Interview with Tim Brady
When did you start playing guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
Like almost all North American baby boomers (born: 1956), it was the Beatles that got me interested in guitar. I bought the first Beatles record available in Canada (I was 7 years old) – and in the liner notes I saw “George Harrison – lead guitar”. I thought – “What’s that? That sounds pretty good – being the lead”. And they looked pretty cool on the Ed Sullivan show with those Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars in February 1964: it was quite the buzz. I’ve heard that guitar sales jumped about 200% in March 1964 just because of that performance. I was not alone.
But I only started playing guitar four years later, at 11 years old. I had basic folk music lessons from 11 to 13 years old, then I was completely self-taught (learning from records) till the age of 19. I bought a few books on music and taught myself a bit of music theory at one point. I started to write songs at 14, but I was never very good at writing lyrics, so I moved to more instrumental music by 16 or 17.
The extended jams of the Allman Brothers “Live at the Filmore East” helped me see that music could move through time at a different pace than “versus/chorus/bridge” song-format (by using more melodic, harmonic and dynamic developmental ideas rather than straight repetition), and Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything” showed me the idea of a large-scale, conceptual basis for music composition, plus I became fascinated with the idea of the recording studio as compositional tool. I almost wore out those two records, I played them so much for a few years.
From instrumental rock I discovered jazz (The Mahavishnu Orchestra was the critical link – I was 18 when “Inner Mounting Flame” came out). Then the jump from modern jazz to classical and contemporary classical music was very fast. By 20 years old I had somehow decided I wanted to be a composer, though I had barely learned how to read and write music notation (I learned at 19).
Eventually I studied at two universities: Concordia (in Montréal) and the New England Conservatory (Boston). I also studied privately with guitar guru Mick Goodrick in Boston, who is an amazing teacher. We spent two years talking about music, guitar, life – we did almost no playing. The only homework he gave me was to come back to each lesson with a new list of questions – about anything, preferably music. Just keep asking questions. And, of course, he never answered any of them. That was the point – learn what to ask, then learn how to solve your own problems.
It was what I needed at the time, and is still the basis of how I approach guitar, and music. He really made me understand two things:
1) the main challenge in playing music is in the mind, not the fingers. If you can think it and hear it, and if you believe that is the music that must be, it will happen. Music comes from the total person, not just the hands.
2) teachers can help, but the responsibility for actually learning to play and create music is totally up to you.
To be honest, it took me about 10 years to really understand the depth of what Mick was saying. It was as much philosophy as music.
With that guitar do you play and have you played with?
In the 80’s I had a Gibson es-335 (my first three vinyl records and first CD are done with that guitar), then moved to early PRS standard (a 1985 model) in 1990. In 1987 I realised I was looking for a different sounding guitar: my music was moving away from rock/blues/jazz sounds, so I was looking for something other than the Gibson/Fender sound. PRS was still a bit new in 1990. I then moved to a Steinberger GM4T (the one with the bigger Strat-style body) a few years later. I was touring a lot and the smaller guitar made life easier (carry on baggage!), plus it had a very different sound. I started using rack electronics in 1983, and by 1999 (my “Strange Attractors” tour), I had a rack that weighed 69.5 pounds, with midi pedals, 2 effects loops, a Lexicon Jamman, some other processors and preamps, and two Boss SE-70 multi-effects. It was pretty hi-tech at the time.
In 2002 or so I started to become aware of Godin Guitars (a Canadian company) – and by 2005 we had worked out an arrangement so that I started playing their guitars. I’ve owned quite a few different models in the past 15 years, and they are all great. I currently own 8 Godins (mostly current models) and I think they achieve that perfect balance: they are more traditional electric guitars than the Steinberger, but they incorporate very subtle but very real innovations that give them their own sound and feel.
On tour, I tend to use my main guitar: a prototype RG3 Strat-style with 2 humbuckers (which I changed to Seymour Duncan P-Rail pickups). With the P-Rails, I get 12 different sound options, and the feel and balance of the guitar are amazing. I have a few other guitars with P-Rail pick-ups. They solve one big problem: I like humbuckers for clean, single coil for overdrive. Flick a switch – it’s done. And it is not a “coil tap” – they incorporate two actual different pickups in an assymetrical humbucking design. Weird, but it works.
I generally use about 10 or 11 pedals on stage, sometimes less, depending on the project. The touring rig only weighs 25 pounds now – thank goodness for miniaturization. It’s all standard stuff (Boss, Electro Harmonix, TC Electronics, Digitech, Zoom, Xotic), but my current love is the Eventide H9 – very flexible, amazing sound quality. I have 2 of them. I also have 8 different amps, which is important in the studio, to get different sounds. Tube, solid state, hybrid. Some from the 80’s, the 90s’, some brand new – Fender, Yamaha, Koch, Carvin, Evans, Groove Tubes, Quilter. I also have several different speaker cabinets – some 10”, some 12”, and a few 2X8” cabinets. Again, for a variety of sound.
Why did you choose to become a composer?
It just happened. I have no idea why. It seems that I just naturally “think in sound” and want to share that with other people.
What does it mean to compose for 100 guitars?
I was commissioned to write a piece for 20 guitars in 2002 and it has had many performances since then, so I had a sense of the medium. But I had no big plans for 100 guitars – in 2014 I just had this idea of a piece for 100 guitars for the Festival Montréal Nouvelle Musique in 2015. So I wrote it, with nothing else in mind.
It was a great, great experience. Working with the range of amateur and professional players, the amazing sound of 100 guitars, the contact with the space and the public. Literally within 30 minutes of the first performance (which is on Youtube), I realised I had to keep moving in this direction.
100 guitars is a social act – the mix of players, using large public spaces, working in surround sound – this is not just a “concert”. (Mind you, even a “regular concert” is a very complex social act). I am very interested in exploring the social impact and social meaning of music – so the 100guitars is a great platform for that.
It also just sounds awesome – when all 100 get into high gear, moving around the space, it sends shivers up my spine. That’s why we become artists.
What do you think are the big differences between other “massive guitars” composers like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca?
When I started the 100-guitar project in 2014, I was obviously aware of the work of Rhys and Glenn. I had been for years. So I really had to decide what I wanted to do with 100 guitars.
The two big differences I hear are the use of spatialization and use of a more “orchestral” sense of the ensemble. Rhys and Glenn put everyone on stage, and tend to start with a “big rock band” as their basic sonic language – a big, glorious unified mid-range hum. I am oversimplifying, of course.
My work starts from a different premise. It is a guitar orchestra – we have sections with leaders, and I use sections and register and timbre much as when I am doing traditional orchestral music. There is no rhythm section, and we have conductors and follow scores. Of course, it’s still 100 guitars, and it sounds likes – 100 guitars! What a great sound.
But the spatialization is critical. With spatialization we can really hear much more detail from each section – so it is not just a big, glorious unified mid-range hum. Hear that high pitch? – that is to the left. That riff? – over on the right. Those low clusters? – behind you. The listener can really hear the 100 guitars in “technicolour” – and all those details are important to the total experience of the 100 guitars. 100 guitars on a single stage is a very, very different sonic reality and perceptual experience from 100 guitars in surround sound. We have less than 4 octaves on traditional guitar (though I use slides and scordatura to expand the range a bit sometimes), so using space to orchestrate the sound and elaborate the structure is a huge help. Spatialized guitars seem to have more permutational and gestural possibilities than 100 guitars in one spot, to me.
The Youtube videos we have (which are only stereo) are good but do not really give the sense of the power and movement that comes from the spatialization of the sounds – you really have to hear it LIVE to get the sense of depth that the project achieves.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
I grew up improvising, I do it everyday, and I give workshops on improvisation (improvisation as listening and real-time creation, not “style specific” improvisation). The specific language of improvisation (“jazz”, “blues”, “raga”, “noise”, etc) – is just the surface. Though it does take years to master any one musical language.
But the real goal of improvisation is experiencing the flow of time and the interaction of sounds and people. Active listening is the key – if you are not really listening to what is happening around you, you will not enjoy improvising. So improvising is a way for me to really get back to the basics – making sound, and listening to sound in real time, with no judgment. Just being with sound.
As a composer, you move to another place – you have to make choices, to make judgments, to use one sound instead of another. But having a practice – improvisation – where all sounds are potentially equal is an excellent way of staying connected to the basic reality of music.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
I love errors. I try to use them as often as possible. I make lots of mistakes. Play a phrase wrong – great, a new variation – write it down! Make a copying or transposition error in a score – great, a new harmony – keep it! Start a big new project – it falls apart (not so great, but…) – take bits of it and create a new, even better project!
Errors are truly inherent in the creative process, dealing effectively with “errors” is a big part of using the imagination – we want to go from A to B, and all of a sudden we are at C. What do you do? You have to imagine a new solution every time.
In concert and on CD, I try to avoid performance errors, but they happen, and even then you have to find a solution. “The show must go on”, as the saying goes.
Let’s talk about records, what are your favourite five records, to always have with you … the classic five discs for the desert island …
I guess the 5 most important records for me are:
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s (tough choice – Revolver and Double White are awesome!)
Allman Brothers – Live at the Filmore East
Todd Rundgren – Something / Anything
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Inner Mounting Flame
Charles Ives – Symphony #4
Plus honourable mentions go to Stravinsky (the 3 ballets), Miles Davis (Miles Smiles), Charles Mingus (Let My Children Hear Music), Luciano Berio (Symphonia) and Steve Reich (Tehillim).
Sorry, that’s 10 in total (and there are another 10 I’d love to mention).
This is mostly a historical list – what music touched me the most as I evolved as a composer and listener. With Youtube, I now listen to an insanely wide range of music at no cost almost everyday. And at 60 years old your relationship with “influences” is different than at 20 years old.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I have several new projects for 100 guitars – some concerts, and a few very large projects: a site-specific opera and 200-guitar spatialized symphony. These are expensive, and I am in discussions with producers right now. We’ll see: for 2019 to 2021 (depends on money).
I have some smaller projects. The Instruments of Happiness Quartet (4 el. gtrs) will have a new CD in 2018, and we will be touring the USA and Europe in 2018 with some new pieces by great American and European composers. It’s a great band. I’m also working on a chamber opera for the IoH quartet plus 5 singers – for 2020.
I have some guitar concerto things happening. My new concerto “Désir” was premiered at the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville in May 2017, and will be out on CD in 2018. It’s a big piece. I’m also working on a smaller concerto for drum kit, electric guitar and 6 players for a group in Montreal called Paramirabo, for March 2019.
And a few non-guitar projects for other Montréal groups: a new work for the piano duo Twinmuse, a large percussion piece for a multi-media extravaganza in 2018 produced by Sixtrum, and a chamber opera on the October Crisis (1970 – in Québec) – a slightly controversial work as it deals with violence, democracy and the last political assassination in Canada. For May 2019.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
I agree on the idea of vision. I think I only have modest musical talent. I see younger players who play way better than I did at I was that age, and I still feel I have much to learn as a musician. I am not a “born natural” – it has been a lot of concentrated work over four decades to get to some sort high-level professional standard.
But my music does have its own sound. It reflects everything I have heard – if I like a sound, I use it. I try not to worry about issues like “Is this OK to do in chamber music?”, “Is this too experimental is it too traditional?”, “What is experimental, what is traditional?”, “Is it pretty, is it ugly, is it jazz, is it rock?”, “Has this been done before?”, “Has this never been done before?”. I just listen to the sound in my head and if I believe in the integrity of that sound, then I compose it: I put it on paper, get it on stage, record it. I have been doing this kind of “post-stylstic” music for around 30 years, and some folks like it, others don’t.
In the past decade I have also started to be very interested in the larger social process of music – so now when I compose I am also thinking of thing like: what type of room will this be played in? Who will be the players? What can they bring to the music? How much rehearsal time to we have – what does that mean? What does the listener bring to the experience? Who will be the listeners (including me)? Is it for a live or studio project?
In fact, adding this layer of social process has meant that my music is becoming a bit more transparent and simpler. It’s not just about the notes, but also about the time and space that we are all in when we make contact with music. The notes are there just to help us all articulate the experience of collective listening. So I’m trying not to get in the way.