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Listen to the Landscape

Composer Ben Cosgrove connects sound and place.

July-August 2012

Ben Cosgrove at the keyboard during a recent performance

Ben Cosgrove at the keyboard during a recent performance

“Because they have no lyrics,” explains composer and musician Ben Cosgrove ’10, “the titles of my pieces are the only chance I have to give the listener a hint about where they come from.” Those titles, on his latest CD, Yankee Division, include “Prairie Fire,” “Oarlock,” “Nashua,” “Good Fences,” and “When You are a Road.” All resonate with places in Cosgrove’s native New England; in fact, the CD takes its name from the Yankee Division Highway, another appellation of the Route 128 beltway that rings Boston and separates it from the rest of Massachusetts. Although the links between sound and place are sometimes clear—“Good Fences” echoes the famous Robert Frost poem, and “Nashua” calls up the eponymous New Hampshire town—Cosgrove’s intent is more to evoke than to mirror. “I don’t think of my pieces as ‘rendering places in music,’ but more as responding to places musically,” he says. “Writing music just happens to be the way I process the world.”

The 12 compositions on Yankee Division do things like combine plaintive guitar and banjo picking with repeated piano phrases, cellos that mimic barges’ horns, and electronic accents made to sound like crying voices or amplified breath. Their melodies drift across haunting northern expanses amid polished arrangements, often gradually decomposing as chaos creeps in underneath. The music stirs intimate feelings of loneliness and homesickness, as well as taking on “bigger places, distance, and a greater sense of history,” Cosgrove says. His musical journeys evoke the melancholy and the frantic disorientation of departure, transit, and return.

Cosgrove’s work ( bears traces of stylistic influence from twentieth-century minimalists such as Philip Glass and from contemporary composers like Nico Muhly and the French musician Yann Tiersen, who scored the 2001 film Amélie. The composer/performer displays an astonishing versatility in crafting his instrumental tracks: he builds them from piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, trombone, upright bass, and dynamic percussion, all of which Cosgrove plays, records, and mixes himself. Onstage, he usually performs solo, building up his layered sound with a digital looping pedal that allows him to record a part live on acoustic guitar or keyboard and then play and record other parts on top of that, multiplying himself into a sophisticated one-man band.

“I became really interested in multitrack recording in middle school,” he recalls. “My school had a little four-track machine and I would stay after for hours every day to experiment with it. Often it was dark by the time I got home.” (Cosgrove’s early start has allowed him to record no fewer than seven other CDs before Yankee Division.) After learning piano at age four, while growing up in Methuen, Massachusetts, he went on to learn “violin when I was seven, various brass instruments around fourth grade, guitar, bass, and drum set in seventh grade, and so on,” he says. The teacher with whom he studied for 15 years “completely supported all my quixotic musical endeavors.”

At Harvard, Cosgrove studied with Mason professor of music Hans Tutschku, an electro-acoustic composer, and also wrote about landscape and architecture for The Harvard Advocate and composed atmospheric scores for numerous student films. And he studied composition for a semester in Northern Ireland, where he first encountered the idea of acoustic ecology, a topic he’s since been able to investigate in many venues: he rambled the entire U.S.-Canada border for Let’s Go and completed an internship at a recording studio in Iceland. In recent years, he’s also toured with the Minneapolis-based bluegrass band Saint Anyway, filling out their raucous act with keyboards, trumpet, and accordion, and researched the preservation of natural sounds in American national parks on a fellowship from Middlebury College.

Travel and engagement with the natural and built landscapes have helped Cosgrove develop a critical awareness of the effects of human incursion into the world of natural sound. “I think one of the big problems with the sound of the world today is that so much of it is so similar: airplanes, power lines, mechanical drones,” he says. It’s a problem he first encountered when researching and composing his senior thesis, a “musical map of Massachusetts” titled Commonwealth. Cosgrove “set out hoping to record dramatic changes between mountains and beaches, salt marshes and cities, cranberry bogs and paper mills,” he says. “Massachusetts contains multitudes, and yet somehow this isn’t reflected in its soundscape. I found with some distress that it all basically sounds like traffic. Drowning the soundscape in this way is taking away from our ability to form a sense of place.” Yankee Division, and Cosgrove’s music, are a kind of counter-movement.

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