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Ben Leeds Carson

Professor of Music
Director of Graduate Studies

Ben Leeds Carson's work as a composer and improviser is supported by a variety of research, including empirical studies in perception, theory of mind, and theory of musical form. Dr. Carson offers courses in theory and analysis, perception studies, and popular culture.

Research Interests: 

Rhythm perception, improvisation, Schoenberg, tonal harmony, popular culture, social production.

Born in North Carolina, Ben Leeds Carson visited 47 U.S. states before he was eight—alternating between trailer parks, student housing, and rural campgrounds—following parents who updated topographical maps for the U.S. Geological Service. Musical life began later in Walla Walla, Washington, thanks to invaluable teachers like José Rambaldi (d. 1989) and Bradley Hunt (d. 1988)—whose lives were cut short by AIDS while Ben was still a teen. Later, Carson worked with the composers John Peel (Willamette University) and John Rahn (University of Washington), and Roger Reynolds at UC San Diego, where he was fortunate for abundant mentorship from Jann Pasler, Brian Ferneyhough, Chaya Czernowin, Harvey Sollberger, Jerry Balzano, and George Lewis.


Carson has been an Artist/Researcher-in-Residence for the Perception Laboratory at IRCAM (Institute de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique), and at Paris University VI, where his collaborations focused on the perception of complex rhythm, and led to empirical work reported in the American Journal of Psychology, and the Journal of New Music Research. Carson’s music has been performed at venues for experimental and contemporary music, including (recently) the Boston Non-Event Series (2018), Washington DC’s Sonic Circuits (2018), the Foro Internacional de Música Nueva (Mexico City 2018), and the Smithsonian’s Meyer Series (Washington DC 2019), Blurred Edges (Hamburg 2020), New England Conservatory's Summer Institute for the Contemporary Piano, and a wide range of other venues, including full concerts at the Sydney Conservatory’s Music and Social Justice conference (2005) and for the Columbia University’s Music Performance Program (2008). LA Times critic Mark Swed described Reidemeister Move's REDCAT performance of "Wonderment and Misgiving'' as “a kind of acoustic acupressure” (LA Times Critic’s Notebook, October 2018). Longer discussions of Carson’s work appear in the Open Space Magazine (2005), and iLand (2012); Ben’s scholarship also appears in Search Anthology, the Institute for Advanced Feminist Research, and UCLA’s online journal ECHO.


Carson's abundant works for solo piano explore "the establishment and erosion of musical boundaries, the evolution/devolution of melody, and the use of silence as a structural component" (Fanfare Magazine July/August 2012); critic Christopher Williams describes their tonality, and tension between small-scale and large-scale harmonic progressions, as "a paradox", in which "each element in a false dichotomy defines and becomes the other", allowing us "the opportunity and responsibility to navigate our [own] uniquely useful paths" ("On the Piano Music of Ben Carson", in The Open Space Magazine, Issue 5, December 2005). Carson's recent work has moved in the direction of music drama, and includes an opera merging a Star Trek teleplay by Gene Roddenberry, with historical renderings of the Orpheus myth: "Act I" of the result—Menagerie...—premiered (June 2016) in a workshop performance directed by John de Lancie (actor: Star Trek—Next Generation, Breaking Bad; acclaimed guest director of Atlanta Opera and San Antonio Opera) and led by acclaimed singers Sheila Willey, Emily Sinclair (sopranos), Aleksey Bogdanov, and David Cushing (baritones). 


Since 2003, Ben has served the UC Santa Cruz Music Department faculty, where he is Professor, and Inaugural Director of Creative Technologies. He is a recipient of grants and awards recognizing excellence in teaching.


831 459 5581
148 Music Center
Office Hours: 

Spring 2023:

 In-person Wednesdays at 11am in Music Center 148

Via Zoom Mondays at 3:30pm.

Mailing Address: 

Music Center Faculty Services

University of California

1156 High St

Santa Cruz, CA 95064

Selected Publications: 

Articles in Professional Journals and Other Periodicals

2009           “Schoenberg’s ambivalent thought: subjectivity in ‘Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide…’” In The Second Century of New Music: Search Yearbook Volume I (forthcoming from Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)

2007           “Perceiving and distinguishing simple timespan ratios without metric reinforcement.” Journal of New Music Research36/4 (December 2007), 313-336.

2006           “What are Musical Paradox and Illusion?” Review Essay, in American Journal of Psychology 120/1 (Spring 2007), 123-139.

2003           “John Adams and a Certain Counterpoint of Contemporary Reasoning: The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s El Niño, March 2003,” Echo V/1 (

2003           [With Christopher Williams] “On the Piano Music of Benjamin Carson: A Correspondence of Essays.” Open Space Magazine 5 (Fall 2003), 231-250.

Selected Recordings: 


Discography: On established labels

2011           [Centaur Records CRC 3105] Pieces, Threaded, 1999-2009:  Piano Music of Ben Leeds Carson

2010           [Albany Records TROY 1225] A is for Azimuth and ArnicaMusic for Percussion by Ben Leeds Carson

Discography: Independent Productions

2012   CD [SHH 884501678889]: Interstice: New Music for Saxophone. Rhonda Taylor, saxophones; with Ron Stabinsky. 

2009          CD: Anahistoric: Music of Ben Leeds Carson. Complete recording of a concert of the same name. A 2009 Special Event at the Columbia University Music Performance Program. Engineered by Eric Parson and Josephson Studios.

2008          DVD: Takes to the Stage: An experiment in form and memory, for solo cello in concert. Video with animation, featuring cellist Franklin Cox at April in Santa Cruz Festival of Contemporary Music. 62’00”.

2008          Peleas/Pelé, in compilation CD: Soundcheck 3—New Music from UC San DiegoPublished by UC San Diego's Department of Music.

2001          CD: Piano Music of Benjamin Carson, 1999-2001. Produced at UC San Diego's Studio A, with assistance from the UCSD Center for the Humanities.

Selected Presentations: 


University of California, Santa Cruz: Menagerie, Act I—A workshop production. Music by B. L. Carson; Libretto by Linc & Lee Taiz and B.L. Carson, with Perre DiCarlo and John de Lancie. Directed by John de Lancie. Conducted by William Long. With Aleksey Bogdanov, David Cushing, Sheila Willey, Emily Sinclair, and Adam Caughey, voices. [6/26 Music Center Recital Hall, UCSC.]


April in Santa Cruz Festival of New Music. "Rhonda Taylor and Friends" [as pianist] With Rhonda Taylor, saxophones; Jason Hoopes, bass; Robert Lopez, drums. Music of Anthony Braxton and Ben Carson [5/4 Digital Arts Research Center, UCSC.]


Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler—Series: Lectures in Composition "Toward a Radical Empirical Music" [5/16 Berlin, DE]

AMU (Academy for the Performing Arts)—Series: Faculty Colloquium Lecture-Recital "Writing for the Piano" [5/9 Prague, CZ]

AMU (Academy for the Performing Arts)—Electro-acoustic Seminar "Toward a Radical Empirical Music" [5/6 Prague, CZ]



Northwestern University's Composition Colloquium. "Unpulser: An Environment for Composition with Additive Rhythms" [4/3 Chicago IL]

iLand & the New School for Social Research's Cage Centennary Symposium: Moving Into the Out There: Indeterminacy & Improvisation in Performance & Environmental Practice. "Radical Empirical Music + Premier of 'Four Strangers' " and "Panel Discussion on Cage, Indeterminacy, and Scientific Inquiry" [3/24 New York, NY]

UCSD's "Focus on Composition": "On Voice and Pulse: a Radical-Empirical Technique for Rhythm and Form" [3/13 La Jolla CA]



UCSD's "Focus on Performance" Series: A is for Azimuth and Arnica (with Leah Bowden) [1/21 La Jolla CA]



"Snow Bloom: Ochromonas" for Trumpet, Baritone Saxophone, and Chamber Orchestra. Commissioned by Glen Whitehead. University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Visual And Performance Studies series. With Rhonda Taylor, Jane Rigler, William Malone. [12/10 Colorado Springs CO]



"Syncline/Anticline." Headline event at the International Society of Improvised Music Annual Festival. With Russell Greenberg, Rhonda Taylor, Scott Walton, Glen Whitehead [12/4 Santa Cruz CA]. 

Music of Ben Leeds Carson," a Music Performance Program special event at Columbia University. 11 written works, in 3 threaded collective improvisations by 8 musicians. With YARN/WIRE Quartet, and guests Katie Schlaikjer, Rhonda Taylor,Glen Whitehead, Chris Williams [3/26 New York NY].



Lecture: “Schoenberg’s Compositional Economy.” Columbia University Music Theory Colloquium [2/25 New York NY].

Lecture: “Toward Some Mathematical Determinants of Unpulsedness.” Columbia University Electroacoustic Composition Seminar [3/2 New York NY].

Lecture: “Hearing Time Freely: Explorations of Rhythmic Heterarchy.” Current Issues Colloquium, UCSC Department of Music [5/8 Santa Cruz CA].



“Perceiving and distinguishing simple timespan ratios without metric reinforcement.” Read at the annual national conference of the Society for Music Theory [11/15 Baltimore MD].



Lecture “Compositional Economy and Self-Identical Bodies in New Music.” Oakes College, UC Santa Cruz:Cultural Studies Colloquium [5/26 Santa Cruz CA]

Honors and Awards: 

2014                 Dean's Award for Excellence in Mentorship (UCSC Arts Division)

2011                "Excellence in Teaching" (UCSC Center for Teaching and Learning) 

2009-10             Faculty Senate Special Research Grant recipient

2007, 2005, 2004        Arts Research Initiative Major Project Grantee, UC Santa Cruz

2001                           First Prize, British and International Bass Festival/International Bass Society, London, England: Detáler (contrabass and chamber orchestra)

Education and Training: 
B.A. in Music, Willamette University
M.M. in Composition, University of Washington
Ph.D. in Music (Composition), University of California at San Diego
Teaching Interests: 

Tonal analysis, popular culture, history of music theory, empirical methods, perception and cognition.