Interviews Masada Marathon

Everything is extremely exposed – Gyan Riley talks Chesed, Sprig, working on Masada & The Bagatelles and his duo with Julian Lage

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In the first article of 2019, The Music and Myth picks up where it left off, with the latest installment of the Masada Marathon. Back in November, a short while after a series of concerts presenting The Book Beriah in Europe, I had a chance to talk to guitarist and composer Gyan Riley, who makes his recorded Masada debut in an exciting duo project alongside Julian Lage.

Son of the celebrated minimalist composer, Terry Riley, Gyan is an accomplished musician in his own right, with several albums to his name, including duo collaborations with Timba Harris, Wu Fei and and a live album with his father.

Stream of Gratitude (2011), his first all solo classical guitar album of original composition was released under John Zorn’s Tzadik label. His most recent release, Sprig (2018), brings him full circle – presenting compositions for solo guitar.

About a year and a half ago, I had the chance to catch John Zorn’s Bagatelles Marathon in Vienna. I vividly remember how excited Zorn was when he introduced Gyan and Julian. At the time, they had only recently started collaborating. “You are about to hear something very special,” Zorn told the audience. His words were prophetic. Here is what I wrote in my review:

Their set was spectacular, a veritable celebration of timing and instinct as the expertly handled instruments succeeded in capturing the mysterious, almost metaphysical nature of these compositions. The touching chemistry shared by the young musicians translated into a moment that was wild, yet delicate. Judging by the audience’s reaction, it was also the highlight of the evening.

Now this impressive duo has become a part of the Masada legacy.

During our half-our conversation, Gyan talked to me about his records, working with Zorn and Julian, the transition from the Bagatelles to Masada and the creative process behind Chesed.

You’ve recently returned from a European tour where you presented the music of Chesed. How was it? 

We played Sarajevo, Vienna and then this festival near Amsterdam, called November Music. We did two shows as duo and two shows in a new trio with Bill Frisell.

Let’s talk about your most recent solo record, Sprig. I’ve read that it took you five years to complete it. Could you tell me a bit about that? 

I did work on it for around five years. Over that period of time, the music that I was playing and writing went through a transitional process. As artists, we’re gradually changing what we do. One thing I noticed was that the solo guitar music I was hearing was becoming more distilled and less convoluted. The early classical guitar music I was writing was extremely complex and dissonant. Not that Sprig doesn’t have dissonance, but the music was generally a lot more of complicated and I wasn’t really hearing things like that anymore. I was kind of enjoying purity of the sound of the instrument and just letting it sing on its own without trying to force any compositional process. I really enjoyed that. Just letting myself get to the core essence of whatever the music wanted to do and then get rid of everything else on that spectrum. Just purify things. So I think the result was kind of a different sounding music than previous albums.

When you have such a lengthy creative process, how does that influence a record like Chesed, which, knowing Zorn, must have had a pretty tight deadline?  

Yeah, it was slightly different, depending on the pieces in the collection. Some of them, as you might be able to hear, are slightly more arranged. I did some work on the charts and I was hearing something kind of specific, so I prearranged some of the pieces for us to prepare, before going into the studio. Whereas for some of the other ones we had essentially almost no plan.

What’s great about working with Zorn is that he always has very clear ideas about what he wants to happen, whether or not they’re predetermined. Sometimes, it’s just a reaction that he has, which is like, “Let’s do this, let’s do that!” Which is great, because when you’re in the studio, you don’t want to spend the whole week in there all the time. (laughs) With him – as you’ve said – it’s very fast. It’s great to have him, because he immediately responds to whatever you do.

It was a very different process to make that record. It was very intense. I think we were in the studio just one day and then mixing the next day. We were very focused. He always asks you to do things that are challenging and often out of your comfort zone, which is great, because it forces you to grow and move into territories that you would not explore on you own, making you evolve as a musician. It was a really cool process for me.

How did you start working with Zorn? I know that Stream of Gratitude, your first solo record, was released on Tzadik. How did you end up working on Masada? Was it through the Bagatelles? 

I met Zorn when I was still living in California and coming to New York to play. I had a concert here and he came. I met with him the next day and we started talking about a solo release and that’s when Stream of Gratitude came out. That happened really fast, because I only had two weeks left living in California and I wanted to record it there. For me, two weeks is a short amount of time to make an album like that.

Then, we started collaborating a lot more, when I was living in New York. The Bagatelles was the first kind of major project we did together. I think he was happy with the synchronicity that Julian and I had when we first started working with Bagatelles, so he immediately started proposing new ideas.

I had been involved with Masada only a little bit, through playing some shows with Secret Chiefs 3. I think I did about four or five shows with them, with The Book of Angels. That was my only experience with it – playing electric guitar in a larger ensemble, in a very arranged way. This was a different way of approaching that kind of music. As you know, with two acoustic guitars, everything is extremely exposed.

How did you get paired with Julian? Was it through the Bagatelles?

Yeah, it was through the Bagatelles and through Zorn. It was totally Zorn’s prerogative. As a producer, he has very clear ideas regarding the music that he’s writing and his vision. He had written me about it and we discussed a few different ideas and possibilities of who to work with. Of course, I was immediately excited at the prospect of working with Julian, even though I didn’t know him before that.

What was it like to work on Masada, as opposed to the Bagatelles? 

Well, one of the differences is just that the language is different. The compositional language is different. I treat every piece differently in the way I like to approach things. It’s really about getting to the essence of whatever a certain piece is trying to say. That’s a serious part of the process, because sometimes Zorn’s charts are only one or two lines. They can be very short, you know? So it’s really important how you interpret what the music is saying.

The Bagatelles is generally more angular, discordant music than Masada, so the resulting process is a little bit different as well. The other difference is that, when the Book of Bagatelles was written, there was no predecessor. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. It was a completely blank slate. Whereas, with Masada, there was already this legacy and I was familiar with the music and the tradition it’s based on. I also think that, for that reason – the way I was hearing Masada, especially what I would call the kind of “classic Masada sound” –  the way that we would treat those was maybe a little bit different. Sometimes, a piece would be asking for more of a traditional form where you have, like, solo sections and heads and solos. And some of them have written in events and are more kind of angular and jagged, more like Bagatelles. So it really depends on the pieces and how we decided to treat them.

You said you were familiar with the Masada sound. Are you a longtime fan? What are some of your favorite records in the Masada catalog?

Yeah, definitely. Admittedly, I haven’t actually heard a lot of [The Book Beriah]. I guess, somewhere, there’s a copy of the full book that’s waiting for me, but I haven’t picked it up yet. (laughs) I’d love to hear it all. The first thing that I’ve heard was the Gnostic Trio record, with Bill, Carol and Kenny. That has to be a favorite, even though I haven’t heard the others yet. I think that the sound of that trio is really special. It’s a really unusual sound. I haven’t heard anything like it. It’s a kind of shimmering, really beautiful sound that they put together. So I haven’t heard enough to say what my favorites are, but one of these days I’m going to sit down and listen to it all. (laughs)

What about some of the records from the first two books? 

I have to say the one that I’m most familiar with and the one that is kind of the most internalized is the Secret Chiefs record, because it’s the first one that I heard and I listened to it hundreds of times just to learn the parts and kind of get to understand what the music is all about and then play it with those guys. And it’s just an amazing record, you know, it’s really incredibly arranged.

Almost every musician I talk to lists the Secret Chiefs 3 record, Xaphan, among their favorites. 

Yeah, it’s a great record.

You’ve done a lot of work in the duo formation. You have Pluck (2011), with Wu Fei, Time to Feed (2014) with Timba Harris, you have a live record with your father and now, obviously, Chesed. Is there something in particular about the duo formation that you enjoy? 

That’s an interesting question. I think what’s great about it is just this sort of one-on-one interconnection and communication that you can have. Even if you just add one person, it complicates the dynamic and the communication exponentially. And then, of course, there’s the purely logistical thing of just organizing schedules and all of that. It’s so much easier.

You know, as a classical guitarist, growing up, I was mostly just playing solo. It really puts things into perspective when you’re always relying on yourself for everything, musically and extra-musically. Having someone else to communicate with, bounce ideas off of, react with on stage, all of that. Just having one other person to do that with seems like a lot. It seems like a wealth, for me, coming from that perspective. I mean, I’ve done a lot of larger ensemble stuff too. I think that, in the future, I’d like to work maybe more in a quartet or something. But we’ll see. (laughs)

What is next for you now? Are there any more Zorn projects we can look forward to?

Yeah, there are some other Zorn projects on the horizon. I can’t really talk about them yet but… to be continued (laughs). Right now, I’m writing. I’m working on another solo record. Hopefully it won’t take another five years. (laughs)

I was going to ask.

Hey, you never know. As long as I’m still alive to produce it. And, like I said, I have this sort of fantasy of writing large ensemble music. Not crazy huge. Like your previous question, large, for me, would be a quartet.

Since you’ve recorded so many duo projects, is there anybody else you’d love to have a duo record with?

Another duo? (laughs) There are many. I actually have a first gig on Monday at a big venue here in Brooklyn with a remarkable singer named Arooj Aftab. She’s a really incredible singer and we’re having our first show as a duo together, opening for Mitski. We’ll see how that goes but, again, it’s playing in a big kind of rock venue in that kind of vibe, as duo, so you’re really responsible for a lot. You have to create a really special and somewhat large sound from just two people. That’s challenging.

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