This interview was conducted by email during February 2008.
Tony Reif: Gravitas Quartet has been gigging a fair bit since the release of the first record in 2006. What kind of venues have you been playing, how’s the reception been, and how has the experience of playing more together and the fine-tuning of your musical rapport affected the development and direction of the music? What skills and qualities do you most appreciate in your musicians?
WH: We’ve been performing mostly in concert halls, with the occasional club. It’s a pleasure for me to work in chamber music venues, we prefer to perform without any amplification if we can. Obviously performing more consistently benefits the music. We’re more ‘off the page’ and I think everyone now really has a sense of being a real band instead of a ‘project.’
TR: How do you arrange your compositions for the group? Do the arrangements change much as Peggy, Ron and Sara begin improvising in the places where you give them solos or duets, and bring their own ideas into play. And what about group improvising – I think there are a couple of group improvs here (“One Dance Alone” at least) – do you talk through what you’re trying to accomplish in a collective improv or do you just see what happens and shape things from there?
WH: Actually we’ve been doing very few free pieces of late – none on the new CD. The compositions are so open, and the band is so flexible, that we’ve been sticking with the repertoire, especially now that we have a bigger book to work from. We don’t talk much about the playing. We do, however, often work out some of the structural issues together. In other words I may bring in a written piece but I might wait until we’ve worked through it before we figure out how much we want to structure the improvised sections.
TR: You play only piano on this record, no synth. Why?
WH: A combination of ambition and sloth. I’ve focused almost entirely on acoustic piano in recent years, and even at this late date in my life feel like I have so much to learn and improve on at the piano. At the same time, I have been enjoying being free of all the little complications involved in setting up, maintaining, and even transporting all the electronic gear.
TR: Why did you pick Elliott Smith’s “A Fond Farewell” as the one cover tune you’ve recorded so far?
WH: I’ve been a fan of Elliott Smith’s for a long time, although I confess that I first heard this song on a mix CD my daughter made as a Christmas present. That being said, I’m often disappointed with instrumental covers of pop tunes. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I often feel that the harmonic language of popular music in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s is more suited to jazz musicians in particular than the music of the ’60s into the present. There are some notable exceptions. For example I think Bill Frisell’s version of Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” is drop-dead gorgeous, and the original is essentially a perfect piece of music so it takes a lot to make something equally great. (In the spirit of full disclosure I ‘produced’ that track but I take little or no credit for its artistic success.). On our recent European tour I found out Sara and Ron are also big fans of Smith, and I also feel that Ron is someone who really has a handle on improvising over that kind of material. I tried to make an arrangement that left as much room as possible for Ron to handle both the theme and the soloing, and at the same time arrange it in a way that suits the style of this ensemble.
TR: A couple of the compositions here seem more than ever like classical chamber music (“July I” seems like it might even be flirting with atonality), but the improvisations, and your jazz and blues-inflected harmonic language – which eventually seems to rise to the surface if it isn’t already there from the beginning of a piece – give this music quite a different feeling from that of neo-classical or neo-romantic composers who don’t have a jazz background. Just to remind or inform listeners, this way of bringing a jazz sensibility to classical music and/or a classical attitude to jazz goes back a long way – to the Third Stream movement of the ’50s obviously, but also to the Ellington-Strayhorn suites in the ’40s for example, which were influenced by French impressionism, and to Bix Beiderbecke’s impressionistic piano piece “In the Mist” recorded in 1927. Also starting in the ’20s, composers such as Gershwin, Ravel, Martinu, Schulhoff etc., later even Stravinsky in his Ebony Concerto for the Woody Herman Band, used their idea of jazz to spice up their concert music. And of course the give-and-take between classical and popular music in pre-jazz America started even earlier, with the Creole instrumentalists of New Orleans, ragtime, salon music – and it seems to me there are echoes of some of that too in your composing/arranging for Sweeter than the Day and Gravitas. In any case, could you say something about what musical experiences, impulses or studies led you to want to bridge the gap between popular music, jazz, and classical music in your own way, and how the Gravitas project relates to recent larger-scale compositions such as Joe Hill (and any orchestral pieces you may be working on)?
WH: I feel this is a fairly obvious process, and you are right, it’s a process with a long history. This instrumentation lends itself to writing without regard to a ‘rhythm section’ mentality, and it encourages certain ambitions and desires I have as a composer. At the same time the references to so-called jazz and blues language to me are simply due to the fact of being an American composer. Blues music was the first music to really move and inspire me – I recognize the feeling I get from it as being the same as I get from almost any deep music. As my friend Philip Johnston once said to me, “You know how you are listening to a record of Japanese koto music and for a moment it sounds like John Lee Hooker?” I would say the same thing about a Bartok string quartet.
TR: Are there any particular feelings or experiences you’re trying to communicate in any of the pieces on this record? It seems to me there’s often an elegiac or deeply nostalgic quality to your music – are those words you would use? Or perhaps it’s more that there’s a sense of traditions of music and corresponding eras of American culture being tapped and brought alive the present, carrying with them different contexts of America’s social history, evoking times past and time passing? Do you feel you’re making connections between your own personal experiences and our culture’s shared experience in your music? Do you feel a responsibility to the past and/or to the future in the work you do?
WH: This is an interesting question. I am surprised by my own reaction, but I guess when all is said and done I feel a much stronger pull to the past than to the future. And as much as I’ve been interested in and inspired by innovative, experimental and so-called avant-garde music, I would have to say that the best of that music has always been the result of some kind of deep integration of what has come before with a new vision of what can be. It seems to me that is true in Bach’s music, Schoenberg’s, Roscoe Mitchell’s, Public Enemy and even Muddy Waters. It has been my experience that with very few exceptions music that is made with the sole goal of innovation almost always falls short.