Cornetist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Ben LaMar Gay has been making waves in various circles of the Chicago creative music scene for the past few years. While many may know him as an accomplished improviser, his versatility is demonstrated in his new Brazilian-tinged, song-based project Benjamim e Edinho, a collaboration with Rio-based musician Edinho Gerber and percussionist Tommaso Moretti. I spoke with Ben about his process, Fellini, and creative methods of releasing music.
DM: How did you first encounter Edinho Gerber, and what made you decide to collaborate?
BLG: Edinho and I met a few years back working as musicians in Chicago. We eventually found ourselves living in the same neighborhood. The combination of constantly sharing our separate life adventures in Brazil, surviving a cold Chicago winter with few gigs and overhearing a conversation during a lunch at El Milagro about how space heaters admire collaboration. Wise folks say that space heaters perform more efficiently at the slightest twinkle of a collaborative effort. A happy space heater is tops during a Chicago winter. So, we decided to collaborate.
DM: Can you talk a bit about your relationship to Brazilian music, and any other influences we’re hearing in the project—either in this song or others on the record?
BLG: Growing up, my siblings and I gladly participated in our father’s vinyl and reel-to-reel tape listening rituals for years. Our ears were always connected to the moments when a selection from Brazil was blended into the mix. At the time, we had no idea where the music was from geographically, but we were in love with the fact of hearing a foreign tongue for the first time. We were amazed at how the manipulation of breath and the movement of your tongue could create other tones and rhythm. Years later I ran way from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro without knowing anyone and became friends with people who were directly connected to the same amazement that I first witnessed during my father’s listening ritual.
DM: You’re well known as an improvising musician in different Chicago circles; is this your first foray into song-based composition? How does your work as an improviser inform your work as a songwriter?
BLG: Every time I touch something that makes a sound with the intention of being productive with it, I’m seeking to create a song. Now this song may be written, programmed or made up on the spot with great and awkward questionable moments but in my mind it’s still a song. I presented “song-based” composition under the moniker of Juba Dance many moments ago. By now, it may have been millions of moments ago. I’ve also heavily contributed to the sounds of Rio-based Boom Bap/MPB group A Filial. I've participated in millions of great moments on this earth. What's the definition of a millionaire again??
DM: What was your recording process like? Did you come into the studio with songs written, or was it a more spontaneous affair?
BLG: We recorded anyway and anywhere we could on our music making instruments. We shared compositional and arrangement ideas via email and also face-to-face in the lab (anywhere a laptop and microphone could fit: kitchens, Niteroi beach houses, etc.) whenever we were in the other person’s city. I entered the session with songs written beforehand for this project most definitely. We mixed the bundle of sound with the fabulous Alex Inglizian of Experimental Sound Studio.
DM: What is going on in this song? What’s your relationship with this Giulietta person?
“Swim Swim” was composed with the intention of syncing perfectly with the climatic scene of Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Le Notti di Cabiria. You can start the song at the 1:50:37” mark of the film when Cabiria (played by the great Giulietta Masina) sees her lover standing at the edge of a cliff waiting for her. Cabiria pauses and says “Che luce strana” which translates to “What a strange light." This is a phrase that I repeat in the song. Near the end of the song there is a group chant of “imparare a nuotare!” (“learn to swim!”), which is a plea for Giulietta’s character and myself to be aware of the true intentions of others no matter how sweet the jelly may be. Musically there are three pulses working to together: the pulse of my synth against the rhythm of the melody, Edinho’s Chinese ruan and drummer Tommaso Morretti’s beat, which I flipped and reinterpreted.
DM: What are your plans for the release? Any plans to tour the project? Where can people grip the Benjamin e Edinho record?
BLG: My plans as of now for the release is that there will be a moment when we will have to let it go. I’m sure with our own hands. I sometimes feel it is better to release it on it’s own will rather than keep it locked up in this “release” concept that I don’t quite understand anymore. But I must admit, most times I wonder, “How did the sparkles from the ‘project release’ fairy’s magic wand miss my forehead?” Luckily I’ve been studying her flying patterns. Soon I’ll make sure the wand touches my dome piece. The release may happen as a Hard Drive Peep Show where everyone is allowed to hear the musical contents of my hard drive for a quarter. A velvet curtain (classy) or a fast sliding door (real) will rapidly descend after the 00:59 sec mark. The next minute will continue after the kind life enthusiast places another quarter in the slot. This will allow the life enthusiast to ponder on what was just heard then make decisions such as “Should I continue or go home and work on my thing?” If the enthusiast is in the middle of dancing, the pause in between the 00:59 sec mark and the quarter “release” will allow the dancer to deal with moving in the observance of silence. But after fearing the amount of wildness that could seep its way into this urge, they may return to the solid notion of perhaps the most meaningful release one will ever experience is the release from your mother’s womb. What release is going to be more hardcore and amazing than that? That release blessed with you existence. So yes anyway, you will hear this great bundle of sound and many others soon. Peace to Mamãe Louise and Mamãe Martha … fade out … fade back in … So yes I plan to release the project. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
DM: What’s coming up for you?
BLG: Besides being a part of the production team of It’s Happening—a monthly variety show at Constellation—and participating in various projects of a few great Chicago musicians/conceptualists late summer and early fall, I’ll be playing a solo cornet show August 6th at Renee Baker’s CreateFest and premiering a new trio of mine called Beast Need Beast August 27th at ESS SummerSonic festival. Besides that, if anyone feels the desire to hear folktales manifest themselves in a sound that was nurtured by the same thing that makes one’s heart beat and body move, gather a group of friends and make a game out of finding this unknown gentleman who speaks of a distant familiar sound. I won’t direct you to any Internet source as of now. Pack a lunch and travel with your group of friends to places where you believe creativity is going down. Even if you never find me, just imagine all of the wonderful characters you’ll meet on the way. These are the brilliant creative characters of Chicago that just may need your awareness of them.
Even the reading of this interview automatically involves you in my life’s work. (Hint: if you divide the rhythm of the words used for the answer of question #3 by the deconstruction of the peaks and curvature of the letters involved, a wonderful melody will reveal itself.)
Open yours ears and go! I guarantee you it will be sweet like loose squares on a Sunday. (I don’t smoke squares but I figured there was no better way to end an interview.)
Ben LaMar Gay with Beast Need Beast at Experimental Sound Studio’s 6th annual SummerSonic festival (5925 N Ravenswood Ave.) August 27.
On this track:
Ben LaMar Gay: synth/vocals
Edinho Gerber: ruan
Tommaso Morretti: drums
"Singletrack" is CAR's Artist Story for Chicago performers in which songwriters, bands, playwrights, actors and writers discuss the creation of a recorded work alongside audio or video clips of the performance. To submit your song for consideration, please email our researchers.