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Bing & Ruth on making 2014's most golden album

Speaking to David Moore of New York composing collective Bing & Ruth about why he's picking up his instruments

Over the past decade, ambient music has become easier than ever to produce. Today, it’s exceedingly simple to create interesting textures and expansive soundscapes from your bedroom, using free software on a laptop or even an iPhone.

But, during this period of technological innovation, David Moore has taken a different tack. During those last ten years, the Brooklyn-based composer has been writing ambient music for large ensembles. His project, Bing & Ruth, matches the subtle textures and abstract tones of modern experimental electronic music with classical instrumentation. The result is something at once familiar, but hard to pin down. Cellos, clarinets, piano, and upright bass blend together into a lush, otherworldly new thing — drones with a little more texture than usual, waves of sound from rippling piano keys instead of an arpeggiator, and atmospheric beds of real live woodwinds.

In a genre seemingly dominated by digital synthesizers and MaxMSP patches, the human feeling behind a Bing & Ruth album sets it apart. Even the effects on the pieces are created and modulated in real time by an analog tape delay operator. This creates a personal, organic take on the musical realms explored by artists like Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never. And though the instrumentation gives these pieces a unique sound, it’s Moore’s compositions that makes them stand out. With a patient hand, he creates moving melodies, slow building harmonies, and plaintive piano lines.

Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, the newest album from Bing & Ruth, is out now on RVNG Intl., and we took the chance to talk to Moore about his shift from big band music to drones and microtones, as well as the perks and challenges of working and playing shows with a seven-piece ensemble.

You got started with writing music through academia, which usually focuses on traditional styles of composition. Was there a certain turning point where you began to explore more experimental techniques?

David Moore: In music school, I started out writing little simple things — lots of jazz tunes and waltzes and pieces for a big band. The school where I went in Kansas City had a well respected composition department, and I was able to get a useful background in orchestration there. A few years later, after moving to New York, I decided to put a band together, and that was the beginning of my move away from writing tunes with big-ass melodies and towards focusing on textures and drones. I still don't shake melodies completely, but since then I've been somewhat obsessed with this idea of a singular sound; that each member of the ensemble is merely a single aspect of one larger sound.

Have you found that there is a scene of young composers, who — like you — are classically trained, but are moving away from those “big ass melodies”? I know people like Nico Muhly and Alexis Georgopoulos are composing for traditional modes, but doing it in a more abstract or weird way.

David Moore: I don't exactly have my finger on the pulse of the composition world, but I do see a shift among lots of different types of musicians towards putting more thought and attention into the textural aspect of music. You have a whole new generation of music makers who've never known a world without Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. His music speaks to a lot of people outside of the classical world, and I think that really pushed texture into the common consciousness of musicians everywhere, not just the ones who went to conservatory. 

Computer production has opened up a lot of possibilities for new synthesized textures. What draws you to using live instrumentation, and even real-time effects, to create your sound worlds?

David Moore: I have a large respect for many electronic musicians and find it fascinating that you can actually go in and create a sound from scratch and do things that no human could to. That said, I grew up in a world where people learned how to play an instrument, and being that music is a fundamentally human endeavor, I always wanted humans creating the sound. Bing & Ruth using very few electronics allows us to connect to the listener in a much more personal way. We're using the raw sounds that people have lifelong associations with, and this gets you through the front door. Working this way presents many limitations, but I see those as positives. For me, those limitations are vital. 

Working with actual musicians, you’re obviously dealing with lots of different backgrounds and opinions. Is there collaboration when the pieces are coming together? Or do you arrive with a solidified score?

David Moore: I would consider it a controlled collaboration. I'm obsessed with simplifying the scores as much as possible. Much of the inflection, articulation, dynamics, and even the notes are approached through a common language that's been developed over years. What I bring in is a piece of music to be filtered through a learned approach. It gives freedom to the performers, but only in specific areas. This keeps the sound uniform, while allowing the musicians to apply their talent to the parts of the song that I think are much better left in their hands. So, basically, instead of writing everything down on a page, the band knows how to play certain types of notes. They know how and when to slide between notes. How and when to go out of tune.  It makes my job as the writer a lot more direct because I'm not having to constantly explain every aspect of every song.

Over the past few recordings, the group of musicians you’re working with has seemed to shift frequently. What does that reorganization offer that’s attractive to you as a composer?

David Moore: I think it's frighteningly easy to fall into a routine when you are constantly surrounded by the same players. Even though no two Bing & Ruth recordings have featured the same ensemble, everyone involved in the project has added something of value to it. It's also really important to constantly be pushing myself into uncomfortable territory.  

For our previous album, City Lake, the band was 11 people, and I knew when starting work on Tomorrow Was the Golden Age that I wanted to strip that down. Reducing the size to seven players allowed for extra flexibility, but it also led to some interesting challenges that ultimately pushed the band forward. Plus, as you can imagine, touring with seven people is a lot more manageable than 11. I certainly kept this in mind as I could see the group moving into doing more shows and tours.  It's important to be logical about these things!