John Bence uses music to probe the deepest recesses of the human psyche. Over a handful of releases the composer has already built up a striking body of work bound by an incredible clarity of vision. His elegiac works occupy an omnivorous sound-world, assimilating elements of British avant-garde and electronic music, classical tradition and sacred medieval song into cavernous, sepulchral compositions. Early releases for Nicholas Jaar’s Other People imprint and Yves Tumor’s label Grooming were engulfed in overwhelming emotion. Struggles with alcoholism and addiction found their outlet in brooding chamber atmospheres and caustic eruptions of choral aggression on the macabre Kill EP. Love forms the final chapter in a trio of works with Kill and Disquiet that chart Bence’s experiences with addiction and his subsequent journey to recovery. Returning to his first love, the piano, Bence explores the instrument’s deeply emotional qualities in ten movements. Love’s stark minimalism and raw production reflect the composer's personal struggles with striking honesty, searching for the deeper meaning in human suffering.
Love was Bence’s first release written in sobriety. He explains: “After finally getting sober in January 2018, even thinking about composing anything but works for solo piano seemed too big of a job. I was so emotionally raw without the booze, I just hunched over the keyboard, sober eighteen months, until Love was born”. Bence would sit and improvise at the piano for hours at a time, layering individual voices that he would meticulously arrange into movements. Through careful editing Bence imbued Love’s skeletal architectures with an incredible amount of sonic detail. Single phrases or even notes would often be recorded over and over again until Bence achieved the perfect resonance. Each movement makes powerful use of silence and space. Frenzied runs and rumbling clouds of bass tones crumble into sparse chords and single notes reverberating out into the darkness. Love’s free-flowing structure and unvarnished textures present Bence at his most open and vulnerable, giving the impression of being sat at the piano with him through those trepidatious first steps into a sober life.
Bence’s approach to writing is deeply intuitive. Music was virtually a second language that he learned from birth. The composer grew up surrounded by music in his family home: his father working with synths and drum machines in one room, his sister studying oboe and cor anglais in the next, while his mother played piano, cello, bass guitar, trumpet and sang downstairs. Bence also deeply immersed himself in Bristol’s underground electronic music scene from a young age, working at a dubplate cutting studio and being a regular punter at dances. These disparate influences were subconsciously ingested and filtered through the composer’s own experiences. Returning to the piano on Love, Bence’s world feels particularly instinctive and emotional. Years of intensive listening and powerful emotional experiences guide his fingers across the keys. Oblique titles for movements hint at specific places and memories while shrouding the details in sombre piano progressions. Individual motifs recur and mutate throughout, giving a subtle sense of narrative structure.
Writing Love was as much a spiritual journey for Bence as a creative one. Through those difficult first months of sobriety, considering alcohol was no longer being used, music was now the only tool to escape and reach ecstatic states. Bence’s subsequent worldview following his recovery draws on a Sun Ra-esque philosophy of sound as a means of psychic healing and a gateway to higher states of consciousness. Love represents his ongoing search for balance between silence and sound, dissonance and consonance, chaos and order, and an embrace of difficult experiences as a necessary part of the journey towards healing and spiritual enlightenment. Each piece, each note interrupting the calm of silence stands as a reminder of obstacles overcome and the necessary inner work each of us must go through. Love marks a key milestone in Bence’s personal life and music, the composer turning away from the darkness and towards enlightenment.