Interview: Composer/Percussionist Ben Phelps

When I started New ClassicLA, Ben Phelps wrote to me almost immediately. Aside from being very complimentary, he told me how excited he was about LA finally forming a proper new music scene, with ensembles like What’s Next? and others performing in clubs and alternative spaces far outside of Disney Hall. Ben has played all over town, from gigs as a percussionist at Disney Hall to a principal position with the American Youth Symphony. The music he’s been writing has been getting him a lot of attention throughout Southern California and beyond.

This Wednesday, What’s Next? Ensemble (of which Ben is a founding member) premieres his new work Six Ways to Be Alone at Royal/T in Culver City. After watching him nearly impersonate an octopus with the percussion parts at their last concert, I wouldn’t want to miss it. Plus they have good beer and cupcakes.

At What’s Next? Ensemble’s concert a few weeks ago, I overheard you talking to a composer about writing for marimba. You said something along the lines of “we need more real composers interested in writing for percussion. Mostly it’s percussionists trying their hand at writing something.” You, however, are both a percussionist and a composer. Tell me about how your two practices influence each other, and whether you have trouble balancing them or making sure you’re in top shape for both.

Well, it’s always trouble, and I’m not sure I ever am in total top shape for both. I tend to be a pretty obsessive composer, so one thing that helps me is that I’m not actually doing both simultaneously most of the time. I find it pretty impossible. If I’m writing a piece, I tend to get consumed and then just have to finish the piece before moving on. The rest of the time, I can practice, or feel guilty that I’m not. Multi-tasking is one of the worst inventions ever, I have massive inferiority complexes about my multi-tasking abilities.
So am I as good a percussionist as I would be if I weren’t also a composer? Probably not. However, I can say that I believe I’m a much better composer for having been so active a player- I’ve learned so much more about music from sitting in rehearsals and actually figuring out how to make stuff work than I ever did in a classroom. Actually, being a percussionist is pretty perfect for this because in a Mahler symphony, say, we tend to play so few notes. There’s a lot of time to sit and listen to how he uses the bassoon.

Talk with me about Six Ways to Be Alone, the piece you’ll be premiering. What was its genesis? What are you trying to do with the piece?

Well, initially I wanted to write some pop songs. I was wondering why the “serious” composer is expected to set poetry, instead of just writing a song (music and lyrics) like Bob Dylan. Also, you can’t be a young hip composer these days without trying to incorporate pop influences into your music. Otherwise you don’t fit into the critical narrative. However, I quickly found that writing pop songs for orchestral instruments can sound pretty lame. So while I liked the idea of saying I was working on a “rock opera,” the finished product might be pretty far removed from this initial conception. What I’m left with are some original songs about love and loss. Like most good songs.

Not having heard it yet, the title implies a very personal meaning. How do you feel about putting yourself into your music? Do you want to represent your own emotions and worldview and such, or let the music take on a character independent of yourself?

It’s not something I actively set out to do, I also don’t set out NOT to do it. It seems crazy to think “nothing of me is in this piece of art,” because one that’s bullshit, no matter how hard you try something about your circumstances and life went into the creation of that thing at that time, and two, I’m not sure the artist should consider that desirable. In any case, it’s pretty hopeless for me. Pieces I obsessed with at the time find their way into my music, as do my life situations and world views, and personality. I don’t fight it, isn’t that one of the things that makes art interesting? That said, music is abstract and it’s not like I set out to write an autobiography. I just want to write music that I find moving and meaningful, and sometimes that becomes more personal and sometimes less so.

With the previous questions in mind, do you prefer to explain and discuss your work with audiences, or let your music speak for itself? I ask because of the minimal (and quite eye-catching) program notes that What’s Next? used at their last concert, and because it seems like there are artistic and experiential implications when you discuss a work before listeners hear it.

Shrug. I’m a little indifferent. I get annoyed when an explanation becomes longer than the piece. But sometimes it’s nice to give the novice listener something to grab onto. Listening to music- really listening- is a learned art and you can’t expect to just throw people into classical music concerts and really understand everything. I hope that my music speaks for itself. I think sometimes you can get more from a piece if you know just a little more about it before you hear it. Or maybe even better after you hear it. I don’t think there will be any explanation for my piece in the program though.

Since you’re both composer and performer, and a very virtuosic and capable one at that, I’d like to know your feelings on the performer-composer relationship, and the role of individual virtuosity these days.

I’ll let you know how it goes when others have attempted my marimba solo. I can and do proselytize about the need for composers to write music that is no more difficult than it absolutely needs to be, but I’m not sure if I listen to my own advice.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’m writing a string quartet (with trumpet) about Los Angeles. It’s called The Angels. Get it? My new percussion quartet will be premiered by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet in the spring. And What’s Next? is a lot of work.

As always, since we are in fact promoting LA as place for people to come for music and beyond, what is your favorite:

1. Neighborhood

I’m a Los Angeles Cosmopolitan, not a Balkan.

2. Place to hear music

Hmm. Wherever it’s good? I guess I’m seen most at Disney concert hall, and the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo.

3. Restaurant

Well, I’ll give a plug to Malibu Seafood, in Malibu obviously.

4. Bar/hang out

I liked Wurstkuche before it was cool. My new favorite is BeerBelly, little Tokyo. Apparently they have lucky charms pancakes. I haven’t had those.

5. Store

I’ve never considered having a favorite store.

6. Thing to do/see

Concerts. And climbing mountains. That basically sums it up.
Check out the premiere of Six Ways to Be Alone this Wednesday at Royal/T in Culver City. For more information on Ben and What’s Next? Ensemble, visit benphelpscomposer.com and whatsnextensemble.com.
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