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Interview: Ben Houge

American composer Ben Houge is a busy guy these days. After three years in Shanghai, playing sporadic shows with Shanghai's acclaimed noise and sound art collectives (NOIShanghai and RESO), and doi...
2009-03-12 15:03:00

American composer Ben Houge is a busy guy these days. After three years in Shanghai, playing sporadic shows with Shanghai's acclaimed noise and sound art collectives (NOIShanghai and RESO), and doing the odd gallery sound installation, he's left his job at video game company Ubisoft to pursue his own creative projects full time.

This Sunday, he will be performing at Yuyintang, along with a slew of other composers from the sound and noise art community in and out of Shanghai. "Silence or Silence or Brainwave Communication" will see performances by members of Top Floor Circus and Torturing Nurse, Brainwave Communication founder Hong Qile (from Fuzhou), Dai Cheng, Ben Houge, Hao He, and VJ Jin Ning.

SmartShanghai met up with Ben at the Beaver punk night to talk about video games, Christian rock, and experimental music.

SmSh: So you're taking a break from Ubisoft...

Ben: Yeah, yeah. I left Ubisoft at the end of August. That was when I basically finished up my work on Endwar. I'd been planning to take time off for about two years, setting money aside, just so I could spend a year doing my own thing.

When I started working in video games I always though that I would work for The Man for a little while, and then at some point it would pay off and then I could take some time to be on my own. And I got the idea that it would be after this project, because Endwar was a really long project -- three and a half years.

SmSh: I get the impression that although you got into video games to pay the rent or whatever, in the end, you're really quite proud of your work on Endwar.

Ben: Well, Endwar had some cool stuff going for it from the beginning. But I got into video games by nepotism -- my cousin was a producer at Sierra, and so that was my foot in the door. I started off on contract and then I took another contract to work on King's Quest...

SmSh: I've played that one.

Ben: Really?

SmSh: Yeah. I used to play a lot of Sierra games. Space Quest and shit...

Ben: Yeah, I worked on a version of Space Quest for console but it was canned. I worked on it for a year. So that was my first job out of college in Seattle. I worked in Seattle there for seven years. They offered me a full time job half way through working on King's Quest...

SmSh: And you came here 4 years ago?

Ben: I came here with the job for Ubisoft four and a half years ago. The first game I worked on was the PlayStation 2 version of Brothers in Arms -- a World War II game that Ubisoft was publishing.

SmSh: What were you doing exactly with Ubisoft?

Ben: Well, I've always been an audio designer for games. At the beginning it was basically content creation. Editing digital audio -- that kind of stuff. So in the beginning like Leisure Suit Larry, I did a bit of everything: editing dialogue, lip syncing... I also wrote a little bit of music for Leisure Suit Larry -- some supplemental stuff. The main stuff was done by this guy in LA. But I guess you've heard my Leisure Suit Larry thing...

SmSh: Absolutely. How would you describe you're new creative projects? The kind of stuff you're composing? But I guess you're doing a few different things -- this Sunday with Hong Qile, and then a pop set a week later with 10.

Ben: I guess it depends on when you catch me... I just played D22 (in Beijing) in January, so I usually what I've been doing is solo laptop gigs. But I try to be conscious of the fact -- like as someone who has attended a lot of solo laptop gigs -- I'm cognizant of the fact that it's really boring to watch someone on a laptop, so I try to do different things to show off what's happening to people.

So what I've been doing is using a graphical program -- it's a little bit like Reason -- and layering stuff like Gregorian chants, and it after a while melody becomes harmony, after enough layers... putting things on, taking things off, changing the mode. It's sort of mellow and ambient. And then there are pieces that are variations. Some are automatic. But for the automatic ones, like at the D22 show, I would leave the stage so people would know it's automatic.

But what I'm doing this Sunday is sort of a snapshot of a work in progress. It's a sound installation I'm working on in collaboration with Chen Hangfeng [Shanghai-based visual artist], who just had a show at Art Labor, for an installation for the Today Art Museum in Beijing.

It's based on the concept of a kaleidoscope, and so it's a program I'm writing that takes real time audio and chops it up in different ways to four "scenes." So I'll be previewing that work on Sunday.

[Ed's note: Check out Ben's blog post here for a more in-depth look at this project with Chen Hangfeng.]

SmSh: So what kind of musical background did you have when you were growing up?

Ben: When I was growing up I was listening to... well, I guess I always grew up around church music and stuff. Lutheran chorals... so I heard a lot of that stuff in Church and I was always singing in choirs. So those are my earliest musical experiences, and then I listened to a lot of Christian rock.

SmSh: Like Stryper?

Ben: Not so much Stryper. Christian metal always seemed like it still had a bit of edge of satanic...

SmSh: Jars of Clay?

Ben: [Laughs.] I think Jars of Clay are a little after my time, but I listened the heck out of Petra.

SmSh: Okay. Right on.

Ben: There was a time when I owned every single Petra album, including their eponymous debut, which featured the only other guy in show business named Houge -- their lead singer, although he spelled it differently -- and then the second album "Come and Join Us" from