Alumni News

Connected for Life: Collaborating Beyond Bennington

By Walter Greene '23

Image of Surgeon General bandmates

In Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a collective of Bennington alumni are choosing world-building over trend-chasing—a compelling and convincingly essential antidote to a music industry demanding more and more individual salesmanship from artists. It’s an approach to production that, to the initiated, is unmistakably Bennington.

Bennington prepares you to curate the environment you need to create your best work, even if a significant part of that production occurs outside your material reality. Work grows in the creative allowances of an open curriculum, the play between tight-knit collaborators and mentors, and the opportunities between a determined artist’s initial circumstance and a final project.

Bennington pushes you to recognize the possibilities between what’s desired and what’s available, urging the inspired to not only produce, but consistently validate the space their art needs to exist, develop, and then grow connections outside itself. When those connections reach a critical mass, the work demands a material infrastructure. That’s precisely what ambitious Bennington alumni bands Aggie Miller, Surgeon General, A.M Rodio, and egg routine, among others, have found in New York City.

Over the last year, this collective of recent Bennington graduates has been taking the means of musical production into their hands by securing a recording and production studio with a dedicated rehearsal and performance venue just blocks away.

In terms of physical proximity and creative intimacy, the parallels between Bennington and this evolving scene in Brooklyn are unmistakable.

Garrett Crusan ’23 of Surgeon General and Annabel Hoffman ’22, songwriting and performing under the name Aggie Miller, clarified in a late-winter interview.

WG: What are the differences between the songwriting environment at Bennington and here, in your studio?

MILLER: It doesn’t really feel that different than being in DCB [Deane Carriage Barn], which I think is the point of Bennington. You do this [music] there, and you’re totally prepared to do it outside, because there aren’t teachers guiding you at every step and telling you how to do something. Us being left alone in DCB., being trusted to get four credits out of this project—working up a set, a real band set—that translates into having your own studio.

CRUSAN: I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking ‘Wow, Bennington’s just kind of here.’ And we’re all doing the same thing; we’re trading parts and roles and listening to each other’s stuff before it’s released. It’s weird and awesome. It feels really, really special.

Senem Pirler, music faculty member at Bennington, offers a valuable perspective on how Bennington’s structure translates to the real world:

PIRLER: The idea is to help [students] be ready as creative individuals with critical thinking and improvisation skills in the world. They are overseen by faculty who are artist-practitioners in their fields. It’s a co-creation and co-learning process in which students discuss their ideas with their mentors throughout the process and are given methods, space, agency, and deadlines to materialize these ideas. At Bennington, we use academic structures to mimic the processes and what’s in place in the real world.

While walking between the collective’s recording space and the performance venue just down the street, Asa Marder ’22 of A.M Rodio described the energy surrounding this evolving space:

WG: The energy between all of you creatively is clearly too much to bottle up within whatever system was already at play. It’s at once so inconceivable but so obviously the only possible solution. It’s like you guys had to make Bennington here.

MARDER: Bennington’s a funny place that way. It definitely sets you up to be in unstructured environments and make things happen. That’s what Bennington is: No set path, justify yourself every two months. You’re going to have to develop a sense of fortitude. . . . I think they do it on purpose, so that eventually you just say, ‘You know what? I’m doing this for me. I know what I want, and I’m going to get it out of Bennington.’ Which is what you need to do in the real world. You need to be like, ‘I’m doing what I need to be doing right now, and here I go, now I’m going to do it. I’m not doing it for my boss. I’m not doing it for anyone else.’

Aggie Miller, Surgeon General, and A.M Rodio work for themselves and yet stand out in their capacity to hold audiences in their space.

As disparate as the bands are in their rhythm, sound, and energy, they’re unified in their lyrical sensibilities and their incredible capacity to take audiences in. They bring listeners into worlds that, while born out of necessity, hold more than enough space to welcome their eager audience—evident in the sold-out Aggie Miller album release show earlier this winter, as well as each band’s shows across Brooklyn, Manhattan, and on the road that consistently bring out new fans and Bennington alumni from across the years.

From (in the words of Crusan) Surgeon General’s “nervous, chaotic, indie, punk-ish, rock-ish” sound to the “gentle intricacy of soft-indie and the raw groove of grunge” found in Aggie Miller (Notion), there’s a thorough authenticity to each band’s concept and production that discredits industry demands for trend-chasing as the best way to win over audiences.

“I really want to put on shows that have a definite concept to them...That’s the most exciting part for me: playing a show and having some kind of set design and some kind of arc to it,” said Crusan.

Miller added, “I think that’s a Bennington thing...You keep your head down, you write the songs, you bring them to the band, and they’re good. But that’s not enough, which is what Bennington taught me. My final project at Bennington was a philosophy paper, it was interviews, and it was an archival photo book. It was all the angles that you can look at this one thing, and they’re all equally important. I think that totally applies to the music scene [outside of Bennington] and will make a musician successful...It’s worldbuilding.”

Their musical worlds exist unto themselves, yet inside, are revealed for what they are: so obvious, so essential. That creative vitality naturally extends into the real world. Harry Zucker ’23 who plays with Aggie Miller, Surgeon General, and egg routine speaks to this: “Keeping our music community going post-Bennington was not a choice—it was the only option. When you get to work with such remarkable songwriters and players, you don’t just give up; these connections are for life.