Benjamin Tassie

Benjamin Tassie is a composer, artist, and researcher. He is particularly interested in how historical musical instruments, tuning systems, and performance practices can be recontextualised to speak to our contemporary experiences. A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time, is the new album from Benjamin Tassie. Recorded and filmed in the historic Rivelin Valley in Sheffield, the album features three new water-powered musical instruments that Benjamin designed and built together with the instrument maker Sam Underwood.

Describe the nature around you at the moment.

I’m in my studio in the attic of my home in Sheffield. The room has one window set into the sloping roof, so only a rectangle of sky is visible. I like looking out into the sky. Debussy said: “There is nothing is more musical than a sunset”. I think he meant, how the light develops, how it holds our attention endlessly, turning through shades of blue and violet and black. When I need something more, there’s the Peak District here which is rugged and breath-taking, and the Rivelin Valley, too.

Where do you feel most at ease?

‘Ease’ is an interesting word. I’m not sure if ‘ease’ is quite it, but the most ‘at peace’ I feel is definitely when I’m out in nature. The Peak District is great for it. It’s possible to just walk and walk and walk. And it’s all so astonishingly beautiful. I wild-camped recently near Back Tor - pitching my tent, exhausted from hiking, just sheep and grouse and the purple of heather for miles around.

Which song, book, or poem nurtured your relationship with nature?

I’d have to say Keats or Shakespeare. “In some melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless” (from Ode to a Nightingale by Keats) is perfect, isn’t it? As for more recent works, the music of the American composer John Luther Adams is just wonderful. He lived for a long time in the Alaskan wilderness and he now lives in the desert. His music is not ‘about nature’, in the sense of depicting it, but it somehow feels like how nature feels. And books - countless, but probably Max Porter’s Lanny which has a wonderfully arcane, twisted, folkloric feel of the English countryside about it.

What do you hope audiences take away from your new album, A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time?

We recorded this album in the Rivelin Valley in Sheffield. It combines water-powered musical instruments, live musicians and the sounds of the environment there. The place has a rich heritage and an evocative sense of the entanglement of man and nature. I wanted to speak to all of that in the work; to our changing relationship with the river over the centuries and to this idea, from philosopher Bruno Latour, of ‘polytemporality’ - that time is not an arrow (to do with progress and the ongoing project of Man’s separation from nature) but that our connection to the past is contiguous and that history might instruct us.

Perhaps that’s what I’d like people to take away from the album: a feeling of what the past and nature might jointly model for us - something of quietude and coexistence, of nonviolence, care and kinship; that nothing obliges us to maintain these ideas of progress that have proved so destructive.

What are you interested in at the moment?

I’ve been interested in the idea of ‘enchantment’ from the German sociologist Max Weber. Modernity ‘disenchanted’ the world, he says, making everything positivistic and coldly rational. And so we’ve lost things - brotherliness, for example, or an understanding of the world as “concrete magic”, that it offers gifts. Art is one domain in which enchantment is left to us. So, I’m interested in how art might reenchant the world more broadly - might teach us communality, or reveal the Earth’s magic to us again.

This isn’t a side project, but essential in the struggles against capital and ecological destruction. Art can teach us new ways of relating to and in the world. The philosopher Timothy Morton describes artwork as “a sort of gate through which you can glimpse the unconditioned futurality that is a possibility condition for predictable futures.” He writes: “Art is maybe one tiny corner of our highly (too highly) consciously designed - and way too utilitarian - social space where we allow things to do that to us”.

How does nature inspire your compositions?

John Luther Adams wrote this which I think sums it up for me: “Whenever we listen carefully, we come to hear that music is around us all the time. Noise is no longer unwanted sound. It is the breath of the world… Noise takes us out of ourselves. It invites communion, leading us to embrace the patterns that connect us to everything around us. As we listen carefully to noise, the whole world becomes music. Rather than a vehicle for self-expression, music becomes a mode of awareness.”

What kind of ancestor would you like to be?

It’s difficult not to be fatalistic when imagining the sort of world that will be left after us, isn’t it? Or to feel helpless as an individual in our culture that seems to reject so absolutely solidarity and communality. I think the thing is to have modelled kindness, compassion, kinship, quietness, care, and intimacy. And to have made art that speaks somehow to these qualities.

How would you describe human nature?

There’s the tendency - the danger - to think of our worst impulses as our ‘nature’. To imagine greed and carelessness and destruction, and so on. But I don’t think that’s right. That is just the world that, inexplicably, we have built for ourselves and that sociologist Max Weber called the “iron cage”. I think that human nature is more like that feeling of a good meal with friends, of your cheeks aching for smiling so much, or it's being astonished by music, or any of the small kindness that we do each other, or making a garden. Human nature is tending to things and each other.

What would you like to ask the next person on #TNK?

What is your strongest sense-memory of being in nature? How did that moment impact you?

Could you suggest someone else or other organisations you admire that we could approach for #TheNatureKind series?

The poet Jacqueline Saphra is a friend, a wonderfully talented writer and a keen advocate for nature.

You can find out more about Benjamin Tassie here.

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