Diving in Deep in the Age of the Soundbite: An Interview with Ben Young of WKCR and Triple Point Records

Chris Pitsiokos

I met Ben Young in 2009, when I was a sophomore at Columbia and he was the Director of Broadcasting and Operations at WKCR-FM. Officially, WKCR is Columbia University’s radio station, but unofficially, it has served as a font of under-represented music on the FM dial in New York and streaming worldwide. With a focus on jazz and new music, WKCR has been an (almost) uninterrupted 24-hour-a-day-365-day-a-year river of goods pouring through your hi-fi set for eighty years now. It has also served as a catalyst for musical happenings of all types spanning the entire history of free jazz and most of the history of new music. In bebop’s heyday, WKCR DJs were recording sets at the legendary Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem and running them over to the studio to be played on the air just hours later ; in the 60s, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy appeared for a live interview there ; in the 70s, John Zorn recorded and broadcast his early game pieces, like Lacrosse, there ; in 1987, John Cage used the station as his instrument in the performance of a new work called Opera Mix ; and in the early 90s, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela broadcast still unreleased recordings on the air, and took part in extended interviews. Many of these broadcasts were documented on magnetic tape and still exist in WKCR’s archive—I pored over dozens of them during the six years I DJed there. 

It was in this milieu that I met Ben. I was immediately drawn to his dedication to focused, research-based listening and ability to inspire others to engage similarly. Apart from his tenure at WKCR, and his success at keeping WKCR afloat in the biggest fiscal snafu of its history (WKCR’s transmitter was atop the World Trade Center when it collapsed, and due to some strange loophole in the law, insurance wouldn’t cover it), there are many testaments to this unflagging dedication to a larger mission. They include : the Albert Ayler boxed set Holy Ghost, which was lovingly put together by Ben for Revenant Records (he wrote the liner notes, transferred, restored, and mastered the tapes, and supervised all other aspects of the release) ; his book on Bill Dixon, Dixonia ; and his years of teaching everything from early jazz to free jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center and other institutions. To date, Ben has produced, annotated, or researched several hundred historical jazz releases.

After nearly twenty-five years as a DJ at WKCR and nearly ten years as its Director of Broadcasting and Operations, Ben left and focused his efforts on the newly minted record label Triple Point Records with label-partner Joe Lizzi. The small but growing Triple Point catalog includes a double-LP of one of Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley’s performances at the Village Vanguard ; a five-LP New York Art Quartet boxed set, including unreleased material recorded over the course of the band’s short existence ; a Frank Lowe double LP ; Bill Dixon–Cecil Taylor duets from 1992 ; and two albums by Duck Baker. Yet to call these releases simply LP sets or albums does them great injustice as their well-researched contents go far beyond what one might normally expect from an album. For instance, the NYAQ box includes a 153-page book (certainly not a booklet) with a detailed history of the group and its members, as well as images of scores, photos, and various ephemera. As if that wasn’t enough, Ben has also begun work on a biography on Cecil Taylor.

Having kept in contact with Ben over the years, I figured he is certainly someone doing something. His aforementioned dedication to focused listening along with his marked lack of interest in the soundbite-obsessed era that we live in, has continued to inspire me to temper my sometimes extremely ADHD tendencies. Ben has relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, so we met at the approximate midpoint—Modern Apizza in New Haven—and had an informal discussion. I also followed up with a couple of questions conducted over email. Both exchanges have been excerpted and included below.

Alien WKCR

CP At the beginning of the book inside the New York Art Quartet Box, you paraphrase Steve Lacy : “The bigger and more profound a thing is, the less there is to say about it.” Yet, you spend a lot of your time writing about and talking about the music. Would you go into a bit more detail about why you value researching the music in addition to listening to it ?

BY Even as you are saying that, there’s a different axiom that occurs to me that, if a thing is really going to be worth engaging with, and by “a thing” I mean an art piece of some sort, then you’re going to want to keep diving into the wreck—was it Adrienne Rich who wrote the poem “Diving into the Wreck” ?—the poem about swimming down into a sunken ship. If you keep diving into the wreck—or keep going back into an artwork of great substance—you’re going to keep finding more stuff and it’s going to keep making you want to dive into it again and again. Maybe, one of the reasons—to answer your question—for why you spend the time on the context is to give people more angles for the repeated investigation. [Bill] Dixon used to use this phrase, “Constant examination of the best examples,” meaning, we will forever be listening to King Oliver’s music, and the first time you listen to it you get this impression ; the second time you listen : here’s something different ; third time : something different. Same with movies and books, and even with beer and wine, I’m sure. People will say [points to drink], “the third time I had it, wow the caramel really came off.” So some of it is really like, pointing these things out, just like a guide book you would take on a tour overseas : “Don’t fail to go to this café because blah blah blah.” Well you wouldn’t know about the café if not for the book. And so, the liner notes are like the guidebook that are going to guide you to that small thing and say, “Okay, old Ben Young says lift the needle and play that part again. Oh yeah, check that out !”

CP I want to pause on the other aspect of that, which is repeated listening to a recording. I am halfway through David Grubbs’s book Records Ruin the Landscape, which is in large part a discussion of what is missing from a recording of experimental or avant-garde music. Unlike some other forms of music for which some sort of idealized, perfect take exists, avant-garde and experimental music resists being captured accurately for a number of reasons—indeterminacy or improvisation being crucial elements of the music, for instance. In my experience it can depend on the improviser, too—how much environment can affect them. I have certainly experienced that ; when I experience something live and it means one thing to me and I experience the same performance as a recording and it’s really different because you are taking that environment, acoustic or otherwise, away, which was part of the impetus for what is being played. And that environment can mean both the immediate but also the cultural/historical context. So I was wondering if you could respond to that : What is lost in a recording and what might be gained by having the more historical perspective of not being there in the room ?

BY My answer might be unsatisfying, but I think I appreciate the question—some of your contemporaries and some of my contemporaries spend their time saying, “I want to get next to this music, so I want to produce some events. And make the events happen, because an event is the quantum of how this art form is transmitted.” And I’m okay with that—but I just never got that bug, partly because since I was fifteen, it’s mostly been about recorded music played by people who I can’t go to see anymore. And so, it’s not even a question. I would love to hire Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong for a concert. As it happens, they are unavailable to appear. So what do you work with ? You work with what you have. That’s where there is a lot of delicate turf to tread on, ongoing arguments that have been going on for fifty years or more : “Is the music dead ?”—inasmuch as the people who are most interesting to listen to actually aren’t around anymore. And that goes all the way up to Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon right now. Nothing here now but the recordings. So, as far as the philosophy of it—if you set that aside, the fact of who’s alive and who’s dead—is the music more about the experience of being there or is it more about the recording ? I wouldn’t want to take a strong stand on it, except that my experience is that it’s entirely about the recording or very, very much about the recording. [Recordist] Alen Hadzi-Stefanov told me this years ago, and I now understand what he means. This was 2003. He and I were sitting at Vision Festival in the audience, and we were both like, Man this feels weird as hell. Because we are used to hearing a concert through headphones. Being like ten feet away and hearing it through headphones while recording it. That was our experience. And there’re people in the audience who were having their own experience, and the funny thing about it is, all [these experiences] have to be real because they are all real. They are all relative to the people who are experiencing them, and they are all different because they are different people. And somehow if it’s a recording, it does seem to me we are narrowing the field at least somewhat. So that if you and I are listening to the same recording, it’s less subject to how drunk are you at the show ? And what part of the room are you in ? and who’s standing in your way ? And who’s smelling bad next to you ? The recording itself has, if not a purity to it, at least that lowest common denominator capability. And it’s, more importantly, what we have. I would go one step farther and—I don’t know how you feel about this—but I don’t especially trust the world of music presentation nowadays because it’s so amplified that one of my goals is to get closer than the amplifying mics so that the recording is acoustically pure, even though that’s paradoxical to say because it’s a recording, but it’s not amplified sound in the room which is its own perversion or dilution of the sound coming off the instruments.

CP Yeah I mean assuming you are dealing with acoustic instruments.

BY Yes, which is what I am assuming, and when I’m saying, “The world sucks because of amplification” obviously that’s not uniformly true, but it certainly is largely true. 

CP Well what about vocalists with big band ? That whole thing wouldn’t exist without amplification. That wasn’t a thing before microphones was it ? That’s something worthwhile. 

BY No, it did not. Yep. I never thought we’d come into this discussion and you’d be the one defending Mildred Bailey, but there you are [laughs].

CP Well, also Billie Holiday.

You implied that what you’re interested in is mostly people who are currently dead. What do you see as particularly valuable in music developed in (if not performed in), say, the 1960s to 1980s—which seems to be the focus of your label and research. What is special about that era of music that has piqued your interest, and why do you think it’s something that we should still be talking about today and listening to today ?

BY One of the answers has to be because some of the people I wanted to find were still alive. I came to New York saying, “I want to meet Bill Dixon and Milford Graves.” And you could, and learn from them what they think about music. 

The other part of it is quite arbitrary. When I was a kid I was listening to Throbbing Gristle, and—you would know this whether you lived it or just know people who lived it—there is a lot of access into any part of improvised music through the sort of transgressive spirit that belongs to free jazz to the music of the 60s and up to now. I’m not sure my experience is any different—that that was a place that I landed because those were the raw sounds, and great sounds. The only answer that I can give as a forty-seven-year-old now that is different is that I am trying to engage more people in the discussion : Do we actually listen better to Derek Bailey if we come from a Louis Armstrong world, or do we listen to Louis Armstrong better if we come from a Derek Bailey world ? A lot of people think that you’re either into one or you’re into the other. And you and I both benefitted from a ’KCR experience where you’re going to get hit incidentally with a lot of that. You can choose to block it out and continue hating, but the fundamental punchline for me, is that the quality of creativity in music—of making a hip line—exists inside of time structures and inside of composed structures and it also exists in a world of free improvisation. It exists for an acoustic music and an electronic music, and an old music and a new music. There is some sort of fundamental universality, and it’s tough for me to communicate that to people. I’m trying to figure it out : If I throw the bait at them for years and years and years and say, “Here, dig Benny Carter. Here, dig Duke Ellington. Here, understand what’s great about Johnny Hodges. Here, take note of Jimmy Blanton.” Then can you actually get them to guide their ears and go with you when you say, “Now I want you to know about Don Cherry,” or “Now I want you to know about Evan Parker.” And the answer is, “It will probably take a lot longer.” And ’KCR is a funny place because that experiment has been going on at ’KCR for the whole history of free jazz. It’s been a sixty-year fermentation.

CP Let’s get more into the history of things at WKCR. Would you give me some highlights of your early time there, in the early 90s ? And what things were like overall ?

BY Naturally one looks back to the things that were then possible because folks were still around and alive, and that won’t be possible again. Milford Graves’s appearance for his fiftieth birthday on August, 20, 1991, felt like a big deal. The death of Charles Tyler in June of 1992 somehow became a memorable pivot. Drummer Steve Reid came by to say some words on air that went unrecorded ; that was the last time I saw him. Several of us sallied forth to record Tyler’s Memorial Concert at St. Peter’s Church—which itself included Charles Moffett, Frank Lowe, and others who didn’t go too much farther. That led to Moffett as guest on his own Jazz Profile, in 1993, as I recall. And Phil Schaap’s eulogy at the Tyler event was a manifesto that led several of us toward the Lofts Festival of January 1994.

’92 had a lot of good points : I did some remote recordings of Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon in the same month, and an on-air interview with Charles Gayle the next month. That whole period felt like a turning point. The month after that was the Don Cherry Festival—a lot of great material and a vivid blanket on air for ten days. Evan Parker Festival in 1994 was another seemingly big deal. Somehow, every one of the above things was done with inferior resources/techniques/skills—comparatively things were still a bit primitive and very much pre-digital, and we were just doing a documentary job rather than a first-class job, technically—but the vibe was about throwing whatever you had toward stuff that was happening now and might not ever happen again. Sometimes that was true.

In those years I ran a LONG series—actually several years’ worth of several series—called Bill Dixon Radio, covering all the nooks and crannies. (I fear that those shows may be the source of bootlegs that are now leaking out.) Dixon was in studio several times through that period. Having Cecil Taylor in studio (however unproductive, in retrospect) for the last times in 1992 and 1995 felt like a big deal.

CP Can you speak about some of the other people involved in documenting the music at the time and the impetus behind capturing this music as opposed to just experiencing it ?

BY In those years, the folks I ran with felt the avant-garde in general was a precious gem that was in danger of complete extinction if we didn’t curate it. I can’t speak for them explicitly, but some other cats who evinced the same devotion were on the scene : Tom Surgal, at all the Charles Gayle shows ; John D’Agostino and Steve Dalachinsky trying to cover the scene through informal recordings ; Irving and Stephanie Stone bearing witness ; Michael Ehlers starting up his label (Eremite)—and Adam Lore with the label and the ’zine (Fifty Miles of Elbow Room) ; Steven Joerg and Alan Schneider kicking off their start-up labels (Aum Fidelity, Wobbly Rail) ; and Alen Hadzi-Stefanov, who was like a whirlwind making actual high-grade location recordings all over the place.

The Thurston Moore push on avant-garde history hadn’t yet fully hit ; ZYX reissues of ESP material were just starting up. I don’t think we sensed that there would be the resurgence of interest that’s happened in your lifetime. I remember thinking it was a little strange (and comforting, maybe ?) when Phil [Schaap] said to me, “There’s gonna be another upswing for the music you love.”

CP What kind of challenges have you faced in trying to get this under-represented music (free jazz, new music, for instance) out there, whether during your time at WKCR or with Triple Point ? What have been some strategies for overcoming these challenges and do you think you have been successful at it ? Is it worth it ?

BY I may state some of these things in an incendiary way, partly because I’m trying to provoke a discussion that I don’t see happening. One key question for that discussion is whether we ought to or need to be well-versed in the classics to be able to understand the music of now. I come from a very “Bill Dixon” perspective on the issue—where there’s no doubt that understanding [Johnny] Hodges, [Charlie] Parker, and [Ornette] Coleman should help us to better understand Chris Pitsiokos. Steve Bernstein is a fellow you’d want on the panel that discusses this ; Marty Ehrlich, I think, also embraces this in his teaching. [Andrew] Cyrille has been doing it since 1974. Bobby Bradford is always telling folks to consult “the round encyclopedia” [i.e., records] to know what’s already been achieved. It’s tough to do it in a way that’s not just superficial, but with appropriate emphasis and respect for both the ancient models and the current ones.

It’s also not fast. Young folks especially want a short cut to the now, and the instruction to “Go marinate in 1931 for a nice long while” comes off a bit like what the Karate Kid was told by his teacher. But it is an important part of the lesson. If you buy that, then “the hard part” is actually getting people to appreciate the music “for the right reasons” (there’s an incendiary statement), which is maybe to say comprehending the level of craft/detail/
nuance that the artists put into the music.

This verges on a talk that you and I had eight years ago about Throbbing Gristle [CP addendum : the conversation was about how when I get older, I probably won’t like Throbbing Gristle as much because my tastes at the time were driven more by what is transgressive rather than what is nuanced . . . turns out he was mostly right.] I think—and related points can be made about [Sonny] Sharrock, Bill Frisell, [John] Zorn, [Albert] Ayler, Sun Ra, probably Merzbow—that it’s in the nature of young people and also of neophyte listeners to the music, to favor or focus on the seemingly destructive/transgressive/explosive elements—which are present all across the spectrum of the avant-garde. It takes some deeper listening, patience, and maturity to be able to locate and hear the constructive elements of even that same music . . . How was it assembled ? How does it work ? How does it succeed or not ?, rather than just, How is it kicking against the pricks who taught music theory in high school ?

One of the seemingly unique things about the WKCR experience then, and perhaps a little bit even now, was that—whether as a listener, musician, or host—if you came to the station for one thing, like chasing [free music trombonist] Albert Mangelsdorff for instance, you couldn’t help but run across somebody who was pushing [swing and bebop era trombonists] Dicky Wells or Frank Rosolino, and that collateral exposure was an extreme benefit. We get better at listening to a thing if the concentrated study of that thing also is juxtaposed and interleaved with real interactions with a sort of music that isn’t directly related.

CP One of the first things I remember you mentioning when I started at ’KCR in 2009, was this fight against the soundbite. A commitment to listening to a whole piece of music and engaging with it on that level. This circles back to what we were talking about earlier, but I want to hit it at a different angle now. Do you think that this obsession with the soundbite and social media has adversely affected music being made today ? When I’m creating an album, I am thinking about how, if it doesn’t capture attention in the first minute, I’ve lost three quarters of my audience. And you either rally against that and say, “I don’t care at all.” Or you go with the times, or something in between. How do you think it has impacted the creation of music ?

BY I don’t listen to a great deal of music that has come up in the soundbite era, so I’m not even sure I could make a meaningful extrapolation about it. But as you say that about your music, first-tune-track-one-side-A needs to hit people in the gut in such a way that they stay with it and move along to track two. I wonder if people eating pizza in 1934 when this place opened were arguing the same thing. It’s just they didn’t have an album in 1934 ; they just had a single. And that’s a thing to contemplate. I think you and I have talked about this too, and the persistent issue is : Do we have people now who have thirty-five minutes of improvised music that is worth listening to for thirty-five minutes. It’s a trick.

CP Definitely. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately. People hate on long sets all the time and what I always say is, “If you actually liked it, and if people had more to say, you’d want to listen to it longer.” The soundbite era has perhaps truncated what people have to say in addition to what people are willing to listen to. People play for fifteen minutes now—it’s pretty common

Alright I’m gonna take a bit of a leap now. I want to talk a little bit about accessibility. One thing I have heard about your label (Triple Point Records) is that it’s too expensive. How do you feel about the trade-off between quality of content and price point ? And, the fact that a higher price is excluding some people from accessing the material ?

BY As a label, I am always trying to represent the viewpoints that are shared between me and Joe Lizzi—we both run the label. He has authorized me to speak on behalf of our shared philosophy. He and I have never really talked about a frustration with “the world can’t get to this because it’s too expensive.” We do hear that a lot. We’re not blind to the fact that these are expensive records. And at a certain point we have to just shrug and say, “Here’s the problem : As much as we would wish the world could get free, unlimited access to great music, we can’t put a record out and make it free, or even make it cheap. Because the people we are dealing with need to get paid.” That’s been the issue since the beginning. What’s the price point at which we can actually cover the cost of paying the musicians and, in the case of the New York Art Quartet project especially, of also the paying all the other people—the stakeholders, the platform, the book and documentation, photos, and everything else that goes into it ? 

CP Yeah but it’s certainly more expensive than most. Most two-disc sets are not ninety bucks. And at least most records that Cecil Taylor has put out, he has gotten paid for. 

BY Right. The problem is I think we are paying the musicians—I don’t even know all the numbers for how the rest of the field is operating but it’s safe to say—two to three to maybe four times as much as they are used to being paid for these things. That’s the main cost of it. It is irritating to think that people think that we are like that guy that jacked up the price of his life-saving drug so that we can make a profit.

CP Well no, I don’t think anyone thinks that. But I think people are sort of shrugging their shoulders sometimes and saying, “I can’t afford that.” It’s also a matter of priorities. I see people refuse to pay for a ten-dollar show and then pay thirty dollars on alcohol. Can the average person who is listening to this music afford a ninety-dollar LP-set if they really want it ? Probably. There’s this moment in Hank Shteamer’s extended interview with Henry Threadgill, where Threadgill doesn’t mince words when talking about the importance of going to shows and people complaining about paying for the tickets. [“What are you, stupid ? What’s wrong with you ? What is it that you don’t understand here ? Did you miss something about one and one is two ? [Laughs] Shit, you better get yourself out there and sell some hot dogs or something to get the money, or you better climb through the window. You gotta be an idiot.”]

BY A lot of the records that any of us want, we can get the audio for free. So the people who are paying for it are the ones who want the artifact. And that’s a different set of people. One germinating moment for Triple Point was the observation, “Look at this : Cecil Taylor records are changing hands for three- and even four-figure prices of which Cecil doesn’t get any money.” So our solution was clear ; let’s limit the edition at the front-end and pay Cecil some money in his lifetime so that he can benefit from people’s collectorly adoration of his music. That’s exactly how it’s worked.

CP Yeah, people often are willing to pay more money for a used LP that’s rare than they generally are for a new LP. 

BY Right, and this is bringing up our favorite radio station again. A lot of the things that I have been doing with this music in life is giving it away for free. That’s what ’KCR is all about. It’s like a flowing river that you just go dip your bucket in, at will, and you can get Cecil Taylor music that’s on records, or that isn’t on records, that are in-print, that are out of print, and exclusive stuff here and there, and deep and shallow and everything else. So there again, it allows the record, the LP, to be either a library piece—that’s very much what the NYAQ thing was about, to say like, this is its own sort of dissertation under one roof—that could sit in a library and it’s like a library price, right ? And some people are home librarians and they keep their own collections of stuff. Or if you’re the kind of person who wants to have the experience of vinyl circulating and listen to it that way, here it is. But the mission statement says : “Triple Point Records preserves timeless improvised creations in definitive physical editions—for the benefit of artists, listeners, and collectors.” I’m a pure advocate left and right of “let’s get this music for free into peoples’ ears.” That’s the only way it’s going to survive in the world. And selling records is a part of that. You can sell this record and one person buys it and has a listening party. Plays it for other people. And some people will read that and roll their eyes right now. That’s exactly what your question is about. That’s keeping us at a distance from the music. And there’s only so far you can go with that [the philosophy that this music should be free], if we’re actually going to publish these records. There’s an enormous investment that goes into them, and if we’re going to make another one that’s because that investment gets paid back by people buying the record.

CP Of course. I mean the financial realities are something that people certainly understate. The record won’t exist without the money. The Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley music literally would have never left the Vanguard if not for the money spent on it.

BY Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I’m reminded as you’re saying that, when we put out the first record—the Cecil and Tony Oxley record. By the time it came out, the latest record that Cecil put out was a duet record on a label that I won’t name. People will figure out what this record is on their own, but it was a CD. It was an inexpensive edition in every way ; our record costs ten times the artists’ fees that that record cost, and I happen to know that. The artists got paid X and we are paying them 10X and I thought, if people have a problem with that, well, our record is, if not ten times as good, at least five times as good . . . meaning, you’d want to listen to this five times more, or ten times more than you would want to listen to that other record.

CP Seems like the take-away from the mission statement is that the artists, rather than the listeners and collectors, are number one and there’s the proof of that right there. A lot of labels could learn from that model.

BY That’s what we’re trying for.

Shteamer, Hank. “Henry Threadgill Unedited.” Wire. July 2010, https://www.thewire
.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/henry-threadgill-unedited

Diving in Deep in the Age of the Soundbite: An Interview with Ben Young of WKCR and Triple Point Records