Let’s meet Gregory – When did you start composing? What interests and influences lead you to become a composer?
I made loud noises and sang a lot as a young child. I spent several summers in the 70’s and early 80’s performing as a child actor in musicals at a summer stock theater in Central New York. I grew up learning songs that none of my friends did – stuff by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman, and more. I also tried out a bunch of instruments, piano, violin, trombone, and more, but I really fell in love with the guitar. My older brothers introduced me to a wide variety of rock and roll music ranging from folk to progressive rock, and I took to playing guitar rather easily. The problem was that I was an impatient practicer, so I never settled on a particular instrument and didn’t take the time to memorize songs on the guitar. I took a few fairly informal guitar lessons, but enjoyed exploring the instrument and working out funky harmonies and finger picking patterns. Today, the guitar is my favorite instrument, but mostly because I mostly learned it on my own. I’m more of a noodler these days…
Photo credit: Robert Young – Blue Note Photography
After two years of boredom in a public high school in Central New York, I attended an all-boys boarding school near Philadelphia for two years. I was 16 and had been “playing guitar” for a couple of years, and was pretty arrogant about it in a place where it really didn’t matter if you played guitar unless you also played squash or lacrosse.
I wanted to join the Jazz Band, which was run by a new teacher named Mr. Branker, but upperclassmen with swanky instruments already comprised the rhythm section. I approached Mr. Branker about joining the Jazz Band, as their new guitarist. But Mr. Branker said that what the Band really needed was a bass player. The school had a cheap, short-scale electric bass that I took back to my dorm room along with parts for arrangements of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay”, and some of Mr. Branker’s original music.
I returned to The Hill School the next year excited to study Jazz Composition with Tony. (That’s what I call Mr. Branker now.) I was one of only two students in this class. He taught us basics of jazz harmony and form through example, aural training and listening to recordings. I composed my first music for this class, and had access to the Jazz Band as sort of a lab. This is the experience that turned me on to composing and collaborating with live musicians.
Every recording Tony played for us was new – not necessarily new as in recent, but new as in new to me. We talked about music from blues to bop to fusion and then ONE AFTERNOON he pulled out Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, placed it on the spindle, dropped the needle and waited. I can’t say that I liked it immediately, but I was open-minded enough at 16 to be curious. So I asked Tony, why would anyone record group free improvisation? Isn’t that contrary to the purpose? It seemed to me at the time that philosophically, this event is something that should only be experienced once.
Tony let me borrow the record, which I took back to my dorm and happily annoyed everyone in my hall. But I did listen repeatedly – and seriously – and I discovered that there was form, interaction, lyricism, and harmony. And Energy. And I discovered that IT WAS GOOD MUSIC. And I discovered I didn’t have to experience an immediate aesthetic euphoria to appreciate the value of good music.
Anthony Branker is now the director of the Princeton University Jazz Program. He has one helluva catalog and discography. While other teachers and mentors have helped me remain on the path, I credit Tony for guiding me toward MY path 30+ years ago.
I left boarding school that year (not by choice) and returned to public school in my hometown. I spent that summer playing another season at that theater again, and also looking up books and recordings of music – any music I hadn’t heard before. The name John Cage popped up a few times, and I discovered a loose link between Ornette Coleman and Cage philosophically, but of course with a completely different aesthetic. I am not going to say that I liked Cage immediately, but I was open-minded enough at 17 to be curious, so I listened.
I later discovered that Cage studied with a guy called Arnold Schoenberg. So I listened to Schoenberg. To my ears at the time, some of Schoenberg’s music (and Webern’s music – he came along for the ride) shared an aesthetic quality with Coleman’s free jazz, but with a completely different philosophical basis. But, Holy Smokes, this music really spoke to me immediately!
In any case, I kinda went backwards. I can’t imagine doing it any other way, but I found solace and patience in my own personal discovery of various musics. I decided to declare a composition major in college and continued listening.
I went to Shenandoah Conservatory of Music (now University) and studied with William Averitt, who exposed me to serial techniques and American folk music, and later to Florida State University to pursue graduate degrees with Ladislav Kubìk, who exposed me to the music of Martinu, Janacek, and Penderecki.
Listening still turns me on. In fact, what I discovered when listening to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was the excitement in the spontaneity so inherent in the performance that so easily transferred to the recording. Even now, 28 years later, when I listen to Free Jazz, I still sense that same spontaneity, no matter how many times I listen to it. Several other jazz and rock recordings (usually live recordings) do this for me as well. There are some classical ones too, but they’re fewer and farther between. Right now, I am exploring a variety of music from Eastern Europe and India along with current trends in jazz and concert music.
When you start a new composing project, what are some ways you gather ideas and begin the composing process?
My goal is to create music in which the spontaneous energy is so constructed within the score that it is easily communicated to the performers, who will then naturally unleash this energy upon listeners in a live setting. Of course, I want my music recorded too, and am lucky to have several commercial recordings of my music available, but nothing beats a live performance. Accuracy is important, but it is not a substitute for energy.
Capturing performance energy as an essential part of a composition is tricky, and when I am not working directly with performers, I focus on critical and comparative listening to see how this energy unfolds. A complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding a composition and the circumstances surrounding a specific performance is essential for the composer, performer and the listener.
My favorite impeti is a combination of extra-musical imagery, which helps to create a natural energy not found in the purely technical, and the collaborative process of working directly with the performers who commission my works so that I may highlight their strengths. Sometimes this is as simple as listening to their recordings, while other circumstances require much closer, personal collaboration.
You’ve composed for wind instruments like ours before. What excites you about composing for Akropolis and the reed quintet medium?
I have written a lot of chamber music for wind instruments. Saxophonists, in particular, have been particularly kind to me in the commissioning and championing of my music. The nice thing about writing for a reed quintet is that it combines the intimacy of a chamber ensemble with the range of a large wind ensemble. In addition, the timbral palette allows for the exploration of the organ-like quality of the unified quintet as well as the possibility of highlighting the differences between individual instruments.
Akropolis’ High Speed Reed is the first collection of music for reed quintet I ever heard. I think I grabbed that the year it came out, and was excited to listen to Unraveled a couple years later. I have since listened to Calefax, and my old college roommate’s group the Atlantic Reed Consort. Akropolis performs with an energy similar to the energy I mentioned earlier. When Matt first contacted me about the possibility of writing a piece for the group, I was thrilled that I would have access to that very same energy, knowing that it will be combined with such a high level of technical virtuosity and adventurous programming.
Tell us about your new piece for Akropolis, “The Space Between Us.”
Matt approached me via email in January 2015 about the possibility of composing a work for Akropolis’ upcoming tour and album. Having followed Akropolis through their recordings for a few years at that point, I was excited to be invited into their musical space. Matt offered the prompt “The Space Between Us” as a starting point, suggesting that it may refer to the relationship between audience and performer. I viewed the prompt as an opportunity to explore ever changing relationships between people of all types, whether they are performers and listeners, students and teachers, family members, lovers, and strangers. All of these groups share the common bond of a connection through various media from face to face interaction, phone calls, email, internet, unifying world events, and a knowledge of history.
Events of many types bring people together: Concerts, Negotiations, Meals, Celebrations, Funerals, Reunions; and at these gatherings, they become one dynamic. Every one of these events offers the opportunity to reflect upon the past: perhaps to reminisce, perhaps to meditate, perhaps to remember those who cannot be present, perhaps to mourn. When these engagements are over, people rediscover the constant space that exists between them as they part to continue their lives. These events may change a small aspect of their beings: their perspectives or their physicality, for example, but on the whole people remain who they were and who they are, even as they continue upon the path of who they will be.
“The Space Between Us” is a work in five interconnected movements that explores all of these relationships through language, texture, color, and harmony.
1. Coming Together is a short prelude using serial techniques alternating hocketing gestures and homorhythmic interjections resolving to…
2. As One, where the instruments act as a single entity in tonality and drive.
3. Remembering is a slow contrapuntal movement modeled loosely after a 16th century motet based on the short, simple motives of a descending semitone, a cambiata figure, and a mordent.
4. Ever Constant is abstractly based on the opening movement, yet in place of serialism and unstable textures, the instruments’ interplay features simple five-voice counterpoint using simple repeated gestures in a basic song form.
5. The more things change… returns to the largely consonant material from As One.
Throughout “The Space Between Us” there is reference to each member of the ensemble as an individual entity, but the overall emphasis is upon their interactions with each other through counterpoint to create a single unified soundscape. The work is approximately 18 minutes in duration and was composed for Akropolis Reed Quintet.
What makes your music unique? What types of influences might audiences hear in your works?
That’s a tough question to answer with words. I like athletic virtuosity and lyric expressionism. I like the energy inherent in both slow music and fast music. I like playing with color and texture. I like creating extremely slow music, like the gradually developing Remembering, whose roots originate from the spirit of 16th century motets. I like smooth transitions that connect the most contrasting musics. I like developing simple motivic ideas (a single ascending or descending whole or half step, as in the case of the entirety The Space Between Us) into a complex unifying element between contrasting sections.
I am convinced that composers are influenced by everything they hear. I am sure that there are several influences that may be discovered in my music. I don’t think, however, that I am able to identify most of them. The key for any audience is to be willing experience an entire piece of music. Perhaps more than once.
Akropolis recently performed and worked with composition students you teach where you live in Potsdam, NY. How has the North Country shaped you as a composer?
Where you live may have a profound impact on your artistic life, but the world is very small now, thanks to the internet and free communication. But I’ve lived in Potsdam and taught at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music for almost 20 years. I’ve met a lot of amazing musicians and composed a lot of music here for my colleagues and student ensembles during my tenure so far, and I will continue to do so as long as I am here.
Words of wisdom – If you could pass on one helpful tidbit from your years of experience (music or non-music related), what would it be?
Don’t treat music as a background – make room for it in your foreground. Devote time everyday to listen to a piece of music you’ve never heard before – at least twice. Don’t turn it on and look at your iPad or whatever. Turn it on and sit and listen. This applies to musicians and non-musicians alike, but particularly applies to students of music who want people to hear what they have to say artistically. I am convinced that the world doesn’t listen enough – not just to music, but to each other. Music is always a good place to begin. And to end. Music is always a good place to live.