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The universe is making music all the time

Step Right Up: Ben Lukas Boysen

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How can I make a programmed piano – or basically a piano that I never really touched, that I never saw or that I never recorded myself – how can I make that feel human and interesting?”

—Ben Lukas Boysen

Words: Mark Carry, Photography: Claudia Gödke

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The Berlin-based composer, producer and sound designer Ben Lukas Boysen represents the prestigious Erased Tapes label’s newest signing with the scintillating sophomore full-length release of ‘Spells’. The German studio composer masterfully crafts a deeply moving sound world of ambient, electronic and modern-classical textures as programmed piano pieces are fused with live instruments (drums, cello, harp and an intricate array of echoes, delays and compressors), merging sound design and music to become one beguiling stratosphere of mesmerizing sound.

On the sleeve notes of Laurie Spiegel’s seminal work ‘The Expanding Universe’, the American composer discusses the great advantage of computers: “Music consists of patterns of sound. One of the computer’s greatest strengths is the opportunity it presents to integrate direct interaction with an instrument and its sound with the ability to compose musical experiences much more complex and well designed than can be done than can be done live in one take.” Journeying through the infinite beauty and meticulously crafted sound collages captured on ‘Spells’, Boysen has composed complex musical experiences that combines the controllable digital world and the often unpredictable aspects of live improvisation. The remarkable achievement of ‘Spells’ is the hugely humanised sound – and rawest of human emotions – that is emitted from these programmed piano pieces that floats in the ether between the blurred lines of electronic and organic spheres. Undoubtedly, the source or origin of the German composer’s work is secondary to the sprawling emotion and deeply affecting nature of ‘Spells’’ highly innovative and compelling body of work.

One of the record’s most formidable moments arrives during ‘Golden Times 1’ – the album’s longest cut and perhaps centrepiece – which is built upon a delicate piano-led melody that echoes the solo piano works of Nils Frahm and Peter Broderick among others. Later, heart-wrenching strings are melded together before a euphoric cascade of energy and emotion is transmitted amidst electronic walls of sound that forms the towering counterpoint to the aching bliss of ambient pulses (think ‘Looped’ by Kiasmos inter-woven with Nils Frahm’s ‘Says’).

In the same way as two distinct movements are composed for ‘Golden Times’ (‘Golden Times 2’ is a slowed-down neo-classical-infused-electronic tour-de-force recalling the likes of Scottish duo Boards of Canada), ‘Nocturne 3’ and ‘Nocturne 4’ finds the rich narrative of Boysen’s previous LP, ‘Gravity’ developed further. The brooding strings of ‘Keep Watch’ shares gorgeous remnants of A Winged Victory For The Sullen such is the unfathomable beauty that permeates the ebb and flow of neon-lit skylines and the gradual motion of the sea waves encapsulated within the soaring music. Indeed, ‘Spells’ is laden with a beating heart that awaits your every lost thought and faded dream.

‘Spells’ is out this Friday, 10th June on Erased Tapes Records.

 

Interview with Ben Lukas Boysen.

 Congratulations on the sublime new record ‘Spells’. I’m sure it has taken considerable effort and time to program all the piano parts in particular?

Ben Lukas Boysen: Yes, a little, it actually doesn’t take as long as it would take me to play it [laughs], it takes a while but I can’t really play that well. So I needed to find a way to make that work otherwise and the programming is a very comfortable way of doing that. But it’s mostly the other musicians involved – they were a lot faster with everything because they are all very good instrumentalists. Most of the things were done pretty fast – it only took two years to get the piano stuff together and then the rest was faster.

Would the piano parts always come first and then the instrumentation of drums, harp and so on come after?

BLB: It depends actually. The way I record drums, I go into the studio with the drummer and I just hand him an idea and he starts jamming – I mean just like a track idea and he starts improvising. Most of the time (80% of the time), I remove my track afterwards and write something new for the drums and that’s how most of the tracks – with drums at least – come together. There was a certain idea at the beginning and it was all removed and something completely new was written underneath it. Hearing other musicians work normally inspires me a lot and gives me new ideas of what I want to do with it. So most of the time there is nothing really pre-written; it’s very subject to change there.

I must say ‘Golden Times 1’ – and I love also how there are two different movements with the second towards the end -it’s amazing how it morphs into the more electronic and as the piece extends, the piece builds continually. It really is wonderful how it develops.

BLB: Thank you so much. Right now as we speak I’m at a point where it’s very, very hard for me to judge the album. It’s very flattering and nice to hear that it seems to work because right now it’s this hunk of work that’s passed me. Musicians will tell you they need to get a distance from their work before they can actually enjoy it again.

Like ‘Golden Times’, I love how there are also two different movements of ‘Nocturne’ and it’s wonderful to see – and hear – the different variations between those pieces?

BLB: Indeed, that is a fun concept actually. It’s normally only heavy drums and a sad piano theme, like that’s the only restriction and everything else is fine. There’s the first two pieces [‘Nocturne 1’ and ‘Nocturne 2’] from my previous album ‘Gravity’ and it just developed, there was never really a plan. I liked how this worked so I do three more. There will probably be two more on the next one to close the trilogy or something [laughs].

You set up your own studio in Berlin around ten years ago. That sounds fascinating too because you’re obviously involved with so much projects from sound design where your own two studio albums are one part to the overall picture really.

BLB: That is true, the albums are personally at least, the most important one. The sound design and commission work is what pays the bills and what puts the food on the table. For the albums, you could never take that much time with a commercial project than you can with an album. You just sit down and take time and don’t do anything but that for a while. And in that time that it takes to make an album – the way I wanted it to be – I would be completely broke and on the street by the time it finished. I am very happy that I’m allowed to work in a craft that where music pays my bills; I feel incredibly privileged. The sound design was always part of it but I always try to make sound design musical and music more sound design: to find something within there. It’s hard to explain but they should become one eventually and this is very hard to hear on ‘Spells’ at least. But on the previous stuff – all the releases I did under HECQ – this approach is much more obvious there because it’s very electronic. But for my solo stuff it’s the same, ultimately I want to merge sound design and music into one.

I’d love for you to discuss your early memories of growing up with music? I presume you began playing the piano at a young age and progressed from there?

BLB: That is true although I was never really an instrumentalist in that way. I come from a musical family – my mother was an opera singer and vocal coach later on in her life and my father was an actor – so music was always very present and always a very important topic, and always being quite eclectic about it, my parents were and still are.

I started playing guitar and piano but I noticed this is not where I will be good at. It is more the abstract and programming part – the meta level of music – for example like ‘Spells’ and ‘Gravity’ are good examples: how can I make a programmed piano – or basically a piano that I never really touched, that I never saw or that I never recorded myself – how can I make that feel human and interesting? And how well that worked I guess is still to be seen when the album is out [laughs].

Well quite a few people – pianists actually – asked me how did I record the piano and I explained that I did not at all, it all comes from a machine. And their reactions were very interesting from amazed to almost disappointed and every reaction was in there; it was very funny really. There is a certain value system behind it like some people might value the result even less once they know that it’s not recorded as in no live piano. I thought that’s very interesting how you get this value system behind it or why is it that your perception tells you this is better because this is live or not live. That’s what I meant with meta level like it’s not only listening to a record, it’s also as a producer or as a musician questioning what is actually important for you during the production process and also when you listen to an album and why it might be more or less worth to you when it is done.

For example, I never sat down with the musicians in one studio at a time; they are all scattered either in Berlin or elsewhere in the world, and always recorded on their own almost. I mean I was in the studio with the drummer [Achim Farber] but the cellist [Anton Peisakhov] did his own thing and the harpist Lara [Somogyi] she is in LA so we were just bouncing off ideas really and then I merged them together here on my own. That’s also very interesting because there is a lot less life about this album than people might think [laughs] or at least how it sounds and that is done on purpose. It is probably without the listener knowing, a little challenge to question your perception.

As a listener listening to ‘Spells’ for example, overall there is a hugely humanised sound where you feel it’s very much an organic world that you wouldn’t think for a second was manipulated in any way.

BLB: Yeah that’s very interesting because that is how it should sound. It’s not an active act of deception or anything. I mean to make it sound human and very much alive was a goal but especially because everybody who starts to make computer music will have heard the phrase ‘oh so it’s not actual music’ when you work with a computer quite often and I’ve heard that many, many times. I mean computer musicians and electronic composers are absolutely established and are artists and a group of composers in their own right but still most of the people who are not actively involved in it they still have this preconception of this is not actual music and for some reason that I wanted to contribute a bit to that discussion saying that you can combine these things wonderfully. It’s quite tricky to sync a VST piano or any synths that are not improvised or played live to an actually live-played instrument because the moment you put a human being behind an instrument it will have its own very human factor and it will be quite faraway from any quantised digital world. This is very thrilling, I could do that for at least three more albums, it’s really fun.

There is a lot of chance and accidents in the sense that it is not set out too finely that goes inside the process too?

BLB: Indeed, it’s like recording mistakes, I would normally leave them in. I really like that, it’s not only to enhance the live feeling but I just normally really like what live mistakes and outtakes do to a piece of music like don’t over-polish it, that was my motto.

There is a lovely parallel between you and the other Erased Tapes artists like Nils Frahm and Kiasmos particularly where you’re certainly on a similar wavelength.

BLB: I hope so; I mean this is a big comparison so thanks a lot for thinking that way [laughs]. The mastering and mixing was Nils and he obviously added a lot of his input. It was very important for me that he is very free to do his thing and to work these little details and the extra twenty percent that this album would need – I mean twenty percent to say the least. When we were done after the two days, I really re-discovered the album and noticed things that I didn’t notice before and that’s why these sessions are always very helpful. He did that already on ‘Gravity’ and mostly because ‘Gravity’ didn’t sound like I wanted it to sound at all when I went into the mastering session and he really did something amazing there. ‘Spells’ was much closer to what I wanted it to be and he also adapted that fantastically so it’s an amazing job that he did. I mean he is adding a certain feel to it as well that makes it fit in with the rest of the bunch as well.

I wonder for the live performance it must be very exciting too because I presume the live set-up will transform the songs again even further?

BLB: Indeed, but that’s the trickiest part so far [laughs]. I’m really trying to figure out how to do that; well basically set up a band and come up with a concept. I actually never anticipated playing ‘Spells’ live. I mean I’m a studio composer and producer – not even a musician – so I have not much experience playing live other than a couple of DJ gigs back in the day and I’m working on something but it will take a while. It’s going to be a bit tricky – for me at least – I’m very critical with what I present to the outside world and so the live show needs to be very impressive, it needs to be something else. It’s not enough to go there and play on a stage with a laptop, there needs to be a concept behind it otherwise it’s not going to be the experience I want it to be. That’s why it might take a bit of time but you are absolutely right; listening to the layers of the tracks gives me a lot of ideas on how to solve that and how to go about the live idea – it’s very inspiring but it’s also very challenging, especially if you don’t really have a lot of experience in that area. It’s exciting times and I will spend a good portion of this year on figuring out how to do this.

I love how ‘Keep Watch’ is more rooted in the modern classical world but I love how the little layers of percussion are added throughout, especially during the later stages.

BLB: The cellist had to accompany himself. It’s a piece written for three cellos actually and he had to play all the three layers himself, the poor boy and he did an amazing job I think. He told me – and I wasn’t aware of – it’s very hard for a cellist to accompany himself and not in real-time; like you record one layer, then you record the second layer and then you record the third layer. And apparently it’s very hard to accompany yourself because of the re-intonation stuff like musician stuff that I wasn’t aware of [laughs]. He did an amazing job and for the live show it would have to be at least three cellos and this is one of the challenges.

Most of the live stuff is a logistic challenge because it’s easier for me to resolve that in a studio setting, you can basically come up with an entire string ensemble with just one musician in a studio but in a live scenario it has to be actually three musicians at least and so far, for only one track. So I would to need to write a bit more of that so it would make more sense to have three designated musicians there. I really enjoyed ‘Keep Watch’ because it is so focused on the strings and it’s quite a challenge to actually compose that way, it’s interesting.

You have a previous version of ‘Sleepers Beat Theme’ done already am I right to say?

BLB: Absolutely, it was the score for a short movie for at least half of it, the other half was done by Jon Hopkins. He heard the demo version of this track when the movie was done a couple of years ago almost and asked if he could use that for his Late Night Tales album, which was obviously a gigantic honour. It was a demo version because at that time I didn’t have all the tracks recorded and so it’s an alternative version but the album one is maybe my preferred version because it fits in better with the sound of the album. But the Late Night Tales version or the short movie version – I don’t want to say demo version –  I just like that on ‘Spells’ it blends in much better with the sound of the album. So that was done two years ago and it really never left me. I don’t remember exactly where the name comes from; it had something to do with the movie but since it’s a completely beat-less track, I’m not exactly sure where the name comes from anymore [laughs].

Would there be very important or defining albums for you, Ben?

BLB: There were a huge amount of wonderful albums absolutely that inspired me drastically through my youth and especially all the techno stuff and all the Boards of Canada stuff. I’m not sure who today in this kind of music did not listen to that or was not inspired by it, it’s really interesting. Over the last seven or eight years, I have noticed that if something has really inspired me it’s ancient: it could be Bach or a lot of blues and jazz records and also a lot of choral works; very basic, almost primitive choral works (it could be from Germany or from Bulgaria).

Here are five albums (in no specific order) I think are utterly important for me (and everyone ;))

01 Esbjörn Svensson Trio – Seven Days Of Falling

02 The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

03 Max Loderbauer – Transparenz

04 Thomas Köner – Teimo

05 Deaf Center – Vintage Well 7″

‘Spells’ is out this Friday, 10th June on Erased Tapes Records.

 

Written by admin

June 7, 2016 at 10:58 am

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