Trumpeter Ben Neill gets with the program
As he talks on his cell phone, ambient/avant-garde composer Ben Neill is getting into a cab. Not that anyone would expect anything different from a New Yorker. Still, it might reflect differently on the 45-year-old trumpeter, whose recent album, Automotive, stemmed from the compositions he wrote for Volkswagen ads.
Then it's revealed that Neill owned a 1998 Beetle prior to his commission, alleviating all doubts as to his ability to visualize "driving" music. Besides, it was never Neill's love of Volkswagens — or cars in general — that drew the company to him. It was his attention to detail. Volkswagen felt that his meticulously programmed beatscapes, dotted with blasts and moda drones, would mesh well with its ads.
"The thing that was really fortunate for me is I really didn't have to change my approach," says Neill. "They approached me to do music based on what I was already doing. I'd often hear things as the storyboard came out of the fax machine, and I'd begin composing. Sometimes we went back and forth a bit to refine, working in different ways depending on the nature of the spot. But I never felt they wanted to push me in an unnatural direction."
Despite his classical training and avant-garde jazz background, Neill — who has collaborated with minimalist conceptualist LaMonte Young, "illbient" auteur DJ Spooky and other New York luminaries — often puts more pop than bop in his breakbeat- driven compositions.
"I have a huge respect for all the artists working in a programmed environment," says Neill. "I spend a lot of time working on my programming. But the fact that I'm an instrumentalist makes something different in the way you have a physical connection with music — a live performance element introducing something that can be different every time. I've really tried to cultivate that through my use of technology."
The technology to which Neill refers is his custom "mutantrumpet," an instrument with three bells, two sets of valves and a pitch slide. In the mid-'80s Neill worked with legendary synthesizer designer Bob Moog to fit the mutantrumpet with an analog MIDI interface, allowing it rudimentary communication with synthesizers and computers. In the '90s, Neill worked at Amsterdam's STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) to upgrade the mutantrumpet's interface to digital. The onboard keyboard controller and the rise in streamlined laptop technology has since allowed Neill to realize the potential he envisioned almost 20 years ago.
"The mutantrumpet is essentially a very nice interface, and I keep finding new things to interface it with," says Neill. "One thing about the live performing with the mutantrumpet, however, is that even though I'm doing a lot of things live with the sound, it's hard for people to get a feel for what the technology is doing. So I've always been into working with visual artists and doing installations. But this show's incorporation of interactive video is the most direct thing we've done."
The current show employs four laptops, which output audio for Neill to play along with and also process the sounds of his trumpet and the voice of singer Andrew Montgomery. "So, though I play live, the show isn't completely improvised," Neill says." It's like a DJ playing the same records in a slightly different order, or in a slightly modified way. Simultaneously, another laptop controls interactive video. As I play different notes, they will move a Quicktime movie to different points."
With the densely psychedelic Automotive and the accompanying House of Blues- sponsored tour, Neill is happy to be bringing his music and method to his favorite audience.
"I love the club environment, having people not only watching but dancing," he says. "My whole thing has always been to take the technology from that advanced experimental computer world and implement it in a musical world that is much more groove oriented, funky and much more accessible."