🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  👑

On Ben Caplan's new album

(I found this half-written essay on my hard drive this morning, dated 2021-10-24, and am posting it as is-is.)

It feels like it was a decade ago, now, but it’s really only been a couple of years since I first heard of Ben Caplan. It was in fall 2019, on the day that the box office opened for the season, when I bought two tickets to see Bobby McFerrin at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall. I had thought for sure that someone would want to come with me; but then, what did I know? We were engineering students, young and overworked, and it was a tough sell. A few days before the concert I called the box office back to exchange the second ticket. “What would you like to see instead?” she asked. I scrolled through the website, and chose arbitrarily to see Ben Caplan’s musical “Old Stock.”

I think about that moment a lot, the serendipity of it all. It was as if that phone call partitioned time; there was a pre-Caplan and a post-Caplan period. Caplan’s voice stuck by my side after the concert — how could it not? It echoed in my mind through the exams and the papers that December, through the great pandemic evacuation, through the summer of protests and the election that fall. I streamed his virtual performances while filling out my graduate school applications in the winter; my apartmentmates played “Student Song” the night before we graduated that spring. Then we dispersed to our futures.

What strikes me about Caplan’s new album, recollection (reimagined), is how forwardly it seeks to capture what it meant to be alive in that moment — how deftly it translates, or, in its own language, reimagines, past into present. The album is, for example, so thoroughly an album recorded during a pandemic. “On a night like tonight, when there’s no one around,” it begins, calling out into a lonely world. It’s just Ben there, his voice and his instrument. Of course, you can attribute some or even all of the album’s nature to the pragmatics of the moment — Caplan himself admits in interviews that he designed this album knowing that recording with other musicians would impossible for some time to come — but I think there is more here, something that transcends the barefaced loneliness of a pandemic, something Caplan himself may not have intended or even realized as he re-recorded these tracks by himself.

Listen, for example, to the first thirty seconds of “Under Control” (2015), and after that listen to “Under Control - reimagined” (2021). You don’t need to have lived through 2020 to know that something has happened in the world inhabited by the artist. The bursting, volcanic “Under Control” of 2015 gives way to something unsettlingly subdued in 2020 — not gentle, not hesitant, just… subdued. Is it just the absence of an ensemble to support him? I don’t think so, I think it’s more visceral than that, the feeling captured more definitely in presences than in absences. You can hear it, for example, in the acoustics: when I put on my headphones and close my eyes, I hear Caplan singing over a PA system at an abandoned fairground, the amplifier’s electronics straining to deliver his rumbling voice. Is it just me? What, if not a carousel machine, could play the interlude at 1:47, the fill at 3:00, painted horses without children going round and round, pre-programmed major tones haunted into minor ones by the overwhelming forces of a dark, rotting world? In the 2015 version, a men laugh and cheer in the background; call and response; though there may be tragedy, it is at least shared. In the 2021 version, there is no laugh, there is no one to laugh — on a night like tonight, when there’s no one around.

Part of me wants to accept this album as a consequence of the world we share with Caplan: one that is responding to censorship, algorithmic unaccountability, the attention economy, vaccine denial, the wavering of democracy in the face of authoritarianism, and such — one where voices singing for ideals of liberty, compassion and justice are indeed left muted and bound. It’s a consequence of the frustration of not being heard — not only in the practical pandemic sense of having no physical audience, but also in the darker sense of the weariness of being an artist at all in this moment — the amplifier’s electronics crackling faintly, alone, long, long after the carnival has dispersed for the night — speaking, singing, howling hopelessly into the darkness — and knowing that at the end of the show, even those who caught snatches and echoes of the song from the street will stumble back home to their daily horrors the next morning, whether it be out of necessity, conviction, or cruelty.

But then, I’m reminded that there is also something else to softness. Listening to Caplan in 2021, I can’t help but think of a Renaissance painting, Valentin de Boulogne’s Samson (1631). The mighty biblical hero sits gentle in the painting’s frame, his delicate posture intensified by the crushing strength he refrains from using in that moment. Samson’s little finger brushes with care a chin that it could, no doubt, shatter in an instant. Caplan’s voice brushes our ears the same way, don’t you think? After all, isn’t it Caplan himself who, itching to roar, instead restrains, as if to say — “hold on, hold on, hold on”?

When I was young my piano teacher told me it was harder to play softly than to play loudly. At first, this advice seemed to defy my understanding of physics; surely you needed to work harder to produce more sound, I thought. Yet in time I realized that she was right. Producing a soft sound from a piano key requires far more precision and skill than producing the loudest possible sound. I think this is Caplan’s teaching in this album. It is easy to be angry, to expend one’s power thundering and bellowing into the darkness. It is easy also to look away in apathy, to conclude that outrage is the business of the lawyer, the senator, the journalist, and thus to retreat into your own daily comfort and sleep through the storm. But here’s what Caplan pulls off in this album: he sings a lullaby that banishes sleep entirely.

Valentin de Boulogne, Samson