A Civic Introduction: Ben Roidl-Ward

Ben Roidl-Ward, bassoon, is a third year member of the Civic Orchestra.

Ben and I have known each other since undergrad at Oberlin College, so when the Civic Fellows were assigned the task of interviewing regular members to feature on the blog, I immediately knew I wanted to talk to Ben. He’s got a lot going on outside of Civic and I wanted to get a look at how some of his many projects got off the ground and where they are heading as he nears the end of his tenure in Civic and his DMA at Northwestern University.


Hannah Christiansen: Can we start off by talking about your independent project through Civic from last season?

Ben Roidl-Ward: Last year I applied for funding for Pushback Collective, which is a duo I have with Ally Smither, a soprano. We had gotten a grant from DCASE to commission four new pieces and the grant I applied for from Civic was to fund some concerts here, in Chicago, and also on the East Coast as a mini-tour of that program. We played it here, Toronto, Philly, NYC, Houston, and Boston. That was our first program as a duo so it was really amazing to have the funding to be able to support doing all of those things – we had to hire a string quartet for one of the pieces – and we pulled from a variety of funding sources. DCASE paid for the commission and Civic paid for our travel and Luminarts covered hiring the quartet.

HC: How did Pushback start? How did you and Ally get together and say, “let’s commission pieces for soprano and bassoon”?

BRW: Good question — Ally and I met at Rice. She’s one of the most inspiring people that I know, both as a musician and a human being. At Rice, she founded the student-run contemporary ensemble, Hear and Now.

HC: I didn’t know that!

BRW: Yeah! There was basically no contemporary music happening in a formal way there and Ally arrived and said, “this won’t do!” And then, basically, created this ensemble out of thin air together with Jerry Hou.

HC: That does sound like Ally.

BRW: Absolutely. So she was running that group–and I love new music–so when I got there, I became really involved with it and, my second year, I took over for her doing the logistics. At some point that year, we became much closer as friends and we really wanted to work together in a more intimate ensemble. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of works for soprano and bassoon.

HC: Were there any pre-existing works before you started commissioning?

BRW: You know, there were a couple. But part of the idea was to create a new repertoire and work with composers that we love. So that was kind of the inspiration for Pushback. As we were talking, we discovered a shared, overarching frustration that a lot of the music we play has a separation between what we do artistically and our real lives and those of our communities. Part of the idea of Pushback is that we invite composers to respond to cultural and social issues in the pieces that they’re writing for us. It’s not a political agenda, but we have gotten a lot of really positive responses from inviting composers to do that, and the results have taken a lot of different forms.

HC: Is that an open-ended invitation or do you usually give some direction in regard to topics?

BRW: Our mission statement is pretty broad, and we present it to the composers and go from there. A lot of the times this stuff takes the form of choosing text, since Ally is a singer and that can be a really powerful element. We got one piece that was cynically sarcastically hilarious and we have two pieces that are really introspective – one dealing with gender and transition and one dealing with personal trauma – I don’t know if these composers would have written these pieces if we hadn’t offered that space at the start. But it’s been a really rewarding experience to have composers give us something that personal. And they’re also just really great pieces.

We did our first program nine times in one year — that’s a really rare experience. I actually really like going on tour. It can be really frustrating to work so hard on a piece and work with a composer and then you premiere it and then…

HC: …and then it all goes away!

BRW: Exactly. But on tour you do a program and after a few times you’re like, yeah — now we know how to play this program. Let’s do it again! So much work goes into this stuff – writing the grant, getting the money, convincing the composers, working with them on the piece – I’m trying hard to perform things multiple times in my practice more often.

Ben Roidl-Ward and Ally Smither perform and tour as the Pushback Collective. Photo by Lynn Lane

HC: How do you usually find the process of working with composers?

BRW: It’s so widely varied. With Pushback, specifically, we had minimal back and forth with two of the composers — Theo Chandler sent me a draft and I sent him some feedback. But then with LJ, we sat down and he said, ‘oh show me some stuff,’ and we went from there.

At this point of our interview last winter, we were interrupted by turtle racing, as we had made the happy mistake of having this conversation at Big Joe’s on a race night. Jolanda, if you were wondering, is the slowest turtle in the world. Swisher won the race. 

BRW: I’m so happy to have gotten to experience my first turtle race.

HC: I am glad you got to witness it, but I also don’t remember what we were talking about.

BRW: Composers! Working with them…

HC: Right! Tell me about that process.

BRW: For example, I’m working with Luis Fernando Amaya right now. We just kind of hang out. We experiment a lot, and he’ll show you poetry and work really intimately. Then there are other composers that you don’t hear anything from and then, bam, there’s a score in your inbox. Especially with bassoon, some composers have no idea and some kind of know about the bassoon – I’ve lent my high school bassoon to a composer who’s writing for me right now so he can kind of see how it works. But it’s really all over the map, it’s a different process for every person. Composers have a much more varied interaction with music than performers, I think. It’s a really interesting perspective and I’ve learned a lot; it’s cool for me to see the different ways that they come to it and think about music and it’s pushed me to become more knowledgeable about what I do.

HC: How many people are writing for you right now?

BRW: I have no idea. A lot. I’m working with a bunch of people with varying degrees of quickness: Pushback has two pieces coming in March and three pieces over the winter; Isidora [Nojkovic, cello] and I have three pieces on the way right now; and I’m working with most of the Northwestern composers—who were there when I was completing coursework—on various solo and chamber projects. So, I’m working with a whole bunch of people at the same time.

HC: Is the stuff Pushback has coming for another tour? What’s next for Pushback?

BRW: We’re planning NYC and Chicago shows with the two new pieces and one pre-existing work, and we’re applying for grants for the three others. Once we have all five new works we’ll hit the road again. It’s a question of funding and scheduling mostly. Ally and I are both getting married or have recently gotten married this year so there are a lot of comings-and-goings, but it’s important to us to be semi-consistent about playing together to get more traction.

HC: How often do you get together to play since she’s in NYC and you’re in Chicago?

BRW: For our projects, we usually get together a few days before a concert. It’s difficult to find time and we have to be pretty efficient. But that’s the reality of most projects I’ve been involved in, which I’m sure you sympathize with.

HC: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

BRW: It’s unfortunate because I love rehearsing – when you have a chance to really rehearse, it’s great. But this ends up being mostly, rehearse really intensely for two days and then do a show. I’ve learned to be better about preparing for that – it takes a different set of skills to be able to line things up that quickly. I have a lot of duos and it’s very different with each set of duos because our relationships and the instrument tendencies are different.

HC: Why so many duos specifically?

BRW: You just get to know each other and each other’s playing so well – in a way it’s my favorite part of any of this. You get close with these people in a way that’s really special in a direct and reciprocal way. I love playing in orchestra, sincerely, but it’s different. It’s like, I love the sense of being overwhelmed. But with duos, I love the feeling of really relying on someone and really trusting that person and having them also give you that back.

HC: How did Wolftone start, your duo with Will Overcash (violin)?

BRW: We were really good friends at Oberlin and then, after our first year at Rice, we went to Spoleto together and hung out a whole bunch. Zach Sheets was also there and we asked him to write for us – and he said yes – and then we figured we couldn’t just play one piece, so we talked to Peter Kramer and he wrote us a piece, and Judy Jackson wrote us a piece, and Rice helped us fund those commissions and those tours. This is one of the most logistically challenging projects I have because Will lives in Frankfurt, but when he comes home, we do stuff. We’ll be playing in Europe in the fall, and it’s such a special project that it’s worth [the effort] to make it work.

Ben Roidl-Ward and Will Overcash perform as the group WolfTone.

HC: How often does Ritual Action, your reed trio, do things?

BRW: That one’s super random. Our clarinetist, Andy Hudson, got a job in North Carolina recently so I kind of thought it was dead, but then we were hanging out recently and our oboist, Andy Nogal, just sat down and said, “here’s where we should do residencies and here’s a list of composers we should talk to” and now we have a residency at SUNY-Fredonia in two weeks. It’s sporadic but it’s nice to have a rewarding and satisfying thing that isn’t very high pressure. Andy Nogal and I also have a wind quintet.

HC: I didn’t know that! Tell me about the quintet.

BRW: We are the Chicago Wind Project. Andy started that group. He has a clear idea of what’s important to him, and music that he cares about, and I love working with him.

HC: Very cool! And you have another duo, right, with your fiancée Isidora? How did that come about?

BRW: It’s not because we’re getting married that we’re doing it. We just really wanted to play together. There’s really good music for bassoon and cello. We started playing together fairly early in our relationship which can be dangerous. But for us we had a pipe dream of doing artist residence programs in national parks, so we wanted to record some stuff for that. From there we figured, let’s play a show, so we did a mini-tour in NYC and Tacoma and Vancouver, and did a thing with New Music Chicago, and it went from there. It’s been a nice synergy of us enjoying playing together and there being good rep and composers who were interested in writing for us. We already have premiered three new pieces with two more on the way. It’s all a bit complicated right now because she’s Canadian and we’re waiting for her Green Card, so we’re kind of on hold for that, but we love playing together. It’s definitely an interesting experiment to collaborate like that with your partner — do you and Casey (Karr, Civic double bass alum 2015-17) ever play together?

HC: Yeah, actually, we played together a lot when we were at Northwestern. Less now that he’s in Houston, just because of logistics. But playing together works well for us, we’re both pretty direct people.

BRW: For sure – it’s hard to find people you work well with in that setting because you have to be very supportive but very critical and you have be comfortable voicing your opinion. I have strong opinions and, in general, tend to voice them. And Isidora has very strong opinions and she’s a very direct person. We are very respectful of each other in that setting which I appreciate. That’s the key – it’s different than if Will and I have a fight in a rehearsal. He’s gonna go back to Germany! But with Isidora, we take care to make sure that stuff is separate from our personal lives. And, again, we play together it when our schedules allow it – it’s not something we need to  do all the time, we’re not trying to become a 501c3 or anything like that.

HC: Are any of your groups 501c3?

BRW: Nope! None of us has ever felt full-time enough to go through the process, but it’s a challenge because not being one limits funding options. We’re all vagabond sole proprietors.

The funny thing about all of this is that I didn’t realize until partway through Oberlin that you can just email someone and they’ll let you play in their venue! And sometimes they’ll give you money for it, or write music for it, and that’s really cool. I usually don’t make much money out of it – the last time Wolftone toured was the first time that I came out ahead. Will and I were both shocked.

HC: If you’re coming off a tour not in debt, that’s when you know you’ve made it.

BRW: Absolutely. One hundred percent.

Find Ben and his projects on social media:

  • @benroidlward
  • @aviaryduo
  • @pushbacksounds
  • @ritualaction

* This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

By Civic Fellow and violin Hannah Christiansen

TOP | Third-year Civic Orchestra bassoon Ben Roidl-Ward performs on the contrabassoon during a February 2020 performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.  | Photo by Todd Rosenberg