I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Nostalgia for the future, bluegrass, and hating the term “minimalism.”
Thirty-one-year-old David Moore is the pianist and composer behind Bing & Ruth, a Brooklyn-based instrumental ensemble whose second album, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, will be released October 14. As with City Lake, their previous release, Tomorrow moves in pulses, open spaces, and subtle, nearly imperceptible changes in key and emotional register. Often linked to composers like Steve Reich or Max Richter, Moore similarly makes music that is radically expressive without being explicitly sentimental, imposing but never an imposition.
The new album, which was recorded in Yonkers, New York, by a group of seven musicians (as opposed to the eleven who played on City Lake), works as a single piece of music with nine movements. It’s a procession of moods and tone colors, warm and inscrutable. Based on my own experience, it’s best absorbed while sitting at a desk, looking out of a window at a parking deck. I spoke to Moore on the phone during a brief cold spell in September.
David Moore It’s really cold, and I’m kind of pissed about it. Summer’s really done?
Will Stephenson Where are you and what are you up to?
DM I’m in St. Louis en route to a bluegrass festival in Kansas. I go here every year and play banjo all week, very fun.
WS Are you from Kansas, originally?
DM Yeah. I’ve been going to this bluegrass festival every year since I was five. I never miss it, so I’m really looking forward to it. It’s like the highlight of my year.
WS Tell me about growing up in Kansas.
DM It was alright. I kind of just dove into music. Started playing piano when I was—think it was five or six? It was always the thing that I kind of was really pulled toward, so I just kind of focused on that and didn’t really party too much or anything. But other than that, it was just kind of a normal middle-class upbringing in a middle-class neighborhood in Topeka.
WS I feel like I don’t have too many associations with Kansas.
DM I run into people from Kansas every now and again. But it seems to have a pretty large gravitational pull, so a lot of folks end up sticking around Kansas. There’s a good amount of people that get out and do stuff, but a lot of folks I grew up with are still there and starting families, and they seem really happy. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. I was happy to get out. I moved to New York when I was, I think, twenty-one. And I’ve been there ever since.
WS What drew you to New York? What was the idea?
DM I went to The Conservatory of Music in Kansas City and I had this mentor, Bobby Watson, who’s really a well-known jazz saxophonist, and he had lived in New York I think for twenty-five years, and he was of the mind—and he was correct—that if you want to get serious about playing an instrument, you gotta go to New York. So, I listened to him, I applied to the New School and got in, was able to kind of get enough scholarships so that I could afford it, and I’m very happy I did. I met a lot of close friends there, and most of the band Bing & Ruth I met at that school. We’ve been playing together for ten years in various incarnations.
WS Tell me about the origins of Bing & Ruth? What about the name, first of all?
DM The origins and the name all kind of came from—well, I was totally obsessed, and still am, with the writer Amy Hempel. Starting the group and starting to write longer-form, slower, textural music was very much inspired by the way that she would write stories. I was very drawn to her, and was basically trying to take her concepts into a musical realm. So, the name comes from the first story of hers I ever read, about an older couple—a widow and a widower, both rebuilding. It’s funny, when you choose a band name, you just kind of do it, it’s easy to do, and you live with it. It’s been ten years. I didn’t really think too hard about it. It was just I had some friends and we needed a name ‘cause we had a gig. It just kind of stuck.
WS You mention Amy Hempel, and I noticed that in your book Music by Bing & Ruthyou talk about Gordon Lish. Is minimalist fiction a big influence on what you do, generally?
DM Yeah, I mean, I was in this situation in Kansas City where my air conditioner didn’t work. So I would just go to the practice room building, and when I wanted to take a break I’d go to the library. I discovered Amy Hempel and started reading more about her, and found a few other authors that I really felt spoke to me, and I traced them all back to Gordon Lish. His stories—have you ever read Gordon Lish at all?
WS I haven’t. I’m familiar with his work as an editor and the style that he’s renowned for.
DM Yeah, he was really pretty out there. There’s a lot of his stories that I have trouble getting through. They’re the kind of thing that, for me at least, I need to read ten times until I can really sort of take it in. But I think that was always sort of his thing. He was on the far end of the spectrum, but you know as an editor he worked with Raymond Carver and the whole school of New York City minimalists, for lack of a better term. You know, I hate that term, but it is what it is.
WS I don’t know if you can really articulate it, but what is it about Hempel and Lish for you? How do you emulate them, if that’s what you do?
DM For me it was always just sort of an idea of space and really just breaking down something to its purest elements, using negative space to build a story or a narrative. I was very inspired by that idea of knowing what to leave out, so instead of telling somebody how to feel, they put you in a situation where you feel it. I was always drawn to that idea, and that’s why throughout the history of Bing & Ruth I’ve never tried to explain what it is, or what it means. It’s not like, “Oh, this song is about this, and this song is about this.” I like to leave the work open to interpretation, and I’ve found that a lot of people who come to it have their own relationship to it. Some people feel like it’s the saddest music they’ve ever heard, some people say like it’s the happiest music they’ve ever heard. It’s all over the map, and I’ve always really liked that. That’s what I’ve taken from those writers, the idea of not forcing a feeling or an idea into somebody’s head. Present the situation, take of it what you will, and you’ll take away something a lot more personal.
WS And so how do you work? Is the composition process very strict?
DM The process has changed a lot over the years. In the beginning, I was very insistent on writing thorough scores, and you’ve seen the book. The record City Lake(2010) was very notated, not overly so though. But the process has basically been just starting with a bunch of ideas. For this new record, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, there were probably fifty different ideas, and I would kind of work through different ideas and textures, and figure out what was going to work best together. It’s not about songs that I think are the best, it’s about everything fitting together in a way that makes a cohesive, longer statement. I work on that, and bring it into rehearsal, and just drop a bunch of pages on people, and have them read it through. This time, some ideas fell flat immediately, and other ones that I thought maybe weren’t as good ended up being really nice. Everybody in the band is such a brilliant and capable musician that they were able to take these outlines and ideas and really fill them out. I religiously record every rehearsal and go back and listen to see what works, see what doesn’t. We’ll go through that process of editing and bringing back a number of times. Some pieces happen on the first go-through, some of them need ten revisions. It’s about being able to have a general idea of what we’re working toward, and then being able to listen to everything and place it where it needs to be placed.
WS You said you didn’t really want to interpret the songs, but the title alone of the new record—Tomorrow Was the Golden Age—for me has these associations with old science fiction films, utopias, things like that. Do you relate to that Brian Eno idea of “nostalgia for the future”?
DM Yeah. I mean, somewhat. The title was just something that my friend in Paris said one late night, after we’d been up all night talking, which is what we do. It really struck me and I’m not sure why, I’m still not exactly sure why, but I used that title just to guide me. It has a few different meanings for me, but it’s also open enough that people can bring their own interpretations. It could be a very positive statement, or it could be a very negative statement. That’s kind of what I go for when I’m trying to title these things, because, obviously, there are no lyrics, and because I’m fairly insistent on not presenting a concrete statement to people. The titling of the records and the songs tend to have personal meanings for me, but it’s also just something to call it. Originally for this record I didn’t want to put titles on anything.
WS But the titles are great.
DM Yeah, the band talked me out it. I was very insistent on having the nine tracks, no titles. The titles I worked with—because you need titles when you’re going through rehearsal so you can call names out—I became more attached to them, and then the band was pretty insistent on me leaving the titles, and I’m really glad I did. I feel like they fit.
WS My favorite is “Police Police Police Police Police.”
DM (laughter) Yeah. That’s just life in New York. I just feel like there are cops everywhere I look. It’s not a fun environment to be in all the time. It’s funny, they played that song on New Sounds, the WNYC show hosted by John Schaefer, and he recited the title very slowly then said, “Yep, that’s really what it’s called.”
WS (laughter) Do you think nostalgia informs what you do? It might just be the way I’m hearing it.
DM Yeah, I think it informs it to a certain extent. But I’m still kind of learning what it means for me, and I’m hoping it evolves over time. A lot of the things that I do are based on the idea of making something that evolves over the course of a life or over various experiences—something that means something to me when I’m twenty-five, and then means something totally different when I’m thirty-five, so will fulfill what you need when you need it. And it’s really worked for me in that way. The reasons that I loved City Lake when we made it are different than the reasons I love it now. I’ve always been very interested in that. As for the album title—I know it’s not the greatest answer—but the title’s just something I tried to leave open. Not just to different people, but to different times.
WS I read that you guys have performed at some sort of unusual spaces like a meat locker, a beach, a lot of other odd places. I was wondering if that was important to the project, or if that’s just something you’re fond of doing?
DM Well I think a big part of it is that there’s just not an easy place to put us for a show. We discovered early on that we could play in rock clubs, but there’d be a ton of noise from the bar. We could play more classical venues, but they tended to be a little less inspiring. So, we discovered that the best way for us to go about it is just to make our own shows, and not worry about it. That way, if three people showed up, there wasn’t going to be somebody at the door pissed off. There was a very practical reason for doing it that way.
But also, the live show kind of gets people out of their head a little bit, so I find it fun to also put their bodies in a place that they’re not used to being. I’m also just kind of a control freak, so I like producing my own shows so that I have control over how the whole thing’s laid out, the lighting and everything. It’s difficult to do, and we don’t do it as much anymore. Hopefully we’ll start playing a lot more when this record comes out, but in the past we’ve probably only done four or five shows a year. I’d rather do one show and make it something special instead of hustling every weekend to play at different places. I’m not saying that’s better than the other way, but for us, it was never about trying to “make it,” or be successful in any conventional sense, it has always been about wanting to play this music and finding the best place and the best circumstances to play it in. If you don’t oversaturate fans, it can really turn into something special for those people who do go out of their way. You know, whenever we’ve done a show, there have always been people who’ve flown in for it. Each show is something special to us.
WS Have you put a lot of thought into how you want people to use the music, what sorts of environments it’s intended for?
DM Honestly, I don’t even think about it that much. A lot of the music I make with Bing & Ruth and with other projects is very personal. A lot of the records I’ve made, I’ve made because I wanted to listen to them—that was the goal from the outset. If I can make something that I want to listen to, then maybe other people will want to listen to it, as a bonus. But it was always about making something that I needed but which didn’t yet exist.
WS You said you hated the term minimalist?
DM ”Hate” is a strong word, but …
WS So what term do you reach for if you have to describe what you do?
DM Oh, man. Truthfully, I probably just use the word minimalist.
WS (laughter) Yeah.
DM But you’re not a true minimalist unless you hate the term minimalism, so…
WS I guess that makes sense. I was thinking of Erik Satie’s term, “furniture music.”
DM Yeah. I’ve got to get deeper into Satie. It’s been a while. When we were working on this new record, I just stopped listening to music for a good year. I found that silence in my life could be way more inspiring. But I’m just now kind of getting back into checking new records out and digging in again, so, I’ll put that on my list.
WS Another thing I wanted to ask about was your double life as someone who’s also into old-time music and banjo, which I think would be surprising to a lot of people who heard this record. What’s your history there?
DM Well, you know, growing up where I did, bluegrass and old-time music and acoustic music was always a big part of my life. My dad played acoustic guitar, the records I grew up with were mainly acoustically driven, and that’s kind of the core where I’m coming from. That’s why Bing & Ruth uses mostly acoustic instruments. Initially, I wanted to start a band that could gather around a single microphone, just like a bluegrass band, you know? Bing & Ruth occupies a very important part of my mind, but I also sometimes just want to play party music. So I have this old-time band that I play with called The Piledrivers, and we’ve been playing for years, and it’s just a fun party band. And I also play in a rock band called Langhorne Slim & The Law.
WS I saw a video of you guys playing on Conan O’Brien.
DM Oh, cool.
WS Which I think would also surprise some people.
DM Honestly, I’ve always—I won’t say it’s really intentional—but I’ve always kept my various lives separate in a way, where a lot of people who like Bing & Ruth are surprised by the other things that I do. And fans of Langhorne Slim are surprised by Bing & Ruth. I like that. I kind of want to do each thing in its different area.
At the end of the day, I just really love playing music, all kinds of music. That’s what led me to where I am now, which is having these very—on the surface—different projects. But if you look at all the things I do, there are definitely some common threads.
WS Yeah, I wanted to ask about that, about whether you saw a connection between, say, bluegrass and drone.
DM Yeah, I mean bluegrass is probably less of my focus now. I would just consider myself a fan, but old-time music I’ve been very, very drawn to because it is just drone. Old-time music is just ambient music, but it has a beat. It’s very circular music, where you have the tune and you’re more or less just repeating the tune over and over again, with different variations thrown in. I like that. I’m at my happiest when I’m entering minute ten of a fiddle tune. It’s just so much fun for me to be able to sit down and give my brain over to it, and everything else sort of goes away. It’s a little like meditation, where you put yourself in a position to be open and then after little bit of time, you fall into it.
Will Stephenson is the culture editor of the Arkansas Times. He has also contributed to The FADER and Oxford American.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee