Artist residencies have been around for decades. A musician or painter or filmmaker will set up shop in a new place for a limited period of time. Most of those places, understandably, tend to be on land.
The Vermont pianist and composer Ben Cosgrove has never taken obvious paths though, and last fall he did his work sailing from Vietnam to Australia on the massive research vessel Falkor. While onboard, he wrote and recorded songs inspired by his aquatic surroundings, some of which appear on his new record Salt. “It was my first time at sea, and I was deeply fascinated by the way one has to orient oneself in a place like that,” he says now. “I’d never been anywhere that simultaneously felt so still and so in motion.”
Cosgrove has long written compositions inspired by place; his tunes have titles like “Montreal Song” or “Narrow Land/River of Grass.” Translating a place into sound isn’t a linear process though – a loud setting doesn’t necessarily become a loud song, he says. “Whenever I’m struck by some feature of the world, it’s just a matter of identifying exactly what the thing was about that landscape or place that impressed or astonished me so much and then determining what musical stuff from the arsenal I’ve amassed that I should deploy in order to best reflect, imitate, or express that.”
Salt continues in this vein, though here the songs are more about types of landscapes than specific locations he’s visited. And many tracks reflect his recent ocean voyage, at least indirectly. “All the songs on this record are about different places where the relationship between water and land – or, more accurately, ground and not-ground – can sometimes be ambiguous or even impossible to know,” he says. “I went through a bad break-up a little while back… Writing this whole album about landscapes in flux – estuaries, salt marshes, fault lines, frozen lakes, and so on – turned out to be the perfect way for me to work through that.”
He says the track “Landfall” stems most directly from his at-sea experience. A solo piano piece, it evoke some of Mark Knopfler’s most memorable soundtrack work, full of open space and emotion. If it were in a movie – and if music supervisors aren’t beating down Cosgrove’s door yet, they should be – the song might accompany a character reflectively returning home after a long time away.
“It’s really about the moment where the ship clicks back into place at a port and you walk out onto the land,” he explains. “The mode of orientation that I talked about before has to transition seamlessly back into the one you’ve always used for getting around on land. It’s an unusually proud and straightforward melody, even if it dips and wobbles a bit, and within the narrative of the album the song is meant to signify an important kind of emotional step forward.”