Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Interview with Ben Hall

Ben Hall is a highly-accomplished percussionist, label honcho, and gospel record archivist, among other things. He'll be traveling from his home base in Detroit to perform at Crucible Sound #8, this Thursday December 12th at Modernformations. 

Most people probably know you from your wide-ranging collaborative work: Graveyards (with John Olson), New Monuments (with Don Dietrich & C Spencer Yeh), "Weight/Counterweight" with the late great Bill Dixon and Aaron Siegel, duos with Joe Morris, C Spencer Yeh, Mike Khoury, and Wally Shoup, the list goes on. You're known to be both prolific and highly discerning (a rare combination). Can you talk about what you look for in a collaborator? 

That's not something I think about per se, like if I'm putting a band together. It's available resources but also who I've built with before. Sometimes that's somebody like Lytton where we hit it off on the bandstand but didn't kick it much. Getting together seemed smart and appropriate. Dietrich and I played together for  'bout five minutes and we were just like, "Band." There's thought on it but it's mostly just friends, people I want to spend time with chopping it up.

I also tend to follow those peoples work closer because they're friends and therefore end up being really apprised of what they're talking about because I'm really apprised of what they're working on. I'll listen to anything Spencer, Joe Morris or Nate Wooley send me. I'll try to find them in the work. And if you add Olson to that equation you're talking about a tremendous breadth of production, approaches and outcomes.

That feels like a warm space to operate in because I know if send Joe a record I'll get a fair listen, any of those dudes... And most of the folk you mentioned have a serious history of listening. I mean combined you're talking about huge travel from someone like Spencer to Dixon to Khoury to Olson, ridiculous coverage. You don't want to make your framing bias too small or exclude what might teach, so recommendations from that group are real important. And that's how we build — just chopping it up.

So is community the lynchpin? Is being there, in conversation and in the same places with each other, the thing that causes all these collisions and enables the kind of cross-pollination you've been a part of? Because not just anybody gets a chance to get on the bandstand with the likes of Bill Dixon and Paul Lytton.

A lot of this art stuff in general is not wanting to sit in the bleachers. The collaborative effect isn't osmosis, but again you start to build a matrix out of bandstand experiences with those dudes, and again if you're not getting it first hand, it's Olson telling you about Braxton, or Dixon telling you about Cecil or Zitro or Marzette Watts, or Nate telling you about Hadley Caliman. Those aren't my histories but they kinda become my memory.

So for me it's not really about reaching out to big names. It's just this question of where you get your information from and I'm always more interested in folk who are more interested in the work and how it manifests than in themselves or in the game per se.

On that list there's a lot of bad motherfuckers. Serious thinkers. And I'm sorta the low man on that totem pole if you want to judge it. I just keep trying to make the work, and because there's a handful of people that are aware of that, I get to be a part of a good salon.

There's a thread of communion, of cohesion and wholeness, that runs through your work. 

I have a set of compositional ideas that I work through and then some, what could be described as, material concerns, that is, actual physical sound issues or mechanical issues, they will out.

It's harder to exert control over that in New Monuments not because of the players but because the music is moving really fast, it's like the ship is sinking and you have to not fuck up. I don't want a collision but I'm only a third of the conversation so I can only say and guide so much. So it becomes a matter of framing by block of sound rather than by individuating things. With Dixon or Graveyards, it's relentlessly trying to corral the movements and frame and destabilize.

I distinctly remember a passage from an interview you did with Dusted where you talked about "how not to be a self-important, chucklehead improviser." Do you think individuals have certain responsibilities when they're improvising in a group?

I think people have different approaches. I've noticed that for a lot of straight musicians who happen to improvise the language is often not there. The letters and words, yes, but the grammar less so. It's also opposite from most pure improvisers. So when you have someone like Evan Parker doing the thing it's beautiful because he has the slang, the turn of phrase, the lexicon with which to make a deep and engaging conversation. He's not gonna rule out performance, mechanics, sound, ensemble etc nor does he have to bc he has the tools to juggle all those things in his brain at the same time.

Most improvisation, to my ears, places a premium on the individual, though you'd hear a lot of denials. If you're not interested in discontinuity, but it happens to be a default setting, that slows everything down quite a bit, the accuracy of decision making, and so for me as I listener I fall asleep.

If folk aren't discussing the value of the individual or group, in the music or syntactically then it shows. You know you can fool the fans but not the players and I think if you do close-listening to music, music that's widely considered interesting, Follow The Leader, Talking Book, November 1981, you can discern the capabilities inherent to basic decision making. If basic decision making is the order then I just look for those people. It's a sort of pre-responsibility.

So let's talk about the value of the individual. You're going to be doing a solo set at Crucible Sound. How do you approach your solo practice differently (or not) from your groups?

Well, I think it's changing for me right now. I've never done much solo work but naturally I primarily work alone day to day. I guess Milford pointed out that to be a soloist is to be an avowed egotist, and Olson always told me the power of the solo is the fact that "you can't break up with yourself."

I just did a solo at Anabel Anderson's Snugs series in Brooklyn last month and it was really great exercise to be asked to do a solo and think about the conceptualization of time and presentation of material. Typically I'm thinking about the nature of voicing and blocks of sound in a group. Presentation is pretty low on the list, but if it's just you, you really gotta be on the ball. I know this is obvious but it's still the basic fact I have to return to each time I perform solo, which has been probably less than ten times. That said, I've done a lot of duets with dancers, so in terms of continuity and voicing it's helped me a lot because I don't like narrative or program music but I think having something that opens up those pathways is really powerful. I end up being way more aware of the performance aspects of the deal and really focus on that as much as the sound.

Tell me about "object-based percussion."

Well it's just a basic set of rules that I started to have when Graveyards was touring a lot. It was partially to keep myself sharp. I really just didn't want to play the same set on a separate tour. Olson and I have been playing for 15 years so it was a really comfortable place to say "I'm only bringing this set up" without having to worry about the preciousness of the known brand or assuring a continuity of image. It was more about how to get the same set out of a totally different instrumentation and still have it be Graveyards. I noticed Skaters could play the exact same set on gear that someone just brought them at the gig. You could say that's because Skaters suck and it always sounds the same because it's all shit (as I've heard someone counter). For me, I found something unique in that.

More to the point: on the percussion tip, I just like to think about objects more than the instrument and it allows me to think about sound and the arrangement a lot different. I wanted to have sound that was spatial and architectural so part of it is just thinking about the different beat frequencies and what they do acoustically and how that might produce a new image.

For me a snare, a ride, a hi-hat is so rooted that when I hear someone play a fill I can hear the Motown or the Bonham and it snaps me right out of the music. David Simon said something about that with The Wire: he wanted to use actors that didn't pull you out of the moment for one second so he could build something bigger than what is otherwise possible.

Vince Gilligan said the exact opposite about Brian Cranston. He wanted to use someone who was so deeply rooted to a single role that he could use that against the audience. So if I play something traditional, I want to be able to use that as an activator, a smelling salts rather than just a collection of notes seemingly denuded from their source material, though still rooted in the muscle memory and mechanics of producing, of learning something like Purple Haze. If I execute the smelling salts properly it's not supposed to be some meta, Lothario, bricoleur deal. It's supposed to break up the monotony of the performance. Not to mention that these objects have different trajectory in the world than maker, music shoppe, musician. It's trying to understand the inability of the objects to only sustain one role. I mean I don't like anything more than a table that has a book underneath a short leg. It's still a table and a book but they both become so much more enabled and empowered. Which brings me back to basic understanding of the capital inside of a book which is only wood pulp dried and printed on. But obviously the cultural value of a book can be so powerful and does not lose that power by virtue of being a prosthetic for a table. It doesn't make it less Don Quijote. It doesn't de-exalt it for me, it just allows it to have a grander provisional status.

For me, the problem with the bricoleur/engineer binary is not only that it's a binary but it doesn't have an allowance for primitive to become the engineer. I don't think there's a lot of sneer but it's problematic to unpack it and put people into one or the other category. In the new Ed Park novel this office is trying to divide themselves into Berts and Ernies and there's always a compromise or a qualifier. 

I wonder where you place Sean Meehan on that trajectory. What he's doing is ultra-technical on an engineering level but it's really deskilled in a way. Meehan is an important guideline for me not as a percussionist but thinking about how to get the work to have the qualities you want it to. I mean I could follow Meehan around the Iron Triangle with his snare under his arm like other people follow Kanye's twitter. It's just so engaging on a performance level. He has me thinking of Helmholtz, Cage, and Henry Threadgill at the same time without referring to that for a sec. 

In that way it's very American in that it stems from this very Rube Goldberg-ian idea of the trap set, or contraption set. Cartoon jazz 78s have percussion that's just mind-numbing (and I mean mind-numbing with the highest regard) because you hear people playing rhythm on what are essentially effects that aren't rooted in clear use like a clarinet.

Ben and Don Dietrich will be performing at American Tapes' 1000th release blowout party this New Year's Eve. 

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