Ben Cosgrove '10 talks music, national parks and urgent signals

by Patrick Lauppe

Ben Cosgrove '10 is this year's artist-in-residence at the Signet Society. He is a composer and solo musician who has released three full-length albums of music he refers to as "instrumental" or "short chamber pieces with folk instrumentation," the most recent of which is Yankee Division. He spent his last year touring and researching soundscape preservation in U.S. national parks with the support of a Middlebury College fellowship in environmental journalism. After his talk on Oct. 11, I spoke to Cosgrove about his music, his research and about music, sound and our understanding of place.

Where are you from?

I'm from the town of Methuen in northern Massachusetts. I consider myself a very northern-New-England guy.

Your senior thesis musically represented the state of Massachusetts from west-to-east, and your music is consistently linked to particular places. You mentioned in your talk how you are interested in representing place through musical texture. Do you think texture is more important than melody and harmony in how you represent places in your music?

I think that the way you listen to music that changes in texture is much more similar to the way you attain a sense of where you are. Your sense of place unfolds more slowly; you can't hum it, necessarily. You get to know a place by trotting over it and noticing the way things subtly change, rather than through landmarks or icons.

So you see a sense of place much more as a sort of topography?

Absolutely. Music, aside, what I'm most interested in about landscape is how you establish a sense of what's around you: how easy that is to do and how naturally it comes to people. I like thinking of different trajectories by which I can work that into my music.

Could you describe some of these trajectories?

I have songs on one or two of my earlier CDs where I did use themes as if to say, "This is what this city makes me think of." It made for nice, cute little songs, but I don't think it got to the heart of what I wanted to do. On the other hand, for the Massachusetts project that you mentioned, I incorporated a lot of data. For example, I used a roadmap and converted it into a sonogram. I used instrumental parts, field recordings, and interview footage. I wish I could have relied more on direct field recordings, but it wouldn't have sustained a piece of that length, because unfortunately most of the state just sounds like traffic.

That brings up your research into soundscape preservation in national parks, where activists are making sure that there are still places free of the background noises , like traffic noises, we're habituated to hearing. For someone lwho is interested in how we experience a place through its soundscape, how does the ability of the mind to filter out sound complicate things?

We've always had this filter, although right now I think we have to filter out way more, especially in a place like Boston where we're conditioned to listen for the most urgent signals. However, it's a cool experiment to go out somewhere where you're not going to get hit by a truck and listen flatly to everything, considering sounds as sounds and not as signals. I'm focusing more on this mode of listening in the music I'm composing now: it tends to be longer and more sprawling, so it's working toward the same idea of listening to the soundscape more closely.

Would you encourage people to listen to the soundscape more closely and "flatly," as you said?

I totally would. It's important to understand how acoustic events relate to each other and how the soundscape of one place differs from that of another.

[Caption: Ben Cosgrove '10 PHOTO: Carl L. Miller]