Walking and talking with the always engaging (and busy) percussionist
The enigmatic musician and artist Ben Bennett has a mind-bogglingly wide variety of fascinating work that covers both poles of extremes. As a percussionist, his improvised performances are wild, exciting and constantly changing, using an arsenal of drums, cymbals, homemade instruments and found objects that are struck, rubbed or vibrated using air from his lungs, unlocking hidden universes of unfamiliar sounds.
However, the work for which he is best known is the complete opposite of that, being serene and predictable: his “Sitting and Smiling” series of YouTube videos, each of which features Bennett sitting completely still while grinning disarmingly, for an uninterrupted four-hour period. These videos have been viewed millions of times internationally with reactions including amusement, vexation, disbelief, admiration and utter confusion, inspiring articles from The Atlantic and Vice, parody videos and much speculation.
Currently based in Philadelphia after a move from Columbus, Ohio, Bennett has released three albums within the last three months—two solo cassettes (Weren’t on 1980 Records and Trap on Astral Spirits) and the CD Pluperfect with John Collins McCormick on Eh? Records—and doesn’t plan on stopping “Sitting and Smiling” any time soon, having recently recorded his 221st video.
In advance of his July 30 performance at Barking Legs Theater, before which he will lead a free urban foraging walk to instruct how to gather edible vegetation, Bennett answered some questions for The Pulse.
The Pulse: What goes through your head during a performance?
Ben Bennett: I don’t have much of a conceptual understanding of the music when I’m playing it. It’s like following something, or trying to herd a bunch of goats. At best, it feels like letting the music create itself. More so than when playing with other musicians, I interact with the unexpected things that happen with my instruments.
TP: You’ve been playing percussion since middle school. How did you get drawn to free improvisation?
BB: I was into jazz from the beginning, and was drawn towards increasingly avant-garde jazz and free jazz, like late Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc. At some point in college I saw David Boykin’s trio, which made me aware that there were still people making this sort of music. Soon after I saw Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano play, which introduced me to a more underground scene of free music. Later I played my first solo set ever, opening up for the trio of Jack Wright, Carol Genetti, and Jon Mueller. That was my first exposure to improvised music that sounded completely different from free jazz. It was full of quiet, animal-like sounds. I started playing with Jack Wright which really pushed me to expand my palette of timbres.
TP: What is the most memorable reaction you can recall to your music performances?
BB: Maybe it was hearing that someone went home and cried for a long time afterwards.
TP: How did you learn your foraging skills? What’s the most notable or unusual meal you’ve found?
BB: Around the time I left college, a friend of mine was visiting and showed me a bunch of weeds in my yard that I could eat. After that I started studying edible wild plants on my own, reading books and trying things out. Another friend and I barbecued a roadkill possum. I later lived in a small community in the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina that was focused on living primitively, and I learned a lot there. My friend and I did a month-long wilderness immersion in the Great Smoky Mountains where we ate only wild food (some of it harvested beforehand). One of the most unusual things I’ve eaten was the baked stomach of a roadkill groundhog. It was full of partially-digested greens.
TP: What expectations did you have for “Sitting and Smiling,” and what reflections do you have on your 200+ videos?
BB: I had never imagined that it would draw this much attention. But after episode #5 where someone broke into my house, I felt like it had some kind of power, and I felt inspired to do it in greater quantity. Now I feel even more strongly that it is an effective means of communicating what I want to communicate.
Ben Bennett with Aaron Cowan
Sunday, July 30
6 p.m. Urban Foraging Walk
7:30 p.m. Performance
Barking Legs Theater
1307 Dodds Ave