Grooving to the stars

Talking with The Flashbulb in advance of Adler shows

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Benn Jordan

Benn Jordan plays the bass guitar while his dog Lucy walks around his home studio Thursday, (Rob Hart/Chicago Tribune / September 26, 2013)

Benn Jordan's first thought was to get into a traditional music school. His audition tape earned him acceptance into a classical guitar program, but then the University of Montana found out Jordan, a lefty, had taught himself to play "upside down," with the lower, thicker strings on bottom.

"And they're like, 'Nope,'" Jordan recalls, telling the story while guiding a visitor through the instruments — from a first-generation Nord Rack synthesizer to a Jordan-modified, modern player piano — that fill his Bridgeport home.

The school said if he wanted to come, he'd have to learn to play with the more traditional stringing method.

"I was like, 'I guess that's it,'" he says. "It made me realize that I'm not a formal musician at all."

But rather than a roadblock, the decision just made him change roads.

"I was going to be a musician one way or another," the now 33-year-old says, "so instead I just toured and searched couches for change for a couple of years."

Jordan has created a lot of music — cinematic, ambient, electronic, pulsing, often surprising — under many different names, but it's as The Flashbulb, his most common musical pseudonym, that he is best known. It's as The Flashbulb that he wrote the score for the Adler Planetarium's current show, "Cosmic Wonder," in the showcase Grainger Sky Theater, and it's as The Flashbulb that he'll play a concert in that theater Friday night.

The two shows will feature Jordan's music, the Treefield visualization system that he designed to accompany his performances, and a showing of "Cosmic Wonder," with cocktails and cafe items available.

The tradition of planetarium dome music involves lasers and recorded music from a big rock act. This won't be that, but it is "like an electronic and contemporary version of that," Jordan says.

In the coach house where he lives with dog Lucy — behind the storefront of the building he owns, which he's turning into a performance space called 3240 — Jordan sat in his creative cockpit, surrounded by synthesizers, computer screens and guitars, and talked about the Adler show, other shows and his DIY musical aesthetic. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q: Why "The Flashbulb"?

A: I should really make up a story: "It's because he saved this child ..." No, the first Flashbulb album was a side project, and I was taking pictures of an old flashbulb and for some reason I said, "Let's just call this project Flashbulb," thinking it would never take off. And it actually ended up getting picked up by some decent labels, and then that ended up sort of encompassing what I do, literally, 15 years later. I hated the name for a long time. For the first couple of albums, I hated it. But then, reading music writers, the way they utilized the name The Flashbulb in things — "it flashes from here to there, and it's very diverse," and things like that — I actually was like, "Yeah, this is a good name." They made it sound cool to me.

Q: Kind words for critics are rare from someone on the creative side.

A: What I really love reading — it's almost like poetry to me — every now and then you'll run into a review that doesn't use examples of any other artists, and it's really amazing to hear somebody use the English language to describe what they heard, without saying, "It's a mix between Nirvana and Pink Floyd." They'll actually describe every single emotion they felt. It's beautiful, really.

Q: Your concert Friday at the Adler lists the "Treefield Visualization System" almost as a co-headliner. What is it, and why such prominence?

A: Last year around this time, after many many years of not having any sort of visual system that I was happy with, I decided to design one, and do all audio-reactive visuals for it. It took eight months to build. ... It's like a transparent screen in front of me. To the audience I show up at different points. I disappear at certain points. It's a couple of projectors, a couple of computer-controlled LED light rigs, things like that. It's essentially just a really deluxe, customized visualization system. There are scenes I've created through programming or 3-D design, but they're audio reactive. It's just sort of what fits the music in my head, what I want to see.

Q: Are there fields and trees, or fields of trees?

A: They definitely are in there. It's not only that, but, yeah.

Q: People usually think of planetarium domes, musically, as a place for laser-accompanied Pink Floyd. How do you fit into that tradition, or not?

A: I've been inspired by Pink Floyd a ton in my life. I feel like some younger people would laugh at the comparison, you know, would say, like, "Ha, ha, Pink Floyd," but I think Pink Floyd is the coolest thing in the world. I went to (lead singer and writer) Roger Waters' last show and it was the most immense visual experience I've ever seen. It was incredible. This is like an electronic and contemporary version of that. My budget isn't, like, $100 million per show. But the thing I love about Pink Floyd shows and even Roger Waters shows is I was never bored. You know? And honestly, as much as I love music, and as much as I appreciate it, and as much as I analyze it, when I go to a concert I'm usually bored at some point. At a show like Pink Floyd, I was never bored, not for a second, and when it ended I was sad.

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