The 15th Other Minds Festival kicks off this evening, offering San Francisco a three-day immersion in contemporary music from around the world. One of the locals headlining this year is Gyan Riley, who’ll premiere his new quartet work commissioned by Other Minds, entitled When Heron Sings Blue.
Equally well known as a classical guitar virtuoso and as a composer, Gyan will take on his own guitar part in the quartet on the third festival night, joined by his Gyan Riley Trio bandmates Timb Harris (violin & viola) and Scott Amendola (percussion). Electric bassist Michael Manring will complete the quartet.
Concert Three of the Other Minds Festival begins at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 6 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Full details and tickets are available here.
Gyan naturally had a lot going on this week but I was still able to get a few questions in front of him for the readers of Sequenza21.
S21: How did the quartet instrumentation of When Heron Sings Blue come about? What was it about the piece that wanted an electric bass underpinning, and specifically Michael Manring?
GR: As a guitarist, my early works consisted of primarily solo guitar writing. In the last several years, however, my compositional output has shifted in the direction of ensemble writing. One medium that is particularly enticing to me is that of violin, guitar, and percussion, and I assembled my trio as an ongoing project to satisfy this interest.
There are several reasons why I chose the violin. To begin with, it was my first instrument (I played violin for five years, beginning at age 6). As an element in the ensemble, the two main assets of the violin are the potential to slide between the notes, and the ability to crescendo on a given note (things that the guitar cannot accomplish without electronics). Composing for violin has allowed me to vicariously express these musical desires. Additionally, I’ve learned that these two qualities are wonderfully complimentary to the guitar, creating a uniquely beautiful composite sound.
The other reason that the microtonal possibilities of the violin are important to me is their close association with Indian music, which has been in my ears literally since birth. (As a vocalist, my father has studied North Indian raga for nearly 40 years.) Timb Harris, the violinist in my trio, although classically trained, has long since been fascinated with the music of Eastern Europe, and has traveled extensively in Romania to pursue this interest. One of the reasons I invited him to join this project was his understanding non-Western idiom, and there is an audible and historical connection between the sentiment of Indian music and that of Romania.
Although Scott Amendola’s main instrument is the drum set, using chopsticks, brushes, mallets, and even his hands, and supplementing that with a variety of hand percussion instruments, he creates a plethora of sound unlike that of any other drummer I’ve heard. His breadth of experience and understanding of jazz, avant-garde, and experimental improvisatory idioms contributes a vast array of possibilities to this project.
I have worked with bass guitarist Michael Manring on and off for about two years. He has a unique ability to seamlessly drift in and out of the foreground, occasionally drawing from his vast repertoire of extended techniques, yet always in service of the musical objective. In working with this ensemble, I grew to greatly enjoy the broad timbral spectrum and solid rhythmic foundation that the bass guitar provided—qualities that I now know would be fruitful additions to the existing trio, greatly benefiting our overall sonority.
S21: In speaking of your music you told the Examiner, “If you can’t tell what’s been written out and what’s being improvised, the goal has been achieved.” Is your compositional style improvisatory? Or is your improvisation a form of instant composition?
GR: Yes, often my music is created through the process of improvisation. And yes, I like to think of the aim of an improvisation to be, at least in part, having a structure and character equal to that of a thought-out composition.
S21: Does your love of improvisation relate to your study of J. S. Bach?
GR: Sort of. Bach was an amazing improviser, and his seemingly endless exploration within his idiom as a composer is astounding. I think there’s a direct connection there, and also feel that my own studies of improvisation have had a positive impact on my composing.
S21: In writing your piece Stream of Gratitude, in response to Bach’s inspiration, how did his influence manifest?
GR: I spent a lot of time studying his scores, without an instrument, before writing my piece. It was particularly helpful in the case of the fugue, being the most contrapuntal movement, to see all the various ways in which he treated his subjects (themes) and developed those ideas. However, I think that the bigger influence is a more subconscious one that has percolated inside me for as long as I’ve known his music (since the age of 5).
S21: I see your performances of Concierto de Aranjuez coming up on your calendar and I wonder, what’s your way of balancing classical playing with everything that’s involved in composing and performing your own work?
GR: It’s difficult at times to balance these. It takes a completely different mind set to compose than to practice repertoire. But it’s also very rewarding to play certain repertoire. It helps me to build and maintain technique, while allowing me to learn from the work of other composers as well. I would definitely get bored if I were only playing standard repertoire, or even only the work of others. And I would go crazy if I were only composing as well. There are certainly times when what I need to work on at at a given moment is at odds with I want to be doing. But wearing multiple hats keeps me engaged, constantly challenging me to expand.