If you haven’t heard yet, Ben Miller – a very talented and creative Ann Arbor-born musician who, over the course of the last 45 years (!), has played in several legendary “local” bands, including Sproton Layer, Destroy All Monsters, and Nonfiction – has moved back in Michigan. He’d been living in New York since 2003 and, before then, in Chicago.
To hear what he’s been up to all these years, or at least some of it, come to Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit) at 9 pm on Saturday, Oct. 25. It will be Ben’s first performance as a solo artist in the Motor City since 2001.
Accompanied by various projected videotapes, at least one of which Ben himself produced while living in Chicago, the music will be performed on a “self-deconstructed multi-phonic guitar.” And wuzzat? Well, it’s an electric guitar (plugged into an amplifier) that has been partially taken apart so that it can accommodate several extra pickups, which are the electronic things that “pick up” the sounds that the guitar is making. A normal electric guitar has two of them. Ben’s guitar has ten: four in various positions on the headstock and body, and six near the strings, with one pickup for each string. Well, there’s your multi-phonics right there: 10 separate sound-sources, all coming from a single guitar.
(Note that multi-phonics is usually accomplished by wind instruments, and that even the most gifted horn player can only produce two or three distinct sounds. Did I mention that Ben also plays saxophone and writes wonderful music for his New York-based 12-piece Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra? Well . . . he does.)
Let’s get back to those guitar strings. Various objects – binder clips, bolts, and screws – have been attached to them. Sometimes they are tuned in unusual ways; most often Ben plays them just as he finds them. And rather than use a guitar pick or his fingers, Ben touches/rubs/strikes those “prepared” strings with metal slides, springs, combs, chains and violin bows.
Finally, the resulting sounds are then fed through a series of effects pedals and are sometimes mixed together with sounds coming from the samplers, transistor radios, and tape recorders that Ben has brought with him. Are you getting all this down?
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and so you are quite right to ask, “So, after all that, what does Ben Miller’s guitar music sound like?”
Wait – no, maybe you’re wrong. When Ben appeared on WCBN-FM just a few days ago, he played live music that included pre-recorded voices saying things like “No questions,” “No answers,” and “No definitions.” In other words, Ben Miller’s guitar music sounds like . . . Ben Miller’s guitar music.
I’m not trying to be a dick here, honestly. It just is easier to say what Ben Miller’s guitar music isn’t than what it is. Even if it is accompanied by videos, it is not music for films, not even for an imaginary film, a film that has not been made yet. Nor is his music a static sonic landscape or an instance of musical installation-art, something you walk through, listen to/look at for a little while, and then move on.
No: Ben Miller’s guitar music is about freedom, complete artistic/musical freedom. What you see and hear when you see and hear Ben perform is a musician almost completely free from – unconstrained by – virtually every musical convention and rule. Thus his music offers a challenge to his listeners: are you free, too? How free are you?
In sum, Ben Miller is certainly not an “expressionist” and he isn’t “taping shut his ears and playing what he hears; blood thrashing through arteries, nerves popping, synapses burning,” which is what got said when he last performed as a solo in Detroit. Ben Miller is an explorer of uncharted space; his musical performances are the sonic entities that he’s discovered . . . out there.
“If I can just penetrate the atmosphere, everything would be clear,” he says, not speaking about the clouds in his mind or those in the sky, but Venus, the place he’d like to live next.
Bill Brown lived in Ann Arbor between 1980 and 1984. He moved there to go to U-M, but instead of returning home (the New York City area) or going somewhere else, as so many students do upon graduation, he stayed on. In addition to working at a variety of restaurants, including the iconic Fleetwood Diner, he wrote about music for
The Michigan Daily, The Ann Arbor News, The Michigan Voice and
The Detroit Metro Times. Most of these articles were reprinted in an anthology titled
You Should’ve Heard Just What I Seen. It makes for a great guide to the local music of the time.