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Aestheticising The Everyday: An Interview With Ben Vida
Alexander Iadarola , October 2nd, 2014 10:45

Following the release of Slipping Control at the close of summer, Alexander Iadarola sat down with Ben Vida to discuss the interfacing between art and musicians, sonic recalibration and Transformers as "the most advanced sound design musique concrète"

Ben Vida (pronounced vai-duh) makes music that's fun to imagine sending backwards in a time machine. It's as "futuristic" as any music being made right now. That doesn't mean that it takes itself too seriously though, or approaches the listening experience as an opportunity for prescriptive pedagogy. Rather, the catharsis, disorientation, and straightforward playfulness of his music evokes a childhood scene—picking up the objects immediately at hand and testing them, banging them together, and finding inventive ways to bring joy out of them. The object at hand just so happens to be a modular synthesiser, linked up to the most complex audio generating software available.

Speaking to him about his work, Vida tells me that he wants to recalibrate people's ears, and unlike a lot of artistic theoretical underpinnings, that absolutely comes through. If rollercoasters are fun because they move us in combinations of the vertical and the horizontal that we've simply never felt in our bodies before, then Ben Vida's music is enjoyable for that exact same reason. The music doesn't feel like it's being played by a human a lot of the time, and that's because it isn't. In software-based or modular-synthesis based composition, new perilously ascended heights and lurches sideways become possible. Words fail, sometimes because you can't tell if the sounds that slip into your ear from the music are real or not—he utilises aural phenomenon and auto-acoustic emissions, which he explains below—and other times because there is no way to experience the fucked sonification of a McDonald's playplace without trying it out yourself.

Vida's work hasn't always sounded like this, though, and his practice has undergone multiple reinventions over the last twenty years. It wasn't until 2010 that he started working primarily with synthesis, and it has proved fecund territory for him. He began gravitating toward more open-ended artistic practice as opposed to a strictly musical way of working. He got his MFA from Bard College in upstate New York in an interdisciplinary program, where the most interesting conversations he had proved not to be with other composers but with writers.

His need for new reveals keeps his work from being easily summarisable, particularly since the shift to synth in 2010: each new project brings a new way of working that simply has to present a unique set of challenges. If an approach feels too similar to his already-established subjective paradigm as an artist, it gets thrown out. Listening over a sizable chunk of his work under his given name over at UbuWeb, which we can assume he endorses because he links to it from his blog, it's interesting to try to draw threads. Beanbag-colored disorientation with silly-string dynamics certainly stays consistent, but his turns are straightforwardly unpredictable.

Vida has just released his first solo LP since 2011's sensory perception-redesigning Esstends-Esstends-Esstends for PAN. It's titled Slipping Control—a title that might seem purely aesthetic at first, but turns out to be an apt description of his approach toward achieving reveals—and it's out on Shelter Press. The album itself is just one iteration of the Slipping Control project as a whole, which has involved a long series of interpretation and translation, from bird call, to French sociologist, to English, to modular synth, to software, and back, on to video and a handful more iterations.

Can you talk to me about your transition toward a general art practice from more a strictly musical practice?

BV: I see it all, still, as composition. My background is so rooted in more traditional music composition, but also as an instrumentalist, playing in other people's bands but also playing an instrument in my own groups. When I became more interested in electronic music, I found that I was moving further and further away from being an instrumentalist and becoming more and more focused as a composer because both with digital and analogue synthesis you can set up systems that run on their own. Once I sort of clicked into that mode of composition, I began to want to problematise it more, I didn't want to ask the same questions that I was asking when I was in the band Town And Country or doing the Bird Show records for Kranky, or when I was still using a lot of traditional instruments, or acoustic instruments. Once I sort of opened that door and started to problematise the compositional practice, I started realising that some of the ideas I was having were better realised in other mediums.

Can you talk to me about how that through-line from compositional practice might manifest itself in a video?

BV: I think that it's something where a lot of the formal decisions are still made from the foundation of constructing things from a musical place, and also building upon a history that comes out of an engagement with a musical practice. Which is to say, my understanding of the history of the musical avant garde is much greater than the art [avant garde.] In some ways, when I'm dealing with objects and I'm dealing with video, if you were to read them through a history of video art making, I think that there are things I do that are really naïve, because I'm not as engaged with that history. Not willfully, but simply [because of] my own history of inputs. [He means like a modular synthesiser or any data system, where information is "inputted."]

For instance, when I was working on Slipping Control, I knew I wanted to write a sound poem that was going to function as the composition, and I knew exactly how it needed to function: its scansion had to produce rhythmic readings. I knew I was building upon a whole history of concrete poetry and sound poetry, but I didn't want to research it, because I knew how it needed to function and I was just going to work from that place. I also knew the minute this was done and it was out in the world, people would come up to me and be like, "how about this person," or "how about this lady," or "how about this guy." And so retroactively I'd start to educate myself.

What were you going for with the concrete poetry? They're weirdly, almost emotive.

BV: It ended up turning into that. It has functioned in a bunch of different ways. So, the undergirding concept of Slipping Control was this idea that I would create one input and then run it through a bunch of systems to different outputs. So I would know the input—the poem—and I would know the output—video, poster, object, a live performance.

One thing that I'm kind of hearing is that your work doesn't seem to be overly dedicated to working in only human terms. Inputs and outputs are opened up to mean all kinds of things, things beyond subjective human experiences. Weird communications between different technologies, maybe a human will talk and sing, maybe it will be a video—everything kind of blends together in this overarching system.

BV: Yeah, yeah. That's interesting. Well maybe this is going in a slightly different direction, but originally, the reason I wanted to use voice with synthesis was to create a control source that would function in a really specific way, and that's that it wouldn't be consistent: it would have the organic inconsistency of vocalisations. The first time I engaged in that was this mimetic sort of way. There's this history of transcribing bird song in modern classic music, like [Oliver] Messiaen of course. So I come across this great bird transcription by a field biologist—I can't remember his name. It was this really long, fantastic transcription of bird song. But it read like a Dadaist poem, like a sound poem, like Hugo Ball or something like that. I vocalised it, I loved the vocalisation of it, and I thought, "This can become the input for the synthesiser, and it'll have these imperfections and all these degrees of subjectivity." It's the bird being interpreted by the man, then the man finding language to create a text with it—that's a very strange translation right there—he's French, English is my first language, so then I'm reading it thinking, "What would a translation by an English-speaking field biologist look like?" There are all these layers of translation that are going on that break down subjectivity. Each of the translations is a subjective thing, it's not like pure data run through a system, input-output. There's a humanisation or natural thing that happens in each of those steps.

I don't know when you said it, but The Chicago Reader quoted you as saying you were pursuing non-representational sound objects.

BV: That's from a few years back, and that just really related to the electronic compositions I was doing at that time, with the idea being that with abstract sound there is a tendency for it to evoke imagery in the listener. When I talk about objects in this sense I'm thinking of the idea of the sound object in the musique concrète world—trying to create non-evocative sounds, but knowing that inevitably they will be [evocative].

I really like the idea of creating language that runs parallel to any of the works that I'm doing right now, and using that in as creative a way as the production of, say, a piece of electronic music. This is kind of two-fold in my mind: I feel like there is the work, and then there is the language that runs next to it, and then there is also where the place of audition for those works occurs. So a piece of electronic music can be composed, and its sort of obvious language that runs next to it can be abandoned and a new set of language can be developed to help illuminate the things that I find most interesting in the production of that work. Where it ends up being performed or presented becomes the framework for it after that: so instead of having it at a music festival, having it in a setting that further complicates or problematises the reading of it—it's a way of being pretty playful with how people engage with sound works.

I do a project that's called Metal Fatigue Music which is a collaboration with Jeff DeGolier who is an artist and sculptor. Megal Fatigue Music is pieces composed for a boom car, which is a mini van with a really major sub bass system in it. The original idea with that was that I'd do the sound composition and he'd build the car. It's a mini van, so we are able to have it work as a moving venue. The idea is, we have this really amazing sound system but it's not rarefied in any way because we can park it anywhere, we can bring it anywhere, anyone's welcome to get into it, but then I create these really intense sonic environments for it that are also very physical because the idea of Metal Fatigue Music is that it is resonating parts of the car, and part of what you're experiencing is this bodily engagement with the sub bass, and also the sonic engagement not just with what's coming through the speakers but with how it resonates the hubcaps and the rear view mirror and all these things. One of those sonic compositions could be played at Issue Project Room and it would function as an electronic composition, but once it's in a car it takes on these other aspects, it becomes this physical engagement. All of a sudden it's made available to a different kind of audience, who aren't coming and being like, "I love crazy electronic music," they're coming in and saying, "I just want an unusual experience." The response to it is always really exciting to us. Kids seem to love it.

Are you still at Bard for your MFA?

BV: No, I finished up there. It was a good programme, I really enjoyed going through that programme.

What is it exactly?

BV: It's a multidisciplinary MFA program, so I came in as a sound and composition "major", or however you would put it, but because it's interdisciplinary, it's a critique-based program, I was meeting with writers and painters. My undergrad was in music performance, so I have a foundation in a more traditional music education, but I couldn't see going back to school, I didn't want to go back to school and get a masters in music.

Why not?

BV: I don't think the discourse surrounding contemporary music exists in the same way [as it does in contemporary art]. I find that the conversations surrounding contemporary classical music are so often about mathematics and technique and really formal things, whereas the discourse around art can—I mean, it can be ridiculous, and critical theory can be really abused in the art world, but I also think that it's a more expansive discursive world, and I really wanted that. I liked the sound department, the faculty teaching at Bard, but really it was the whole program that I wanted to be a part of. My meetings with writers were often the most generative. So much language, it was just fantastic.

I keep up a practice of travelling around and doing artist talks at universities, art galleries and stuff like that. That side of things is something that has developed a lot later in my practice, but I really like it and I really like being able to communicate things through the artwork but also more directly through conversation.

One thing that you mentioned in an interview with Ad Hoc was the idea of wanting to recalibrate ears, to get them out of their familiar tonal comfort zone.

BV: Metal Fatigue Music is an example of that, but my idea of recalibration had a lot do with thinking about audio works finding their way into museums and galleries. The idea was—and I don't know if this is true or not—but at least in this sort of romantic sense, I like to think that when people go into a museum they sort of flip this switch and say they're going to see in this more deliberate way. So someone who has no engagement with the history of painting will go to the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] and look at paintings all afternoon, and really look at them, hopefully. In that process, a calibration or a recalibration occurs, where there is the intent of seeing in this much more focused way. The idea is that you take that recalibration and go back out into the world and maybe all of a sudden you're able to aestheticise the everyday.

I like that idea, and I like the idea of the intention of listening as well and that you can go in and experience an audio piece in a gallery, have that recalibration happen, and go back out into the world with it. It also has to do with hearing complexity. I like to make really complex, sort of zonked audio works, but I also want them to be inviting. I don't want to subject people to this, I want to invite them into it so they can be reminded of how well they can receive complex information and decode it and understand it. When I say "understand it", I don't mean right or wrong, but more like hear the complexity of it, the detail of it. Then you can return out into the world and hear the detail of everything else. I don't know if it works or not. It doesn't even matter if it works. It's just an intention going into it and it gives me a set of parameters to work from.

I like to use a lot of aural phenomenon, difference tones and otoacoustic emissions and stuff like that.

What are difference tones?

BV: So you hear two tones, and then a third tone which isn't being projected through the speakers but is actually being either physically manifested in the inner ear, or—and this isn't a perfect science—there's also the imagined third tone which, if I understand what I've been reading lately, is something that occurs in the brain and gives us the illusion of hearing these other tones.

You've talked about this international community of artists with which you have some commonality. People like Lorenzo Senni, Mark Fell, EVOL, Markus Schmickler. How do you see this moment?

BV: It's a pretty big moment. One thing that I think about a lot is the tempo of things these days and how we receive information, how we translate it, and then output it. That circuit is so major right now, even if it's like opening an e-mail, getting a link from a friend, listening to it, sending it to another friend. That's a pretty intense circuit and it happens really quickly. I think that the ability to communicate with a lot of people really quickly and effortlessly allows the rate of evolution of ideas to happen more quickly than they used to. Whether we get into the depth of the ideas as much as people might have in generations before, I don't think we do, but I don't think that that's the conversation right now. I like living right now [laughs]. Or I should say, I'm not resistant to the rate of things or the tempo of things. When I was going up, there wasn't Internet yet, or not the way that it is now, and I didn't have a personal computer until I was out of college. So I can remember a tempo that was slower, a circuit that was slower than now. That doesn't mean I'm resistant to the circuit that we're in now. I'm not sure I'm exactly answering the question, but that question makes me think of this idea of tempo.

What I think is so great about someone like Mark [Fell] or Lorenzo [Senni], or someone like James Hoff or Florian Hecker or all of these people, is that I feel like these are all really contemporary artists. There's an element of understanding of a history of things coming out of this work, but it doesn't seem like nostalgic work to me. It seems like actually really contemporary work to me. And one thing about this kind of equipment, especially modular synthesisers: there's so much nostalgic music made with it, that sounds like Tangerine Dream, or it sounds like soundtracks for a Carpenter film, and that's fine, it does that very well, but I don't think that's very interesting artistically. But it's entertaining, and so, when I think about the people that you just mentioned I think they're very contemporary and I think why it's so exciting and I think there's so many tools and there's so much information that if you're able to focus and follow a conceptual stream, then you can really create these nuggets of output that are speaking to a very specific moment, a very contemporary moment. And that moment passes really quickly. It's amazing how something that sounded so new sounds retro. But I don't mind that. But I have to disengage from it from time to time. I think that's going to be maybe a real challenge, stepping outside of this tempo, very wilfully stepping outside of this tempo to catch one's breath.

Earlier you mentioned the interfacing between artists and musicians that you're seeing in New York—can you talk more about that?

BV: I think it's that people aren't identifying as one or the other as much. I think at the moment it's pretty trendy to say, "Well, I'm a musician but I'm an artist also." I think that's something that a lot of people have arrived at. Because there is less need to clearly delineate between one or the other, the ideas that these people are having are what's at the front of the conversation. Because there's not the necessity to compartmentalise or to view people as just one or the other that you get to more interesting conversations more quickly. It's not like, "Oh, he's a composer and now he's making art," or "she's an artist but now she's making sound work." All medium is available to all people right now because of the tools, especially digital tools. Anyone can make a video; anyone can make a dance track. It doesn't mean they're going to be good, but anyone can do anything.

Everything is so fluid. When I was up at EMPAC I just needed to take a day off, and I went to a mall and just watched the most recent Transformers movie, which was terrible, but the sound design in it was crazy.

Oh, it's amazing.

BV: It's amazing, and I sat through large periods of it with my eyes closed because, really, it's too overwhelming, but sonically it's just the most advanced sound design musique concrète. It was bonkers. The sound of the alien ship picking up the cars was the best sound. Part of why it was so good was because it was so dirty. It was a really dirty, fucked, gross sound. For a movie that was so clean and of no consequence, that was such a great sound at such an intense moment in the film. That's the fluidity. I'm going to go and enjoy that movie as a piece of musique concrète, and I'm going to enjoy one of James Hoff's objects as a music composition. I'm going to choose the gaze that I receive it through.

Did you see Prometheus? The plot was so poorly written that it just didn't make sense. There was literally no continuity, but to me it was a really interesting experiment in discontinuity.

BV: I think that's great because I think there's a kind of composition that is available now through digital medium that creates discontinuity through the nature of the systems. If you think of contemporary hip hop or contemporary R&B there's this really crazy shit that will happen where a verse will go into a chorus, that will go into another section, because of the tools that you use, if it's a sampler or Pro Tools or however you're going to do it, you'll make these formal decisions that you would never make if you were seated with an acoustic guitar. It's a way of editing content and combining and recombining, coupling and decoupling content that creates these really formal decisions.

I'm reading Non-Creative Writing by Kenneth Goldsmith, the Ubuweb guy, and this book is blowing my mind, because he talks about how writing hasn't kept up with visual arts or music in its use of borrowing content or sampling. That writing is still a "creative process". It wasn't until the Internet that you could cut and paste and deal with text as a malleable material in the same way that you could with text or image. When I think about creating new text content, he's speaking my language. Text is as up for grabs as anything else, but it's about breaking the dogma of creativity. The writer is the last sort of agonised genius tucked away in a corner. It's not speaking to the same fluidity of content that these other mediums have.

It really seems like contemporary fiction is not part of the same conversations in the same way as a lot of other mediums.

BV: And I think that people don't go to it to have the same kind of contemporary experience, whether consciously or not.

I saw some of the Teklife DJs the other day over at Hopscotch where we were performing. These guys are 22, 23 years old, and the way that they're dealing with content, the tempo that they're going through content —


BV: It's insane, it's so virtuosic, and everything's up for grabs. I don't question for a minute why a Shuggie Otis track is being mixed with this, that's being mixed with that, and only for a second of it, you catch it for a minute and it's gone. It's totally mind-blowing. The idea of going to read something and having it be that kind of mash up seems very problematic to me still, even though on a conceptual level I love it. In practice, I don't know if I'm ready for it, but I want to be. It would take really creative individuals who can curate and mix on that same level that someone like a 22-year-old kid from Chicago can in the sonic realm.

Slipping Control is out now on Shelter Press