Better Know A Weisslich: Ben Jameson

The first time I saw Ben Jameson perform was at the new music series Kammer Klang, at Dalston’s Cafe Oto, in 2014. He performed Jacob TV’s Grab It, a piece in which a soloist (originally written for tenor sax, this version was for electric guitar) battles with an almost violently loud soundtrack made of emotionally charged vocal samples from life-sentenced prisoners. The text is blurted out thick and fast, making a forceful and frenetic duet that thrusts itself into the ears and onto the eyes.

Until recently, little did I know how significant Ben’s identity as a guitarist was to his compositional practice. He frequently draws upon the pop, rock, metal and folk traditions in which that instrument has come to play such an important role; some of the titles of his pieces include “Power Chord Study (after Black Sabbath)”, “Two Captain Beefheart Arrangements” and “Song for Pete Seeger”.

The intersection of genres, with all of their attendant social and cultural layers, is also a subject of Ben’s academic writing. In a recent article he wrote for the journal Tempo, he tackles issues surrounding the electric guitar’s social and cultural status in Tristan Murail’s Vampyr (1984), which, he suggests, has more in common with contemporary virtuosic rock of 80’s than the composer is perhaps aware. Whether we like it or not, playing something on an electric guitar which resembles a rock or metal riff has cultural weight, and engages with issues germane to rock and metal, whether they be radical freedom, masculinity, or power. Rather than shy away from these issues, Ben tackles them head on.

His music plays with the idea that inherent in any musical tradition is a set of extra-musical concerns, often embodied by musical instruments, which can be used as compositional material. In the piece we will hear at WEISSLICH 6, Construction In Metal, rock music and personalised video game performance are both looked at as performance styles with characteristic gestures and body languages suggestive of their wider cultural significance (for example, one of the most ubiquitous gestures in metal culture, the ‘devil horns’ hand sign). One performer plays an electric guitar, the other a plastic guitar from the Guitar Hero video games. Although the electric guitar ‘really’ plays and the video game guitar triggers samples, the repetition of identical material between the two parts irons out this distinction, transgressing the idea that playing a ‘real’ guitar is somehow more real or more authentic than playing a video game one. When the electric guitar does branch out, it plays stock riffs and licks taken straight out of the rock textbook. In that sense, it is just as fake as its ‘imitation’. Both the video game guitar and the real one are instead valued as culturally loaded and mutually referential symbols, adding to, if not replacing, their existence as sound-producing objects and redefining how we think of them in the process.

I’ll leave below a video of Construction in Metal performed by Ben and Mark Knoop, but if you’re curious, you’ll be able to see the ‘real’ thing (with ‘real’ guitars and ‘real’ humans) on 23rd April.

–Louis d’Heudieres

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