“The ‘hysterical sublime’ … As soon as I read that, I knew [it] summed up exactly the world I wanted to create. This collapsing of the sublime and the ridiculous to the point where they’re indistinguishable.” -Ben Nobuto
Ben Nobuto is a British-Japanese composer, pianist, and producer currently based in Kent, UK. Described as “postmodern” (Nonclassical) and “utterly contemporary” (Manchester Collective), Ben’s work explores themes of attention and fragmentation, often drawing from internet culture and popular idioms in a playful, ironic, and surreal manner. Ben has been commissioned by ensembles such as the Manchester Collective, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ligeti Quartet, and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and organisations such as Tangram and UK New Artists, among others, and he is currently working on a studio album supported by the Sound and Music New Voices scheme 2021-22. Ben spoke to PRXLUDES about themes of fragmentation and memory, postmodernism, accelerationism, pop music idioms, longevity, architecture, and the “human 2.0″…
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Ben! Hope you’re doing well — how are you? What’s on your mind at the moment?
Ben Nobuto: Hey Zyggy! Recently, I’ve been writing some solo and duo pieces for friends and I’ve got really into recordings. I’ve been thinking a lot about how you have to treat recordings as a completely separate thing to live performance. The pop world, they do this — and I’ve never really understood why [we don’t].
What is it about studio recordings that you’d like to see become more commonplace in classical music?
In classical music, the done thing is to get a live, ambient sound. So you have, say, a string quartet and then you have a “room sound” — a few mics hovering above while the musicians play together. But with a pop recording, you record each layer individually, and then you put it together in a DAW. And that way, you can shape every single layer how you want; you can automate stuff, you can add effects, everything. That kind of process is [what] I’m really attracted to right now.
I get that. There’s so many parameters you’re able to shift outside of just the room…
Why don’t we just apply that to contemporary classical stuff? There’s a closeness — you feel physically close to the sound. You can pan stuff how you want it… Make the experience of listening as satisfying as possible. I’m trying to do that more, with every piece I write — take time to get a good recording.
Do you have a studio setup where you tend to work?
I don’t have a studio, but I have a really basic RØDE mic; I record with that, and [then] I put it together in Logic. I’m a bit of a control freak. -laughs- I like having control over every [parameter], making sure it sounds exactly how I want it.
I feel like I’m always trying to anticipate the impact my music will have on the first listen. The moment you put something out there… for a lot of people, unless they’re really into your work, they’ll fleetingly see something on social media, and maybe listen [for] 30 seconds or something. And then it either gets their attention, or it doesn’t and they’ll keep scrolling. -laughs- It’s very tempting to think of music in that way — that it has to deliver this big impact the moment it reaches the listener. That’s why a lot of pop songs now [will] start with the chorus. They don’t do this minute-long buildup, they’ll just come in with the hook straight away.
It’s the immediacy of it, right?
Yeah. I’m really drawn to that. A lot of my way of thinking is like, “how can we apply structures from other kinds of music to contemporary classical music?” Like, [the] immediacy you mentioned — the kind of thing that hits you directly.
On the subject of immediacy — I recently gave a listen to ‘SERENITY 2.0’ with the Manchester Collective, and what struck me about the work was how it immediately drew me in to the sound world. Tell me about the conception of the piece…
‘SERENITY 2.0’ takes the form of a guided meditation that keeps getting interrupted. I wanted to have this contrast between the expectation of a serene, meditative listening experience — and the total opposite of that, which is manic chaos. I remember [that] as I was writing the piece, I saw the Manchester Collective website for the show, which is called ‘Heavy Metal’… and it had a little blurb saying “this will not be a meditative experience”. -laughs- So I wanted to play with that expectation and do the exact opposite of what they were advertising [it] as — at least initially. So the piece welcomes you into this world, saying “total, beautiful relaxation”… and then it suddenly switches and you’re plunged into chaos. With what you’re saying about immediacy, I like the directness of it: there’s something about the voice that draws you in straight away.
How did you treat the instrumentation in the piece — bringing together the string quartet, percussion, and electronic elements?
I tried to treat the string quartet, percussion, and electronics all as one entity. There’s parts of the piece where everything’s so in unison, and so fast, in a kind of uncanny way — where you’re not even sure which parts of the music are coming from the performers, and which parts are coming from the electronics — it’s just this single, machine-like organism. I quite like treating humans like machines and machines like humans, and watching the interplay between the two. There’s a term for it — [do] you know the drummer Jojo Mayer?
I don’t, actually — I’ll look him up!
I think he called it reverse engineering, when humans imitate machines. He’s developed a style of drumming where he can execute jungle and drum ’n’ bass rhythms to an insane level… Like, perfectly. That kind of thinking, but applied to an ensemble in a classical setting, is my way of interpreting his [ideas].
Because these aren’t machines — because they’re people — is the performative aspect, or the human element, important to you?
Because there are always slippages — because we’re human. -laughs- There are always mistakes, and gaps. That’s where expression comes from — the gap between the perfect ideal, the “machine” ideal of what we’re expecting, and the imperfect “human” level — that difference is where expression is born out of, for me.
To talk more generally about the inspiration behind the piece… It was before going into a club last year. I got my phone out and started writing in the Notes app — it sounds like some dystopian William Gibson novel. -laughs- But there’s this phrase – the “hysterical sublime” – that I kept coming back to… I read it in Fredric Jameson’s book Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. As soon as I read that, I knew [it] summed up exactly the world I wanted to create. This collapsing of the sublime and the ridiculous to the point where they’re indistinguishable.
Is postmodernism something that’s important to you in your compositional process, in a more general sense?
It’s how I think about everything. Mark Fisher — the writer — talks about “broken time”, how the future we anticipated in the 90s failed to come about in the way people had hoped. So there’s this ‘frustrated temporality’ in the 21st century, this mix of nostalgia for lost decades and this sense of constantly moving but never really moving forward, like something frozen mid-motion. Also, a lot of our experience of day-to-day life is fragmented, broken up into tiny chunks, and it’s rare that we’re actually doing one thing for a sustained time. I’m always wondering what effect this has on our subjectivity. I feel like that’s the default mode of expression now, in a way. It’s funny — I don’t know why this kind of thing isn’t seen more in art…
Is it that people aren’t exploring this idea, or that people don’t want to explore this idea…?
Kind of. It seems like a lot of contemporary classical music is still working with this older mode of expression, which involves long, drawn-out ideas; things that fade in, things that fade out, things that develop, things that breathe — like the human breath. But we don’t breathe, or think, like that anymore. At least, I don’t. Everything’s chopped up. So this kind of glitchy broken-ness… To me, that feels like the most authentic way of understanding myself.
Are there any modes of art — outside of our contemporary classical canon — that explore this idea in a way that’s interesting for you?
Yeah! Loads of pop culture, actually. I don’t know if you know Tim and Eric — they’re a comedy duo who make parodies of infomercials — everything’s kind of surreal, lots of bright, lurid colours. But there’s this speed and intensity to everything that feels weirdly avant-garde. The Eric Andre Show is another example. It reminded me of the visual artist Ryan Trecartin. There’s this dreamlike mishmash of styles and affects; you feel sort of euphoric and anxious at the same time. I feel like it’s quite a cliché Millennial/Gen Z aesthetic – a lot of memes have that feeling, too – like we’ve all locked into this collective feeling of “this is what it feels to be alive now”.
Like, a kind of collective ironic malaise… I guess this also ties into what you’ve called digital maximalism in your research?
Yeah — this phrase, digital maximalism, was [coined] by music critic Simon Reynolds around the early 2010s. He was talking about this emerging trend in electronic music around a decade ago, where in contrast to previous electronic dance music — which was mostly defined by a stripped back, minimal expression — there were these new artists like Rustie, Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke, who were making extremely dense music saturated with so many different influences. There was this new sense of scale and grandeur; the music wasn’t interested in restraint, it wanted to dazzle the listener with sonic possibility.
That expression — digital maximalism — really resonated with me because you can see it in spaces outside of music, as well. Marvel is kind of like a maximalist franchise: they give people a sense of scale that they can’t experience anywhere else. I don’t think people generally like to leave [for] the cinema unless it’s to go see a huge spectacle on a big screen, something they can’t experience at home. I feel like that with music. I think having access to any kind of media at any time increases the threshold of how much information we can take in [from] one piece of music, or film or work of art. Like, why have one Marvel character in one film [when you can] just put all of them together? If we can handle it, why not just do everything and do it all at once?
I guess in a generation where everyone is overwhelmed, overwhelmingness becomes an aesthetic.
I don’t know how much of it is the feeling of being overwhelmed. I think it’s a double feeling of being totally overwhelmed, and being completely desensitised. I like that grey area between the two, where you’re so captive to something that you can’t register how you’re feeling, like when you’re scrolling on Instagram or in a club.
You recently performed an audiovisual piece with UK New Artists in Leicester; did this piece also have a relation to these ideas of maximalism and overwhelmingness?
I feel like that conversation is always in the background of what I’m doing. But the focus of ‘Tell me again’ was slightly different. I was really interested in repetition, different kinds of repetition. On a personal level, my dad was diagnosed with dementia last year, and watching him around the house, I noticed how repetition was becoming more of his life in really noticeable ways — like certain phrases being repeated, certain habits becoming fixed. So I was thinking on that level, this repetition of something locked in place, unable to change; and also in my own life, always wanting to change things but having to confront parts of yourself that don’t want to change. So a lot of the music in that piece is repetitive, sometimes in a fast, dazzling way, sometimes in a slow, obstinate, melancholic way.
Would you say one theme relates to the other?
Yeah, definitely. I think to talk more specifically about that… I try to meditate sometimes. And part of that piece was born out of this frustration that I couldn’t keep it up. It feels like a constant battle, where I know that if I really committed to it, it would be good for me; but I’m always battling against the parts of myself that want to remain locked in to habitual patterns.
In the piece, I sample the voice of the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s based around this one question that keeps returning: “are you able to stop thinking or is it impossible to find any gap in the stream of thinking?” So the piece asks the question and then leaves it to the listener to see whether they can. -laughs- If I was to do that piece again, maybe I’d try to drive it towards some sort of stronger conclusion — though I don’t know if the open-endedness serves the message, maybe. I’m not sure. I’m never good at endings. -laughs- I’m good at starting something, and then my ideas fizzle out.
That’s an ending in itself, though. -laughs- That could be an indication of the immediacy of your process — or maybe that’s why pop songs are becoming shorter, bitesized even.
Yeah. That ties in to the short videos I do, as well — ‘BentoBeats’ — that plays into it, because it’s maximalism taken to the extreme of a one-minute [piece]. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the term accelerationism?
I haven’t — go ahead and elaborate…
I don’t really know who said it first, but it was originally conceived as a Marxist idea, by people like Mark Fisher, Nick Land, and Sadie Plant in the 90s. They were applying it to things like capitalism and technology, saying: if you accelerate the tendencies of capitalism — where the structure itself is unstable — you can push it to a point where it breaks down, and new forms of social governance are available [to be implemented]. I don’t know that much about that, but I’ve always found that idea really interesting in terms of music: what would happen if you took recent trends in music and accelerated the structure, if you pushed things to their logical extreme? Not to necessarily arrive anywhere, but to see what happens.
Are there any movements in recent pop music that have influenced the accelerationist framework in your music?
I feel like I definitely take a lot of stuff from PC Music, and that kind of ethos. Art that embraces ‘bad taste’ – the kitsch, camp elements of pop culture – in a way that feels ironic and sincere at the same time really appeals to me. Also that fixation with plastic and synthetic sounds and textures. It’s a kind of ideal of beauty that feels totally different from what I’m used to seeing in other genres, especially classical music.
I would imagine that kind of accelerationism is the natural order of things; I think once people are exposed to an idea, the natural impulse is to take it further.
You don’t feel like the default is a more conservative “let’s stop this from getting out of control?”
I’d say it depends if you feel like there’s any longevity in that mindset.
I think sometimes I worry about the longevity of this kind of music, as well. I don’t know whether the kind of music I make is [long-lasting]. It makes a big initial impact, which is great — which is what I want it to do — but I don’t know how much of a life it has beyond that. I guess as composers, we like to imagine that our work will endure; but it’s strange because so much of culture now, I feel, is pushing us to create stuff that’s instantly accessible, instantly relevant. I don’t know if you can somehow do both: create a thing that has immediacy but also endures; it actually has legs to stand on after all the sparks, the dazzle, have faded away.
Does that question impact your practice?
Yeah, I think so. I have this slight anxiety about whether my music can live long. But sometimes, I think that maybe in this age, there’s something very special, and weirdly contemporary, about something that makes a bang, then fizzles out and just dies. And there’s no attempt for longevity or legacy, even. Maybe that’s the purest form. I guess this idea of a “great work that survives through the ages” is a bit of a traditional, outdated way of thinking.
I guess the big example you could give here is Erik Satie, right? As an example of something that “shouldn’t” have survived, but did and has become part of the canon.
Yeah, definitely. I think Satie was thinking about this stuff before anyone else was.
There’s also something postmodern about asking those questions — and asking whether they’re relevant anymore…
It’s hard. Because I’m thinking of these concepts a lot, but I’m not going into a piece thinking “I want to illuminate this idea from this theory in music form.” It’s more that I’ll read something, and then I don’t fully understand it — I’ve barely even read any postmodern literature but certain phrases sometimes just resonate with me.
Like, Jameson talks a lot about architecture; how architecture is the most representative form of postmodernism, the form of art most symptomatic of late capitalism. He talks about this hotel in downtown LA called the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. It’s this crazy huge hotel — very florid, with escalators coming from one side all the way down… sprawling design. The way he talks about this is so interesting: he’s saying [that] this space represents a mutation, or an evolution, in our sense of space, and he calls this the postmodern hyperspace. The architecture has finally succeeded in transcending the human body’s ability to locate itself in space. It’s intentionally designed to make you feel disoriented, and dislocated. And he says: it’s like the architecture is directing us, compelling us, to grow new limbs, or expand our sensory capabilities — “sensorium” — to be able to compute this much information going on in this crazy hotel. We have to literally advance to a new species of human to be able to understand where we are, or what this thing is.
That’s utterly fascinating. I’m already making parallels…
I remember reading that and being mind-blown. I think a lot about how that would translate into a musical language: what if you could create a music that sounds like it’s asking you to upgrade yourself? The senses you’re equipped with at the moment are literally not advanced enough to compute the amount of information being sent towards you. So there’s this feeling of disorientation; but also this reaching towards some kind of “human 2.0” — that’s why my [Manchester Collective] piece is called ‘SERENITY 2.0’ — because it’s like a software update. That had a massive impact on my thinking, when I read that book.
How do you see yourself continuing to realise this “human 2.0” in your upcoming work, and bring these themes together?
I’m currently focusing on a debut album with the support of Sound and Music’s ‘New Voices’ scheme. I want it to be like a musical synthesis of everything I know and love, weaving different genres and bringing a speed, intensity and playfulness to things. I guess ideally my goal is to create a language that feels shocking and unfamiliar, but also beautiful. Like there’s this instant recognition of newness, like a future that hasn’t arrived yet.
Having said all that, I’m aware that the idea of ‘newness’ is really subjective. What I consider to be new, to someone else, might be really old-school. -laughs- So I have to always remind myself to leave space for the listener to walk away. You can’t be like “check this out, this is gonna blow your mind!” and then hold the listener hostage — which I feel is what traditionally, a lot of avant-garde art tries to do. It tries to shock you into submission. But more and more, I’m trying to accept that it’s okay for people to not like what I do. The listener always has the right to listen, to leave, to come back again, to be bored or annoyed — which I struggle with, but I feel like that’s a healthy mindset [to have]. Like, refusing the god complex of the composer.
Learn more about Ben and his practice at:
- Frederic Jameson – Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1989)
- Mark Fisher – ‘What Is Hauntology?’ (2012), Film Quarterly, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 16-24
- Ben Nobuto – Digital Maximalism and ‘the new post-everything’ (2019)