This interview with Chris Gestrin was conducted by email in September 2007.
Tony Reif: It’s been such a long process putting this record together – we recorded it in July 2004 – that its origins are shrouded in the mists of time, or at least the fogs of my memory. Remind me, what possessed us to dream up this, as you put it recently, “colossal” project?
Chris Gestrin: The idea was to feature me strictly as an acoustic pianist and performer in exposed settings (largely free improvisations) in contrast to my previous Songlines release, Stillpoint, which focused more on a group concept and myself as a composer and producer.
TR: The album is two playlists you’ve created sequencing many of the best moments from three concentrated, demanding days of recording (three duos/trios a day plus solo piano pieces that you squeezed in somewhere). It also represents one statement of your artistic credo, as well as a kind of musical family album. Old friends or new ones, these are all Vancouver musicians you either have a significant history with (e.g. Jon Bentley and Dylan van der Schyff) or wanted to perform with in this context. Having taken on the challenge of creating music from scratch in so many different contexts, and having listened to the results over a period of time, how well do you think you succeeded in what you hoped to do, and what did you learn about your stamina, inventiveness, adaptability to different situations, etc.? Or more generally about your view of your own music?
CG: The idea of 9 different sessions over a 3-day period definitely seems taxing! I think I managed to stay ‘fresh’ because each session, being with different instruments and performers, inspired me in different ways. Certainly if all 3 days had been with the same group, I would not have been able to feel continually inspired, especially in an improvised setting. I do feel successful in what I accomplished when I listen back. To me, each session has a unique approach and yet they are all connected.
TR: The music here covers a lot of ground – it’s based in jazz and free improvisation, but also includes elements of world music, what might be called ‘ambient’ in the sense of having a meditative, free-flowing quality, and also the western classical tradition (especially 20th century music – Shostakovich is one of your heroes). One thing that all your music shares is a concern with close (and ‘deep’) listening in the service of spontaneous composition/interaction, as well as an ability to hold, and move, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ on a continuum of expression. Could you say something about your development as a musician and how you came to synthesize these different interests and approaches into a personal method and vision?
CG: That’s a tricky one, as I don’t feel that I made any conscious choices about how all my influences were going to be incorporated into my personal style. I’ve listened to and still listen to a whole range of musical styles and artists that all inspire me greatly. On a spiritual level, I derive as much satisfaction listening to AC/DC as I would listening to Shostakovich or Keith Jarrett. I did listen to a lot of electronic, ambient and ‘new age’ types of music in my early years before becoming interested in jazz, and have always appreciated classical and orchestral music, both traditional and avant-garde. I guess one common trait that is ingrained in the majority of my music is a constant attention to harmonic and melodic content. Even if it’s obscure, I’m always hearing some movement in that sense.
TR: In the note for this record you write, “I draw musical inspiration from nature and visual art but most often my motivation is sound itself….To me, improvised music is a form of meditation. It’s the only time my overactive mind is ever free from its ‘city’ of thoughts and in that moment I feel that somehow I am not responsible for the music being created. I am just there to facilitate the physical aspect of it. This is my music in its purest form.” Many jazz musicians have remarked on such moments of transcendence when it felt like the music was playing them. For you, what is the relation between physical sound as a manifestation in time and the metaphysical?
CG: I guess to put it simply, I live music like I wish I could live my life. It’s not always possible to be 100% present when I’m creating music, but when it happens it really is true enlightenment. The music happens exactly as it should without any effort on my part. I am happy that this recording has captured a number of these moments in time.
TR: Are there any amazing/funny moments you remember connected with any of the pieces on the record – things that went incredibly right for example, or that took interesting left turns.
CG: There is one moment that gets me every time I hear it. On the duo with Peggy Lee, “D.S.,” at approximately 1:19, there is a complete shift in texture, rhythm and harmony that we both make simultaneously. An example of what I spoke about in the previous question: the music taking over and playing itself.
TR: What are you working on currently, and have any of the groupings on this record given you ideas that you’d like to develop in a more traditional (composed and/or studio-created) way?
CG: I always have a lot of ideas…too many I’m sure to actually be realized in my lifetime. I’m always working on some form of electronic music. I have a project called Machine Language that I’m excited about as well as an ambient/electronic project called Varuna with guitarist Russ Klyne. I have a couple of trio recordings with André Lachance and Dylan van der Schyff that I would like to release, and a solo piano record is something I’ve thought about for a long time. Being that there is a lot more material from the 2004 sessions that we were unable to include on this release, I’ve had thoughts about how to use some of that. My idea is create a new electronic/acoustic piece of music using all the tracks as raw material. You could call it a ‘remix’ project, but it would be different than what that term usually implies. Many possibilities await!