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335 West Ann Street
Ann Arbor, MI, 48104
United States

Threads All Arts Festival


UMS Artist in Residence Ben Willis

Karen Toomasian

Threads: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen or heard you?

Ben: I’m a bassist. I am primarily and improviser then also a composer, depending on the circumstance. For example, I’m doing a solo set at Threads, and so I have a set of music that I loosely composed for double bass. So I am doing some completely improvised performing as well as drawing from particular ideas or structures that I have planned before hand. Most of what I do is improvising with other people in combined groups. So for a solo performance I like to have, at least, an idea of a structure to work from before hand. Over the last several years I have been doing more and more solo performing. I’m trying to explore the acoustic instrument and the natural sounds of the instrument. And I do some electronic work as well but for a solo performance I try to limit myself to the sounds of the instrument. I will definitely doing more different things as I go along. To shorten that up a little bit, my performance will be a largely improvised structured improvisation for solo bass. As someone who started out as a classical musician has moved into the improvised music world, it is nice to have that foundation of form

T: Cool, that feeds into my next question: do you exclusively play the upright bass or do you do any electric as well?

B: Yeah I do both. I’ve been playing more electric bass with some different projects in the past few years. I’m playing in the band Saajtak an Ann Arbor/ Detroit group, which has allowed me an avenue to build up my electric bass playing. I have been working on building up a set of effects pedals over the last few years. I have always been interested in electronics, but haven’t spent the time digging into that necessary to building an array of sounds I want to use. So that has been a good project to work on that side of things. It requires a degree of experimentation, especially using effects on the upright.

T: You said you started out playing classical music, about when did you start playing music? And was bass your first instrument?

B: I started playing bass in 4th grade orchestra class. I took piano lessons before that but quit after a year. So bass was the first instrument that I really played, and its always been that way.

T: And did they have you start out on a cello tuned to fourths, or something?

B: Nope, they had little basses. Now that kids are starting younger an younger, the string world is weird like that where kids will be playing at three or four years old, there’s a whole school of bass pedagogy making tiny basses tuned an octave higher.

T: Who are some of your biggest influences? Not necessarily just bass players, but people in the classical music world, the improvised music world, or the composing world that you draw a lot of influence from.

 B: I feel like there are probably these hinge figures, like in high-school hearing The Bad Plus was kind of a big point for me. There are an amazing group but also what they were doing with a jazz trio was new to me; I had never heard that style of music before. I think I found there album in a Barnes & Noble when I was in 10th grade or something. I grew up in rural Minnesota, without a lot of access to live music, so a lot of my early music discovery came through the internet. So hearing The Bad Plus was like ‘ok these people are playing jazz but they are incorporating a bunch of different styles of music as well. Also hearing John Zorn’s Naked City, my sister got me this album when she was in college, was a pivotal point for me when I went ‘ok music isn’t so strictly divided into genres, there are people crossing and spanning these boundaries.’ So John Zorn became a big influence for me in college, in the way I approached classical music and played with other people. Then through studying classical music I found all these other composers like Gunther Schuller, or Kaija Saariaho has been an influence in the way I think about sound. As a bass player, Stefano Scodanibbio, an Italian bass player, was a really influential figure in contemporary music for me. He was also a figure in contemporary music, a lot of contemporary composers wrote pieces specifically for him. Figures like him, and the French bassist Joëlle Léandre, similarly she has a background in contemporary classical music, but went on to do entirely her own thing, and does mostly improvised performances now. Lately I’ve been really influenced by doom metal and drone music, that kind of experiential nature of music.

T: You sort of talked about growing up, and starting music in your school orchestra. What advice do you have for young kids starting in music?

 B: Find other people who share interests that you have. If someone shares an interest with you they’ll be able to introduce you to so many things. So if I know someone who likes a band that I do as well, that serves as a hinge point and they can show me cool things that I haven’t heard before. You can sort of introduce each other to things you didn’t know you liked yet. Also, collaborate. Seek out people who do different things. I think I’ve learned a lot from dancers, visual artists and how they do things. Just be open to how other people do things, because art making can be a social, as well as individual, process. Also, I’m someone who went to school for music, but I think its important for young people who are growing up now to know that you don’t have to go to school for your art. Just because your not studying it doesn’t mean you won’t do it, if you’re passionate about it. There are so many ways to make art.

T: What do you think the UMS artist in residence program has allowed you to do?

B: It has allowed me to experience different things through UMS, they gave each of us a stipend to make art and tickets to four shows of our choice. Also, meeting the other artists in the program has been really helpful.

T: Threads was born out of the idea of displaying the artistic environment in Ann Arbor, how has Ann Arbor, as a place or as a community, affected your work?

B: Definitely the people I have worked with here and met here have been the most important experience. And getting to Detroit more, with their vibrant improvised music scene, has been great. There are a lot of really great musicians here with some big ideas, which are cool to witness and be involved in.

T: Could you give me a definition of a sandwich?

B: I heard a great debate on the radio about whether or not a hotdog was a sandwich and that whole bag. For me personally, a sandwich requires two pieces of bread.

T: So a sub sandwich? Not a sandwich?

B: Hmmm. So a sub, to me, seems to be divided. Yes, technically it is one piece of bread but its sliced to act like two pieces of bread.

T: But then isn’t a hotdog a sandwich too? With both you have to tear the bun open, there is still only that hinge.

B: See I still think of the hotdog with the dog on top, whereas a sub is on its side. So it could be an orientation thing. Whether it’s hinged or not, there is still a top and a bottom. With the hotdog, the bun is primarily underneath. The stuff is between things that are underneath and on top of it.

T: And do the things underneath and on top have to be bread? Or can they be non-bread entities?

B: I would say it has to be bread, or at least the idea of bread had to be there, and then removed. Like for a breadless sandwich: it’s a breadless sandwich, the “breadless” implies that there was bread in the beginning, which was then taken away. Same goes for an open-faced sandwich; it was once closed, and now it has been open.

T: Thank you so much for elucidating the open-faced problem for me! and thank you in general for sitting down and talking with me.

B: Not a problem, see you at Threads.