Artist spotlight: Ben Klein

Perron, Amelia

How many college students have found themselves, late one night over a cup of coffee, struggling to define “art”? Nobody has come to any conclusive answers. But every so often there is one of us who doesn’t let the unanswerable questions lie dormant, and sets out to pursue, or invent, his own answers. Ben Klein is one such artist. His artistic pursuits have led him on a quest to stretch the reaches of what music can be and the results are a reflection of what happens when music is inspired by the visual arts.
Klein’s life as a musician began when he took up tuba in fifth grade. Two years later, he began piecing together what he humbly calls “musical doodles,” and a composer was born. “My want to compose came out of putting together doodles to see what I would get,” he explained. That want never went away, and Klein left his hometown of Sheboygan to pursue degrees in tuba performance and music theory/composition at Lawrence. In the five years that he’s been at Lawrence, Klein has received such honors as the Pi Kappa Lambda Composition Award and the James Ming Scholarship in Composition, all the while performing in the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, jazz and wind ensembles, and Improvisational Group of Lawrence University.
Klein’s description of his early work as “doodles” is indicative of how he works even now; his music is largely based on the visual arts and he never lets the two art forms drift too far apart. He counts such artists as Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, and Diego Rivera among his main influences, and his recently-performed “Mass of Shapes” is inspired by Calder’s art.
“Calder works with various boldly colored shapes; these suggested to me the use of different types of musical textures,” Klein explained. His “Mass,” which premiered on April 18, recreates Calder’s wedges as polyphonic passages, his “tiny squares” as “homophonic bursts in the saxophones,” and his wire sculptures as “a number of exposed independent lines which are meant to express the twisting curves in which the sculptures rely for aesthetic appeal.”
After graduation this year, Klein will be using his Watson Fellowship to further explore the potential of music. As one of only 50 recipients of the fellowship, he will travel the world examining ways to integrate new environments into his music and new uses of various media. “I may meet a choreographer who needs music for a dance portraying the construction of a Chinese skyscraper,” Klein speculated.
Klein’s year abroad, like his entire career, will be an exploration of what music can be and what broad influences it can encompass. In his journey to understand art, it will be important, above all else, to avoid placing limitations upon his work. “Through my composition and my tuba performance, I have tried to realize music’s freedom,” said Klein. “I want to celebrate and share that freedom.