BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
According to guitarist Benjamin Dix, you can think of his new performance as “string quartet but for guitar”. Playing with the Melbourne Guitar Quartet as part of the Melbourne International Guitar Festival, Benjamin will present an Americana program at Melba Hall. The group uses the guitar family – classical bass, baritone, standard and treble – to play arrangements of works by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Bill Frisell, Neko Case and Andrew York.
Benjamin is so dedicated to such performances that he chose to leave his Victorian College of the Arts studies mid-way in 2009 so he could join MGQ and help tour its first album. The award-winning muso hasn’t looked back, and now spends his time balancing leading roles across MGQ, Victorian Guitar Orchestra, Classical Guitar Society of Victoria…and practising meditation.
How are you looking forward to performing Americana?
I can say that all of us at MGQ are super excited about playing this program. It’s somewhat rare for us to have the opportunity to repeat past programs more than once. We performed Americana twice in 2016, once at Melbourne Recital Centre and the other performance was in Mildura at the impressive Performing Arts Centre. As this program features a handful of songs by Neko Case, we’ve had the great privilege to work with two tremendously talented vocalists, Olivia Hally (of Oh Pep!) and Georgie Darvidis. This time around, we will be working with Georgie again – always great fun to be performing with a guest artist.
How did you decide on the program?
In short, back in 2015, Dan and I were chatting backstage about program ideas for the Local Heroes series. As we were walking out to the stage, Dan turns to me and says: ‘Hey, Benno – what do you think about an American program for 2016? We could play some Reich, Riley and a few tunes by Neko Case’. It’s great to know that Dan is thinking about programs a year ahead – just as we are about to perform!
What do you feel about presenting a program of all-American music in such a political time?
I’d like to think that this Americana program transcends and any issues or agendas on the current political landscape. We all know how powerful the performing, visual and literary arts can be at conveying a multitude of political and philosophical views. Though, for us, we simply wish to celebrate the profound influence that artists like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Neko Case have had on music as a whole, across all genres. What’s more, with guitarist/composers such as Bill Frisell and Andrew York, we can observe the chameleon-like effect and the ever-changing and innovative roles the guitar has played throughout American music.
You’re well-trained in classical and improvisation, so what goes into your bluegrass or rock ‘n’ roll performances?
To be honest, not much. I’m working from notated scores, so there is not much wiggle-room for cutting loose on a few solos! All the arranging for this program was done by Dan and about a quarter of the program was transcribed by ear, listening to various recordings of Neko Case with her band. So a large portion of this resulted in a combination of transcribed melodic and harmonic material with a number of semi-improvised lines thrown in. There are some personal touches, tweaking of a few lines and adding a few variations on some chordal material. But I guess the ‘improv’ aspect is more about attitude than anything else.
You made a bold move in joining the MGQ – you left your studies to take the leap into life in the industry. And it worked out so well! What did it feel like to make this brave move?
The more I think about it, I don’t recall it being a difficult decision to make. I knew that post-graduate studies would always be there, but joining MGQ was most definitely a kind of one-off opportunity, especially knowing that the quartet was planning a tour and needed to fill that empty seat. I also thought to myself at the time that working with MGQ would be the best thing for the further development of my playing rather than pursuing further study. In hindsight, it has meant that a number of solo programs have been put on the backburner but I guess that somewhat comes with the territory. I have thought about returning to complete my Masters – but funnily enough, I think that would be the boldest move of them all.
What advice would you give others wondering if study or ‘real-world’ experiences should take priority?
The development of your craft or arts practice should be the priority. Alongside this, no matter what avenue you pursue, for however long, I believe it is vital to cultivate an intention to always be open to learning in any capacity. Whether it’s advice from seasoned professionals, colleagues, students, or things you pick up from playing in an ensemble or performing solo, keep developing. From my experience, I must say that balance is important. If opportunities arise while you’re studying to play a few shows, work with an ensemble, develop a concert series or whatever, it’s important to make the most of those opportunities as they will shape you as an artist. And as I mentioned earlier, opportunities for study will always be there – as long as you pass the audition!
You’re also a meditation practitioner. How has this influenced your approach to music?
Without going too deep, I’ve found that the formal practice of meditation has allowed for my guitar practice to become a type of ‘informal’ meditation. Obviously when practising music, a certain level of focus and awareness is needed: tuning into sounds, physical sensations, breath, tempo, the score. Similarly, in formal meditation practice, focus and awareness are cultivated. There is also a tuning into sounds, physical sensation and an observation of mental states. Though, in meditation practice, there is an approach of non-judgement. Perhaps this is thrown out when practising music as we are very quick to pick up on mistakes!
Mediation simply allows for the opportunity to see or be with whatever is arising in any one moment; allowing for things to be as they are and the observation of how these ‘things’ are always changing – impermanent. So in regards to performance nerves, we are all probably familiar with the experience of being super-nervous before the performance, yet as the performance unfolds the nerves subside. The more we can bring awareness to these experiences, over time we may see a shift in the intensity of those pre-concert nerves. That’s my spin on it, anyway.
What do you enjoy most about performing with MGQ?
For me, one of the most enjoyable and exciting aspects is working on new arrangements, especially the ‘premiere’ arrangements – works that have never been adapted before for guitar quartet. Our ever-expanding range of repertoire of self-penned arrangements is also something all of us at MGQ headquarters are proud of. Of course, it is also fantastic to be playing with a group of mates and to have been given many opportunities to present our music to such wonderful audiences.
Why is MIGF important to the Australian music landscape?
The work that Michael MacManus – aka Macca from MGQ – and Evan Hopkins have done over the years to make this event what it is, is truly astonishing. As MIGF is annual event – most festivals run every 18 months – it provides an opportunity for guitar enthusiasts and concert aficionados to see world class, local, national and international artists perform right on our doorstep. This festival is doing a lot for the grass-roots level of guitarists also, providing a diverse competition as well as allowing students and competition entrants to perform in workshops and masterclasses. The open competition category has drawn a multitude of international and interstate guitarists over the years; the level of theses competitors has been truly world class and has always made for an entertaining finals concert. With the vast interest shown in MIGF only after running for a few years, Michael and Evan are doing their best to put Melbourne on the international guitar scene.
See Benjamin Dix and members of the Melbourne Guitar Quartet perform at the Melbourne International Guitar Festival this September 22-24 at Melba Hall, University of Melbourne.
The Melbourne Guitar Foundation is generously offering CutCommon subscribers a big festival discount – so be sure to sign up before you make your booking!