Five Questions to Benjamin Penwell, Composer

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Benjamin Penwell is a composer from Eugene, Oregon whose music explores the beauty of individual sounds: how they grow, how they decay, and how they form moments that gradually transform through time, creating an unpredictable narrative to sweep us along.

benjamin penwell

Penwell grew up in Eugene before attending the University of Oregon to study composition with David Crumb and Robert Kyr. As a high school student, Penwell taught himself to play guitar and wrote songs for the instrument.

“I ultimately felt uninspired by writing for the guitar,” said Penwell. “So I started to learn piano and began composing, and quickly realized that there were worlds of sounds I wanted to explore.”

Sound of Late will be performing Penwell’s work Vellum on our upcoming “Points of Departure” series. The piece—scored for flute, viola, and double bass—mixes the mathematical order of Euclidean geometry with sounds that struggle to escape the pages that bind them. The resulting textures form a music that, like the vellum of a medieval manuscript, conveys tension between past and present, moment and eternity. Vellum exists in its own spiritual world, seeking to reconcile classical order with the noise of the present.

You can listen to a recording of the piece below:

We sat down with Penwell to talk a little about his approach to writing music and how he approaches listening to unfamiliar music.

When did you start composing?

I started composing just after the end of high school. I had previously played guitar and written songs, but I felt uninspired by that. I started playing piano and composing (both for the piano and for other instruments) and realized that it was that type of music making that I wanted to be doing.

What’s it like hearing something you wrote played for the first time?

Hearing something I wrote played for the first time is one of my absolute favorite things. During a performance, I’m always amazed at all of the things I hear that I have never paid attention to or noticed in the piece. After spending so much time meticulously placing every note and crafting every sound, it seems like would be nothing for me to discover, but I am always surprised by something new.

How do you approach writing a piece: what inspires you? Could you describe your creative process?

When I start a new piece of music, I like to begin by thinking about the possibilities presented. After I choose the instrumentation, I think about what each of those instruments is capable of doing by itself and in combination. I occasionally even make lists of sounds that I want to incorporate.

Next I think about the overall character that I was to present: do I want to be soft, aggressive, dissonant, bright, slow, etc.? Once I have all of these things in mind, it’s a matter of experimentation. Even when I’ve tried to carefully plan pieces, I don’t ever feel like I truly know where they are going or will end up until I’ve written them. I’m not afraid to change courses midway through composing a piece, even if it means a huge departure from my initial idea.

When composing, I’m most inspired by the power and beauty of pure sound. While I of course spend a good deal of time thinking about melody and harmony, I find that I spend the most amount of time thinking about the textures, colors and dimensions of the individual sounds themselves.

Describe how you listen to a new piece of music for the first time. How does it change as you listen to it again?

I don’t experience music in a very analytical manner. I spend very little time thinking about the form or how certain sounds were created. Instead, I try to focus only on the sounds I’m hearing. Music is inherently a temporal art form, and I find that I can best appreciate music by hearing each moment as being an isolated slice of time inhabited by sounds unique to that moment. Subsequent listens allow me to delve into the music in a more intellectual way. If it’s a recording, I might follow along with the score, and try to figure out how certain moments I especially enjoy were created. If it’s a subsequent live hearing I try to focus on details that I may have missed the first time around.

Have you ever hated a piece of music and found you loved it later? Describe your journey from hating it, to appreciating it, to loving it.

This has happened to me many different times in many different genres. The first time I heard Ligeti’s Atmospheres I had no idea what I was hearing, and I lacked both the technical understanding and the philosophical framing to truly contextualize the piece and give meaning to the sounds I was hearing.

Over time, however, I learned more about the technical capabilities of the instruments and began to appreciate a broader variety of music. With this new understanding, I was able to approach the piece without the culturally ingrained definitions of what makes music beautiful and was able to fully appreciate Ligeti’s vision. It’s now one of my favorite pieces.

For almost everyone we play for, this will be the first time they hear your music. What would you want them to know?

My goal is to have the listening experience of my music be similar to the experience I have composing it: appreciation of the beauty of sound itself, and all of the timbres, textures and colors that define it.

Andrew Stiefel
Andrew Stiefel is a composer, violist, and field recordist whose music explores the intersections between written and recorded sound.