Creating Sonic DNA: An interview with composer Benjamin Louis Brody
On Friday, February 12, composer Benjamin Louis Brody, released Floating Into Infinity, his collaborative album with drummer Ian Chang (an OG Sunhouse artist and close friend).
Benjamin is known for his progressive and multi-faceted compositions. And Floating Into Infinity is full of subtle colors, propulsive rhythmic elements, and hypnotic textures.
The composition utilizes Sensory Percussion throughout to combine the nuance and control of an acoustic drum and the limitless possibilities of digital sound.
How did you and Ian Chang start working together?
I was commissioned to write a ballet in 2016 by a producer named Santino Lo; around the same time Ian started promoting his work with Sensory Percussion. After seeing and hearing what Ian was able to accomplish sonically with Sensory Percussion, I immediately planned to ask him to be part of the project. Thankfully he agreed!
As I was sketching out my ideas for the ballet, I thought what Ian was doing at the time was perfect. How he was able to control the drums and the samples with Sensory percussion was fascinating to me.
We met while both undergraduates (he was at NYU and I was at Manhattan School of Music studying French horn), performing together in a kind of folk/rock/theater/opera student production at NYU. We kept in touch periodically throughout the years as I was always interested in what he was doing musically.
Can you walk me through the compositional and recording process for Floating Into Infinity? How are you integrating Sensory Percussion?
The compositional process was very interesting and a totally new experience for me. I had no idea how to use Sensory Percussion. Before I came up with any notation or knew how I was going to write for Ian, I’d send him long emails about the samples and how I’d imagine them to sound. The great thing about Ian is that anytime I sent an idea, it came back exactly the way I was thinking, or better. Throughout the whole process he was such an amazing interpreter of the music and sounds I was trying to achieve. From there we'd meet up, figure out the drum maps and work on the samples utilizing the parameters that Sensory Percussion provided - including live processing such as filtering, reverb, blending of multiple sounds on one drumhead, etc. This would all contribute to how I ended up notating the final score.
The work is constantly bubbling on a micro level, while breathing in slow motion on a macro level, like a forest.
I don't think I was entirely aware at the time, but this was the start of the recording process. A lot of what you're hearing on the record are obviously the samples we used in the performance. But they're also what was sent back to me as the demos or the original ideas for the performance. I would send Ian instructions and he'd send back basically full performances. ASMR II is a perfect example of that. Ian utilized the same samples for the track ASMR on his Spiritual Leader EP and then I ended up continuing those sounds; using the samples for ASMR II. A lot of ASMR II was edited in whole chunks; sent back and forth.
Much of Floating Into Infinity references earlier pieces of yours -- Oscillation, Floating Into Infinity, ASMR -- what are some of the ideas behind these pieces that keep bringing you back?
Well, first of all, thank you for asking about this, I'm eager to talk on this topic. I like to envision my music as sort of a family tree. In other interviews I've mentioned that these pieces have a kind of a sonic DNA, which goes along with my other music. Everything was connected in some way -- nothing new was ever generated completely by itself. Other than when I first started composing, something always stemmed from something else as I kept going, you know?
It was just amazing to see something so electronic be so humanized
And these sounds or gestures that you hear on this album are not only references. I don't know if references is even the right word, but they're places or doorways. They kind of let you know where you've been and where you're going. So pieces like Oscillations, Floating Into Infinity, ASMR II are specific sounds that I hear as instruments. They're not necessarily a composition that's set in stone. When I say they're instruments, the sound "Floating Into Infinity," the sound "Oscillations" is an instrument to me, it's the same as a guitar, or even as a specific synth sound.
It's funny because Ian, in another interview, mentioned how he really loved this body of work because it "constantly bubbling on a micro level, while breathing in slow motion on a macro level, like a forest.” And when we were working together, I don't think we really talked about visualizations or philosophical concepts. We were very much immersed in the technical aspect of trying to understand Sensory Percussion. So the fact that that came across to Ian, without me really talking to him about it, I thought that was cool.
And it also creates style. It creates a specific sound. In film, certain directors use the same actors for most of their films. I feel in a general sense (or maybe in a less complicated sense), you could see it like that. But for me, it's a sonic DNA, it's a style, it's a voice, it's a doorway, it's an instrument, you know? I hope that's clear.
It sounds like Sensory Percussion and it’s capabilities was a big part of the how the composition came together. What about SP worked particularly well in this context?
It really gave us the freedom to explore our vision. Whatever I wrote and gave to Ian, he was able to recreate using Sensory Percussion. I would send him a group of samples and think, "Oh, this probably isn't gonna be possible." And he would send it back and would prove me wrong every time.
SP also gave such freedom to Ian in terms of how to interpret the music and the samples. We could process the samples so that where and how Ian hit the drum determined how they would sound and what the outcome would be. I think that really added to the interpretation of the music and the performance and the ballet. It was just amazing to see something so electronic be so humanized. I would say overall, it gave us a lot of artistic freedom, which is sometimes the opposite of what sampling does in terms of dynamics, interpretation or musicality.
What else are you working on?
So right now I'm working on some film and orchestration projects. Like many of us, I'm planning on getting more performances scheduled for when COVID lifts. And I'll have some new music coming out at the end of 2021, maybe sooner.
I also create music notebooks called Descant, a multi-format music manuscript notebook, combining college ruled notebook paper with music staff paper. It's currently selling at a lot of colleges right now. I'm working with a paper company called Roaring Spring Paper Products; they're based in PA. In New York City, you can get them at the Juilliard store and Manhattan School of Music. Besides writing and doing some teaching, I would say, I’m keeping busy as much as a musician can do in COVID times.