Born in Pennsylvania, Ben Zucker lived in Berkeley, New England, and London before moving to Chicago for a graduate composition program at Northwestern University. He was excited to come here to study because he’d been a longtime fan of the city’s rich, varied musical scenes, including the jazz stalwarts in the AACM and the adventurous rock bands that have defined Chicago indie labels Thrill Jockey and Drag City. Zucker’s music has a similarly ambitious spirit. In 2017 he composed a work for cello and objects titled QOWOOOPO, inspired by the browser game QWOP; in 2019 he released a vocal piece titled Semiramide Riconosciuta (An Archaeology), inspired by queen Shammuramat of the Neo-Assyrian Empire; and earlier this year he wrote music for a puppet show by Chicago-based director and puppet artist Jaerin Son titled Dogs or Cats; Augmented Body.
On his 2021 album Demiurgent (on local label Fallen Moon), Zucker adds studio manipulations to material culled from live improvisations and field recordings. The title’s reference to a “demiurge”—a term ancient Greek philosophers used to describe the creator of the world—foreshadows the spectacle of the music. In “Cereltan,” soft percussive tones appear amid shapeshifting ambience like stars glistening in a night sky; in the pensive, brooding “Edicroes,” the way electric noise and wavering electronics feed off each other feels like a cycling of life and death. Zucker’s most recent studio release, this spring’s Having Becames, is centered on meditative drones built from single-take vibraphone recordings, and on a couple tracks he placed tack and modeling clay on the tone bars to alter their sound, creating something subdued and graceful.
On September 30, Zucker releases Semiterritory (Ears & Eyes), a stirring live recording by his experimental jazz quartet, Fifth Season, but that won’t affect his performance at Constellation. He’s presenting a doctoral recital showcasing four different works based on his dissertation, joined by ten musicians—including vocalist Julian Otis, clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, and violist Johanna Brock—and adding his own trumpet, vibraphone, and electronics. Zucker’s dissertation interrogates the idea of “openness” involved in compositions featuring indeterminacy and improvisation. Two of the pieces he’ll present are larger ensemble works where the music will change based on performers’ observations of their own and others’ playing. The other two are part of a new series in which notation will be read and then reread with what he calls “changing conditions of interpretation.” That open structure speaks to Zucker’s curiosity, which will be on full display at this vital concert.
Ben Zucker Sun 10/9 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+