Gary Guthman : Music is a reflection of humanity

Zdjęcie Gary Guthman

In this interview, we get to know Gary Guthman – a trumpeter and composer, whose Łódź Fantasy will soon be premiered at the Kolory Polski festival in Łódź. In conversation with Igor Torbicki he tells us of musical simplicity and complexity, The Golden Age of Hollywood, modern jazz music, and, of course – his upcoming Łódź Fantasy.


Mr. Guthman, I’d like to start with your impressions of the great Tony Bennett. It's stated in your artistic CV that you've worked with him. What was he like? Do you have any particular recollections from being around him?


I had the great honor of working with Mr. Bennett a number of times. The first, I was in my mid-20s. He was a great musician, and a gentleman, a scholar of the music he created. He loved people, being a kind generous person. It’s quite rare in the music world, in terms of being not only a great musician and great performer, but also a great man.


If you walked by him while he was in a conversation with somebody else, he would stop and acknowledge you, say hello, even if he had only seen you once – he had a great memory. His singing, pitch, and phrasing was so memorable. This left a lasting impression on me.


Although it's sad he passed away, but... You know, he lived 96 years, nearly a century. He had a good, long life and the world had the pleasure of having him. And so I rejoice in the fact that we were all blessed to have somebody like Tony Bennett in our lives for so long.


You’re absolutely right. Now I'd like to move a little bit to your works in composition and performing. How do you manage to connect jazz improvisation and classical music? These are different creative processes. Jazz emphasizes unpredictability, improvisation. Classical or general academic music is more organized, strict.


I am a classically trained musician on my first instrument, the trumpet. I started as principal trumpet in the youth symphony orchestra in Portland. I was very fortunate to be led by great teachers.


In my teenage years, I also played in rock bands, Latin music groups, jazz and swing quartets, and even bands performing marching music. I grew up surrounded by a wide spectrum of musical experiences. Thanks to this, improvisation has broadened my artistic palette, given me a wide range of opportunities to create melodies, harmonies and ideas on the spot.


In terms of my classical composition training, I was fortunate to be taught by some great American and Canadian composers, arrangers and orchestrators, including Henry Mancini, and another great orchestrator and arranger who wrote for Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka, by the name of Don Costa.


I've always admired the writing and orchestration of Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten. The combination of jazz and classical gave me many more opportunities to choose different styles, different concepts, different chord structures, different harmonies in my modern day composing.


I imagine that boundaries between these two types of music are virtually nonexistent for you. Or maybe they're just less structured?


Less structured would be a good description. I compose from emotion, feeling and inspiration. There are a number of places, for example in my Łódź Fantasy, where I drew my inspiration from different genres in order to create a musical story.


My thinking needed to be less structured so that I had the freedom and the availability to say: OK, in this section I hear something that sounds more classical so I will use more 19th century harmonic structures and phrasing in order to create this specific emotional message.


In another section, I used a Polish folkloric song from the area of Łódź. This melody is very simple, having been created nearly 200 years ago. I decided to orchestrate it using slightly jazzier, film score harmonies.


My favorite Hollywood genre is the Golden Age of Hollywood. Great film score music that was written in the 40s and 50s. This is a favorite passion of mine. One style that I admire was of a Polish composer, who moved to Hollywood in the 30s, Bronisław Kaper. He was a tremendously successful film score writer in the Hollywood of the 40s and 50s. His music is very grand, emotional, inspirational. So, again, this is where that broad spectrum, that large palette of musical concepts comes from. Jazz, Hollywood, Broadway... I'm also a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim. So I've combined all of those elements in my composing.


I was going to ask you about Łódź Fantasy in just a moment, but I want to explore your early experiences with different musical genres a little bit more. You said that you played in a rock band?




On a trumpet?




But how did that mix with rock music? That’s curious.


It became a very popular style in the 70s.


That makes it even more interesting.


Perhaps you would get this next comment from people of my generation. You know, I'm a baby boomer. In the late 60s, through the 70s and 80s, pop rock music had many excellent composers and lyricists. I toured with the Bee Gees, playing in their brass section. These three men were so talented, so creative… They wrote fantastic songs with wonderful lyrics. Such spectacular musicians.


Having the experience of being in the brass section behind the Bee Gees was eye opening. I've drawn some of my compositional inspiration from that six weeks with them.


I envy you in a good way!


I was lucky, to be sure.


Before we move to the Łódź Fantasy, I'd like to ask you one more question regarding jazz music of our time. Contemporary jazz tends to utilize modern means of expression like electronic instruments or effects. Sometimes it draws inspiration from contemporary classical music. I’d like to ask about your opinion of this trajectory, which manifests in works of such bands as, let’s say, Snarky Puppy. Where do you place your works in this context?


Did you just mention Snarky Puppy?


Yes, as an example.


I love this band! This is one of my favorite modern jazz bands. These young people are enormously talented technically on their instruments, and their over-all understanding of jazz music is simply impeccable. So, let me answer your question this way…


I think that If you were to take their keyboard players and put them on piano, standard piano, or give the guitarists an acoustic guitar rather than electric one, you’d get the same quality of music. The music that comes out of these young people from Snarky Puppy is because they are simply brilliantly talented. The nature of their instruments is less important than their creativity.


They use electronic instruments simply to amplify their creativity. This comes in opposition to some modern music, where the digital and electronic aspect of the instrument is being used as the primary creative force. Of course, it can also be good. But in my experience, it can tend to be cold and unemotional. Music is an expression of humanity.


The instruments that we use in order to help us create are only amplifiers. They amplify what we have in our mind and soul. Snarky Puppy is a perfect example of some fantastically creative, dynamically talented technical ability. Their keyboard players sound like they have 10 hands playing at the same time. But like I said, if you give those guys acoustic instruments, they'll come up with just as interesting amount of music as with the electronics. Electronics and jazz music can be an excellent combination. It just depends on where the inspiration is coming from.


Another vital aspect is communication with the audience. You know, music is an expression of language. Let’s say that you’re reading a book. In the time between starting a book, to when you finish, a good writer will take you through many different emotional reactions. And if you listen to classical music: Rachmaninoff, operas by Donizetti, Verdi, or even Mozart, by the time you finish listening to a 45-minute piece of their classical music, you've had many emotional responses.


What tends to happen with electronic music is these different emotional responses can be forgotten, lost somewhere in the machinery. You can listen to 45 minutes of electronic music but have only one or two emotional responses rather than many. Yes, it can be good, but 45 minutes of 1 emotion, for example, can be exhausting. That's the long answer to your first question.


The short answer is that electronics and general digital equipment can be combined with the inspiration and the expression of musical language quite well. It simply depends on who's doing the composing and what they're trying to say.


You’ve asked about my work in this context. When I compose, I'm always thinking of the audience. I'm thinking of not only what I want to say, but how I'm saying it musically, and is the audience going to understand what I'm saying.


I want to be sure that every note of, my Łódź Fantasy is communicating a story to the audience so that when they listen to my music, they can individually, create their own movie. For me, that's what music is all about – creating individual impressions, even of course if they are other than the composer’s intentions.


Some of the most wonderful music that's being composed today is video game music and movie soundtracks. For example, I recently saw the new Indiana Jones picture. Without music, such an adventure action production would land dead in places. The soundtrack really makes a lot of difference. Hans Zimmer, for example, has won awards for creating pretty simple music, but very effective emotionally.


And here's a composer who musicians like to complain about. Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now, why do musicians complain about him? Because he composed this phrase: [sings a short melody]. Do you recognize that? Do you remember what that's from? You could be too young, Igor.


I recognize it, but I don’t know what it is.


Jesus Christ Superstar. Even without remembering this name, you recognized this short phrase. Webber used simple major triads: first, second and third inversions. He became very wealthy based on this simple phrase. Everybody around the world loved that melody the same as they loved the first four notes, opening Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It's the same simplicity. And yet, what it expressed musically and emotionally, was universally accepted. That’s the key.


Other simple melodies like for example, Over the rainbow. Harold Arlen in this great American children's movie called The Wizard of Oz. Very simple melodies. Here's another: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Honestly, some of the most popular American songs of the 20th century that were loved and adored by the most people and made the most money commercially, contained the simplest melodies.


I think I agree. Yeah, I was listening to, for example, Les Miserables lately. Most of the melodies there are quite simplistic.


It’s one of my two favorite musicals. My second is West Side Story. West Side Story and Les Misérables are two musicals where just about every song is truly memorable. This is rare in musical theatre. Sweeney Todd is another that comes pretty close. But Stephen Sondheim is a little difficult to catch, because his style is more complex. I happen to love that.


But the success of simple melodies comes from the fact that they touch the human spirit. Complexity of chord and harmonic structures is not a necessity in order to do that. You know, basically the human heart beats at 72 beats a minute. When we breathe, we take one breath every four or five seconds. When we walk, we walk in rhythm.


All of humanity is based on some really simple mathematics, and that's why, sometimes, simplicity is more important than anything else. A lot of a lot of modern pop music is very repetitive. You'll hear 4 measures of music and it will be repeated for 9 minutes over and over with almost no changes. Why is that?


I think that's the human condition. We blink repeatedly, we breathe repeatedly. Our hearts beat repeatedly. We walk repeatedly. Even our language, no matter what language we speak. [Nawet jak mówimy po polsku, to jest standard.] The sentences we use and their word order is repetitive. We may change a word here and there but probably have some 300 or 400 sentences that we repeat over and over, because they “just work,” and we are more easily understood by using them.


In my opinion, music works similarly. It doesn't have to be simple, but within the complexity of harmonic structure and the orchestration, as a composer, you must not forget what you’re trying to say. You must remember who your audience is – and that most of these people are not musically trained. That's what makes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony so memorable and popular. That's why Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is the same. That's why the Brandenburg Concertos are still remembered and performed.


The balance between complexity form and the message of the music itself is important. Let’s take Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. It's probably one of the most complex pieces of music ever composed. The premiere wasn’t a success.


And there was a big scandal.


Oh, it was the scandal of the century! But within a year everybody loved it. How do you figure? Same thing with Bizet’s Carmen. When it came out, it was ransacked. The critics killed the piece, and the people hated it. But within a year after he died, it became one of the one of the most beloved operas. Everybody knows Torreador’s Song, while some may not even know it’s from Carmen or that Bizet wrote it. At the end of the day, they remember that melody. So what was it about that melody that made it so memorable and popular? It connected with the audience, and that connection is really important.


Some of the things that you’ve said regarding electronic means of expression being amplifiers of our minds remind me of Glenn Gould. In one video, he was talking about performers. He divided them in two categories. The first one was focusing on the instrument, showing virtuosity, making their relationship with the instrument the central part of the performance, like Paganini or Liszt. And the second category were those musicians that tried to bypass their relationship with the instrument.


That’s exactly right. I heard another very simple definition of what Glenn Gould said. Some play the piano, and some play the music.


It's basically the same, right?


That's a very simplistic way of representing what Glenn Gould said. And we hear this, for example, in the Chopin International Piano Competition. I've had the great joy and the great pleasure since living in Poland to attend it many times. It’s always important to tell who’s playing piano better than other guy, and also who’s playing Chopin better than other guy. I believe that a great performer does both those things at the same time…


Now I'd like to move on to your Łódź fantasy. You partially talked about your inspiration already, but I wanted to get into some details about it. Did you have any other source of inspiration than purely musical one? Maybe you’ve read some poetry or literature about Łódź?


I have performed as a soloist a number of times with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Łódź. Sometime last year I had a conversation with the director, Tomasz Bęben. We were talking about Kolory Polski festival, and the 600th anniversary of the city of Łódź. He invited me to compose a piece for this festival, because he liked my style of composing and orchestrating.


I had some ideas, but I also wanted to get Director Bęben’s impressions. He said: “well, Gary, it's entirely up to you.” That left a very broad pathway to start. I decided to investigate and study the history of the city. I eventually decided on creating four time periods.


The first one is called Czas ZiemiThe Farmland Era. The second Czas Fabryk, The Industrial Era. Third, Czas wojny, The War Era. The final period is called Czas Łodzi – Łódż Era. This one is about modern-day Łódź. Along with my wife Małgorzata Zalewska, a fabulous musician, [In Polish: she plays the harp]., we began to study the history of Łódź and decided how to combine 600 years of history into a 45-minute piece …with four “stories.”


The Farmland Era begins with a date connected with the first legal instigation of the City of Łódź, in 1423. King Jagiełło gave the city rights to the village community.


This first story tells the beginnings of Łódź. I used one folkloric melody for inspiration, which I transcribed and reconstructed in a modern way. I use the choir, singing in a central Poland archaic dialect. I think it will be nice for the Polish audience to hear.


It was interesting for me, being a foreigner, and still learning to speak Polish, to listen to recordings of people singing these old folkloric melodies. They are not musicians nor vocalists, just regular people living in the community, most of them quite old, passing their culture on through generations. Time signatures of these melodies are often uneven, and some of them are not quite in harmony… It’s fascinating to hear them. I was inspired by them and I incorporated new, original tunes into the Fantasy.


The fabric factories were built in the mid 19th century. I looked into the difficulties that people of that era had in terms of the hardship working in those factories. It was life threatening, for women in particular. I took a song revolving around this topic that was written anonymously, called Fabryczna dziewczyna (The Factory Girl).


With the help of Tomasz Gołębiewski, the concert master of the orchestra, I found a poem, a bar drinking satirical text that was spoken by many male factory employees after work. It has a connection to the German part of the history of Łódź. But the text is spoken in Polish, of course, and I composed a melody for it. It reminds me of some Oktoberfest atmosphere. It’s called Meister, and the last line has the word “Lodzerman” (“Lodzermensch”). This term was used quite frequently at that time, a German affectation of somebody from Łódź.


The second part of Łódź Fantasy also has a funeral march as there were many deaths in the factory, but ends on a happy note with this Polish-German beer drinking song.


The third part entitled War Time – tells of the war period and ghetto. We used the Latin words of the hymn „Holy God” (Trisagion), which is the first part of the supplication, sung among others: during funeral ceremonies, masses for the souls of the dead, as part of Bitter Lamentations, the procession to Corpus Christi, as well as the intention of God’s protection against natural disasters. I included also, a prayer sung in Hebrew, „Shema Yisrael.”


Throughout this movement, I use warlike harmonic structures. This enforces the memory of the Nazis invading Poland at that time, and the difficulties for all people living under German occupation – Poles, Jews and other nations.


And then comes the 4th movement – Czas Łodzi – Łódź Era. This was particularly interesting because it was left entirely up to me to create a more modern, ambience to describe the city of Łódź as we know it today. I wrote lyrics in English and Director Bęben and Choirmaster Artur Koza decided that it should be sung in that language. I was honored that they would do that. They said to me that Łódź sees itself as an international city and wants to be considered as such.


My idea for the Łódź Fantasy was to compose a musical piece that would allow each member of the audience to envision this musical movie. Their history.  They will listen to the music describing Łódź’s development over 600 years, and I hope, [in Polish: trzymam kciuki], that I've accomplished my goal. The audience will tell me after they hear the piece!


BLITZ – short questions, fast answers (but not necessarily short)!


Cliché question: Who’s the most important classical composer for you?


Frederic Chopin.


What movie has moved you to tears in recent years?


That’s a difficult question, I would have to think about that. I don’t have the answer right off the top of my head…


We can get back to that later. Now: one year without reading prose, or one year without reading poetry?


I would not miss not reading prose, so I pick the second option. Oh, and about that movie… Schindler’s List.


Would you rather be friends with Chet Baker or Miles Davis?


I don’t believe that I would be capable of being close friends with either one.  I could have a conversation with both of them, but they both led extremely different lives than mine, and were affected by considerably different cultural events. I think that there would be a little bit of an impassable boundary. But if I had to choose one, and I love both of their playing and both of their music, I’d choose Miles.


If you were stranded on a deserted island, who would you choose to be with?


My wife, of course.

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