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Making Frankenstein Move: Ben Allison in Conversation with Aaron Siegel, Part 1

Recently, bassist and composer Ben Allison—who makes his Carnegie Hall debut on February 3—sat down with Aaron Siegel—composer, percussionist, and Carnegie Hall staffer—for a conversation about the artistic and compositional process. Here's the first part of that conversation.

Aaron Siegel: I want to talk about process. I was struck in the video that you did with Rogerio [Boccato, percussionist] that we started to see a little bit of your working process. I was really fascinated by that. Probably if Charlie Parker were alive now, he would have a computer, he would have his ProTools setup, and he would be at home writing these pieces and recording them and listening back to them and seeing how they fit over each other. The meticulousness with which you're developing these works struck me. There's a process of layering and organizing, and it's not a pen-and-paper process from the beginning. It's much more like playing around with puzzle pieces. From your standpoint, how does that ultimately affect what the music sounds like? How intentional are you about that process?

Ben Allison: : It is intentional. It's an interesting process. It has changed over the years, but I think I've been on somewhat of a constant trajectory since the mid-'90s. I’ve always been interested in playing with genre and mixing and matching sounds.

Back in the day, I had this antiquated system involving tape decks and little keyboards that you could pre-program, but these days I work mostly with Logic. For me, composition is a multi-step process. Usually, it starts is with a germ of an idea—just a sound, or maybe a reference to a particular genre or player. Maybe it's something taken out of my experience improvising with my colleagues. Something interesting happens spontaneously and then I make a mental note or try to capture it on tape so that I revisit it and use it as a jumping off point.

It's hard to say where the interesting ideas come from. A lot of it is trial and error. This is where the computer comes in because it allows me to layer up different timbres and tonalities. It's not just about the notes at this stage. It's more a question of what I’m alluding to with a particular sound. Then I have to get together with other musicians and work it out, see what works. What I eventually end up with is a very basic score, what we call lead sheets. They have bare-bones information. What's not notated is actually the meat of the tune, and the meat of the tune is all of these genre references, all of these textures and musical concepts that I think are best conveyed through rehearsal and actually talking about it and figuring it out together.

Recently, I had this basic beat conceived for a new tune, which I worked out on the computer. But, of course, I'm not going to use my ProTools or Logic samples on a concert. I have to see what actually works in the real world, what actually sounds good. Rogerio will bring over his set of tambourines, so I'm hearing tambourine on this tune and it's connected with the drum part. Things like that are actually rather specific. The only way to know for sure what works is to try it in rehearsal. All this stuff seems very antithetical to improvisation, but the point is that once we have these sounds and this landscape mapped out and the musicians have an idea about what the landscape looks, feels, sounds, and smells like, then they're free to explore within it. Then we're at the point where we're improvising and playing around with those ideas. The actual construction part is collaborative, and then of course the actual performance of something is totally collaborative. It’s very important to leave enough room for spontaneity, for people engage in a conversation.

Aaron Siegel: It's interesting you say that. Recently, we interviewed Christina Pluhar of L'Arpeggiata, who reminded us that with early music, it's a case of, "Here are a few notes. Now you go and do the rest." It's exactly the same as you described it. Over the centuries, every space has been filled in with notes and directions by composers, but it started out with, "Here's your sheet. Go away and play."

Ben Allison: It's called folk music. As a matter of fact, it has always existed. It has been probably the predominant form of music on earth, because most people just play. Most people don't go to conservatories and study towards the goal of eventually playing. They just play right from the start and figure things out as they go along. Even in the classical world and the jazz world, where you have people who are very accomplished musicians, my hope is that they still have that mindset, that they're still collaborating and figuring things out as they go. Part of being a composer is knowing when not to say anything, and that's often my most gratifying moment, when I've written something that's a nice jumping-off point but then one of the musicians in the band has an idea that's much better than what I was envisioning, and all of a sudden the tune is so much cooler. It's easy to take credit for those moments. But in reality, the musicians have so much to do with that. They're the ones who put meat on the bones and make Frankenstein move.

Related: February 3, Ben Allison