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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Join Crimson Arts staff writers Rhea L. Acharya ‘25 and Karen Z. Song ‘25 as they speak to Harvard students about the ways that art affects their daily lives.
This week, we spoke to Ben J. Dreier ‘22.5, a Computer Science concentrator and musician. Our conversation ranged from his role as Music Director for the Harvard Opportunes, to the many instruments he plays for fun, to how he uses Spotify to find new music. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
RLA: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
BJD: My name is Ben. I’m a first-semester senior in Dunster. I study computer science and I have a secondary in linguistics. All of the extracurriculars I do are different music things. Between CS and music, those are the two things I do on campus. I’m from Connecticut — right outside New Haven, to be accurate — in Woodbridge.
KZS: Tell us about music. What kind of music do you like? What kind of instruments?
BJD: I am a multi-instrumentalist, and I’m a singer. Bass guitar is my main instrument at this point, but I also play guitar, piano, and a little bit of drums too, mostly just on my own time. I have my first guitar gig this semester, where I’m actually playing in front of other people. But mostly that’s just been sort of on the side. I’ve played bass in a couple of bands over the years and in paid orchestras — both really fun.
And I sing. The main sort of time commitment is my a cappella group, the Harvard Opportunes. I’m the music director for them this year.
RLA: What does that role entail?
BJD: It’s one of the three leadership roles of the club. There’s some amount of logistical work, organizing our concerts and organizing everyone. In the day to day, I lead all the rehearsals, and I’m in charge of the musical oversight of the group, so I try to hone our sound. I oversee the arrangements that we make.
I’m not the only person who makes arrangements. We have a bunch of people in the group who basically compose for the Opportunes with arrangements of songs and I help people out with that and oversee them. And then, once they’re actually done, I help with the interpretation of them. I run the rehearsal, so people can learn them off the page…I conduct, too, and make musical decisions about what songs we’re going to sing in the semester, after a long deliberation process, which is fairly democratic.
KZS: Most people kind of just stick with one instrument, but you play like a whole band. How did you get into that? Was there one instrument that you started out with and then you decided to try more things or was it just like you wanted to try them all at once?
BJD: The first instrument I ever played was piano, which I played for two years when I was in first and second grade. I hated it. I quit, and I was like, “I’m never going to play that ever again.” I picked up upright bass from fourth grade, until the end of high school. That was my main instrument for a really long time. I think upright sort of brought me to bass guitar. I was in one of my upright bass lessons in eighth grade and my teacher at the time was a very cool, laid back guy and told me, “Man, upright’s cool but I got to college and picked up a bass guitar one time and I’m telling you I never went back.” And I was like, “That’s insane. Why would you ever put down an upright bass?” And then I picked up a bass guitar for the first time junior year of high school and he was right.
It’s a lot more fun and that sort of sparked my curiosity. I liked messing around with it a lot more than I liked messing around with my upright, it felt less like work. It kind of unlocked for me that music can be something … that I do for myself that I enjoy, just because making music is fun. So that sort of got me to guitar. I started messing around with guitar and piano sort of at the same time. That was a really long and brutal learning process of just trying things, watching YouTube tutorials, playing a lot and sounding bad for a long time because I still never have really had lessons on either of them. I’ve played so much that I sort of figured out my own ways of playing that I really enjoy.
RLA: That’s so cool. How do you think your relationship with music-making has changed since you came to Harvard?
BJD: It’s so different. In high school, I was an orchestra kid through and through. I was in an a capella group my last few years of high school, so that was a little hint of how I think about music now. But in college I think music is just so much more collaborative. It’s so much more dynamic. I have sort of this one long, steady gig which is the Opportunes, which I’ve been in since the first week of my freshman year. It’s defined my college experience in a lot of ways. Then every other musical thing I do is pretty transient. It’s something that lasts for a semester or even for a few weeks. Someone calls me up and they’re like, “Hey, we’re putting together this band for one performance. Do you want to play bass?” We’re all putting in an equal amount of creative energy and it’s a big collaboration. It’s exactly what we want it to be.
I just have a lot more fun with music in college now. Both in how I get to work with other people and make connections through music, make new friends, and also just play the stuff that I really want to play.
KZS: That’s great. What would you say is your favorite gig that you’ve done while at Harvard?
BJD: It might be YardFest. I played YardFest my first year with a band I was in at the time. That was a really cool opportunity with a big crowd. I’m not sure if that’s actually my favorite gig. That’s just like what’s supposed to be my favorite gig … I think my actual favorite gig is one I did with bass with the same band. It was actually a year later. It was my sophomore year in 2020.
It was the week that everyone was leaving campus and it was a crazy time. We had five days between getting an email from Larry Bacow saying everyone has to go home and then everyone actually going home. So, the Quincy Faculty Deans hosted an event at the very top of Quincy, the penthouse. A huge number of people showed up to that. They have a really loud speaker system that we plugged into and the energy was my favorite energy of any show I’ve played. Everyone was into it because they were sad that we were leaving college for an indeterminate period of time. That means that there was just so much buy in and so much willingness to take part in rocking out. It was cool.
RLA: Going off of that, how do you think the pandemic and quarantine affected your music?
BJD: Well, it’s definitely a lot harder to collaborate, right? It's a lot harder to put people together in a room and be like, “Hey, let’s jam.” Jamming is dead. I actually tapped more into my individual music. I did a lot more amateur songwriting. I don’t really consider myself a songwriter. I like writing songs. But it’s not a craft that I really honed. I did a lot more of it over the pandemic because it was just like what else am I going to do. I got to spend some more concentrated time when I felt creative bursts, but sometimes I was in a really long deficit of creativity.
I feel like the pandemic often makes you feel like you should be doing some great projects. It was really hard to feel like you’re not doing that great project. Sometimes I actually get these really good bursts of creative energy. I would pour all of my energy into a musical project, like a cover or a new song I was writing over the course of a couple days. There were a lot of highs and lows, but I did pull together some projects that I liked, basically just for myself. I haven’t really shown them to a lot of people.
KZS: I want to ask a question about the musical artists or influences that have shaped what kind of music you listen to and play now. Was there an artist you loved growing up? Did you discover new artists during quarantine that shifted your interests in any way?
BJD: Every time someone asks me, “What do you listen to?” I blank out. I can’t name a single artist. The first artists that really got me into playing music for myself were rock bands like The Killers. The Killers were the first band that I really listened to and really loved. I’m not going to lie, I was very inspired by the Guitar Hero 3 Soundtrack. I think as I’ve gotten older and especially in the pandemic, I moved more into indie folk. People like Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Haley Hendricks, Snail Mail.
Oh my goodness, who do I want to name right now as my influences? People like The Microphones are excellent. I’ll say Neutral Milk Hotel. There’s a big range there. At some point, I got really into this sort of singer-songwriter with a guitar by themself vibe. Phoebe Bridgers is sort of at the head of the genre that I’m really into right now, with a guitar, singing sad songs. That was a really useful genre to have access to in a pandemic. People like Frank Ocean, My Bloody Valentine, Tyler the Creator — an amazing producer and great rapper. I haven’t even gone into the list of rappers that I was super into. I’ve always been into hip hop. This is a really hard question to answer because I’m balancing the list with people who I listened to yesterday with people who I listened to in late high school and there’s a lot of people that I’m leaving out.
KZS: How would you say you go about discovering new artists? Is it recommendations? Or do you kind of just pick a genre and then see who is making music in that area?
BJD: I think there’s a lot to be said for Spotify and the automatic radio that comes on after you play a song. I have found some of my favorite music from picking a song and just letting it play.
KZS: Trusting the algorithm.
BJD: The algorithm has gotten scary good. I was listening to Lucy Dacus the other day and I accidentally listened to the song’s radio for two hours because it has some of my favorite artists on it.
KSZ: Do you ever see yourself pushing out your own music onto Spotify or Soundcloud or something like that?
BJD: Maybe. Again, I don’t really consider myself a songwriter. I like writing songs a lot, but I haven't gotten to the point where I would want to pursue that or do a lot of sharing. I have gotten music released on Spotify in random ways. I’ve played instruments on some tracks that people have recorded. My acapella group has stuff on Spotify. That’s a fun process every time to be a part of recording that stuff. Some of my arrangements have been recorded, so I count that a little bit…but a lot of where I find my energy is music is live performance. I love live performances. It’s like the heart and soul of music for me. I love gigs and just being an instrumentalist in a band.
RLA: As a senior, how do you see music factoring into your life after college?
BJD: My therapist just asked me that four hours ago. I was like, “Johanna, I don’t know what to tell you.” It’s a good question. I’m not planning on going into music as a career. I’m a CS major. I’m going to be doing software probably at least for a while. But as I’ve sort of fit music into my life right now, it’s always been how I fill my time when I’m not doing work… I just hope to continue doing that. Wherever I move after college, I want to start a band with some folks or join a choir. I’ve never sung in a choir before. Or community theater is always fun. I just want to find opportunities in these little low stakes ways wherever I can find them.
KZS: Last question. Not in the direction we were going but what is your art hot take?
BJD: Bass is a great solo instrument. You can do some crazy things with the bass guitar and it’s underutilized in music.
—Staff Writers Rhea L. Acharya ‘25 and Karen Z. Song ‘25’s column “Impressions” explores what it means for life to imitate art, or for art to imitate life. How do seemingly superficial aesthetics define the human experience? Join them in conversation with Harvard students as they talk about the impressions art leaves on them and those that they hope to leave on the world.
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