New York has felt like a second home since my parents first took me there as a teen in the early eighties. I grew up in rural coastal North Carolina, but the Mets became my team in 1979 when we got cable TV, and WOR carried 162 Mets games. On that first trip, I made my way alone to Paragon Sporting Goods in Union Square to buy Mizuno baseball cleats. Over the past twenty years, I’ve made more than 150 trips to the city while researching the photographer W. Eugene Smith. I now know a lot about arcane matters, like the history of Manhattan’s wholesale flower market, Long John Nebel’s overnight radio talk show, and underground angles on the midcentury jazz and drug scenes in places like Staten Island.
The city feels further away from me today, and it’s literally true. I moved earlier this year with my family to Bloomington, Indiana. Our house in Durham was 480 miles from Grand Central; from Bloomington, it’s 760. For nearly three decades I’ve listened to late-night sports radio on fifty-thousand-watt WFAN through a transistor beside my bed. Now I have to use a stream, which doesn’t feel the same; the conversation on WFAN isn’t quite the vernacular it used to be either.
Moreover, the pall of Trump is wide and heavy, even in cities he lost by forty points. In August, I drove four hours, from Bloomington to Chicago, to hear the improvisations of the Eric Revis Quartet, and each time I looked down the Chicago River and saw the six-story letters spelling TRUMP on the side of his building, it felt like Biff’s rule in Back to the Future II.
In late September, I visited New York for only the second time since my first child was born two and a half years ago. I walked from my hotel on the Lower East Side up to Bleecker Street and over to (Le) Poisson Rouge—noting all of the boutique bars and restaurants that weren’t there twenty years ago, or even two years ago—for a show by the experimental ambient ensemble Bing & Ruth, along with Arone Dyer’s Dronechoir, which featured seventeen women onstage and meandering throughout the venue singing drone for sixty minutes. It was a Wednesday night, and there were nearly two hundred people in attendance, most of them under age forty.
My work has provided an opportunity to interview several hundred musicians, from Marian McPartland to Sonny Rollins to Laurie Anderson to Jonny Greenwood and dozens upon dozens of obscure ones. I once left an interview with the soft-spoken Rollins, when he was in his seventies, utterly thrilled by what he told me, only to learn later that he’d said the same thing verbatim in DownBeat magazine before I was born. I can’t blame him for repeating himself—I would, too, if I had been forced to answer questions as frequently as he has. The more obscure musicians tend to be more revealing.
At the Big Ears Festival in 2015, I interviewed some three dozen musicians, including the pianist and composer David Moore, who founded and leads Bing & Ruth. During our conversation, I experienced something unexpected and unique: Moore, who was thirty-one at the time, was moved near tears when talking about the stories of Amy Hempel.
Moore was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1983. His father plays old-time country fiddle, and they attend an old-time and bluegrass festival every year in Wichita. Moore picked up piano at age six, and then took drums seriously as a teen, eventually gaining entry into the conservatory at the University of Missouri–Kansas City for both piano and orchestral percussion. From there, he moved on to the adventurous conservatory at the New School, but his roots in Kansas remain strong, not just in the music but in the landscape itself. He explained, “The wide open spaces, the horizon in every direction, the feelings of all that open air, the idea of not being able to find a point where it all ends, the endless quality of things … All of that is still with me and it’s probably in my music.”
Moore now lives in Brooklyn. He’s an average-size man, maybe five foot nine and a hundred and fifty pounds. He is nearly bald, with facial hair that varies from stubble to a short beard. In performances, he typically wears dark pants and a dark hooded sweatshirt and sometimes a knit cap, a combination he seems to wear when he’s not performing, too. Onstage, his band displays a similar understated presence; they play almost hidden under a dark blue light.
Moore told me that literature and language didn’t play much of a role in his young life; music was his thing. He discovered Hempel’s writing by accident in the summer of 2003, when he was nineteen and in music school in Kansas City:
I was living in an apartment with no air-conditioning. It was hot, so I often went to the library to feel some cool air. Then I started wandering around the stacks and pulling books almost at random. Sometimes I’d read only one sentence and put it back. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom was love at first sight. I read the first line and then the first page and on the second page the first story was already over. So I began the second story. In about two hours that day, I read half of the book. Within a couple of weeks, I’d read everything Hempel had published. Her work made a profound impact on my life, and it’s been a deep and important presence ever since. I found a certain kind of purity in her work. You trust the way she treats words, sentences, and building blocks. Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be. So as a reader you focus on each line carefully.
I considered her work to be the equivalent of a great landscape painting. It’s all right there, no need for further explanations. There’s a certain reductionism in her work, a way to see what’s really important. There’s a technical logic to the way the stories are built, which for me brings about a sense of enlightened resignation, a permission to let go of what you’ve been holding onto, and to focus your intuition and attention in places that are right for you.
“Daylight Come,” the opening story of Hempel’s 1990 collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, contains this paragraph on the first of its two pages:
The Wellers, Bing and Ruth, developed something of a craving of their own. They found they liked the fried flying fish; when the Wellers announced their choice for dinner, it sounded like they were making fun of Japanese people.
I mentioned this paragraph to the writer Allan Gurganus, a close friend of Hempel’s. He said, “It has all of her hallmarks—a folkloric kind of candor, a communicable affection for its characters, and the verbal wit that involves you, the reader, as when you are driven to say the ‘fried flying fish’ phrase aloud to see why it would sound racist to an Asian ear.”
Bing & Ruth’s break came in 2007, when Moore handed a CD of their first recordings to Ronen Givony, then a young alum of Yale’s English department who has since become one of New York’s most visionary music presenters, founding Wordless Music and blending genres of classical and avant-garde music into unclassifiable forms. Givony told me, “I was getting handed and sent a lot of music, even back then. David’s CD made a unique impression, to say the least. The first song, ‘A Flat Line in a Round Face,’ was probably the one piece of music I listened to the most in 2007.” He went on to book Bing & Ruth a number of times at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the seminal club where Givony was a founding curator, and also in his Wordless series.
Over the eleven years of its existence, Bing & Ruth has featured Moore on piano and up to fifteen other musicians, all of which play acoustic instruments except one on tape delay. In the past two years, Moore has winnowed the ensemble down to a core group: himself on piano, Jeff Ratner and Greg Chudzik bowing stand-up basses, Jeremy Viner on clarinet, and Mike Effenberger operating the tape delay. Ratner, Viner, and Effenberger have been with the band since the beginning; Chudzik joined five years ago. I know of no other band in the world with this instrumentation.
Before my recent New York trip, I’d been listening to Bing & Ruth’s records and thinking about how to describe their music in words. When the prose doesn’t come for me, I try to mine the voices of my subjects, let their words say what I can’t. After their sound check at (Le) Poisson Rouge in September, I tried this with Moore: “Out of what tradition does Bing & Ruth’s music come?” He looked off into the distance, looked back down at the table between us, looked back off into the distance, rubbed his chin and his face, and then looked just to the side of me, tilted his head, and said quietly and sincerely, “I don’t know.”
There was another long pause, and then he said, “I’m the worst person you could ever imagine to deejay a party. I have no idea what to play. So I’ve learned not to accept anymore deejay invitations. In the music we play, something similar is happening. I try to keep it as intuitive as possible, so it’s hard to describe where it comes from, hard to describe where it fits.”
I tried a similar question on Moore’s bandmates. Chudzik replied,
The word ambient is great for describing room temperature or wallpaper, but not music. There’s a certain acoustic phenomenon that happens when we play, which is very intentional, where the individual instruments’ sounds blend to the point where you can’t really tell which instrument is which. If you listen to some of Glass’s solo piano music, there’s a tendency to hear instruments that aren’t actually there, which happens in our music, too. I think we’d all be remiss if we didn’t owe a debt to the founders of minimalism, namely Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley.
If you google “Bing & Ruth,” you’ll find sentences and paragraphs mentioning the band together with today’s burgeoning field of ambient artists, such as Holly Herndon, Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, and A Winged Victory for the Sullen. What makes Bing & Ruth stand apart from this group of contemporary artists is that their sound is produced live, not reproduced from prerecorded computer files. “I come from a background of old-time country music,” Moore told me, “with the musicians in a room together playing acoustic instruments, unamplified. That concept is important to me.”
The tape-delay musician Mike Effenberger explained that the physical presence of each musician in the room together informs the music. “Time and gesture,” he says, “are the main attraction and are often not notated at all.”
When we moved to Bloomington, we found a rental property owned by an audio engineer and producer in Los Angeles, Brian Bender. Built near downtown in 1890, the house was his childhood home, inherited from his mother when she passed away. Not quick to rent to students, nor to sell when downtown Bloomington real estate is surging, and carrying the hectic schedule of a producer in LA, he’d left the house vacant for a couple of years.
We met him in Bloomington last October—he was scouting us as much as we the property—and after an afternoon of looking over the house, I joined him at a townie bar. Bender is a big man with long, sandy hair and a furry beard. We established a quick camaraderie on the subject of music, and I learned that he had assisted the producer Craig Street on Joe Henry’s 2001 album, Scar, which I have written about. I asked him which of his current projects were favorites. He mentioned working with José James, producing music for two films that would premiere at Sundance a few months later, and producing the jazz drummer Nate Smith’s latest record.
Then he said, “There’s one band that I believe is important that I’m lucky to have been involved with for several years. I’ve engineered, recorded, and produced all of their recent records, and they’ve got a new one coming out in a couple of months and I believe it’s a high point of their work and a high point of new music in general. But I doubt you will have heard of them. Not many people have heard of them outside of certain tight circles. You have to have a pretty arcane knowledge of music to know about these guys.”
“Who are they?”
“They’re called Bing & Ruth.”
Two weeks ago, I called Bender and asked him to help me describe Bing & Ruth’s music. He said, “I’d call it ambient, tonal, spectral minimalism,” and then he paused and added, “or something like that.” He then echoed Greg Chudzik’s rejection of the term ambient to describe the band’s sound: “David doesn’t identify with ambient artists. If you listen to Music for Airports, it’s an amazing record, but it’s electronic in conception and execution. Bing & Ruth’s music is acoustic, and I believe it’s more romantic and highly emotive than most ambient music. It’s music written for this band to perform in a room together. He gives each musician a set of notes that they can choose from. He gives them markers and at each marker they can play, say, a C or an F—their decision. It’s a shared language and shared experience. When the band’s sound swells into an enormous wave, it’s swelling because these guys are digging in harder. They are exercising their will on the technology, not the reverse.”
Minimalism is a term that has been used to describe both Amy Hempel’s writing and Bing & Ruth’s music. Regarding the latter, Chudzik put it this way: “I’d say that using the minimalist term broadly, that that defines us the best, in the sense that we’re using a minimal set of parameters to explore an entire world.” This is a good way of getting at the foundation of Hempel’s work, too. Of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Rick Moody wrote, “It’s true that it took Hempel five years to write the 137 pages of [this] volume of stories, and it’s true that this was actually fast for her … but when the results are as pitch-perfect and unforgettable as [the stories in this volume], all of them stunners … who really gives a shit how long the book takes?”
Moody goes on to consider a story in Hempel’s book called “The Harvest”: “I remember being arrested not only by the broad course of the story itself, but most especially by the double-space break in the middle, after which the following appeared: ‘I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story. I’m going to start now and tell you what I left out of “The Harvest,” and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out.’ ”
I wrote to Hempel and asked her about Moore’s “love at first read.” She said, “I like to open a collection with a short-short story, and have done so in each of mine. I like to show a reader what it’s possible to do in a small space.”
And what about the influence of her writing on Moore’s music?
“It was such a lovely surprise to hear that David Moore had thought to name his band after characters I had created in that story!” she responded. “I was very moved by that. I feel an affinity with some musicians in terms of the rhythm of sentences or lines in a story and in a song. You can certainly hear this in the sentences of Barry Hannah, for example, and he was a musician as well as a writer. You can even hear it in his titles: ‘Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa,’ for example. And I took that in when I was starting to write. David sent me some of his music years ago, and I don’t know if I was hearing my influence, but I remember thinking we were aligned in our thinking about what needed to be there and what did not.”
Sam Stephenson’s biography of W. Eugene Smith, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide Angle View, was just published. Join us on October 26 as we celebrate the publication of Stephenson’s book at National Sawdust, with performances by percussionist Victor Pablo, pianist Angelica Sanchez, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and a string quartet from Wordless Music Orchestra (Pauline Kim Harris, Ravenna Lipchik, Isabel Hagen, and Clarice Jensen).
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