15 October 2008

10 Questions With...Alan Benjamin

Advent's Cantus Firmus was one of my surprise albums of the year in 2006 upon its release. The mix of pastoral and classical influences, combined with a penchant for baroque arrangement with tons of counterpoint and canon-style vocals, caught me completely unawares and impressed almost beyond words. Imagine Gentle Giant, Gryphon and Genesis all tossed into a blender and whizzed up into a tasty musical frappe and you have Advent.

With Advent working up material for their third album (their debut, simply titled Advent, is sadly long out of print...yr. obd't blogger spent the better part of 2 years seeking out a copy before finally lucking into one), there seems no better time to look at the members of the band...where they have come from, what they are doing now, and what the future holds. A future profile will be focused on the Ptak brothers (Henry and Mark), but today we're pleased to have Alan Benjamin with us.

Alan Benjamin is one of two guitarists in the band (along with Greg Katona currently), and he's also contributed Stick and violin playing on album and in concert. He's incredibly well versed as a listener of progressive music as well, being involved in the Gnosis project (http://gnosis2000.net) for quite some time. When not playing or recording with Advent, he's also involved in the 1970's progressive rock band Mirthrandir, who reunited for live shows starting in 2006. Both bands have been featured at multiple festivals, including ProgDay, Baja Prog, and ROSfest, receiving strong positive response wherever they have played.

1) Can you give us a quick history of how you got started in progressive music?

AB: Thanks mostly to my mom, who is a talented composer/pianist, I grew up listening to many styles of music from the time I was born. Begged for piano lessons at age two (actually started at three) and eventually transitioned into quite a serious classical violinist by the time I was around eight or so. At 12, however, I was sent away to boarding school (against my will) and was forced to leave the violin at home. Within a month or two, ended up with a roommate who was obsessed with four particular rock albums of the time--three of which proved to be extremely influential in shifting my primary focus to rock music. (For anyone who might be interested, these three LPs were, in order of preference/influence: Queen's Sheer Heart Attack, Sweet's Desolation Boulevard, and Sparks' Kimono My House.)

By the time the year was over, I became obsessed with playing guitar and was lucky enough to procure an acoustic, followed by a rather modest electric/amp (thanks to my mom and dad, respectively). Developed rather quickly on the instrument and soon formed what was to become my school's de facto "house" band. Also started listening to a vast array of music, most of which could be heard on FM radio at the time--from Black Sabbath to Yes--although I also have to say that our drummer turning me on to Rush also played a significant role in my musical evolution. Was also very fortunate to have a few local FM radio stations that often played a lot of great music--particularly WIOQ, where I first heard the Dixie Dregs.

In all honesty, however, I must confess that I wasn't really all that conscientious of prog as a genre at the time--if the music was interesting, intelligent, heartfelt, and meaningful, that's all that really counted. I graduated from high school at 16 and immediately went to Berklee, which was really where it became increasingly apparent that I had become a "prog guy."

2) How did you hook up with Mirthrandir?

Advent's original drummer, Mike Carroll, recommended me for the gig. I believe John Callahan (Mirthrandir's first new-millennium guitarist) was expressing concerns about finding another suitable guitarist in the area and Mike immediately thought of me. Although the timing was really difficult (as Advent was just finishing up Cantus Firmus at the time), I decided it was just too good of an opportunity to pass by--especially being a fan of the music in advance. Am tremendously happy that everything worked out.

3) Do you think there's any possibility of any future Mirthrandir releases ... a live album perhaps?

It's really hard to say with any certainty. I really wish I had a more conclusive answer at this time, but I'm afraid I don't and the last thing I want to do is provide an inaccurate or misleading answer.

4) Your most recent album with Advent, Cantus Firmus, received wide critical praise. Do you feel this makes it difficult to live up to expectations on a new album?

I hadn't really thought about this on any conscious level before. I suppose that most artists inherently desire to make their next creation at least as good as what came before, but I really don't try to think of the creative process in any competitive terms. About the only thing I can predict is that the next album is likely to be a bit more up-tempo. Other than that, we'll certainly do our best to ensure that the new one meets our own musical standards--and sincerely hope that the results are at least equally pleasing to other listeners as well.

5) How difficult is it recreating your band's layered compositions on stage?

It actually varies a bit by album. The material from our debut had been performed live by a previous five-piece lineup (way back in the early 1990s), so those pieces tend to flow a bit more naturally in terms of live arrangements--and having Greg on board allows us to actually embellish the original arrangements by adding new guitar parts as well. Most of the Cantus Firmus material flows pretty well with our six-piece lineup too, although I have to admit that "Ramblin' Sailor" is probably the only tune that required significant work to rearrange for a live setting. (I seem to recall there being around five electric guitar tracks, as well as plenty of classical guitar and steel-string acoustic parts, so it was a bit of a challenge trying to capture as much of this as possible with only two guitarists. I think some of the orchestral elements of the studio arrangement also required a bit of reworking if memory serves.)

6) You play multiple instruments. Would you say one is more fulfilling or challenging than others?

I love playing everything, but I suppose the most fulfilling is probably guitar, mainly due to the fact that it's been my primary instrument for over 30 years now--plus there's such a multi-dimensional aspect that it never gets boring. Chapman Stick is definitely the most challenging of the bunch, but it's also quite a joy (especially when everything goes properly). I originally had hopes of becoming a much more developed Stick player, but am afraid that there never seems to be enough time to make it work--although I'm starting to pick it up a bit more often these days and hope to feature the instrument more prominently on future recordings.

7) If you could rearrange any one classical piece for Advent to perform, what would it be? And why?

That's a tough question. Although I love a lot of classical music, I don't have an overwhelming desire to adapt most of it to a prog context. In spite of this, I was really happy to have brought Turina's "Caminando"--a beautiful piano miniature--to the group back in the 1990s. (Our expanded arrangement, mostly conceived/constructed by Henry, can be heard on our debut CD.) Classical music still provides a wealth of inspiration, however, and I don't think I could ever envision an Advent album where this influence isn't prominent.

8) What have you been listening to lately that you just can't get enough of?

I'd have to say Alas's Mimame Bandoneón. Gustavo Moretto is such a wonderful composer, as well as a fantastic pianist (and a great guy too). One of best surprises of last year was discovering that he had reformed Alas earlier in the decade--and was now based out of New Jersey. Amy and I were so lucky to have caught them live about a year ago and really hope we can do it again soon. The band's new style is definitely a lot more on the acoustic jazz/nuevo tango/porteño side, but I actually like the results even better than what they did in the '70s. Am looking extremely forward to their next CD, which I hope will be finished before too long.

Am also still diving deeper and deeper into KENSO's latest studio album, Utsuroi Yuku Mono. There's just so much to take in--and the CD just keeps on getting better with each listen.

9) What's next for you with Advent and/or Mirthrandir?

For Advent, the primary focus will be getting new material finished for the next album, as well as continually refining the live show and (hopefully) keeping a steady stream of gigs happening. On the Mirthrandir front, I think it's primarily going to be seeking out a few choice festival gigs and possibly a handful of other performance opportunities.

10) Any final words for our readers out there?

I just wanted to express my most sincere appreciation to those who have embraced Advent's music and provided such wonderful feedback--and a special nod to the kind individuals who have made the effort to come out and see both of my bands perform live. I really hope the music continues to bring enjoyment to like-minded listeners for many years to come.

A very heartfelt thank-you to you, Bill, for inviting me to participate in this interview. It was great fun!

Links of Note:

(Photo of Alan Benjamin with Advent at the NJ Proghouse 19 May 2007 by Bill Knispel.)

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