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15 Questions to Ben Sommer

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Pretty well, thanks. I live near Boston, MA USA. I’ve been a New Englander all my life.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I’ve been promoting my new album - america’d - for the past few months. Lots of reviews, twitter promotion, etc. Making six music videos has occupied all of my creative time lately. Aside from learning the basics of that medium and having fun with it - I’m really buying into the idea that YouTube is “where it's at” for music promotion. I myself go there whenever I want to hear new music. It only makes sense to publish my own songs there. Just this week I also began mixing my next album - Super Brain. It consists of twelve songs/pieces I composed and recorded over the last ten years. It’ll be much more eclectic and experimental than america’d, which was a very carefully sequenced album of politically & socially disturbing songs.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?
Vast, eclectic and first-rate! I’m really not an American jingoist - just look at the track list on america’d - but I must say that America - and Boston particularly - is a great place to be for new and interesting music. Of course I hear great music coming from UK, Europe, Japan, etc. But this seems to be as good a place as any in which to live and work in music.
On the other hand, I rarely see live music, so in one sense “local music scene” doesn’t mean anything anymore. With bandcamp, twitter, facebook, YouTube - interesting music from anywhere can reach you. Geography is no longer an attribute of a “scene”, but rather genre, style, and approach are the key attributes - and communities and “scenes” are forming online from folks distributed across the globe.

Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?

My tag line is “edgy, political prog-rock”. I identify loosely with progressive and experimental rock, though that’s pretty broad, and if I’m to believe the critics of my last album america’d - I’m working more in the punk than the progressive genre.
But personally, I identify with artists like Frank Zappa, and friends/associates like Meat Machine andKeith Horn. Not that our styles are so similar - but we’re all highly skilled, trained composers working in rock music. Our vehicle for expression is popular music (rock, punk, fusion etc.), but we carefully compose each song, write it all down in score, arrange, record and produce it all ourselves. Any serious composer in this century needs to have the skills to do all these things himself.

In terms of composition, what do you consider your main challenges?
Working in popular music, its all about the “hook”. There has to always be something special and inspirational at the center of a composition - but especially in rock and pop music, where the are so many formal strictures. If I can come up with a compelling melody & harmonic scheme - I’m halfway there.
The second biggest challenge is crafting a lyric and story that is equally compelling to the musical content of a song. Many rock artists I love - for example Foo Fighers, who have a new album out now - prove that a meaningful lyric is a completely optional ingredient to a great rock song. Dave Grohl’s lyrics are so horribly trite and meaningless that I get a pang of “douche chills” whenever I read a lyric sheet of his. But in spite of the lyrics, his songs are still great.

If I can craft a melodic, harmonic and lyrical - oh and rhythmic - gem that all ties tightly together, I’ve accomplished my goal. When it comes to embellishing the song with arrangement and different orchestration ideas - my training kicks in and that’s the easy part.

How would you describe your method of composing?
Since I value melody and harmony first, I usually start there, then tack on lyrics later. Sometimes it's in reverse.
But regardless, I always write out a lead sheet on paper - the tune and the chord changes. When I have a complicated arrangement in mind, I usually skip the lead sheet and write out a full score. For instance, I write a lot of complex contrapuntal soli - for guitar, voices, horns - whatever. These are all written out in detail on paper, without a piano or guitar or anything, just using my inner ear. I’m always focusing on the drum part, too. Its a pretty traditional composition approach.

To me, working your ideas out on paper at a desk is the real deal. My eyes always roll when I hear the latest “indie” or “experimental” sound artist drone on about how personal and unique their “process” is to come up with electronic bleeps and bloops. Composing is about focused, disciplined work - perspiration. Twenty per cent only is inspiration.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?
The political and social criticism in my latest songs are a direct reaction to my background. I’m forever the contrarian - for example:

  • I grew up in an upper class, gentile community - I’m dirty, nasty and low-brow in some of my lyrics
  • I went to a liberal Liberal arts college - I’m writing radically conservative songs titled "Speekie Engrish" and "Right Wing Fiend"
  • I live in a proto-fascist state - I comment on it with songs like "Henry Kissinger" and "Little Hitlers"
  • Traditional gender roles are being warped and challenged to an absurd level in today’s society - I (and my collaborator MC Plosk) react to that with songs like "Kill the Estrogen Queens"

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
What’s one without the other? I’ll just quote Frank Zappa: "A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians."

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Pretty strictly. I grew up as an improvisational player - I was a pretty solid jazz guitar improviser. But improvisation is too limiting to be completely expressive. Just compare radio or TV talk shows - even the more cerebral ones on public broadcasting channels - with fully composed speeches or books or articles. One is spontaneous and improvisational, the other is not. Carefully crafted written and spoken works are always more interesting and enriching than improvised ones. Two hours of a talk show are worth a fraction of the artistic value of a two hour stage play. The exact same is true of music. Improvised music is sometimes fun to play and listen to, but never as compelling as a composed piece of music executed with a similar level of skill and creativity.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
Good question. As a student composer “new” usually meant new music in the classical tradition - serialist, minimalist, neo-romantic etc. written for traditional or electronic instruments. Now “new” to me just means “new to the market” - regardless of tradition. That word, like any other, is all about context.

Do you personally enjoy multimedia as an enrichment or do you feel that it is leading away from the essence of what you want to achieve?
“Multimedia” only means one thing to me: video. Though I’ve thought about writing theater music, I’ve never completed anything. And since I don’t dabble in any fringe area like “sound sculpture”, the only non-music media I’m interested in is the traditional karaoke-style rock music video. As a DIY artist without a label and marketing budget, I have to keep things simple so I shoot and edit all my own videos. And although its fun to express new ideas in video - I don’t take myself seriously as a videographer. Its just a fun, engaging way to promote my main creative output - the songs.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
I don’t perform live! I have performed in the past - and I may in the future. But my dream growing up was never to perform regularly - touring and such. It was to have the means and ability to compose, record and deliver a real album of music. Now that all this cheap music technology has surpassed even our wildest dreams from the 80s and 90s - I’m more than happy to stay at home, producing and releasing album after album of music without a single performance. My mind may change in a few years, but for now I’m a home-studio mad scientist.

How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences without sacrificing their soul?
If by “wider” you mean people outside the music form’s target audience - I’d say there is no way other than changing the form. That’s not necessarily “selling out” or “sacrificing soul”, but it is changing. If instead we define “wider” as reaching more people who are ready and looking for non-mainstream music - then it becomes a simple matter of promoting and raising awareness. The web and all the online tools available to artists now is then the obvious answer. Because of this it's never been a better time to be a producer of “niche” or “non-mainstream” music.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I’d probably model it after my “sounds like” artist-centric websites and I interview and feature artists on these sites whose sound and aesthetic are somehow like the band Rush, or the great Frank Zappa. I started these sites as a way to make relationships with these like-minded artists, “cross-pollinate” our respective fan bases, and just provide a more curated music discovery experience on the web than one would find with the automated music discovery services like Pandora.

A festival of “Bands Like Rush” would probably feature The Tea Club, Fluttr Effect, The Mercury Tree, Ben Averch, among others.

A festival of “Bands Like Zappa” would feature Keith Horn, Drool Brothers, and Half Past Four.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Oddly enough, I’ve already composed these. In 1996 I wrote two long works for large chamber ensemble - though never performed or recorded. In 1998 I wrote an 8-minute piece for winds, voices, and rock ensemble that was a complete expression of my ideas at the time. It was performed once, but that was a crappy experience - the group didn’t gel. I might assemble a group to re-record that.
I also wrote a 12-minute string quartet in 2000 that I’m most proud of. It was very advanced rhythmically and contrapuntally - so much so that I had to conduct the group playing it, even though they were seasoned professionals. That was a great experience that I’d like to repeat.

I guess I’m in a weird position - my “magum opera” are in the past. I’m now more focused on expressing my ideas and feelings through the humble vehicle of the 3-5 minute rock song. I may return to the classical modality some day, but for now I’m quite happy to be a pop musician.

Ben Sommer Discography:

Super Brain (Self-released) 2003
Right Wing Fiend (Self-released) 2004
america’d (Self-released) 2010


Ben Sommer

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