"Currently" with Ben Zucker
For our new "Currently" series, we send an artist five open-ended questions to answer, and when responding, they can elaborate as much or as little as desired. The questions are intended to capture a snapshot moment - what an artist is grappling with, appreciates, and dreams about for the future. Responses are posted verbatim, as soon as they are submitted, so as to provide a platform free of editorial skew.
Our fifth "Currently" entry is from Ben Zucker, an improvisational and experimental multi-instrumentalist based in Chicago who composes, collaborates, and even dabbles in audiovisual performance. His wide-ranging sound has garnered attention and awards from a number of organizations, as he continually seeks to "cut across genre with an eye towards new relations between concepts, disciplines, and visceral experience." Zucker is now a doctoral student at Northwestern, and is gearing up for another teaching term. He was kind enough to carve out time in his busy schedule to provide thoughtful and earnest responses to our questions.
- What creative project(s) are you working on?
Two main things at the moment:
1. Music for an audio drama adaptation of War Of The Worlds by Theatre In The Dark in Chicago. Getting to spend a day just focused on one scene at a time, and having settled into a particular fond pallet of synths, mallets, keys, strings, and noise, it’s aligned nicely with a shift in my process and working methods due to pandemic lockdown and the indefinite delay of several projects of "composed" music (though thankfully those are still on the horizon).
2. A new class/syllabus for the fall semester, which surveys classical music in the United States via both its composers and institutions, throughout history. Teaching has always been a mix of excitement and dread because of the possibility and responsibility you have. But with this class, especially at this time, it’s felt especially important to make this class about the role art and society have for each other, and how we read historical narratives and objects. As much as I love the music, I really want my students to be able to dig against the grain and learn how to nuance and counter the circumscribed, harmful stories our society tells us about art music, this country, and who made/makes it what it is.
- What topics, ideas, or movements interest you?
I’m in the process of proposing my dissertation, which in some way will be about ‘world making’ as a technique in contemporary composed music. It’s hard to pin down just one meaning of ‘world’, of course, but that’s for the better. It’s been about tendencies, and behaviors, and support systems, and the joy of exploring and finding borders (spatial and genre). How contradictions can persist. These have also been pressing things in my regular life too.
Also, reconciling the altruistic aspects of justice work with the need for validation to make a sustainable effort to undo the oppression around us. And black IPAs are awesome, why don’t more breweries make them?
- What music, art, or words do you feel drawn to?
Recently I’ve become especially interested in listening to, or rather being with, music that feels more like an object, so it can be a guest in the house for a little bit. I guess I mean stuff with a somewhat consistent tactility, ‘occupies space’ through a consistent yet subtle adjustment of its timbre and density, and operates on a timescale more like a human body. Artists like Richard Skelton, Steve Roden, Clara De Asis. But at the same time, I find this quality in moving works too, like The Necks, or Marisa Anderson. Heck, I felt like there was a great union of these when I relistened to the This Heat discography. Maybe these are more like spaces to be in.
In a similar way, because it’s been so easy to simply read words for what they mean, I’ve liked reading things that sort of speculate in real time within their narratives. I loved Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” when I recently read it, and/or the way Nathaniel Mackey’s “From A Broken Bottle Traces Of Perfume Still Emanate” are jazz letters about jazz. Before some tea obliterated it, I was excited to dive into a copy of Octavia Butler’s “Parable Of The Sower,” far too belatedly.
I have a cheap Amazon tapestry of a man in a boat in a multi-colored starry space sky on my office wall. It still does the trick, whatever it is, after all this time.
- What self-care practices are you finding helpful?
The day I wrote this, I just walked out of my apartment and let myself get rained on for a bit. That was nice.
The practice part of self care has always been a challenge, and especially in lockdown. I’m averse to doing anything regularly, so each time I go on a bike ride down the Lakefront trail, or have tea instead of a nightcap, or do a lot of sit-ups, or read something not for school, it feels like a novel, revolutionary act in itself (these have all happened with some regularity recently).
I don’t want to lose that feeling even if those do become habitual. More than anything else, the self-care has been finally beginning to separate my sense of presence and well-being from being “productive”; just doing things without some sort of future-oriented goal when the future is so unclear.
- What do you dream about, for days ahead?
For the unexpected to come back into life in little ways that aren’t just bad news, when people can say ‘yes’ to more things than ‘no’ because they feel safe, and do them in a way that's safe for others.
And here is the space where we generally embed music, but instead, this is a link to where we at DC first heard Ben Zucker's music. This collaborative recording on which Zucker contributes trumpet and electronics was a one-night, cross-coastal snapshot, and instead of paying the artists for their work, they ask for donations to City Harvest, an organization fighting hunger in Chicago. Make sure to check it out.