With sobriety, contemporary composer John Bence reaches for the divine

Courtesy of Dan Northover
Courtesy of Dan Northover

Shortly after the release of his debut EP “Disquiet,” contemporary classical composer and producer John Bence was considered something of a wunderkind in Europe’s avant garde circles.

The Ties That Bind UsAfter all, it was a fragment of the music that would find its way onto “Disquiet” that convinced Chilean-American composer Nicolas Jaar to sign Bence to his Other People label. His experimental approach on the EP, in which he used various electronic techniques to sonically manipulate operatic and orchestral pieces through a layered recording process, was marveled over in the press.

The publication Dazed Digital described it this way: “Bence's work involves the use of a rhythmic and painstakingly original cut-and-paste method. After scoring and recording the full piece, he re-records, manipulates and re­scores again ... and again. This cyclical technique creates a choral hybrid of electronic production and classical composition — a delightful palate-cleanser in a world of heavy-tech and pulsing base.”

For a young man from Bristol, England, it was a heady infusion of fame that should have burned bright with the promise of a career that had only just begun. Instead, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, it was utterly miserable … because of a drinking problem.

“I felt so out of my depth, and I was in such an abyss,” Bence said. “When the record came out, I had all this success. I was jumping around on airplanes and flying all over Europe and doing so many gigs and so many shows … and I wouldn’t wish those years on my worst enemy. I was always in clubs, drinking alcohol, being so drunk in airports and bars and thinking, ‘This feels so rock ‘n’ roll … I have a rock star lifestyle, and I have all this success, so why am I still so unhappy?’

“I remember bowing on stage in front of a thousand people at a show with William Basinski at one of the top venues in the U.K. It was my dream gig, and I was on the big stage that I had wanted to be on for so many years. There were a thousand people there, clapping, and I remember bowing with my hand on my stomach, feeling this terrible void inside me and just thinking, ‘Is this all there is?’ And I just got so wasted afterward. It sounds so ungrateful, but I simply didn’t know that external things bring no joy.”

John Bence and the flirtation with oblivion

Courtesy of Dan Northover

As much existential anguish as that moment represents in Bence’s journey, however, the worst was yet to come. “Disquiet,” he pointed out, was the sound of a man working his way toward the edge of an abyss, a great rock hanging over a dark chasm toward which he felt summoned. He was drinking during the creation of that EP, but after it’s release, he pivoted into full-blown alcoholism, although there was a period for part of 2016 in which he managed to get sober long enough to make a follow-up EP, “Kill.”

“I remember being a dry drunk while I was doing it. I had a few periods of not drinking for a few months and managing to control it — or maybe not,” he said. “My drinking wasn’t on top of me, but as soon as ‘Kill’ was finished, it was over, really. The whole of 2017, I just drank. I didn’t write music at all.

“‘Kill’ was the light going out on my creativity. Alcoholism took over after that, and in 2017, I wrote 10 minutes of music, and it was the hardest music I’d ever written in my life. This year, I’ve spent thousands of hours writing music, but that year, during full-on alcoholism, I was terrified of working on music, because I was so drunk. That’s where alcoholism took me. Ten minutes — but it was the hardest 10 minutes, because I was trying to do it on a wet brain.”

In a way, “Kill” is eerily prescient: The album, recorded in the fall of 2016, tells the story “of a murderer who kills his lover, commits suicide and then accelerates towards God to be judged,” according to the description on the website of Bence’s record label, Thrill Jockey. It’s a haunting, visceral affair that resonates with a malevolent energy, and it builds on the promise of “Disquiet” in a way that’s reminiscent of Michael Gira’s work with Swans.

Writing for The Vinyl District, Joseph Neff describes it this way: “Instrumentally, ‘Kill’ is full-bodied but also precise and at times even restrained, featuring cello strings plucked like an acoustic bass along with percussion and symphonic elements, but also passages that resonate like contemporary electronic ambience (‘precession instruments’ made by Bence were also used). It’s a record that will very likely (I’m tempted to say surely) appeal to folks into the ominousness of non-dance Industrial and dark folk (post-Nurse With Wound-list stuff, in a nutshell) and even ears attuned to certain strains of art-metal and experimental noise.”

For Bence, it’s almost like a telegraph received from the future, where he would find himself in December 2017 coming to the end of his battle with alcoholism.

“I was on anti-depressants and mixing SSRIs with booze, and that was the darkest time of my life,” he said. “In the final days of my drinking, I was watching messed-up films like ‘Human Centipede’ or ‘Hostel,’ which is strange, because I cannot imagine seeing that kind of stuff today. I can’t even watch films like ‘The Life of Brian’ nowadays, because I find it too cruel on the spirit. But I used to watch messed-up stuff just trying to get an emotional response, but I would end up staring emotionless at the screen with my pills and my booze.

“I couldn’t shock myself anymore. I was completely numb and felt nothing. It was whiskey, Coca-Cola and the abuse of prescription medication that I thought would be my way out of this life: ‘This is going to get me through to death, which will probably be soon, as I don’t have the courage to kill myself.’ ‘Disquiet’ was pre-alcohol, and ‘Kill’ was in the middle of alcoholism. If I hadn’t gotten sober, ‘Kill’ would have been the last thing I made, because my brain would have gotten wetter and wetter.”

A note from John Bence …

After reading this piece, Bence felt compelled to expound upon some realizations. These are his words.

John Bence

Courtesy of Dan Northover

It feels very odd to be talking about this, because I have very little use for the past and rarely think about it. It feels like someone else’s life that I am talking about, a past life or a nightmare that wasn’t real. The only real use we have for the past is to help people who still suffer, to share our experience.

I used to use alcohol and drugs to get out of my mind. You must get out of your mind to be … and by “be” I mean to be, as in to be a human being. Before my 12 Step way of life, I always felt like a human becoming or a human doing: ‘I am a human doing this because if I do this,’ or, ‘I will be happy being a successful musician,’ for example. Or, ‘If I drink this much, I will become more of a mess and more of a rock star.’

The 12 Steps have shown me that I don’t need to be a human becoming or a human doing — I am recovered, and now I am a human being, comfortable in my own skin.

I was trying to fill a hole inside me with drink, drugs, sex, music, art and career success, and these things gave me pain and pleasure but didn’t fill the hole in my soul, so I thought suicide my only option.

It may sound strange hearing a musician saying music gives them no joy, but music gives me great pleasure. To feel the joy within me come alive and resonate through my hands into the keyboard or in my in my chest and my throat as I sing gives me a great pleasure. Music can make you happy or sad, but it cannot add to what you already have within you. I couldn’t possibly add to that, as it is so perfect. I was just using music and these words to point to it — the formless, silent watcher that looks out the eyes of every being in the universe.

I really feel like I am nothing; as in, I am not the ego anymore. Me and my music are pieces of God's universe, pieces of the divine matrix, nodes in a network. All these two pieces do is point to what you all already have. My music may make you feel good, bad, happy or sad, but that’s just a side effect. My art is here to spread the message to people who suffer, and I am only able to do this because of the 12 Steps that have given me a spiritual awakening outside of my wildest dreams.

If you are still tempted by the darkness of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, remember: It is not the darkness that we are really afraid of; it is the Light. As Nelson Mandela says: “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” That is why we remain as fearless as possible, which is what the 12 Steps are here to help us to do.

Rebel, rebel

Courtesy of Dan Northover

In a sense, Bence credits his parents with his introduction to sobriety (more about that later), just as they introduced him to music. In retrospect, however, there was no “introduction” to music: It was as much a part of his life as oxygen and food, he said.

“It was so much a part of us. My dad would be playing the guitar, my mom played the cello and the piano, my sister played the oboe and violin, and there was a piano in the hallway that I used to bang on,” he said. “There was so much piano, so much classical music. My bedroom was literally above the piano, and it was just going hours and hours a day — Bartok and Ravel and Bach and Debussy, all of it just being played hours and hours a day, and it was sort of pushed into me by osmosis. It was almost being rammed down my throat, really.”

He credits his parents with “exquisite music tastes,” but as a boy, the constant bombardment of everyone from Bill Evans to Steve Reich to Ravel was, in a way, torturous. As a result, when he got his first laptop at 13, he embraced American hip-hop, through DJ Premier and the group Gang Starr, which was a DJ Premier project.

“I was probably looking for something that was outside of the classical stuff, I guess,” he said. “I started making hip-hop and dubstep.”

Not that his father minded: The elder Bence was a fan of electronic music, and his collection of instruments included several synthesizers, a sampler and a computer that could be programmed for sequencing. Those became the preferred outlets for his son, who pushed back against the more traditional genres favored by his mother.

“I think I rebelled against classical music for a bit, because to me, music would be a class you would take in school, and I really didn’t like school,” he said. “I just had to rebel, and so I started skateboarding, which got me into hip-hop.”

From the moment he started composing his own music on that laptop, however, music became a map that never ended. Just when Bence thought he had reached the outer limits of one genre, he would find a new one, and it quickly became an obsession that developed into workaholism, he said. That, in fact, was his first “-ism” — and he embraced it unabashedly.

“I was really, really overweight, and I didn’t really have any self-esteem, so when my friends were partying and drinking and having sex with their Friday nights, I used to spend my Friday evenings writing music and getting loads and loads of food,” he said. “Rather than going out, I would fill my backpack with biscuits and cake and Coca-Cola and go home and write music all day and all night. And then when I was 19, I felt in love with this girl, and I couldn’t handle the emotions. In a way, she helped me maybe transition from workaholism to alcoholism.

“I didn’t pursue partying in the beginning. I wanted to be a deejay, so I was kind of going to parties to strategically meet the right people. I was desperate to be one of the guys in the record shop who would casually say things like, ‘Oh, I just got back from playing in Berlin,’ or, ‘I’m playing here next.’ I was desperate to hang out with the right people.”

The bottom and the resurrection of John Bence

John Bence

Courtesy of Dan Northover

In a sense, it worked: He signed to Other People when he was only 19, and as soon as he closed his laptop after completing “Disquiet,” he felt a sensation that would become a familiar refrain throughout his life: Is this all there is?

No, he decided. So he started hitting the gym, lost 70 pounds, got a new wardrobe and started drinking — which quickly led to the unease and discontent of 2016, the utter degradation, dereliction and misery of 2017 and the crash-and-burn of January 2018, which he took his final drink.

“I woke up, and my mum was like, ‘Do you remember what you did last night?’ I didn’t, and she was like, ‘You smashed up a phone box, and you got arrested,’” he said. “Then my dad said, ‘We’re going to drive you to (a 12 Step meeting), and I remember thinking I was going to be hungover in this lunchtime meeting, but it almost felt like I was an autopilot. I had one beer in my sock drawer, and I remember looking at it, but I didn’t drink it.”

And, he added, he hasn’t had a drink since. That first meeting, he introduced himself — “I’m John; I smashed a phone box last night, and I think I’m an alcoholic” — but instead of laughter or derision or scorn, he experienced something else: warmth. The assembled recovering alcoholics chanted in unison, ‘Welcome, John,” and as a composer familiar with the power of chants and combined voices, it touched him to his core, he said.

“It’s like, your face goes from despair to hopeful,” he said. “I remember before then, I had no empathy at all. I was just a zombie, but somehow, I kept a diary during that time, and I read back over the first 20 days of January of that year, and I was full of so much resentment and misery. But then I see where I wrote, ‘Went to this (12 Step) meeting. Seems like it’s good.’”

The results were both profound and quick, and he marveled at the changes in his life once he surrendered to the program. His parents were no longer besieged with the fear that they would lose their son. The anger of his friends vanished. He continued to take SSRIs for his emotional issues, however, but once he embraced the tenets of sobriety, he began to understand that the core pain that had so long consumed him could be addressed through spiritual means.

“All of the change at first goes down on the exterior: People around you stop being harmed, but it’s still agony inside,” he said. “But I was going to meetings every single day, and I was loving the meetings. And eventually, when I came off the SSRIs, I felt like my recovery finally started. Maybe they had kept me alive, but when I came off the SSRIs and the pills, the only thing left to do was meditate.”

And, he added, return to the life force that had so long sustained him: music.

A 'Love' supreme

"Love," the new full-length by John Bence. Order it from John on Bandcamp, or through the Thrill Jockey website.

One of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome, he added, was the idea that great art comes from great suffering — and without the suffering, or the anesthesia of alcohol, would he still be able to create?

“The thing that could have been the biggest threat to my sobriety was the idea that I needed to drink to be an artist,” he said. “I’m a reader, and I’m a huge fan of (Charles) Bukowski — and really, that kept me away from drugs, because he hated drugs. For him, it was just booze and fags (cigarettes), and that’s what I modeled myself after. He used to say something like, ‘If I don’t drink, I can’t write.’

“And I do think there is this link between alcohol and creativity. Bukowski drank every day. The Beatles took acid. Stravinsky … Sartre … there’s a whole link between creativity and being messed up. And letting go of that took me a while, but now it’s finally taking off. Some of the best music I’ve ever written has been this year, with two years sober.”

Once his muse returned, however, she did so with a vengeance. He threw himself into the creation of “Love,” his full-length Thrill Jockey debut that was released last November, and in a way, it’s the third part of a trilogy that began with “Disquiet” and continued with “Kill.” But whereas the first was filled with unease and the latter with jarring cacophony, “Love” is an altogether different work.

“‘Disquiet’ is almost like, everything’s ready to burn. We’ve made a massive bonfire, and then ‘Kill’ is the match, the torch,” he said. “I think there’s real meaning in the number three — Father, Son and Holy Ghost; body, mind and spirit — and this is a little triptych. ‘Disquiet’ was the pre-ignition, ‘Kill’ was while it was burning, and ‘Love’ is kind of the aftermath of the chaos.

“‘Love’ is me walking around in the ash, after the fire, because I was still smoking fags and still on the SSRIs, but then some trees only drop their seeds in forest fires. So this fourth record I’m working on is the rebirth.”

Simon Kirk, writing for the online publication Sun-13, wrote that “‘Love’ is to be consumed holistically, letting its entirety wash over you.”

“At under 21 minutes in length, ‘Love’ doesn’t outstay its welcome,” Kirk continues. “Bence succinctly gets his point across and what could have developed into a lengthy indulgence is instead something that could prove to be a gateway for listeners to explore the wider terrains of a classical/experimental landscape that they wouldn’t normally be prepared to. With ‘Love,’ John Bence could well be the artist some folks have to thank for this.”

If it’s a stroll through the ash, then it’s also the discovery that beneath that carpet of gray dust, green shoots have emerged from the ground and are beginning to stretch toward the sky. It’s an image that makes Bence smile, because in a way, his own soul has done the same throughout his sobriety.

More will be revealed

John Bence

Courtesy of Dan Northover

One of the guiding principles of 12 Step recovery is spirituality: the nurturing and growth of a conscious contact with a Higher Power of one’s own choosing. That’s a noble endeavor that has long been a calling of musicians, especially those of a classical bent, Bence pointed out.

“Beethoven said that the loftiest mission a man can ever take is to get as close to divinity as possible, and disseminate those rays out to mankind. The 12 Steps are the best way I’ve found to get as close to the divine as possible. It’s what I’ve found, and it’s all I’m trying to do. That’s the only mission, through music and through sharing, really. Where words fail, music speaks.”

That’s an idea that brings him great comfort, because even when the words fall short if he’s sharing in a meeting, he can take the raw emotion behind his point and turn it into notes that transcend conversation. That it might help people — especially fellow creatives, possibly new to recovery and perhaps enamored with Bukowski, as he was — brings him no small measure of comfort.

As does speaking openly about his journey. There’s a certain 12 Step principle that encourages members to practice attraction rather than promotion, which is why Bence’s specific 12 Step membership remains vague. But the idea behind attraction is also vague, he pointed out: After all, how can those who suffer as he once did be attracted to something they have no idea even exists?

“For me, I thought I ‘d hit the end of the line. I thought I was just going to die for my art, basically, while drinking myself to death,” he said. “I thought that was the last stop on the line, and my idols seemed to be there, on the platform. But then I came into recovery and realized I wasn’t finished. It’s like discovering Platform 9 ¾ from ‘Harry Potter’ — you think you’re a writer or a musician and a drinker and that this is the end, but then you go further, and you get to a kind of spiritual awakening and enlightenment.

“You think that there is no more art, and at first it doesn’t matter, because you’re so happy, joyous and free. You’re totally at peace, and you think, ‘Well, there’s no need for it.’ It’s all these different stops that loop back around. The first is the nightmare of the drinking and drugging and writing music and being (William S.) Burroughs or Bukowski. The next stop after that is the weird one where you’re enlightened, and you’re at peace, and there’s no art.

“And then next one is the post-awakening creation of art again, and that’s the most luxurious one,” he added. “For this new record — which I’m trying to finish, and I’ve given myself a deadline of October — I wrote the first movement in an hour.”

And that, he realized, was the completion of his journey … at least on that line. But there are other worlds than those, and thanks to sobriety, he’s been given an all-access pass to explore each and every one, should he so choose.

“I love being in recovery so much,” he said. “The worst part of the divine matrix is the part where you think you have to be messed to do good art. That’s just the nastiest little thing, because it’s not true.”