Ben Lukas Boysen: Berlin's Neo-Classical Scene
This interview is the second part of Headliner’s Berlin series, in which we visited the city to find out why Neo-Classical music has become so firmly based in Berlin, and in general, why artists and musicians are flocking to the German capital right now.
Neukölln is the largest borough in Berlin, and houses the largest population of migrants in the city, although recently, gentrification has seen the area become more popular with students and artists. I arrive at Ben Lukas Boysen’s flat, on a pleasant side street just a few minutes walk from Neukölln’s main S+U Bahn station. The artist's music does have many of the hallmarks of the neo-classical genre, although it has its own unique and wonderful sense of spaciousness, which is certainly saying something in this genre.
Boysen recently signed with London’s Erased Tapes Records, undoubtedly the record label holding the flag for neo-classical music at this time. He’s also very serious about his coffee, as I watch him spend a good five minutes meticulously making his own, using a fancy looking machine.
Boysen made his name as a soundtrack composer, and we begin our chat in a very abstract manner, discussing the PlayStation game he recently finished working on, called Everything.
“It’s an everything simulator... very hard to explain,” Ben admits, with the strong aroma of coffee in the air. “It’s a very philosophical game, based on the idea of changing physical perspectives. You can be anything you want: a postbox, a planet, a galaxy, or an animal of any kind. Then you can bond and communicate with other beings. It’s going to be very beautiful.”
I’ve just now watched the YouTube trailer for this game to try and wrap my head around all this, and I can now concur that Everything does look (and sound) beautiful, and it’s also very clear why Boysen is an ideal fit for a slightly different game like this, rather than, say, Call of Duty.
Another aspect of this talented composer's work I’m not fully clear on is his composing method – he tells me he doesn’t actually play the piano, or at least hasn’t properly for many years.
“I learned and played piano for quite a few years, but I’m much more from the sound design background," he explains. "At this point, I’d always rather programme piano with my synthesizers and enjoy myself; and then get extra musicians on board, and have them play their parts – drummers, cellists, and so on.”
Boysen takes pre-recorded samples of acoustic piano, and meticulously arranges chopped up bits of the audio to create his tracks. It’s done so well that you’d never know he hadn’t played it himself. Nils Frahm, when mastering Boysens's latest album, Spells, was so impressed that he declared, “If anyone asks, this is real piano.” At this point, I point out the elephant in the room – to the left of where we are sitting in his studio is an upright piano.
“Yeah, that’s a family heirloom,” Boysen laughs.
Just the week before we spoke, Boysen was in London for Erased Tape’s first ever ‘listening party’, where a number of music lovers got together in trendy Dalston to sit down with the composer himself and listen to Spells from start to finish.
“I loved that, actually,” Boysen admits. “Good food, good drinks, and listening to a record on a fantastic system. We had a Q&A afterwards, it was lovely. People were very attentive and interested. It was my idea of a live gig – eating sushi and just listening to my record [laughs]!”
Ben was almost scarred by not being let in to university to study electronic music, as he didn’t have the supposedly necessary classical music skills required.
“I’ll never forget the professor who told me I wasn’t getting in,” he reflects. “He was a fantastic guy, very eloquent and interesting. But I was upset at the time because he told me, ‘music is a physical thing, it comes from the body. Even if you want to be abstract and conceptual, you still need to know the foundations'. Back then, I didn’t want to spend more time rehearsing and proving myself; I just wanted to do music. I later realised what he actually meant is that music comes from every part of the body, especially the heart, and it’s so important to be totally engaged in it, physically and emotionally.”
Lambert mentioned ‘space’ as a big factor for Berlin being the center of Neo-Classical’s universe, a sentiment that Boysen echoes.
“Berlin is just a very relaxed environment,” he says. I begin to see also that Berlin’s spaciousness, meaning less hustle and bustle, makes it such fertile ground for this music, whereas London is so high octane and stressful that you wouldn’t naturally associate it with lyrical piano music. “After I spent five days in London last week, that was when I realised Berlin is not a busy city. And you can live and make music here for very little cost."
Boysen intends to carry on his first love: designing sound and composing for films and commercial briefs; but with more albums for Erased Tapes a definite ambition, he is figuring out plans for a live tour, which should be a stunning experience, once he figures out the logistics of taking this very intricate music to the stage. I realise at this point I’m getting too cosy in this flat, and need to shoot off for my appointment with Dustin O’Halloran. I thank him for the cuppa, and it’s all aboard the U-Bahn once more.
Headliner's Berlin series continues in our interview with Dustin O’Halloran, coming soon.