Ben Richter: Wild Rumpus Interview

These are edited excerpts from a February 2015 interview with Wild Rumpus soprano Vanessa Langer, originally available at the ensemble's web site, for the premiere of Water’s Edge on Saturday, February 28, 2015, at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

What are you doing in Germany right now?

I've been working on my German, cycling around and trying not to get lost ... I just moved from New York, where I work with Ghost Ensemble, to Berlin. New York was pretty exhausting and hectic, and I’ve been to Berlin many times. There’s a lot of awesome art going on. I’ve been to a couple of experimental music concerts with 50 people packing into a room, and it astonishes me every time. People are actually coming to the concerts! So I was excited about that. It’s a lot less expensive [than New York], you can cycle around everywhere, and it’s the vegan capital of the universe.

As a fellow Bardian, I’ve gotta ask: what was your involvement in music at Bard? You graduated in 2008?

Yes. I was there at an interesting time because the Bard College Conservatory started there my second year. They still have the music program, i.e. liberal arts music majors like me. I arrived for the last year that they had only the music department as opposed to the conservatory. The musical scene there was really changing a lot while I was there — it started with a bunch of weirdos like me, building instruments and doing field recordings: that was the scene. Those guys were still around my senior year, but by then you also had a chamber orchestra of classical musicians playing classical music, and composers who were accepted to the Conservatory more in that vein. So the music department was where the experimental composers tended to go, and the much more classically-minded, especially performer-composers, in the conservatory. And then you also had Jazz guys and a great electronic music program with Robert Bielecki and Richard Teitelbaum, so there were a lot of different strains of things going on and also just getting going right during that time (the ensemble Contemporaneous came out of the Conservatory after I left Bard). Joan Tower and Kyle Gann were my advisers, and composition teachers, along with George Tsontakis and Keith Fitch.

Tell me a little bit about Ghost Ensemble.

Ghost Ensemble got together when I got back from The Hague — as soon as I finished my master’s degree there, I went back to New York and started Ghost Ensemble, which is a group of usually between 5 and 9 experimental-minded musicians. Several of us are composers; some of us are just awesome performers. I’m an accordionist, and we have flute, oboe, harp, percussion, bass, and sometimes cello. It’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of new music, new works. Sometimes we do medieval and Renaissance stuff. We try to think about the experience of being in a concert and explore that, like playing in unusual places and letting people lie down while they listen. We’ve played in the caves at Inwood Hill Park! Well, "caves" is a slight exaggeration — they are really boulder formations — but that was really fun. That’s part of the idea of the group: doing the weird stuff.

Do you think of yourself as a composer first, accordionist second? Or are both on an equal footing?

I love playing accordion and I do it all the time. I’m totally comfortable as an improviser, but as far as the formalized contemporary music world goes — with prepared scores — I’ve always participated more as a composer than as a performer. I’ve dabbled in performing contemporary music on accordion, and I certainly do so with Ghost Ensemble. I’ve done notated music for us, but mostly I’ve done text scores for us — I’ll do a detailed series of cues for each instrument. For Wild Rumpus, I wrote a fully notated piece, and for other ensembles I usually do also. But another role of Ghost Ensemble is as a workshop for developing ideas, and [developing cue-based text scores] is usually what I personally do with the group.

When you formed this, coming out of The Hague, how did you find the people you wanted to collaborate with?

It came together very magically and organically. Our harpist Somna had been my friend for a few years. We met through performing with Pauline Oliveros.

You were in Sardegna recently? What did you do there? Music?

No, just travel. In the middle of January, with a composer friend. We had an amazing time seeing the Nuraghi, and in this medieval hut. An old sculptor/farmer invited us to his electricity-less hut on a mountain where he fed us his own homemade everything, veggies and olive oil and wine and mirto. I didn’t really speak a word of Italian; we basically communicated in tempos — piu lento, piu lento! There was no water, just wine. The ruins were inspiring, too — I titled a piece “Tresnuraghes” after a village we wandered around that has three of these very ancient sites around it. It’s a mystery — apparently people know very little about that culture, even though it was highly developed.

Favorite poet or author?

One is definitely William Blake. I have some pieces inspired by Blake, or using his texts — and also Rilke; I’ve used a lot of Rilke texts. I just adore them. There is this gorgeous A. R. Ammons poem that I want to set: “Rivulose”. He died recently, so I have to get permission from his estate. Want to sing this Ammons piece?

Tell me a little bit about the piece you wrote for Wild Rumpus. To start with, what is it scored for and why?

The piece is called Water’s Edge. It’s got flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, bass, electric guitar, piano, and percussion. I’m excited! It was a cool process. Jen [Wang] asked for a couple of combinations I’d like to write for, and I had five different suggestions, with trombone in one, some smaller and larger ones ... a larger and contrasting instrumentation, like what we ended up with, is a nice flavor for composition because you can play a lot with complex harmony and complex timbre. I really love to melt these textures slowly together, with slow changes in timbre, slow glissandi that make constant changes in harmony. That works well with a larger ensemble like Wild Rumpus, with more subtle options to change timbre and harmony.

The title? 

Water’s Edge is one of 25 titles I’ve had written in a notebook for the past five years. I think it got written down on that page in 2009 when I was living on an island in Maine and I walked to the water a lot. There was this cool moment once when it was incredibly foggy and you could walk out to this point on the rocks and just be surrounded by grey. You couldn’t even see your feet. The entire world was this grey mist — sort of like in The Never Ending Story wherein that grey mist is eating the entire planet — and so you don’t know where the water ends, where the air begins. You don’t know if the world is still there.

The title isn’t really directly related to the piece itself, but there are kind of these waves that come and go. Most of the ensemble is getting a piece going and then there is this second little cohort with the percussion, guitar, and piano that sort of bursts in in waves and interrupts that. And then gradually the two different groups sort of merge together — spoiler alert! — and then at the end of the piece it’s one sound. So I’m sort of playing with two different sound worlds that slowly merge together, which sounds a little like entering the water to me.

How does the process work for you? How do you sit down and write a piece?

Either it starts when an idea is present or I go to my notebooks. In this case, it was interesting, because I’m including electric guitar in this piece for the first time, which has been on my list of things to do for a while; when Jen wrote back and said “Ben, here is the instrumentation we’d like you to do”, I didn't have an idea for that particular instrumentation, so I did go back to my pile of random ideas and started thinking Okay, I’ve got chamber ensemble and electric guitar. How am I going to use the electric guitar? What role is it going to have? I think that was the first thing I thought about. And then I got the idea of having these two little groups, the sort of noise group and the melody-harmony group, and they can intersect this way. That’s how it began to happen.

What do you want the audience to know about this piece?

Basically nothing.

What don’t you want the audience to know about this piece?

I peek at program notes, and I like to be inspired to listen well to a piece, but I would like the audience to think as little as possible about this piece, to sit down and relax as much as possible and maybe fall asleep or something and hear it and not quite remember it and want to hear it again maybe.

In your eyes, what is the job (for lack of a better term) of a composer?

For me music is for healing. And that’s why I do it, why I fell in love with it. Any time in my life I’ve made music, whether I’m sitting by myself improvising on the accordion and no one is ever going to hear that hour of music again, or I’m composing for an ensemble, that’s what it is. So — I guess I don’t want to say there is a goal in making music, but that’s what it’s for. And hopefully I’m not the only one who experiences some kind of peace from that. When you compose there’s this other world that you can reach to, you know, and it's not through your brain, it’s through some inner pathway that opens when you quiet your mind down and play something accidentally. So I try to have accidents as much as possible. I try to make systems as little as possible. There is this endless ocean of music somewhere out there that sometimes you can shut yourself up enough to listen to for a little while.