“Double Alaska” opens with Ben Seretan standing alone in an abandoned steam-power plant. The guitarist tunes his instrument, steps on a pedal, and a warm drone sounds out. The screen shifts to a series of images he shot on a handheld camcorder over the course of seven weeks in southeast Alaska: waterfalls, sunsets, lakes, mountaintops.
The film, which premiered at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last month, consists of two half-hour instrumentals that Seretan edited down from no less than 70 hours of freeform improvisation.
Seretan plays what he calls “long music” — largely improvised, repetitive songs that extend beyond the temporal limitations of physical media and performance norms and create something approximating a habitable auditory space, with an emphasis on sustained tones. He’s fond of saying that if heaven exists, he wants to find it with delay pedals (“find” being the operative word).Seretan is 25 and carries himself with an earnest jocundity that makes you either like or distrust him immediately. Perhaps it depends on your mood — it seems unlikely Seretan is ever in a bad one. As a kid growing up in Orange County, Seretan sang in the church choir and played cello. One particularly hot summer, the cello’s neck snapped, and had to be sent to a shop for lengthy repairs. In the interim, Seretan’s older brother by ten years, Mike, let him borrow his electric guitar. “Immediate change of interest in music,” he says. “Here was a thing that could make insane noises that I could control — dirty, non-precious, with no sheet music.”
Seretan traces his interest in ambient, meditative music to his college years at Wesleyan University, where he was turned on to a wide variety of experimental music, from black metal to psychedelic noise rock to Indonesian gamelan music. His ears, he says, were “totally spongey back then.” Most influential were the American minimalist composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, who sparked Seretan’s interest in “doing something lengthy, that had no beginning and no end, and was something people could immerse themselves in.”
Following a move to New York and the breakup of his college band, Duchampion, Seretan decided he wanted to try and play solo. At his first show, as he stepped to the microphone to sing his first note, he was electrocuted. In a TED talk he gave in Sitka this summer, Seretan called this his “Newton’s apple” moment: “I realized I’d been going about it the wrong way. What music has always afforded me is access to a type of happiness — an unreal state of affairs that can’t always be accessed in day-to-day life.” To commemorate the moment, he had the words “Ecstatic Joy” tattooed across his chest in lightning-bolt font. “It’s the most accurate two-word phrase I’ve found to describe what I’m after,” he says.
Watch Seretan’s trippy version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”
Tully McLoughlin, facilitator of the Sitka Fellowship that led to “Double Alaska,” says Seretan is a true original. “His deep knowledge of music, his attraction to a range of twentieth-century styles, and his ability to adapt to the inspiration of the moment all contribute to making his music one-of-a-kind,” he told us.
After Seretan returned from Alaska, he worked with Kunal Gupta, one of the co-founders of the Brooklyn DIY venue and arts collective Silent Barn, on a set of performances called the Sunrise Concert Series. Gupta, who lives in an apartment above the Barn, says that one of the valuable aspects of the Silent Barn’s space is that it can “adequately host residencies,” allowing for some play with the notion of “living is art.” His apartment features a large skylight that he noticed “could make for a pretty important music moment.”
After kicking around the idea of hosting early morning shows, Gupta read an inquiry, posted by Seretan from Alaska, about doing a four-day long sunrise performance series in New York. “That just matched up with my skylight idea,” Gupta says. It also aligned with his interest in taking advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by the Silent Barn’s status as a mixed-zone commercial and artist-in-residence building. The shows were booked for September 18th through the 22nd and began each morning around 6:15 a.m. Afterward, Gupta served breakfast. Seretan played the first morning, and acted as Gupta’s co-host for the remainder of the series.
“It’s the residential area of Silent Barn that is somewhat underutilized at this current phase, and I’m just happy Ben Seretan wanted to come work with me to make a little bit of motion in there,” Gupta says. “I don’t know him really outside this series at all, but it’s been extremely wonderful working with him. He basically just seems like a straightforward, energetic, unbounded hard worker on beautiful projects — there’s a certain kinship in there that feels great.”
Hear excerpts from Seretan’s sunrise series.
The notion of place is important to Seretan, in more ways than one. “When the music is playing, I as a performer and, hopefully, the audience, can enter a shared, sanctimonious space delineated by the tones leaking out of my amp,” Seretan says. “It’s a mirror for one’s mental and/or emotional state.”
It may be tempting to roll your eyes at all this unfailing earnestness, but in the moments spent listening to Seretan’s music, any latent cynicism slides off, and what you’re left feeling is…anything, really. Calmness, despair, euphoria, tiredness—the point of Seretan’s music is to allow yourself the mental space to just slow down for a bit. It works in the same way as yoga, or meditation, or simply sitting still on the train and thinking of nothing. Oftentimes, your feelings well up and surprise you.