Where: Yu Yin Tang (1731 Yan’an Xi Lu 延安西路1731号, near Kaixuan Lu)
After leaving his day job as an audio designer for the French video game company Ubisoft, Ben Houge has been making his impact on the Shanghai music scene with his full-time foray into music and sound art. Ben performed this past Sunday in “Silence or Silence or Brainwave Communication,” organized by founder of Fuzhou-based Brainwave Communication, Hong Qile.
The show, which featured several other Shanghai performers, included what Houge self-described as “a sneak preview of a sound installation that [he’s] working on, incorporating ambient automated filters and algorithmic rhythms.”
He will be back on-stage again this Sunday at Yu Yin Tang for the release party of his new (and first!) EP, 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, opening for the Japanese/Korean duo 10, who are in the middle of a China tour supporting their own new CD, Kitsch.
We talked to Ben recently about the upcoming event, his new CD, and his sonic experiences in Shanghai.
SmartShanghai did an interview with you last week where you talked about the performance this past Sunday involving the sound installation collaboration with Shanghai-artist Chen Hangfeng. What can people expect from this upcoming Sunday’s performance as opposed to what you did this past Sunday?
The two shows are completely different. Last Sunday was all computer manipulated sound, very ambient and fairly abstract. [This] Sunday is just a bunch of pop songs. I would do them completely acoustic if Yu Yin Tang had a piano, but since they don’t I’ll be playing an electric keyboard. All sound will be directly driven by my fingers and my voice.
I’ve been writing pop songs since 6th grade (much longer than I’ve been playing laptop sets), and on Sunday I’ll be performing some highlights from the past 15 years. I’d describe them as mostly upbeat, witty and tuneful, betraying the influence of songwriters I admire like Thomas Dolby, They Might Be Giants, Aimee Mann, and Burt Bacharach. I can promise a country ballad, a German rap, and everything in between, perhaps even a choice Mandopop cover.
We weren’t there for your sound installation, but what exactly is a sound installation anyway?
I guess a sound installation can be a lot of things. Usually it’s a sonic environment designed by an artist in a gallery or other public space, in which sound is being continuously produced by speakers or other sound-producing mechanisms. These sound sources may be driven by a computer, analog circuitry, natural processes, human input, or whatever else you can think of.
For me, the most important difference between a sound installation and a regular piece of music is the idea that an installation exists continually in a space, with no beginning or end; instead, spectators create their own beginning and end as they come and go at their leisure. It’s architectural sound. Related to this is the idea of site-specificity. You can’t download the environment and listen to it on your iPod; you have to be physically present in the space. And since the environment and equipment are fixed, artists may experiment with unconventional configurations; for example, in a piece I did last October with furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs, I positioned twelve speakers around the perimeter of a 250 square meter room, providing a more all-encompassing sonic experience than is found in most living rooms, or even most clubs.
This is very much the same challenge as creating a sonic environment for a videogame level; you never know how long a player will spend in a given environment, so you have to make it feel alive and interesting for an indefinite amount of time. In a computer-based system, you can use all kinds of fun algorithmic tricks to keep the sound fresh and unpredictable, so that it never repeats itself. I’ve long considered this aspect of my videogame audio design work to be a kind of virtual sound installation, so it’s exciting to now have opportunities to put those skills to work creating sonic environments in the physical world.
Another fascinating aspect of installation art is its real-time nature; it can be designed to respond to real-time input from people in the space or other phenomena. In this installation I’m doing with Chen Hangfeng (going live at the Today Art Museum in Beijing on April 17), I’m processing a real-time signal from microphones positioned elsewhere in the gallery, which provides a constantly changing input into the piece. I want people to be able to return to the piece at different times of day and have a different experience, just like sitting on a park bench by a river.
So what I did last Sunday wasn’t itself an installation; it was a more or less conventional performance with a beginning and end. But it used a lot of the technology I’m developing for this installation. At that performance, I was directing the high-level evolution of the piece, deciding when to add layers or take them off, to make the sound expand or recede; for the installation, I’m writing a program to manage those decisions. (You can hear an excerpt of last Sunday’s performance here; I ran a microphone out from the club to the park out back, and everything I played was based on the sounds of passing traffic on the Yan An Lu overpass, which becomes quite clear towards the end.)
Before Shanghai you spent eight years living and working in Seattle. Can you talk about the live-music culture of the two cities and how they compare? Which do you prefer and what would you change?
The scene I dug the most in Seattle was the improvised new music crowd, which hovered around some New York transplants like Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell (both of whom used to play in John Zorn’s band Naked City), and around the Cornish College of the Arts, whose alumni include guys like Eyvind Kang. Wayne Horvitz’s group Zony Mash used to play very regularly, setting up residencies at a series of clubs over the years, and that kind of regular gigging really built a community around their music. While the sonic result is pretty different, that community-building drive and persistence is what I admire about the NOIShanghai shows, organized by Junky from Torturing Nurse, providing a context and venue for people who are curious about unconventional sounds.
I guess everything feels rawer here. The venues are divier, the equipment less reliable, and you’re less likely to find a perfectly made martini or wide array of craft beers on the bar menu. But I think there’s a real energy that springs from that rawness, almost like a scrambling to make up for lost time, and that excitement is infectious. Back in Seattle my pals and I used to put on our own shows, to provide a forum for us to present our music, and I appreciate that same DIY gumption in the underground sound art scene in China.
Of course I can’t decide which scene I prefer, but I do have a strong sense that I would be pretty bored if I moved back to Seattle. As far as what I would like to see change here, I’d really like to see someone open a proper CD store for underground music, along the lines of Beijing’s Sugar Jar; there’s really nothing to do now but snatch up CD’s at shows, especially since 36mm on Yishan Lu closed a year or two back.
I’d also like all music venues to improve their drink selection. Even if you don’t stock Rogue Dead Guy Ale, at least some Xinjiang black beer, pretty please? For me, the taste of those old Zony Mash shows is a fresh pint of Mac and Jack’s African Amber.
How has your former day job (as a video game audio designer) influenced your music? Can we expect Half-Life melodies to pop up unexpectedly in 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies?
Well, my work in games has really led me to contemplate some interesting questions that arise when you’re trying to figure out how to organize music, which traditionally follows a linear trajectory, in a non-linear medium, since that’s what a videogame inherently is. The big questions for me pertain to structure; that’s what differentiates videogames from other media in my mind, much more so than melody.
This has led me to a renewed interest, over the past few years, in the work of classical aleatory composers of the 20th century, guys like John Cage, Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Some of the structural ideas they developed seemed wacky at the time, but I’ve found them to have very practical application in the videogame medium.
A lot of people seem to think of videogames as a genre or a style, but really, any style of music is fair game in videogames, and there are plenty of examples of this. I can think of games whose scores include hip-hop, techno, big band, classical, Celtic, rock, new age, you name it. For my part, I’ve written in a lot of different styles, for games as well as other media, and I think apart from structure, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell the difference. Structure’s the giveaway.
Speaking of your new EP, can you tell us the inspiration behind it? What’s behind the EP’s title? Any drama or interesting stories that arose during production or recording?
The title is just a play on a line from the song “Love on TV”, which goes, “So if you’re standing here, hearing this, eating a heart-shaped cookie/You might as well be eating my heart for all the love it’s brought me.” I thought a heart-shaped cookie was a good analogy for a quick, quirky love song, and I also thought there was a nice parallel between the 3 in the album title and the 99 in the band name.
The recordings on this CD were actually produced back when I was in Seattle, and the songs are even older. 99 Men is basically just my buddy Mike Caviezel, a shredding guitarist with impeccable production chops, who heads a band by the same name (99men.com).
Our rock collaboration started on Valentine’s Day 2002, which happened to be the day that a videogame prototype I’d been working on (it would have been a King’s Quest platformer for consoles) was cancelled. So I decided to take the afternoon off, and convinced Mike to do the same, and we knocked out this recording of “Love on TV” in about 3 hours. It was originally a kind of loungey, keyboard-driven number that I had written around a lonely Valentine’s Day in 1997. We were both quite pleased with the results, so we later recorded “Late Life,” another of my early tunes, in a similar rock treatment, followed shortly by “Kiss Locally.”
There are a few reasons for releasing the CD now. First, I wanted to blatantly capitalize on the fact that Mike and I just collaborated on a new song that plays during the credits of the game I just finished up, Tom Clancy’s EndWar (released last November for Xbox 360/PS3). I thought if anyone plays the game and digs that song and wants to hear more, I’d like for it to be available; the album’s already been up on iTunes and other digital retailers for a while. Second, I wanted to grease the machinery for some other releases I have planned, just to see what it takes in terms of production and time and cost to get a CD released. Later this year I’m planning to release a CD of ambient electronic stuff as well as an album of synth-pop songs. But the main reason is simply that I think these are good songs, and I want to share them with people.
Do you still work on ecclesiastical music? We imagine it’d be hard to do so here in Shanghai. Are there even any organs around here in Shanghai?
Not so much. I have a couple of older pieces I want to revisit sometime this year, to revise or record or send off to publishers, but I don’t have an ensemble I’m working with regularly to encourage me to create new pieces; that’s what makes the difference. As far as organs go, they do seem quite scarce in Shanghai; I’m pretty sure there’s one at the Oriental Arts Center. My memory’s fuzzy, but a few years back I’m pretty sure I heard a visiting orchestra perform Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony there.
Alright, so we are going to assume that all the interviews you’ve done recently have probably made you slightly bored of answering questions about yourself, so we’re going to get off-the-beaten-path a bit.
Let’s play a game — next five completely random questions we ask, give a five word answer for the first one, four words for the second until you get to one word for the last. Easy enough, right?
What are people’s first reactions when you tell them you were born in Nebraska?
John, chapter one, verse forty-six.
What other heart-shaped desserts were in contention for being part of your EP’s title?
Mille feuilles, whoopie pies
You’ve gone back into the world of working on video games, but now instead of designing the audio component, you’re in charge of creating an entirely new game. What is it called?
Spa Simulator 2009™
What have you found to be the most useful Chinese word?
If you could give yourself a superhero name, what would it be?
Ben’s music at Neocha and on his own site.
Ben’s blog, Aesthetic Cartography.
Photo by Gregory Perez