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Interview with Joseph Benzola

img  Tobias Fischer

Aaron Copland once commented on the end of his composing career: „It was exactly as if someone had simply turned off a faucet.“ Was that what it also felt like to you six years ago?
It was a combination of many different things. I was very unhappy in my work situation and was in the process of opening up my own business. I began to question why I should even bother making music. I don’t know if that particular mental state caused the faucet to shut off or if it would have happened anyway… but it did.
I was sapped of inspiration and really questioned if I should continue or not. Lets face the facts; the rewards for doing this type of music (especially by a relatively unknown) are non existent. There is no money involved, you have to beg to play live and when you do, you are in a less than satisfying situation. Even getting people to listen to the music is a chore because everyone is bombarded daily with thousands of choices and yours is just one. So after being involved with music for over 30 years and taking a mental inventory, I decided not to do anything.

Philip Roth once said asked about the idea of a writer's block: „Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.“ Why is a sense of „muse“ important to you?
I understand Roth’s point but the thing is, he is a professional writer and makes his living by his art… I do not. I have a day job and first priority is supporting my family, which of course encompasses many different things. I feel that my musical work has to be inspired in order for me to be happy. How many people get up in the morning feeling inspired going to their job? I bet not many! To me, producing work for the sake of producing work is not an aesthetic I can abide by. I do not want to be a professional hack!

You mentioned, in 2007, that „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.“ Was part of your long departure rooted in this disappointment?

Yes that was part of it. I still hear egos out of control and music that does not touch me on any level. The great thing about technology and the Internet as a distribution mechanism is that it has leveled the playing field. The converse of that is with this democracy; anyone with a laptop and audio loops can create and have access to a potential audience. There is some brilliant music created by this process, but there is also a lot of mediocrity, which can pollute the virtual airwaves and make it difficult to navigate and find the gems. As an artist, there is a certain amount of dues, which need to be paid. Having the immediate means of creation and the desire does not quite make a work of art. Maybe I’m a bit of an old fart with this perspective but I truly believe in it

When you started composing, improvising and recording again, was this already with the notion of finishing an album or more in the vein of „let's see where this takes me“?

No, an album was not even remotely in the plans. I was actually afraid that I totally lost it. I really had no idea what this next phase would sound like. For the first time in my life, I had no confidence in my ability and I mean none. The creation of music seemed as foreign to me as teaching Quantum Physics!
Then one day I woke up with a piece fully conceived in my head with all the parts in place and that piece was the “Mushroom Velada” Then as they say, the flood gates opened. I really have no idea why… maybe I needed to take a break. Maybe people needed a break from me! I also have to say that throughout this time, people like Dan Stearns, Steve Moshier, Jeff Harrington, and Steve Layton were on me to compose and record again… I just couldn’t do it.

Why was working with other musicians so extremely important to you at this point?

I always loved playing and recording with other musicians but the opportunity to play with the right people is always difficult. When I started Amanita Music in 1990, I did it because I had to have an outlet for my music. Nobody was going to record me and I had nothing but trouble with finding the right musicians so I decided to do everything myself. It just so happens that during this time period and because of the Internet, I have found very like-minded and creative musicians that having something of value to add while keeping their own identity.

What guided you in your choice of collaborators? It seems personal connection were an important consideration ...
Personal connections were very important but the main consideration was if I liked their music. Did I respect their musicianship? Would they have something to add without loosing their identity? I can say that on all counts, everyone came through with flying colors and I am grateful for everyone’s incredible contributions. Besides for John Asta whom I’ve known for 30+ years and James Ross who I have met and played with, I have never met any of the other collaborators in person! I have known Dan Stearns for over 11 years and the first non ascii conversation I ever had with him was last year on the phone!

Tell me about the collaboration with Dan Stearns ...

I have LOVED Dan’s music ever since I first heard him at the old 11 years ago. He’s a brilliant guitarist-composer who works in the realm of microtonal music. That his talent is not more recognized is a travesty. I knew that Dan and I could always work together because we think so much alike musically. We both love dense, multi layered, and multi directional music. We both live by the credo of “start where others end and move forward”. Speed, agility, intensity, and transcendence are our goal.
With that said, how can two people that think alike combine their visions and find each other’s cracks to fill in without creating a sonic mess??
About a year ago, Dan sent over 3 gigabytes worth of audio files, which contained short snippets of his playing on various instruments plus vocal loops, electronic noise, and ambient textures. Yes… 3 gigabytes; a very daunting endeavor to listen to! I had an idea in mind and sifted through the material. I put some parts together and then overdubbed some percussion and sent it to him for advice. He liked the general concept but it was not entirely successful. What Dan and I don’t have in common is the way we work. He is the meticulous one who can work tirelessly on one phrase for a year while I work in a great burst of inspiration, then lie in corner in panic for the next 6 months!
I decided to walk away from the piece for a few weeks. One day while eating breakfast, an idea hit me and I knew that I had a finished composition. I immediately went downstairs and re-recorded the whole piece. I sent it to Dan who made a few suggestions about transition phrases, which I then recorded. I found another incredible guitar solo, which I missed and I knew this would make a perfect ending. I sent it to Dan and told him that it was perfect and pleaded that he would not take a few months to change three notes! That’s how “Forces in Motion” was created.

The track with Kaden Harris sounds absolutely incredible as well, almost as though you were wrecking a metal shop. How did that piece come about?
I met Kaden on a forum called Electronicmusic in 2002 and I immediately liked his work. We both decided to try to do some music together and I got the idea to use an industrial percussion set, which consisted of aluminum sheets, copper pipes, metal and plastic garbage pails, and circular saw blades. I recorded the percussion and sent it to Kaden for his part, which turned out to be a very ambient but sinister soundscape.
To be honest, I did not like the end results and had buried the piece until last year. I can’t quite figure out why I did not like it initially as most people seem to really love the piece! Listening again with a fresh set of ears, I think that “Prism” is a very powerful and effective piece of music. Kaden’s soundscape sets up a very cinematic pacing, which is quite exhilarating. Most of the time, I’m my own worst critic and tend to dislike most of what I record so please don’t believe anything I say!

Some pieces are extended, others like „For Pharaoh“ end after a minute, even though they could easily have gone on for ages. Were these decisions mostly taken with the flow of the album in mind or were there other considerations as well?
Let’s face the facts; I tend to go on forever sometimes! I’m reminded of Miles asking Coltrane why he solos for so long and Trane’s response was that he has lots of music and ideas to get out and that he didn’t know how to stop and Miles response was, “Take the horn out of your mouth!”
There was a fabulous new music site (now defunct) founded by composer Jeff Harrington called NetNewMusic which had a forum called “Shorty’s”. Shorty’s was the brainchild of Steve Moshier and the concept was to compose a piece of music, one minute or less on a daily basis. I initially scoffed at this idea because I thought that it would be impossible for me to do but I reconsidered. I thought it would be a great challenge to come up with a complete and valid musical statement in one minute or less. I found it that it was possible to focus and intensify musical energy and to have a powerful and complete musical composition in miniature.
“For Pharaoh” is one example as well as “Alpha One”, “Why Cauliflower Can Never Fall in Love”, “Divine Horseman of Haiti”, and a few others. To my ears, these are complete musical statements, which are perfect in their short form.

Is the continuation of the „portraits of the dead“ series an implicit statement that, fundamentally, you still care about the same things in music?
Oh yes… that has never changed. As a matter of fact, what I cared about in music when I was 15 is still important to me as I turned 50 this year; an individual voice, multi layered and multi directional sound, power, intensity, and transcendence.
What I found fascinating with Miles, Coltrane, Stockhausen, Varese, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, John Cage, and many others, I still find fascinating today. When Coltrane plays the opening theme to “Naima” on “Live at the Village Vanguard Again”, it gives me the same feeling of lyrical transcendence as it did when I was 18... And I have heard that piece thousands of times. So I’m either trapped in the past, completely insane, or there is something quite mystical and special in the sound of that piece!

Not all of these „portraits of the dead“ are obvious pastiches. What kind of expression are you looking for in them?

The Portraits of the Dead series started with the death of Kurt Cobain. For some reason I got this image in my head of Kurt Cobain and Jaco Pastorius dancing together in the after life and that was the genesis of “Kurt and Jaco are Dancing in Heaven.” If you listen to that piece, it sounds nothing like the music of Kurt or Jaco, but it is rather my feelings towards them and their music put into an aural portrait. Some pieces such as “Lester Bowie”, “Tony Williams”, and “Frank Zappa” have certain touchstones that were important to me but have been reframed in an original way. All of these aural portraits are just my way of saying thank you to their brilliant sonic contributions and influence on my musical and aesthetic outlook.

„Patti & Lenni Crash the Stage at an Electro Senegalese Bar in the Bronx se“ is certainly a noteworthy title. What's the story behind it?
A few months ago, I was listening to a bootleg of the famous poetry reading that Patti Smith gave at St. Marks Church in 1971. I got this image in my head of Patti and Lenni Kaye crashing the stage at this bar where the musicians were playing this intense, polyrhythmic, polymetric music. Even though Patti and Lenni did not quite fit in, the spirit of the moment took over and made all well... I hope!

„The Mystery of Twilight“ lasts almost two hours. Was part of the liberation connected to this work related to the fact that you no longer need to adhere to any strict concepts of traditional albums?
Actually I had no preconceived notion of making an album when all of this began. A month or so ago, I realized that I had recorded 25-26 pieces, most within a 12 month period. Some of these pieces were scattered on various sites and other were never heard. I thought that it would make sense to sequence the music in some logical order and release the end results as an album. I feel that the music really tells my story over the past 12 months and probably what had been internalized during the prior 5 years. Stylistically, the album is all over the place but somehow it works because there is a very unified vision behind the music. It reminds me of the Beatles “White Album” and the Clash’s “Sandinista” in scope. Not a quality or aesthetic judgment of course!

You seem to be filled with enthusiasm at the moment. Where do you see yourself going, musically, from here?
Some live performances are in the future because the interaction with an audience is very important to me. I also foresee more collaboration with Dan Stearns, James Ross, John Asta, and others. But more than likely, it will be another five years before you hear from me again!

By Tobias Fischer

Joseph Benzola's "The Mystery of Twilight" can be downloaded for free here.

Joseph Benzola Discography:
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)
The Mystery of Twilight

Joseph Benzola

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