Ben Neill – Mutantrumpet Residency

My residency at STEIM from July 2-15 was a wonderfully creative experience that had three components. My goals were to continue developing the new version of my electro-acoustic mutantrumpet, to create a new piece with vocalist Andrew Montgomery, and to perform with Nicolas Collins on the STEIM Summer Party.

After arriving at STEIM I met with Frank Balde and updated him on my progress with the new mutantrumpet. The Teensy board as well as the sensors and controllers had been added since I was at STEIM in 2017, and he tested them to be sure they were all functioning properly. Everything worked well with the exception of the joysticks, whose resolution seemed less precise than the ones on my current version. Fortunately I was able to purchase two that match the ones on my present instrument.

On my second day at STEIM I was lucky to get a chance to meet flutist/composer Jos Zwaanenburg, who was there working with Frank on his interactive system. Jos’s approach to augmenting an acoustic instrument is quite similar to my own, and he also wrote the Max editor for RoSa, which I have been using for a couple of years. One of the great things about STEIM is the community atmosphere, and the unexpected opportunity to meet Jos turned out to be a great enhancement to my residency. Seeing how he implemented RoSa with the Max editor was very helpful as I am using these same software tools in my new instrument. We discussed pitch tracking options, which are a crucial part of both of our instruments; like me, he uses a 1980’s vintage Barcus Berry pickup to detect notes for pitch sensing. We must be the only people in the world still using that technology!

The following day I left STEIM for Berlin where I performed a trio concert with Nicolas Collins and Axel Dorner at Sowieso. While Nic and I have a repertoire of composed pieces, for this concert we took a totally improvised approach. I was very happy with the results of this experiment, our sonic vocabularies of trumpet and electronics were quite similar, yet still distinct from each other. I felt that the concert had a nice sense of listening and that we managed to avoid overplaying; the interactions with Nic and Axel also pushed me to discover some new approaches to my own instrumental techniques in the performance which was refreshing.

Upon returning to STEIM on the weekend I continued to work with the new mutantrumpet, exploring RoSa and the Max editor in the studio, as well as preparing for my work with Andrew Montgomery. On Monday Frank configured the controllers on the new mutantrumpet, and I began practicing with the new system. At first the results were disappointing; as I tried to implement some of my current pieces I found that they were not translating well to the new instrument. Some of the basic functions of the old system did not work properly, and I became frustrated and concerned that I might need to take a different approach. This is to be expected with developing a new instrument, but of course is not what one hopes to encounter.

The two mutantrumpets, new one on the left, old one on the right

The two mutantrumpets, new one on the left, old one on the right

I discussed the problems with Frank who gave me a different macro perspective on creating the new mutantrumpet. Rather than replacing and/or mirroring the old version, Frank suggested that I change my mindset to think of the new instrument as an altogether new device with similar but not identical capabilities to the old one. This was a turning point in the residency, after which things really started to click. I let go of my old software configuration and focused on streamlining the new instrument, which resulted in better responsiveness and a whole different approach. As a result, I will need to keep the current version of the mutantrumpet active and will focus on using the new instrument for creating new pieces rather than reworking older repertoire.

The next day vocalist Andrew Montgomery arrived from Stockholm to begin working with me on a new piece. Andrew and I collaborated in the early 2000’s and I had been in communication with him recently about singing in a new project based on early Baroque music. I thought of him because of his amazing countertenor voice which seemed like it would be a perfect fit for the new work. We spent two days rehearsing and recording, and were successfully able to complete two pieces as well as mapping out several others. It was great to reconnect with Andrew after 15 years, and I am greatly looking forward to continuing our collaboration in the coming months.

After two days of working with Andrew, Nicolas Collins arrived at STEIM the day before our performance on the Summer Party. Nic was responsible for first bringing me to STEIM in the early 1990’s, so it seemed very fitting that we would perform together in the new location. Once again, there was a fantastic sense of creative community at the Summer Party; each of the performances was unique and demonstrated its own refined approach to creating music and performing with live electronics. I was particularly fascinated by the work of Andi Otto, whose cello and live electronics system is very close to my own. I also noticed a more expansive variety of musical approaches than in some previous events at STEIM, with many different musical sensibilities being presented throughout the evening.

The Summer Party was a wonderful conclusion to a highly productive and rewarding residency at STEIM. The new STEIM space provides an even stronger sense of community engagement than the old one due to the range of artists working in the building, the beautiful performance space, and the cafe, which is a great place to meet and interact with others who are working on a wide range of creative projects. STEIM has been at the core of my creative work for over 25 years, and as a result of this residency I can see that my creative work for the next few years will be highly influenced by these experiences. I am extremely grateful to the staff for their generosity in helping me to advance my artistic goals!

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