Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

04 MAY, 2010

Ben Simon’s Gaga Guitars


Kinky keys, or what Bob Dylan has to do with model railroaders and Van Gogh.

Ben Simon is an artist in every sense of the word — part musician, part wood carver, part mixed media sculptor, part something else entirely. He makes incredible, crazy guitars and performs with them on the New York subway, blending the charismatic quirk of a street musician with the art world street cred of gallery-worthy custom work.

Today, we sit down with Ben to ask him a few questions about the inspiration behind his extravagant instruments, his creative process, and how ordinary people react to his extraordinary art.


Hey Ben, tell us a bit about your background, what inspires you, and your brand of creative curiosity.

The giant extincted lizard thing. Looking at the world from different locations in outer space. Racism in the USA, learning to relax… My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and when I finally made it through high school I continued to move. I guess I can identify with the mover. I don’t really know. I’m inspired by God’s light.

I’m working toward opening an instrument building program for kids who have some extra types of needs (kids with nothing). I’m inspired by something if I think it can be useful to an emotionally tormented teenage kid. For more information about this, please send me a note.


We’re all about the cross-pollination of disciplines and arts here. How did you arrive at this beautiful intersection of sculpture, woodwork and music?

I guess it happened naturally. I got a job at a custom woodworking shop in 2005 where I was allowed to come back to the shop after hours and work on my own stuff. I went to an arts high school and made some amazing friends that have always been a part of what I do. It’s not any different than anything else. I’ve been free and blessed to make stuff any way I’d like.

Lots of people never have a chance, but my life has been filled with chances. Wide open spaces to explore. If I died and my soul is lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.


How long does one of your guitars take to make, on average?

About two months. Each one has a learning curve. I’ve been woodworking for five years, so there is still tons that I don’t know. There are some tools that I don’t have that would make the process smoother. Not rushing is nice. Moving slow around the power tools is important. Depending on what the design is, I could probably finish in three weeks.

'This is the first guitar I built. It has about 15 different types of wood and was built in an improvisational style. I built some cutting boards that looked like the body on this guitar. The guitar has GFS pickups, a Hipshot trilogy bridge and a built in digital delay. All kinds of exotic and domestic woods.'


You play your marvelous instruments on the New York subway. What kind of music do you play? How do people react?

For a while I was playing one called “Guitar2d2″ that features a built-in circuit bent Yamaha keyboard and Boss drum machine, 3 amps and a few effects pedals. It has 5 speakers and is battery-powered. I improvise a lot and play songs. People often have funny reactions. Probably because “Guitar2d2″ is so big and different-looking.

We are making a documentary right now: In the film, I’ll be building a guitar dressed a bit like a Star Trek character, complete with voice changer. Then, the plan is to play that guitar on the street in the costume and sell the DVD. This will probably get some funny reactions.


This is hard, but let’s try it: Your all-time favorite visual artist and favorite musician…

Van Gogh and Beethoven I guess.

There’s so many people that make awesome stuff. I like this fellow: I cried at an Ornette Coleman concert in 2008 because it was so beautiful. I go to see Bob Dylan every chance I get. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sun Ra. There are great artists everywhere — most we will never hear of. Ever heard of slide guitarist David Tronzo? Didn’t think so. We’re talking about the most amount of vibrance a human is capable of vibrating. Every color. All the rhythms.

My Dad would probably never call himself an artist, but he has built in his house some of the most detailed H.O. scale model trains around. He did this whole scene of Boston circa 1958. I’ve witnessed him put thousand of hours into this and other layouts over the years. His work has been in Model Railroader a few times, but mostly it just sits by itself.

I feel like this is common, especially in people. Often when you meet a new person, you enter into a world containing various amounts of anonymous art work. I wonder: What is art work? How much can one look at? What will be found?

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19 APRIL, 2010

Sparrow Songs: Twelve Films in Twelve Months


Darkroom epiphanies, the creative merit of empathy, and why cell phones are the future of cinema.

The world is full of interestingness and talent, and Brain Pickings has been on a mission to unearth it for years. So we’re always delighted to come across likeminded cultural treasure-hunters who seek to document the fringes of human fascination. Which is why we love Sparrow Songs — a new project by filmmakers Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten (Rize), releasing one short documentary per month, every month, for a year.

Each of the twelve films spotlights an interesting person or project, from a musician who records a full-length album every month to the secret life of a Los Angeles puppet theater to a portrait of a donut shop. Cinematically shot and beautifully directed, the films are a promising exercise in filmmaking innovation — and judging by the filmmakers’ track record of previous critical acclaim across high-profile festivals like Sundance, Tribeca and True/False, they’re bound to strike a chord.

Today, we sit down with Alex and Michael to talk about the vision behind the project, emotional curiosity, and creating an audience for nonfiction film in the age of transmedia storytelling.


Hey Alex and Michael. Tell us a bit about your background, your brand of creative curiosity and what inspires you.

Alex: I went to grad school at UCLA where I got turned on to documentaries. Sparrow Songs is my first project out of school. For me this project is less about creative curiosity and more about emotional curiosity. I hear about these places or these lives and wonder what they feel like. I want to know what there is to be learned there. We go and experience the people and the place and then the creativity comes into play with Michael and I working together to try and find a way to convey those feelings and that reality.

Michael: My initial interest in photography stems from my uncle, who in his youth built a darkroom in my grandparent’s basement. In the 7th grade I discovered that same darkroom along with all his old black and white negatives. At the time I didn’t have a camera so I experimented with printing his photos, most of which were of him and his friends getting high. The images were so mysterious and poetic, it seemed there was a story behind each of them.

Those photographs inspired me to begin shooting and started me down the path of filmmaking. I also have a lot of people I’m inspired by, some of whom are: Bill Henson, Jeff Wall, Wolfgang Tillmans, Richard Prince, Anna Gaskell and Harmony Korine.


How did the two of you partner up and what was the inspiration for the project?

Alex: Some of the inspiration came from the tradition of street photography — Helen Leavitt, Walker Evans, Nan Goldin, Joel Sternfeld, etc. I asked myself what those folks would be doing if they were starting out now and these short, intimate and portable portraits felt like a good answer. The inspiration also came from John Wood and his Learning Music project.

Michael had just gotten back from a job in Afghanistan when we met through a friend. I mentioned the project to him and he seemed interested. He has a wonderfully calm and peaceful energy and I… well, I don’t. It felt like it’d be a good balance.

Michael: Alex and I originally met on a music video that I was shooting. Then months later we randomly ran into each other in an alleyway behind my studio in Echo Park. Alex told me about Sparrow Songs and asked me what I thought. I loved the idea, a week later we shot our first episode.


What’s your process in curating the themes, subjects and people to make documentaries about?

Alex: I’ve just been trying to follow my intuition; with only a month to make each film you can’t have too many false starts or you wind up way behind. One thing that has really stuck with me — especially in the moments when I feel like the film we’re making is going to be terrible — is something Howard Suber, a professor at UCLA, said:

‘With enough compassion you can make a film about anything.’ I think that’s true, if you look deep enough into any life or any place, you’ll find something compelling.”


The past decade has seen a massive spike in documentary filmmaking, bringing the genre from the fringes of cinema into the mainstream of popular taste. What factors do you think have facilitated this? How do you anticipate documentary film will evolve as social media and everything they enable — worldwide connectivity, citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, instant news, transparency — continue to take hold?

Alex: For the audience, I think the political environment of the last ten years made documentaries feel more urgent and more needed than before. From the filmmaking side, the work has changed so quickly, almost across the board the films have become much more cinematic in scope and feel. And that’s important because this is the new journalistic form; this is the new essay.

Our generation’s Woodward and Bernstein aren’t going to be writing for a newspaper, they’ll be making nonfiction films. And the way those films are consumed will be different: the next film that changes the world won’t be seen in a movie theater — it’ll be posted on Facebook or watched on an iPad and emailed along.

Michael: In an odd way, reality television opened people up to the idea that maybe reality can be entertaining. Along with that you had the advances in technology, the ‘digital revolution’ that made making documentaries much easier for independent filmmakers. People now had the means to tell the stories they were passionate about. And then with Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock you had documentarians becoming household names. As far as the future goes, we’re only a couple years away from a moment when every phone has a video camera in it. At that point, to some extent, everyone will be a documentary filmmaker.


Why “Sparrow Songs”?

Michael: It sounds good, it feels right. The project changes with each film and I think the meaning of the name does too.

Alex: That’s true. Like a lot of things with this project, the idea came first and then the meaning(s) emerged. At first the name seemed to mirror what we’d be doing — making these pieces and just releasing them out into the world, just doing it for the sake of doing it.

More recently though it seems to me that a bird singing in a tree is something you can either stop and look at and appreciate or something that you can just ignore. I think the subjects in our films are like that, they could just as easily go by unnoticed but if you pause and look a lot can be revealed not only about them, but about the world around us.

Watch all the films online for free on the Sparrow Songs website or the Vimeo channel, and get an exclusive peek at the creative process behind the films on the project blog.

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13 APRIL, 2010

Leave Your Sleep: Victorian Poetry Meets Modern Music


Musty libraries, otherworldly storytelling, and how dead poets wrote 2010’s most moving album.

One of our biggest passion points here at Brain Pickings is the cross-pollination of disciplines. Combine that with our passion for mus, and you’ve got a winner. Case in point: Natalie Merchant’s ambitious new album, Leave Your Sleep — a brilliant and beautiful musical adaptation of near-forgotten 19th- and 20th-century British and American children’s poetry, out today to nearly a decade worth of anticipation.

The album, her first studio recording in seven years and co-produced with Venezuelan musician-composer Andres Levin, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne and creator of the eclectic Red Hot charity series, samples from the entire spectrum of literary fame and obscurity, including poets like Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Christina Rossetti and — our favorite — e e cummings, as well as little-known geniuses like Brooklyn poet Natalia Crane, who published her first book in 1927 at the age of ten.

What I really enjoyed about this project was reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life. Bringing them to light.

What makes the album all the more special is that in the six years Merchant spent researching the poets, sifting through newspaper microfilm from the 1800’s and spending countless hours in musty Victorian libraries, she grew increasingly curious about and inspired by their lives and decided to write a book about them. Poetry inspiring music inspiring prose, a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of the arts. Coupled with Merchant’s unforgettable powerhouse of a voice, the album is one of the most inspired projects to come out this year.

We were fortunate enough to experience Merchant’s absolutely breathtaking live performance at TED earlier this year, which, though not doing justice to her live stage charisma, you can sample below. The rich emotion oozing from Merchant’s voice as her melodic storytelling unfolds is just otherworldly.

Sophisticated, playful, bittersweet and utterly haunting, Leave Your Sleep spans as rich an emotional spectrum as it does a musical range, leaving us dangerously close to infatuation in a way that no single recording has managed to in longer than we can remember.

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