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September 28, 2015

UMS Artists In Residence: Meet Ben Willis


Editor’s note: UMS is in the second season of its Artists in “Residence” program. Five residents from across disciplines take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby.

Ben Willis is a bassist, improviser, and composer whose affinities lie in collaborative projects, new music, improvisation, and the merging of cross-disciplinary elements. He released an album of solo double bass compositions, Egret/Flatlander, in summer of 2015. His jazz-rock band, Lovely Socialite, will be releasing their second album, Toxic Consonance, in fall of 2015. He lives in Ypsilanti, MI, and performs often throughout the midwest.

UMS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.

ben willisBen Willis: I did my undergraduate degree in classical performance, and have been playing in orchestras since middle school. While in Madison, WI, I was able to meet a community of musicians interested in making original, creative music. Though I’ve always kind of kept a foot in the classical world, after college I began playing a lot with my own bands, playing as a sideman for singer-songwriters, and working with artists of other performing arts (dance, theater, video) to develop new works. I came to the University of Michigan in 2012 to study improvisation, in order to extend my collaborative tool set. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to do everything, so while I’m a performing artist by training/trade, I also try to work in other mediums (drawing, writing) as a hobbyist. I’m interested in being able to at least appreciate all art forms.

UMS: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?

BW: As an improviser, a lot of ideas kind of build gradually over time–I find in performance that sometimes things re-surface, and it’s helpful to isolate things that don’t feel improvised anymore as their own things. Another way I like to work, since most of my work is collaboratively generated, is to choose the people I’d like to work with first, and then develop the art spontaneously through the process of meeting/playing with others.

UMS: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately (writing, video, article, piece of art) that we should check out too?

BW: I am constantly inspired by my friends and collaborators. The best thing about being an artist is getting to know other artists, experiencing their process, and developing years-long artistic relationships. On another front, I’ve just recently become very interested in comics and graphic storytelling–some favorite books I’ve just read in that vain in the past few months are Charles Burns’s Black Hole, Jules Feiffers’s Kill My Mother, and Jodorowsky/Moebius’s The Incal. It’s really inspiring to experience works that make essential use of the combination of mediums (and the static experience of the printed page–so much of how films are made are taken from the style of comics these days, but there are a lot of things that the comic medium can just do better). I’ve also been re-reading some of my favorite Haruki Murakami books. And if you haven’t seen Oskar Schlemmer’s theater works/costume designs, do yourself the favor of going down that Google wormhole sometime.

UMS: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.

BW: I joined the Arbor Composers Collective in 2012, an ensemble started by composer/trumpeter Derek Worthington. That has been a great resource for developing new ideas and working with great musicians, and we present performances regularly. Our next performance is at Edgefest, presented by Kerrytown Concert House on October 21st. I also perform and have had a hand in booking many performances at Canterbury House, another great resource/platform in Ann Arbor for creative music. In the last year, I’ve been involved in the Radical Sounds Detroit series, which is curated by veteran Detroit composer/performer James Cornish, and presented by Spread Art at Detroit Contemporary. I’ll be guest curating the event on November 21st. I also teach private lessons, do workshops/sectionals at schools, and play in several bands that perform in the area, including Battleshags, The Great Collapsing Hrung, and Saajtak. You can check out a complete list of my upcoming performances.

UMS: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?

BW: Sankai Juku’s UMUSUNA looks bonkers. I can’t wait. I’ve also been a longtime fan of Shara Worden, and more recently Tanya Tagaq, so I’m very much looking forward to their performances.

Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.


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