Photo @ Fabrice Buffart
Interview with Charlie Rauh
When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
I started playing guitar when I was 13, because I loved my dad’s playing. I was at the time a serious clarinetist/alto saxophonist studying in school and performing regularly in a horn quartet – but the guitar had a separate lure for me. My dad is a self taught multi instrumentalist with a very unique feel for space and melody, and I really took an interest in the guitar due to hearing him play around the house and at church. Early on I was completely enamored by jazz, idolizing Ellington, Gershwin, and Porter. I was introduced to this music through the classic movies my mom always watched, and it sparked my interest in learning music. I started studying music when I was 11, playing clarinet in the school band and eventually focusing on jazz in private lessons. When I started to play guitar it just took over everything and I phased out horn playing in favor of private studies on guitar. I went to Shenandoah Conservatory to study jazz, but found after two years that the approach was stiff and uninspiring. I dropped out and decided Id see what I was really capable of on my own.
What were and are your main musical influences? Listening to your last record “Viriditas” I felt the presence of Bill Frisell, do you like his way of playing?
Again Id have to say my first and most foundational influence on the guitar is my dad, Robin Rauh. Anyone who has heard him play would be able to spot immediately where the roots of my sound come from. Funny enough – when I first heard Bill Frisell in my 20s I thought “Wow this guy sounds like my dad, but with weird harmony thrown in, I can totally get into this”. I am a huge fan of Bill’s work both as a composer and a player, he is definitely an influence and an inspiration for me! The music on Viriditas comes from very specific inspirations. The greatest inspiration of all is Hildegard Von Bingen – her writing as well as the interpretive recordings of her work are as good as it gets for me. After Hildegard, is The Innocence Mission – my favorite band I have ever heard. My melodies and harmonic choices are inspired by their music more than any other artist I listen to. Outside of these constants, the individual songs were born of their environments. For example, ”Lullaby For Djupavik” and “Wind in The East” were written after two different tours in Iceland. The first was through the western part of the country with an Icelandic folk artist, the second was through the eastern part of the country with an Icelandic classical musician playing native sacred music from the 1500s. These songs were inspired by my time in a wonderfully mystical place learning the music of a culture that I hold very close. “Arolen” is a rendition of the very first melody I ever came up with as a child, before I learned music, and is named for the street I grew up on in Alabama. As I get older I feel more inspired by experience, and want to make sure I capture some evidence of it while I am able.
How did you get the idea to release a solo album like “Viriditas” and why did you choose Destiny Records to produce it?
Ive been doing a lot of touring the past few years, particularly in northern Europe. From those travels I began to accumulate a group of very brief, simple songs that I started to feel were expressing what I want to say much better than my previous solo guitar material that was much more expansive and improvisational around themes. The recording of Viriditas was actually an unplanned event. I was on tour with Sasha Zamler – Carhart and Jesse Greenberg last summer and we had planned a week at Sasha’s farm home in France to record our trio. We wound up having to start a day later than we planned but Andrea Friggi, the engineer, had already set up the studio. I thought this could be an interesting opportunity, so I asked Andrea if I could record some of my music – requesting he only use the overhead directional mics in the large barn, and just hit record for about 45 minutes. So that is what we did. I played my songs a couple of times each, and did two improvised pieces : one focused on the idea of the album’s message, and one as a dedication to my friend and mentor Connie Crothers who the day before, I had been notified, passed away. We took the passes that I liked, mixed the mic balance, and that was that. I took the recordings home to NYC and had Pete Weiss and Jake Thro both master the whole thing, and I sat with it for a bit. I showed it to some friends to see what people thought and was very happy to hear enthusiastic responses, because I was very excited about it myself! Then I showed it to Cam Mizell from Destiny Records to see what he thought. Cam and I have been friends for years, play together often, and have a lot of common ground, so I knew he’d give me valuable insight. When he wrote back saying he was really into it, we started talking about the possibility of a Destiny release and he sent it to Mike Shields at the label for consideration. When Mike gave the go ahead we decided to make it an official release. Ive done sessions and played live with several artists on Destiny, and have been aware for sometime that the label is very supportive of its artists, and dedicated to releasing quality music – so I am absolutely thrilled to be on board with them.
In “Viriditas” you “show” us an amazing sound, do you use pedals? Or is it just a guitar and amplifier?
Many thanks! On the record I am playing my custom Island Instrument Manufacture Traveller guitar through a Hilton volume pedal and a Strymon Deco into a ZT Lunchbox Jr. amplifier. I own those two pedals and also a Strymon Flint that I use more for session work and not my own music as much, but embarrassingly I don’t really know how to use any other pedals. I like dimension and overtones, so reverb and a bit of delay seem to bring out the colors I want in a solid body guitar. For this record the space had its own vibe so I just had a slight three-repeat delay on from the Deco and used the volume pedal to soften the sections I wanted to. As of late I have been playing a Waterloo WL-14 for solo performances and am leaning in the acoustic direction for some of my new compositions as the guitar contains its own overtones and spacious sound. But I love the Traveller/Deco combination very much, it was the only sound for this record and Ill always have a need for it.
How do you express your “musical form” both under execution that improvisation? How did your instruments change the way you play and think about music?
The biggest shift for me as a composer and player came when I bought my first headless guitar in 2010, a Steinberger Synapse. I ordered it just cause I needed a travel guitar for touring over seas, but soon found that the headless design and feel opened up an enormous amount of creativity for me. As I started touring more and doing more and more session work, I then had Chris Forshage of Austin Texas build me a custom headless instrument (lovingly referred to as Fern). That guitar just changed the game for me, my writing and playing became more fluid and legato line oriented because it was just so easy and comfortable to play. Last year I had Nic Delisle build me the Traveller and another lightbulb went off. With this guitar I was inspired to pull back and enjoy warm tone and richness in the sound. My writing became concise, harmonically oriented with very simple melodies and short forms. The addition of the Waterloo WL-14 picks up there and runs with it. I think travel, experience, and just time continue to shape me as a player and composer the most. I am after essence over excess in my music. I want to play what I have to play, and nothing else. In improvisation or composition, I hope I am learning how to express the purity of intention. With this record at least its the closest I feel I have gotten.
What does improvisation mean to you in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
To me improvisation is about using what you know and feel to act in the moment. I have no interest in transcribing solos, or running scale exercises. I’m also aware by taking that approach I can’t do certain things – I have no idea how to play Bebop, traditional jazz, or any type of music that requires a learned vocabulary. I feel that there are many many expert musicians with scholarly as well as emotionally invested skill in playing repertoire of all historical eras of music. I also have enormous respect for these musicians. When I improvise on a song, I try to spontaneously honor the lyrics first and the melody second. When I improvise freely, I try to spontaneously express my life’s experiences as honestly as possible. There are people who will connect with that and people who won’t, but the same can be said of any music really. I really despised the codified approach to improvising that was forced on me in conservatory, but I also don’t feel a rebellious urge to avoid convention. My approach is very simple – I play what I experience, weather it happens to be inline with tradition or not.
Have you ever tried or thought about playing contemporary classical music?
Yes, I have composed several chamber pieces for modern dance, and performed in multiple contemporary ensembles at venues such as Lincoln Center, Merce Cunningham Studio, and The Frist Art Center. I have also been invited to be composer in residence by The Klaustrid Foundation, The Chen Dance Center, and the Rauschenberg Foundation. My solo guitar compositions for dance have been supported by Meet The Composer, The Untitled Artist Group, and Fractured Atlas. For many years I have had an interest in contemporary composition from Stravinsky to Arvo Pärt to Max Richter.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of the music flows with no particular interest in its chronological course, in our disco-music library before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this be a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision?
I believe that starts with understanding. Understanding the past, having a grasp on the present, and pushing towards the future. By understanding the past, its clear that it does not need to be recreated. By having a grasp on the present, its clear that the urgency of creativity can potentially cause change. By pushing towards the future, its clear that growth and progress can create a future worth understanding when at some point, people are looking back on it as the past
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
1. Violet – Karen Peris
2. Vespertine – Björk
3. ( ) – Sigur Ros
4. Tookah – Emiliana Torrini
5. The Bird Calls, And Its Song Awakens The Air, And I Call – Sol Seppy
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I am currently writing new music for acoustic guitar : solo, guitar/piano, and guitar/vocals. What will possibly become my next record, we’ll see!
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?
Thank you! My vision is that hopefully I can learn to pay attention more, and make music that magnifies overlooked things. I have always liked small, miniature things because to me they are inherently precious. By nature of their size they require care and protection, through care and protection they become endearing and important. I hope to make music that exposes the overlooked evidence of why there is so much to be grateful for.
Ok, this is really the last question: why did you choose the title “Viriditas”?
Viriditas is a word Hildegard used often in her writing. It translates to “greenness” and contextually could be understood to describe evidence of divine grace as seen in the natural world. I love her use of it, and immediately connected her intention with my music.