This interview with Gordon Grdina was conducted by email during July 2009.
Tony Reif: This is a very different kind of group than the Think Like the Waves trio. What inspired you to organize and write for a string quartet (string trio + guitar/oud)? Did you have this group in mind when you started composing, and did your ideas about the music change once you started working with these musicians and their input?
Gordon Grdina: I’ve wanted to do a project with string trio and guitar since my early 20s. I performed Bartok’s 6th for my brother’s wedding with the hired string quartet, which was an ordeal because it’s definitely not standard wedding repertoire. I got busy with other stuff and had to put the idea on hold. Then, it was strange, I started to think about it again in 2006 and asked myself what would my dream string trio be? I immediately thought of Jesse, Peggy and Eyvind. So I just started writing with them in mind, without a gig or possibility of a group at all, just because I wanted to do the writing and get the music out. About a month later The Western Front was doing a series on strings and offered me a gig! So I got the opportunity to put my dream string trio together. I was originally really inspired by Bartok, Berg and Webern, and now I realize that Jim Hall was a big inspiration as well. He has written quite a few pieces with strings in his later career that I think really worked and were refreshing. Jim Hall’s whole thing is rejuvenating.
Once we started playing things changed quite a bit, because I don’t have a history of studying writing for strings, and I wanted to have the input of these musicians that I greatly admire. In fact I learned a lot about writing from the band. Each of the players has a very unique sound and perspective on music, and as the leader I wanted to be consciously open and malleable so that we could come up with something together. In the end the core ideas stayed true to my concept, but the resulting execution and arrangements were forged by the ensemble.
TR: Obviously the music has its modernist/expressionist side – apart from compositions referencing Bartok and Berg, “Webern” is actually a direct quote from a Webern piece (which one?) – but the way the music is performed, the fact that there’s a quite a lot of collective improvisation, has more to do with avant-jazz than classical music. How do you work with the musicians to balance off those two aspects, the composed and the improvised? Peggy Lee of course is both a classical cellist and a masterful improviser. Jesse Zubot and Eyvind Kang also have very broad but somewhat different musical backgrounds and conceptions. Did you pretty much give them free rein in the improvising?
GG: The written material actually came out of ideas originally brought up through improvisation. When I’ve played free with these musicians individually there were spaces that we went to that I thought referenced music from that era. The written material I came up with was to be a sort of framework around the improvisation. I find that when you trust musicians who listen, and are aware like these are, free rein is the only way to go. If I put up too many arbitrary boundaries the music would be stifled, not liberated. For most of the pieces there were one or two ideas developed in the written material, then another idea was presented at the end of the written material that was to be developed by the improvisers. But this wasn’t really talked about, it was a natural progression to improvise out of the written material and then take that idea to its conclusion. In that sense I didn’t have to work with the musicians at all. I think the biggest part of bandleading is picking the right people, who you can hear working together, and then just let them play. I wouldn’t try and tell any of these guys how to play, because I want them to sound like them, that’s why I hired them. The way I look at it, the band has let you as composer write down what notes they play – that’s enough, your job is done and you should trust them to play!
The piece “Webern” is the final phrase from “Sätze fur Streichquartett op.5: 3, Sehr bewegt,” which I couldn’t get out of my head. I used the quote as a melodic fragment to develop.
TR: Is there also a contemporary classical influence at work in some of these pieces – minimalism? How about serialism as such?
GG: There is a contemporary classical influence, minimalism is definitely there in a few pieces, for example “Selma.” Serialism was not at work here as far as writing goes. I’m a big fan of atonality, or as Schoenberg says atonic music, where tonality is still present though it’s been greatly expanded and doubled up on. I’m not formally trained as a classical composer, so I’ve just listened to the music from an improvising musician’s perspective, which I think makes the music exactly as you say: influenced by contemporary classical music but not coming out of the tradition.
TR: Could you talk about the oud, what you’ve been doing with it since Think Like the Waves, and how you’ve incorporated your interest in Arabic music into the aesthetic of this record?
GG: I’ve been studying the oud pretty consistently since Think Like the Waves, trying to get deeper into the Arabic classical repertoire and get inside the study of taqasim. It’s a life-long process, true taqasim, and I find the more I learn about it the more I realize I don’t know! It’s a music that has a vast history, much older than jazz improvisation, so it has a lot of subtleties and secrets that slowly get revealed. I’ve been studying all that as diligently as I can, mostly with Serwan Yamolky in Vancouver, but also with Najeeb Shaheen and Bassam Saba in New York. Aside from this study I’ve just continued to include the instrument in the music that I play. I’ve been playing it in a freer context with my Trio, including both traditional pieces and some original pieces. I also started a 9-piece Arabic-meets-the-avant-garde big band called Haram, playing the music of Farid Al-Atrash, Oum Khalsoum and Abdel Wahab as well as some traditional Iraqi songs. That group is something special – we’re planning on recording in the fall, it has really turned into something that is uniquely Vancouver, I’ve not heard anything like it. On this record there is a free piece with the oud and the trio (“Santiago”), and there is the larger piece “The Breathing of Statues” which follows the development of maqam Nahawand through a conversation between the string trio and the oud, which then leads to the quartet playing together over an almost traditional Arabic rhythm in 10/4. Ten is used in Arabic music a lot, from the slow 10/4 Samaii cycles to the fast 10/16 Iraqi Georgina. This is somewhere in-between.
TR: You’ve recorded some pieces more than once with different groups, but you seem to be a prolific composer too. What kinds of slants on your own compositions arise from performing them in different contexts? Rather than just arranging pieces for different instruments and players, do you find yourself revising compositions in the process of rehearsal and performance, based on what different groups make of them, or do you do all your revising in anticipation of what the musicians will make of the them?
GG: Usually I make modifications beforehand, when I’m trying to hear what the band’s going to sound like in my head. That’s sort of how I choose the pieces that we’ll do. If I can hear the piece working in the project then 9 times out of 10 it’s going be cool. The pieces completely change in different contexts – usually not so much the written material but the interpretation, phrasing, level of intensity/density etc. are always vastly different, making them seem like brand new pieces. Take “Origin” from this CD: I originally wrote it for Box Cutter and we recorded it on Unlearn. The written material is the exact same, but with Box Cutter it almost sounds like a rock tune, yet it fits right into the esthetic of The Breathing of Statues.
TR: In presenting this music (both on record and in concert), what kind of audience are you looking for and what do you hope they will bring to the listening?
GG: The audience is extremely important in the concert experience. Sometimes there is a real tangible energy that gets transmitted that can make the difference between a great show and a life-changing experience. The music could be great and therefore at the end of the night the concert is a success, but when there is also that tangible energy being passed back and forth from the audience to the musicians and back you leave feeling like you never have to play again, your outlook on life/music can completely change. Of course, depending on the band, the audience response can be completely different. If it’s the Trio the audience might be yelling (not heckling) in the middle of a tune and it’s exactly right, where with East Van Strings you can hear a pin drop. It’s about being present and ready to participate in the experience. There is a vast amount of energy created by a room full of people who are really present, and it actually makes the music happen.
TR: What new directions are you mulling over for this band?
GG: More gigs! I’d like to get us playing more frequently but it’s tough with a dream group because everyone has insane schedules. Musically I want to keep performing the repertoire and let it take on a new life. I can hear the pieces morphing into one another in the future, and I think it just takes lots of playing to make that happen. I don’t have any big writing aspirations for the group, because I feel that everyone is such a great improviser that letting everyone play is really the way to get the most out of the group.