Interview with David William Ross (USA): Album "BUTTERFLIES IN THE LABYRINTH OF SILENCE"


Today's guest is David William Ross from New England, USA.

David will tell us about his new album ‘BUTTERFLIES IN THE LABYRINTH OF SILENCE’, a collection of 12 pieces for solo classical guitar by a Swiss composer Georges Raillard.


Q1. Please tell us about yourself (music background, your musical influences,  styles, etc.).

My musical life is quite varied. Professionally, I would say that most of my work is focused around my guitar playing. I perform mostly classical and jazz but often get gigs or sessions in other styles like rock, folk, and blues or even Celtic music; I have all kinds of guitars (classical of course, but also steel-strings and electric guitars) to accommodate the variety of music that I’m called upon to play.

In addition to guitar playing, I spend a lot of time writing music. This takes the form of original compositions but also the rewriting of music by friends and colleagues to create something new, usually as the basis for improvisation or simply as a collaboration. Reworking existing music is one of my favorite things to do creatively. It allows me to exercise all of my musical skills: analysis, composition, performance, and improvisation. I like to create music that fuses my personal interests and musical activities: a music that is thoughtful and composed but that also has lots of room for spontaneity and improvisation. I love music that blurs traditional genre identifications and draws effortlessly from whatever tradition best suits the work itself. I’m drawn toward open sounds with harmonic depth; the sound world of Morton Feldman for instance or the vocabulary of John Abercrombie. Esperanza Spalding has been an inspiration in recent years. I think her Chamber Music Society album was a revelation and she has continued to reinvent herself beautifully.

The above statement would make it seem like jazz and improvisation is my primary mode of music making but while I think it’s true that I may have a jazz spirit, my training has been heavily in the classical tradition. I studied theory, composition, and guitar and then went on to earn higher degrees in classical guitar. Of course, while I was at the Peabody Conservatory I studied jazz with Paul Bollenback on the side and took all the jazz and new music courses available on top of my required curriculum. It was a lot of work but I figured that there’s no better time. One of my professors, Thomas Benjamin, was a real motivating figure in my approach to music; he was so smart and could seemingly do anything and without sacrifice to the level, it seemed it was specialized in everything, a Renaissance man of sorts. This holistic and rounded approach has really influenced the way I practice music and draw connections between the arts at large. Our Baroque counterpoint class would spend days at the museum discussing chiaroscuro. He showed me that music, art, philosophy, dance, literature, etc., etc., are all different expressions of the same thing or, at the least, share some kind of underlying and unifying thread, this has really stuck with me.



a.) How did this project arise?

I received a call from PARMA, the New Hampshire based recording company, to do this album. I have been involved with a number of projects for PARMA, mostly chamber music. I had done some interesting music with them too: a piece for electric guitar, horn, and piano by Mel Mobley; a piece for steel-string and orchestra by Pierre Schroeder (kind of a western concerto). I had recorded Georges Raillard’s “Sinking Islands” for solo guitar with PARMA a year or two ago. I was offered this project, a more complete collection of his solo guitar works and was happy to take it.

b.) All the pieces contained in this album are very descriptive or symbolic, with a little story or poem behind it. How did you deal with it in order to translate into sounds? 

Georges has a special gift for descriptive or evocative titles. In learning the music, first, I ignored any extra-musical content that was associated with the pieces. I like to learn a score just as it is, only considering the notes and performance indications as they exist within the document itself. The music should be able to speak for itself and convey a unique message or feeling in it’s own right. If the music is written well then I believe that any extra musical associations such as the title or poetry will naturally line up or make sense implicitly. In Georges Raillard’s case, this is true! Once I had a grip on the music, I dove into some of the poetry and stories behind the music thinking that I might reinforce or temper my interpretation with this knowledge. This is a funny process because, having learned the music in it’s own right, I develop my own emotional associations with a piece that are then sort of cross-referenced with the composer’s declared associations giving me a unique perspective on the composer’s character and musical intentions. I think Georges has a kind of dry humor but also a very profound feeling and depth of emotion very unique to his work.

Also, what was your approach to recording works of a living composer? For example, did you exchange ideas with the album’s composer Georges Raillard?

I mentioned above that I like to spend time with the score of a piece, considering only the notes and performance indications as they exist on the page. This is always true for me, however, I also recognize that black dots on paper will only convey so much. In older music, the performer must research performance practice and consider a more complete musical context: where the music was played, for whom it was played, documents from the composer’s time on style and interpretation, etc. I also recognize that some music such as jazz is virtually impossible to learn from a page and depends on an aural tradition. Having access to the living composer of the music one is learning is invaluable! Georges had some very distinct and clear preferences but was mostly hands-off. He had an obvious predilection for strong, clear, and powerful playing, often drawing me toward a more percussive and pronounced style of guitar playing that I might not normally exercise on my own. But he was mostly open to my personal approach and interpretations. I think Georges and I both agree that the collaboration between an interpreter and a composer can be very fruitful. If a composer is too controlling or heavy-handed in guiding the performer, the result may be stilted or artificial somehow. If given more freedom, the interpreter may reveal aspects or dimensions of a piece of music that were unknown to the composer himself! Whether or not such discoveries are always worth pursuing is another issue, however, the process itself yields a very satisfying result. Of course, in recording, a third perspective always comes into play, that of the producer. For this album, both Jeff LeRoy and Bob Lord proved essential in mediating between Georges and myself, offering insights of their own, and, of course, keeping us on track!

c.) What were the recording sessions like?

The album was recorded over two days in Boston. Georges was in Spain (I believe) but present via skype. The days were very intense and condensed. I hadn’t had the music for a tremendously long period of time prior to the sessions so a lot of decisions had to be made in the moment (this is where Jeff and Bob were particularly helpful). The level of focus required for such a long and condensed session is very fatiguing. At a certain point, I find I have to let go a bit and just deliver the best performance I can, focusing on the playing itself and trust that the producer has an ear open to the bigger picture and will put everything together so it sounds right in the end. As a performer, I think the process requires quite a bit of trust and good faith in your colleagues; having a competent team with a unified vision is critical in making a recording that really speaks and conveys something. I’ve had a good experience with PARMA and find that everyone does a good job in making a recording the best it can be and working together as a team to realize the final vision of any given project. 

Q3. What is the music scene like in New England?

New England is a beautiful place and a great place for reflection and creative arts. The musical emphasis is a bit varied depending on where you go in New England; I suppose that I am a bit biased toward the types of music in which I am most involved, classical and jazz and I find there is good support and a great grassroots oriented approach to the arts. New England is full of little old churches with great acoustics for presenting music but it also has some major and historical musical institutions like the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood. 

Q4. Please tell us about your next project.

As far as PARMA goes, I don’t have anything scheduled at the moment, but I certainly hope to soon! As for my own projects, it is difficult to point to any single thing, but I do have a few musical endeavors that are at the forefront right now. I am preparing repertoire for a solo CD of Latin music, Barrios, Brouwer, Lauro, Piazzolla, and Villa-Lobos; it’s sort of a musical journey covering five countries/five composers. I’m not sure where it will be recorded but I’m hoping to have it ready for this coming fall. I’m also working on composing a set of pieces for jazz ensemble, music that combines my classical sensibilities with the workings of a small jazz group; I love playing the electric guitar with Hammond organ and drums (a classic organ trio) but also play with bassists and horn players of all kinds. Right now, these pieces are mainly for performance, however a recording could possibly come out of it in the end. I’ll mention one last project: I’m working on two popular-music oriented albums with New England artists, one in Burlington, VT and the other in Storrs, CT. The music reminds me of Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith. I developed some skill over the years using microphones, preamps, compressors and other recording equipment. I hesitate to call myself a real “engineer” because I lack much of the formal education that goes along with engineering these days, however, I’ve picked up a thing or two and managed to make a pretty good sounding recording! It’s been a particularly enjoyable experience producing these albums, I have near-total control and am involved with recording, editing, writing, and playing; the overall sound is under my fingertips and I love the creative freedom such a project allows. Hopefully, they will both be ready within the year.


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