Thursday, May 1, 2014

Interview with Composer Ben Daniels

6:08 PM
It's clear when you listen to Ben Daniels' sophisticated yet broadly-appealing compositions that he knows what he's doing--but he's reconciled himself to the idea that he'll always feel like he doesn't.

Daniels started out as an undergrad percussion major, delved into minimalism as he began to compose, and now pursues his Ph.D. at Duke--where, among other things, he assistant-teaches Hip Hop and Rap Appreciation. All along, he's devoted a lot of thought to how what he's doing should be done. Talk to him about his craft and those thoughts take on a life of their own, showing up as imagined conversations between Daniels and hypothetical detractors and forming the lens through which he explains his work.

Recently I continued my tour of all the coffee shops in Durham series of composer interviews and caught up with Ben at Mad Hatter's.

How did you start composing?
I started in fifth grade band, playing percussion, playing in drumline and all that stuff. Then I did two years [of college] as a percussion major. [After I got interested in composition] I waited a little bit cause I didn't really know, like, how do you write music? I tried to get all the books that I could. I was really obsessed with creative process. I would read composer interviews, like, "how do you even start writing a piece of music?" I started writing some pieces, submitted them to the composition department at my school, got into that program, and still had no clue what I was doing at all. Then as you go on, the more you realize that there is no codified system of composition. You just write what you like . . . it's choose your own adventure in a way. 

I think that's something I really got hung up on for a long time. How do I find some artistic genius thing to say? [But] I think that a lot of people just don't know. One of my favorite composers is Michael Gordon. I read an interview with him that's like, "what's your writing process like?" He's like, "banging my head up against a wall. Every time I write a piece I don't know if I'm gonna be able to do it." There's something to be said about that. I think not knowing what you're doing is sort of awesome. If you know exactly what you're doing, you're just gonna crank it out. There are some composers out there who just crank it out, but I think the really good ones, they don't know. Oscar Bettison is an extremely good composer and he says "If you write the piece you know how to write, you're doing it all wrong. Every time you start the piece, you should have no idea how to write it. That's how you develop problem solving skills." I think that's how composers develop longevity and survive.

When you go back and listen to your early compositions from when you were so wrapped up in "am I doing this the right way?," what do you think of them?
Man, it's tough. What I think is that I can see a lot of who I'm trying to copy. Literally, [my] first pieces, I don't see anything good in them. Like, okay, I'm glad I wrote a cadence. That's cool. [They were] sort of like learning the alphabet. That's really positive. It's so hard to not be influenced by your teachers or by great composers. I think that's a part of everyone's formal education, becoming a creative person or making anything that's unique. I can certainly hear pieces like, "that's basically me trying to write exactly like my teacher." Now I see it as almost intentional, but when you write those pieces you don't even know. It's hard to get perspective. You can learn a lot from doing that, don't get me wrong. I actually don't think until I got here [to Duke] that I started writing music that I feel a sense of ownership [over]. You have to write your teachers out of your music.

Do you feel like you react against anything when you compose?
Going through school is a lot about being an intellectual. There's a lot of focus on that, and that's great. But I'm put off by music that someone feels like they need to have advanced degrees to understand or to appreciate. So I think that that's maybe something that I react against.

For you, what does it mean to shift away from writing purposefully intellectual music?
It can have to do with the rhythm. I'm a percussionist, so for me, writing crazy rhythms is not as difficult for me to understand or to internalize as it might be for someone who plays another instrument--a singer or something like that. They don't think about rhythm in the same way. They have a whole lot of other things to worry about. You know, embouchure, breathing, things that we percussionists don't have to deal with. I've written a lot of pieces where there are really complex rhythms and things have to line up, and then it just doesn't end up working because I'm not taking into consideration margin of error. I think that's something I'm really trying to figure out right now--if something isn't played 100% perfectly, what does that mean for this piece, or what does that mean for this 8 bars, or this section? Okay, this is pretty rhythmically complex. How important is that? How can I make that as understandable to the player as possible? I'm not saying, you know, I shouldn't write nested tuplets, but if I'm going to, I really need to think about the performer . . . you know, what is their relationship to that notation going to be?

It's interesting to hear you talk about how much consideration you give the performer. I know you guys all composed the yMusic pieces [including your piece, X] for them specifically. How was that process for you?
It was great. Writing for a group that is that good is really a pleasure, a real treat. I find that when you write for a good group, they're really opinionated. It's the same with any profession. If a person does something for a living, they're professional; they know what they want and they know what they don't want. So they have opinions like, "oh, we want it to be notated this way. We'd like it if I had this cue." That's really great cause sometimes, when you deal with maybe student performers or people who are still coming up, they might be a little nervous to really advocate for themselves as a performer. There's this weird dialogue that sometimes happens between composer and performer and sometimes doesn't. I think sometimes we think composers have all the answers, or everything we need to know is absolutely written down in the score. There's sort of this idea [that] there's no fallibility in the score itself. I think in my music, at least at this stage, I don't know every single thing the trumpet can do, or, you know, any given instrument. So I like to think of this as more of a collaborative process, hopefully.

What is it like TA-ing Hip Hop and Rap Appreciation?
It's pretty great. [The professor] had to turn people away from that class. He had a cap of like 30 students and we have 40 kids in the class.  There were people at the first class meeting who came up to him after class like, "hey, I'm number 15 on the wait list, I just want to know if I could make it." Apparently a lot of people want to know a lot about hip hop history and hip hop, how to appreciate it. I mean, what are the elements of hip hop? Because they consume it on a daily basis. It's a part of their world, maybe a little bit more than 19th century German opera. Which is great. There's nothing wrong with 19th century German opera. But I've learned that from the Duke classes, which are definitely in the more general music, pop world, which I think is where I find myself way more than in the world of Wagner or Haydn.

What do you listen to recreationally?
I don't listen to any classical at all. Zero. I'm trying to get my hip hop cred up, so I'm listening to Schoolboy Q, who's a top guy. It's all right. And I don't know, for pleasure, The Talking Heads. Huge Frank Zappa fan. I think that listening to music should be fun. And that's something that composers should always think about. Whether the music is super dark and crazy-scary or super serial or whatever, it should still be fun. It should be fun because it's so interesting, because its so complex or the sounds are so wild. I think that's something that listening to pop music, while it's highly criticized by people who are highly musically trained as being like, "oh, well they don't even know what the pentatonic scale is, and they don't know what this or that is," I think the one thing pop music does very well is to entertain us. Your job as a composer is to entertain someone, and whether you disregard the audience--I think that's a pretty hot topic [among] composers: "what do you think about the audience?" And some people say, "I don't ever think about my audience because I don't ever know where my music is going to be played." I understand that. You can't control that. But there's always an audience. You're at least trying to entertain yourself.

For more information about Ben Daniels, visit his website. To hear more of his music, visit him on Soundcloud.

my review of Ben's piece with yMusic
interview with Jamie Keesecker
interview with D. Edward Davis

About the author

I'm Andrea. Everything you need to know is here.