Murmurs Around the Mountain: Lea Bertucci + Ben Vida

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Ben Vida and Lea Bertucci’s debut collaborative album, Murmurations, is out this week on Cibachrome Editions and it’s been in heavy rotation here over the last couple of months. Murmurations lands with a restrained force. It’s music that’s considered and heavy but saturated with an air of mischievousness that sets it apart. Both Vida and Bertucci have been on incredible runs with their solo work and other collaborations and Murmurations comes off as two artists finding their respective peaks and pushing them into new places.

I interviewed the duo back in March. Lea can be reached via her website or Bandcamp and Ben can be found via Bandcamp.

I always like to start at the beginning with these interviews. What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound that have stuck with you all these years?

BV: I have this memory from being maybe 4 years old: I am in my next door neighbor’s basement. It is dark and I press the power button on an old receiver that lights up brightly and starts to play. The melody that comes through the speakers is The Music Box Dancer. I don’t have a lot of memories from that age but this one is so ridiculously crystal clear that it almost feels as if I am making it up.

LB: I remember riding the school bus half asleep in the morning and how somehow the music the driver was playing on the top 40 local radio station would conjure up images, textures, and colors on the inside of my eyelids.

What prompted you to take the next step and start learning an instrument and then eventually start creating your own works?

BV: My Mom is a piano teacher and there was always a music vibe in the house. I started on piano and moved to trumpet and then guitar. My brother Adam is a really great musician and we grew up playing together from a young age. We had an acoustic guitar around the house and my Dad would play the opening riff to Twist and Shout. Music was always understood as something to do.

LB: For me, it’s a bit of a long story, but music always seemed to move me more than other disciplines. For some reason, there was never much of a question to me as to whether I would be an artist of some kind, but there was something ancient and mysterious to me about music that gave it a special power – its ability to evoke images and complex emotions.

 Okay, let’s jump right into the new collaborative album, Murmurations. You all recorded this last year. Can you tell me a little bit about how the project started and how the initial conversations and exchanges of ideas coalesced into a full record?

BV: This past summer Lea was staying in a cabin that was around the mountainside from the house my wife Katy and I have in Shady, NY. We started hanging out and got along so easily that making some music together was inevitable. The record came together very casually. It’s just an extension of those hangs. We fell into a shared musical language right away and developed the sound of the duo by both jamming and chatting. 

One thing that really struck me about Murmurations is how it simultaneously sounds like something I might expect from either of you, at least on a basic sonic level, but at the same time, it doesn’t sound like any of your other work. How did you all balance things where you were able to bring your own creative practice to the project and be heard while still not just giving the other space, but kind of developing a new, shared form of expression in the process?

BV: I think that balance comes out of our somewhat mirrored histories of being improvisers, composers, and producers. It was easy to leave room for one another because we were hearing the music on a compositional level in very similar ways. I love what we did for this record but I am even more intrigued by what we learned through making it. I think there is a feeling between us that we could get pretty weird with this project so I am excited to see where we choose to go next with it.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way each of you uses your voice in your solo work and that element is central to Murmurations. Two questions – what is it about the human voice that is so interesting to you? And as you were working together, were there approaches concerning voice that you learned from each other or ideas that you shared that helped further your thinking on the possibilities of what you can do with the human voice?

BV: I have always enjoyed singing and did a bunch of it in bands when I was younger. Over the past ten years, my interest in voice has morphed from writing pieces for vocalists that were purely phonetic to becoming completely absorbed in writing text and creating abstracted narratives that foreground both the communicative as well as sonic functions of the voice. My recent work with Nina Dante and YarnWire is the best example of where I am at with that. Lea and I talk about bringing more of this quality onto the duo and I hope that we do. 

In terms of what we have done together so far, it is really an extension of the work Lea was already doing with tape and voice with other vocalists. The big change being that now she is singing as well as processing the voices; that along with the two of us improvising vocal takes together has created an interesting foundation from which to continue building. The evening that we first started bringing this aspect into the project was very stoned and fun.

LB: It is definitely a drug induced kind of music. I was interested to see the ways that I could use my tape machine to break apart language into textures and fragments of words and play with the words improvisationally. So far in the project, the text has a stream of consciousness approach, which could change as we build out the ideas and incorporate other performers.

Related to that, sound poetry is mentioned as a reference point for Murmurations, which makes a lot of sense. What is it about sound poetry that you find most interesting and do you have any particular favorite pieces or performances?

BV: Though I have done a bunch of work that hints at that world it is not a discipline that I am very versed in. I’m kind of an obsessive reader and I like to read whatever I might come across and collect language from that reading. For me, it’s really about the summing of all of that disparate text and what can develop out of it.

LB: I became interested in early Dadaist sound poetry as an undergrad, learning about Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, and Apollinaire and hearing recordings of them vocalizing the texts, I think definitely there are echoes of these weirdos’ contributions in what we are doing. The repetition of someone like Gertrude Stein and the abstraction of Hugo Ball, of breaking apart a word and twisting it around, playing with meaning. Doing this through a sensitive kind of electronic machine is a contemporary approach to this. Of course, there are aesthetic and formal liberties that Ben and I take in our approach, with a different sort of musicality imbued in the text and a more “marginal” conversational approach. There’s lots of mumbling and less proclaiming I think than the early sound poets. This aspect of our project is also definitely in conversation with the concrete poetry that is an ever-multiplying zeitgeist of late.

Album Artwork by Erin Womack

Murmurations is a very intricate album to my ears and, in a way, becomes a world of its own as it unfolds. And you all talk about developing your own language in the album description. All of this leads me to something I often find myself thinking about and how music and sound can create whole new worlds out of nothing, almost at an instant, and how sound can hold so much emotion within it. Have the last couple of years changed your thinking on the possibilities with music in this regard? And What kind of experience are you hoping to create for listeners with Murmurations?

BV: It’s just so nice to have collaborative music making as a mode of connecting and communicating in a moment where one might be drawn inward and away from others in reaction to an ever increasingly traumatic world. 

LB: The humanness and fragility of this album creates a very intimate, hushed quality to the music. I think people will be able to tune into the interiority of it all in the wake of these past two years.

What surprised you the most as you all were making this record?

BV: Just how easy it was to get very deeply into the music as we were playing. To get totally lost in the sound world we were making. We found ourselves laughing a lot after takes. It’s nice to have that playfulness in the exploration. 

What ended up being the biggest challenge?

BV: This time around I handled most of the mixing and editing on the LP and found since we were capturing the recordings in such a casual way, that the sonics were at times a bit of a bear to wrestle into shape. I look forward to making more music together where we are able to keep things loose while tracking but also focus more closely on quality of the sound design from the outset. 

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

You both have done other recent projects with different collaborators that kind of utilize the idea of space as an important aspect of a performance or a piece. Ben, I’m thinking of your recent work with Marina Rosenfeld and the aspect of it that was performed remotely but ‘ filtered through the empty volume of New York’s Fridman Gallery’ and Lea, the recent ‘collaboration’ that utilized Shane Darwent’s sculptures as a component of the performance. How do certain physical spaces – or even your own environment more generally – play a role and influence your practice and your process?

BV: Listening into spaces is such a pleasure – there is so much information to be gleaned. I often work in a rather hermetic manner so whether I was making a record in my apartment in New York or of late, producing works from my home in Shady, it is not so much the sound of the spaces that influence the music as much as how the environment outside of the studio acts to create a counterbalance to the work. Basically: when I break away from the studio am I taking a walk on the city streets or in the woods. Both I love but they function in very different ways. 

LB: In my other projects, acoustics and working with site are primary ways I explore musical composition, like in my 2018 projects Acoustic Shadows and Resonant Field. I’m very much an explorer and adventurer, with a taste for architecture and the sonic phenomena that are present within built environments and landscapes.

And beyond that, in a specific sense, how did your environment impact the recordings on Murmurations? I really like the part of the album description about ” living on opposite sides of the same mountain outside of Woodstock, NY” as it adds an almost-whimsical component to the project in my mind.

BV: The settings that we made this music in, my studio at home, and Lea’s cabin – both of which are in mountainside woods, clearly had an influence on the work. Perhaps less so sonically, at least in terms of the spaces being interesting in an ambient sense, but certainly, the relaxed open endedness of how we were gathering up the materials for the LP is in the sound of the finished record. 

To close, what is next for each of you and what are you most hopeful about in 2022?

BV: I’m spending the next year working with choreographer Faye Driscoll on a couple of new pieces. I’ve also finished up an LP of compositions written for YarnWire and Nina Dante that’ll find its way out into the world through Shelter Press in early 2023. Lea and I are planning on doing some touring as well, and I am really looking forward to the chance to make more of this music together.

LB: It’s super exciting to be able to be back out in the world again. I will be premiering a new piece for voice, tape, flute, and electronics at the GRM Presences Electroniques festival on my birthday(!) April 17th and then heading to the Bay Area for a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where I will work on new solo material.

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