Interview with Ben Carey

Benjamin Carey is a Sydney-based saxophonist, composer and technologist. Ben makes electronic music using the modular synthesiser, develops interactive music software and creates audio-visual works. His work has been performed and exhibited nationally and internationally at numerous festivals and academic conferences including the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music (UK), the dBâle festival of electronic music (Switzerland), the New York City Electronic Music Festival (USA), the Totally Huge New Music Festival (Australia), IRCAM Live @ La Gaité Lyrique (France), the Festival de Mùsica Electroacùstica (Chile), the International Computer Music Conference (Australia) and the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (USA, UK and Australia). He collaborates regularly with artists/ensembles such as Zubin Kanga, Joshua Hyde, Ollie Bown, Megan Clune, Kusum Normoyle, Alon Ilsar, Ensemble Offspring, Sydney Chamber Opera, and many others. Ben completed a PhD in interactive musical composition at the University of Technology Sydney in 2016. He is currently an Academic Fellow in Composition and Music Technology at the University of Sydney, Conservatorium of Music.

       Ben, in your work you touch a line between the advanced modular technology of a synth with some pretty sophisticated manner of composition. Where was the start that led you to this point where you are now?

I’ve been working with a eurorack modular system for the past three years or so. In the context of my artistic work that’s relatively recent. I began my work with electronic music as a saxophonist, seeking ways of extending my improvised practice through live sampling and processing of my instrument through the computer, and later on through developing bespoke software in MaxMSP for this purpose. Since that time, I’ve been interested in interacting with complexity and setting up situations where I can be surprised by what a technology can bring to both composition and performance. I’m also fascinated by the relationship that develops between the musician and their tools, and specifically tools they define and develop themselves. Coming to modular synthesis has been a natural extension of this approach to music making. I find working with a modular system a way surrendering somewhat to a dance of agencies between myself and a complex system – so the results of my work on the modular are often surprising. I want the machines and algorithms I work with to throw up the unexpected, and I feel my compositional process is often one of exploration and discovery in the first instance. My compositional ideas and outputs are often borne from this two-way interaction.

       How does your academical background influence the compositional process?

It’s intertwined. As an academic I research themes of human-machine interactivity through my practice as an electronic musician. In academia we call this approach to research ‘practice-based’ – where often the genesis of research themes come primarily from the development of artistic work. Of course, all artists research as part of their practice, however practice-based research seeks to both present new creative works, as well as communicate new perspectives, new ways of thinking and doing that are borne from these practices. My work as an academic also involves much teaching – which I love. Teaching is a very rich source of learning for me.

        In what way you develop your audiovisual aspect of what you’re doing, how do those two intervene, collide and crash with each other?

The audio-visual aspect of my work has been developing slowly over the past few years. All of my visual work is interactive in some way, as it’s made to react to a performer’s sound, as well as to influence their performance either directly or indirectly. The visual layer adds an extra dimension to a performance; it might articulate movements and gestures of a performer - making these ‘visible’, but it can also act as something autonomous that a performer can interact with. I like the challenge of abstracting my musical ideas into a visual domain, and I play with this in the way I map sound to movement, and movement back to sound. It’s not always successful, as the way I develop my visuals is very trial and error. The generative nature of the visuals has much commonalities with the kind of work I do in sound, but the process can be quite tedious!

       As a saxophonist, what do you feel was important when you approached electronic domain of music and composition?

Composing electronic music is very different to notating work for musicians to interpret. To me, there’s an immediacy to making electronic sound -  especially with hardware – which is very instrumental. You need to listen, to refine sounds and processes over a long period of time – it’s an approach that I recognise from playing and practicing the saxophone. Much of this is related to the cultivation and refinement of technique. I spent many hours over many years in a small box developing my sound, my technique and my reflexes as an instrumentalist. Whether it’s developing and testing code, making a patch or performing on a modular system, I think the feedback loop of listening, acting and responding to electronic sound has a lot of commonalities with this type of discipline.

       Where does the software that you develop find its place in this whole territory?

Building software for me is about developing systems that can surprise in performance – I usually have an idea in mind of the sound or visual I want, but much of the software is open to change based on how a musician performs. My _derivations system was designed as a sort of performance partner that can be improvised with. My visuals are designed to be reactive to a performer, but also as a form of interactive score of sorts. Developing software that is both ‘aware’ of its context, and is also unpredictable, is challenging. I code things that can both listen and generate – this musical/visual generation is always influenced by what they’ve sensed from a player.

       How do your collaborations shape the face of your musical output in relation to learning, interaction and immersion in both intellectual and emotional aspects of what you are doing?

Collaborating with others is profoundly enriching. I play very differently when I perform with others, and it makes me think about sound, interaction and listening in a very different way. However, each collaboration is different, and I collaborate in many different contexts. I have collaborated as a sound designer for composers, and also with artists as a software developer, coding interactive projects for performance or installation. For these projects I might draw upon approaches I would use in my own work, but I use these to help realise someone else’s musical vision. As someone who primarily makes interactive work for myself, composing a work like this for another player is fascinating, as it gives me a totally different perspective on my concept of interactivity. I want to give the player freedom to explore the interactive space, but lately I’ve also become more specific with instructions to the player, both verbally and in a score. My favourite collaborations are in improvised performance, where listening and responding to a shared sound world is the most important thing. Over the past year I’ve been working with a fantastic vocalist, Sonya Holowell. Our performances are improvised, but with the modular synth there’s also an element of pre-composition involved – I have to ‘build’ my instrument in the form of a patch before taking to the stage. I love this challenge because it makes me build an environment to perform with that is sensitive to her style of performance, but also flexible enough for it to be able to change on a dime.

      Plans for the future…

I’ve just finished a mini-residency at the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS), where I spent time on a rare 1975 Serge Paperface synthesizer. MESS generously gave me the time to dive deep into this instrument, and I’m in the early stages of working towards a release with the material I recorded during my stay. Sonya Holowell and I are working towards a release of some live material recorded earlier in the year as well, and next year I have a few sound design and live performance projects lined up that will keep me busy!