Name: Benny Bock
Occupation: Keyboardist, composer, producer and sound designer
Recent release: Benny Bock's Vanishing Act is out via Colorfield. Benny also recently contributed keyboard parts to The Weeknd's Dawn FM album.
Recommendation: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Mississippi Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings.
If you enjoyed this interview with Benny Bock and would like to find out more about his work, start your journey on his official homepage. He is also on Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My grandmother, mother and father.
I was lucky to grow up in a musical household. My gramma Betty was a music teacher and a folk musician, so she was putting me in front of her dulcimer, ukulele, banjo, piano, gamelan, hammered dulcimer, etc, when I was a toddler.
When I was born, my mom played Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of The Goldberg Variations. She and my dad constantly had records playing in the house. My dad likes jazz and classical, but also has a sizable dub / reggae collection and lots of folk & rock too. My mom listens to Bach mainly, but also loves Renaissance and Baroque as well as country and folk music. And tons of soundtracks.
There never was a decision to make music, it was what was around me and what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fascinated with sound and music.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
I do too! I have synesthesia so whenever I play or listen to music I process it as color. Normally I’m tapping, singing, or moving along to music.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I’m still developing, of course, so this is an ongoing question.
Trying to realize the sound in my head in reality is my goal. Breakthroughs have come when playing or writing with other musicians, and also with using older instruments in ways in which they were never intended. When you’re able to coax a sound that reminds you of something else, something much older or different, out of an instrument from a different tradition it’s incredibly exciting.
Technology plays a role in that sound design process to be sure, but it’s just a means to an end. Felt, wood, and metal can accomplish the same things. But sometimes something electronic like a ring modulator can help achieve an organic sound that you just haven’t heard before … it’s an incredibly fine yet fascinating line between the organic and the synthetic worlds.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
My family and my upbringing are directly responsible for my musical identity, so their influence comes out quite a lot, I think.
I find that I tend to gravitate to the roots of things, like gregorian chant, early synthesis, and early recorded music, so those preferences come out in my listening and creative tastes.
But as to how my identity does, I have no idea.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Play what you hear.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
A decent piano is necessary, which is something I’m searching for at the moment.
Instruments like the Oberheim Four Voice really inspire me. I try to research their creation, what musical reference their designers had when making them (if any) and learning that (like Bach 4 part vocal chorales, in the Four Voice’s case).
Then finally at the end just doing what you want in the moment with the instrument rather than being precious about everything.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
Make coffee, breakfast, listen for about an hour, then work on my own stuff for the rest of the day until a session or performance in the evening / night.
At the moment, I’m a freelance musician / producer, so this routine is highly susceptible to change if I need to drop things and head out somewhere. I look forward to a time when I can have a solid routine throughout the day.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Recently, I played a gig with two musicians who I deeply respect, Sam Gendel and Blake Mills. The show itself was mostly improvised, but we got together the day before to play a bit and to figure out a few different points of arrival so we wouldn’t be approaching the show completely empty-handed.
Much of my personal preparation was from a sound design point of view: I came up with a method of preparing my Fender Rhodes electric piano, which ended up resembling a mbira or another plucked metal instrument. Luckily, some friends were generous enough to loan a few pedals so I was able to use a pedalboard for the first time.
Practicing with the prepared Rhodes and pedals was incredibly exciting, especially because it enabled me to produce sounds I hadn’t been able to make on a keyboard instrument, sounds that sounded like a gong, kalimba, xylophone, or even a koto. The gig itself was filled with lots of listening and reacting, but the possibilities were very open.
I think that kind of creative process is something I want to explore more, making sounds and modifying instruments for a specific purpose, getting acquainted with those instruments on the basis of older, folkloric ones, and listening and reacting in the moment on the performance or recording.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I naturally prefer to listen and create alone, but there are certainly exceptions. There are things you could never create by yourself, magic that arises from a dialogue with another musician in the moment.
And listening to music together with the right people in the right setting is the best thing in the world.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
My own experience naturally comes out in my music, and the world around it seeps in as well. Music has a lot of roles in society: “functional,” like dance music, work songs, exercise playlists, ambient music, music to sleep to, and “non-functional,” which I guess is just music to listen to? Which to me is highly functional!
But I believe that at its best music uplifts. “I Wanna Take You Higher,” “God Is Love,” “Wholly Holy,” that kind of thing. Art Blakey said that jazz “brushes off the dust of everyday life.” It’s a way of connecting us with the truth - things we strive for, or maybe have forgotten.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
It’s integrally tied to my understanding of those questions. They’re one and the same.
Everything is represented in music and art, things we don’t even understand or haven’t experienced yet. But at these crucial moments in life music is the only thing that makes any sense. At all moments, really. Every memory I have of grief, loss, love, pain, etc, has a soundtrack.
There are definitely songs I can’t listen to casually, or even at all, because of the feelings and attachments they bring.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
There’s a lot of overlap. I was always fascinated by physics, and when I got my first synthesizer, I also got a cheap oscilloscope so I could visualize the sound waves. That really helped break down what the elements of sound are, and that they truly are real things. It’s so easy to get lost or confused with music because it isn’t tangible, but science can begin to explain certain things about the sound itself even though we can’t see it.
But there’s a lot about how music, particularly how it affects people, probably the most important part, that is immeasurable. Science points to what’s “there”. But there’s more to music and art than what’s “there.”
Having an understanding of the underlying principles of sound can really help sound design and may connect seemingly disparate musical practices that have been societally separate but are, in reality, sonically very similar. Like the diddley bow, a single stringed instrument which emerged from West Africa and played in the South, exists in some form or another across the world, including in European folk music, and also in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. It’s the same overtone series, the same possible techniques at a player’s disposal.
The science behind the sound itself can break down dogmatic Western genre and value judgements.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
It’s all the same thing.
Many musicians I know are fascinated by chefs, and vice versa. It’s creation, it’s nourishment, it’s a craft that interacts with organic materials and builds something with them. It changes over time, reacts to current society, or not. You try to learn from the masters in that field who came before you, and you can get better and better at that craft every day of your life.
I’ve spent more time working on music than cooking, so I think I can express myself freer, but the joy of creation is the same with both.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I don’t have a unifying explanation of music (if you do, I’d be very curious to hear!).
But, all sounds can be reduced down to sine waves. Every sound you’ve ever heard is made up of the humblest building block of motion, the sine wave. They are added together in different overtones (which is also how a Hammond organ’s drawbars work). I think at its core the essence of things is simple harmonic motion, a sine wave. Vibration. Which is why string theory is so exciting! It also brings together rhythm and harmony, which are just on different ends of the frequency spectrum. Messiaen describes this rhythmic-harmonic unification in his book, The Technique of My Musical Language.
As to how music can transmit such diverse and deep messages, I think it’s about interacting with and channeling something that is far greater than oneself, something elemental. When your intentions are pure and you’re able to tap into that greater-than-yourselfness, it has the potential to move people.
A music theory professor I studied from at Oberlin, Arnie Cox, has spent many years thinking about this significant question, I’d recommend his books on the subject far more than what I have to say. Also, Bernie Krause’s book on how humans originally learned music from birdsong and other natural sources.