Close this search box.
Close this search box.

BEN SHIRKEN (Ex Wiish), getting lost in generatively-based soundscapes

Interview by Olya Karlovich

Shards Of Axel, Ex Wiish (2023). Album artwork by Grace Requejo.

Sound design, A/V performances, music production, label management, mixing — for interdisciplinary artist Ben Shirken, multitasking is an inseparable part of his practice. A variety of personal projects and collaborations give him creative freedom and spark further experimentation. Perhaps that is why New York, with its non-stop rhythm and rich underground culture, has been the perfect fit for Shirken.

The artist moved there from Los Angeles in 2015 and almost immediately delved into the local DIY scene. Inherent curiosity, ingenuity and community engagement are some of the driving aspects of his practice. However, he never put himself in any box, whether aesthetic or sound. Performing and releasing music under various aliases, Shirken freely explores such territories as electronic, indie rock, ambient, and IDM, producing and playing modular synths in the free jazz band Nu Jazz.

Ex Wiish is Ben’s latest solo project. Within it, he explores improvised practices with generative systems and sound design, combining analogue and digital media to create new timbres. The music that results from such technological manipulations is multi-layered, captivating and immersive. Ex Wiish’s debut album, Shards Of Axel, works like a portal into endless sonic labyrinths, where scenes of epic highs give way to melancholy calmness. The record idea was born from a story-based video game composition. And, as Ben Shirken himself explains, each song becomes a playing map for a listener. 

Together with the world-building studio Laser Days, the artist designed a simple game ‘that incorporated forever forming landscapes, originally intended for live performances’ and recorded the gameplay as animation for the Today, My Friend track. Another album’s video, Externa Port, was directed by Bing Cao.

Interpreting sound into an image is an important part of Shirken’s practice. The artist scores animated short films and creates his own generative audiovisual pieces, eagerly exploring the possibilities of technologies such as game engines to build an audiovisual experience. 

In 2020, Shirken launched the label and performance series 29 Speedway. The project focuses on New York and global outreach encompassing improvisational music in various forms and live multimedia. ‘I wanted to bring artists I knew from the internet into physical spaces’, Ben says.

Having been making music alone for a long time, he now feels most at ease collaborating with other creatives. Such an openness to diverse influences certainly allows him to explore the boundaries of interdisciplinary practices more deeply, working at the intersection of physical and digital realms.

In 2019, you graduated from NYU Clive Davis Institute of Record Music. Why did you decide to pursue music professionally in the first place? And what were your influences along the way? 

I initially got into the music scene growing up in LA and going to the Smell and Low-End Theory parties in LA. These shows were the only access I had to experimental music IRL, people treated Low End like church, and I was introduced to artists like Flying Lotus, Teklife, Nosaj Thing, Knxwledge, Wedidit crew, Ras G, Daedelus.

After moving to New York, I got a summer job at the record store Commend (part of RVNG Intl.), which led to working for Palto Flats and opened me up to buying records and the wider club and underground electronic scenes. I lived in Berlin for half a year which clearly did some damage, but it wasn’t until after school that I got heavily involved in the DIY scene in New York.

The venue IRL gallery was where I started throwing shows with 29 Speedway, a record label and sound performance series I co-founded with Kowloon Baby, and that led to organizing and playing some bigger parties, quad sound shows and raves at Chaos Computer in Greenpoint (which is sadly only open for a few more days depending on when this interview is published).

I’m influenced by all of the artists that 29S has been lucky to host and by the sheer persistence of people who have enough willpower to live in New York and not succumb to the pressures of commercial music. I also can’t emphasize the influence of my bandmates in Nu Jazz (Dan [Deli Girls], Kevin [CGI Jesus], John [Murderpact], Ryan, Jason Lindner, Idris) enough.

Getting into the jazz world was never something I ever expected to do, but alas, here we are, almost by accident. I really think New York has the strongest DIY culture out of any city I’ve lived in. There’s just so much going on in every style, and I’ll stand by that if anybody wants to lose a debate (bring it)!

You’ve been working under several monikers. And Ex Wiish is your latest music project. What’s the idea/intention behind it? What sound/experience are you looking to create within this project? 

I had the idea for a while and began making music as Ex Wiish a few years ago to be dedicatedly open-minded. Sonically it incorporates an improvisational praxis with generative systems and sound design, combining analogue and digital mediums to create new timbres – like taking field-recorded sounds of birds chirping and glitching them out indefinitely in Max MSP.

Initially, I just wanted to be more prolific and play shows anonymously again. Ideally, I get to play with various mutations and ensembles, deconstructing my own music and reconstructing it in new ways live. The sound is something I’ve wanted to express for a while but couldn’t due to various mental blocks. 

Each artist has their own reasons for working under different aliases and launching side projects — some want to let their music/art live apart from the creator. For others, it’s an opportunity to explore new sonic territories. And what does it give your creative process? Why is it important for you to be involved in several projects simultaneously and, let’s say, wear multiple hats? 

It’s harder for me to stick to one sound than to follow various styles – it not only feels like a boxing-in but also kind of capitalist to define myself as one thing to sell. Post Covid I was naturally drawn to different pockets of the Brooklyn music scene due to lockdown alienation, which made it seem like there was space to rebuild and create something new. I’m not alone in enjoying many different genres of music, but I’ve also never felt comfortable making one style.

I feel most at ease collaborating now, bouncing ideas off of others in real-time, likely due to all those years making music alone in my bedroom. Wearing one hat at all times leads to burnout, and shifting between projects helps me stay eager. I also run a recording studio in Ridgewood part-time and genuinely enjoy being on the other side of someone’s work. There’s something incredibly profound about being a part of many different projects – it helps to manage the barrage of existential dread that comes with making art full-time.  

Ex Wiish’s debut album, Shards of Axel, was born from a story-based video game composition. Can you elaborate on how you came up with its conceptual idea? And what was the creative process of bringing it to life?  

Writing the record, I often hung out and worked with my friends Jack and Will at Laser Days, a real-time worldbuilding studio that often uses Unreal Engine software. I was deeply interested in what they were making, and I think the album came to fruition while we were discussing building a video game. We never made the game, but I think the music was always intended to be a score. Each song feels like a different playable map, the listener a player wandering around looking for quests. I used Max MSP (a node-based music coding software) and modular synths to jam generatively, then pieced together the recordings later. 

I often noticed the parallels between my process and the process of designing infinite generative landscapes in video games. I became interested in “progress traps”, the condition that human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve.

I think this relates well to the concept of infinity through generativity, and as the universe expands, there will always be more that we can’t predict and will never understand. I built a simple game with Laser Days that incorporated forever-forming landscapes originally intended for live performances. We then recorded the gameplay as the music video for “Today My Friend”. I like the idea that there is a game that exists to be played with the music that nobody can really play (at least for the time being).

Shards of Axel, you mention, was intentionally mixed with speciality immersive panning software, allowing for the intensity and frequency of sound to control its spatiality. Can you also tell us a little more about this? What was the source of experimentation during the production process? And what else did you explore technically while working on the record? 

After finishing the music, I tried to make it as sonically immersive as possible. I often perform with multi-channel audio, and this was also around the time Dolby Atmos was rolling out. I initially wanted to take advantage of it but felt it wasn’t nearly accessible enough. I used some plug-ins by Sound Particles that allowed me to pan things generatively in stereo based on the frequency and volume of individual sounds. Most people listen to music in stereo, and I wanted to see how far I could push the panning without making people physically sick.

Many of my songs have layers of sound design to the point where you can’t really determine what you’re listening to. I tried to separate the sounds so they could have their own individual spaces, almost intersecting and floating around one another. I feel like often music that claims to be “environmental” isn’t nearly “environmental” enough. I don’t want to get too “VR is the future” with all of this, but I saw where things were headed and wanted to take a stab at creating immersiveness in an accessible way. 

Two videos were also released to support the album (Externa Port by filmmaker Bing Cao and Today My Friend directed by Jack Wedge/Will Freudenheim at Laser Days studio). They are absolutely different and evoke different emotional responses. What experience did you want to convey in both cases? And how did the concepts of these video works evolve over time? 

Bing and I met online earlier this year when she asked me to score her short film “Sleep” as part of a 4-part video art series. We immediately got along as we were both fans of early Chris Cunnigham music videos and Charles Atlas. I had also just watched this insane film “964 Pinocchio” about a memory-wiped sex slave cyborg who is thrown out by his owners for failure to maintain an erection.

We initially wanted to make a dance performance piece because I think there are a lot of boring, mechanical, and even standardized music videos out there. Still, dance videos are usually entrancing to me because, at their core, they are very human and simply about performance, improvisation and movement. 

I spoke a bit above about the Today, My Friend video. Still, it was initially intended for live visuals and used game mechanics as tools for improvisation, and we wanted to immortalize it in video form. While playing, the “player” has the ability to control the movements of an airborne dragon, camera angle, time of day, weather, and floating particles to play along with music.

The record quickly shifts between moods of calm and uneasiness, and so the videos are at both extremes of that spectrum. They also tap into some ideas I had while writing the album, considering improvisation played a large part in how the music was initially composed. I think they act as both passive and active mood pieces that stand on their own; you can look away for a few seconds and then re-focus on them when you want to, not really missing the point. 

Working with A/V is a common practice for you. Being close to the Brooklyn animation scene, you score animated short films and create your own generative audiovisual pieces. How do you see the relationship between sound and visuals in general? And what fascinates you about using such technologies, like video game engines, in A/V experiences?  

All music, especially abstract music, conjures images in my head. Interpreting sound into image is just another important part of my artistic practice. Certain ideas get lost in this translation, and this leads to the formation of new discoveries and interpretations. Video game engines these days are insanely powerful and can even be used as animation engines. This allows for a real-time visual response to audio in a new way, where the game’s purpose is to create an atmosphere or scene to match the sound.

Games are the ultimate medium at the moment in the same way films were during the 20th century; they combine video, sound, and interaction in an immersive way. Creating a game where the objective is not to “win” but to “exist” is what we are interested in at the moment. The objective is to match the gameplay with the audio and vice versa. 

You are also involved in the New York DIY scene. How do you reflect upon the Internet’s cultural impact on the DIY music movement (the birth of micro-communities, Internet folklore, new micro-genres, etc.)? And how has the boom of internet underground culture influenced you as an artist and your work in particular? 

The internet is funny. It has allowed me to interface with people I have never met and jaded me by its superficiality. This has led me to search for more traditional relationships in physical spaces. The web allows you to see everything happening immediately in a hyper-real way, to the point where it seems like you can know everything that is going on all at once, which is clearly impossible.

Part of the reason I started 29 Speedway was to bring artists I knew from the internet into physical spaces to interface with people who were paying attention to the same online communities. It’s like cool…all of these people follow each other and are interested in the same thing but might not even know each other because there’s no online platform on which to really intermingle or discuss ideas. 

I think the internet allows for an initial observance of a scene, leading to its preservation through archives and servers. Still, social media is limited to the UI of the platforms themselves. I passively see so much content online, which for better or worse, subconsciously imbues my brain with new ideas and aesthetics through sounds, images, and memes, so it’s hard to say in which ways it affects my creative practice, although it clearly does.

I think what the internet allows people to do well is to choose what others see of them, while what they are seeing and who they truly are can stay hidden to the extent they choose. The tricky part of it all is to come off as human, which is why I think we see all these aliens (meta-humans?) online. This is not to say that I don’t spend a decent amount of time online, and I might even find inspiration on the internet more than I do in physical spaces nowadays, but that’s mainly because it’s easy to use and access 24/7.

It’s wild to see a hardcore industrial band release an album, then a soft-ambient release from Slovakia, and then some gore/porn, almost all in a split second. I think this brings different subcultures closer together, which differs from the natural tendency towards stratification and segregation in the physical world. Although, it could be argued that the proliferation of algorithms leads to a restratification.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

New York City (here and there). Clout demons. The tiny troll in my head who tells me my music is terrible. 

You couldn’t live without… 

My Salewa Wildfire Edge GTX Hiking Shoes. Hard drive. A little respect. The elf around my neck.

(Media courtesy of the artists)
On Key

Related Posts