Delightfully intuitive and brimming with inspiration, up and coming composer Ben Nobuto is a fascinating prospect within the music industry. Having been named as a ‘New Creative’ for the BBC, had his works performed by leading ensembles such as Ligeti Quartet, Invoke Quartet and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and more recently featured as a finalist in Nonclassical’s Battle of the Bands, Nobuto is fast gaining a reputation for his impressive and eclectic style of composition.
His BentoBeats Instagram series has most perceptively captured the unique essence of his musical identity, delving into creativity during lockdown and merging digital media with classical composition. Featuring collaborations with a variety of musicians and experimenting with numerous influences, the series has provided Nobuto with a unique framework with which to showcase himself as an artist.
In an exclusive interview, we discuss everything from clickbait culture to the diminishment of attention span and the importance of creative collaboration.
Thanks so much for chatting to us here at Apocalypse Music, let’s dive straight into your Instagram ‘BentoBeats’ series! How did the whole idea for that come about?
I started them in March, right at the start of the first lockdown. I thought, I have all of these ideas I just want to get them down somewhere, it’s sort of like a journal, somewhere just to jot down ideas. The first couple are just by myself and then I got bored and thought, there’s so many cool musicians out there who I know so I started getting them involved. Different people brought their own strengths and ideas to it. It’s been really fun making them.
Considering the current shift online, your series is a perfect example of creatives adapting to this new landscape. Do you feel that this medium has offered you a chance to explore a different side of your musical identity?
I think with identity and identity coming through music, previously a lot of the stuff I was doing was more traditional contemporary classical. I think I struggled to get my full identity across in some of my music back then because there are a lot of expectations that come with being a composer and what a classical piece should be. I sometimes felt a bit stifled by that and it feels very different to the music that some other people were making. Also, if you perform your music then it’s immediately going to take on a more personal quality which is different from the usual composer thing of you write it and then you hand it over to someone else. Merging those things has been really useful.
How have you found the experience of creating them for Instagram- does it change the way you compose at all?
I hadn’t really done anything with videos before but once I started to get into it, I started to think about music more visually. When I came up with an idea I would immediately think ‘in the video this is what that is going to be portrayed as’ so that was quite cool because it helped me to visualise music and think about it in a different way. Probably in a way that is more accessible to a lot of people.
There are good and bad things about Instagram because content is so concise and snappy, it’s very in your face. You might say because it’s just a minute it’s really hard to develop any ideas but I try and turn that into a positive by cramming as much stuff as possible basically. I think of it as still composing as you are still thinking about things like form and structure but it’s super condensed. I feel like I can just goof around a bit and try out stuff that might not work and there’s not going to be huge consequences if it goes really wrong because it’s just an Instagram video!
What about the impact of Instagram culture?
It feels like a wild frontier where you are just scrolling through and anything can happen. Like you will see a post for a protest in America and then the next thing you see could be someone eating a pizza on their holiday. There is no continuity. Content is reduced into this feed that doesn’t discriminate based on anything specific so that’s weird. I think of it as this playground where anything can happen so there is no reason why you should feel restricted to one genre because it’s the internet. Everything is everywhere at all times.
It seems as if you are getting increasingly ambitious with the series! Has working with collaborators helped you to remain creative and fresh?
I feel like the first few you could tell my mind was going crazy. It’s really good that I started doing them with other people because the feeling that someone else is listening and involved makes it feel so much more worthwhile. The idea of making music together is just so nice and I think because each week it is with a different person and they will usually play a different instrument and come from a different musical background, that inspires me to take a different approach each time. I don’t know how many more I will do, though it would be cool if I just kept them going for the rest of my life. Like a permanent diary of musical thoughts.
You reference external forms of media at some points in the series such as old video games, how have these influenced you?
I don’t play a massive amount of video games but I really like that aesthetic of old retro games. I guess for me, as someone with a ‘classical’ background it feels completely against the grain of how we’re taught to think about music. Contemporary classical music is often quite sincere and tends to ponder quite seriously about things so to reduce everything to this 8bit game where you still have lots of musical ideas but it’s suddenly not taking itself too seriously, I think that’s quite important.
You also recently collaborated with a rapper- would you say working in different genres has inspired your compositional outlook?
Working with rappers is really good! It’s taught me a lot in terms of working fluidly between lots of different genres and that’s something that I hope I can incorporate into a larger project like an album. As people who spend a lot of time on the internet like we do, we are just naturally exposed to a lot of different genres so I think people do enjoy that even if at first it might feel a bit jarring.
Attention span must be an important aspect of your thought process considering ‘clickbait culture’ but also composition of any kind, right?
I’m quite conscious of attention span and people losing interest so I try and structure my music in those terms a lot. There is this quote by Marshall McLuhan who was a media scholar in the sixties. He said ‘advertising is an art form and like all other art forms it sets a trap for your attention’, and that’s what music and film do also. It’s an extreme take on art that you don’t have to agree with but I did take something away from it because sometimes I feel like that’s what I’m doing. I guess there is an element of manipulation going on because as the artist you are throwing things into the piece that you expect the audience to react to in a certain way.
I sometimes wonder what the logical end goal to that kind of thinking is because if you think about art as everything designed for your attention and you want to make everything super-fast, snappy and catchy, then if you push that to its extreme what does music end up sounding like? Usually I like contrasting those really intense attention fragmentary things with long drawn out bits. One of my pieces ‘Music to help you (lose) focus’, it’s just a super drawn out, droney, ambient piece for like 20-minutes and I see that as the opposite. It’s still about attention span but it’s inviting the listener to zone out and not be super taken in and absorbed by lots of data and information. Let go of the pretence that you should be thinking or doing anything while listening.
How have you been keeping yourself busy aside from BentoBeats- are you missing live music?
I am getting involved in projects like soundtracks for short films or documentaries and working on my own album…and randomly making a lo-fi Hip Hop album as well just for fun! But in terms of playing with live musicians again I’m really hoping I can get back to that soon!
Words by Hermione Kellow
Photos © Ben Nobuto