Transcription: 0328 - Ben Carey

Released: May 31, 2020

Darwin: Okay. Today I get a chance to speak to somebody who I've been kind of hanging around for a long time. He and I have been social media acquaintances for quite a period of time. Last fall I got a heads-up on some of the work that he had coming down the pipeline and was very excited about it. Subsequently he's produced his debut release, an album called Antimatter on Hospital Hill Records. Just the other day was the debut of a film that was done for one of the songs. His name is Ben Carey. He's based out of Sydney, Australia - so while this is early morning coffee time for me, it's evening wine time for him. So I teased him that we're going to be the perfect pairing of a coffee and a wine. Hey Ben, how's it going?

Ben Carey: Hey Darwin, how are you?

Darwin: I'm great. Thanks a lot for taking some of your evening time to have a chat with me. So why don't we start off by having you... I just dropped a line here on a couple of things that have been going on, but why don't you fill us in a little bit on your, the breadth of the work that you're doing right now?

Ben: Yeah, totally. Yeah. So, so I'm an electronic musician. [My] background is as a saxophone player. And I've been working a lot recently with a modular synthesizer, so I fell pretty hard down that rabbit hole maybe three or four years ago and haven't climbed my way back up yet. So, as you mentioned, I released an album - my debut record on hospital Hill last year, which was a suite of three pieces for modular synthesizer. So that's kinda my biggest work today, but I've also been doing a lot of collaborations. So I've got a duo with an amazing improvising vocalist from here in Sydney who's called Sonia Hollowell and we're called Sumn Conduit. And so that's a completely improvised project where I play the modular synth and, and she sings and we don't practice between sets.

We've had maybe in the last year and a half, we've played four or five times and some of them are quite long plays. One of them was a two-hour performance. So yeah, we've done a couple of projects recently and where we're gearing up to have a release of a live play. That's one element of the work that I've been doing that I've been super excited about lately. And also some of the other work that I've been doing has been making my own audio visual work. I've been working in Max/MSP for a long time doing interactive, electronic stuff. But in the last two years or so I've started working with audio visual media. So a couple of pieces last year that I did for, one for modular synthesizer and visuals and another for pianist and visuals. So yeah, those kinds of things are keeping keeping me busy artistically. And I also teach. So my day job is - I'm lucky enough to be a lecturer in composition and music technology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. So I'm teaching undergrads and post-grads composition, electronic music, music production and installations and things of that sort. So that's kind of in a nutshell what I've been up to of late.

Darwin: Sure. That's pretty interesting. So you're sort of the first teacher I've really gotten a chance to talk to since a lot of the COVID stuff has hit hard: teaching - how's that going for you? Is that as tough as it seems?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, look right now you've caught me at a good time because we're coming up towards the end of our semester here. So our academic year in Australia goes from the start of the calendar year until the end of the calendar year. So we're at the end of our first semester and when it all hit, we're probably at the start of our fourth week of semester. And that was a real challenge at my uni in particular because we basically had overnight to change all of our subjects to online delivery. And it's been a real challenge. I think just juggling that with just day to day living, having a toddler and, and my wife's working full time from home as well. So all of those kinds of things have been challenging. But in terms of the teaching, I think getting over that initial hurdle of the first four weeks now it's actually quite smooth sailing.

The online teaching doesn't have as many glitches anymore in terms of engaging with the students. The students seem to be used to it now, but I don't know if anyone else who's been doing teaching online has found this, but I found it quite tiring to engage with class continuously cause we feed off the class as energy in real life. And in a video chat where you've got 20 other little boxes on the screen and some of them have videos, some of them we've got video on, some of them don't. You know, you make a dumb joke and no one laughs and that's usually what happens. But in, in class you can at least read the room. Online it's a little tricky. So yeah, I mean, look, I'm in this situation complaining about those things is a bit silly given the upheaval that everyone in the world is going through. And I think particularly artists and musicians are doing it really tough. So I count myself very lucky to have a job and even if there are some challenging things about the teaching, it's something that I can get through.

Darwin: Actually a really great point. And I have to make sure that I don't forget that. There's an awful lot of luck, all of this for me and for others who are able to continue to work when at a time when musicians and artists are just going to really have a rough time of it. One of the things I would say though is much like we're all lucky for having the opportunities that Skype and Zoom and some of these other things bring for being able to do off our online classes. I also think it's good that music technology went that way too because it would be really hard to teach tape splicing for example. The virtualization of the studio is handy right now, right?

Ben: Oh yeah, totally. It's funny, I've been chatting with a few colleagues about this and although we've been bitching and moaning about the best way to stream your audio through Zoom so that you can get it in stereo or the students can get the best quality or whatever. Some of the subjects that some of my colleagues are trying to organize online, like chamber music subjects where you've got ensembles and orchestral studies or even instrumental lessons over Skype. I've got so many friends that are teaching instrumental lessons and there's so much in that personal connection in a room with someone that you just can't do online. So yeah. Music, music tech or getting over the hurdles of the screensharing and this and the sound and stuff aside, it actually does work. So we're lucky in that way. Yeah.

Darwin: So true. Now, one of the things I'm curious about a little bit is this release: the Antimatter release on Hospital Hill. You said that that came out last year. That was like November, right? It's your debut album, although that kind of surprised me because you have been performing and doing collaborations and stuff for a long time. What spurred you into doing a solo record now?

Ben: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, look, I'm calling it a debut record in the sense that it's something that's really the first release of mine which I can really stamp as my own and just fully my work performing and composing, improvising this stuff. So my work prior to Antimatter, which is all Eurorack modular pieces, was working on a piece of software called Derivations, which was an interactive, system that I developed around kind 2013 or 2014. And so I do have actually a release from that time. But it was very collaborative, which was the nature of the software. So I designed this software that instrumental improvisers could perform with and the Derivations release was six... It was like EP length, a bit over a half an hour, six performances with that software.

So I think, yeah, I mean it's been a while between drinks; that was 2014 when I put that out. And so now it's 2020, it was at the end of 2019 I'd put out Antimatter. I just felt that I'd had, two, three years really diving very deep into this new practice, which was the modular synth practice and it was time to do something of my own. And I'd been performing a little bit and it just felt like the right time. So yeah, I guess that's how it came to be.

Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. Alright, I'm going to want to dive into that a little bit more in a few minutes. But first, one of the things I like doing my podcast is learning more about how people got to be the artists that they are. I am curious about your background because first of all you mentioned right at the top that you're a saxophonist - and then you never mentioned saxophone again. So there's that. But also, you know, saxophone - a lot of times people don't really think of that as being the center of the universe for how people are going to get into music technology. And so I'm curious where the technology part slid into play and how all this melded into the stuff that is you.

Ben: So no, you're right. And I think it's interesting: I've been describing myself as a saxophone player for a long time and it really is the core of my musical being if you like. It's the thing that I studied for the longest amount of time and it's the instrument that I spent the most time on, but I haven't played the saxophone seriously for awhile now. So I kind of started playing the sax, you know, like a lot of people do - in what you would call elementary school. So I would have been nine. I've got a twin brother actually, and my mother was a music teacher and she taught at a school which had a very small music program and they had two spare instruments there and one was a clarinet and one was a saxophone and she just put them in front of us and we both reached for one of the instruments. And that's how there was no fight, which is interesting because as twins we fought all the time.

But yeah, I mean I started the saxophone at that point, but before that I'd played guitar. My father was a frustrated classical guitarist and we started that when I was really young. But I went through doing grades. I actually learnt the saxophone in a classical way. So I'm actually a classically trained saxophonist. I didn't learn jazz. I didn't have really any interest in jazz. And, you know, the history of the classical saxophone is an interesting one. It's a young instrument in general. It was only invented in the 1840's. And so in terms of classical repertoire, it doesn't take long until you get to the realms of looking at new music or avant-garde.

Darwin: Yeah, right. I always kinda joke with people when they talk about music technology and stuff in music schools, I'm like, "In a lot of music schools, they're still fighting about whether a saxophone's a real instrument or not!"

Ben: That's exactly right. And I think from the perspective of someone who did so much classical saxophone playing, that that's still something that a lot of classical saxophone players have had to deal with. You know, like, yes, there's a couple of pieces in the orchestra, but we do have other repertoire. But it was limited in a way. I played it all the way through high school. I did my undergrad degree doing classical sax. I went overseas, I spent two years studying in Bordeaux, in France over there. And the main thing that actually drew me to studying in France was that, by the time I was about 20, I was really heavily into modern music, into contemporary classical music. And most of my friends were composers.

Ben: And when I started in France, I chose a particular teacher over there because that was her bag. And she ran a contemporary music class. And she also had a contemorary music ensemble, which was called the Proxima Centauri ensemble. And as part of that, they had a dedicated electronics performer who's her husband, Christophe Havel. And so that side of things all started around that time. So this would have been for me 2007. And I'd already started improvising on my sax, free improvisation, exploring little bits of technology, using Ableton, doing some feedback stuff, live looping, that kind of thing. And by the time I got to to France, I was still interpreting pretty hardcore contemporary classical music. But I was also learning to program in PD and Max at night because I was really interested in the electronic side of things. So yeah, that's where it all really started. It was, I guess, from this kind of contemporary classical angle and free improvised angle, that allow me to get interested in working with music tech. And then I fell down the programming Max/MSP interactive angle on that.

Darwin: Well, it's also interesting though, because I think a lot of people, when they hear about somebody who is a saxophonist and works primarily in improvisation, their immediate assumption is that you're coming from a jazz repertoire, right? And so it's interesting to hear that you're coming very much from the, from the avant garde/classical side instead. Does that ever get you in hot water or put you in positions where people make assumptions just because you've got a saxophone on your neck?

Ben: There have been times. Yeah. But I think it depends, for me the scene here in Sydney before I left Sydney to go to study in France, so this is between finishing my undergrad and moving to do some, some study in Bordeaux. There was this really open - and there still is - improvise music scene in Sydney where people came from a whole bunch of different backgrounds and were playing free improv and always involving some form of electronics as well. So I saw people that had a whole bunch of different backgrounds playing many different types of instruments and it didn't seem like this divide between a jazz background or a classical background or a free improv pedigree, if you like. It was just music making and that was very, as someone who'd gone through a Conservatory system and learned classically for many years, that was super liberating and I think that I kept that in the back of my mind before I did more study and I'd always been in an environment where I guess, though, the kind of saxophone that I played was accepted I guess.

And we've also got a really strong new music scene in, in Sydney as well.

Darwin: That's really cool. Now, what was the thing that broke you into the scene? Because Sydney's no small town. It's not like you like walk into town and say, "Here I am!" and everybody salutes, right? What did it take to break into the scene? Was it through going to school in Sydney or were there people there that opened the door for you to work with them? How did that happen?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, when I started going to gigs, I started going to improv gigs, around 2005, 2006 I'd actually finished studying. And initially my thought was, I'm going to jump straight overseas straight away. I need to continue my practice, I need to keep studying and get my skills up. But one thing that really excited me was actually just not studying for a bit and you know, and just being in the world a little bit. And so I did know some people from my studies - composers that had been interested in improvised music, and friends of friends of theirs who were musicians in the scene. So I got a good friend who's a kind of a noise vocalist and artists, Kusum Normoyle who lives in Australia but has done a lot of work overseas, very high-intensity, feedback based noise vocals.

And she was a friend of a friend at the time. We started collaborating with a guitarist and composer friend of mine, Lachlan Calquhoun. And so we got got our first gig at a little series in Sydney and then I started to go to these kind of regularly over the next year and just got to know people in the scene. And interestingly, as soon as I really started getting interested in improvised music and that scene, that was the time that I did jump overseas. And so I lost touch with a lot of people and went on a different route. But I've rediscovered that since coming back and spending many years back in Sydney. But yeah, it's, I think it's just one of those things. You just sniff it out. You know, it is a big city, but this kind of music making is - there's still small pockets, you know?

Darwin: Well, I think, I think there's something to that. If you go to the gigs and you show interest and you show a connection to the music, people are going to notice you, you know, and they're going to notice your face in the crowd. So that probably helps. Now the other thing I would say though is that you are very comfortable working in collaboration, right? You've got a number of collaborations with people, like Zubin Kanga and the thing you were talking about with Sonia Hollowell, the duet where you have a release coming up; but, this person that you just kicked off your career with, when I look back at your body of work, what I see as an awful lot of collaboration stuff. I think that, that it helps open doors. But I'm curious to hear from you, what is it about collaboration that particularly works for you? Clearly it must.

Ben: It does. Absolutely. I mean, I think it's super important to me. And one thing that I've noticed, particularly over the last, maybe over the last 10 years or so, is that the space that I work best in, in a collaborative environment is usually in a duo format. And there's something really special about a duo format because from a practical standpoint, there's only two positions on whatever it is that you're trying to achieve. And I think in that respect, whether or not we're talking about just collaborating on stage, in terms of an improvised, duo, and there's not much talk around it and you just get on stage and collaborate, or we're talking about longer form things where you're working with someone on a release or whatever it is, or, or a tour or whatever it may be.

I found that that's a real sweet spot for me just working with one other person that you can build a relationship with over a long time and that, that you trust and you feel like you're heard as much as they feel like they're heard. So I think, for me, a couple of these collaborations have been really special to me. For instance, Zubin Kanga you mentioned before, he's a new music pianist that's from Australia, but he's now based in London and comes back very regularly, works with an ensemble here in Sydney called Ensemble Offspring. And so Zubin and I have been working together for a long time - I'm not sure how many years now, but we got in contact originally because Zubin had this project for working with piano and multimedia, which is an ongoing thing.

He usually does a very large Australian two every two years. I'm commissioning a number of works for piano and video, electronics, these kinds of things. And so I was brought on in the project as the - I guess you would say - the kind of live electronics performer/technical assistant. And I've also written a piece for him and also had him perform with some of my software before. And collaborated creating software for other composers and those kinds of things. And that's been an incredibly fulfilling relationship because it's got a balance of a whole bunch of different elements. I mean I really like Zubin, I really get along with the guy, but also the projects that he brings me are really interesting - often things that I might not have thought of artistically as interesting from the outset. But when you get into the real nitty gritty of the program, they're always really beautifully thought out.

He's got a really intense passion for collaboration with many different composers and also is, I think, someone that's really loyal. So when he finds someone that he wants to work with for a long time, he continues working with that person. I think I've learned in a way that that's something that I really like about collaboration as well. You just, you get to see projects through for a long time and continually work with that person and you develop your art together. I think that's really special. So yeah, Zubin - that's been a beautiful collaboration. Now, the person that I work with a lot is actually Matthew McGuigan who you mentioned at the top that made this film, Surfacing, with me recently, and he actually runs Hospital Hill, which is the label that my release came out on.

Ben: And so we worked together in the guise of me being artists on the label also, me doing a lot of electronics performing and technical assistant work in performances that he might be filming or recording himself, as well as doing these kinds of films, collaborations, and again, we just always find ourselves working with each other. Even if it's not planned, someone books in for film and books make the sound or whatever it is. So yeah. You just get to know someone whose work is really top notch and you also get along with them as a person. Why wouldn't you work with them again?

Darwin: Well, yeah, as long as we're talking about Matthew, let's talk a little bit more about that, video because that was really, that was really impressive. It just debuted the other night, and it got a lot of attention on social media. It's a really neat film - it puts you at the heart of the performance. Basically you're sitting in the middle of an empty warehouse, but by manipulating the visuals and by playing around with editing and stuff like that, Matthew developed a really interesting visual connection to your work, which was cool, but also it showed what your work looks like. And I would say that it was interesting for me because having heard your work and then seeing you perform, it was like, "Oh, okay..."

There was, there was a connection to like what I hear in what you're doing. And it's interesting especially because first of all, in addition to a modestly - and greatly patched up - modular system, you have a reel to reel tape deck that you're using as a great big tape loop. So you have a historically-accurate long piece of tape with the microphone stand holding it upright, I mean, it was good enough for the Beatles, it's gotta be good for you too. But also the thing that kinda caught my attention was, I don't know if you had a mic, or if you had sensors or what, but some of your playing was like rapping on the case for your modular or popping the case on the tape deck. And it added something really particular and really I think crucial to that performance, which was this sense of the live playback, right? The sense of you being physically engaged with the sound in a way that no one ever is going to get if what you're doing is twiddling a few knobs. Can you talk a little bit about, first of all, what's going on there that allows that to happen? And secondly, why you chose these really physical additions to a modular execution?

Ben: Yeah, yeah. Great questions. I mean, I might track back to the concept of the video. Matt had this beautiful concept, which was, as you said, I was filmed playing this, this improvisation in this really open warehouse. And Matt had a really singular vision about the way it would look. He said, "Okay, well we'll set up in the afternoon." And the idea is that we would do the same performance at least three times at three different times in the afternoon, that evening, and in without touching the three camera angles. So he made sure that all the cameras had just enough battery to be able to do the number of hours of filming that we had to do, so that he didn't even need to bump them a millimeter.

He could do some splicing between different lighting states. And, in my mind's eye before I went and actually, you know, developed the patch and, and thought about what I was going to perform in the space. I thought - okay, this, this will be nice. There'll be a few different lighting states and he might slowly fade from one to the other, that kind of thing. And you know, little did I know that he would do the kind of detailed beautiful editing that he did. I mean, there's times that certain gestures that I do on the instrument make a light flicker that wasn't happening because he's jumping between lighting states and gorgeous stuff. So in terms of the actual physical performance, when I perform on the modular, I have two ways of engaging with the modular.

And one is a studio practice and one is a live practice. And I found, particularly in the last year, I started to work out why I have these two different modes. So one thing that I'm super interested in when I'm working in the studio, is trying to develop really complex generative patches, right? So things that play themselves. I work a lot with feedback. I work a lot with these patches that so many different parts of the patch are contingent on each other. And I only need to touch certain things for them to bloom into different spaces. And that works perfectly in the studio for me. And I think it's something about sitting at a modular for a long time and just having it played back at you, which is a very solitary, interesting experience to have.

But I'm not as interested in that, getting on stage and doing that because as someone that's always stood on stage with an instrument. And I'm quite a physical performer when I play with the saxophone. It's just something I've never really analyzed, but it doesn't feel right not moving much when I play the modular as an instrument. And so the kinds of things that you're talking about on the tape machine, I just had a contact mic strapped to it, and I had that fed through a preamplifier that was going into the modular and every now and again I would just turn that channel on, which would allow me to tap the body of the tape player, which would give these percussive sounds. It's also interesting because this reel to reel is just a consumer thing from 1968, a tube thing, and it's noisy as hell.

And so what I've done sometimes is just put a contact mic on and and it has this kind of wearing a mechanical noise to it. So I feed that in often, you know, process that through other things like the Morphagene to get some kind of granular goodness out of it. Maybe through other filters and things like that. But yeah, in terms of the physicality, that was just something percussive to have. And the case, I have actually noticed - it was maybe a couple of years ago - I saw a couple of performances by, I'm going to say his name wrong, but the Chinese builder and performer Meng Qi - I'm not sure if you know his stuff. Oh, amazing modules, beautiful design. But his performances, I noticed there were a couple of performances that I saw him do where he was using just a skiff, like a 3U skiff and he was tapping the case and I was thinking "What is making that sound?"

And I realized that he had something, it must've been the Mikrophonie or the the Mutable Instruments Ears, fit into some kind of resonator. And that stuck in the back of my mind. And I've got the Ears in my case and a uRings. So the nano version of the Mutable Instruments Rings. And so when you crank up the gain on that, on the preamplifier that's driving the contact mic, you can actually make the entire case a microphone. And so feeding that into the input of a physical modeling module like the Rings means that I can use the tapping of the case as if I'm actually tapping a percussion instrument. So I liked doing that because it, you know, I can then throw that to a reverb or a delay or something and then go and do something else. And often that's what you see me doing in that particular film is it that I'm tapping it to get these kind of string like resonances and then I go and do something else as that decays. So it becomes quite percussive as well as yeah. Gestural.

Darwin: Well that also seems that also seems to like a great tool for doing some transitioning because let's face it, what a lot of people end up doing for translations is they have a Radio Music or something where they just play a prerecorded thing that gets them from one section to another. This really seems like a neat way to be able to transition from one sort of section to another. I like it!

Ben: Yeah. Big resonances... Another thing that I have in that patch section. I don't know if you know the company Landscape, they do the Stereo Field. It's this weird feedback device and a couple of other things that are like hand-cranked tape players. Anyway, they've also made these tiny little contact points they called the All Flesh so that they're literally just an open circuit that you just plug in and there are tiny little touchpads - almost like the Pressure Points - touch pads, but even smaller and you can put them on any point in your case and then you can say you've got a noise source coming out of one and then you put your finger on another one, which is going into a filter. Putting your finger on two pads actually creates a connection through your body as if you're patching a patch cable wire. So there's this interesting kind of performative routing that I like doing. I haven't done it in a while, but for that piece, I did that.

Darwin: Well also the other thing is though, one of the things that caught my attention is you have the great big tape thing, but I realized watching that piece that, every other time when I see a live performer working with a long piece of tape, the long piece of tape is the primary instrument and everything else is serving the tape. That didn't seem to be the case here. In fact, in most instances I wasn't even really noticing the delay time or the delay coming back. What was, from your standpoint... why did you feel like you needed to have the tape loop? And secondly, what was the musical purpose for it within the piece?

Ben: So the tape loop, I haven't yet used the reel to reel as a live looping device. So that was actually a prerecorded tape loop that I was processing through the patch. So I was using the tape speed switch to get these, you kinda hear a couple of times these, you know, glissandi up an octave, you know, glissando down an octave, these kinds of things. And also just processing that through the Morphagene in time lag accumulation mode, which is that mode where you can use it as a real time sampler, sound on sound kind of thing. So weirdly, using a prerecorded loop and then processing it digitally in the way that I would do if I had... it's funny. So I mean recording the loop that I did, I used the same patch that I was performing on to create a bed of sounds, to put on the tape loop.

And this one's kind of cruddy, right? Like the, recording onto those tapes. And they were the tapes that I was given when I bought this thing second hand, I think the original from the 1970s or something. So they're old tapes, and recording onto them I get these dropouts. It's very gritty. And it was really interesting, that sound I guess. And then pre-processing that it gave a particular character I guess to it. And that's how I use the tape. I guess it's just something that every now and again I would bring in as a texture. And that was something quite nice about having that physicality of it there and knowing that, you know, in the module you've always got things underneath the surface that might be bubbling away that you can bring up and then bring back down. That was just a nice physical thing that was there serving the same purpose. And I was just mixing them using the module.

Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. I'm curious a little bit because, you talked a lot about how you got to where you are, but what you didn't do is really crack the door open on why modular and how you got snaked into that. Now my assumption is, when you were in, when you were in France and working with Max/MSP and PD that that opened your head to the idea of modular stuff, but what was it that, what was it that made you leap into hardware?

Ben: Yeah, so I, yeah, so I started doing the Max stuff first. You know, way back in France and then I really spent a lot of time, basically exclusively working in Max. And so you're right, I think that did give me an appreciation for a modular way of thinking. But I started getting interested in hardware when I was building. I was building little Max for Live devices and creating these kinds of generative sets, if you like, or generative pieces using interlocking Max for Live devices. And it was around, I can't remember what year it was, but maybe it was four or five years ago, that the company Max For Cats came out with Ocelot, which is a Max for Live-based software modular. And it was around that time as well as Beap coming out in Max.

I can't remember if it was Max, was it like Max 7 that Beap came out? Yeah, so I, you know, it was starting to creep in as a possibility. I guess working with software emulations of modular and then I started doing some research. And I have a friend, the same friend that I initially hooked up with to do improvise stuff way back in 2006 and he'd been thinking about building a modular system for a long time, and just kind of dreaming about it and constantly on the site that I'd never heard of, which was called Muff Wiggler. And, and so this was in my consciousness. So the first piece of hardware that I bought I think must've been a MeeBlip, which was, you know, that kinda like a little digital synth with analog filter thing and it was just starting to think about getting sound out of my computer into hardware devices.

And then I played with these things called Patch Blocks, which were these tiny little battery powered devices that you would connect together, but they had a PD-like interface which would allow you to code your own effects and things on them. And there was something really magical for me about being able to code something generative or even something performative, but then use hardware and, you know, actually use your hands. I thought that was quite nice. And then I bought the Moog Mother 32, when that came out and then an MS-20 Mini. And then I just thought, "Okay, it's probably time."

It's game over. I said to myself though, when I first bought a skiff, I thought, "Okay, I'm just going to get a 3U and that'll just supplement the things I'm doing in Max. I've got DC coupled outputs, I can control the, the thing with my computer and that'll be fine." And then as soon as I got the 3U, I realized I needed a 6U and then it was all over. And now I work with a 12 U system, which my rule of thumb is if I need to buy something, I have to sell something. Right? And I think, I mean, look, that was a long-winded way of saying, all of those things were the things that got me into modular. But now what I love about it is I don't have to look at a screen. I can really engage with my hands. I can think about really interesting connections between different elements, between the gestural side of things. In the and the generative side of things, without having to code, without having to deal with software updates and things like that, but that has its own problems. That's for sure.

Darwin: I was going to ask [about this] because as, as a person who is... Not only are you a self-described composer but you frigging teach composition, right? It would strike me that you are not going to be satisfied with an eight step loop that goes forever and then you tweak the FM and filter settings, right? Your expectation is going to be to have a system that can provide you support for your compositional vision in some useful way. What is it that you do that specifically affords that in a modular system? Because generally speaking, modular systems are great for sound design and can be great for certain kinds of performance. But you know, again, thinking about your background, where you're coming from there is the expectation is you're going to be bringing a lot of complexity compositionally to the table and that isn't necessarily the easy path in a modular system.

Ben: Yeah, you're right. I think I've been gravitating very, very much towards since the start developing the modular system. Exactly what you say - complexity and also I guess, although these kind of divides of East Coast, West Coast, are largely in the Eurorack system, mainly because we have, we all have blended systems, but I guess I've kind of been towards the side of the West Coast, side of things for a while because of things like Random Sources, things like working with, envelope generators as not just plucking a filter or a VCA, but of ways of generating sounds over time. Some of the things that I really value in a modular system, although I like digital modules, is the one knob per function stuff, things that make me think. I've been wrestling with this idea of the patching process as compositional in a way.

And this weird space between when you're developing a patch, especially when you develop it, you're developing a patch that you then will perform with. It feels like your setting the scene for some kind of navigation of an environment. And I like to develop really complex systems that can interlock with each other or I can bring in or bring out. But I like to think of like when you're actually patching, that's a form of composition and it's a score in a way that like a graphic score is to me, but also feeds back to you. Do you know what I mean? So you're interacting with something that you've developed, but what you've developed is in fully your own. It's something that you have to contend with. Surprises.

And I like setting up surprises that may not be simply just using sample and hold on a noise source to give you all possible values, but doing really complex interlocking things that that might on the surface seem like they're simple, but in aggregate when they start to bubble up from the ground up - you can't actually predict where they're going to go. So you have to pilot a patch. So one thing that's been quite recent, maybe in the last six months, is a real love for the Serge workflow. And I, I got, I was lucky enough to spend some time down at the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio, which is this incredible playground of synthesizers down in Melbourne, in Australia and they have a 12 panel paper face Serge system from 1973.

I'm down there and I did a little residency down there for four days. And I mean, that thing doesn't give you anything. You have to work for everything you get out of it. So I think there's something about cultivating technique that comes maybe from being a player of an instrument, comes maybe from someone that's spent a lot of time in a little box practicing tiny little things that, that actually spending time learning the intricacies of an instrument like this, you know, it gets my synopses is firing. I like working out problems I think. And yeah, there's a link to Max programming as well with that, I reckon.

Darwin: Sure. I think it's clear that the Serge made an impression on you because anyone that goes to will immediately be presented with an image of you in front of that big paper face system. But it's interesting because looking at that, I realized to what extent the company 73-75 has really put some effort into putting out those modules again. And I'm wondering if you have any inclination to try and move in that direction for your work? Or is it or was it a nice flavor but not necessarily your main meal?

Ben: Yeah. Darwin, I have a 73-75 home-built sitting in front of me, so that answers the question right there! I left MESS and I immediately started looking into how can I get this in my home. And I must thank my work for allowing me to do that. I'm very privileged that I work at a university where a lot of my work is research, creative work and research. And so, I am allowed to apply for funding for certain things, and I was lucky enough to apply for some funding for this Serge system. So I've been diving into that a lot and working with feedback on this thing, it's kinda interesting, jumping from that enormous 12 panel system down to a much more stripped back two panel system. And it's been really nice working with that limitation. Cause yeah, I think working with limitations brings out a lot creatively, personally.

Darwin: Yeah. Well that's, that's incredible. I am going to want to learn more, but we'll actually save that for later. Unfortunately our time is up and so I would need to wrap it up. But before I let you go, what do you have on the workbench that, that might be coming out soon?

Ben: Sure. So I'm super excited that I've got this collaboration with Sonya Hollowell, the Sumn Conduit is our project. So it's the voice and modular synth duo. So we've got an album that we're going to release in a couple of weeks time. We're just lining up all the ducks and trying to get everything rolling for that. So that was a play that we did last year, in October, a 55-minute performance that we recorded on site. And yeah, we're releasing that. And the album name is "Track", so that's gonna be out in a couple of weeks. With the same duo we did, a really beautiful project the other other week. Also working with Matthew McGuigan where this art gallery in New South Wales invited us in to do a performance in front of a really large canvas.

They've got this series at the moment during lockdown, which is called Together In Art, where they're inviting artists and musicians to come in and play in the empty gallery. So it's been a really lovely series and Matt's been doing all the films for them and they just gorgeous. So we did a improvised performance in front of a really large canvas by an American artist called Mark Bradford. And so that's coming out soon. Another Matthew McGuigan video. And I'm still sifting through material recorded at my MESS residency last year. I'm hoping to do a release of Serge material within the next year, hopefully. And yeah, always working on modular stuff. I've done a couple of live streams doing during lockdown, which have been a lot of fun. So I might see if I can do another one or two soon. But just looking forward to wrapping up the the semester and getting a bit more time to do creative work and research. I've got a couple of research projects at work on the boil that that needs some time to work on. So, so yeah, that's what I'll be up to in the next a little bit.

Darwin: Well, that sounds fantastic. Ben, I want to thank you for taking the time out of your evening to have this discussion with me. I hope that I'm going to give you a chance now to get back to your bottle of wine to take care of work this evening, but thank you so much for sharing the information and filling me in a lot of blanks on how you do what you do - it's really, really interesting.

Ben: Appreciate it, Darwin. And thanks so much for getting up early and giving us a call and thanks for the invite. Really nice to chat.

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