Notes with Bryan

If I set out to describe all of the ways that my friend Bryan Benner inspires me, this would be a very long winded article. With so many interesting projects up his sleeve, a finely-spun musical sensitivity, and a knack for hooking the crowd, it’s probably best if you just experience him live when you get the chance. It’s easiest if you’re ever in Vienna, you can catch one of his Late Night Liederabends, or see one of his groups perform in his home base. Or visit him on the road–links are posted at the end.


(Bryan Benner, photo by Peter Blau)

So, in light of the dreaded election tomorrow, Bryan and I exchanged emails over the last few weeks. We discussed being Americans living in Europe, observing the election from afar, upcoming projects, and whatever else came up along the way. I’m not sure if we reached any major conclusions, but it was definitely a better way to pass the time than imagining a world where Donald Trump is president. Maybe it can do the same for you.

October 22, 3:23pm, Lucy Van Cleef:

Hi Bryan!

I’m getting ready for our last show in Cottbus next week. I’ll be sad when it’s over–it was a really good one. I usually get close to the dancers in a production, but this was different. There was no competition between people, just a group of really dedicated dancers who worked really hard to put on a show together. I’m going to miss that.

I sent in my ballot on Monday. It’s interesting, in Berlin I only talk to people who agree how bogus the idea of Trump becoming president is. I see the debates and the heated Facebook arguments, but it’s hard to really accept any of it when everyone around you agrees with you all the time. Is it the same in Vienna? It’s interesting that everyone wants to talk about it, though.

You’re coming to Berlin in November, right? I’m sorry I’m going to miss it. It would be nice to catch up, and to see the Erlkings perform. What do you like about performing with the group vs. performing solo? Do you have any other projects coming up soon?

October 23, 11:23am, Bryan Benner:

Dear Lucy,

It’s always a pleasure to hear from you! I’m doing well and working on lots of things at once, as usual. Perhaps most exciting for me this week was a road trip to Germany to visit the guitar factory of classical guitar builder Armin Hanika. He gave me a private tour of his incredible workshop and then I got to choose an instrument after trying all the different models they make. I found the perfect instrument to match my voice and playing style and I’m still glowing from what an incredible experience it was. Seeing the workshop was an impressive reminder of how closely intertwined artistry and craftsmanship can be. Very inspiring!

Totally by chance I’ll be flying to America next month for a recording project and will be in Florida, my home state, for the elections. I have already voted by mail (my first time and a surprisingly easy process) but it’s been over 12 years since I was in America for a presidential election. The whole election season has of course been a dirty, shocking mess for the whole world but as it is drawing to a close I am encouraged by some aspects of it. Never before has a candidate been elected as the potential antidote to such a horrible sickness trying to take over the country. For better or for worse, the support of Clinton and the condemnation of the ideology of Trump feels like white blood cells rushing to attack an invader and save the body. The depressing thing is how long it’s taken those white blood cells to be active and do their job. On top of that, shifting the spotlight to the most fearful and depraved part of our collective American consciousness as represented through a man like Donald Trump has forced our country to take a much needed, serious look in the mirror. I’m hopeful that many of us will follow Michael Jackson’s advice and use this time as an opportunity to make some changes in ourselves and the world around us. I see it happening already.

I’ll be sorry to miss you in Berlin but I’m hoping to be performing more and more in Germany next year, so we’ll catch up soon. To answer your last two questions, I’ve been discovering more and more that I am a social musician and I really enjoy having company on the stage. And finally, yes! Plenty of new projects on the go. Perhaps most exciting is a potential TV show based here in Austria. I’ll tell you more about it soon.
Big Love,

Bryan Benner with Aljaz Begus, photo by Andrej Grilc

October 26, 5:56pm, Lucy Van Cleef:

Hi Bryan!
Your trip to the guitar maker sounds amazing. I picture a tiny house in a tiny village, with smoke curling out of the chimney and a fire crackling when you go through the front door…and you meet this man who doesn’t say much, just places different instruments into your hands for you to try out. You can tell by the way his brow furrows or raises whether it’s the right one.

But how was it really?  What does the perfect Bryan instrument sound like? Was it an obvious decision, or did you get overwhelmed by indecision about two hours in like I probably would have?

A ballet dancer has a similar type of attachment to her pointe shoes. They’re handmade by people in workshops in England, and we all have our preferences for which makers we like, and what specifications we want. I like “maltese cross” best, but there’s an endless waiting list, so I usually get “club” or “trident” instead. Finding the right fit takes a lot of trial and error. The difference is, we can never be dependent on a single pair, because they wear out too quickly. So I have to feel secure with the specs (know that the shoe is supportive in the toe, pushing forward in the right places, and have a pretty good idea of how it will wear down), and the rest is up to me, not the shoe. Does an instrument break in too?

At this point I just want the whole thing to be over. I like that you referenced Michael Jackson, and I think you’re right. People are awful to each other. We need to be nicer. That’s all.

I can identify to being a “social performer” in terms of working with a group during rehearsals, and getting the show ready. But performing for me is a very personal action. I’m aware of the other people on stage, and of the audience watching, but I’m too caught up translating what’s going on inside of me to do any real socializing. Maybe that’s dangerous and unproductive. It’s possible that not everything comes across that way. It’s just what seems to happen.

Nice that you’re going home. What are you recording?

November 1, 3:33pm, Bryan Benner:

Dear Lucy,

The little guitar factory I visited wasn’t quite as romantic as what you described. It was more like a bizarre mix of cutting edge technology and machines mixed with several hundred-year-old hand crafting techniques. One of the coolest things though was a system that gathers all of the saw dust and wood chips in the entire factory and compresses them into wood blocks which they use to feed the furnace and heat the workshop throughout the winter. That was very impressive.

A perfect Bryan guitar is a versatile one. I play so many different styles, from Schubert to Jazz and everything in-between, so I need an instrument that can hold up under each one. I also like a loud guitar so it can been heard clearly when I’m singing loudly over it. Most importantly, it has to have an enchanting sound that makes me want to sit down and play for hours. That’s the only way I ever end up writing or getting any “work” done.

I had no idea there were so many preferences involved in pointe shoes. The way you describe them reminds me of oboe players who build their own reeds and carry around a box of tools where ever they go. Again, I love it when artistry and craftsmanship come together.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed about the election I guess. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Austria has an equally tight election coming up so as soon as America’s is over I have to worry about this one. Not a great time to be a foreigner, pretty much anywhere right now. Although to be brutally honest, being a white male with two higher education degrees puts me in an unfairly safe position compared to most people who are fearing for their residency at the moment. It’s a weird feeling to be disgusted by the injustice of that fact, but also comforted by the unearned advantages I have in our society. Still not sure how to feel about it.

Flying home on Thursday to see some family in Florida and then on to San Francisco to take part in a recording project for Kundalini Yoga music. Should be interesting to say the least.
P.S. Are you and Johannes still collaborating on anything?

photo by Andrej Grilc

November 7, 9:47am, Lucy Van Cleef:

Dear Bryan,
I found this short video about pointe shoe makers. There are more in-depth ones, but this gives you an idea of the amount of work that goes into making our shoes. It’s enough to make my eyes well up.

A lot happened last week, none of which I can officially talk about yet, but it involves a very cool translation job, an infrequently performed Bernstein opera, and a spontaneous trip to Stockholm to be part of what I consider to be ballet history. I realize I’m being both elusive and self-promotional, but I’m very excited, so this is my way of shouting from the rooftops, for now.

I’ll be in Stockholm during the election, but I’m sure it won’t stop me from hearing the results. Can you vote in the Austrian election also? I can’t in Germany. There’s a fair amount of the same nonsense going on here too though, people voting for the scary party.

We’re a strange bunch, the gypsy globe trotters. I love living with the feeling that everything is possible–that as long as I try to contribute creatively to the world, everything will be okay. I know that I’m naive, but that’s how I don’t get too bogged down to get out of bed in the morning. I also plan on writing some comprehensive advice on obtaining a freelance or artist visa to live in Germany, just in case my experience could help anyone else looking for a change.

I would be very happy to buy your yoga CD when it’s ready–I never feel like I have good enough music for my yoga classes. On that note, Johannes was listening to your Erlkings CD the other day to talk to you about programming, and we agreed that “Der König von Thule” is our favorite.

I loved doing the lieder project with Johannes! We prepared it over a week in May at his family’s cabin in the Austrian Alps, pushing furniture out of the way to scoot around on the carpet. We were lucky to work with Deirdre in Vienna, and are trying to find some locations in Berlin where we could do something similar. It’s very easy to work with him. He’s open to everything and commits himself completely to what he’s doing. And it’s nice to dance with such beautiful music filling up my head. I know I’m in love and everything, but that’s the way it is. Thank you for the opportunity to gush about him.

In about a week I fly to New York for two months. I haven’t been home for that long since moving to Europe, and only a few times in the years before that. We’re working at my sister’s booth at the Union Square Christmas market, and I’ll be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Again, a first in a while.

Thanks for doing this exchange with me dear Bryan! I loved it! Feel free to respond if you like, but I’d like to get it out by tomorrow to keep things relevant. Fingers crossed that people do the right thing tomorrow. I’ll cry and cry if not.

Could we maybe do this again sometime?

Big hug,

Learn more about Bryan here:

Bryan Benner Music

The Erlkings

Bryan Benner and the Poolboys

Late Night Liederabend

Der König von Thule-clip

Good morning Europe-clip

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