Beyond the Beyond: The Sounds of Experience, Expansion and Perspective via Ben Gerstein

By May 28, 2016 2 Comments

Here is a blog of old ethnomusicological field recordings generously provided by Ben Gerstein.

Below is a fluffy and long-winded anecdote on how I found it…


In New York, I was lucky enough to spend a little bit of time with Ben Gerstein.

I became aware of Ben last year through my pal Novak who forwarded me an email link from Barney McCall (who Ben later told is a friend of his who when in NYC would come round and chat about life and music). The youtube link featured a guy dancing freely to a five minute bootlegged Coltrane solo in a Manhattan apartment. It was Ben in his bedroom. It amazed us both.

Impressive on a scale of sheer human capability was how visceral Ben had come to know the solo, his kinetic recitation catching every nuance of Coltrane’s very nuanced five minute sonic exploration. As I viewed Ben flailing his limbs in every which way to the various honks, squeals and sheet of sound runs of a 1965 vintage Coltrane [which he’s shared half way down this page:] it was clear: here was a man detached from his self-consciousness; conceiving life a little differently to the masses.




There’s a chance the above video doesn’t affect you in the same way it did me. Whether it did or did not it’s well worth spending some time with the rest of his youtube channel where you’ll find some two hundred or so videos of original content. It’s a treasure trove of both inspiration and acts of the inspired he’s documented since 2006…be it a multitude of natural footage shot on handy-cam; Old 55 Bar footage circa 2005 of Ben’s Collective featuring the likes of Dan Weiss, Thomas Morgan, Eivind Opsvik, Jacob Sacks and Jacob Garchik. Point blank footage of a homeless man brooding in an NYC subway station; Ben playing with a live transmission drawing artist and live electronics. Ben’s trombone placed in the middle of a running creek; An audio visual mash up of Coltrane over a Michael Jordan montage. Ants devouring a grasshopper; Time-lapsed footage of Ben playing piano. A Santa Barbara sunset; Ben drumming to Chopin Op. 28 Perlude No.16 in B flat minor in his room…

…And don’t neglect to spend time with the video of Ben overdubbing on trombone all the parts from one of Colin Nancarrow’s infamously dense piano studies. Or Ben playing along with an unrelenting semi-quaver, tenor clef, lead line passage in Boulez’s ‘Messagesquisse’, entitled ‘Tres Rapide‘ (which translates to ‘very fast’). Or Ben with a burning Charlie Parker solo on ‘Kim’- backwards, against the backdrop of a motorway (which he reverses at the end to hear/see the results of the solo in it’s original form against the backdrop of backward moving cars ;). Strikingly conceptual, yes, but also this is a man with a truly, truly tremendous facility on the trombone.



Even more resourceful than his youtube channel is his generously kitted out website full of recordings, quotes, photos, links, sound experiments and recommended books that dates all the way back to the dial up days of 2003. This is as a transparent window into this deep mind as you’ll get from this side of your screen…an offering of passage to a new side of understanding and experience…I can’t recommend having a browse through his website enough!!

Fast forward to New York. Ben was on a number of bills I went to see. I first saw him with Malaby’s (loud) double drummer ensemble, then Michael Formaneck’s Kolossas as well as Ingrid Laubrock’s Ubatuba. Each time he reverberated this compelling energy around the room. Donning funky round-lensed sunnies on stage and wielding his trombone (and body) like it was his dancing partner, he would over the course of a gig ring an entire palette of sounds from his bell, navigating through the familiar to the beyond- the latter at times induced by the funky extended technique of a stuffing a bassoon reed into the shank of his mouthpiece.

I decided I needed to meet him. Needed to hear his take on it all in person. I shot him an email and he very kindly offered to have me round.

Walking into his room my ears pricked at a series of totally alien sounds. For a brief moment I felt disorientated. Ben quickly explained he plays field recordings in different rooms throughout the day. We were currently listening to a field recording of Antarctica from under the ice sheets. Giving my ears to the speakers again I honestly couldn’t believe some of the sounds I was hearing. It was other-fucking-worldly. Seeing my intrigue he began to explain: ‘The message for me’ I remember him saying ‘is expansion.’

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click on image for link to field recordings

We talked for hours. We blissed out on some traditional Papa New Guinean music which he spun both at full speed and half speed. Checked out a live feed of a bird’s nest he plays off a laptop through the day. He introduced me to Watazumi Doso Roshi; to live transmission drawing. He pulled out books from his enormous collection; a book on Balthus (‘the way this guy talks about relationship to paint.’) A book by zen master Taisen Deshimaru. We tried on sunglasses from his extensive collection; he talked about them and the importance of ‘playing with your perception’. He showed me his kitted out fridge covered in pictures of old Native-American chiefs, vast canyons and even vaster high-resolution galaxies. He talked about the trap of style (‘sound before style’); about fleshing out ideas when practising; about breaking down the relationship with the instrument- moving with it, using it as an amplifier. He kept on reiterating: Compassion. Honesty.

I began to understand. It was about expansion- expanding your consciousness; expanding your collection of experiences and unveiling new perspectives that further inform your self and the intrinsically linked action that is playing. 

A couple of weeks ago Ben popped up in my inbox. He had shot me over this blog link. Checking it out, it featured an extensive array of LP field recordings zipped up in digital format. I hit him back back thanking him for sharing and probed about the link. He told me he had recently bought a new record player that allowed him to transfer his 12inch to digital and felt this material too important to not share.

On this page you’ll find dance tunes from south-west Madagascar; Alaskan Eskimo girls playing a game with the sound of their throats; Indigenous Australian corroborree from Arnhem land in the Northern Territory; the sound of solitude inside a Zen Buddhist temple. That is only the beginning…so many corners of the Earth can be found here…

In the email Ben described these recordings as being ‘music of the land and earth’‘expanding our horizons’ and ‘beyond the beyond’. That seems to sum it up pretty well for me. Listening to these recordings is to expand the horizons of our knowledge and understanding. To better understand what it means to be human. To better understand the power of music and communication. And as improvisers, if we are able to detach from the moment, from our present surroundings, we allow ourselves to become conduits to this pool of experience. A pool Ben has made it his undertaking to deepen forevermore. With instruments as are our elected intermediaries, the greater the technician we become the less our ethereal message encounters interference from the physical. There are few in the canon that are remembered as having balanced immense physical mastery with and even more immense conceptual mantra…

That is why I am so in awe of Ben.

In conjunction with my last post on listening, as well as seeing Ben play them in his room while running errands,  I’ve been playing these in my room and car as a substitute for music when I can’t give my full focus to whatever is coming out of the speakers. Of course these would tell you the most magical story if you gave yourself them fully but nonetheless I’ve found playing them in the background rewarding.

Although I feel very compelled to share this blog as well as contents from Ben’s youtube channel and his website, I don’t feel it right to explain- for a number of reasons- my interpretation of Ben’s way of thinking any more than I have so far. A single day isn’t enough to understand anyone, let alone someone of such depth and honesty as Ben. Furthermore it is only one man’s interpretation of these ideas and beyond what I’ve already divulged I feel my interpretation are innately my own. They have nurtured me. Digest the above, explore more and let yourself determine your own ideas. They will nurture you, I’m sure. If you do want to delve deeper into the workings of Ben’s beautiful mind he explains himself pretty purely in this interview below:

This post is reminder that music is infinitely more than the dots, numbers, letters and egos we so often place on it.



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