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Interview with Ben Carey

img  Tobias Fischer

Ben Carey's discography so far encompasses just two releases. And yet, within this comparatively small catalogue, the Sydney-based saxophonist, composer and improviser has managed to reveal all of his interests, philosophies and diverse approaches. Whereas Wingello Sessions a barely twenty-minute EP of pieces recorded in regional New South Wales, is marked by an acoustic set-up, the intimacy of a church and the sound of one man exploring his instrument, _derivations, recently released on Integrated Records, sees Carey pitted against and collaborating with his self-programmed software of the same name, engaging in six engaging human-machine improvisations. What may seem contradictory on the outside, meanwhile, is the result of a colourful life- and career-trajectory, which has taken Carey from Australia to Europe and back again, from classical training to improvisation and composition. In our interview with Ben,  we not only speak about his path in music, but also about the one element that is currently binding all of his efforts together: How technology is shaping our creativity and how it may be able to help us grow as artists and human beings. 

Can you tell me just a little bit about your personal path as a listener and a musician?
I don’t think I can really separate myself as a listener and as a musician, especially in my early years. I grew up in a musical household, my father was a guitarist and music lover, my mother a high school music teacher, and I have a twin brother who I’ve shared pretty much all of my musical education with. I picked up the saxophone when I was nine years old after having played guitar as a youngster. Both my brother and myself were excited about playing in the school wind band, and my mother had two instruments spare at her school – a clarinet and a saxophone – so it snowballed from there. Even from early on though my musical passions lay outside of my chosen instrument. Although I could appreciate all kinds of music, my brother and I got pretty hooked on metal and on grunge as teens. We started a band with some friends and wrote our own music, I think we were about 13 or 14 at the time, rocking out with shoulder length hair. My relationship to the sax though was separate, it was a constant, something I pursued more ‘seriously’ I guess as a part of my musical training. I was studying the classical saxophone so there was a certain trajectory, though I don’t think I really saw it as important to me musically until I was nearing the end of high school.

When did you make the switch to improvisation?
Classical training really defined my relationship to the saxophone for a long time – I was never interested in jazz, and really had no desire to learn to improvise on the sax. However, I’d always been an improviser of sorts away from the saxophone. I only ever approached the guitar as an improviser, it was physical and immediate for me, less tied up with the right way to do things. I’ve also been a frustrated drummer all my life, constantly tapping out rhythms to the annoyance of those around me. I was first exposed to free improv when I was 17, in a class at high school. We had an old student come and give a workshop to our class, she played us some European free improv – I’ll always remember a video she showed of Fred Frith - which I thought was the strangest thing I’d ever heard! I began improvising myself though much later, in my twenties. I’d become a ‘new music’ fanatic at university, having found it was the best way I could relate to my instrument – it was also challenging technically, which fit into the classical trajectory for me. After uni I started going to some free improv gigs – the improv scene fascinated me, especially the focus on live electronics. Around the same time I got some audio gear and began experimenting with some basic software. I’d heard some John Butcher – what an amazing player – but it was some of the stuff he did with feedback that caught my attention. Although I still didn’t feel comfortable with improvising on the sax, I focused on manipulation and finding ways of interacting with the computer, starting with feedback – that dialogue, the magic of coaxing out the unexpected and extending and mangling my sound – it touched a nerve I’d say, and I began to view the role of the saxophone differently.

You studied music in Sydney until 2005. What was the music scene of the city like back then?
My musical development in Sydney until 2005 generally revolved around my studies at the Sydney Conservatorium – it was a really great period. I was involved in chamber music really heavily at that time, playing with the Nexas Saxophone Quartet with three colleagues who have stayed some of my closest friends. I guess you could say my experience of the music scene in the city was through the vantage point of a performance major – I watched and was involved in a lot of classical music, but also ‘new music’ had become a major focus. One of my lecturers at the con – the composer Damien Ricketson – ran a new music ensemble called Ensemble Offspring that was doing (and is still doing) fantastic things. I also had a very tight knit group of composer friends I went through university with, people like Lachlan Colquhoun, Tristan Coelho, Mark Oliveiro and Paul Castles. I performed some pieces of theirs at uni and outside during that period, which was really inspiring. As I mentioned I started going to improv gigs after uni, and Sydney’s NowNow concert series was a great influence. I got to see and meet some of the local improv crowd and visiting players, people like Jim Denley, Dale Gorfinkle, Kusum Normoyle, Mike Majowski, Clare Cooper, Clayton Thomas, Robbie Avenaim, Robin Fox, and visiting artists like Kim Myhr and John Butcher. I played a couple of NowNow sets in 2007 but left for France soon after so I’ve always felt a bit peripheral to the scene.

What was your time in France like?
My time in Bordeaux was fantastic – two years doing nothing but practicing, performing and collaborating. I studied under a wonderful teacher there, Marie-Bernadette Charrier, a new music specialist and founder of the ensemble Proxima Centauri. I’d met her three years previously on a short study trip to France – her take no prisoners approach really appealed to me, she is really demanding but also incredibly musical. Those two years were where I came into my own as a saxophonist I think, both technically and musically. I was playing some very challenging repertoire, and learning so much about interpreting contemporary classical music – the ensemble opportunities were also fantastic. I also sought out opportunities to play with electronics, and got the chance to collaborate with composers on some great works for sax + computer. At the same time, I was going to concerts of acousmatic music, and making friends with composers working in that area. There’s such a deep and lasting tradition of electroacoustic music in France, it was really inspiring. There was a festival of the music of Luc Ferrari when I was there – I’d never heard music like it before, really ear opening. I also got to spend some time in Austria at the Impuls Academy run by the ensemble Klangforum Wien. I met some really talented performers and composers there, and heard some amazing music.

When you returned from France, you started studying at the University of Technology – outwardly, a surprising move. I was wondering if there were any events or ideas in Bordeaux that led to the decision.
In my second year in Bordeaux I began tinkering with live electronics again, after about a year’s hiatus since leaving Sydney. I’d downloaded Pure Data and then later MaxMSP, and became hooked on learning to program my own tools until soon enough I was practicing in the day and programming at night. My decision to undertake a doctorate (actually beginning back at the Sydney Conservatorium – I moved to UTS a year later) was really to try and deepen the connection between my interest in electronics and interactivity in performance. In hindsight, I think the intense period spent interpreting the works of others in Bordeaux really contrasted with the autonomy I was experiencing as a programmer of my own tools. I also think I missed the freedom I’d experienced before Bordeaux improvising with basic electronic setups, but having tasted more sophisticated methods I wanted to try and develop that more, putting myself as an improviser into an interactive relationship with the computer as a performance partner.

You've mentioned that creating and working with a perfectly working software can be extremely satisfying. Why does it matter so much how music is created to you? How important are the results compared to the process?
I think it comes down to a question of engagement – what I like to spend my time doing. It might sound a little selfish, but I am concerned about practice, how my relationship to tools and methods changes over time and what this means for my work. I think for many artists there’s a search for the best way to create work, to feel fully engaged and involved during the creative process. For me, I feel best about the results if the whole process has been one of active engagement. Developing software is one of those things that keeps me fully engaged, all pistons firing, in a state of flow. However, moving from developing tools to using them is the biggest challenge for me. I can easily get hooked on continually refining and developing tools because programming is an idea-generating process, it’s interactive and very rewarding. Equally rewarding though is making music with those purpose-built tools, especially those that can surprise me in performance – it’s just a matter of knowing when to call a tool complete. In the studio, I like listening to and getting to know the results of my interactions with software, making the compositional process one of curation as much as creation.

Amidst a time of deep research into technology, you recorded The Wingello Sessions, a beautiful acoustic album. What are your challenges and ambitions as a performer, do you feel?
Thanks for the kind words! These sessions are quite a departure for me, both because most of the improv I do is with electronics, but also because it’s all alto – the instrument I connect the most strongly to my background as a classical player. I was lucky enough to be offered an old converted church hall to stay in for a week in the countryside outside of Sydney. I’d needed to get away by myself to get some solid thinking and writing done for this PhD, and decided to bring along the alto and some recording gear in case I got distracted – which inevitably, I did. I recorded some short improvs during my breaks down there, only picking up the instrument once per day, pressing the red button each time. I’ve been interested in the subtleties of the instrument for a while, and the quiet chapel environment brought that out in those sessions I think. What I find most challenging is continuity, developing simple ideas into something coherent. I like coaxing sounds out of the instrument, and listening to the polyphony say between air and pitch, or the percussion of my keys against the breath. I also think the gestural nature of a lot of French contemporary music comes out in my playing, there’s a sinuous quality to a couple of those tracks. As for solo sax albums, hmm.. I don’t really listen to saxophone music to be honest! I would say in the past I’ve been inspired by the continuity and polyphony of Evan Parker’s playing, and the timbral explorations of John Butcher – though I think stylistically they’re very different. There are some really wonderful classical players around too – it’s quite a different beast.

In which way has technology has already changed your own approach to performing, simply as part of working in a production environment which is electronic in some form by default and in which we are, as listeners, growing up with electronic music as the standard.
Good question. I think the effects of digital technology are so ubiquitous it’s hard for us to separate purely acoustic and electronic influences on our work sometimes, and they’re so far reaching. For instance, when I listen to someone like John Butcher I hear electronic music, both in timbre and also in approach. This kind of hybrid means that certain gestural qualities we associate with instrumental playing give way to a focus on the grain of a sound, its fragility and unpredictability, and navigating that rather than executing learned technique. I think for me using technology is a way to stand outside of my relationship with the instrument, to externalise and extend. The real crux of it though for me is the ability to record and disembody sound, to get close to it and to inspect it from different angles. Even subtle use of a microphone has changed my conception of a ‘good’ sound, so I think recording as a creative technique has been a big influence in that regard. This has changed the way I view performance too … especially with regards to amplification, which I never made use of as a purely classical player.

Milton Babbitt was probably the first composer to argue in favour of treating music like a science. Since your own work can be qualified as research, how do you see that yourself? Do you believe in the possibility of progress in music?
Interesting. I agree that my work is research, but I wouldn’t class it as scientific. For me advancing one’s own methods, keeping abreast of new developments and undertaking experiments is part and parcel of an artistic trajectory as much as an academic one. As for progress, that’s a tough one. In some respects, we definitely build on what has come before, especially technically. But aesthetically, I think music has a more circuitous and sinuous path than what we might assume about scientific ‘progress’. For me research in music or any arts is about understanding process. It’s a way of being clear about one’s goals and interests and where they’re situated in the field at large, but also its about opening up process to reveal the messy and uncertain aspects of practice, even in something as technically involved as software development. First and foremost the work I’m involved in comes from an artistic standpoint, and the research I do involves understanding the questions that inevitably arise from my practice. Communicating those questions, and interrogating them through further practice is what research in the arts means to me, and I think this kind of approach has obvious benefits because of its unashamed openness.

Does it also have disadvantages?
My worry where research involving music technology is concerned is the over emphasis on the technology, and what it promises. I think we need more artists speaking about what technology brings to their art, rather than dressing up their multifaceted work as a purely technical contribution.

Ben Carey interview by Tobias Fischer
Ben Carey image by Amadis Brugnoni

Homepage: Ben Carey
Homepage: Ben Carey at Bandcamp