Transcription: 0026 - Ben Bracken

Released: April 13, 2014

Darwin: Alright this week we're talking to somebody, he's a co-worker, but he's also an incredible artist across many domains. His name's Ben Bracken, He's an amazing cat. He seems to know he has taught me so much about max over the years, it's kind of embarrassing. Hi Ben, how are you?

Darwin: Thanks a lot for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us. I'm going to try and break out of interview pattern that I've had, which is to just blurt out, tell me about your background and then have people talk. And instead I want to talk about some specific things because I kind of know you and because you're pretty open in your CV about what you've done. I want to talk specifically about your education at Mills college. I know that you got an MFA at Mills. Did you study undergrad there too?

Ben: No, Mills is kind of an interesting college in that the undergrad is entirely women. So actually the graduate program, which has been going for many years now, both men and women attend. Sometimes when I'll mention Mills to people and they'll get a little confused cause they won't know actually about the music program. They'll just think of it as a women's college. So they'll kind of give me a sideways look for sure.

Darwin: Well, that's interesting because I think of it just the opposite. I think of it as a music school that has an incredible history. Growing up in and around electronic music stuff, I remember the pictures of different pieces of equipment that actually were labeled with Mills name and its interaction with the San Francisco Tape Center and all that stuff. It has this really rich history. My question is how do you go there and deal with all the ghosts that are in the hallways?

Ben: Like you said, Mills kind of had this mythical existence in my imagination before I went there. I remember seeing pictures, and reading in different books and publications about this really rich history. So going there was kind of a fantasy of mine for a really long time. In between undergrad and grad, there was about a six year period where I was just kind of playing music and working at a record store in Ann Arbor. So by the time I got to Mills I was really ready to dig in. I had spent a lot of time away from academia and had developed a lot of ideas out kind of outside of that world, but then was kind of ready to get back into the fold as it were. So when I went there, it's hard not to think about all this great stuff that has happened there, but actually while you're there you're just kind of working really hard and kind of immersing yourself in and the things that you're interested in.

Ben: It's a really nurturing space. So a lot of the people who are working there currently are just really looking to facilitate the students going there. So the support system is just incredible and that comes both from the teachers and the students, every group that goes through there is really different. I was really lucky in the sense that I went to school with a lot of really talented people and drew a lot of inspiration from them, as well as the awesome staff and faculty there.

Ben: It's a two year program, and the music department is kind of divided into three areas. There's the electronic music and recording media, which is what I did. There's the kind of performance major, which is kind of dealing more with like instrumentalists. Then there's the composition program. So I think in our group there was probably, maybe 18 to 20, something like that. So there's there's that plus whatever is overlapping from another year.

Darwin: Tthat's a nice sized group because you're going to get to know everybody, but it's going to be diverse enough to actually provide a pretty wide spread of inspiration.

Ben: Yeah, for sure. And I'm still collaborating and working with a lot of people that I met at Mills. So that's a really great takeaway that I was able to walk away with while I was there.

Darwin: They're electronic music and recording media, which I guess is the study area that I find pretty fascinating. How directed of a program is it? Do they have like a step-by-step approach to teaching or is it more a collaborative environment between yourself and the teachers? As a way of pushing the envelope for you?

Ben: They definitely mix it up. So there's kind of a track that you follow when you decide to do the electronic music program, but there's a lot of flexibility within that. So I ended up taking a lot of classes in the art department, for example, because I was really interested in video and took some like an installation art class and things that kind of fall out of their electronic music program's purview per se, but they're still really supportive of you kind of exploring other areas at the school. So the other thing that they have, which is really nice, is that they have kind of a program set up for people to do a lot of one-on-one classes with people with both faculty and staff. So for example, when I got into max it was because of our coworker and friend Les Stuck who is on staff at Mills. So we had a really awesome practicum basically where he, helped me realize a performance rig that I was building.

Darwin: So that was youre frst interaction with Max?

Ben: For Max it's strange. I would say that my first real software, programming environment type thing was actually Supercollider, which is also kind of a big part of the program over a Mills. But I remember getting a CD, I don't even know maybe like in 2001, that was like an enhanced CD rom type release by this guy, Christoph Charles. On that CDR there was a Max patch that he had used to realize the music on the CD. And so I remember kind of picking apart that patch soon after it was released. Not really understanding it, but kind of using what was in that patch in my own performance rig. It wasn't until I got kind of midway through Mills where I really dug in. Yeah, I learned so much from Les and he really opened up a whole world to me.

Darwin: It's really interesting, that you started with Les because, Les has this very broad brush approach to art. He does composition, he works with dancers. He does video work and it seems like, in addition to learning some Maxs from him, you also apparently took some career pointers because I would say that of the people that I know and I work with, you probably have the broadest range of things that you do. So I know that you're DJing like some soul night, which sounds pretty awesome, quite frankly. You've toured with bands, like the Date Palms. You've been doing installation work and composition work and performance work with your partner, Ashley Bellouin. It seems like you've sort of taken on a persona similar to him, which is this ability to embrace a large number of different and seeming seemingly widely variant kinds of artwork. First of all, how is it that you allow yourself to be comfortable in all these different venues?

Ben: Well, I think I get bored really easily. So I definitely have this thing where, I noticed this when I started performing solo years ago, I had this real hesitation to do any piece more than once. So I would build a whole piece just for one performance and then completely ditch it. So I have this kind of desire to keep the gears moving. I think that working in different mediums and kind of with different ideas and with different people and different tools just really keeps me going. I think that if I really focus too much on one thing for too long I don't know if it would be able to sustain the interest and drive. So I find that kind of hopping to different projects that are using radically different tools or different ideas kind of helps me. I can even come back to an old idea that I was working on before once I've kind of been reinvigorated in some other area. For example, one of the things that Les taught me while I was at Mills was that he basically thought of Max like this toolbox that he would use when he didn't have another tool to do what he wanted to do what he wanted to do? But I mean, that's just in terms of what I took away from Les, like that was a big thing for me. And it turns out that I often don't have the tool that I need. So I'll turn to Max a lot.

Darwin: Well, it's really interesting to me that the way that you combat boredom is by taking on new projects. If you look at the history of the work that you do, do you tend to like rotate from music, to visuals, to installation, or do you tend to have like a burst of energy in one area and then a burst of energy in another?

Ben: I would say that there are kind of longer sustained kind of periods of interest in different mediums. For example, the work that I've been doing with Ashley over the past couple of years is really picked up a lot of steam, and it's something that I've been working on quite a bit. But even that project really started out as a project for building instruments. And so we had a couple ideas for instruments. Then after the instruments are built, it was like, Oh, we need to figure out what to do with these things. And so the project kind of developed from there. So then it started to turn into more of a project about building compositions based on these instruments. And then it was kind of even further developed. Now we're kind of moving into this phase of doing a lot of recording and we've been working in the studio and we'll be going to a friend's studio up in Petaluma in a couple of weeks to actually get some nice recordings of some of these pieces we've been doing live.

Darwin: When you talk about instruments, are you talking about like virtual constructs or are you talking about physical devices?

Ben: So, I guess about two years ago, we had a residency at a place here in Oakland called the, Paul Drescher ensemble. I can't actually remember the name of the actual residency but, it's funded and supported by this guy, Paul Drescher, who was an instrument builder as well. We actually built two instruments that in the physical realm, that are basically large string instruments. I think there's 36 strings on both of them and, they're kind of what people call monochords, but I don't really know if that's technically a good term for it. It's MIDI strings over a kind of a resonant, hollow bodied, instrument that we perform live with. One of the things that I find myself, it's kind of ironic because I working with, Ashley and building these instruments was such a great way to kind of get away from the computer and actually build something with your hands. So being in a wood shop for like 10 hours a day is very liberating to the mind, especially for somebody like me who's kind of behind a computer all the time. I find that that was really a great release and just kind of a different focus, but it's kind of ironic because I always kind of moved to these projects thinking, okay, I'll get away from Max for a bit and, you know, do something else. And then Max always kind of creeps back in sometimes.

Ben: It's like this wasn't supposed to be about this, but then all of a sudden there's a reason for it? So we've implemented a couple of tools in our live set that utilize Max for some spatialization tools as well as some kind of processing.

Darwin: In my head I'm trying to envision what this is like. And my assumption is, it ends up producing sort of like a drone like sound, would that be fair?

Ben: Yeah. In fact, all the strings are tuned to the same note. They were originally built for a specific space. So all the measurements and the tunings and stuff that we used on the two instruments were based on a physical space up in the Marin Headlands that we did a performance for them. It was an acoustic performance, so we had to figure out a way to make these instruments as loud as possible. And that's kind of the solution that we came up with and it worked pretty well.

Darwin: How does that, first of all, translate into something that's going to work as recorded material. And then secondly, if it was built for a specific space, how do you present that anywhere else?

Ben: That's kind of been a big issue for us is trying to figure out some of these very site-specific or kind of performance specific, musical terms and trying to translate that into like a recorded document. The recordings that we've had, done while we're actually performing in front of an audience are never really acceptable. There's always some wind blowing or somebody's baby crying or whatever. So trying to figure out how to capture some of the same ideas is kind of challenging. And in terms of repurposing the instruments, we've actually, sinse that performance use these instruments in a variety of contexts. And that's been kind of exciting to try to come up with different ways to use these instruments that were maybe built for one specific purpose, but then we're kind of finding this really rich area of exploration with the instruments just as instruments.

Darwin: Well, I would think that with something, there would be a way to even figure out how to use it for like an installation, an unmanned installation rather than just a performance. Strikes me as having some interesting options.

Ben: Yeah. And actually the instruments kind of first started out, we got really interested in alien harps, which are basically wind harps. So we actually built an installation while Ashley was at Mills, she went there years after I did. The original prototype for these string instruments was actually a wind harp. So that kind of the performance aspect of our interests kind of grew out of a series of installations that we did. So we kind of went the other way around. So we started out kind of with the installation in mind or series of installations in mind. And then we were trying to think, well, we really like to actually perform to. I draw a lot of inspiration from live performance is something that I'm really comfortable doing. And actually the recording process for me can be kind of painful because the concerns are so different when you're sitting in the studio. So that's what we're working on right now is trying to bridge that gap between the live performance and recording.

Darwin: Well sure, and good luck. I think you actually hit something on the head, which is the kind of concerns in the level of shoe gazing required in the recording world versus the capturing excitement part of a performance. It's really hard to make that transition.

Ben: I find that for myself it's really hard to do that with my own music. I've been involved in a lot of recording projects that were kind of spearheaded by other people, like my involvement with Date Palms. They were a preexisting band before I got involved and, it was really fun for me to step in and be part of the the live band as well as the recording process. That was just kind of super fun. It was a bass playing and that it was very different kind of mentality, but when it comes to my own work it's a little bit harder for me to get into the studio as a kind of medium or whatever.

Darwin: You kind of pointed to boredom as being one way that you use to select what you're going to work on. But I look at like the performance work that you've already you've done in the last few years, which is quite a stack. Your work with Ashley, your other work that you do, how do you juggle that? I'm not saying from necessarily like from a time standpoint, but sort of mentally. How do you allow yourself to set aside one thing and embrace another when you may not be in control of when something is due or required?

Ben: Yeah. I mean everybody kind of deals with that. The mental space, I find the when thinking about it really uses different parts of my brain. So you alluded to earlier, I've been doing a lot DJing over the past few years, and I have a couple of nights that I've been involved in. One, especially that I've been doing more recently, which is a night of all international music from all around the world and that's just a blast. To me, it uses a part of my brain that my music with Ashley just doesn't even go near. It's kind of more of a party atmosphere. It's just enjoying the music of kind of an ex-record collector. I try not to buy so much anymore, but my record collection was a little out of hand at one point, but this is kind of a way for me to justify its continued existence.

Ben: So the bass playing that I've done with Date Palms and actually just last week, I recorded a track for a friend, Chuck Johnson's new record, playing bass for him. And the bass playing is this kind of other very liberating part of music making that is just really enjoyable. I don't have to think too critically about it. I can just, step in and play what kind of sounds good. And helping out other people by stepping in. So I think it just comes down to finding different spaces in my brain that are kind of satisfied by these different outlets. I think that if, for example, I had another performance collaboration right now with somebody else that was kind of really intensive and thoughtful and covered similar territory that from what Ashley and I would be where we're doing, it would be difficult for me to sustain that. It would just be kind of too much, and I'd have to just kind of pick one or the other. So, as long as it fits somewhere in my mind that it doesn't have too much overlap, I can kind of maintain those interests.

Darwin: So that helps me understand how you cope with it. But there's another thing I'm curious about, is how do you think that, I don't even know what the word to use. How do you think art patrons out there, react to someone who they may see DJing one weekend and doing an art installation the next. I mean I don't know the answer to this. it's not a leading question. I'm just curious what you think, because I tend to do something similar to you. I have a lot of different interests and I'm out to satisfy myself, but maybe I set a low bar for myself. My question is, especially as some of this stuff you're starting to do more things in galleries, and in public art areas and stuff. Do you ever worry that having too diverse of a portfolio actually could harm you?

Ben: I think about that all the time, because I just cannot escape this. I struggle with keeping a strong focus in one area for a really long time. And I think I look at some of my contemporaries especially in the art world where they feel forced to nail down one shtick that they do. And they do it really well, but then they're kind of backed into this corner of like, Oh, you're the guy that always does the thing with the LED ball or whatever it is, and that's your thing. And as long as you do that, you're kind of accepted into the establishment, and if you start deviating from that, then its kind of either, partially perceived but also a real issue of, maybe nobody's going to be interested in the free jazz banjo clown routine that you have.

Darwin: Yeah. The flip side of it is, you know, I guess for me, I can't imagine anything sadder than to be pigeonholed when you're 22 and never be able to escape that pod. I have to admit you talk a little bit about your solo work, but most of the things that you do that I'm familiar with have been collaboration's of some sort. Right now, if I look at the CD that you and Ashley have put together, you're doing a lot of work. What is it about the collaboration process that frees you to stay focused or does the stuff that you and Ashley do kind of waver about in terms of what you're doing? I'm not familiar with all of the stuff that you see here, but it seems interesting that the collaboration certainly as long form. Even if the material itself isn't.

Ben: And I think as I've gotten older, I've become a lot more interested in collaboration. I spent a good chunk of my mid twenties to early thirties doing a lot of solo work, and doing a lot of live performance stuff, and some installation stuff, and the older I get or the more experienced I get, the more I value working collaboratively. Part of it is that I just don't have enough hands to do all the things that I want to do. And I'm not much of a top-down kind of person, like I'm not super interested in like, ordering a small army of people to do my bidding. So I'd much rather actually involve myself in creative experiences that have a lot of input from people that I trust and people whose opinions I value.

Ben: And I just learned so much more and I feel like the collaborations are just more meaningful because, it's kind of greater than the sum of its parts. Whereas when I play a solo show, that's it. I just, I put something on the table and that's all there is, but with collaboration, there's all these kinds of really amazing things that can take place that you never anticipated. And so I think that's why I kind of keep on coming back to that, more and more so. Ashley and I, we're kind of reaching out to different collaborators and we've done a series of collaborations with some filmmakers, some are still in progress, that are really gratifying. Especially working with filmmakers whose language is so different than ours. And it's been producing a lot of really interesting results.

Darwin: That's incredible. So in a collaborative environment, what role do you find yourself taking? Do you find yourself being sort of like, and I hate to sort of like label anything, but a lot of times roles get sort of like parceled out where one person gets to be the hyper emotional artist, and another person is the grinded out person with the screwdriver or whatever. I'm just wondering where do you find yourself sort of like naturally gravitating when you're working on a collaboration?

Ben: Well, I can say music for musical collaborations I find a lot of room, a lot of ideas. My ideas come with kind of arranging material. Although I'm super interested in generating raw kind of musical ideas. A lot of the stuff that I find really satisfying actually has to do with kind of arranging preexisting material. So once the material is somewhat generated, finding how it all kind of fits together. Back when I was in pop bands and stuff like that, I would do a lot of the arrangements for the bands that I was in. It was something that I kind of gravitated towards naturally. I would say that one thing that I'm not good at that I always am excited when somebody else's is good at it, in a collaboration, is the promotional side of things I'm really bad at keeping up a website or even making sure that the people know that the show is happening.

Ben: So I've definitely appreciated different collaborations that I've done where there's somebody a little bit more motivated in that department. For Ashley and I it's a really interesting collaboration in the sense that we share a lot of the responsibilities across the board, because we both have a background in recording. And because we both know Max and we both have really strong interest in instrument building. There's a lot of back and forth that happens. Sometimes that can be difficult when we're kind of working on top of each other. And there's a little bit of room for like, Oh, do you want to do this? Or do you want to do, kind of back and forth, but actually it's been really great to kind of know that the other person has the skills to be able to kind of fill in when maybe you've run out of ideas or your tank is empty and you need somebody else to step in.

Ben: Say I've edited for something for four hours, and my brain is fried and, I'll have complete confidence in what she does, so i can take a step back and let her have a crack at it. So that's really cool. It's not something that I think happens that often, or it hasn't happened that often to me where it's been successful, because usually you'll find collaborations and it's good and important to have really kind of discreet roles often, because the work happens a lot quicker, if everybody kind of knows what they're responsible for, but this has been really gratifying because, we have a lot of the same skills and interests and it's been working well.

Darwin: We're setting out there for our listeners is this concept that collaboration really can help you be more productive and efficient as well as more inspired often, but it's not always perfect in your experience. What are the things in collaborations that end up being conflicts or where do you end up seeing conflicts occur?

Ben: Well, I think, this is probably no surprise, but it really comes down to personalities. And Ireally think that underneath even like the kind of some problems that come up that are considered maybe more technical in nature, it comes down to the people that you're working with, at least for me. If you can kind of, navigate the kind of social space that you're in with somebody successfully, I think the collaboration is it's just probably going to work on some level.

Darwin: Besides work with Ashley, you've worked with a number of people. How do you know when a collaboration is done? I ask this because I have to admit I've collaborated with a number of people, and sometimes you get the sense either they're ready to move on, or you feel in your gut that you're ready to move on, but it's a really difficult thing to dissolve because of the high levels of emotion and trust and a respect that a successful collaboration produces. It also then sort of has this built-in sense of responsibility. Like I'm responsible for this person in some way, and I want to go and work with someone else. It ends up almost like with all of these spousal phrases. Am I cheating on my collaborator? In your experience, how do you know when a collaboration is done and how do you approach that done-ness? I'm curious because, not a thing I'm good at.

Ben: Yeah. I think that for me, most of the time, what happens is real life sets in on some, at some point. So like I've had so many times where there's some external force that determines whether the collaboration is going to continue or not. Somebody moves away, or somebody gets a really great opportunity to do this other project and they just don't have any time logistically to work with what you're doing together. I think it is interesting though, knowing when an idea has been kind of seen through, and I think the times that I've experienced that the most have been in like kind of more like band type settings. Where, after a record or something like that has been recorded, you're kind of like, okay, well that was good. And now we can all do something else. It's nice when it happens kind of collectively when you kind of both, or whoever you're working with the everybody's on the same page, but I'm sure that that doesn't happen that often and often happens some other way. I think sustaining long-term collaborations while kind of getting involved in different things, different collaborations, it can be difficult.

Darwin: One last question, and then we'll kind of wrap up. When I look at the list of works that you and Ashley had been doing you are generally doing a lot of work. It's listing here that you've already done like four performances already this year. There's been some lecture opportunities and stuff like that. I'm going to ask the question that I think a lot of people out there are going to be wondering in their head, which is, where do you get these gigs, man?

Ben: I mean, with the project that Ashley and I are doing, it's been really interesting to see that there's this really strong overlap between the visual art world. And I think that's partially because of how we perform. And there's also kind of a tendency in the Bay area for a desire to kind of expand the world of visual art. So we'll get an opportunity to work with somebody who has something at your or up at DeRosa. A friend of ours had had an installation that was basically a long string instrument sculpture that we performed on. Last year, Ashley and I had a residency at a place called, Djerassi, which is a artist program in Woodside, California.

Ben: We met a lot of really great artists there. I think because our involvement with Djerassi and the connections that we made there, it kind of opened up a world that kind of expands beyond the world of like experimental music. And so we're getting a lot of requests from artists that we might not be familiar with that are doing completely different things in a different medium, that's really exciting for us. Again, like it goes back to being inspired by collaborations. The thing that we're going to be recording in a couple of weeks is for a project done by our good friend, John Davis, who is working on a box set of, double LP DVDs, that are a bit of a compendium or a compilation of a couple of different visual artists paired with a couple of different sound artists. And the project is called Gravity Spells. It's going to focus on this Bay area scene where there's this collaboration between filmmakers and musicians.

Darwin: Sounds really incredible, I hope you'll keep everybody informed of that as that is coming together. Do you and Ashley, or do you personally have any other big plans or big projects that are coming up in the near future?

Ben: Just more collaboration with Ashley. We have a couple of shows coming up, as well as that recording project. We're hoping to try to release something this year, in physical media to try to get to people and more DJ gigs. I'm going to be DJing the third Wednesday of every month at the Make Out Room in San Francisco for International Freak-Out-A-Gogo and then there's an arts organization here in Berkeley, California called COLA Arts, and I'll be DJing their 40th anniversary, April 17th.

Darwin: Wow. That sounds great. Well, thanks a lot Ben for your time, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you being willing to entertain me with both my curiosity, both Mills and about the collaborative process. I think that a lot of times people just sort of shrug their shoulders and say, collaboration it works somehow. I think that it's actually interesting to sort of explore it and intellectualize it a little bit. So I appreciate you being willing to skate along with me on that one.

Ben: Yeah. Thanks so much, Darwin. This has been fun. When you are forced to talk about things like this, there's always kind of revelations for in it for both the questionnaire and the questionee.

Darwin: True enough. Well, I hope that you had a good revelation. I've learned a lot today, so thanks a lot and have a great day.

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