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Interviews

Ben Neill: Starting a Dub War

By Published: November 3, 2009
To say that Ben Neill plays the trumpet—the instrument of such jazz legends as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown—is an epic understatement. "I think electronica is like a new form of jazz—it's an instrumental form of music that plays out in popular culture but has musical ideas that go beyond the expectations of pop music," says Neill, a student of the electro-acoustic innovations of Robert Moog and minimalist aesthetic of LaMonte Young. Neill specifically plays the mutantrumpet, a self-designed instrument that he's been slowly perfecting since the mid 1980s. His latest album, Night Science (Thirsty Ear, 2009), is a heady, dark alchemy of improv and electronica. No surprise, then, that the record is the latest release on Thirsty Ear Records' Blue Series.

The brainchild of Thirsty Ear head Peter Gordon, The Blue Series has long sought to find a point where the electronic manipulation of sound (both in post-production and on the spot) and the live interaction of seasoned jazz musicians become blurred, all but insignificant. Night Science, in many ways, is the pinnacle of the Blue Series' raison d'etre. Sans turntables, Neill is DJ-cum-jazz artist. Or perhaps vice versa.

Neill began work on Night Science in late 2007. "The process of the recording happened on several levels simultaneously," Neill explains. "The first layer was developing beats and bass lines in Logic Pro, then exporting those elements to Ableton Live so I could improvise with them from the mutantrumpet.

"Then I spent a lot of time programming the live performance setup, including the live sampling and processing of the acoustic trumpet sound, which is another improvised element, and all of the MIDI controller routings from the mutantrumpet. Finally, I would record my performances back into Logic and then tweak the results. These things were all happening together. It was a process of building up the set, and as I made the recordings I was also playing out, trying things to see how they felt live. Toward the end of the process, my long time production partner, Eric Calvi, came in to help engineer some of the final production and mixing."

Once recording was complete, Neill looked to the label he had long been a fan of, understanding how Night Science would fit with Thirsty Ear's groundbreaking back catalog. Neill's mutantrumpet has appeared on records from a number of Thirsty Ear artists like DJ Spooky, on Riddim Warfare (Outpost, 1998), and live with Nils Petter Molvaer, Vernon Reid and others. Those artists' shapeshifting combinations of electronica and jazz drew him to want to be a part their "tribe." So he approached the label with his latest, Night Science.

Beyond the Thirsty Ear sound, Neill says Night Science was largely inspired by New York's Dub War scene and the rich textures of DJ music internationally. "After Automotive, my last release on Six Degrees in 2002 [compiling music Neill recorded for a series of Volkswagen commercials], it felt like the whole electronic music scene really plummeted. I think there were a lot of reasons for that ... but when I walked into Dub War I felt the energy of electronic music in New York in a way that seemed to have disappeared—it was amazing, and I immersed myself in dubstep from that time forward."

Since discovering the scene in 2007, Neill has been asked to perform with Dub War DJs and repent in close contact and cahoots with other illbient veterans like Badawi and the aforementioned Spooky. "Dubstep is very much related to other styles of electronic music that I'd been doing for years: drum and bass, breakbeat, trip hop, and dub. ... It was a very natural progression," Neill says. Indeed, Neill's older records, like the breakbeat-heavy Triptycal (Polygram, 1996), reflect the electronic music scene of the time. Like the genre itself, Neill's music has evolved to include the grimier "riddims" of UK dubstep. Crank up the bass to nose-twitching levels and you've got some of the finest dubstep this side of the UK—speaker wobbling, pulsating, shake-your-insides dubstep—just toned down and dressed up for a mad classy night at a basement lounge where the drinks are pricey and the women out of your league.

"I'm very happy that progressive electronic music has come back with a vengeance," Neill says, "[but] I'm also inspired by Miles Davis, particularly his later records. He embraced electronic music and fused it with his instrumental voice. I tried to make the mutantrumpet more present on this record than some of my past albums."

The mutantrumpet, like its name would suggest, is a freak of sound—a work of heretofore unseen electro-acoustic brilliance. In Neill's words, the mutantrumpet is "an expanded acoustic instrument with three bells—two B Flat trumpet bells and a piccolo trumpet bell—instead of the normal one."

Explaining further, Neill adds that "the piccolo bell is attached to a trombone slide which gives me the capability of a slide trumpet, and an extra set of valves enables me to switch between the bells, which I fit with various mutes. It doesn't play chords, it's still one note at a time, but I'm able to shift between and combine different timbres and sounds that a normal trumpet can't produce. There's also a quarter-tone valve.

"I started out working with Robert Moog in the mid '80s on an analog synthesizer that was interfaced to the trumpet. Then shortly thereafter I started getting into MIDI and computers, and made the mutantrumpet MIDI capable with a Pitch to MIDI device. In the early 1990s I had a residency at the STEIM studios in Amsterdam, where they design all kinds of interesting new electronic performance hardware and software. That was when the instrument really took off and became fully computer-interactive."

In just the past year, Neill switched to a new version of the mutantrumpet "using the latest STEIM technologies. This one still has the same acoustic setup, but the computer control is much more advanced." This latest prototype features 16 MIDI controllers, a playground of switches, knobs, and faders. "I can play synths, control software, basically do anything a keyboard controller can do. It connects directly to the computer with USB, so it's a full blown acoustic/electronic instrument at this point.

"My idea from the start was to have the instrument be an expression of my whole musical approach, which has always involved hybrids. It's a hybrid voice: part open horn, part muted, part trombone, part synth, part MIDI controller. ... It's mutated. On [Night Science], the trumpet plays all kinds of roles in the music; bass, percussion, synth, even voice. I could still play a normal trumpet at some point, but playing the mutantrumpet has definitely shaped how I would play it. Being able to improvise with acoustic and electronic timbres, playing video images, sampling myself live—these are all techniques that have become part of my musical vocabulary no matter what instrument I'm playing."

In addition to his own electro-acoustic innovations, Night Science also features the innovations of Eric Singer, founder of the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots. "They are a robotic percussion orchestra that I've been working with over the last couple of years. Eric Singer came up with the idea of a percussion ensemble that could be controlled with computers. He and his team build acoustic percussion instruments that can be controlled by computers through MIDI, and I used a lot of their sounds on the album and perform with them live. In performance, I improvise more with the bots directly from my playing."

Neill's mutantrumpet not only allows him to manipulate the audio portion of his live performance but the visual as well. "The interactive video is definitely a big part of the live show, too," Neill says. "My notes, dynamics and MIDI controllers animate the images, which in turn impact what I choose to play. So it's a very dynamic system which can produce different results each time I perform.

"In all of my music, a primary idea has been to bring the advanced technology of interactive computer performance into the realm of DJ culture and groove-based music." As for the worry that the complexity of the instrument and the purely electronic feel of his recordings might cause some listeners to lose sight of the mutantrumpet being the very core of Neill's music: "I hope that people can just experience the music for what it is, because I know the tech stuff is only interesting for a limited number of people," Neill confesses.

"I don't want to have to give a lecture in order for someone to appreciate what I'm doing. Hopefully it can just come across—the music that comes out of it is more important than any technique that goes into making it. I think that there is more openness and understanding of the concept of the mutantrumpet; now that computers are so integrated into people's lives, there are more musicians starting to look into this idea of interactive performance all the time."

In the future, Neill plans on playing around New York City more, as well as in upcoming performances in Miami and elsewhere. "In my live shows, I tend to do more playing and improvisation than on the CD and I use more stripped-down beats and other elements to give it a slightly more raw sound," Neill said. "I always want the performance to feel somewhat different from the record, to have more spontaneity to it. I also improvise the structure of the set, skip around from song to song, extend certain sections, drop out and process different elements of the tracks, etc, very similar to the way a DJ performs.

"Even though electronic music is a more solitary pursuit overall, I try to bring a jazz sensibility to it. Those jazz artists in the jam sessions copped each other's licks and carried them on to the next session—that's how the ideas spread. Now international DJs and producers share and spread new musical ideas, but it's done online as well as in the clubs. Technology offers many new opportunities for collaboration, like linking the mutantrumpet with the LEMUR bots, or live video—basically creating networked performance setups and improvising with them. I'm planning to add a live percussionist to some of my shows, too.

"I always want to have some kind of dialogue going on in my performances. In my 'solo' concerts with my video collaborator, there is a strong sense of dynamic interaction; we're actually improvising a movie and its soundtrack at the same time. The video impacts what I choose to play, and in turn, my playing activates the video. I can definitely see working with larger networked ensembles, especially now that I feel very comfortable with the interactive control of the mutantrumpet.

"Overall, I think the idea of jazz has to keep evolving, and hopefully I'm contributing to that progression."

Selected Discography

Ben Neill, Night Science (Thirsty Ear, 2009)

Rhys Chatham, Die Donnergotter (Table of the Elements, 2006)

DJ Spooky, Riddim Warfare (Outpost, 1998)

DJ Spooky, Necropolis: The Dialog Project (Knitting Factory, 1996)

Ben Neill, Triptycal (Polygram, 1996)

Ben Neill, Green Machine (Astralwerks, 1995)

Ben Neill and David Wojnarowicz, ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion) (Robi Droli, 1993)

David Behrman, Unforseen Events (XI, 1992)

David Behrman, Leapday Night (Lovely, 1990)



Photo Credits

Page 1: Greta Nicholas

All Others: Courtesy of Ben Neill



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