Austin Cairns, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, has been making music under the moniker R Beny for some time now. You probably have seen his videos around, as he is also an active youtuber. His name gets mentioned surprisingly often when talking about modulars and ambient music and been inspiring many people to follow a similar road as his own. The name is an homage to the Canadian photographer Roloff Beny, who travelled the world taking pictures of its buildings, landscapes and marvels. It was supposed to be a placeholder – Austin tells me in the interview – but then it kind of stuck. Probably – I would add – because it’s a very fitting name, but you’ll see what I mean, after a closer listen.
I first got in contact with R Beny after his album Cascade Symmetry came out. I had wanted to get back to writing for Horizontalpitch for some time, but never had found the motivation to do so. Only after listening to Cascade Symmetry something clicked. The album resonates with me on many levels, but I also think that his music is an essential listen for everybody.
While working on the interview, his latest album Saudade came out. Of course I didn’t want to scrap the old interview to make room for a new one, so this will be a double feature Chosen Wave!
Horizontalpitch: what’s your musical background?
R Beny: Music has been a constant throughout my life. I grew up with musicians in my family. My grandparents were bluegrass musicians and my mother played piano. I gravitated towards rock music and started playing in my early teens.
I’ve been involved with writing, recording and performing music for more than decade now, mostly playing guitar in various bands.
Several years ago, I hit a wall creatively and went through some personal turmoil, leading me to quit making music for nearly a year. I sold off most of my gear and didn’t really give a second thought to it.
Almost 3 years ago to the day, I bought a cheap synthesizer on a whim after a friend had brought one over. Something clicked. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I had accumulated a small studio’s worth of gear and was making music again. Sculpting sounds on electronic instruments has added another layer of thinking and creativity that I was not achieving with the guitar. I had dabbled briefly with synthesizers and DAWs like Fruity Loops in the past, but never really “got it” until this point.
HP: what’s your story with the modular? How did you first find out about it and when did you know that you wanted to use one in your music?
RB: My first encounter with modular, that I can recall, was seeing a demo for Mutable Instruments Clouds on YouTube. I didn’t exactly understand what I was hearing or seeing, except that it sounded beautiful and beyond this world. This was just a few months after my initial plunge into electronic instruments. I’m sure I had seen or heard of modular synths in the past in passing, but this was the first time where it truly entered my consciousness.
I bought a small case and started building a system not too long after seeing that video and doing a bit of research.
Modular has been a revelation. Making an instrument that is completely your own within a set of certain parameters.
HP: what does “playing a modular” mean for you?
RB: Playing a modular can mean different things to me in different contexts. In the studio, it’s about patching, routing and signal flow. Experimenting with how audio and control voltage interact with each other. Building layers and loops. In a live setting, it’s about playing and exploring what patching you’ve done. Turning those layers and loops into music. Exploring your way from point A to point B to point C of the patch. As opposed to creating those points in the studio.
That’s my interpretation of it. I think what makes modular so great is that there are so many ways someone could interpret it and approach it. There’s no right or wrong.
HP: What’s your process when composing/recording your music?
RB: My composition/recording process isn’t exactly set in stone. For Cascade Symmetry, most of the tracks were composed in the same way. I would manually play [using a keyboard controller via MIDI-CV ed.] and record a melody or sound (often through an effect or multiple effects) one-by-one, as opposed to sequencing or looping them. After laying down the initial part, I would add more parts using the same method. I did a little bit of editing in the DAW, but only for fading in and out different loops. As a result, I feel like the album has a very loose and organic feel. There’s no clock or synchronization, except for a part or three here and there.
A lot of my work involves sequencing loops and using effects to build a track up linearly. I still appreciate that process of composition, but I think it’s important to be open to different processes.
HP: What was the process behind the creation of Saudade?
RB: I started working on Saudade (the album) around the time I started wrapping up Cascade Symmetry. I had been talking to the Belgium-based tape label Dauw about doing a release for them for quite some time. I wanted to change up my recording approach, while still fine-tuning the process I was working on with Cascade.
The impetus of Saudade (the album) was to add cassette tape loops to the modular equation. I commissioned Scott Campbell of Onde Magnétique to modify my Tascam Porta Studio 4-track cassette recorder. He added individual output jacks for each channel and a speed control. I commissioned Randall Taylor aka Amulets to make me several endless cassette tape loops of varying sizes, from about 5 seconds to 15 seconds. For Saudade (the track), I wanted to experiment in creating a polyrhythmic, off-kilter melody using different lengths of tape loops for each note. I recorded each note of the main melody (5 notes) to different tape loops of various lengths and let each play back and loop for a few minutes. I was very happy with the result. While I liked the original melody I had written for the track, this new version felt looser and more reflective. I built the rest of the track around this experiment. The original melody plays under these notes. There’s also 2 tracks of “flute” leads from the Novation Peak. I was trying to emulate a Mellotron on a Peak patch. I didn’t get close, but I liked this patch quite a bit. I used it on the album a few times. The track is rounded off with a simple bass line from Peak and granularlized version of the melody running through Clouds.
HP: The word “saudade” is said to be very hard to translate in another language, what does it mean to you?
RB: While making this album, the major themes I had in mind was nostalgia, loss, remembrance, and longing. I had recently taken a couple of road trips to a few spots I hadn’t been in a few years. As I spent some time in these areas, memories came rushing back. Times I had visited these places in the past with old friends and old relationships. People who I’ve drifted away from over the years. The feeling I got while these memories were rushing back was very melancholic. It was hard to describe or put into words. Like film flashing in your head, fading in and out.
I came across the Portuguese word “saudade” and felt an immediate connection to what I understand is the meaning of it. A “deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves”. That was the feeling I was trying to capture in the music and I don’t believe any English words portrayed that feeling in such a concise and powerful way.
HP: Many artists working with tape (like William Basinski or Marcus Fischer, two names two that come to mind) often state their musical work to be focused on the exploration of memory (among other things) and the fragility of the human existence (Fisher’s last album is even titled “Loss”). Do you think that there is something inherent to the medium that makes its connection to these themes so strong?
RB: I think there’s something to be said for the link between memory and tape. When you put something to tape, it’s not going to last forever. It will slowly start to age, erode, decay, fade…I feel that memory is much the same way. As time goes on, memories age and fade. That’s just part of the fragility of the human condition.
HP: About the track Cities Sleep Like Seeds (from Cascade Symmetry), how was it born? Where did the idea come from? Did you follow a specific process to create the track, or was your approach more instinctive/spontaneous
I have a notebook where I write down interesting words or phrases that often get used for track names. The line “cities sleep like seeds” came from a book of poetry, if I recall correctly. The line struck me as fascinating and stayed with me for a while. I knew I wanted to use it as a track title, but in this case I set out to create a song based on the line and what the line made me feel and think. I was trying to go for something very dream-like and introspective.
The process used to create the track was the one I used throughout the album. The first part recorded was a melody from Mutable Instruments Rings played through a Strymon El Capistan. You can hear the first note of the melody all alone at the beginning of the track. The second part is another melody from Rings through El Cap. This part is buried in the mix a bit. It’s there to weave in and out of the main melody. There’s a third Rings/El Cap part. This is the part that sounds kind of like a piano.
Those three parts make up the skeleton of the song. From there, there are two further Rings/El Cap parts. They are the string/pad leads. There’s a high lead and a low lead.
To round out the song, there is a bass part from the Novation Peak and a distorted drone near the end, also a Novation Peak.
I felt like this approach to recording was equal parts instinctive and spontaneous. Once I patched a Rings sound I liked, the initial recording/melody was spontaneously played. I wouldn’t have a set length, speed or melody…I would just try to play to whatever emotion I was feeling or trying to feel. Every part after the initial part was a little more instinctive. While still being recorded in the moment, there would be more thought as to how they would fit in with the other parts or how they could move the track along.
HP: There’s something almost “orchestral” in your music (for lack of a better word). Is that something you are actively trying to achieve or just the consequence of how you approach the instrument?
It’s possible that it’s a little bit of both. The way I approach the modular… I like making it sound like there’s an “orchestra” of instruments, all playing off of each other. I’m not necessarily trying to sound like an orchestra.
HP: You’re very active on Youtube posting videos of your patches, how does that activity relate to your album works?
My videos on YouTube and what ends up on my album works are ultimately very different. Usually my videos will tend to focus on a specific module or piece of gear, or a specific technique. They tend to be one-off performances, probably closer to what I play live. With my album works, there’s a little more care into the recording process. There’s more room to work on smaller details.
I enjoy both processes endlessly.
HP: Bonus question: the images from the film “lupine” seem like a perfect match to your music, tell us more about it, how was the film born? What was the artistic vision behind it?
The video for “Lupine” came about thanks to my friend Danny Kim (www.distortion.co). We wanted to shoot a video to promote my first album Full Blossom of the Evening. We talked about possibly making it a performance video, but ultimately ended up deciding to shoot footage of local nature to capture the feeling of the song.
The look and feel of the video is entirely Danny’s vision. I chose the locations (Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in California) and then left it up to Danny to capture and edit what he felt was appropriate for the track. I was extremely pleased with how the video turned out. Those locations mean a lot to me and they tie a lot into the theme of that album.
Funny story, the shoot in Big Basin was plagued by mosquitoes. On top of having to carry heavy camera equipment, we had to constantly fight off mosquitoes for several hours. Another friend who was with us got it the worst. We saw him the next day and he was covered in red bumps! Never forget the bug spray!
R Beny’s Youtube channel
His albums can all be found on his Bandcamp page