Music Feature

Ben Lear: Folk for a Cause

by Jaclyn Hardgrove
Ben Lear, to play his folk opera Lillian this Saturday at Johnny Brenda's.
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As a young musician, Ben Lear has a knack for creating. When his affinity for folk music met his environmental conviction, Lear found himself charting new territory. The result? Lillian: A Folk Opera. Lear opens up about a new glowing, plastic light sculpture and his future plans to turn Lillian into an animated film.

I read that you wanted to somehow marry an orchestral, theatrical side to the traditional singer-songwriter. How did environmental avocation come into the mix?

That's true. As I began working on Lillian, I started to realize that no one's really done this type of thing before. Yes, there are rock operas and concept albums and theatrically augmented concerts but I'd never seen all that combined in the way I imagined Lillian. That had me very excited and kept my drive going on the project to this day.

The environmental side fell into place very naturally once I discovered The Garbage Patch and built a story around it. I've always been environmentally conscious and present in the community to a certain extent, so aiming my project in that direction made total sense.

Tell us about your project, Lillian: A Folk Opera. Where did this idea stem from?

The idea for Lillian came about one night in the winter of 2009. I was sitting alone in my room brainstorming for my senior recital, over a year away.  As a composition major, I had to present my work somehow. I knew I didn't want it to be an ordinary concert, but I also didn't want to just find some friends to play chamber music.

I was thinking, "When do I play 99% of my music?" The answer is "alone in my bedroom in the middle of the night." That inspired me to create a show that turned the stage into a bedroom so that my band could be sprawled out like figments of my imagination. Initially, the songs weren't going to tell a narrative. Through songs, I was going to explore my self and the issues I face.

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As I began to write, the topic of loss kept coming up, specifically a romance with the possibility that everything I've ever lost could be in a room somewhere waiting to be found.

Around this time my mother told me about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Immediately, it was clear that this was the room I was looking for. And then Lillian was born.

And, by “room” you mean a place where all the lost things in life could be found?

Exactly.  Like a giant flea market where you can sift through all your lost things.

This is an interesting idea. It reminds me of Norfolk in the book (and film) “Never Let Me Go.” Can you see yourself creating more operas like this in the future?

Definitely. But my main desire at the moment is to write a more normal album... just a bunch of unconnected songs. I'd like to focus on my career as a songwriter and performer, and then maybe come back to folk-operas in the near future.

You just completed the Lillian Bottle Project, which is a sculpture that employs thousands of plastic bottles and string lights. How will you incorporate this into your future shows?

These sculptures will be the set for an upcoming Lillian performance slated for August 27th in New York City. They will fall from the ceiling and grow from the floor, surrounding the band in a bioluminescent, underwater wonderland.

What I love most about these sculptures is that, with their completion, I know have a visual representation of the show that compliments the music.  I can take the sculptures, install them anywhere, and either perform or not. Either way, the essence of Lillian shows through the pieces.

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Where will you take the sculptures after NYC?

The plan I have so far for the sculptures after the August show is to bring them to Burning Man as part of a collaborative installation with 5 Gyres Institute. Then I'll bring them to L.A. and set them up in a little gallery and have a small performance. After that, I have to find some way to get them back to the East Coast.

It seems that you keep building Lillian -- bit by bit. Where do you see this production reaching its climax?

That's the ultimate question. Lillian grows pretty naturally, I'd say. When I find an opportunity to add to it, I will. Right now, though, I'm really going with the flow. If people want more Lillian performances, then they'll get them.

One thing I'd love to see in the future is Lillian turned into an animated film. I've always visualized the story in a particular way and have attempted (and succeeded to some extent) in recreating that during the live show. But what I really see is a fully animated version.

I'm actually planning to release a 3-D, half-animated music video for "Lillian," the song, in August, which should give you a nice taste of what I'm talking about.

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What led you to study Music Composition at NYU?

I actually went to NYU for Music Technology. Then my roommate, who is an incredible composer, switched into the composition program after a semester and his homework assignments looked way cooler than mine. Instead of drawing resistors and capacitors, he was writing music.  Case closed.

When did you generate a love of music (particularly orchestral music)?

I've been writing and playing music since middle school. However, I fell in love with orchestral music in college. I went to NYU to study Music Composition only because it seemed like the closest thing to what I really wanted to do, which was write songs. However, I heard so much orchestral music in school I couldn't help but give in to it. Particularly music that falls along the borders of tonality -- Wagner's Tristan [and Isolde] Prelude, early Stravinsky, Bartok -- those are my guys.

You are a West-Coaster originally, correct? How did you land on the East Coast?

Landed here for college. Fell in love. Don't really want to leave. Except today when it's a million degrees.

Glad to have you here on the East Coast. We look forward to your future projects and your show here in Philly!

Ben Lear performs at Johnny Brenda’s on Saturday, July 23rd

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