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Friday, August 26, 2011

Interview with Composer Christine Bougie

Christine Bougie is a guitarist, lap-steal player, and a composer music that defies genre categorization - blending jazz, rock, and pop into intricate, catchy and very approachable instrumental tunes.  She's made three albums of original music – Hammy's Secret Life, This is Awesome (a collaboration with Dafydd Hughes) and Aloha Supreme.  Besides the fact that I'm a big fan of her music, I was particularly interested in interviewing Christine because she is a fellow blogger, and a fellow process geek.  Like me, she frequently blogs about her creative process, and also like me, she often invents somewhat elaborate systems in relation to that – for example, she's a poster-girl for the online time-tracking website, Freckle.

This was actually the first interview I did as part of my composer's process project (the interview took place back in early April), and I was a little shy about stepping into the interviewer's role. As a result, it has a more conversational tone than the other interviews. Which I think is kind of nice in a way. You tell me.

Check out these two Southern Souls videos that just happen to be of my two favorite songs by Christine.  To learn more about her or follow her blog (highly recommended), visit www.christinebougie.com.


"Me Her" (from Aloha Supreme)


"Hammy's Secret Life" (from Hammy's Secret Life)




Christine Bougie: The Twyla Tharp book [The Creative Habit] is good – did you read the Steven King book – On Writing? It's great. It gave me a lot of ideas. At the beginning of this writing period I was re-reading both of those books and underlining.

Matt Roberts: It's cool that those are both books by people who are in different art forms than music.

CB: Totally. But I noticed a lot of similarities. Like there's a part where Tharp talks about what her process is – just in a couple of pages – and it was exactly what I do, weirdly. She says she goes in a room, and just starts dancing to nothing, and video tapes herself, and then reviews that and picks stuff to work with afterwards.

The Steven King book is really great too because he's so no-bullshit. Just blue-collar.

MR: Steven King is very prolific.

CB: Yeah, he's just constantly writing. In the book, he explains his schedule: “I wake up, I spend three hours on the current project, then the afternoon is for naps and letters, and night time is for watching T.V. and hanging out with the family.”

MR: I just got this book, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. He was a modernist painter in the early 20th century. The book is a collection of letters he wrote to his students. He has a kind of romantic notion of art that I find inspiring. For example, at one point he says that he went to the Paris Conservatory, and people were there who were practising copying paintings who had been there for ten years, only learning to become better copyists. But he believes a true artist seeks to have some kind of original voice that can convey some sense of truth.

CB: That's good, you have to get past that imitating phase at some point. What do you think about the Kenny Werner stuff?

MR: I first met him at [The] Banff [Jazz Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music], and I attended his week-long workshop on his “Effortless Mastery” concepts.

CB: How was it? I just read his book.

MR: I think the things he talked about are really cool, and everyone should think about them, but I question the exact methods he expounds to achieve those ideals – “the steps”, I think he calls them.

CB: Right, you also have to work really hard. That's what I think is missing from that whole picture.

MR: Well, when I first got into it, I was in first year, and I was very eager and maybe a little naive, and I started doing his thing where you practice going into a relaxed state, playing one note, and putting down your instrument if you felt you had gone out of that state. After a few weeks of picking my bass up and putting it down, I thought “This is silly!” I think it might be better to do something like setting a timer for 5 minutes, and making it your main priority to play in a relaxed manner until the timer goes off. However, I think the book is certainly worth reading.

CB: I had the same experience with it. I was still in school. I appreciated the story of it, at the beginning – he talks about being at school and getting wrapped up in the stress of it, and the ego. But the application of it seemed off.

MR: I think the problem for me when I sit down to write something is that I become too self-critical and too worried about what people are going to think about it, and I have a really blown up idea in my head about how great I want it to be. So when I come up with an idea, I'll reject it unless it seems like it carries a seed of something incredibly great. Which is maybe not how it works, maybe the greatness comes by taking something somewhat ordinary and working with it.

CB: I notice that too. That's the struggle. I notice that the stuff that you write that comes out naturally [is best]. You want to write so much further ahead then you are. You hear an idea of something that's more complex and developed then you are actually at.

Another thing that I notice is that I'll often be writing the same song again. I'll write something and notice that I've kind of written that before. People will say “Oh so-and-so only writes three tunes.” Like to me, Tower of Power has only two or three tunes. Their ballady thing, their crazy syncopated thing, and they just write those tunes. I'll notice myself defaulting to something. I'll be at the end of the tune, and I'll do what come out naturally, and then I'll say “Oh that's kind of like the end of these three other tunes that I've written.”

MR: I find that especially if I'm are trying to produce a lot of material, like writing a tune a week. That's the danger with trying to force yourself to produce more - that you'll just recycle.

CB: But I find that's good, just to get them all out. If I write twelve tunes in a few weeks I might use five or six of them.

MR: Yeah, you still come up with some new things each time.

CB: Exactly.

MR: I noticed that the third movement of The Little Prince Suite is sort of like the sixth movement of The Buddha Suite. But I kind of like that.

CB: Because it's your sound.

MR: Yeah, it's my signature.

CB: And you're just discovering that. It's cool to listen to stuff you came up with years ago, and you can hear, even though it is less developed, that there is something there that is kind of “you”. I hear all the stuff around it that is pretentious – trying to be something – but I also hear what is me in it. The influences are in there from the beginning.

Sometimes I'll hear something I like that is inspiring to me by somebody else, and then that will make me want to write something like that, but it never turns out like that at all. With a lot of my tunes – the ones that turned out well – I can hear where the idea came from, and I can remember that it was inspired by something else but it just became something completely different in the end.

MR: I've had that experience as well – it's nice!

CB: It's great, because you can just steal things from things you like, and there's no danger that you're copying because it just won't turn out like that.

MR: Robert Henri said something like “Don't worry about being unique, because you can't help but be unique.”

CB: I was writing something the other day which came out really quick. I played it for Ali and she said “This sounds like something...” It turned out it was “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder. It was a bit different – it was slower, and there were a few changes, but basically that was it.

MR: Yeah, the fourth movement of the Little Prince Suite starts with a melody that is exactly Blue in Green. Same key and everything. I'm a little uncomfortable with that! [laughs]

CB: Just change one thing. I'm going to go back to that tune and change a couple things.

So do you write everyday?

MR: Well, yes, I have this calendar on my wall which I put a mark on each day if I composed that day, and I try to have a mark on each day. But it hasn't been very hard lately, because I've sort of entered a crisis phase with The Little Prince Suite – we're going to perform it in two weeks. The amount of writing I've produced has increased exponentially over the last two years as the deadline approaches. Which is interesting, because for the most part I still like what I'm coming up with almost as much. Although the recent stuff is tending to be less intricate and complicated.

I went to the Dave Holland Clinic at Humber just this past week, and asked him what he did when he had writers block. He said “Just get on with it - at a certain point fear takes over.” If you come up with an idea at the start of the process, you think “I'll have a better idea later.” But as the deadline approaches that becomes “I have an idea – good enough, let's go with this!”

CB: I read an interview with Paul Simon once, and his view was that writer's block comes from trying to write beyond where you are. I think it was in that “Songwriters on Songwriting” book – have you seen that? It's a great, fat book of mostly singer-songwriter people, and the interviewer is really good - he does a lot of research for each person, and their writing process.

MR: That sounds great, I'll get that book for sure! I just read this book called The Jazz Composers Companion. The last chapter is all interviews with composers. They all have very different things to say about composition – for example Chick Corea talks about “spiritual games”, while Pat Metheny is more technical, he talks about writing things so he can enjoy improvising over them.

CB: I think for me making a physical space to sit down and write is very important. I didn't have a room to write in. We had instruments scattered in different rooms. Once I managed to set up a space and decided “This is what I'm going to do everyday – I'm going to practise in this chair, this room, with this stuff, here is my loop station, my music stand...” Then the habit part of it became much easier. Also not going online until a certain time of the day.

MR: Right – you don't go online until 1 o'clock or noon, because you'll get sucked into it?

CB: If I wake up at 10 and I'm checking my email at 10:15, and like yesterday there was e-mails with some mixes of some songs I did on somebody's album, and I have to listen to them and make notes, and then there is a gig coming up on Friday, and how am I going to get there...

MR: That takes a lot of energy.

CB: Yeah, if I would wake up in the morning and put that in my brain, I wouldn't be able to concentrate on writing music. Your brain needs to be a little bit empty for that. Also with practising. I was never very good at daily practising, but I've been doing that for the last couple months. I've been enjoying it, and find that it has to be the first thing I do in a day for me to get into it. I think it is a little like meditation – because even though it is different in the sense that you're very busy trying to do something, it is similar in that you notice when your thoughts are interrupting you. I've been going through the second Berkley guitar book [A Modern Method for Guitar] where it is just a couple pages of scales – like a C major scale in five positions, ascending and descending, it takes like eight minutes to read through a few pages straight. If I screw up something simple, I find it is because I'm thinking about something else – say an e-mail I have to send. The later in the day I leave that work until, the worse it gets.

MR: I'm studying classical music right now. I find it more therapeutic to practise classical music, because is more technical.

CB: Yes, I'm just doing scales – for 15 minutes or something, and I love it, because it is kind of brainless in a way.

MR: I have trouble keeping track of time. Recently my girlfriend was sitting on my bed while I was composing, and she said to me afterwards “You spend about half your time on Facebook and YouTube. It finally makes sense to me how much trouble you have composing.”

CB: Yeah, I usually have to turn the computer off. Or, if I'm doing something on the computer, I have a timer program. I usually set things for either 45 minutes or 15 minutes. 15 minutes if it is something that I've really been procrastinating on – 15 minutes at least gets me started. I learned that from Rob McBride – he's my practising roll model. He does 45 minute chunks with 15 minute breaks – real breaks – he says he goes and waters his plants, or if it is nice he'll go outside. Because the 15 minute Facebook break – I do that too, but I noticed that it's not a real break. But it is hard to do that, if you are doing something in Sibelius that is hard, tedious work, and all the entertainment is one click away.

MR: I find I have this base-level of anxiety when I'm composing, and if I anything causes a spike in that I'm like “I'm going to see what's on Facebook...”

You know, I used to be very strict with scheduling. I had a Palm Pilot and I used to set alarms - 10am: practice scales. 10:45 take a break. 11 am: practice arpeggios. But right now I'm thinking of it in a more personal/emotional way – what is it that is causing me stress about this? I'm not sure how well it is working for me though...

CB: Yeah, I've given up on the idea of practising for a huge amount of time – you hear stories of people practising 8 hours a day. But I don't think that is really possible, if you're eating and doing all the things you have to do in a day. As a society we think of people working 8 hours a day – like “nine to five” – but when I've had real jobs, I've found you're not actually working for 8 solid hours. So when you're on your own being creative, you realize 3 hours is probably what you're really doing in an 8 hour work day.

MR: If I can get a consistent hour of practise in everyday, I feel really good about that. I can get a lot done in an hour. I think I can be a bass player worth listening to with an hour of practise each day.

CB: It is weird to put a time on writing too. I do kind of start a clock when I'm writing, but more than any other activity, writing is something that I don't religiously measure the time of. Because I find that sometimes I may be doing something else, like practising scales, and I'll just get into writing. Or I might be watching a movie and I'll just grab the guitar and play something I was working on. I can't really say: “I'll write from 10 to 11. That's it.” You're always kind of writing if you're in the middle of something.

MR: Yeah, one of my interview questions was going to be “Where do your ideas come from?” But I asked myself that, and I thought - “Well, I guess from every moment of my life...”

CB: Did you ever answer the questionnaire in the Twyla Tharp book? It like that. It's about your creative autobiography or something. Like on question was “What was the first creative idea you remember having?” I remember writing a story in grade 1, and I remember how my teacher liked it, and the feeling I got from people noticing that and saying that I was creative. That's a big deal – getting a reward for something that is easy or natural. Or “What's the best idea you've had?” or “What's the worst idea you've had?”

MR: Yeah it is interesting how writing about something can help clarify your thoughts on it. I feel that way about my blog.

CB: For sure. I've started blogging less lately – I was writing three times a week and I went down to once a week because I'm doing so much other stuff. It's good to take a break from telling the world what you're doing so often. But it did help me focus, and it made projects out of just rough ideas. If I had ideas and I started writing about it, it became like a real thing. It helped me get my last album together. Especially with the fundraising thing, because then other people's money was involved, so I thought “Now I've got to get it done!”

MR: What do you find to be the greatest challenge of composition?

CB: Writing from the place that I am.

MR: Because that causes a block, or because that causes bad compositions?

CB: Both I guess, because it will end up causing a block, but in the short term you start grasping at things that you're not there yet. For me, it could be harmonically maybe – I might want to write something that's more dense than I can actually hear, because I appreciate that when I listen to other writers. But it's not natural for me to do that. If I hear something that's in my head and I play it on the instrument and I realize that it is just a plain “G” chord, I shouldn't try to make it weird by adding this and that. It's strange, because you have to push yourself at the same time.

Also, like we were talking about, not writing the same tune over and over. I feel like I can default to certain structures.

MR: I found Twyla Tharp's thing where she makes people come up with 50 different ways to do a particular motion is very helpful with that. If you force yourself to come up with many ways of doing something simple, the first few are going to be your usual way of thinking, but then you are going to have to become inventive.

CB: Yeah, and they come out of your head too, right? I guess it is a challenge not to grasp beyond where you are, but then it is also a challenge not to repeat yourself. You've got to find some middle ground.

I was talking to my friend Mike Holt – he's a songwriter. He is very pure about how he writes his tunes. He never sounds like he is grasping for something that's not natural to him, yet the harmony's interesting, and it isn't over-simplified or anything. He says he only writes in his head first, before he goes to any instrument. He says he dreams his songs a lot of the time, and he'll wake up and hum them in his head for a while before he gets to the keyboard. So that way you're only playing the things that you're actually hearing. On the guitar, my fingers can do things that my brain is not really hearing. Which is cool because it can break you out of your usual thinking. But you're not actually hearing that, honestly.

So in my last chunk of writing tunes I sat at a keyboard – because that's a little bit less familiar to me. I had a wurlitzer in my house for a while. Usually what I do is as soon as I have something I like, I turn on the loop station and record that. Rather then that, I spent a week on the wurlitzer, trying to play what I was hearing, and not recording anything or writing it down, and then the next day I would try to play what I played the day before. So only what would stay in my brain is worth sticking to.

MR: Yes, I've done that to – I have all my ideas written down in a book, but often I will start out by trying to remember what is in the book without opening it. And I realized that I naturally remember only what had the most emotional connection for me.

CB: It's a way of finding the real honest stuff in it, and taking away the “trying to be clever” stuff.

So I did that for a week, and I came up with a tune at the end of it, and then I recorded it. That was good, but it was a harder process. Now I'm using the guitar again. But I might try that again, like for a week. Just to do something different.

MR: Have you seen those song-a-day blogs?

CB: Yeah, I researched that before I started doing this song-a-week thing, which was near the beginning of the year, coinciding with blogging less. I had the urge to make a blog thing about it. But I decided that I didn't want to show what I was doing during doing it, for the same reason I didn't want to show Ali my ideas before they were done to me. Even though that way you can get feedback.

MR: What composers or compositions do you admire?

CB: I've been listening a lot again to Joni Mitchell. I started listening to Joni when I was 15 or something, getting into the 70's stuff. And I've just been getting into her earlier stuff – the super folk-y stuff, I was more into the jazz period. I've been into Blue and going backwards. I recently learned a bunch of her tunes for a Joni Mitchell tribute show. I'd always kept her music a mystery to me, because of the weird tunings. When I learned the tunes I realized that the song structures weren't that weird, it was just the voicings of the chords, because she had all weird tunings.

MR: I find her compositions are so unique, but not in a showy way – it always seems to serve the meaning and the effect of the song.

CB: I'm not writing lyrics or anything, and there's not much melody to a lot of her songs – but the music always fits the mood of what she's talking about so well. That gets me the most.

I kind of got into Ry Cooder's latest album to the point where it is an album that I would put on everyday. But for what reason I don't know. It's bluesy, and it's songwriting. It's weird – I don't listen to music that reminds me of the kind of music that I write. I used to listen to a lot more guitar players – Metheny and Scofield – and now I can't really listen to them.

MR: One last question: Why compose?

CB: As opposed to just recording other people's stuff? I did record a Beach Boy's cover on my last album. I feel like composing is the best way to leave your mark. I have a desire to actually make something tangible that will last. Making an album is a work of art. It's the work I want to do as a musician - I want to have a body of work. I used to focus more on improvising. That was what excited me about music. But composing is improvising – when you compose something you're making it up, you just spend a bit more time crafting it.

To the MattRoberts.ca homepage.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Interview with Composer Allan Gilliland

(This interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews I'm doing with compsers about their creative process.)

Edmonton-based composer Allan Gilliland is one of Canada's busiest composers, and one of the most comissioned and performed. He's written music a huge body of music, including pieces for chamber ensemble, film, jazz band, keyboard, musical theatre, opera, orchestra, and wind ensembles.  He did has a diploma in jazz studied from Humber, a bachelors of perofrmance and a masters in composition from the University of Alberta, and is currently wraping up a PhD in composition from the University of Edinburgh. He's received many prestigious awards, including winning First Prize at the prestigious Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s Centara New Music Festival Composers Competition with On the Shoulders of Giants.

Check out these samples of his music:

Section II of "On The Shoulders of Giants" (2000/01)


"Shadows and Light" (2000)


Matthew Roberts: What mistakes do inexperienced composers make?

Allan Gilliland: I got into composition at the masters level, but never took a single undergraduate course in composition, so I made a lot of mistakes just out of ignorance. The one that drives me crazy with my students is that some of them, basically just due to insecurity, never want to finish anything. Drawing the double bar line is a big deal for some young composers. The way they get around that is, instead of taking the idea that they've been working on for two or three weeks and following it through, they throw it away the night before the deadline, and just do something really quick, so that if it does fail, they can just say “Oh I just did it last night.” They can just blow it off because they did it in a rush. I think drawing the double bar line – getting and idea, living with it, forcing it to exist is a really big thing.

The other things that I notice a lot of is just notational stuff - being able to write their ideas in a clear an concise way, that is sometimes a big stretch. Sometimes in my classes I might get a drummer, and they could be really creative, but you ask them to write a string quartet, and it's just out of this world for them to do that.

MR: How have you grown as a composer since you've started? Why have you grown?

AG: I think I've become more confident in my own language. Especially since I started at a masters level and I did a fairly traditional composition route – which means that for a while, I was writing music that I didn't particularly love, because I felt like I had to write “New Music”. I'm not slamming New Music – there are people who write that stuff great.

MR: You felt that you had to write New Music because that was what your teachers were interested in?

AG: Yeah, they wouldn't let you get away with a jazz piece at U of A in a Masters Program. And I think it is important when you're studying to explore all those languages in an attempt to find your voice, but I felt that when I got out of there I still felt like I had to write New Music – stay away from recognizable chords and melodies and all that stuff. So definitely one of the big ways I've grown, even since leaving the symphony is to be like “This is what I do, this is my voice, and that's it.” and a spin off of that is “And if you don't like it, I don't really care.” As a young composer you spend a lot of time worrying about what other composers think of your music, and ultimately it doesn't really matter. Because I'm not going to change a single note if someone says “that's too inside” or “that's too this or too that.” I just don't care.

The other thing is – I just got back from Banff ['s Center for The Arts] this weekend because I was there for the opening of the new amphitheater and I had a couple pieces played, and I've really learned to foster relationships with players rather then the new music scene or conductors, etc. Because the most luck I've had with having pieces commissioned, played, and replayed is by striking up relationships with players who have performance careers. So now if I'm going to generate a commission, it's going to be because I go up to someone who's said to me “Hey man, I really like your stuff.” and I say “Great, let's do something, let's make this happen.” Rather than waiting for an orchestra to get a hold of me, or entering a competition, or whatever.

MR: Where there any important ideas, pieces, teachers, etc. that affected your development?

AG: I think the first important piece was my first trumpet concerto, which I wrote in the early 90's . I did the Humber [diploma in Jazz Performance] thing, and then I did [a bachelors degree studying classical music] performance at the U of A, and it was during that time that I started hanging out with Malcolm [Forsyth, composer/conductor] taking orchestration courses, and got really into writing, kinda through studying orchestration rather than through composition. So, when I graduated from U of A I basically started freelancing, and got some teaching work at [Grant] MacEwan [College], and took private lessons with Violet Archer, and I wrote a suite for trumpet and piano as part of my studies with her. And I had Jens [Lindemann] read it one time, and he said “Man, this is fantastic, you should make this more substantial and call it a sonata.” So then it became a sonata. And then he was competing for a Canadian concerto competition. And he said “If we just change the name of this to concerto...” because the first round of the competition was just the supposed piano reduction and trumpet, and then the winner would get to play it with the Edmonton Symphony. So then we went ahead with that, and we figured if he happened to win, I would have to orchestrate it. So he won the competition and I got a premier with the ESO, which was great, because that was the first year I was studying composition, and in that year, that piece got premiered, which was outrageous. What was great is that it started a relationship with the ESO, and it started a professional relationship with Jens where he tucked this thing under his arm and played it a bunch of different places. I think that piece was important, because when they were opening the Winspear, they needed a fanfare to open it and [former ESO composer-in-residence] John Estacio called me and said “Hey I heard this trumpet concerto, and you seem to know how to write for brass, do you want to do the fanfare that opens the Winspear.” And so I wrote that one, and that was successful, and I think between the two of those, that was what got me the residency there.

MR: What about more conceptually, like things that changed how you thought about music?

AG: When I studied with Malcolm, he introduced me to this approach to composition. I was always struggling with the idea of all this New Music – it seemed to me like it was all just bullshit: people who didn't understand melody or harmony just throwing it all out the windows, and it was the emperors new clothes, nobody was going to call them on this shit. So I was always struggling with finding a language that wasn't tonal but still satisfied me as having a certain kind of rigor that made sense. So he introduced me to this cellular approach to composition where you come up with a three or four note structure where you like the potential of it both harmonically and melodically. Then, through variations, transpositions, and inversions you spell a language that goes both ways from the middle of the piano. So you build a language for a piece around a certain structure that you like. So no matter what happens, there's a certain intervalic cohesion to the language.

When I wrote the fanfare for the Winspear the cell was down a major second, up a major sixth, which gave me a structure I liked melodically, and when I started stacking up all the chords that come out of it, it gave me a really lush language. It's still kind of quasi-tonal, but it moves in ways that are unexpected, because you're following your scheme rather then any traditional root motion. I really liked that, and I still use that now and again – not as much as I used to – but it was a real eye-opener, because it made me think of harmonies spelling out from the middle rather then worrying what the root is. Because you know, as a jazz guy, you're always worrying “What's the root? What's the root?” It also freed me from worrying about whether the chord added up to anything or not. If I liked the structure, it was great. In my mind I was happy because it was all generated from this one thing, so I felt there was a certain integrity to the language, that it wasn't all random.

MR: What do you consider the most important principle(s) of good composition?

AG: If my career is successful, then I think it is successful because I'm very good at satisfying the people who commissioned me. I always say to people that if a piece is played, and I'm happy, the players are happy, and the audience is happy, then I've done my job. If I drop the ball on any one of those three things, then I'm not doing my job. Because I think there are three participants in composition. I think there are too many composers who only compose for themselves and really don't care if the players find it easy or hard to play, and really don't care what the audience thinks. I think that's a mistake. There are teachers who actually teach their students that the piece exists as long as you've written it, and it doesn't matter if it gets played or not. I totally don't agree with that at all, I think if it doesn't get played it doesn't exist. So for me the most important principle is for me to do my homework and to find out who I'm writing for, and to write the best possible piece I can for those people I can within the aesthetic of whatever it is I want to write. But more than anything, make it work for them. Make it work for everyone. Make sure the audience gets something out of it. Even if it is meant to make them angry, then make sure it makes them angry. But make sure there is something – that it doesn't just leave them scratching their heads thinking “What the hell's going on?”

MR: What I meant was more like “Is there a certain characteristic that all good compositions share?”

AG: I don't know, that's tough. Is there something in “The Rite of Spring” and “Take the A Train” that make them both successful?

MR: Is there something you think about when you're writing - “It's got to have this.”?

AG: I'm kind of a programmatic guy so usually I kind of have an idea first of what it is, an it is usually some sort of vague texture idea like, it's going to be fast or slow, or sustained or busy, or punctuated, and then I spend most of the time just trying to find that sound that I'm hearing. So I think it really depends on a lot of things, I don't really know. Because I've got some commissions coming up – I've got a commission for saxophone quartet, and my first instinct [snaps fingers] is I want to do something with sheets of sound, a la Coltrane. So I have this image of massively fast scales running through the ensemble. I don't know what that is, I don't know what the scales are going to be, but that is my first “click”. And probably when I write it that's where I'll start – I may not end there – but that's where I'll start because that's something I'm hearing.

MR: My answer to this question is that good compositions have a sense of elegance. There's some central idea - and this is totally in the mind of the beholder – and everything and every moment of the composition relates to expressing that central idea. Even if it is being totally crazy, everything relates to this idea of being crazy.

AG: That's good. I think I a successful piece has clarity. Like you said - a clear intent or an elegance. If this is what you're going to do, you do it, and it's clear, and everybody gets it. I think that is where a lot of pieces fail – again going back to my students – they don't want to hang on to the idea. They just either want to get rid of it because it isn't panning out, or they want to move on to something else too soon. When I studied with Violet, she was great about that. Going back to that trumpet sonata that I wrote, she was looking through my sketches, and I had pages and pages of stuff, and it was all over the map, and she pointed at one thing and said “That is the first movement right there – the whole first movement needs to be about that little phrase there.” So I went back and re-wrote. And it was about that kind of clarity of thought. “Okay, if this is the gesture, how am I going to get three movements out of this gesture?”

MR: Maybe it relates to how you were saying people can be angry, but you don't want them to just leave confused. If it lacks clarity, people can just walk out being like “I don't know what happened.”

AG: Yeah, there are some pieces that make people angry, like The Rite of Spring and stuff like that, where you're meant to come away feeling assaulted by the music. But do it in a smart way so that everybody gets it. That's my view, anyway.

MR: Have you ever experienced composers block?

AG: No, I don't think I do. Part of the reason is that I haven't written anything that hasn't been a commission in about 13 or 14 years. So I'm always working with a deadline, and I'm very proud of the fact that I've never missed a deadline. So if I get a glimmer of something, I'm off and running. Now I'm only 46 now, so it may yet happen. But again, it goes back to the kind of commissions that I'm getting. All the commissions I'm getting are really specific. It takes away a lot of the decision making process. I don't get a lot of orchestras saying write a ten movement overture, and I get to do whatever I want. I get someone saying “Well this piece is going to be on this lighter classics, and it is going to be paired with these other pieces, so you've got to do this and you've got to do that at least, and make sure...” There's a lot of stuff like that lately. I've been working with Jens [Lindemann] and also this clarinet player named Jim Campbell. And he'll come to me and say “Okay, this piece is named Spirit 20 and it's on a concert of composers from the 1920's, and we need a piece that is written for this instrumentation, it needs to be this amount of time, and so far we don't have anything that has the jazz side of the 1920s, so could you write something that's...” So suddenly my priorities are much more narrow. I get to do whatever I want within that, but it's a pretty specific commission. Generally what I do now is “Okay I'm writing for this amount of time for high-school men's choir...” so suddenly your tonal range, your complexity – all this stuff makes decisions for you. And usually some point, like I said, early on, I have a glimmer [snaps fingers] of what it's going to be, and I usually stay on that, and I don't bail, like my students do, I say “I'm going to make this work. This little glimmer is probably the right idea.”

MR: Do you enjoy that challenge?

AG: I love it! I prefer it to just kind of being wide open. There are a tonne of 10-minute Canadian overtures that have been written, and I'd rather write stuff that is going to get played. They're going to play the 1920's piece I wrote around this time last summer again – and it has already been played about 15 times. Because it was written for a specific ensemble, and they went out and did a whole bunch of chamber music concerts between last year and now, so it has been played 15 times. For me, that's what it is all about. I just wrote Jens [Lindemann] a new concerto last September, and again it was a very specific thing – because I was writing these concertos that are called “Dreaming of The Masters” which are concertos for specific instruments, which are inspired by the jazz masters of those specific instruments. So I wrote him one, and he's played it a half dozen times, he's already recorded it, and we're going to go to Carnegie Hall with it next year. All because I wrote for a guy who's got a career. And it is a piece that he can use in a variety of different things. I think in many ways my composition career is very much based in my former life as a freelance trumpet player. It's all about just making people happy, and making sure the gig is good, everything works, people don't have to work too hard, because there is very little rehearsal time. In orchestras, if you write a ten minute piece, you've probably got a half an hour to rehearse that damn thing, you've got to be on top of your game. You can't have a lot of people going “huh, what does this mean?” because they'll just turn off of you like that [snaps fingers]. So my approach is very practical, very down to earth.

MR: It's sort of funny - the whole reason I started this project was because I was writing this piece for my recital, and so many times I would be just sitting in front of a blank page for hours, and then just give up and go to bed or whatever. But everybody to whom I've asked “Do you experience composers block?” has just been like “No, not really.”!

AG: That's not to say that I don't spend a whole lot of time with something and then at the end have no more music then I started. But I think that's part of the process – you get all those bad notes out of the way before you discover the true essence of something. So, it's not like I'm just firing out music all the time – you've just got to work through it. And because I don't have the luxury all the time of taking three years to write a piece – I've got three months or three weeks – you just grab a thing and make the best of it, and then you move on to the next one.

MR: Yeah, maybe I was too hard on myself – that I felt if I wasn't going to use something, it was wasted time.

AG: Yeah, but it's not, because it's part of the process, of getting rid of all the bad notes, that will get to the essence of the notes.

MR: What is (are) the greatest challenge(s) of composition?

AG: I seem to focus more on the business side of things rather then the notes side of things, but in this day and age, there is no publishing any more, getting something recorded really doesn't mean much anymore – because everything's self-produced and sold on the internet – so I think the real challenge, once you get to a certain point in your career where it is starting to go, is that if you're going to keep it going it's all you. I mean, there was a time when if Shostakovitch wrote a new symphony, every symphony in the world would play that. I'm good friends with John Estacio, who has written three full-length, fully staged operas, and none of them will ever get done again. And each one took three years of his life. And each one was a huge success. But they'll never get done again. Because no opera company wants the second performance. They either want the first performance or the hits, that's the only thing they're going to do. They're not going to do a Canadian piece that doesn't mean anything to Ontario but meant a lot to Alberta. That's the hardest thing, and I find I spend a lot of my energy [on that]. If I want commissions, I keep a list of people who've said “Oh yeah, I'd love something.” It's my job to find them, hunt them down, find out who is going to play it, where I'm going to get the money, make the grant applications. If I want to get my music out there, it is my job to put it on iTunes, put it on all this stuff, build a website. I wish some of that stuff was more self-generating. And maybe in the States there is a larger population so there's more of a potential for that – like if you get something played by the San Francisco Symphony there's a chance that other symphonies with do it just because it was on their program. That to me is one of the biggest challenges. The actual writing part for me is not a huge challenge. The deadlines and all that stuff is not a huge challenge. I've done it long enough that I know how to get stuff done.

MR: Maybe the writing is the vacation from all that other stuff?

AG: Yeah, I've got this thing where I write in the mornings. When my kids were young and I was still doing a lot of freelancing, I would go to Grant MacEwan [College] and teach classes as a sessional, and go play a gig and blah blah blah, and my kids would be up late, and there was no time. By the time it got to the night when I was supposed to write, I was exhausted. Every musical impulse in my body [was exhausted]. So I turned my schedule around. I got up at 5 o'clock in the morning, and I write for two hours every morning, and then everyone else gets up and has a shower and goes to school, and that's my regular day. And if I do that two hours every morning, pieces will get done.

MR: And you still do that?

AG: Still do that, to this day. Even though I don't have to as much, because the kids are older. But when I'm in school, from September through April, and I have to teach a nine o'clock class, that's the only way it's going to get done, because I'm not going to do it at night. I'm going to resent it if I do it at night. But in the morning, those two hours I'm fresh, no one's bugging me, the phone's not going to ring, I turn off the internet – I just write. And it works for me.

At some point when it becomes less blank-page composition, I can do it elsewhere. Like orchestration I can do at night or in the afternoon or something. But I find that really precious germination stage really hard to do any other time. Even if I have the time, I find I can't do it. Because I've done it now for about ten years, I've trained my brain to be creative in those two hours in the morning. I'm really efficient, and I get a lot of stuff done.

MR: I can relate to that, in that it is the germination stage that is so special. Later on, it can sometimes become almost like working out arithmetic, just filling in the rest of the notes.

AG: Well sometimes that's the way I get, I wonder “Can't I get something to just plug this in, just make notes spew out on the page, because I know what this sounds like.” Often I'll write time graphs of my pieces. They don't have any notes. I'll get a ten-minute commission and I'll go “Here's zero, here's ten minutes, and this is kind of what I want to do.” It may change, but often it has that kind of a shape. I went to a workshop with John Corigliano, and he does exactly the same thing – he writes sound blocks, and his piece sort of follows that.

MR: So does your process have distinct phases – planning, brainstorming, editing, and so on?

AG: Yeah, for sure. Now if it is just a regular kind of orchestral piece, there's not a lot of research or planning, it's just “Okay, what do I want to write?” But I've done a couple compositions for the Alberta Baroque Ensemble, the first was an oboe concerto, and the second was just a straight concerto grosso. For the first one, if I'm going to write for oboe for the first time as a solo instrument, then I plug all the baroque oboe music I can into an iPod, and anytime when I'm sitting, whether I'm paying attention to it or not, I'm listening to oboe music. I want to know what that instrument sounds like – I want to get a feel for it “Up here it sounds like this, down here it sounds like that, etc.” I'm just programming my ear – even though I know the oboe, kind of – but it is different when you're writing for a solo instrument.

It depends on what the commission is – for example that Spirit 20 piece I wrote about the 1920's, I did a good couple of weeks of research. Because my jazz is sort of 40s through 70s. 1920's I don't really know. So I dug up all this Fletcher Henderson, Jellyroll Morton, because I wanted to get outside of the usual Dixie tunes that everybody knows, and I just started listening to textures, picking ideas.

So some pieces take a lot of time [in the research/planning phase], some don't take any time.

MR: You might have a long research phase, and then there is a brainstorming phase where you'll just get ideas out and put them down?

AG: Yup. And it is usually me sitting at the piano, coming up with a motif, or a chord, or a rhythm. It's always just like one thing. Like I wrote a piece for a trumpet player friend of mine from Saskatchewan named Dean MacNeil, for band and trumpet, and it was just a three note motif. For some reason when I hit it I said “Oh that sounds interesting, I could do something with that.” And the whole piece spun out of it. Or sometimes it just spins out from a simple set of chords. I'm a big chord guy so I'll come up with a progression, and then I'll find the line that goes over the progression. I'm really big on harmony.

I think of it as “The Three Cs of Composition” - Creativity, Craft, and Copying. So the creativity is me coming up with that little motif, and the bulk of composition is that middle C, the crafting, where you're just saying “How do I get six minutes out of this little thing?” So you sit and you spin it around and you do it in retrograde and you find out things, you do it forward and backwards. And then the end is just writing it in a clear and concise way.

MR: Do you have any helpful stratagems that you could share? Like caring around a take recorder or whatever...

AG: I've done the tape thing a couple of times. I've done the improv thing as well. One thing that scares me is I'm not a piano player and everything I write is on piano. So sometimes I think “I'm letting the piano get in the way of my imagination, since I can't play it.” So sometimes I might put on something like this [motions to my MP3 recorder] or a sequencer or something, and just improvise on a trumpet with whatever sounds I have in mind. And then go back and listen to it and say “Oh there's something that's interesting.” But I must admit I did that earlier on, and now-a-days I just sit down at a piano and say “What do I want to write, who do I want to write for?” And I try to narrow my parameters. I might say “This is the slow movement, what does it mean to feel slow.” And it suddenly kinds to start to sort of reveal itself, if you just do it. For me, if I find that one two-bar motif that is really song, that sounds like the piece, I know I'm done. I mean, I have a lot of work ahead of me, but after that I'm just figuring out what to do with it.

MR: What composers do you admire, and why?

AG: In the concert music world of things, I always liked the 20th century composers who could walk the line between tonality and atonality. So early Stravinsky, because he could be really ruckus, but also Russian folk songs. Prokofiev and Shostakovitch for the same reason. Debussy, because he kind of invented his own language, but it was still a language that was accessible and rich harmonically for me. Richard Strauss was another one. Mauler. Because if they needed to be angry, they could be angry, if they needed to be beautiful they had no problem being beautiful. So for the first kind of 30 or 40 years of the 20th century, those are the guys I like.

More recently, it is the same kind of thing. John Corigliano is one. Again, he walks that line really really well. John Adams was also a really big deal to me. I listened to him a lot when I was in residency [with the ESO]. There was a couple of pieces... the big orchestral piece was Harmonielehre because he was just bathing himself in tonality, it was just fantastic. And his orchestration... because one of the things I dislike is jazz guys trying to write concert music, and concert music guys trying to write jazz when they don't actually understand the form. To me, Adams is able to find the rhythmic energy of jazz and rock-and-roll, and find a way to make it work for concert music instrumentation. So the music actually rocks, but in a proper way that those guys can play it.

MR: Is it just your speculation that he was influenced by jazz and rock and roll?

AG: No, I've read a book on him and Steve Reich, and Glass, Terry Riley. And most of them came from a jazz background. Late Coltrane was actually one of their main inspirations. This idea that you could play over one chord for 20 minutes was one of the inspirations for minimalism. That and African drumming and gamelan, that kind of stuff all goes into it. But it was all driven by the fact that they were living in the 50's and 60's, and there was all this great rock and roll, this psychedelic rock going on. And they were trying to figure out how to bring that in. And they were trying to get as far away from serialism as possible. Because they all went to school, they all had to do it, and they all hated it. So they just found their own way.

And those guys are great because people hated that stuff. Hated it! If you were a composer in the '60s, that stuff was like coping out. And now if you look back, it was the most influencial music of the last 50 years. More so than serialism or any of that kind of stuff. If you think about house music and rave music, all this stuff that was influenced by house music, it's fantastic. Just because these guys had the guts to say “You know, I'm just going to vamp this chord for 20 minutes.”

MR: Yeah, I've always heard a relationship between minimalism and a lot of electronic music, but is there actually any direct historical connection?

AG: I'm just guessing. But I remember I wrote a musical a while ago, and they wanted house music for one scene. So they gave me some stuff to listen to. And as soon as I put it on I thought – wow, this is minimalism! Seems that way to me anyway. Or I saw U2 when they came to town last month, and same thing with them. You listen to the Brian Eno influence on U2 and you think “That's all just sonic scapes, that's all minimalism, that's all 60's psychedelic...” I just think minimalism has been very influential on a lot of musics.

So those are the 20th century guys. I'm also a big film scoring buff, so I like John Williams, Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, and Art Herman. And some of the new guys – Michael Giaccino, he does all the Pixar films. And then I've always been a big jazz guy, so Ellington/Strayhorn for sure, Gershwin, Bernstein I love, again because of that ability to cross over, and bring to jazz a truly unique approach to concert writing. Metheny I love.

MR: This is next question is very related: What compositions do you admire? Sometimes I have compositions in mind when I'm writing. And sometimes it might not be the harmony, or the sounds or anything, it might just be the sense of balance.

AG: Yeah, I mentioned Adams' Harmonielehre, also his Violin Concerto was a big one. I remember having Harmonielehre on my stand when I was writing this piece for the ESO when I was in residence. I had my ideas and I knew I wanted to wrap them in a minimalist energy. So I was looking “Okay, what do the woodwinds do?” So it's my melody, my chords, but I definitely used his orchestration as a way to realizing my ideas.

Another piece was Corigliano's first symphony, which is called Of Rage and Remembrance, it's a fantastic work.

MR: What was it that you liked about it?

AG: There was a couple of things. I was also looking at that piece while I was writing another orchestral piece. It was his ability to combine traditional and non-traditional notation in a very clear and easy to understand way. He's very good at doing that. He's also very good at writing beautiful melodic moments that juxtapose with really angry ones. The other thing I liked about that piece was that every single part of that piece is so personal. Basically the piece is about friends that died from AIDS. So he had this beautiful cello melody that he had found on a cassette he had recorded while jamming with one of his cellist friends who had died of AIDS. There's a tarantella – the tarantella is [a traditional Italian dace form based on the idea of] going crazy because she's been bit by a tarantula – his analogy is that people are going crazy because they're dieing of AIDS. Everything had a really personal feel to it. I really got into that idea - "If I'm going to write something, it should really speak to me and really mean something to me." And so the piece I wrote was very personal.

Recently, when I was finishing my opera, I was really struggling with aria and recitative. Recitative is just so hard to write. When I looked at the operas that I liked – Puccini and Strauss and stuff – they have this kind of through-composed thing going on, where there is this constant really busy orchestration underneath, and I just couldn't get my head around doing that. So Benjamin Britten made me think “Oh I can do that!” Because he has this old-school way of doing it. When you get to the recitative, you just go chord – dialogue – chord... and the opera I was writing had a lot of dialogue that you just couldn't constantly write underneath it. So I took his opera Rape of Lucretia as a template. Not only was he giving me that solution, but he was also writing for the same instrumentation as me, so I was checking out his orchestration – how big of a sound did he get out of this ensemble, what does he do with them.

When I wrote my piano concerto, even though it was jazz inspired, I had Rachmaninoff Two on my stand because I'm not a piano player and I wanted to be virtuosic, so I was looking at the virtuosic writing of Rachmaninoff. “Okay I've got my harmony, I want to do one of those up and down the piano things, what does that look like?”

So I sometimes zero-in on a piece. Sometimes it changes – sometimes I hear another piece, and I'm like “Oh that's really cool I'll incorporate that...”

MR: What do you get out of composition? What drew you to composition? Do you enjoy the composing, or do you enjoy hearing the piece more, or...

AG: I think I like doing it more. Usually listening to the piece is painful. I'm usually in a quasi-fetal position listening to my own premiere. Not because it isn't working, but because I'm going “Come on, you've done that before, oh not that theme again, oh come on, move on...”

The reason I did it... I had a pretty good career up until my late 20s. I was teaching sessionally at the U of A, sessionally at Grant MacEwan, I was freelancing as a trumpet player, doing some teaching, doing some copying. I was doing alright, and I could still be doing that. But I got more and more interested in the whole picture. I thought “I don't want to be the trumpet player, I want to be the guy who wrote this!” Because you sit in an ensemble and you'd play some great piece of music and you'd think “That's so amazing!” I wanted to be they guy who wrote this thing that everyone was enjoying playing, everyone was enjoying listening to. So I thought in my mind “How are they doing this? How does this work?” And I think it was my interest in that - “There's got to be a way to figure this out.” As amazing as some pieces sound, and as incomprehensible they look when you look at the score. In my undergrad I took orchestration, and a big part of orchestration is making piano reductions. Sometimes you realize that it is just foreground, middle-ground, and background. Just three elements going on. All this craziness that is going on is just orchestrational slight of hand. So you start thinking “You know, this is not that complex. I could do this. By taking little steps and getting better and better.” So it was definitely about that – about wanting to do it.

MR: Curiosity?

AG: Yeah, curiosity. And everything else is a bonus – people like to play it, you get good vibes from people, you get to stand up and take a vow. That's all great, but really I just wanted to figure out how to do it.

Even when I used to play in Tommy [Banks]'s band – he was a master arranger – I would wonder “How does he do it? How does he write it so that you don't even have to play it – you just look at the part and go 'Yeah, this is going to work.'?” I always admired that – it just works.

MR: Do you look forward to that two hours in the morning?

AG: Usually. When I'm on the thing and I've got a good commission. Lately I've been taking too much on, partially just because I'm getting really good requests and it is hard to say no when a really good player or ensemble asks you. So you say yes, but you don't have the time to get it really well– you're just writing fast. And I'm doing the PhD at the same time. I need to step back a little bit. When I look at the pieces I'm really proud of, it is the ones where I had six months to write this piece properly, or I had two months to orchestrate this piece, not two weeks. I want to give myself the time to enjoy writing the piece, and to be able to go back on it a few times.

MR: Which of your own compositions are you most proud of and why?

AG: I've got a couple orchestra pieces I'm really proud of – one is called “On The Shoulders of Giants”. That's the one that I was using the Corigliano piece as inspiration. I love that piece because orchestrationally it's really cool. It's really personal because it's about my folks. I also really like another orchestra piece called “Of Shadows and Light”. I also really like it orchestrationally. It's a ten minute piece and it just holds up well. The other orchestral piece I really like is Loch na Beiste which is about the Loch Ness Monster. It's just a fun piece, and it is one of those pieces that when I was writing for the orchestra that I didn't feel afraid about writing a really catchy melody. And I think from that point onwards I moved towards writing a much more tonal language.

So those are the orchestra ones I like. I have a bunch of “tunes” I'm pretty proud of, jazz stuff. They come out of the “Dreaming of The Masters” concertos I've been writing. I have three of them now – the first was a clarinet concerto, the second was a piano concerto, the third one was a trumpet concerto. And each one of them was basically a tune. And there were some tunes in there I really liked. The second is one I really liked – again I had a long time to work on it, because I took that with me during my year in Scotland, and that was all I had to work on, and I didn't have to teach or anything. When I listen to it I can hear that I had time. It's long – probably about six minutes too long, probably because I had too much time! [laughs] But when I listen to it I think “I had time to think about orchestration, and development, and structure, and form.”

MR: So those tunes that came out if it, do you play those in like a small jazz group?

AG: All the time. The two tunes that I've used out of the first one – the first is a ballad called “Stranger On The Prairie”, sort of an Ellington-type ballad – I've used it a lot. I've used it as a big band chart, I recently did a brass quartet version. I just like the tune – it's a nice tune.

MR: What about it makes it a nice tune? Can you say?

AG: It's just a pretty tune! I don't know what to say... It's my thing... It's harmonically dense; I hardly let a quartet note go by without a chord change, which is my thing. It's a catchy tune, it's memorable. It sounds like something Ellington or Gershwin might have written. It just seems to translate – it works great for big band, string orchestra, brass quartet.

I've got about a half-dozen of those tunes I'm really proud of. Two years ago I wrote a suite for the Dave Young Septet. There was a couple things in that that I really liked. I wrote this piece called “Zigzag” that has metric modulation in it. I'd never really done that kind of stuff. I find when I do have a reason to write jazz, I write really hard jazz. I wrote another tune recently that is a 7/4 shuffle. Just stuff like that. I think it is my concert music bleeding into my jazz writing and making it very rhythmically complex, contrapuntal, and quite busy.

I'm proud of those tunes. I think they bode well for any future jazz writing I might do.

MR: Can you recommend any books, DVDs, anything I can look up, that has been or is important to you?

AG: There's so few composition books. I didn't use any. But perhaps that is because I didn't do an undergrad in composition so whatever the textbooks were, I skipped that part. There was a book by Bill Dobbins called Jazz Arranging and Composition: A Linear Approach. That was a real eye-opener for me because he was about “You're on this moment/chord, you've got to get this moment/chord, turns out you can pretty much do anything to connect the two of these as long as the line is strong.” Because when I started writing I'd been so beaten to death with chord-scale relationships and avoid notes, that you become scared to death when you're writing a line: “Oh my God, I'm hitting the avoid note, what's it going to do?!” His whole thing is “Just write an interesting line and you can get away with anything, as long as it has a strong starting point and a strong arrival point.” So that was the first time I thought about linear writing – you know, writing horizontally rather than vertically. So that was cool.

MR: You mentioned the Copland book already... [Here I had actually meant to refer to John Adam's autobiographical book Hallelujah Junction, which Alan had mentioned during his discussion of minimalism.]

AG: The Copland book I liked was What To Listen For In Music, because he just talks to laymen about composition, which is really kind of cool.

There's a couple of orchestration books, like the Adler book [The Study of Orchestration by Samuel Adler] is my bible when I'm writing for orchestra. When I first started to write big band charts there was a book called Inside The Score [by Rayburn Wright] which is six big band charts, two Nestico, two Thad Jones, and two Bob Brookmeyer, all done in reductions, and it was the first time I was like “Oh I get how you voice this...”

I like to read interviews with people. Even though they're not saying anything specific, I get lots out of what they're saying about struggles. I've read a lot of biographies. There's a book called Composer to Composer, by an Australian guy [Andrew Ford] who just interviewed a bunch of composers. I find those as useful as anything else. I remember reading a couple of books on minimalism and getting a real understanding of where it came from, what they were trying to do. It just kind of filters through me and I decide if I want to incorporate it or not.

MR: What was your favorite biography?

AG: I've read a couple of really good ones. The one on Charles Ives [Charles Ives: A Life With Music] was really fantastic, I can't remember who wrote it. The one on Gil Evans [Gil Evans: Out of The Cool: A Life With Music] was really good. There is actually a new book out of Berkeley that has some of those Miles Ahead charts analyzed. I've been going through that, that's been good. Adams' book [Hallelujah Junction] I really enjoyed. A read a couple of Miles' biographies, I read his autobiography.

I've got a few composition books, but they always seem like they're trying to be really new, or they're too conservative. It seems like there should be something better out there. There probably is. It seems like we're all talking about the same twelve notes so why can't you analyze a theme from Beethoven, and then My Funny Valentine, and then a Beatles tunes. That would be a great book.

MR: I'm more interested in just getting the courage to check out those twelve notes on my own. I've been to school for ten years, I know tonnes of theory, I just need to inspire myself to find my own ways.

AG: There is also a book on Bartok [Bela Bartok: An Analysis of His Music by Erno Lendvai], it's the book that revealed all the golden mean stuff, and the tonal axises. I found that really interesting. I never actually used it, but I found it interesting. I think Bartok is fantastic – his string quartets, Concerto for Orchestra. When he starts to looking at all the Golden Mean proportions, it just blows my mind – the level of rigor that he must have been thinking on to make that music sound as beautiful as it does but also have that stuff going on underneath it.

MR: I'm noticing when I talk to people that the jazz thing vs. the classical thing is coming up a lot. You, Andrew Downing and Dave Wall all seem to have one foot in each tradition.

AG: Both traditions have a lot of meat in them. Pop music – there are a lot of great pop writers as well – but there is a certain stripped-down aesthetic where you don't have to worry as much in pop music – you can get away with just three chords. But jazz is a very complex music harmonically; rhythmically it is at an incredibly high level, higher than classical music. So both are really valid disciplines. Considering the people you interviewed, we've all come through that at some point. Most of my background is in jazz. I would have laughed in your face if you told me in high-school that I was going to be an orchestral writer. No way on earth I thought I'd ever do that. So I'm bringing that into my orchestral music, trying to make my voice unique without it sounding like I'm just writing [a jazz piece]. I'm really struggling with that – not struggling – I'm really interested in that. Because for me there's a point where you can listen to an Alban Berg piano sonata and an unaccompanied Bill Evans piano solo, and they're almost exactly the same. There's an interesting moment that goes on. One of the things my teacher did during my PhD was with the middle, slow section of this jazz-inspired piano concerto I wrote, which is very much kind of one of those Ellington chromatic tunes. He started to analyze it not as I would, as a jazz guy, but in terms of motifs, like a legit guy.  He could validate everything – he was looking at motivic movement, and I was like “Well, it's just two-five, tri-sub.” But he's not looking at it that way at all. And one thing I'd like to do in the future is to take those languages and see what happens when you butt them up against each other. If you look at Bill Evans as a legit guy, and you look at Alban Berg piano sonatas... Someone did an Alban Berg piano sonata as an audition piece to Grant MacEwan and I was just blown away with it because it all sounded like upper-structure dominant harmonies.

So definitely the jazz thing is a big thing, and it is such a part of me, that even when I'm writing concert music, I'm trying to find a way to bring the two of them together. A lot of what I'm writing lately, despite being fully notated and highly contrapuntal, can on some level be understood as a jazz piece, or as a concert piece. A lot of them, despite being completely notated, have sections where if you wanted to and you were able to, you could blow. I kinda like that. I'm really fooling around with that right now. I think that is why my jazz music is getting really complex, because I'm trying to bring [classical influences] in there, and at the same time my concert music is getting more jazzy. And both of those things are good to me; I think my voice lies somewhere in there. When it does work – like the middle movement of this trumpet concerto I just wrote, which is jazz-influenced, the opening and the closing are a bunch of fugal horn cadenzas, but I've got bowed vibraphone, I've got strings bending up and below the pitch, I've got these 20th century techniques wrapped around jazz stuff. To me I think “That's where it's at.”

I remember just before Brecker died he did this album with what he called the deca-quintet, which is a quintet with a chamber ensemble. And the writing – I don't know if it was his writing – it was so great. I just think – somewhere in there is some kind of hybrid ensemble that I could write for, made up of people that can improvise, and people that can really read notes well... some kind of 15-20 piece ensemble where you can really write something, some important note-y stuff, and then you can open it up and people can blow. I think when that happens it's just fantastic.

MR: That brings us to our last question: How do you want to develop as a composer in the future?

AG: That would definitely be it.

Lately what I'm finding is I've written so much music in about the last ten years, and a lot of it is getting repeat performances. There's a momentum building. Remember at the beginning where I said things only happened if I made them happen? Well, things are starting to happen a little bit without me doing them. So one of the things I hope for the future is things start to generate themselves out of stuff I've done. I've been trying to get stuff recorded, and I've been trying to get the rights to them, so that I can license that music, I can get it played in as many places as possible. I'd love to give film scoring a try, but I'm not going to do it from Edmonton unless somebody comes to me - unless someone hears something and says “I want you”, I'm not going to get it unless I move, and I'm not going to move right now.

The other thing is just exploring this jazz thing. I'd like to explore that in some of my future commissions: the saxophone quartet I talked about, this piece for the guy in the Dallas symphony, P.J. [Perry, Canadian jazz alto saxophonist] wants a concerto from me as well. I want to keep trying to hone that voice in so that it sounds like me, but is something I like doing. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Interview with Composer David Binney

(This post is part of an ongoing series where I interview composers about their process.)

Most would agree David Binney is one of the most original and prolific composers of small-ensemble jazz music working today. He's released at least one album a year since 1998 (perhaps not coincidentally, the year he started his own label, Mythology Records). He performs and records regularly with many of the most creative and virtuosic musicians on the New York scene. As AllAboutJazz.com puts it "For more than two decades, this exhilarating alto saxophonist has made a string of absorbing recordings as leader that have cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting and original musicians/composers in New York." (The same article went on to call his recent album Graylen Epicenter a "classic of our time" - six months after it had been released!) On a more personal note, when I interviewed myself, David Binney was the composer who I stated I most admired. So I was very excited when I got the chance a few days ago to interrogate him over Skype.  He was a little pressed for time - he had just flown to L.A. to begin recording another album.  But I'm very happy with what I managed to squeeze out of him in a limited amount of time, and very grateful that he made time for the interview in his busy schedule.

Check out his track "All Of Time" which opens Graylen Epicenter.



Matt Roberts: Your music seems very spontaneous in some respects, but when I look at your charts, they are very specific. How do you decide what is spontaneous, and what is pre-determined? How much does the music change after you bring it to the band, and how important is what the band does with it after you bring them the charts?

David Binney: Well, I'm pretty specific about the writing part. You know, I write out the voicings for the pianist usually, so when the written parts are played, they are usually played pretty close to exactly what I've written. After that, in the improvising sections, I leave it up to whatever the musicians want to do. If it is a chordal section, they can voice it however they want. I try to balance a very composed thing with a very open, free, or non-controlled environment. That's been my thing. I don't want to control the improvisation at all.

MR: What about the forms? I noticed with the charts on your website that the heads are all there, but the forms aren't, and sometimes your tunes have sort of complicated forms. Do those forms evolve when you bring the charts to the bands, or do you have them in mind already?

DB: With the stuff you downloaded, sometimes I leave the forms out, because the basic information is there, so I figure it encourages people to do what they want with the information.

With the band I have the arrangement all figured out. I usually know exactly what I'm going to do when I bring it into rehearsal. There are times when we play it, and I hear something and realize something needs to be changed, or that something doesn't work the way I thought it would, or whatever, but usually I have it all mapped out: “This is what we do, this is the tune.” - and at least we try it that way. With the band, I know what I'm doing, it's very controlled – except for the improvisation.

MR: What is your compositional process? Do you have a routine? Do you do it everyday? Do you have phases – for example, do you brainstorm and then edit?

DB: It's changed over the years. I used to write just to write, because I enjoyed it and I wanted to write music, but then I became busier, and now I find that I write when I have something to write for. I really only write now when I have a project – a gig, or most of the time it is a record. I was supposed to do that tonight - I'm actually out here working on a record. I'll just start writing because I'm writing for a record, and it usually flows pretty easily. But I don't go “Oh I have nothing to do, I guess I'll write some music.”

MR: So you don't write at a certain time or anything – just whenever you can fit it in?

DB: Kind of. For years I wrote late at night – like after midnight until six in the morning or something. It seems like now I write more often in the daytime. It isn't a specific time.

MR: And if you have an album that you're going to write for, would your first step be to brainstorm – come up with a bunch of themes and ideas – and then after you have a bunch of material thin it down, or do you just have an idea and go with it and write the whole thing... you know, is there any kind of sequence of stages in your composition?

DB: I usually start something and I finish it, and then I move on to the next thing. And then I get a bunch of those, and I weed out the ones I don't want to use. But the actually composition – I start something and then I finish it.

MR: I heard you are writing some stuff for string orchestra with saxophone and piano – is that any different? That would be a lot more notes on the page.

DB: Yeah, the stuff I've written for that is through-composed, so far – there is like 40 minutes of music with no improvisation and it is completely through-composed – it's like classical music basically.

MR: So do you need to have a more complex process to come up with that much material? Or does that happen the same way – you just write and it comes out?

DB: It's exactly the same process, it just takes longer because there is so much more writing. When I'm working on that stuff, sometimes I will write for eight hours and get maybe 30 seconds of music.

MR: So obviously for a lot of that you must be playing with things – there must be some brainstorming in that?

DB: Hmm... maybe a little. I basically put my hands on the keyboard and I just start writing. It just kind of flows. And when I feel like I'm done for the day, I stop. The next day I pick it up where I left off and continue. Within that, sometimes I might go “Oh, I need to bring this theme back in here, oh this would be good, let me take this thing and now put it in the cello part and speed it up or use a thread...” That's all part of the process.

MR: Do you believe in any essential principle of a good composition? Some quality that every good composition has?

DB: That's a hard one. I like every kind of music. I don't know. It's like that old Duke Ellington thing – you either like it or you don't. If you like it... cool. I don't have any kind of parameters on anything. I'm not sure if I have any rules for it – I seriously just think whether I enjoy it or not – if I like listening to it or not. I don't think of music in that way. I'm seriously not ever judging music other than if I like it or not.

MR: What composers do you most admire?

DB: Man, there are so many...

MR: It's a big question; what are the first that come to mind?

DB: Well, I guess Wayne Shorter for me, for jazz. Stravinsky, Aaron Copland... Pat Metheny, I always liked old records of his.

MR: Wayne was the first person you said – can you say what it is about Wayne that you admire as a composer?

DB: It just appeals to me somehow. I like the beautiful melodies and chords, and it's unique and memorable... you know, as everyone probably feels in jazz, I mean he's obviously a great composer.

There are so many... it's just beyond... Joni Mitchell, I love her tunes... I can't... it's just mind-boggling.

MR: What do you get out of composing – you've recorded almost entirely original music – why are you so focused on composing?

DB: There are a few records where I have some Wayne tunes, a Sam Rivers tune, a Monk tune, a couple Duke Ellington tunes... but, it's rare. I'm not against it – I was thinking about maybe doing a standards record in the next couple of years. But I like to compose, and the music that has been appealing to me usually has been new composition. I'm always looking for stuff that appeals to me and is sort of new in some way to me. So I guess I've always wanted to be that.

MR: Do you enjoy the act of composing, or do you get more pleasure over playing over your tunes, or do you get the most pleasure out of having the album done, or all of the above? What do you get out of composing?

DB: It would definitely be all of the above, but the ultimate thing for me is to create an album. When you have it, and it's done, and it's like “I made this thing that everybody listens to.” That's sort of the biggest thrill in music to me. But of course, live playing, which I do all the time, is so intense, and I love that too, it's just a different thing. But I think the most important thing to me is the albums.

MR: But do you enjoy the process of actually sitting down and coming up with stuff? Because for me, sometimes I don't enjoy that at all – I enjoy when it is over!

DB: I really like it, if it is flowing well, which most of the time it is now. Yeah, I really like it. When it is flowing well, the thrill of that is fantastic, because you get so excited about what you're hearing, what you're writing. I guess I really like it. But it's not that hard for me, composition has never been really hard.

MR: Why has it never been hard for you? Have you ever had a block?

DB: Maybe a couple of times, but nothing major. I don't know, it's just what I do, it's just what I love and what I do. It just happens. I don't have to force it, it's just me. Music is my whole life. It is the language I speak the best, so it's not that hard.

MR: Can you recommend any books or videos, anything I could go out and get, that's affected you as a composer?

DB: Well you know, I never studied any of it. I've never studied composition, I've never studied piano. I don't know how to play piano. I'm weird in that way. I just sit down – I know how to get what I want out of the piano, but I don't know how to play piano. Like if you put a standard in front of me, and say “play this tune” I couldn't do it. I could figure it out really slowly, and if you come back in five days I could probably slowly play though it. I mean when I'm writing I'm not thinking about key, or even time signature a lot of the time, or what the harmony relates to, or what the harmony is, or how the melody relates – I'm not thinking about any of that stuff. I don't know. I don't write down what the chords are. I'm just purely writing what I'm hearing. And then after the fact I figure it all out.

MR: So do you mostly write sitting at the piano with a piece of score paper?

DB: I used to do it that way, but once all those programs came along I started just writing into the computer because it allowed me to do so much more, since I'm not a piano player. Actually, I come up with the most ideas on the piano, because it just feels and sounds great to me. But, I don't have the facility to play something and then remember it and play it again, because I don't really know what I'm doing. So it was a really slow process when I did it with just piano and paper. Although I did it for years; like some of my early records – I guess my first three or four records - were written with just piano. But once the computer stuff came along, that just opened up everything for me. Because it would allow me to play something, like it, and immediately put it in, so I didn't have to know how to play it again.

MR: So you compose with a piano and computer now, right next to each other?

DB: No, I just have a midi computer into Sibelius or ProTools. So that it is all there instantly, so I don't have to remember how to play it. Otherwise it would be really hard for me.

MR: Are there any composition or compositions that you are most proud of, and why?

DB: Yeah, there's some that stand out a bit to me, just because I like them. Sometimes when you write something good and you feel good about it, I like it like a listener would like it. I can put it on and go “Oh, this is a good tune.” I can kind of detach myself from it. And that's probably because I don't know what I did in the first place until after the fact and I don't remember what it actually is, so I'm actually listening to my records, in a way, like a listener would. Except for the solos. But the actual composition, I really don't know what's going on. Because after I do it, I write it out, that's it. I don't remember what it is after the fact. I guess I can listen that way. And if I listen that way, I guess there are a few tunes that stand out. I mean, I like a lot of them, I don't put anything out I don't like. But, there are a couple tunes on my newest album – Graylen Epicenter – that I felt really good about. There are a few tunes that I've written that I haven't recorded yet, that I've written recently, that I really really like.

MR: So which tunes on the new record?

DB: I don't really remember the order... track four?

MR: Everglow?

DB: Everglow, yeah I really like that. I like the title track. I like All Of Time. I got into a certain kind of thing during this recent period that moves around a lot harmonically. Almost like in the sense of a modern Giant Steps vibe – I mean this stuff is going all over the place. When I'm soloing over that stuff, it probably sounds pretty easy to the listener, because it's kind of relaxed, but it's actually really hard! There's a lot of harmonic motion and it's through-composed. I think with track four – I think it's that track – it is four and a half minutes before anything repeats.

And then there is a tune of mine that I like, but it seems like everyone else always asks me about it. It is the most downloaded one. It's on a record called South, and it is called Out Beyond Ideas.

MR: Yeah, I love that tune!

DB: Everybody asks me about that tune. You know, I like it a lot, I don't think it's even close to [skype lost audio for a moment] now, but for some reason that tune resonates with people. There are a lot of other tunes I like. There's stuff on Third Occasion. But you know, I'm always trying to push it forward, so I guess some of my favourite writing I haven't recorded yet. It's been written in the last few months.

MR: You said you are getting into a thing where you are moving around a lot harmonically – do you enjoy that as a listener, or do you enjoy it as a soloist, having the challenge of playing over those tunes?

DB: Both. I like listening to music that moves around a lot. I'm out here [in L.A.] now doing a record that's completely different than anything I've ever done. People with either hate it or really love it – or they'll just be surprised probably. Because it is very electric, and very synth oriented and vocals, and all that stuff. We're just starting it. But some of the material has a lot of harmonic motion, even within this electronic, groove world. Which I like, and this guy I'm working with – Louis Cole – really likes too. We have similar tastes with kind of making groove or something more accessible in some way, yet still with a lot of harmonic motion. And it's really fun to play over, and listen to too. It doesn't always have to be that way for me, at all, but in this period I'm liking that a lot. I'm liking a lot of harmonic motion, and it is really fun to play over for me.

MR: Were there any really important moments, teachers, bands, or pieces of music that affected how you developed as a composer?

DB: There are certain people that I listen to that I think probably. Well teachers no, because I didn't study composition. But yeah, music that I listen to. That goes back to that other question. It would be almost the same thing. But I remember listening to Metheny records, a lot of ECM stuff back in the day, Jan Garbarek records, Bill Frisell, obviously Wayne, a lot of Brazilian music has influenced me really heavily - Ivan Lins, Jobim, Milton Nascimento.

MR: Did Brazilian music change your course? Was there anything like that – where you heard something and you were suddenly like “That's it!”

DB: I don't think it changed any course, it just added to the course I was on. And again, because I haven't studied the music, whatever it was – a lot of classical music - again classical music – Copland, Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Lutoslawski, Detellyou (sp?) – they really influenced me. L.A. Pop from the 70's and 80's. When I say influential, it is just the sound of it, because I never figured out anything. Sometimes when I hear stuff, I can kinda get that vibe without knowing what that is.

MR: You've said you didn't have any composition teachers, but did you study as a jazz performer – most of us study, like, harmony - your standard jazz harmony education.

DB: Yeah, I studied all the harmonic thing, and a lot of classical music, and did a lot of technical stuff. But the difference with me in that area is that I've never transcribed a solo. Or I've never memorized a solo. Not once in my life have I ever done that. I never memorized a lick, I never memorized anything to play through a two-five-one. Nothing like that. I just learn the harmony, and got technique. And my whole theory about that is that if you have technique and you know the harmony, there's no reason you can't play through changes without ever learning one solo.

MR: Just learning scales and arpeggios and stuff like that?

DB: Yeah, if you know the scales that you're supposed to play over any given chord, and you have technique on the instrument, you should be able to play through anything. That's the way I've thought about music, that's what I've done. So that's why people go “What are you playing?” They don't really know. Well, it's not anything that I've copied, because I don't know that stuff. I could listen to it and imitate it, in a way. If someone puts on a bebop tune and says “just cop a bebop vibe” I can get that, but it's not anything that I've learned or memorized. It's just assimilated, that sound in my head. But at the same time it's not playing by ear, I'm definitely dealing with all the harmonic structure. So it is kind of this in between kind of zone. I think it's very unusual, from just about everyone I've ever talked to. The way they've learned is just a different thing.

But it's never affected my composition because I don't think ever once – I've played tones of standards – but I don't think I've ever written a two-five-one in a tune. If I did it was accidental. But I don't really know how to play it on the piano so I don't think I've ever written anything like that.

MR: Do you have any goals as far as how you want to develop your composition and your music in the future?

DB: No, I don't have any goals with it, I just want to keep kind of moving forward. And everything I do, I want it to be forward motion. Something new, something I haven't done before.

MR: Just sort of following the next foot, whatever comes after what you just did?

DB: Yeah, and developing what I just did. If I'm really happy with what I just did, I might use the same instrumentation, but I still always want it to be a development of that. And sometimes, I just go completely left of what I've done. Like, I'm half-way done with this string record, which will probably be done in a year or so, now I'm recording this electric record, there will be other records with some of the same groups - you know, I think there will be another record with Blade and all those guys, at some point in the next year or so. So you know, I just keep my hand in a lot of areas. And that's what interests me, because I listen to so much different music. I don't want to just make the so-called “jazz record”. And yet I'm a player and I love to play, so I'm trying to bridge some of the more groove and electric and pop elements up to the way I write and the way I play with this new record. It's going to be drastically different, but I think – I know – I 'll be really into it. Maybe everyone else won't be, but I will.

MR: I've read in interviews how it is important for you that your music can be appreciated both by someone who's an expert in jazz and someone who is coming to it ignorant of all that – everyone can get something.

DB: Yeah, that's a goal. That's important to me. When I'm writing, I do think about that. I think about “It's not just for me, I'm doing this for other people.” I want people to like it.

MR: Not just jazzbos.

DB: Yeah, I want everybody to like it. I'm not compromising to do that, but I'm thinking about it. If I like it and it makes me feel good as a listener, I know that other people will like it. I can kind of tell when I'm writing what people will like and what people won't like as much. That's an important thing for me, I want as many people as possible to like the music. That's the whole point.

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