the scene. Those guys were still around my senior year, but you also had a chamber orchestra of classical musicians playing classical music. And composers who were accepted more in that vein. So the music department was where the highly experimental composers tended to go and the much more classically minded, especially performer-composers, in the conservatory. And then you also had Jazz guys and a great electronic music program with Robert Bielecki, Richard Teitelbaum, so there were a lot of different strains of things going gone and also getting going right during that time. Joan Tower and Kyle Gann were my advisers. Because they took alternating sabbaticals one or more of them was my alternating adviser and composition teachers.
Tell me a little bit about Ghost Ensemble.
We have fun. Ghost Ensemble is basically a group I put together when I got back from the Hague. I did my masters at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. So, I can order falafel in Dutch! As soon as I finished my Master’s there I went back to New York and started Ghost Ensemble, which is a group of between 5 and 9, at any given time, contemporary minded musicians. Several of us are composers. Some of us are just awesome performers. I’m a composer and accordianist. We have flute, oboe, harp, percussion, bass and sometimes cello. It’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of new music, a lot of new works. Sometimes we do Medieval and Renaissance stuff. Experimentally minded, we try to think about the experience of being in a concert and play with that, like playing in unusual places and letting people lie down while they listen. We’ve have had some fun: we’ve played in caves in Inwood Park! Caves is a slight exaggeration they are really boulder formations but that was really fun! That’s part of the idea of the group, doing weird stuff.
Do you think of yourself as a composer first, accordionist second, or are both on an equal footing?
I love playing accordion and I do it all the time. I’m totally comfortable as an improviser, but as far as the formalized music world goes I’ve always participated as a composer not as a performer. I’ve dabbled in performing composed music on accordion and I certainly do with Ghost Ensemble. I’ve done notated music for us, but mostly I’ve done text scores for us– so I’ll do a detailed series of cues for each instrument. For Wild Rumpus, I wrote a fully notated piece and for other ensembles I usually do also. But another part of the Ghost Ensemble is it is a workshop of developing ideas and that’s usually what I personally do with the group.
When you formed this coming out of the Hague how did you find the people you wanted to collaborate with?
It came together very magically and organically. Our harpist Somna had been my friend for a few years. We met through performing with Pauline Oliveros.
Linguistics is a bit of a hobby of mine. I’m that much of a dork. At Bard I had a very cool linguistics professor. I did a music linguistics course and I took a traditional linguistics course that was fantastic with professor Ben Stevens who teaches at Bryn Mawr now. It’s fascinating. I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed not to really speak more than one language, but I speak a little bit of a whole bunch of languages. I’m curious about etymology and how they work. With French and German I can have a bit of a conversation and as I say I can order falafel in Dutch.
You were in Sardegna recently? What did you do there? Music?
No travel. I’m also a big map and atlas geek. This old sculptor/farmer invited us to his electricity-less hut on the mountain where he fed us his own homemade everything, olive oil and wine and myrto. I didn’t speak a word of Sardinian, we basically communicated in Italian tempos, andante vivace, piu lento etc. Drunk stories later. There was no water, just wine. We had an amazing time in this medieval hut and seeing the Nuraghi in the middle of January.
Sounds like you’ve done a fair bit of travel, what geographical place inspires you?
In two weeks I’m going to Ethopia. I’ve never been before so I can’t say if it’s inspiring or not, but I’m very curious to see. Sardegna was very inspiring actually, I titled a piece after that experience “Tresnuraghes” after a place that has three of these very ancient sites around the village. We wandered around there; it’s such a mystery. Apparently people know so little about that culture, even though it was so highly developed.
Favorite poet or author?
I was super into William Blake. I have some pieces inspired by Blake with his texts and also Rilke, I’ve used a lot of Rilke texts – I just adore them. Somehow I feel a little bit more comfortable setting text that isn’t in English somehow. German or French. Because I feel I get less attached to the meaning. There is this gorgeous Ammon’s poem that I want to set: “Rivulose”. He died recently, so I have to get permission. So if you want to sing this A. R. Ammon’s piece…so no I do like setting in English but I have this old conception that foreign languages are art languages whereas English is less so, but I’m starting to change that.
Tell me a little bit about the piece you write for Wild Rumpus? To start with what is it scored for and why?
The piece is called “Water’s Edge”. It’s got flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, bass, electric guitar, piano, and percussion. And I’m excited. It was actually a cool process. Jen asked for a couple of combinations I’d like to write for and I had five different suggestions ranging from trombone in one, some smaller and larger ones, etc… This is my sort of flavor of composition because you can play a lot with complex harmony and complex timbre and I really love to melt these textures slowly together and slow changes in timber, slow glissandi that make constant changes in harmony, that works with a larger ensemble like Wild Rumpus, and the more subtle options you have to change timbre and harmony.
‘Water’s Edge’ is one of 25 titles I’ve had written on a notebook for the past five years. It got written down on that page in 2009 when I was living on an island in Maine and I walked to the water a lot cause it was so nice. And there was this cool moment once where it was incredibly foggy and you could walk out to this point on the rocks and just be surrounded by grey. You couldn’t even see your feet. The entire world was this grey mist, sort of like the Never Ending Story where this grey mist is eating the entire planet and so you don’t know where the water ends, where the air begins. You don’t know if the world is still there.
‘Waters Edge’ the title isn’t really largely directly related to the piece itself, but there are kind of these waves that come and go. There are these lines…most of the ensemble is sort of getting a piece going and then there is this second little cohort with the percussion, guitar and piano that sort of bursts in in waves and interrupts that. And then gradually the two different groups sort of merge together. Spoiler alert. And then at the end of the piece it’s one sound. So I’m sort of playing with two different sound worlds that slowly merge together and it’s sort of like entering the water for me.
How does the process work for you? How do you sit down and write a piece?
When I have a new piece assignment or idea either it starts with an idea that is present or I go to my notebooks. In this case it was interesting because I’m including electric guitar in this piece for the first time which has been on my list of things to do for a while and when Jen wrote and back and said, “Ben here is the instrumentation we’d like you to do,” I did not have any idea for that particular instrumentation so I did go back to my pile of random ideas and started thinking Okay I’ve got chamber ensemble and electric guitar. How am I going to use the electric guitar? What role is it going to have? I think that was the first thing I thought about. And then I got the idea of having these two little groups: This sort of noise group and this melody harmony group. And they can intersect this way, you know related to this idea that I had already had some time ago and worked that out. So that’s how it began to happen.
What do you want the audience to know about this piece?
What don’t you want the audience to know about this piece?
I peek at program notes, and I like to be inspired to listen well to a piece, but I would like the audience to think as little as possible about the piece, to sit down and relax as much as possible and maybe fall asleep or something and hear it and not quite remember it and want to hear it again maybe.
In your eyes what is the job (for lack of a better term) of a composer?
I can say what I think music is for…
What is music?
For me music is for healing. And that’s why I do it, why I fell in love with it. Any time in my life I’ve made music, whether I’m sitting by myself improvising on the accordion and no one is ever going to hear that hour of music again or if I’m composing for an ensemble, that’s what it is. So, I guess I don’t want to say there is a goal, but that’s what it’s for. And hopefully I’m not the only one who experiences some kind of peace from that. I’m not going to say the word sacred. But when you compose there’s this other world that you can reach to, you know, and its not through your brain. It’s through some inner pathway that happens when you shut yourself up and play something accidentally. So I try to make accidents as much as possible. I try to make systems as little as possible. There is this endless ocean of universal music somewhere out there that sometimes you can shut yourself up enough to listen to for a little while. I’m someone who tries to do that.
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