I interviewed musician Ben Comeau about his innovative combinations of classical, jazz, pop and world music. Ben, who graduated top of his year in music from Cambridge University, UK, won the 2011 Northern Ireland International Organ Competition. He has performed his compositions in the Royal Albert Hall, the Wigmore Hall and Birmingham Symphony Hall as well as on BBC Radio 3. Ben has improvised live soundtracks to several silent films and is a committed environmentalist. In his own words, Ben is: “Always looking for ways to connect music to important social and political issues of our time.”
Leslie: Could you sum up in a nutshell, please, for someone unfamiliar with your work, what they’d hear if they came to a concert of yours?
Ben: I can’t quite manage a nutshell answer because it varies too much! The one common feature in all my music, I think, is finding new uses for old classical techniques, rooted in the tradition of European art music of the last five centuries, but with a critical approach. I’m torn between the depth of my love for this tradition, and my dislike of many aspects of classical music performance culture. I don’t want to practice the same canonic repertoire for six hours a day, only to give a near-identical performance as will be given by a hundred and fifty other conservatoire students this year in London alone. I like improvising too much, and learning about other traditions, and thinking critically about the meaning of classical music in 2020 (which is almost unheard of in most music colleges). And I especially like jazz. So I take my emotional and academic immersion in old music, and see what I can do with this that has meaning today! I do this in classical recitals (on piano and organ), in jazz gigs and in cabaret gigs, in formal concert venues and at street protests, and with music that’s considered more avant-garde as well as in more popularly appealing forms.
Leslie: Could you expand, please, on the statement in ‘Encore’ that you are, ‘…very interested in the interplay and relationships between different styles of music. Recital programmes frequently include an eclectic mix of genres and styles, from Bach to Chopin to Debussy to Art Tatum to Pink Floyd to Ligeti.’ How do you fuse this repertoire together without it becoming a ragbag collection of unrelated parts?
Ben: The solo classical recital, as a genre, has often consisted of a fairly motley collection of music, put together with only loose thematic links, paying attention to the balance of major/minor, fast/slow, etc. When I was younger, it simply seemed a natural extension of this to add in a few jazz or rock items too. Of course, this eclectic approach is alien to many other artistic genres!
But there are always fascinating links between seemingly disparate repertoire to draw on. For example, I’m interested in the trans-atlantic musical lines of influence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which provide opportunities to programme Chopin waltzes and mazurkas alongside Brazilian choros, or Faure and Debussy melodies alongside the Great American Songbook, as I did in a duo project with singer Alice McCarthy.
If you listen to a Brahms Intermezzo after listening to six other Brahms works in the same recital, your ears will be wonderfully immersed in the same aesthetic, and you might feel a more direct connection with Brahms’s mind. If, however, the Brahms follows some Philip Glass, the sharp juxtaposition may accentuate the vividness of each aesthetic, and help to contextualise the experience within the field of music. I couldn’t say which approach is objectively better, but my restless, curious mind favours the eclecticism. And we do live in a postmodern world with short attention spans – whether good or bad, my own attention span is horrifically short, and nowadays I prefer to embrace this.
Leslie: What are your compositional processes?
Ben: Before I’ve written a note, I often like to shut my eyes and visualise myself in the audience at the premiere of the piece. I like to pay attention to contextual factors such as the acoustic, the musical capabilities of the performers, perhaps even the audience demographic, what mood they might be in just before the piece, etc. The more details, the better. Then I just imagine my piece being played, and then I open my eyes and write down what I heard – at least as my starting point. I think that implies a fairly functional view of music – it’s not just pure self-expression (that’s a part of it though). I want to feel what effect my piece might be having on listeners – music is communication, and for me this needs to be two-way.
It’s not that I don’t have an underlying desire to self-express regardless of audience. But I already satisfy this expressive desire through improvising to myself on the piano, or imagining orchestral scores in my head. Presenting a composition publicly is more of a slog. My inner creativity is generally churning regardless, but moulding this into a finished product for external consumption is something I’ll usually do only under a deadline for a specific performance. And for this to feel worthwhile, I want to know what other people would benefit from hearing, what musical moods they would resonate with in the performance event, etc. I need to explore the myriad ways in which listeners don’t necessarily experience music the same as me. It’s curious how many musicians seem to view this as an inauthentic dilution of the creative process.
Leslie: What are the elements of prepared response and randomness that go into your improvisations?
Ben: ‘Improvisation’, at least in music, can mean anything from mild unplanned embellishments around a fixed piece of music, to attempts to create something entirely unrelated to anything previously heard. I do most things within this spectrum! I don’t usually like to plan improvisations (or improvised components of pieces), because my most successful improvisations are when I’m managing to be very mindful and in the moment. My mindful musical impulses often clash with pre-planned elements. The flip-side is that my least successful improvisations are when I did no planning, but inspiration didn’t strike! But I prefer to take these risks…
Nevertheless, there are plenty of situations when planning is useful, especially in an ensemble improvisation. I may well use a fixed underlying chord progression. I will also usually draw on the existing language of whatever genre(s) I’m using. To some extent, of course I’ll be influenced by all the music I’ve ever heard or played. But in the performance, the actual musical narrative – the emotional journey – should happen spontaneously and organically. Arguably, this should equally apply to note-for-note performances of classical repertoire.
There‘s also a huge element of randomness in how I am feeling on the day. I frequently oscillate between very high and very low energy states; the latter isn’t necessarily a barrier to creativity, but it will affect the tone of my performance a great deal. Similarly, I try to listen to the audience’s own energy before starting, which can sometimes re-orient my performance to an unexpected direction.
Leslie: What are the subjective processes involved in improvisation? How do you avoid slipping into standard riffs/clichés?
Ben: I heard a story about Keith Jarrett, known for doing improvised solo piano concerts with absolutely zero pre-planning. One time he came on stage, but didn’t play a note for ages, clearly prepared to wait as long as it took for inspiration to strike. Eventually, an audience member shouted “B flat!” Keith replied, “Thank you!” and off he went. I really identify with this approach. Sometimes I put down the first note of a public improvisation at random, listen to how it is reverberating in the space, and see where that is pulling me. It’s an excellent way to get into a mindful state, which is something I need to work on a lot more.
At the same time, there’s no shame in using existing vocabulary. Many of the best improvising jazz ensembles will rely overwhelmingly on motifs and phrases they’ve played countless thousands of times before, but the meaning – the dance – is in the exact, improvised placement of these ingredients. Again, the key is really mindfulness: you must listen so attentively and openly that your intuition pulls you to whichever well-practiced phrase would have genuine meaning at that split second, and you then know how to imbue that phrase with extra microscopic inflections that make it resonate. Personally I aim for a mixture of existing vocabulary with new ideas in each improvisation.
Leslie: Can you describe what ‘pastiche composition’ is, and how you teach it?
Ben: Pastiche composition is composition which imitates the styles & mannerisms of a particular composer or historical era, as closely as possible. For example, you could attempt to write a madrigal in the style of William Byrd. Its main use is educational, not artistic. It cultivates greater sensitivity to the music of whoever you are imitating; you learn more about the composer’s intentions. And while we don’t necessarily need to heed the artist’s intentions, I usually find it makes for a more fulfilling experience if we listen to them as closely as we can. Pastiching also teaches you a huge amount about the processes of composition. You learn why a particular combination of notes on the page creates one aesthetic, and why a different combination of notes creates another.
Unfortunately, pastiche is unfashionable in many establishments, because it looks like it discourages originality. However, many of the most successful innovators in music developed their craft through incredibly detailed training in earlier musical styles – Beethoven, Debussy, Schoenberg for example – or Miles Davis’s apprenticeship under Charlie Parker – or the Beatles having to play five hours of rock’n’roll sets for six nights a week in their Hamburg before they got famous. Or Picasso’s childhood paintings, or…
Leslie: How is your unconventional musical approach related to your upbringing?
Ben: I was incredibly lucky with my upbringing, growing up with music all around, and with parents who encouraged me to be open-minded and follow my passions.
However, more specifically, I was surrounded almost exclusively by European classical music: listening to my dad giving piano lessons through the wall from my cot, only shortly before being led by him through the ABRSM grade exams; simultaneously singing six services a week in Truro Cathedral as a boy chorister. My dad especially imprinted a rigorous attention to music theory, harmony and voice-leading, from a young age. So the language and techniques of this music (and of J S Bach above all) are really deeply ingrained in my psyche – like a first language. By contrast, when I study jazz, or samba, or Klezmer, it’s like learning a foreign language; I’ll never speak it with native fluency. This doesn’t stop me trying, and the resulting fusions are very exciting to my mind! But I need to know my strengths and weaknesses, and pay proper respect to the traditions I’m borrowing from.
I want to use my lifelong immersion in European classical music to challenge some of the tradition’s less savoury elements. There are still an alarming number of conservatives who use pseudo-rationalist arguments to venerate pre-20th century European classical music above other musical styles (with barely disguised racism). And racism, misogyny and homophobia is often encoded even in the music itself, let alone the surrounding discourse and performance culture. There are a lot of young classical music revolutionaries who therefore talk of tearing down the canon and starting afresh (who I think we’ll hear more from, in tandem with the growth of radical leftist politics), and some days I sympathise. But the fact remains that the musical tradition is a large part of who I am/we are. And musicians usually say far more of interest when working within a tradition that has a recognised language, socially constructed but widely understood. So I want to acknowledge this tradition, keep on using its tools to fulfil music’s social good – but also to encourage, not only playful irreverence, but also outright criticism and condemnation of our sacred dead geniuses, where so often applicable.
Leslie: How do politics and music relate to each other positively/negatively in your music?
Ben: I’m still figuring this all out. I alluded above to harmful politics being encoded in musical notes – this tends to be very subliminal, and unintentional of the composer. For example, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that gender stereotypes are reinforced by listening to instrumental music in sonata form (this is a type of musical structure, especially ubiquitous in nineteenth century music, where a masculine-coded first subject is juxtaposed with a feminine-coded second subject in a foreign key, and – following intervening turbulence – the feminine-coded second subject is ultimately conquered and brought back to the home key). Obviously that doesn’t mean the composer was necessarily interested in making a statement on gender.
Unfortunately, deliberate attempts to communicate politics in music are often clumsy and less effective than subliminal, unintentional messaging! How many of us artists are desperate to reconcile our desire to improve the world with our craving for arguably self-indulgent creative pursuits? But in my experience – of my own work and of others – this often entails either poor, overbearing articulation of the politics, or bad musical craftsmanship. And it’s hard not to be preachy, whether to the converted, or to the indignant unconverted. I remember a friend’s composition about rainforest destruction being slammed by a notorious Cambridge composition professor as ‘agitprop for the tree frogs’.
But I’m optimistic there are still effective ways to do political music. Instrumental classical music and jazz are so often seen as ‘absolute music’ (i.e. supposedly devoid of extra-musical meaning), so I think politics is more effective here if it understatedly communicates an emotional truth that could not be expressed in words, rather than trying to ram down an explicit statement. Music can be fantastic at acknowledging grief. A piece that might have originally been inspired by a heart-wrenching romantic breakup could be suitably programmed at a vigil for environmental destruction, and so provide solace for grieving activists. Music can also communicate ecstasy better than pretty much anything, and I love the way it can provide a foretaste of some imagined utopia where we’ve ‘sorted everything out’. Whether we’ll actually realise this utopia isn’t the point. It raises our spirits, livening our struggle, and inspires us to fight so we *do* get a lot closer to this utopia.
Alternatively, one can write music that unashamedly foregrounds politics (usually through the lyrics), but this means putting the musical accompaniment to the background, not letting too many notes get in the way. One of my compositions I’m proudest of was a setting of text from placards from the children’s climate strikes – ‘Global warming is worse than onions!’ ‘We’ll be less activist if you’ll be less shit.’ ‘STOP BURNING OUR PLANET!’ etc – alongside condescending quotes from rightwing politicians and journalists disparaging these children. The underlying theme was innocence vs experience: the naivety of children with bad handwriting, who still understood the fundamental arguments better than the superficially knowledgable adults who have all the practical experience. I think it worked because rather than indulging in anger, the music was fun and silly – a raunchy, spiky big band quasi-mambo, with childlike optimism and plenty of deliberate ‘wrong notes’, underpinned by the same hidden attention to musical craftsmanship you would expect from any piece of absolute music.
I had a couple of viral videos from ‘political fugues’ I wrote: pastiche high-Baroque choral fugues, but the first was set to the words ‘Donald Trump is a Wanker’, the second (a year later) to ‘Boris Johnson is a Lying Shit’. As crass and simplistic as they were, I really enjoy that disjoint between high and low. My favourite YouTube comment was someone angrily asserting ‘Fugues are for men of character and glorification of god. Bach would be ashamed at your mediocre perversion.’ I get off on that combination of tradition and iconoclasm.
But none of my opinions are fixed! I am spending a lot of my lockdown time reading, listening and absorbing – music, literature, political viewpoints etc – and I hope to have progressively better answers to all these questions with each passing month and year.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- Purple is a coming-of-age novel, a portrait of modern love and a family saga. Set in the North of England, it follows the story of shy ingénue Matthew Lavender living through the wildness of the 60s and his grandmother Mary, born into a traditional working-class family. You can read more about/buy Purple here.
- Blue tells the story of Richard and Vanessa Lavender, who join a 90s feminist collective sharing childcare, political activism and open relationships. You can read more about/buy Blue here.
- Violet is about late-life love. It begins in 2003 with Beth Jarvis and James Lavender on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister… Signed copies of Violet can be bought here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.