“I really like absurdity — the space between trying to put a meaning into everything you do, and the fact of knowing that you can’t find meaning for everything.” -Victoria Benito
Victoria Benito is a Madrid-born musician and composer currently working in Birmingham. Drawing from a dreamlike sound world derived from humour, surrealism and subversion of expectations, Victoria’s work has been performed in Madrid, Rotterdam, London, Apeldoorn, and Birmingham, by ensembles such as orkest de ereprijs, Orchestra of the Swan, and The Ripieno Players. Victoria spoke to PRXLUDES about the driving forces behind her work, her philosophies on subversion, and her experiences in Birmingham’s DIY music community.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Victoria! Tell me a bit about “Pop Song no. 1: Love”; I loved the kind of “uncanny valley” feel of it. What is it you were trying to convey with the piece?
Victoria Benito: I have this dream of making a nice pop song at some point in my life. -laughs- But I can’t really do it. I’m not good at writing pop songs, I’m really bad. This is not a pop song — although it’s called ‘Pop Song no. 1’ — but there’s this thing in [early] pop songs that’s very recurrent all the time, which is the cheesiness. So I wanted to make a cheesy song that would get distorted progressively — just like cheesiness — because that’s what happens with cheesiness. It just gets distorted [until] it gets uncomfortable to listen to… I guess that’s what happens when you listen to cheesy music, when you do it for a long time, it ends up being too annoying, too exhausting. I just wanted to write a piece that was combining elements that when you put [all] together, you can get tired of listening to. It’s the same word that’s being repeated all the time, and the same chord sequence (in different keys), the same instrumentation, but trying to build it a bit over-the-top towards the end.
I get that. Like the more you hear a certain word, it stops sounding like a word…
Yeah. It was not an “attempt” to make anything, it was more my frustrations… I’m just a frustrated pop artist, I think. I know that I will never make pop music — decent pop music — in my life. But it’s fine, I like my music [how it is]; it’s a tiny frustration of mine.
What I loved the most about it is the way you took something “conventional”, and then really played around with it and distorted it. Would you say that’s a driving factor behind some of your other work?
I don’t know if I have achieved it, but I have definitely tried to achieve that [before]; to have something that I consider “nice” and try to make it ugly, or “not nice”. I like to make things not nice. I try to do that with sound; [for example] if I’m making music for concerts, I try to distort the sound and make the orchestration more “unusual” towards the end of the piece. Then with [my] electronic music… If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I do when I’m [making] electronic music, because I don’t think I know how [exactly] it works, when I use synthesizers and stuff like that; I don’t really know what I’m doing, I just try sounds that I like, and settings that I like. I [tend to] make something that’s very simple and easy to listen to, and then I just destroy. Or try to destroy it, a bit, so it’s not nice anymore.
Is there an underlying philosophy behind your interest in destroying and distorting things?
I don’t know, [because] I really like nice things. I really enjoy listening to [and] playing nice things, that are very easy to listen to. But I have this thing that I enjoy, of trying to be subversive in the way that I make music, and try to destroy something that’s conventionally nice [through that]. It doesn’t really [work] that much, because then I’m making something that’s conventionally ugly or weird, so it’s not subversive…
It’s as if subversion is a convention now.
Yeah, exactly. You basically can do anything you want with music, and it’s gonna be fine. I was thinking about this the other day, like; maybe I just need to be more extreme, and I don’t really know how to be that extreme right now, but it feels like everything you make that you think is a very subversive thing… It isn’t subversive. Because it’s a very conventional, mainstream thing to do. -laughs-
I know you’re currently pursuing a PhD; is that element of subversion something that’s prevalent in your research?
Yeah, absolutely. The PhD is [currently] about using composition to subvert traditional forms and conventions. It’s about the roles of humour and surrealism in music, to make something subversive. I might be explaining this really [badly], because it’s really messy in my head, still — I have a different explanation of what I’m doing almost every week — but today, that is what I’m doing. -laughs-
Talk to me about some of the surrealist elements and influences in your work; I remember you wrote a piece for orkest de ereprijs?
I wouldn’t say necessarily that [Exotic Music for a Penguin] is a very “surreal” piece; it does use elements from different things, but I consider it as more of an eclectic piece rather than surreal. But I can see why you’re saying that. I don’t know if I try to make surreal music — I think it just ends up being a bit like that sometimes — but I really like this thing of thinking of two different “realities”, and when you combine them, you create a new one. It’s that juxtaposition [that’s] the thing that I really like; you don’t have to do anything in particular to start or finish a piece, you just use elements that you like and you put them together, and because they don’t have anything in common, you’re creating a new reality where they all live together in a nice, surreal way.
I guess it’s also about [the] subversive aspects [of] surrealism, as well. It’s a very liberating way of thinking, because you don’t have to have a set plan, or a structure, in anything; you don’t have to be concerned about anything at all. To me, that can be a very honest way of making music. I don’t think I intentionally make surreal music, but I do use things of that aesthetic because it helps me to make music.
What is it about that process that you feel helps you most?
The fact that you don’t have any rules. Most of the time, I’m using functional harmony and very common melodies, but you don’t have rules in the structure of things; you can do whatever you want to do, and when you start doing that too much, it just works. If you do one piece that’s in one genre, and you introduce one element that’s very different from it, it sounds really weird because it’s just that one element. But if you combine loads of different things from different places, it’s cool, because they’re all nice together. It relaxes me very much to write music that’s that “free”, because I don’t have to be concerned about [it]… I mean, I don’t have moral concerns doing music, but I don’t really have to be concerned about labelling the music as “anything”. I’m just doing whatever I want to do, and I’m not even thinking about what I’m doing, not being concerned at all of what I’m making. This is what it is, and it’s fine.
That approach reminds me of the automatism movement in art.
Yeah, kind of. I wouldn’t say I don’t use reason at all, because I’m constantly using things that I’ve been learning all my life. But I guess I’m not too worried about putting things in a reasonable way; whatever comes, it’s fine.
When I make a piece of music that I like, I feel really good, like I [had] a really good time doing that. I like to use processes [of] making music that let me enjoy the joy of making music; so not caring too much [about] what I’m doing helps me [be] very conscious of the joy of making music.
Do you have any distinct goals as to what you’re wanting to achieve as an artist — where do you see your music going?
I don’t really know. I don’t like that I don’t know, because I don’t like to think about myself as a non-ambitious person. I think I am ambitious with certain things, but I don’t really know what I want to do with my music at all; it’s something that I really love doing, that I really enjoy doing, that I want to keep doing, but I can’t think of something that I can do with it right now.
I mean, I can think of things I can do for self-satisfaction, but I don’t really know beyond what I’m doing right now; the PhD and [my] commissions, and the music I do for fun. I don’t know what is going to happen with my music, or [whether] I’m following a path to do something with it… I trust my music professionally, but I can’t think about it too much, especially [since] I had some thoughts before lockdown, and [lockdown] kind of destroyed [things] a bit — not my ambitions, because we’re all in the same boat — but [in the sense that] I can’t think of anything I want to do with it now, because it might not even happen.
You’ve worked in Rotterdam before coming to Birmingham; tell me a bit about the differences you found between your experiences in Rotterdam and Birmingham…
When I went to [Rotterdam], I enjoyed it, but I think [it] was not the right place for what I wanted to do; it’s a really nice place for music, there are great opportunities. If you stay there and you try to make your career work there, I think you can get really good opportunities for sure, because they have a lot of things going on, arts-wise. Then I came to Birmingham, and I didn’t really know anything about Birmingham at all…
Was there anything in particular about Birmingham that stood out to you when you first moved?
I don’t know; I feel it’s [because] it’s a bit of an eclectic place, so you [can] feel comfortable doing whatever type of music you want to do. I see it that way, maybe compared to the places that I had been before, because in Madrid, it’s not like that all — or maybe it is, but I didn’t see it like that when I was there. -laughs- You can probably do [whatever] you want to do, but I felt more comfortable doing that in Birmingham.
I get that. One person can’t experience a whole city.
I know I’m also biased, because I know that this is the place where I’ve had more musical opportunities, so it’s the one that I value more, musically. If I had opportunities as nice as these ones in Madrid or Rotterdam, I’d be talking about them, as well. But for me, this is the one that’s worked the best.
Tell me about your experiences with the contemporary musical environment in Birmingham — how did it inspire you?
There are a lot of things going on in weird places — there’s a lot of space for experimental music. I mean, my music is not “experimental” at all, but I really enjoy going to those things, because they’re always [in] a very weird place — like an old warehouse or something — and then there’s a tiny gig inside of weird music, that sometimes I enjoy, and sometimes I’m thinking “why did I come to this”… But it’s really nice, it makes you feel like making music and doing gigs is not a big, weird, difficult thing, that it’s something feasible that anyone can do. Making music shouldn’t be a hard thing to organise, and here, sometimes, you go to gigs and — I know, obviously, it’s not easy to prepare a concert, it’s a horrible process, I know that [firsthand] — it’s like they adapt to what they have. Sometimes it’s a [concert] above a pub, or a warehouse, or a shop or whatever, and they do things there and it’s always nice. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it’s just [adapting] whatever you want do to what you have.
It’s like Birmingham has this contemporary classical music scene with a very DIY ethos. I really don’t know many places with a music community like it.
Yeah, it’s nice. -laughs- It’s that thing about Birmingham, everything’s adapted to other things. I live in a warehouse — it’s not a warehouse anymore, it’s a house, but outside it looks like a warehouse… Birmingham’s just like that, weird places that are adapted to be other places. It’s the same with music. You just adapt whatever you’re doing to whatever you have, and it’s a nice way of making music; I don’t know why. -laughs-
The eclecticism of Birmingham almost resonates in your work… -laughs-
Yeah, exactly. Birmingham’s very surreal in the way that it looks; there’s this part of [the city] near the markets, where you see the market with all the food, then there’s the Bullring [Shopping Centre], and there’s St. Martin’s Church, and in front of that is a very empty car park… and it just looks so weird, like, “what is that”, and it’s all so close, and it’s on different levels as well. It’s like a constant superposition of different elements, and it’s really fun in Birmingham, it happens all the time. I really like that.
Following on from that; tell me about one of the most eclectic, or fun, projects you’ve done so far…
During lockdown, I was talking to my mum [back in Madrid] — because in Spain, lockdown was so much more strict than in the UK, they couldn’t even go out for walks or anything — and she told me that she was going to make a list of things she’d like to do before lockdown, in case she forgot about them. I thought it was a nice idea, so I did a list of things that I like, and I made that into a piece that’s called ‘You Can Vomit On Me If You Like’. I had a lot of fun, because [I] was finding videos of things that I — or my friends — filmed, moments that I really liked, and I put music on them; music that I enjoyed making. It was very naive, simple music on all four videos, but I really enjoyed [the process]; I made it for myself. I tried all of the music with [different] videos; I had to go through my archive of videos — very old ones — because I really like filming things with my phone and [seeing] what I can do with them five years after I’d filmed them. It was really nice to discover a lot of material that I had, and make it into a piece. I was definitely feeling nostalgic.
That sounds like a really sweet project. Have you played around with visual elements before?
Yeah, I have. I did a piece a couple of years ago that was called ‘(Theme and) Variations’, and there was a visual element with it as well; it was a different kind of visual element, because it was not videos of people or things happening, it was just colours. Also, last year, my sister made a 3D video; I wanted to have a video to put music on, and she made that video, but we weren’t talking about what the other was doing. It was like “okay, we’ll do our own thing, and we’ll put it together”. I think it was successful; I liked what we did, without talking to the other… -laughs- It’s really nice to do things with video, because if you can build juxtapositions with music, when you also have a visual element, the juxtapositions multiply, because you have a lot more contexts and frames of reference you can combine. It’s a nice thing [to] keep adding elements to the piece, that are very incongruous with each other.
I’d be interested to know how you use visuals when you’re composing…
You have a lot of things that you can do just by combining elements. When you create music and use incongruencies [within] the music, it’s very ambiguous already, and if you add video, it’s more ambiguous, and then if you have a title that has nothing to do with that, it’s even more ambiguous, so you have three different perspectives — different elements — that you combine together, and all of them are ambiguous on their own. So you put all three of them together and it’s like… really fun. -laughs-
Would you say there’s any particular meanings you’re trying to convey in anything you’ve done? Why or why not?
Maybe I’m just a lazy person, but this tendency to look for meaning in everything that you do, and in life in general, [is] pointless to me, absolutely pointless. I know that music can have meaning, and there are lots of meanings [within] my music — I’m not saying that I make meaningless music — but I don’t see the point of trying to find a meaning for everything you do, that doesn’t have to “have” a meaning at all. It’s meaningful for me as cathartic experience, and as professional experience, but besides that, I’m not expecting people to find other meanings in my music. They can enjoy it if they like it, if they don’t like it, they’re very welcome to not listen to it again, and that’s fine. But it doesn’t have any meaning — and if it does, that’s not my intention. I really like absurdity — the space between trying to put a meaning into everything you do, and the fact of knowing that you can’t find meaning for everything. In between those things is absurdity. [Maybe] I’m trying to be as absurd as possible.
Victoria’s music can be found at: