“Many artists seem to plateau after a while, to “coast” – Ben is NOT one of these. He continues to surprise me,” writes guitarist Ant Law. In the latest of LJN’s series in which musicians explain their fascination / respect / gratitude for other musicians, Ant writes about Ben Monder:
Ant Law writes:
Ben Monder is undoubtedly one of the world’s finest musicians. He started playing guitar when he was 11, after 2 years on violin. He attended the Westchester Conservatory of Music, the University of Miami, and Queens College. One of his early gigs was performing with Jack McDuff in 1986. He has lived in NYC for years and recorded on a huge number of albums as a sideman. Importantly, he has maintained a distilled set of releases as a leader. His technique is incredibly evolved, as is his rhythmic concept and compositional voice, and he is feared amongst the guitar community.
I first heard about Ben whilst living in Edinburgh in around 2006. My guitarist friends Ben MacDonald, Mike Nisbet and bassist Kevin Glasgow passed a CD of the ‘Oceana’ album around and we talked about the album a lot. We loved it but we didn’t really knew what was going on, in terms of the musical mechanics.
A few years later I went to live in NYC for a season and had some lessons with Ben. My musicianship had developed a bit since the Edinburgh days and this was my opportunity to ask him about his music. Often the answer to questions like “How did you discover that this particular bitonality would work so well and how did you come up with this melodic concept?” would be something like “I thought it sounded cool.”. It was also funny because I was asking him about pieces like “Dust” which he could barely remember because they were already nearly 20 years old! We’ve kept in touch a little and I had a couple of lessons on Skype once I had relocated to London.
Many artists seem to plateau after a while, to “coast” – Ben is NOT one of these. He continues to surprise me. One of the most surprising things to happen was when he recorded on David Bowie’s final album. I initially thought this was some kind of joke/hoax… Ben is such a character that there are internet communities dedicated to “Monder memes” and this sounded like one of them – but it wasn’t! It was a beautiful and rare musical alignment. If you’re new to Ben I hope you find something you like here. If you’re already aware of him, hopefully there are a couple of things you haven’t yet discovered…
1. Still Motion (‘Oceana’)
When I first heard this my ears pricked up – “Ok Ben, you have my attention!”. I hope it has the same effect and intrigues YOU dear reader… It’s the opener on ‘Oceana’ – the first album I heard. One of the best things about Ben is his ability to create entirely new worlds, free of cliche and somehow free of musical “genre”. With just one acoustic guitar and scary technique Ben creates beautiful, incredibly dense texture for 7 minutes. It gives the feeling of fast motion, and also stillness – it’s mesmerising and meditative. The story goes Ben drank 7 cups of coffee before recording the take! If you can listen this album in one sitting, this track will help you clear your mind for what’s to come…
2. In Your Own Sweet Way (Jochen Rueckert ‘Introduction’)
This might be closer to what many people would expect from a “jazz guitarist”. First we hear Ben comping softly behind the melody with his identifiable very dark sound. Before the melody is finished we already notice some lush chords and countermelodies. Harmony nerds will appreciate the voice-leading. Ben takes the first solo, beginning with explicit development of a simple theme – one of his trademarks. Despite the 5/4 time signature Ben finds ways to syncopate and remain rhythmically free.
Now that you’ve been inducted, let’s get into it! We plunge into the depths of Ben’s weird, adventurous world and explore it for 17 minutes. I would be surprised if most readers have ever heard anything quite like this before. Ben has a range of composition al aesthetics but this feels like it’s right in the centre. Dense, tangled, melodies evolve into brittle, dissonant chords strummed with an almost folky glee. If you want more of this, skip to track 6 on this album for another epic…
4 You Are My Sunshine (Excavation)
This much more “friendly” track closes Ben’s 2000 album “Excavation”. It’s another rare example of Ben playing steel string acoustic guitar, and an even rarer example of him using some percussive extended techniques at the beginning. Later on we hear the rewards of a life devoted to harmonic exploration – gorgeous “new” harmonisations of this classic melody.
5. Pithecanthropus Erectus (Paul Motian Band ‘Garden Of Eden’)
Choosing one track from this album wasn’t easy (“Etude” is another favourite). But I think it’s important to recognise these musicians are reaching further out into the ether than most. To my ear this is what Mingus often did. This is especially interesting music for guitar players/lovers, because there are 3 guitarists on this music. Steve Cardenas is panned left, Jakob Bro is on the right, and Ben is in the middle.
6 Double Sun (Oceana)
I love this piece so much. But I had no idea of the can of worms I was opening trying to understand the musical nuts and bolts of it. Listen hard and you’ll hear two rhythmic cycles moving against each other, aligning only fleetingly. You’ll also hear two tonal centers (initially C low down and A/F#minor up above) rubbing against each other. The two musical themes working with AND against each other represent two suns, exerting their gravitational force on us. A beautiful, strange feeling.
7. Luteous Pangolin (Excavation)
I love this piece. There are clear, soulful melodies AND the harmony is so emotive. Check those chords at 1:50 out – ooft! Ben’s solo once again is a great example of his clear development of simple ideas.
8. There Is Always One You Follow (This World Of Dew)
Another intriguing piece from a REALLY intriguing album. Here Ben collaborates with Aaron Shragge who plays shakuhachi and trumpet. Enjoy the spaces they create.
8. Late By Myself (At Night)
This is not Ben playing sarod – although it REALLY sounds like it. Ben listens to plenty of Indian music. Whilst the melodies at the beginning are not highly ornamented, you can hear the influence of sarod players especially. The main winding melody sounds as if it could be derived from an ancient raga. Long-time collaborator Theo Bleckmann sings poetry by Rumi and we gradually descend into a vast and dark universe.
9. Gemini (Dust)
This trio tune contains some great moments. Ben is practically breaking the fourth wall at a few points… We’re getting an insight into his dry sense of humour – I laughed out loud when I first listened to this. I won’t ruin the surprise but if you’re in a hurry you could listen from around 3 minutes. There are majestic arco melodies from Ben Street and a savage, chromatic, Meshuggah-esque guitar solo. What’s not to like?
10. Charlotte’s Song (Hydra)
Ben crafts the musical “shape” of his albums very thoughtfully and carefully. This pretty song is the closer on ‘Hydra’ and is a nice way for us to finish too. It’s a musical setting of Charlotte’s lullaby to Wilber (the pig!) in the classic book Charlotte’s Web. Theo Bleckmann sings beautifully again here.
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I hope you enjoy this music as much as I do. There’s so much I could not include, and I implore you to explore the work of this astounding (and totally uncompromising) artist. Listen with open ears. And please do leave comments below with your own thoughts and feelings – there are no wrong answers.
LINKS: ’10 Ben Monder Tracks I Can’t Do Without’ playlist on Apple Music
Ant Law’s website