Q&A: A Conversation with Ben Cosgrove

Q&A: A Conversation with Ben Cosgrove

Who’s in the woods? In this occasional web series, we check in with members of our tribe to learn a little bit more about the work they’re doing, the life they’re leading.

Ben Cosgrove is a featured speaker at our upcoming Northern Woodlands Conference. He’s a composer, pianist and multi-instrumentalist (as well as a writer - see this piece he wrote for the magazine) who spent much of his childhood “poking around the towns and roads and woods around Mount Monadnock.” Ben writes scores for films, plays, radio and television; tours frequently and has served as artist-in-residence and in fellowships at parks and institutions around the region. You can see his full biography and listen to excerpts of his music here.

Q: What’s the first musical piece you ever wrote? How old were you?

I was five and a half and it was a 50-second song for piano called “The Flight of the Sparrow.” Just a masterful, magisterial, epochal piece of music. I think I wrote it on a piece of construction paper.

Q: Any particular mentors?

Lots! I’m especially indebted to my piano teacher, Judy Schmidt, who taught me from ages 4 to 18 with a frankly unbelievable level of creative freedom: from the time I was a little kid, she would let me choose which songs I wanted to learn or not; she’d let me freely improvise for the entirety of a lesson; she’d listen to me describe why I liked a particular song I’d just heard on the radio and then try to help me work it out on the piano from that description. I think the most important thing I gained from her was the confidence to use instrumental music as a means of abstract expression.

Q: What are the best and worst places you’ve ever performed?

That’s an interesting question – I can definitely tell you about good or bad performances, but I’ve had some terrible shows in wonderful places and really gratifying shows in places that are kind of grim. One of my favorite performances I’ve ever given was in a state prison in northern New Hampshire, and one of the absolute worst was in a beautiful old library building. So you never really know.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the creative process?

What I try to do in my music is to reflect certain responses to landscapes, rather than depict the landscapes themselves. The songs are about places, but it may be more accurate to say they’re about examining the feelings those places elicit: loneliness, exhilaration, alarm, concern, disorientation, belonging, wonderment, panic, nostalgia, and so on. I believe those reactions are essential building blocks in the construction of place, and I tend to think the world would be better off if we were more attentive to them.

Q: How does research come into your musical work?

This is often my favorite part of a new project! Right now, I’m doing a project with the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, and as part of my preparation for it, they’re granting me access to their amazing library and letting me roam around in there learning about the natural and human history of the place. I’m in the early stages of the work, so I really don’t even know what I’m looking for in there yet, but it’s already been a fruitful thing for me to just dig through the history of the site and the work that’s been done there.

Q: Is life on the road glamorous as we hope it is?

Ha! It’s the type of glamour I like, anyway: for me there are usually fewer groupies and luxurious hotel suites than some of my friends get to deal with, but I do get to meet a lot of brilliant people and wake up in a lot of national parks.

Q: Where’s the worst place you’ve stayed on a music tour?

Oh, there are a lot of contenders. I have slept curled around a keyboard and amplifier in the back of a Chevrolet Aveo in subzero weather and I have misjudged the reach of the high tide while camping on a beach. And learned the hard way that my sister’s couch is about five inches shorter than I am.

Q: What work are you most proud of to date, and why?

At any given point, I’m usually proud of my latest work and completely dismissive of everything that came before it. I made an album last year called Salt, which comprises a linked set of songs I wrote about landscapes that metaphorically resonated with a bunch of dark and complicated feelings I was having at the time: I’d gone through a very bad breakup which left me feeling completely ungrounded and unmoored, so I wrote ten songs about places where the ground was always changing and undependable – places like estuaries and salt marshes, where the relationship between land and water was in constant, permanent flux but which still retained consistent identities as places nonetheless.

Q: What are you reading?

In general, I’ve been really interested in movement lately, and in how the way someone moves across the land can so profoundly influence his or her understanding of place, or of distance, or of landscape. In particular I’ve been stuck on a book called Skyfaring by a pilot named Mark Vanhoenacker and an essay called “The Abstract World of the Hot-Rodder,” by the landscape scholar J.B. Jackson.

Q: How do you think your work relates to land stewardship? Or does it?

I’m a deep believer in the idea – I guess this is sort of an Aldo Leopold thing – that before you can treat a landscape ethically or responsibly, you must have a personal, well-defined connection to it. My friend recently shared with me a quote from Robert Macfarlane, which is “a place which has not been evocatively described becomes easier to destroy.” I don’t think of my songs as political arguments, but I do hope that by encouraging people to think about how they mentally frame the places and landscapes in their life, I might inspire them to treat those places more thoughtfully – which might lead to conservation, or preservation, or just to responsible development. We live in a time when it’s easier than ever to ignore your physical location, and I feel lucky that I get to run all over the country pleading with people not to default to that mindset.

Q: We’re excited to have you at the conference. Anything in particular you plan to perform there?

Thanks – I’m honored to have been invited! I’ll be playing some songs from a variety of projects I’ve done over the years. Throughout, I’ll be talking about the places involved and the ideas I was working through while I was there. It’ll be lots of fun. I can’t wait.


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