Benjamin Wynn is an ambient and electronic composer based in Los Angeles. Along with his releases under the name Deru, he is a founding member and creative director of The Echo Society, an LA-based composer collective that premieres new orchestral works from artists like Amon Tobin and Haxan Cloak. Beyond that, Wynn is an Emmy award-winning composer known for creating the sound design for Nickelodeon shows like Avatar: The Legend of Korra and Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness. Don’t let that fool you, though, his latest Deru release, Torn in Two, isn’t for the kids. Over nine tracks, the record observes humanity’s current state, with plenty of grim anxiety and only glimmers of hesitant hopefulness.
Having released the album earlier this month through Friends of Friends, along with two accompanying music videos, Deru gave us the inside scoop on this challenging, starkly beautiful piece of music.
SBC: The “Torn in Two” and “Refuge” videos have some stunning overhead shots of cold, desolate landscapes and urban sprawl. Can you talk a little about the creation of those videos, and the people you worked with?
Deru: Both of those videos are a combination of drone footage (shot by myself in Iceland and Los Angeles) and digital sculptures created by Bryan Konietzko. Bryan had the idea to create a series of human-like effigies that reflect the human condition. He is an animator, illustrator and musician best known for Avatar: the Last Airbender, and he created a series of sculptures in 3D and handed them off to Anthony Ciannamea, another longtime friend and collaborator, who placed them in locations, lit them, and rendered the camera moves. For “Torn In Two” we also had help from Andy Dill, Nico Sugleris, and Xander Smith. For the “Refuge” video we used tintype photographic plates that Tim Navis pored acid on to make them melt in interesting ways. His plates had an amazingly close resemblance to the topography of the drone footage from Iceland, so we intercut them in the beginning of the “Refuge” video, and also used them for the landscape of the skeleton scenes. Tim’s tintypes became the cover art for the record as well.
What’s different in your life in comparison to the 1979 era? How does it influence Torn in Two?
Torn In Two feeds off of my feelings of frustration, anger, and disassociation but also aims to gain some perspective and eventual acceptance. The way I think about it is that if 1979 was about individual human emotions then Torn In Two deals with societies on a larger scale. It zooms out and looks down on the earth, and with some distance we’re allowed to reflect on time and our place in history. As a race we’re better off then we were decades ago in so many ways, yet we’re staring down the barrel on issues of global scales. On top of that many of our governments are isolating themselves out of fear, when what we need most is cooperation to face these issues.
There’s a quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that I believe and hope to be true (both in America and abroad), which is, “The true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum.” I find comfort in thinking that we’ll hopefully be able to look back on this time and see it as the pendulum swinging in the other direction for a short period, on it’s way to moving more and more towards cooperation and empathy for others and our planet.
Can you explain a bit about the manipulation of acoustic instruments employed on the album?
Torn In Two is a collection of microtonal pieces where the pitches were derived from the analysis of acoustic instruments, and processed woodwind quintet recordings.
Over the last few years I’ve been working on software that allows me to extract the loudest 15 partials from a sound and resynthesize them with compositional controls. The partials of acoustic sounds don’t fit neatly into our 12-tone equal temperament scale so by definition I end up with microtonal music. The music sounds ‘other’ yet it sounds like it has a structure and reason for being. I can also blend with the acoustic source if desired. So I can take a piano note, for instance, and write music around it using the exact frequencies of the harmonics of that sound.
For the woodwind quintet, I wrote a number of pieces that I recorded with processing in mind. I then took those files and experimented with sending them through chains of effects in order to be able to have them morph from acoustic and unprocessed, to distortion and walls of sound, and back to unprocessed, which was something I was wanting for the compositions.
What’s going on at The Echo Society right now? Any upcoming performances?
We’re currently planning on next show for 2019. We spent this year working on our infrastructure and a project that we hope to announce before the end of the year.
Now that the album is done, what’s in store for the future? More videos? A tour?
There’s one more video coming, the third in the series, for the last song on the album, “Warmer Nights.” And there will be a special show or two coming up in LA. Announcements on that soon.
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