5 Questions to Ben LaMar Gay (composer, cornetist)

Ben LaMar Gay, a composer and cornetist from Chicago’s South Side, sculpts electro-acoustic collages out of sound, color, space, and time. Wielding an extensive discography and lauded by Afropunk as “strinkingly original,” LaMar Gay’s eclectic body of work explores storytelling, “Americana,” and folklore while melding elements of hip-hop, jazz, funk, and more. His long-form composition, Certain Reveries (performed alongside percussionist Tommaso Moretti), was recently released on International Anthem. As an inaugural Rebuild Foundation Mellon Archival Innovation Program fellow, LaMar Gay will take a deep dive into the foundation’s archival collections at the Stony Island Arts Bank and birth new work over the next two years. 

Congratulations on being named a Rebuild Foundation Mellon Archival Innovation Program fellow! What are you most looking forward to during this fellowship?

Thank you. It’s lovely to be a part of such a significant cohort of creative researchers. I’ve been aware of the archives housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank for quite some time now. I, along with other community members, have been introduced to the archives through Rebuild Foundation’s excellent and inclusive public programming throughout the years.

I’m looking forward to finally directing my listening toward the archives’ center. I want to place myself inside the archives the same way I put myself inside an ensemble of improvising musicians with ears wide open. I plan to listen deeply to see how the archives speak to me and how fluid they become when improvised upon.

Ben LaMar Gay--Photo by Chelsea Ross

Ben LaMar Gay–Photo by Chelsea Ross

Your musicianship is influenced by your interests in intergenerational storytelling, the language of folklore, and “Americana.” How do you feel your relationship to the notion of Americana has changed over time?

Worrrrrrrrrd. My musicianship is influenced mainly by humans’ ancient relationship to improvisation as a spark to a flame. Intergenerational storytelling and the language of folklore naturally appear in my work because improvisation is at the core of the two. My relationship with the term “Americana” is rooted in expanding a limited concept through accessibility, technology, and global influence. This relationship is constantly changing and evolving, as I am constantly changing and evolving.

Tell us about your recent release Certain Reveries; what can we expect to hear or feel?

Certain Reveries is one half of a multimedia piece that premiered at the London Jazz Festival in 2020 via live stream. The other half is a 14-minute video entitled Balogun. Certain Reveries and Balogun are abstract memories and fantasies based on my experience inside a sprawling street market in Lagos, Nigeria. The music of Certain Reveries is a mixture of improvisation and themes constructed from the fabric patterns I found inside the Balogun market. You can expect to hear a cornet, a voice, a synth, and a drum set. You will also hear two humans blending, becoming one voice. Fellow musician and good friend Tommaso Moretti joins me on drums. You can expect to feel two new friends holding your hand and guiding you rhythmically through the light and dark of a foreign market.

A renowned collaborator, you’ve co-created with musical giants like the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Black Monks of Mississippi, Tomeka Reid, Bitchin Bajas, and more. I imagine your list of influences is quite long, but I’m curious: what are you listening to right now?

At the moment, I’m listening to 1973 bootleg recordings of the Talking Heads, Thomas Mapfumo’s Mabasa, Elizabeth Cotten, and Moodymann’s SilentIntroduction.

You wield an expansive discography, and you’ve been a prolific member of Chicago’s vast and vibrant experimental music ecosystem for many years. How do you hope to see the scene evolve? How do you hope to see it stay the same?

A healthy scene should reflect a healthy society. I hope to see the scene be as diverse, inclusive, and equitable as possible. It would be silly for me to think that anything stays the same. I hope to see the people who are involved in the scene have the freedom to remain themselves in a forever-changing environment.


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