Griswold's remedy to pain, politics and summer heat
Craig Fossey | On 02, Sep 2015
“We’re bringing people together in a chaotic collage of events…” We caught an intimate premiereÂ of Pain Avoidance Machine by prolific composer-pianist Eric Griswold – and had a chat with him after the show.
The Creative Issue were recently invited to see the showcase performance of Erik Griswoldâ€™s new work Pain Avoidance Machine, and to celebrate in its very recent release on the Room40 label.
Itâ€™s a pretty unique opportunity to get such an up close and personal experience with an experienced composer and performer like Erik Griswold. However we got to witness a couple of nights of memorable music and art making – right underneath his house. Griswold, the US-born but now Brisbane-based composer and master of the prepared piano, hosted with his wife Vanessa Tomlinson (herself a virtuoso percussionist and academic at the Queensland Conservatorium) a weekend of intimate ‘house’ performances at their home in an inner south suburb of Brisbane.
Percussive trio performs “Fear”, a past Griswold composition
Under the auspice of Room40, which is directed by Brisbane-based sound artist and producer Laurence English, Erik and Vanessa put together a show that incorporated Erikâ€™s new release along with one of his oldies Wallpaper, which is rarely performed for it is such a demanding solo work that could almost be considered an intense gym workout. There were also guest performances by label mates Eugene Carchesio and Austin Bucket, and Canberra projectionist and film artist, Louise Curham.
With capacity of the venue set at 25, we were always going to see things pretty close up; the discipline, the technique, the profound musicality, the emotion and also the sheer physicality of playing such intense pieces to an audience literally peering over your shoulder. Saturdayâ€™s performance, which culminated in Griswoldâ€™s Pain Avoidance Machine, followed by a very unique improvised collaboration between Bucket, Curham and Griswold. With one piano upstairs and one downstairs, paired with Curhamâ€™s 3 reel-to-reel projectors it was something that not just worked, but stunned. Bucket and Griswold played off each other with great subtlety, and for what momentarily seemed off-putting to have the sound of the second piano to be coming from another level, they quickly seemed to talk with one another. The visual element of the projections tied together the performance and the audience received a remarkable audio-visual experience!
I got to sit down with Erik after the showâ€¦
TCI: In reference to Pain Avoidance Machine, and the background of it; unsavoury politics, social media, and summer heat, I’m not sure everyone would agree that it’s the most awesome trilogy to inspire new composition and creativity. How did you use these seemingly negative influences to get into your creative mode?
Erik Griswold: During this period I was being a bit overwhelmed, and I really wanted to return to basic exploration, and get back to basics. I suppose it was a response to wanting to get away from those things which seemed to be becoming more and more persistent, which is maybe where the title, Pain Avoidance Machine came from. Really, what I wanted to do was spend time in my studio, explore sound, and get away from those distractions.
TCI: With these background influences in mind, was there a conscious decision that you wanted to reach a broad audience? To me, it’s a piece that’s got something for everyone. It will appeal to the astute muso, but it’s also accessible to those that are new to contemporary composition??
EG: I find that what I’m doing more and more is stripping back at the layers of the work that I’ve done before, and really getting to the essentials. In some sections, the music becomes really transparent and very clear. That’s just part of my process of where I’m at now. With this album, I would love it if this music could communicate to as many people as possible. I’m not trying to create it for any kind of niche audience, or anything like that.
TCI: Culturally, it seems seamless, too? You’ve got eastern influence quite distinctly, but there is certainly an underpinning western harmonic structure through there, as well.
EG: I’ve always been trying to create a music which is not imitating all of those different influences. There’s certain music which I love, which I always come back to. For example, the music of Duke Ellington, or Steve Reich. These are constant influences, but what I’m trying to do is not to imitate those artists, but to create a music which is really quite simple that maybe just refers to those things. You could listen to Pain Avoidance Machine from all these different perspectives. You could listen to it from this perspective of Chinese music. You could listen to it from a perspective of minimalism. You can listen to it from a perspective of Gothic rock music. However, it’s not in any one of those styles.
TCI:Â For the majority of the 20th century, the majority of musicians, be they classical, jazz, punk, hiphop or heavy metal – to some degree they’ve played a role in political and social discussion, in bringing social issues to public awareness. Obviously, you believe Pain Avoidance Machine to have a role to play in political discussion; given the background of why you came up with the piece. Do you feel like that it is still the norm for most contemporary composers these days to deliver social and political messages?
EG: There’s a lot to think about there. My music is generally not explicitly political. In other words, most of my pieces aren’t trying to deliver a particular message or deal with a particular issue. However, like anybody else, I’m in the world. I’m involved in the world, and I’m involved, like everyone else, in being a part of making these decisions. Making a part of these community decisions, getting involved in influencing the government. It seems that there’s a need at the moment to become more directly involved in countering some of the trends that are going on.
One big example is the attack on arts funding that’s been happening now. I find myself, like most of my colleagues, in a situation where we actually just can’t stand by idly, and watch these things happen. We’re using what tools we have, to try to make some change happen in those areas and other areas. We were talking earlier (before our interview) about the representation of women in contemporary music in various forms. It’s obviously still a really big problem. I’m very interested in those issues, and interested in how we can help to progress them.
How does that relate to my music, or a piece like Pain Avoidance Machine? I don’t think that my piece is directly addressing those issues, but my piece is just putting up a model of a way of creating art, a way of creating music, that is different than the commercial. It’s not responding to commercial pressures. It’s not responding to the demands of the market. I hope that it’s more a contribution to keeping an older tradition of creating art, which is really about looking at the world and responding to what’s happening in the most honest possible way. I hope this piece is a modest contribution to that.
TCI:Â Now well into your career, there’s a few hats that you wear professionally. You’re a composer, a performer, an academic and you’re also a curator. Do you feel like you’re any more or less of any of these, or is it an equal blend as you the musician?
EG: Some of those things I do because I’m compelled to. I can’t not write music. I can’t help it. Of the other things, I do because there’s a necessity to fulfill those roles. No one else is doing it. Maybe in a perfect world, I could just be in my studio, exploring this music, and then somehow, release it onto the world. Somehow, I don’t think that would work. You need a balance of all these disciplines in my work as a whole. You need time to be working by yourself, and reflecting. Then you need time to be interacting and exchanging ideas with people. That’s why you need to be doing all of these different activities, because it’s all about finding that balance.
TCI:Â Moving now onto the compositional side of Erik Griswold, can you describe your affinity to composing for chamber groups, small groups, and solo works?
EG:Â I’ve always been the most comfortable and the most excited about working in this small format, like a band sort of format, where it’s about the sound of the instruments, but it’s also about the relationship between the people in the ensemble. There are always people behind all of my compositions; in that I’m thinking of the player, as much as it is, writing for flute. It’s maybe not writing for flute; it’s writing for a particular flute player, who has a particular sound. It’s not writing for the trumpet; it’s writing for Peter Knight’s trumpet sound. This is what you can do with chamber music, you can really explore the possibilities. It’s more collaborative, a much more collaborative way of working.
TCI: I hope I’m not wrong in making this judgment, but what is it about the prepared piano that draws it to you as your signature musical move?
EG: I have always loved percussion and piano. When I was a teenager, I played percussion a lot. I don’t play much, anymore. Those have always been my two loves, and prepared piano brings them both together in one package. I love being able to set something up, set up a new sound world, and then explore that by improvising and by trying things out.
TCI: Now looking at another side of you, do you have any new ambitions as a curator, that you’re willing to share?
EG:Â The direction that I’m hoping to go, is to do more events similar to our event, the Listening Museum. More things where we’re bringing people together in a chaotic collage of events. What I’m trying to say is that curatorially, I’m wanting to move away from the idea of a traditional concert, and more to the idea of an event which might have many people performing at the same time, or overlapping. You might have installation and performance.
TCI: Thatâ€™s exciting. We need to get you on a Creative Drinks event! Are you willing to talk about the project/s that you’re completing for your Australia Council Music Fellowship?
EG: The Fellowship is finished now. The Fellowship was an incredible opportunity to focus on compositional work. There was actually a huge amount of works that came out of that. The one that is still coming up (possibly this is what you were thinking of), is a work for orchestra called Games at the End of the World, Jeux Ã la fin du Monde. The reason I use the French title is because my piece takes reference from the Debussy piece, Juex as a starting point. I then gave it an alternate ending and I tried to take that into a completely unexpected direction.
TCI: No one’s done that (with Juex) before?
EG: There are two pieces called Juex, which I find interesting. There’s Debussy’s Juex, and then LutosÅ‚awski, later wrote a piece called Jeux VÃ©nitiens (or Venetian Games). My piece has two parts. The main part uses the sound world of Debussy, but in the year 2015. The second part is more loosely inspired by LutosÅ‚awski’s sound world.
TCI: With reference to the actual grant itself, the Creative Issue did a bit of research and checked out the future of the Australia Council fellowships. They are no longer announced separately i.e Music, Literature etc. It’s a cross-artform callout in one closing date. And, in order to be able to offer Fellowships this year with the reduced budget and capacity, the Fellowship amount is now $80,000 instead of $100,000. How do you feel this will affect future recipients?
EG: I’m not 100% sure. It’s shocking, because I know that speaking to people at the Australia Council, this was seen by many people as one of the most successful formats, one of the most successful grants, for the amount of investment. There were so many outcomes of this, and it was so good for so many artistsâ€™ careers. It would be a real shame, if the scale of outcomes is permanently affected by these changes.
TCI: For a Brisbane-based composer who has an awful lot on his CV, do you have some future ambition that you would be willing to share with the readers of the Creative Issue?
EG: I don’t know if I have a single ambition, but the way I think about my long term goals is that I choose a theme for a period of time. For example, let’s say I decided to do as many performances as I could in a year. What I’m doing now is, I’m trying to release as many recordings as I can. That’s my goal. I hope that people can find some of these new recordings that will be coming out over the next year.
TCI: Â Final question; what is Erik Griswold doing with the very little down time that he must have?
EG: I love spending time here in the studio whenever I can, and time in the garden, and time with my kids. That’s what I enjoy the most. Traveling when we can. I love to get out on the road and go camping. Simple things.
TCI: Do you use the trips away as a complete break, or do you use it for inspiration as well? Do you not really consciously think about that?
EG: I never turn off my creative mind. It’s all part of a larger creative process. It’s quite organic, actually, is probably the best way to put it. It’s quite an organic flow, from daily life to the creative work. That’s the way it’s working.