Keeping our antennae on for the trash truck: In conversation with Ben Gerstein

I met Ben in 2009 when he was kind enough to help me workshop some music I had painstakingly but also sloppily made on a QWERTY keyboard using Garageband’s MIDI piano roll editor. I was struck by Ben’s disarming openness and willingness to dive into a backwards process I barely understood. I’ve periodically checked in on his Youtube channel since and love the little corner of the world he’s acknowledging.

Zoom conversations between Ben Gerstein and Jonathan Pfeffer that took place on March 7 and March 14, 2024, edited and condensed for clarity.

BG: In 1999 I started committedly practicing the trombone outdoors. There was this particular spot of grass up at the top of Riverside Park, near the Manhattan School of Music…it felt so much better to me than practicing in the small apartment I had at that time. I found that my practice changed; the way I would breathe when my bare feet were on the earth; fewer distractions; different ideas and perspectives coming up in the warmup; and overall a more open quality of spirit in having things unfold outside.

Then you start to make studio in that way. You bring all the things with you — your books, your lunch, your cameras, whatever you feel you might need for a good stretch of hours. That’s the thing: what a luxury to have a good stretch of hours to let things open up fully.

Every time I would come back to California from New York for a couple of weeks to be with my family, I’d make sure to get to the beach as much as I could to practice the trombone and work things out. It was the best thing I could do, spending the day there, working with my sound and energy, projecting fully, moving the body out, exercising, and deconstructing the whole thing.

At the same time, being outdoors and discovering the practice spot, I love the unpredictable visual trip of finding ways to see and discover the entirety of surroundings in a musical way that can be felt as an all-encompassing improvisation — witnessed as a counterpart to music you’re also hearing.

That was really life-changing for me, finding that freedom to take it all outside. You do things very differently from how you would indoors, muted by walls and a ceiling, or even the notion of neighbors or others hearing you or evaluating what you’re doing, or that you might be disturbing someone.

Nature doesn’t care about what you’re playing; there’s no style. Sometimes the absurdity of it all…you just become in touch with your sound and your breath and the open pacing of it, especially if you have three, four, five, six hours. So you learn a lot about what can happen over time.

It’s just another side to reality that for me feels very, very fulfilling to work with and somehow connect more with through my practice. Everything is practice; nothing is separate from that. Everything you make is some sort of practice of observation or composition. In that case, improvising and composing are synonymous. There’s no difference; it’s just a dance. I love that. I love having things to contemplate and feel into and work with and see differently, hear differently, step back from, and change the relationship with.

JP: I’m drawn to this recurring theme in your work that can seem like an individual subject problematizing or complicating or playfully deconstructing an environment that on some level seems impenetrable, like a closed system. Whether it’s a natural landscape or a recording, I’m interested in how you participate in different environments in a way that questions the parameters or distinctions we often make between nature and culture. You’re able to extend the “frame” through that process of questioning.

BG: Thank you for feeling and articulating this. I’ve been recording and documenting my practice in so many different ways ever since I was a kid. It’s always been the way to listen back and question, reflect, and build upon what I was doing, even looking at the musical habits I wanted to get rid of, or things I wanted to get clearer on or transform somehow into something else. That’s always been an important thing for me, especially as an improviser/composer, to make space around and get fresh perspectives on.

And then within us, our internal studio, we have this equalizer of values, like a soundboard, and we cultivate how to know different amounts of things, when certain responses come up, when to bring them in, or out…There’s always this invisible dance we have going with something, that only we’re hearing. It’s a dialogue we’re having with all of our multi-dimensional, multi-sided hearing or relating to a sound or a style or just all that stuff that we contain – all those influences and associations that we’re essentially alone with.

So, we’re always in this dance with our self-created reality and engaging with it, and at the same time taking part in something that is…so much more open than our own individual realities.

I mean, there comes a point, too: how many times can we hear Beethoven, Schubert, or Mozart piano sonatas, or the Brahms piano concertos, or whatever. I mean, yes, it’s an incredible, untouchable part of history that countless musicians continue to want to climb inside of and reinterpret. Just like there are people who continue to read, interpret, and convey certain legendary texts out loud.

Certainly this is the case for musicians in classical and contemporary music, primarily performing works by other composers. Personally, now if dealing with the older composers, I’d probably be more interested in hearing them simultaneously, in new combinations and meetings, or transplanted and projected somewhere unique out in nature, surrounded by the sounds of that organic environment.

Of course, there are also certain pieces or recordings that can unexpectedly open one up and bring new inspiration. I want to search for that, find a way to celebrate or acknowledge that moment, find a way to re-represent it, or really learn from it.

There’s something about transplanting music out into nature, which I love. It opens up a different kind of relationship and existential distance, almost a seance of sorts. Of course, most of that tribal, traditional, folk, and ritual music was originally recorded outside. The studio needed to go to it.

You can’t always bring these musicians indoors. I also want a life that’s like that. I think music and practice can sometimes feel so cut off from this. It’s a way for me to claim that freedom for myself and also really explore something in a serious way. I want to really work on something and fill it out so that maybe a couple of aspects are represented at the same time through my own physiological interpretation. Then it’s like, “Okay, I’ve managed to capture something, and I can share that practice.” I want to.

We share practice, we push each other, we trip on what we’re listening to. We listen, we practice, we open our perception up to channel different states, we improvise and push it further out into the horizon. We push and support each other. It’s really exposing each other to new experiences and ways of immersing ourselves in something.

Like going to the museum with good friends, looking at paintings together and really getting those big hits of commitment from other artists. It’s so encouraging. It’s a practice in and of itself to just stay encouraged and nourished. For me, it’s a process of resourcing myself and curating some galleries for my mind and body so that practice can continue to evolve. If I’m not performing and rehearsing, then how do I keep myself active or supplied with that kind of need to work so hard on music?

I made a video of Ligeti’s “Continuum” on the beach. I was listening to that piece two octaves lower – 400 percent slower – so I could really touch the micro spots in that kind of mechanical exactitude. But then also seeing it outside in this spot where it’s like a dinosaur could come over those sand dunes and we’re just some ancient, nameless man with a bone…The integrity of the work itself is so strong that I just want to honor it. I feel like whenever we make something, it’s always a tribute to something else. It’s never just about us. It’s much more. We want to honor the life or the work. 

But it’s also just wanting to see something different and loving the practice and process of recording itself. Getting a good shot in the moment, and having a Zoom here, a Zoom there… Just making studio in nature where we are. I love that. I love the living workshop. It’s our life. Working with reality, art, and also recordings of music or sound that inspire us to such a degree, we feel: “I have got to do something about this! This all fits together!”

We go through a journey in life joining with the records of the past, taking part in the history that speaks to us for whatever reason, and project that out into our path of being and practice. Then we reach these ends and times for transformation and start to feel differently about what’s going on and limited through different contexts, environments, trends, communities, etc.

But I guess that’s just life, and we start to question, “What am I?! What do I really want?! What’s my truest expression?” It’s a pilgrimage of self to just be who we are and discover, discover, discover, open ourselves up, receive the messages, practice, connect, collaborate, dance, be free, healthy…

There are many different outfits and forms in life that we climb inside of, utilize in different terrains, and yet also may find eventually don’t fit us anymore; that’s not us or relevant any longer to where we are.

To be true to what we want, which, of course, some other species won’t necessarily understand or relate to like we would. We each have a different history of experiences that have brought us here. Others may find it strange, boring, uncomfortable, scary, intense, crazy…But we just break through and keep doing what we have to do.

Coming back to composers, years ago it was a deep affirmation encountering the works of composers like Luc Ferrari, Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaefer, and the ways they utilized and explored the sounds of life. I love recording nature and unexpected, suddenly encountered life-sound phenomena and listening to a different flow, holding it, and feeling it like a conductor. We are conductors. We use it and sing it through us. We conduct our perception and bring awareness to the interconnected activity.

JP: I loved that video you posted of the Oslo garbage truck.

BG: Oh, yes! I ran outside like, “What?!?!” It sounded like an enormous whale being cut in half with a chainsaw slowed down an octave. I HAD to get the video camera out for that. I was in heaven. That would have been funny too if there were a bunch of other guys also rushing out there to try and capture it. We’d look at each other like, “Oh man, this is the shiiiiiiiiit!”

JP: I want to go back to something you said about how pitching down that Ligeti recording or playing drums along with it or recontextualizing the recording within a natural landscape has the potential to change the music. The phrase “joyful breach” popped into my head.

BG: Totally. I find it so exciting to hear different things at different speeds and rediscover them at a much slower tempo, and lower register. It gives a whole other access to the beauty, details, and depth, especially the touch of the performance itself. It takes on a new life. A refreshed or updated, maybe even more relevant way of hearing it now. I can often say to myself, “THIS is the way I want to hear it!”

The whole revelation of slowing things down. What you can hear, learn, feel…I get curious about hearing so many different things in that way, almost seeking for things/ideas to slow down, to also sometimes both see and hear slower, especially something like bird vocalizations or whatever. Even a toilet trickling. It’s like Messiaen!

It’s just access to something, more than meets the ear when it goes by after you flush it. “Where am I? Toilet tone-rows?” On the flip side, there’s also much to be said about speeding things up! Seeing different rates and conglomerations of things, clusters and patterns, rhythms, motions, a different level of dance…I love improvising with something very, very slowly with the deliberate intention of speeding it up to use as material in that way. Of course, I love it when what we see is also synchronized with what we’re hearing. We look at it and receive it as a totally embodied possibility.

With children I teach at the Montessori School of Ojai, I implement this enormous collection of old 78s I acquired, also playing them slowed down at 33rpm, exploring the ways sound and recordings work and we can experience them, hearing the old voices… I have a whole yurt there filled with instruments and records. I make it like a museum for them; I want them to feel like they’re ar(t)chaeologists, free to discover worlds of sound culture and history.

I love how Xenakis talked about “finding composition in its secret hiding place.” It was in one of his old journal entries published in the booklet from the exhibit of Xenakis’ graphic scores at the Drawing Center 14 years ago. What an example of somebody staying true to what they wanted to hear and create. He was really into getting bigger, ancient, primal, graphic experiences we can have with instruments, nature, and sonic force.

JP: That video of you jumping on the piano in the trash immediately reminds me of that kind of primal contact.

BG: I couldn’t resist! I remember reading an article about a documentary filmmaker – I’m forgetting his name – where he talked about “working with found events” (ed’s note: Davy Rothbart) I relate to this so much. As we consume all this different music, literature, film, and so on, then it’s like our receptors are on; our antennae are on for moments like the trash truck, or an opportunity to dive in and engage. I want to be ready.

The act of recording is in and of itself both an improvisation and compositional practice and a practice of beholding – witnessing – experiencing. You’re feeling it as if making that sound oneself, or you’re just witnessing it, holding it and letting it pass through. We’ve made a choice to frame it, so to say. A particular vantage point.

Did you see those new seasons of Twin Peaks a few years ago?

JP: I did, yeah.

BG: They were amazing.

JP: Yeah, agreed.

BG: There was this video I needed to make and share about the hidden music in one episode. There’s this one scene with these ghouls, a burying ritual, lightning… It had this music that sounded like bells, but there was this melodic something about it… It felt familiar, but it was so submerged. It was around four octaves [s]lower to create that gravity Lynch loves. Anyway, so I took that scene and I sped it up again and again and it turned out to be Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” I couldn’t believe it. It was a pretty exciting moment.

It made sense because there was a key to that shot, with the full moon at the end of the scene – a clue. That’s also sort of composition in its secret hiding place. You find another look into how things can work and feel magical. You find some hidden part of an amazing artist’s work process or something hidden in there.

A lot of people were totally geeking out on those episodes, too, because it seemed like there were all these hidden messages and meanings. Lynch can really feel like that. Anyway, there really is something about slowing things down, going in reverse, or speeding things up that can give you a different access. I don’t think I ever would have heard that Lynch scene in that way and decided to speed it up had it not been for exploring slowing things down so much and listening in that way.

JP: I’m reminded of those clips of you scratching Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein records to deconstruct an already deconstructed form. You’re amplifying or perpetuating the core impulse of the work.

BG: It just becomes recorded material for play – a way of moving it out differently by hand – and finding language actually laid down in a circle that you can go back and forth on, explore in shapes, improvise with.

When we practice and improvise with things, we’re always doing research, and sometimes we touch on something and it makes an impact on a different physiological scale, how we discover we can explore, which then ripples out into other things, other instruments. Everything’s a language, an instrument.

I don’t think we as musicians necessarily need to limit ourselves to just “music” for musical ideas. If we look closely at [anything], we can see these relationships happening that feel like music. Composition is form so how we see those relationships can reflect how we see form. For me, the big thing with finding composition in its secret hiding place is just being able to work with life and not necessarily limit myself to a certain kind of music.

I was walking around in Japan a few years ago scouting out a place to practice trombone, and I heard this sound. I wanted to practice, but I also just wanted to wander and see where that sound led me. I couldn’t resist. That felt so much more interesting – these dynamic roaring voices, waves of human energy.

So I just followed this trail down to a field near the river and these kids were practicing baseball. But the way they were doing it, the sound of it, and the way they called out to each other in these cycles of energy…the best thing I could do for practice then and there was to just sit and record and listen to it and feel this event of dynamics, movement, interconnectedness, and energy that I’d never heard before.

I had a really strong reflection yesterday while I was practicing by the river here in Ojai about what “technique” is. What IS it? It’s a language of sorts – micro physiological apparatuses – that enable us to speak, convey, shape, or articulate something. And yet, our life changes and grows.

We’re always changing and can be deeply transformed by other experiences. Yet being a musician requires certain techniques or principles of language. And we have internal feelings or voices telling us that we should do this, or we need to do that, or we need to keep a particular ability available somehow.

But there comes a point where we can let go of all of that, and just go deeply into the opening of sound, breath, space, and connection with nature, freer from all of that. We have very deep and simple experiences that don’t conform or have anything to do with those other wavelengths or notions of “virtuosity.” Nevertheless, on our human journey, all of those embodied abilities are still in our flesh, encoded within the reason of anything we do.

It’s a journey. Years of facing that and feeling the organic breakdown of that matter inside of us. Everybody goes through it on some level. “Technique”/vocabulary is also a reflection of what we’re listening to; it doesn’t just exist on its own as some anomaly. It’s a response to something that we really want to say or take part in. It’s the same when we’re influenced by certain authors that we might read. Their use of language can affect the way we communicate and write.

Since portable recording devices have evolved to the degree they have now, especially the video camera, they’ve become even more of a means to observe differently and see things as we’re hearing them – as a form, as a frame, as a footage within practice. It’s like a living score or something.

As audio recorders also got better and more portable, that also advanced and evolved my calling to search and just wander and look for things to record. Ideas start to work differently and a higher curiosity stirs in the background. There is this readiness to capture something and work with it. I think that’s a huge part of finding composition in its secret hiding place.

JP: I’m really attracted to the idea of “regressing” from the realm of technique, form, and language into this more tactile, multisensorial realm, then excavating its hidden “language.”

BG: Yes. I’m really attracted to that too. I really feel the truth is that everything speaks. I feel everything is a language somehow in the way it’s constructed; it could be the table, the chair, the doorknob, the sidewalk all required some intelligence. Plants carry intelligence. Everything represents a kind of language. The road – somebody laid it down, they knew how to do it, the ingredients, how much of this and that, and how to use the tools to lay it down onto the earth. The mailboxes, power lines, the way the palm tree has been trimmed back because of the language the tree pruner understood. Everything has a language; language means a kind of intelligence.

Each of us is a language – the way our teeth are constructed, our neck, bones. We’re all formed through a different mother and father and family line and all of that is part of our music. That music comes through the skeletal structure. We’re constantly in a state of becoming.

Somehow in the word “regression,” there can be almost a common notion of some negative interpretation about that…But that’s not how we’re referring to it here. It’s more like a return – to something primal. Of course, there’s the expression, “clean the mirror.” We kind of clean away and strip away things we don’t need anymore.

JP: I meant “regression” in the psychoanalytic sense of what might happen during a process of free association that overrides a type of consciousness that might inhibit you. You move backward into a state that’s less accessible through language, then all this material might start to emerge that has the potential to offer a new perspective.

BG: Exactly. Beautifully put. We can say we’re on a pilgrimage back to the source. We’re on a journey to realize and appreciate the immense beauty of being alive and living in the world with people.

JP: This conversation we’re having about practice seems like we’re talking about exercises where one can not only expand one’s tolerance for living with the terror of uncertainty but flip it around and find joy in it.

BG: Well, if you’re experiencing terror, that’s a strong word. I could understand anxiety…but it’s a dance. I’m grateful, in a sense, for simply this ability we have to record, work with life, appreciate world history, practice, observe, create, and explore. We always have something to work with. I don’t need somebody to tell me what to practice or where to go to find material to work with.

I think it’s wonderful when we can work with life and also continue to resource ourselves by listening to, reading, studying, and joining the world. The library is always growing and we’re constantly finding new things to hear and see. It’s endless; we’ll never run out of music from all over the world. Nature, too.

JP: I agree with your point about the abundance of music, although I wonder (and worry) sometimes about the signal-to-noise ratio. I think the terror I’m talking about is really about the void or a universal human experience of “lack.” We’re talking about the potential for technique to become a crutch or a form of compensation or a defense mechanism; certain techniques and forms can insulate us from the terror of having to fully engage with the world. How do we develop new “techniques” to engage with the world instead of going through the motions? One aspect of your work I find inspiring is the way you seem to override that terror by leaping into it joyfully in a way that reminds me of the world’s abundance.

BG: Your words mean a lot to me. I love when practice opens up so much there’s this feeling of disappearance, and those limitations all drop away. We also carry so many pressures inside of us – notions of, “If I don’t do this, stay at this regularly, and push myself, I’m going to ‘lose’ myself, my ability. I’m going to ‘lose’ who I am. If I’m not constantly reading this and that, then I’m not at my full potential, intellectually, spiritually, etc. etc.”

Why choose to suffer like that? There’s a very deep process of inquiry that we can have. When having accessed well-circulated personal practice on a given day, it’s true that then I can feel more like a good collaborator. But then practice can occur in so many, many ways. How to not meet life and unexpected events with resistance, but incorporate them into our practice as a collaborator. I increasingly take that responsibility more seriously now.

JP: Yeah, the process of reestablishing a connection with yourself not to disconnect from the world but to be better prepared to be a part of the world once you’ve re-emerged.

BG: Exactly. We’ve got to accept that sometimes what comes up can feel very inconvenient. And so in moments like that, we make new space for it. 

Before moving to California, my primary concern had always essentially been music, practice, and my art, at all times. However, it wasn’t until I started traveling to Norway on a more regular basis where my wife was living at the time that I started to consider and experience other qualities of life and ways of letting go of more limited musical self-identification.

The music she and I made together significantly transformed my life, and that’s definitely where things started to shift, irreversibly. Also, at the same time, my feelings about quality of life in New York City were changing drastically.

We can unlock something in ourselves and come to something very simple and profound. That can feel so fulfilling. Sometimes it can be difficult at the beginning. We can feel tight and restricted. But then, say, an hour later, or a week or month later, we realize it was the best thing that could have ever happened. We just have to trust in something beyond what we know. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?”

JP: I don’t know if that Jordan/Coltrane video that you posted is indicative of your interest in basketball, but you just made me think of “Trust the Process.” Are you a basketball fan?

BG: I certainly am, to some extent. Jordan was such a hero when I was growing up. He was unstoppable. So, to pair Jordan footage with “Amen” from Sunship…Someone left a comment that this is the most American video they had ever seen. Hilarious. Just a reminder of that strength and power we have within us. I love also just making different combinations to inspire myself. There’s something very athletic that I love in life — to feel in good shape and feel free… There are so many amazing basketball players. I was watching some clips of Kyrie Irving the other day, too. He makes it look so easy – so spontaneous and inventive. I’ve considered making another Coltrane Jordan / Michael Coltrane video one day…

JP: I was always more drawn to Rodman than Jordan. Who’s the jazz analog for Rodman?

BG: Ornette?

JP: Maybe Ayler? Ayler and Rodman would be an interesting combo…

BG: There you go. I’ll leave that one for you (ed’s note: classic Rodman footage + “C & D” by Ornette kinda works! I wonder if it’s the Texas connection…). You know, we just find different ways to inspire ourselves and celebrate this spiritual beauty and power and strength and leadership of others. It puts us in touch with a clarity we want from ourselves.

JP: Even if you don’t have an interest in basketball, to see someone operate at that level, with that degree of clarity and focus and creativity. Style, too!

BG: Totally.

JP: It’s rare to witness someone operate at such a high level where they can just be playful.

BG: Yeah, exactly. But to put all that insane popularity aside – how much money these guys make and the whole world of media – and just get to the spirit of it. It’s also very competitive, which was something very strong in me, especially when I was growing up, and especially with myself. How much I would practice and what I would aim for and aspire towards. I used to take things so seriously — maybe too seriously — when I would play.

If somebody wasn’t dealing, I could get angry. So there’s certainly too much ego there…The process of growing through that. But sometimes I still take things too seriously; it’s not all just light and love. It’s a really fucking serious matter. It’s a huge outlet for me, and I need really intense musical expression, which just goes and goes.

I don’t think Coltrane was necessarily competitive, but at the same time he was so serious. I mean, the force at which he was playing. If we actually heard that quartet from 1965 on the bandstand, it would be so insanely loud – so powerful. People forget how loud that music actually was. Audiences like to sit right in front and eat their chicken dinners and have their drink, but those plates would just rattle off the table because the music was so loud.

You listen to those live recordings from the Half Note, or the force at which they were playing in the confines of the studio when they were recording “Sunship” or “Transition.” I mean, it’s huge. That force at which these guys were playing…I don’t know how tall Coltrane was. Do you know?

JP: I don’t know off the top of my head.

BG: I want to say maybe 5’8”?

JP: Ah I thought he was around 6’1″. Let me look it up. You’re right. He was 5’8″.

BG: The Jordan-Coltrane combo…There’s something about this power that can come from training and practicing. To work with a vision that brings something out fearlessly that nobody else could have foreseen. Something unpredictable that we ourselves also could never have foreseen that we’re there to catch, to behold. There are some performances or gigs where you treat it like this might be the last performance you ever give. You know, “This is it. This is on the edge of existence,” you know?

JP: I love and I relate to that sense of hanging out on the edge, but I’m also really into the possibilities of the quotidian.

BG: Yes. Thank you. It’s a dance, for sure.

Ben Gerstein (b. 1977) is a musician, visual artist, and educator from Santa Barbara, California. Primarily a trombonist, Ben Gerstein was based in New York City from 1995-2020, collaborating with many different groups and individuals in the U.S. and abroad. His music and works explore influences of nature, art, meditation, and culture through improvisation, composition, multi-instrumental and mixed-media practices. Having moved back to California with his wife in March 2020, he currently resides in Meiners Oaks, continuing his practices, collaborating internationally, teaching privately, and as Music Specialist and chess instructor at the Montessori School of Ojai.

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