US composer Gabriel Gould was in Barcelona recently performing his work as part of the Joventuts Musicals de Barcelona i l’Ateneu Barcelonès
1. You started out studying composition and piano - do you still play and if so is it for pleasure or do you still perform?
I do still play piano regularly and was in fact considering becoming a concert pianist for a number of years (until I was dissuaded of this goal by a professor in graduate school). As a student of piano, I had started to become a bit disenchanted with the instrument because of the minutiae of perfecting each performance. Once I decided to study composition exclusively, I began to enjoy the piano again, and I’ve never looked back. I have my grandfather’s beautiful antique Mason & Hamlin grand piano at home and I try to play it everyday, at least a little. I don’t perform much, at least as a soloist, but I have done a lot of accompanying (both with vocal and instrumental performers), as well as playing in performances of my own music (since I tend to write piano parts to my own abilities).
2. Do you come from a musical family - what music do you remember being played at home that has influenced you in your subsequent work?
Actually I am the only serious musician in my extended family, although almost everyone else has dabbled a bit and/or are voracious listeners of a variety of musics. My father and uncle were both enthusiastic amateur choral singers, and my sister has played a bit of both violin and cello - and we do have a small family tradition of singing holiday songs together when we visit. I do have many strong memories of music being played in the house when I was a child, much of which has remained important to me - after putting us to bed, my mother played relaxing music such as James Taylor (which I now sing to my daughter at bedtime), and Keith Jarrett’s 'Koln Concert'. There was some classical music on the stereo, which may have had some influence on my development, but mainly a great selection of classic folk and rock, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Beatles, etc.
3. You write both for concerts and opera - how do the two disciplines differ and which, if one, do you prefer?
Opera is more explicitly collaborative than concert music, although by definition all new music (unless done on MIDI) requires working with not just performers but also administrators, fundraisers, audience members, directors, etc. I find opera fascinating because of the challenges imposed by the libretto and the give-and-take with the singers, technical staff, designers, and producers, but I think that concert music is still my first love. In a way, the composer has more exclusive control over the final product in the world of concert music than he or she does in opera, and overall fewer egos (besides his or her own) to deal with!
4. How important is other “world music” to your work - your CV mentions klezmer and gamelan - how do these translate into your work?
While it’s true that elements of various world musics have found their way into my compositions, it hasn’t come about as part of a deliberate aesthetic - it’s more that anything I listen to which especially appeals to and/or challenges me is likely to find its way into my work (much like a tune that you can’t get out of your head). That said, a good number of my compositions do feature either non-western instruments (such as Lokananta for Javanese gamelan and symphony orchestra) or attempt to re-create the sound world of some type of world music (such as Puja, which is a Bollywood pastiche). The influence of Jewish music, especialy klezmer, has been a fairly constant presence, and has recently made its way back into my work after a long absence, largely thanks to my recent obsession with the Masada project of John Zorn.
5. You have made music to text, for instance William Blake - how do you set out to write music to famous or well-known texts?
I especially love setting texts - writing for voices is something I am constantly returning to - and whether or not the text is “famous” in any way, my technique is typically the same. It involves taking the time to study the text on its own, not just for meaning and imagery, but also in choosing the “money” words which insist on standing out in some way. I also examine the structure of the text and try to decide on whether or not this will influence the musical structure (it almost always does). As a composer, I actually enjoy the restraints and limitations that text-setting imposes, as it narrows a bit the overwhelmingly wide range of musical decisions that the composer must make in the process of writing a piece.
6. Making music is what you do for a living but how important is it in your life? What was the last CD/ record/ MP3 download you bought and what music do you listen to when you aren’t working?
A “living” might be an exaggeration, since I am finacially supported by my wife, a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. Anything I earn from my work is a bonus as far as we’re concerned, so I consider it a calling rather than a living. If I could be happy working in any other field, I would probably do so, but I just can’t seem to shake it! I listen to a wide variety of music on a daily basis, either at home or in the car, and that might include a number of different genres. The last CD I bought which I listen to regularly, is Lucifer by the Bar Kokhba sextet (part of the Masada project mentioned above). It’s a fascinating album of group improvisations built upon music written by John Zorn for his Masada song book (mostly Jewish melodies). However I am just as likely to listen to jazz, classical (often Bach, which I also play almost everyday on the piano), and pop/rock.
7. Tell me about Evening Fires - do you ever secretly wish you were in a rock or pop band?
Although I have at many times in my life wished to play in a rock band, I’ve never really had the opportunity, and, to be honest, it’s not where my talents (whatever they might be) lie. Evening Fires is a free-improv ensemble based in Central Pennsylvania with a revolving membership. Most of us play multiple instruments - for example, I play keyboards, percussion, and accordion - and every performance is unique, since the material is not prepared in advance. We have several self-produced albums and can be found on our website or on myspace.
8. You are now a dad for the first time - will you encourage your child to play music?
I certainly will encourage my daughter (Sophie, now 3 and a half months old) to play music, especially since she will grow up in a house surrounded by musical instruments and the sound of many different genres of music, but I would never insist that she necessarily follow a career in music. In fact, I think it is potentially irresponsible to send young people interested in the arts out into the world without practical skills for making a living.
9. Tell me about the new piece that you’re showcasing at the Ateneu.
Actually it’s a rather old piece, written in 1995 but never performed. It’s called 'The Devil’s Tail', and is for violin and piano. It’s a work written during a period of my life in which I, a secular American Jew, was exploring my heritage through the study of Jewish folk and devotional music. This work was largely inspired by two sources: the klezmer music of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews, and a children’s story by the American Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Although it’s an older piece, it remains close to my heart because of its personal connection.
10. What plans do you have for the future?
Obviously my daughter is my priority at the moment, but I do have several projects in development, including at least one opera, and two or three chamber music pieces. I’m always on the lookout for new collaborative opportunities, and would jump at the chance to return to Barcelona to work with more Spanish/Catalan musicians. I’ve been extremely impressed with the high level of musical performance in Spain and would really enjoy to keep working with musicians of such talent.