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Interviews

Ben Monder: Surprise from Cohesion

By Published: February 6, 2006
AAJ: Well, it might fifty for some of us. Okay, "Rooms of Light. Skuli's on electric bass here. This is the other long piece and it's, well, heavy .

BM: I think it's my favorite piece.

AAJ: It's as much progressive rock as it is anything. It's built around that unison melody of your guitar and Theo's voice—very exhilarating. Skuli and Ted really chew this one up and it's got your big guitar solo of the album. Tell me about it.

BM: The origin was an idea of how to divide a bar of six, or two bars of three. I kind of stole this idea from Guillermo Klein—I informed him I was stealing it, so it was okay. He has a series of pieces based on this seven-seven-three clave. So if you think of them in sixteenth notes, you're going to end up with six beats. On the last record we did with him [Los Guachos III , 2002, Sunnyside], there are at least two or three pieces that are based on that rhythmic idea.

AAJ: I think I found myself counting to six through this tune and being completely confused by that.

BM: Yeah, you can do that do a degree but—well, I'll explain how the piece evolved. I took the idea of this three groups of seven and one group of three, and I put the three in all the places in relation to the seven it could be, so one complete pattern was basically four bars of 6/4. And then I added a little three at the end, just to confuse that—it seemed like it needed it. So that's why if you tried to count in six, it wouldn't exactly work out.

AAJ: Right, and it didn't.

BM: So a lot of that piece is just playing with those four versions of that clave. And there's a release where it's exploring the melodic material rather than the rhythmic. The whole thing's kind of an arch form, I guess you might say—symmetrical. Except for the coda. So I'm thinking of it as A-B-A-B and then C is a release. Then D goes back to the clave, then there's a solo—I hope I'm remembering this right—and then D returns, but a little more elaborately. So you can call it D prime, and then C comes back, and that's the chorale section; it relates, but it's not identical.

AAJ: That's the vocal part you removed and used separately near the beginning of the album as "Light.

BM: Exactly. And then A-B again, and then the coda.

AAJ: I assume you're playing this one live now?

BM: No. I'm not playing any of this stuff anymore. Actually, we never performed that one because due to our schedules, Skuli wasn't able, really, to play any gigs. We just kind of worked and worked and worked right up to the day before the recording and then we just recorded it. And I haven't played with Skuli since then. It was not really practical to try to have Kermit play that tune. Plus, you'd need like three singers and two guitar players. It would be nice to do it someday.

I'm not really even playing with that quartet these days. I'm doing trio gigs. I'm using [bassist] Ben Street, Ted Poor and sometimes [drummer] Greg Hutchinson and trying to focus more on improvisation—trying to incorporate some standards. It's just a lot more fun for me to play more of a jazz gig than just sit there and try to play five million notes and get them all right.

AAJ: Well, you've made the record. The closest you can come to this material is to play it perfectly. That may not be why you got into playing music live.

BM: Exactly. I think I'm starting to realize that there's maybe a separation between recorded output and live performance. It would be nice to represent that music live because if it comes off well, it is exciting to do it. But I'm not a classical musician, and that's what I'd be acting as.

AAJ: The one song we haven't covered, and the last song on the record, is "Spectre. This one has no drums, just space. There's a slow, ascending guitar arpeggio with some harmonics at the top of the phrase, and Bleckmann's long vocal line. To me, it is an excellent ending to the CD, and perfectly titled, since it does leave a ghostly impression—like a double exposure on a photograph. Any insights?

BM: I actually had originally asked Ted to play on it, and he wisely decided that it would be better without him. I'm grateful for that, because I kind of like the spaciousness of it having no percussion. He was just going to play random sounds. I think it originated with a line that I played on the piano, which happened to be a twelve-tone row, which is that ascending thing. I wrote the whole thing on the piano. The line gradually mutates, although it retains its twelve-tone integrity. The vocal line is also a row, although it takes more time to develop. I think I'd been listening to a lot of Morton Feldman, so that came out [laughing]. I wasn't consciously ripping him off, but I guess unconsciously I was.

AAJ: This song helps underline how well-sequenced the album is, and how important that sequencing would have to be when you're dealing with pieces like this.

BM: I'm glad to hear you say that, because it was really hard to sequence this record. I was burning CDRs of like, twenty different possible sequences. There's also another tune that didn't even make it onto the record. I was trying to get them all on somehow, and trying to get it under eighty minutes so it would fit on a CD, which meant removing three notes from this tune or that, that sort of thing. Or thinking about making it a double CD.

I'm glad I did it the way I did, ultimately. Originally I had reversed the solo pieces, so it started out with "Double Sun. And I sent it out to a bunch of labels like that, and got no response [laughing]. Finally, the producer Hans Wendl got back to me and said, "that first tune is kind of a downer. You're not going to have much luck getting label interest if someone's got to wade through that thing right off the bat. So I thought about a while and decided that was probably right.



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