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Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

By Published: February 6, 2006
AAJ: This album has two solo guitar pieces. Solo pieces are something you've done on your records going back to "Propane Dream on your first CD Flux through "Mistral on Excavation. These pieces are pretty unique. They're so guitaristic—so designed for that device.

BM: Well, I write them on the guitar.

AAJ: "Still Motion is the album opener; it's a solo acoustic song. This is a very dense piece—it seems to possess its own gravity, its own reality. It's so mysterious that attempting to break down what it is seems sort of foolish. There are certainly two, and sometimes three, distinct and simultaneous parts. Is this a through-composed piece?

BM: Yeah. There's no improvisation on that one. As with a lot of the solo pieces, it's based on a picking pattern that I just happened upon which involves four strings. I just thought, well, what could I do with this particular pattern? A few of my solo pieces are similarly based on picking patterns; this one happens to be in four. A tune called "Windowpane [from Excavation] is an alternating-string kind of pattern—going up and down forever and ever. Another tune is a pattern that's in a group of twenty-three sixteenth notes. But anyway, this tune is just based on this thing where I happened to put my hand down and there was [laughing] an A chord, and I don't know, it just proceeded from there.

I can't really tell you the process. I don't really even remember writing things; I do it and then it's over and I'm sitting there saying, "Well, it's interesting. How'd that happen? But I did want to sort of convey the idea of, as you pointed out, things happening kind of simultaneously on different levels, and at the same time, kind of a static or really slow-moving harmony. And again, trying to be cohesive thematically—trying not to have too many ideas going on.

AAJ: Not to sound naïve, but this is played on a six-string guitar with conventional tuning? Just finger-picked?

BM: Yeah.

AAJ: Is a tune like this particularly difficult for you to perform?

BM: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, at this point it's not too bad. I've done it so much, although I don't have it worked up at this point. But I attempted to record that, I think, three times and failed. I finally got it on the fourth try. Even if I am able to play it, all the conditions [laughing] have to be perfect. It has to the exact right time of day where my hands are going to feel like they're able to do it at the right speed or whatever.

If I prepare too much, then I'm burned out and I can't play it—and if I don't warm up enough, I can't play it. It's kind of tricky! That was the hardest tune to record in a way; I don't know if it had anything to do with it, but I tried to do it around the time of some really serious health problems I encountered about a year and ahalf ago.

AAJ: Do you think the health problems you experienced in any way color the tune itself? The mood of it?

BM: Well, the tune was written before anything happened—whether it had anything to do with the performance, I don't know. I think with the performance, if anything comes through, it's just desperation: "please, god let this one be it! I can't try to record this again! When I finally did it, I'd gotten no sleep the night before, so I got up thinking, "great, I'm totally unprepared again. I got to the studio and my hands felt terrible—I did a few takes and just wasn't warmed up. Then I remember drinking like six cups of coffee and saying, "Okay, well, this is it. And I did it. And it turned out okay, I guess.

AAJ: It turned out great. But it sounds like there were some nerve-wracking experiences behind the production of this record.

BM: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I started recording at the end of January 2004 and finally had it mastered in December. So it was complicated.

AAJ: And all on your dime. That takes some pressure off, but puts a whole other pressure right on.

BM: I really had not anticipated it going that way at all. Every other record I've ever done was basically two days in the studio, a day or two to mix it, and that's it. And I didn't think this would be any different.

AAJ: Well, I think this is the best one, if that's any consolation.

BM: It is. I think so too. I'm happy with it.

AAJ: The other solo piece is "Double Sun. This one is done on electric guitar, which gives it a real desolate beauty. I think on electric the bass counterpoint is more ominous. This one's more spacious than "Still Motion. There's more of a sense of distance—"Still Motion is almost claustrophobic. This tune really imposes its mood on the listener; it's certainly not background music. Again, through-composed?

BM: Yeah. This one was an attempt to experiment with polyrhythms—superimposed so that the effect would be of two different tempos played simultaneously. The main polyrhythm of the piece is five against three. I kind of divide it up into three strings and three strings, so the five is on the top three strings and the three is on the bottom. Both parts are in cycles of four, which hopefully disguises what it is.

So there's that rhythmic friction, and also harmonic friction—at least at first, because the top part is playing an A major and the bottom part is in C. The strings are tuned down like a cello: low C, then a G, then a D. Then as the piece evolves, it becomes gradually more harmonically consonant. Thematically, it's really pretty simple; sometimes the theme's on top, then I reverse the roles and it's on the bottom. There's nothing you can't tell from one listening.

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