Music of Ben Leeds Carson

“For the first movement of Ben Leeds Carson’s Wonderment and Misgiving, short bursts of low bass and tuba energy act like a kind of acoustic acupressure.”

—Mark Swed, “Critic’s Notebook: In Fluxus — making sense of the amorphous anti-art movement’s arrival in L.A.” Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2018

Carson’s ‘Piece for Four Strangers’ was a fun introduction to the symposium…and brought out a range of concepts around performance: being in a system in the moment that produces contemporary visibility; engaging a process to test the way something works or develops … and transitions [in states of consciousness] as a way of forming a sense of self.

—Gretchen Till, “Loose Ends: Writing Texts” (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance <>, March 31, 2012)

[Carson’s] ideas…the establishment and erosion of musical boundaries, the evolution/devolution of melody, and the use of silence as a structural component…take shape in swiftly scurrying flurries, motifs fast or slow…sudden fortes that produce an impact out of proportion with their amplitude. To say that [Persistent Names of Lost Spaces] is too long…would be paraphrasing the prince … chiding Mozart for writing ‘too many notes.’

Robert Schulslaper, Fanfare Magazine July/August 2012

In this music … each element in a false dichotomy defines and becomes the other… [offering listeners] the opportunity and responsibility to navigate our own uniquely useful paths.

—Christopher Williams, ”On the Piano Music of Ben Carson”, in The Open Space Magazine, Issue 5, December 2005



PurposeCarefully, with a goose, in 2001. Photo: Chuong-Dai Vo.

The term experimental is thrown about in the arts from time to time. Usually the term implies creative work in the spirit of “let’s-see-what-happens-if __”; in other words, experimental art and music should involve something empirical, an impulse driving from uncertainty to some kind of discovery.

The term also tends to be associated with ‘new media’, new modes of experience, or new social contexts, for art. By contrast, the questions I tend to ask, when I compose music, are more to do with the experience of a sense of subject(ivity), agency, or intention, in music. I restrict my empirical approach to a few pressing interests:

  • How do we invest ourselves, as listeners, in musical subjects? If we care about something like a sense of subject, or identity, in music, how do we find the boundaries of that something? When we hear a theme or motive, and hear it repeat and change, our process is something like finding an object’s occurrence and variance in an environment. But do we also experience musical ideas as models for our own identities in the world?…does an idea and the musical space around it become an imaginary self and world, a rehearsal of our own formations of identity? Finally, if we map our identities in music’s boundary-making processes, are those processes necessarily the traditional dichotomies of ‘motive/development’, ‘melody/accompaniment’, ‘subject/countersubject’, or are they negotiated unconsciously in less obvious forms, layers, or temporalities?
  • How do we perceive simplicity and complexity in rhythmic ideas? How do sets of timespans and timespan proportions attract us to particular perceptions of, and attachments to, rhythm? How do listeners search for pulse in music that avoids it? How can composers and improvisers use “grammars” of time to determine something that search? And can we ask listeners to transcend pulse altogether? (More difficult: rhythm and pulse require things to happen in succession through time. So how do we pick which paths to thread, dividing the participants of a rhythm from its surroundings, its other? In this latter question, the topic of ‘rhythm’ and the topic of ‘voice’ are unexpectedly related, perhaps even intimately.)
  • What distinguishes musical time experienced as a continuity, from musical time experienced as a quality? Sound and music require distributions of activity through an apparently continuous stretch of time. But does good listening require the same continuity? When memory dissolves objective continuities and practical linearities into clouds and streams, what really remains of musical form? What modes of time-experience in music are dependent on continuity? (Phrase structures, movements from prolongation to cadence, but what else?) And what are dependent on qualities, or intensities, of time? (Syncopation, depths of swing and shuffle, degrees of remoteness from a pulse, but what else?)

I hope it is clear to most musicians, from the descriptions above, that these three concerns dovetail and negotiate with one another, so that answers and insights in one conversation begin to transform another. Drawing inspiration from thinkers like Elizabeth Grosz and Alphonso Lingis, I find that musical actions, their repetitions, and their repeatability across other landscapes and scales of experience, bring musical time into inevitable dialogue with the politics of space, race, gender, species, and technology. Obversely, thanks to Stuart Hall, Luce Irigaray, Eduardo Galeano, and others, I consider both musical and personal ‘subjects’ not as stable selves, but as processes, and perhaps as ‘becomings.’ I think this process (“subjectivity”) is worth thinking empirically and analytically about. And it is certainly a process worth composing and improvising toward.

I see these “experimental” efforts not just as a pursuit of knowledge to support music-making, but as a way of thinking more clearly about music in the vein of a social and political space. If the surface of music is an interplay of groups and streams, then the forms emerging on those surfaces might be fascimile of our individual and social investments in power, identity, and experience in the world.



Ben Leeds Carson’s music has been performed at local and international festivals, including Aspen, the 25th-anniversary “June in Buffalo” festival of new music (2000), the Sydney Conservatory’s Music and Social Justice conference (2005), the New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance (2004), and as a headliner for the 2009 Festival of the International Society for Improvised Music. In 2009, Columbia University’s Music Performance Program presented a concert of eleven chamber works by Carson, with the assistance of the Franklin Furnace Collective, New York’s acclaimed piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, and distinguished guests. Carson’s music has been the subject of essays, interviews, and reviews published in the Los Angeles TimesOpen Space Magazine, Fanfare, and the American Record Guide; his recordings appear on the Albany and Centaur labels, and in UC San Diego’s Soundcheck series.

In 2003, Ben joined the department of music at UC Santa Cruz, where he is now Associate Professor of Music, and has taught in American Studies, and Digital Arts / New Media. He offers courses in composition, theory, popular culture; in 2011 Ben was honored with UCSC’s ‘Excellence in Teaching’ award. Carson’s work as a composer is supported by a variety of theory and research, including work in critical gender theory, philosophy, and perception psychology. His scholarly work appears in the Journal of New Music Research, the Search Anthology of New Music and Culture, the American Journal of Psychology, UCLA’s online journal ECHO, and in other publications. 


Exploring this site

If you’re a curious listener or musician, please explore the links to my listening pages under BASICS on the left.

If you’ve been invited to contribute to a discussion here, or want to do some listening or blogging in Introduction to U.S. Popular Cultures (American Studies 80F), please log in.

Other students: The Current Courses section of this site should have a page or two to help organize your learning. But please remember that I’m not teaching “online”…the site is good for discussion threads and listening, but most of the good stuff happens in class.

Stay tuned: I’m currently constructing a section of this website called Hearing Time Freely. Here you will be able to move through a hypertext discussion of musical rhythm, oriented toward particular problems in the musical perception of pulse, “unpulsedness,” order, and some possibilities lingering just outside of order.