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Interviews

Ben Neill: Starting a Dub War

By Published: November 3, 2009
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.


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