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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Interview: Catching up with some of Canada’s best-known composer/performers: Tim Brady, Glenn Buhr, and Adam Sherkin

By Michael Vincent on March 22, 2014

Composer-performer-image3

In Canada, we seem to punch well above our weight in regards to composer-performers, and many of our home-grown talents have gained an incredible following.

After posting my own personal musings last week on the subject, I wondered how three of Canada’s best known composer-performers felt about the practice that never seems to get as much attention as it deserves. I asked Tim Brady, Glenn Buhr, and Adam Sherkin to share some of their experiences with us.

Bradyworks+VivaVoce - "Atacama: Symphony #3" - FIMAV - May 2013
Bradyworks+VivaVoce – “Atacama: Symphony #3” – FIMAV – May 2013

TIM Brady:

Known for both his radiant personality and innovative work, Montreal-born Tim Brady is both a composer and guitarist. He has created music in a wide range of genres, from chamber and orchestral music to electroacoustic works, chamber opera, contemporary dance scores, jazz and free improvisation. His career reads like a who’s who of Canada’s classical music scene with commissions by Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec, New Music Concerts, INA-GRM (Radio-France), the English Guitar Quartet, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Esprit Orchestra (CBC), the Philadelphia-based Relâche ensemble, and the Australian group Topology.

What made you decide to start performing your own work?

I started writing pop songs at 14 – so the next thing you do, is form a band.  I had rock bands from the age of 15 – 17, then a jazz fusion group from 18 – 21.  Then a jazz group and big band from 25 to 29.  So I have always performed my own music.  At 30, when I decided that I was more interested in playing guitar in chamber music contexts, it was just a logical evolution to create my own chamber group.  I was aware of the models of Reich and Glass, but I had already been running my now groups in one form or another for 15 years, so this was my main perspective.  When you play electric guitar, you have a band.  It’s that simple.

 

Do you feel that you can interpret you music as well as a specialized performer?

I am a specialised performer.  I am a really good guitarist.  No point in having my music played badly… in fact, having to play my music has made me a much better musician (I don’t always write the easiest guitar parts!).  It is really NOT that hard to be both an accomplished performer and composer.  Historically, it is the norm – Bach, Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovich, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, The Beatles… to name just a few of the folks who did both rather well, in my opinion.

 

How do you deal with rehearsals of your chamber works while doing double duty as both performer and a composer?

The first rehearsal is very hard.  You are trying to play the piece as a guitarist (focused just on your part) and also trying to hear if it works, as a composer (focused on the totality).  It is no fun.  But then again, first rehearsals are no fun for anyone for new works, but it is more difficult when you are both a player and composer.  But that is just the first rehearsal.  After that, it is ok.  But I always know the first rehearsal will be somewhat tormented, when I have to be both composer and performer.  You just get through it.

 

How important is the performative aspect to your career?

I love playing, I love composing.  Why would I chose between them?  I guess I’d put myself at the 51% composer, if you really needed a decision.  But both are essential to what I do, to who I am. Career – who knows?  Playing has given me great tours, I’ve met tons of interesting people, played with amazing artists, done 20 CDs.  That’s great.

I do realize that for a while I was taken a bit less seriously as a composer because of my playing – “Brady – good guitarist, write nice guitar music” – syndrome.  Some folks could not see me as a full “composer”.  But simple tenacity and the fact that over the past 10 – 15 years a lot of NON-guitar projects has largely changed that.  Though I still think folks tend to think of me as a player.  Which is not untrue.  Perhaps my recent JUNO nomination for Best Classical Composition will help even things out.

 

Do you mentally separate the act of composing and performing – or is it more of a seamless progression of bringing a work to life?

The two aspects are sometimes quite different.  If you are really working on a tough technical passage, you just need to work the physical and musical mechanics, over and over.  No composer there, just player.  Similarly, when I’m really composing a new piece, in the thick of it, guitar can sometimes take a bit of a back seat for a week or two. My mind is overwhelmed with the new musical ideas and the creation of the larger architonic structure.  It leaves very little mental space for the player.

But the two are quite related.  Sometime, in warm-ups and improvs I’ll get little ideas for motifs or pieces, and when I compose something I sometimes do it to challenge me as a player.

 

Do you recommend this route to emerging composers looking for ways to better connect with their listeners?

If you want to play and compose, do it.  It is more work, it sometimes slows down the career a bit and can confuse people (what are you doing??).  But it is a fantastic musical experience, you will be a better composer and musician for it.  One thing for sure, it will give you a WAY better relationship with your fellow musicians, as you will really understand what they do when they are learning and playing your music.  This helps.

Does it help connect to the listeners?  I have no idea.  One always hopes to connect, both as a composer and performer.  But there is never any guarantee.  Who is in the hall?  What repertoire are you playing?  What else is on the concert? Who is the producer?  What is the media angle? What are the preconceptions of the public in regards to you and your music?  You have so LITTLE control over that suff, that you just have to try to be totally honest as a composer and totally committed as a performer.  Then let the chips fall where they may.

 

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Continue on to Glenn Buhr -> here

glenn_Buhr

GLENN Buhr:

Winnipeg-born Glenn Buhr is a jack of all trades. He is a composer, pianist, guitarist, music curator, producer, and band leader.  Buhr has received commissions from many important of Canada’s best known orchestras and ensembles including the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Penderecki String Quartet, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Children’s Chorus and the Esprit Orchestra. Internationally he has presented works  with the London Sinfonia, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and many others. His 3rd Symphony (a choral symphony) was premiered by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in February 2008 with pop singer Sarah Slean as soloist.

He is the current Artistic Director of NUMUS Concerts in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Describe your general experience as a composer-performer?

It’s been wonderful.  I was trained as an actor when I was a child, and like most actors, I love being on stage.  And I love playing music for people; it’s very satisfying.  That’s something that composers only get once or twice a year, when they take a bow after a premiere.  I have the advantage of being a decent pianist and guitarist and singer, so I find that I can fit into almost any situation.  For example, this Thursday, I’m performing a recital with Jerzy Kaplanek, violinist with the Penderecki String Quartet, and it’s a real mixed bag: two of my new songs, two jazz standards, some Bach, a Sting song and Arvo Pärt’s Fratres.  Club-oriented music, and serious concert music all in one program; and I’m fond of it all.

I’ve toured with a jazz band a couple of times, I’ve played at folk festivals and several clubs, I’ve performed recitals and also played concerti with symphony orchestras.  It’s a lot of work to keep up the practicing, and keep the repertoire warm, but it’s extremely fulfilling for me, because I am communicating to a wide range of people with music, and that’s what I set out to do when I decided to pursue a career in music as a young man.

What made you decide to start performing your own work?

I became serious about developing my skills as a performer when I created the music composition/improvisation program at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2000.  Though I’d kept my piano technique up, I’d never challenged myself to pull my performance abilities together enough to become a professional performer until then.  I felt that, since I was training young musicians to hone their performance skills with creative music, that I should also be a developed enough musician to perform professional concerts at all levels.

Pros and cons?

Being stretched for time is the only con.  It takes steady work to maintain performance skills: working up new repertoire, and maintaining the learned repertoire, and also the daily technical practice.  Improvisational musicians are always honing their skills.  Right now, I’m focusing on learning to play a good jazz guitar solo over conventional chord progressions.  That takes regular practice alternated with a bit of public performance.

I am usually also under some deadline pressure to complete some compositions, so the time pressure gets intense sometimes.  That said, it never feels like hard work when you love what you do, so I have no complaints.  This is exactly how I want to be spending my time.

Also, for a young composer, it’s difficult to get professional musicians and ensembles to play your music.  Established repertoire is always more popular for concert music audiences.  So I encourage my students to become excellent performers.  As a performer you get the pleasure of learning other composers’ music by living inside of it, and you also get the advantage of being the medium for your own work.  It’s a way to share your music with others, without having to wait for the phone to ring in the hope that it’s an orchestral conductor who loves your music and really needs to program it.  (Something that rarely or never happens these days.)

How do you deal with rehearsals of your chamber works while doing double duty as both performer and a composer?

As a jazz musician and a rock musician, I’ve learned to lead rehearsals while also playing guitar or piano.  It turns out that I’m a much better leader (conductor) if I am also performing.  I doubt if that’s true with everyone, but I’m very comfortable with the triple-duty of producer/composer/performer.  I’m not as efficient at leading ensembles unless I’m also in the ensemble.  Sometimes I am called on to conduct or produce without performing, and I’m always working on a commission of some kind for other ensembles, but it’s never as satisfying for me as it is when I’m also directly involved with the live music experience as a performer.

(We’re developing a new program at Wilfrid Laurier University called Creative Performance, to train young composers and creative musicians to present their work in public by performing it themselves, either as soloists, or as leaders of an ensemble or band.)

How important is the performative aspect to your career?

Very important.  At this point, it’s essential to my music-making.  I don’t think of myself as primarily a composer anymore.  I’m a composer/performer; it’s essential to my central identity as a musician.

Do you mentally separate the act of composing and performing – or is it more of a seamless progression of bringing a work to life?

I do separate the composing and performing, except when I’m improvising.  I find that it takes quite a bit of time to prepare a proper performance of my own work, even if the new work is a simple song.  If i’m using an instrument when writing, I am doing a bit of performance preparation as I write, but most of the heavy-lifting comes after the work is finished.  I often add new bits as I prepare the performance, and that fine-tuning always improves the work.

Anything else to add?

I rarely accept young composers into my teaching studio unless they’re also interested in performance.  Composition isn’t really a profession unless the composer does a lot of work for commercial interests, so creative musicians need to diversify if they want to be in the profession and share their new work in the larger world.  Developing a profile as a performer, helps a lot.

Songwriters and rock bands are expected to perform original work.  Their audiences demand it.  That’s not true with concert music.  Music from Old Europe has saturated the repertoire, so there’s very little room for new work in that culture.

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Continue on to Adam Sherkin -> here

adam_Sherkin

ADAM Sherkin

Adam Sherkin is one of Toronto’s most vibrant and versatile musicians who commands a multi-dimensional approach as both and composer and performer. Adam graduated from the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory and the Royal College of Music, London. He has appeared in performance at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the Four Seasons Centre, the Glenn Gould Studio, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, the Royal Conservatory, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Covent Garden and the Royal Albert Hall, among others. An associate of the Canadian Music Centre, Adam recently released his solo debut album, As at First, on the Centrediscs label in November of 2012.

Describe your general experience as a composer-performer?

My general experience has been a very enriching one.  Most audiences welcome the programming of my own works on recitals and, conversely, commissioning bodies and conductors encourage my abilities as pianist, even to the point of suggesting piano parts in prospective compositions.  I continue to write new piano works for myself to premiere, often fashioning them with a specific programme in mind.  My upcoming solo recital tour in the Spring of 2014, themed Write Off the Keyboard, is a reflective of this ambition and celebrates four of the great composers of our past who were indeed exceptional pianists in their own right, and who wrote much of their music from – and off of – the keyboard.

 

What made you decide to start performing your own work?

I began performing my own work as an undergraduate.  I played some of my early piano pieces for colleagues and teachers at school, and with ample positive feedback I incorporated my own music into recitals on a more regular basis.  The experience was rather liberating, though a certain degree of apprehension existed at first.  I was always very cautious when programming my own works and did so with modesty and reverence for the masterworks (often from the traditional piano repertoire) that were placed around them on a programme.  As I evolved to perform more and more contemporary works by other composers, I found that my own pieces fit into a new context: they did not need the same degree of “modesty” that had seemingly legitimized them when featured alongside Beethoven and Brahms.

 

Pros and cons?

The pros have come to long outweigh the cons.  Since leaving school, I have experienced audiences progressively warming to my works in performance, even offering enthusiasm and encouragement.  The added dimension of the composer, as displayed through the persona of performer, sometimes appears as a novelty for particular audiences. (This a concept that consistently strikes me as counterintuitive; many composers in our not-so-distant past were indeed their music’s own interpreter/performer.)

 

How do you deal with rehearsals of your chamber works while doing double duty as both performer and a composer?

This is an important question to consider; ‘double duty’ can be tricky.  I have found myself being very cognizant of both roles (that of composer and of performer) when rehearsing with an ensemble, particularly when acting as piano soloist.  I have found it effective to defer to the conductor in many instances as this can often lead to a more integrated and cohesive reading of the work.  I also prefer to be open to new ideas and perspectives, not my own, from conductors and orchestras.  A respect for the hierarchy existent in orchestras and minding such protocol when addressing an orchestra from the podium is something I consider rather carefully.  Performing in one’s own chamber works can present an equally demanding position for the composer.  One must listen on various levels and most always certainly wear two hats!

 

How important is the performative aspect to your career?

In many respects, the performative aspect has become most significant to my career.  As I continue to present new recital programmes, I find that curatorial decisions are often made around my own new work(s) being premiered, as opposed to my music fitting in with pre-existing repertoire.  It is important, too, that I oftentimes premiere my music, as it offers a first point of call for other interpreters.  Much of my solo piano music has been recorded and I’ll naturally direct other pianists who perform my music to the recordings.  This is, of course, by no means a standard nor suggests any performance practice but might offer interpreters and listeners alike a direct kind of access to my work.  The thrill of writing music that I know I get to have the first crack at is significant and thereby must shape – in respect – the nature of creativity that goes into composing a new piece for myself.  I’ve always felt that I couldn’t just be a composer, nor could I just be a performer.  The role of performer, however, has come to function as a slightly more public one in my case and offers added profile to my composer(ly) identity.

 

Do you mentally separate the act of composing and performing – or is it more of a seamless progression of bringing a work to life?

In fact I do mentally separate these two acts: I schedule different hours in the day for each. While I might improvise – or even write – at the piano, I find that each discipline requires a distinctive approach too.  If I am working on a commission for larger forces, (i.e. not for myself to premiere), I enter into a veritable mode of “composer” and sometimes take consecutive days off from practicing, (though is not always advisable!)  If I am writing a new piece for myself to play, I will almost always finish the manuscript, (or in the very least a first draft), before I sit down at the piano as “performer” and properly learn the piece.  In this way I approach the music as if it were almost another composer’s score, being as diligent as possible in adhering to the directions and musical indications outlined.  Tweaks will naturally take place, but I do prefer to “lock down” the newly written piece before I begin to prepare it for performance.

 

Do you recommend this route to emerging composers looking for ways to better connect with their listeners?

In principal, I do recommend it.  My concern would be for a composer’s degree of performance facility.  Importantly too, a composer must consider the loss of inherent challenge when writing music for a performer with technical command beyond their own, (this applies to myself as well!)

There is remarkable standard of technical prowess in our musical world today; a composer must be both competent and confident in their art to successfully embark on such a dual career, as composer-performer.  It is worth iterating that this is all somewhat dependent on the composer’s own style and aesthetic but holistically speaking, I do believe that this route can be advantageous in connecting with one’s listeners.

 

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Adam wrote a recent article at NewMusicToronto, musing about a few of the composer-pianists of our own time.

 

An interview with Adam Sherkin from Adam Sherkin on Vimeo.

 

Michael Vincent

 

Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent has worked as a senior editor for La Scena Musicale and web editor for Norman Lebrecht. On January 21, 2014, he went to lunch and left as the publisher of Musical Toronto. Later that year he found himself as a freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star, the former employer of his favourite author Ernest Hemingway. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
Follow me
Michael Vincent
Follow me

Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent has worked as a senior editor for La Scena Musicale and web editor for Norman Lebrecht. On January 21, 2014, he went to lunch and left as the publisher of Musical Toronto. Later that year he found himself as a freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star, the former employer of his favourite author Ernest Hemingway. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
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