Berlin-based Ben Lukas Boysen is a sound designer, pianist, composer and producer who has recorded 10 albums of ambient, IDM and glitch music since 2003 as Hecq. He has also scored for cinema and recently collaborated with composer and multi-instrumentalist Sebastian Plano on “Everything”, the soundtrack to the eponymous simulation game. Classically trained on piano and guitar, his 2013 solo début Gravity under his own name signalled a return to his classical roots.
Released on 10 June 2016 last, Spells is the follow up to Gravity which was re-released on Erased Tapes on the same day as Spells. Mirage came out on 1 May 2020, still on Erased Tapes. While Spells and Mirage were recorded four years apart, the two recordings mirror each other in the way the sound designer approached composition.
The premise of Spells was to collide the “controllable technical world” of the digital studio environment with the spontaneity of improvisation with acoustic instruments – namely classical harp (Lara Somogyi), cello (Anton Peisakhov) and drums (Achim Färber).
In other words, Spells is not only a sound collage blending programmed piano with live music, it is also a reflection on the role of musicians – as humans – in a digital and electronic environment. “Strictly applying analogue techniques and refusing any computer animations or effects”, video artist Susi Sie’s abstract visualisation for the track Keep Watch highlights the contention of the record. When does the digital manipulation start in a meditative track featuring cello and a classical chord progression? Is it even perceptible?
There is a nocturnal motif running throughout the song titles and overall mood with the classically-themed “Nocturne 3 and 4” of course completing the cycle initiated on Gravity or with “Golden Times I & 2” and “Selene”. Yet, even though Spells might sound at times like a piano-based modern classical album, no physical piano was ever used during the recording process. There lies the major paradox at the heart of the album.
A richly textured and layered album drenched in electronic beats, Mirage features a wider range of guest musicians, namely Lisa Morgenstern and Tom Adams on vocals, Anne Müller on cello, Daniel Thorne on saxophone, Niall Cowley on piano, Steffen Zimmer on flugelhorn, Maria Todtenhaupt on harp and Achim Färber on drums. Yet, both vocal and instrumental parts are treated in such a way they become unrecognizable. “I wanted to experiment with blending these recordings with 100% artificial elements” says the electronic musician, “often to points where an instrument becomes an abstraction of what it was and the musicians’ presence in the song is much more of an important DNA string in the song rather than an obvious layer”.
Also illustrated by an abstract 3D animation inspired by the visual language of video games, both the cover artwork and the official video for the track “Medela” blur the lines between reality and digital animation, thus creating “various delusions of the real world, a mirage so to speak” in the words of visual designer Torsten Posselt.
What perhaps sets Ben Lukas Boysen’s music apart is the remarkably wide range of references points and influences informing both albums. As the work of an electro-acoustic musician built around keyboards, Nils Frahm springs to mind of course – Spells was mixed and mastered in Nils Frahm former Durton studios. An alternative version of “Sleepers Beat Theme” was also endorsed by English electronic musician Jon Hopkins as the opening track on his 2015 Late Night Tales compilation.
In various interviews, the musician has quoted J.S Bach, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arvo Pärt, Pauline Oliveros, Boards of Canada or Autechre among many others as eclectic influences on his compositional style. As well as that, Ben Lukas Boysen pinpoints his use of cascading motifs on the classical harp throughout Spells to Italian harpist Cecilia Chailly’s playing on German composer Hans Otte’s “Wassermannmusik” suite on the 1995 “Aquarian Music”. And German dark ambient and downtempo band Bohren & der Club of Gore somewhat underscore the latent contemplative melancholia of both Spells and Mirage. There is perhaps also a nod to the early music of Jean Michel Jarre on tracks like “Empyrean” and “Medela”.
“A lot of the elements and instruments you hear on the album are either not what you think they are, or exactly what you think they are but behave differently or they’re elements you definitely know but they are hidden, processed, or morphed into something else. With Spells and Gravity I was trying to hide the machines. On Mirage, I’m trying to hide the human” Ben Lukas Boysen
Irrespective of both album’s conceptual underpinnings, Spells and Mirage are majestic and expansive productions with a vibrant sound. The live – unprocessed – drums emerge as the heartbeat of both albums. And with its soaring vocal parts, Mirage’s near-operatic closing track “Love” is full of humanity.