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15 Questions to Joseph Benzola

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I am doing quite well at the moment. Many thanks for the invitation to express some ideas about music. I am located in NY.

What’s on your schedule right now?
To be honest, there is not too much on my musical schedule at the moment. My last CD release “Winter in America” was my last and that was released in 2004. Most of the music on  “Winter in America” was composed and performed in 2002-2003. Since then, I have not done too much in the way of performance or composition.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
My music crosses many different boundaries and idioms so I am not really too invloved with one particular scene. With that said my view of the present music scene is not too positive. I see and hear egos that are out of control and music which does not quite match the egos. I hear music that has lost much in the way of a spiritual connection. There are many talented composers and performers, most that will only be heard by a small audience if at all. The crisis that I hear is that now more than ever there are many people creating music due to the liberating effect of technology which is good. The bad part is wading through the deluge of sounds and artist to find the jewels.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
This has always been hard to define. Sometimes we try so hard to be new and unique that we loose track of the true spirit of music and art…the need to communicate and express on a higher level. To me, there is nothing new under the sun. The notes and sounds we use are as old as existence itself. The way we try to juxtapose sound, form, rhythm, harmony, and melody is the journey of discovery. To me, very few have truly come up with new concepts. We use the term “genius” and “brilliant” so liberally that these words really have very little meaning to me anymore. Rather than listening to something that might be new, I am more concerned with hearing someone’s individual voice. The most impressive aspect of music is to hear a person’s sound and spirit in the music. When Monk hits one note on the piano, it can be no one else. His sound/spirit is present as soon as his hand touches the piano.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
I never understood the difference!! Composition is the placing and organizing of sound materials. This organization can either be written or improvised. When I walk through the woods and listen to the sounds around me, I hear some fantastic music! To me, music is all around us if we care to just listen. This of course is not a new idea. Varese initiated this idea and Cage took it to its logical conclusion.


How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I work primarily in the field of creative improvisation. To me, there is no distinction and superior music can be made in either form. It is up to the individual creating  the music. These artificial dichotomies and ideas must be abolished: Composed vs. improvised; acoustic vs. electronic, western vs. eastern, etc. The idea behind art is to rise above the mundane and communicate with the infinite. To the best of my knowledge, there is not just one clear cut recipe and technique to accomplish this. Many roads lead to the ultimate destination.

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
The music that I play and create is mostly original in scope so the art of interpretation does not really come in.  As a jazz musician, I have played standards and have dealt with the art of interpretation, which to me is taking the original material from the composer and trying to find new avenues of exploration. As an improvising musician, I deal more with the interaction between musicians and how that interaction can be interpreted in the piece we are performing.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Again, these terms have no meaning to me. The end justifies the means and all means of expression need to be explored. People have a pre-defined meaning of what words, sounds, images, and music can mean. A great example of this is the music of John Coltrane. People are taken by such titles as “Meditations”, “Ascension”, “Sunship”, and “Om”. There is an indoctrinated conception of what these words should sound like; “serene”, “tranquil, “floating”, harmonious” but boy are they in for a surprise when they listen to those pieces! Coltrane was on a journey of spiritual exploration. All explorations have periods of doubt, upheaval, and tumultuous peaks and valleys. Coltrane was not afraid of exploring those areas and he did so by standing naked in front of a window for all to see. He took all of his listeners on this journey and created a music of incredible spiritual honesty and intensity.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
Again…why do we always need to define terms rather than listening to the final product of creation? To me Tony Bennett singing “Young and Foolish” with Bill Evans is beautiful. Johnny Hodges playing the melody of “Prelude to a Kiss” is complete transcendence.  Stockhausen’s “Ceylon”, “Mixtur”, and “Prozession” are beautiful. Xenakis “Kraanerg” and Cage’s “HPSCH” are beautiful. Beauty can take many forms. We have to take the beauty of the individual on their terms and not use our preconceived notions and prejudices.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
I know a lot of serious pop artist and many not too serious “art musicians”. I hate the term “ART MUSIC”!!! It reeks of pomposity and self importance and it points its nose down on every other form. Are John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Parker, and Sun Ra just to name four pop artists? Is the music they created non-art? Music is music and we either like it or not. All forms are a fusion of one or more idioms and one is not more superior than the other. Integrity is what counts for me along with the sound of the individual. I need to hear his/her soul.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
An artist’s main duty is to create work of integrity and beauty in his/her personal form. You can try to create with others in mind but these pieces rarely succeed because the wrong intent is present. If you do not truly believe in what you are doing, you will never truly satisfy your soul. As per your question of political/social intent of music, I think that your intention can be translated into the sound vibrations of the piece and that those sensitive to those sound vibrations can pick up on it. Whether these will cause an ultimate change in society is certainly debatable. I guess the closest we have come to this was during the late 1950’s through the 1960’s with rock and folk, and jazz music. Music fueled the revolutions of the Civil Right movement, the anti war movement, and other social causes. With that said, it would be naïve to think that art was solely responsible for these changes but it did play a part.

True or false: People need to be educated about  music, before they can really appreciate it.
FALSE!!!! Music is not that complicated. What is needed is an open mind. You need to approach the sound’s projected on their terms and not yours. If we can relax ourselves to such an extent that will allow us to listen to sound on it’s own terms then many music’s, which we conceive as difficult, will be understood on a very deep level.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
I wish certain people and music’s would receive subsidies as to reduce the financial burdens of those creating it but it is better to have some money sent to any artist than to give the very last cent to the military.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Ha!!! This is a great question. This will have to be a real desert island fantasy festival as many of the people I would like to have are dead! In no particular order: The Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Beach Boys’s performing SmILE, The Theatre of Eternal Music, The Velvet Underground, Stockhausen, Varese, Xenakis, Tim Buckley, Tony Williams Lifetime, Anthony Braxton, Javanese gamelan orchestra, The Musicians of Jojouka, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin reciting Cutups, Ornette Coleman performing Skies of America, Art Tatum, Charles Mingus, Captain Beefheart, Milford Graves, Charles Ives.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours
would sound like?

I have no idea! Being that I have not really concentrated on music during the past 2-3 years, the concept of a magnum opus seems pretty unimportant. The whole idea is to do the best work you can and let others worry about the other stuff.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Amanita Music)
Dig the New Breed (Amanita Music)
Ritual in Four Parts (Amanita Music)
Winter in America (Amanita Music)

Joseph Benzola
Joseph Benzola at Amanita Music

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