Interview with Composer Greg Granoff – Part 1

August 12, 2009 at 9:02 pm 6 comments

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Music Chose Him:
An Interview with
Inspirational Composer Greg Granoff

Part 1

My interview with composer Greg Granoff kicks off a new part of Inspiratus.
It will be featuring interview/conversations with artists of all kinds.
The idea is to explore just how inspiration, creativity, and spirituality all play a role in the development, creation and reception of an artist’s work.

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Watchfire Music Composer Greg Granoff writes sacred music with great skill and craftsmanship. In particular, his is a catalogue of beautiful, sophisticated vocal solos scored for both the organ and piano, and composed with a harmonic language uniquely Greg’s own.

Here’s my conversation with Greg Granoff:

JW: What is your earliest memory of music?

greg_granoffGG: I don’t know that I can speak about the earliest one with any certainty; I remember various things, all from my time as a small boy. I have a distinct memory of my earliest piano lessons — I was about 5. I remember very early hearing my father play the piano in the evenings after I was in bed–that had a huge effect on me. I remember the 78 rpm records my father played of Russian and Mexican folk music; I remember my mother strumming the guitar and picking out folk songs; I remember them both listening to the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday afternoons; and I remember being glued to the record player even while others my age were out playing in the street.

I was equally captivated by Burl Ives or a Beethoven symphony. I remember dreaming about music.

JW: Was there one defining moment that made you choose music as a profession, or did it happen over time as the sum of many smaller moments?

GG: I would say it was the sum of many smaller moments, though I don’t think I ever really “chose”. Music followed me around and said, “Do this, now do this, and now this”. Opportunities seemed to seek me out, and while I was very shy and self-conscious, people kind of insisted, and so I ended up with lots of experiences from a relatively early age.

That being said, I also must mention that I was extremely fortunate in that at several critical points in my life, someone would come along who, apparently seeing promise, connected with me deeply and pushed me to challenge myself and continue to grow.

Primary among these has to be my first piano teacher. He gave me an excellent musical foundation of course, and his loving but firm expectations were exactly what I needed to begin the journey out of my occasionally almost paralyzing self-doubt. His influence and guidance lasted into my high school years.

Included on the list are close artist friends of the family, my organ and counterpoint instructor at college, my mentor in the piano service/restoration trade, and late in my 20’s a meditation teacher of extraordinary understanding and spiritual power.

All these people are woven into my present life, and all taught me, both directly and indirectly that carefully developed skill, passion for the work–whatever it was– down to the details, and a commitment to doing it with integrity and respect– this was a way forward for me on the spiritual journey.

Much of this continues to unfold for me, with deeper understandings arriving when I least expect them.  Growing up I was never a polished solo performer, and as a young piano student, frequently found myself in recitals for which I was not really adequately prepared in terms of practice due to my own resistance to diligent preparation–self-sabotage, really.

It was a strange disconnect for me in that even as I frequently felt inadequate performing, people still seemed have a musical experience they felt positive about. Much later in my life, I realized that the problem was that I really hadn’t wanted the spotlight, but fearful efforts to evade it backfired in increased unwanted attention.

But I was never so at home and comfortable as when I was in a supporting role; accompanying choirs in both junior high and high school, playing the piano in the pit orchestra for high school musical productions, helping performers learn their parts, and in college backing soloists up in auditions or juries. The list goes on and on.

A lot of stuff comes at you when you become known as a solid accompanist and sight-reader.  Though I long ago lost the fear of exposure in performances, I came to understand that the supporting role is really something I just know how to do and do well; and ultimately I sort of backed into piano technology–another supporting role, as it happens!

Humbolt_state_UJW: You are referring to your position as the Staff Technician at Humboldt State University, right?

GG: Yes, piano technology includes piano maintenance and rebuilding. As I mentioned before, this was a trade that centered on supporting music, and I continued (and continue) to have frequent opportunities to function as a musician.

JW: That’s an interesting concept that you participate in music both as a skilled creator/performer and as a technical expert in maintaining the instruments you use to make music. Seems like a great fusion of skills and talents while being 100 % involved in music. It is also such a great balance of skills to have in this day and age. Do you find this to be true for yourself?

GG: You’re absolutely right — they are a great fusion and I feel fortunate to have managed to put them together in some way. Though I have to emphasize that I never could have planned things this way. I have always felt guided and very blessed, since clear, purposeful decisions have generally been something that eluded me. I always (to my wife’s frustration at times) see multiple views on everything.

JW: How do you approach composition? What is your process?

GG: I usually determine first that I want to set a particular text. Then, over the course of days, or even weeks, I will listen inwardly for a germ of a musical idea that I can build more extended material from. I frequently try it out, (or variations of it) as I am around pianos constantly in my work.

I improvise a lot and often put my hands on the keys and “allow” (it’s the only word that feels right) them to find something. I usually have the text in mind, and I search for something evocative of the feeling I want to bring out. It frequently changes slightly from day to day and it may be only a measure or two, but at some point it suddenly comes into focus.

With that basic building block set, I will usually find some other lick or idea within it that I use as secondary material. Sometimes the text requires a contrasting section, and my process there is similar. Then I’m off and running.  I’m of the philosophy that less is more in the sense that I don’t “through- compose” as film scorers call the sort of stream of consciousness style of composition that some composers adopt, in which new material keeps flowing out as the piece goes along.

Once I have chosen the basic handful of building blocks, I construct the music with an ear first toward really evoking an emotional response, then balance, proportion, texture, etc. as I try to draw out the essence of the text. For some reason something in me is intensely drawn to these architectural qualities in a musical composition.

JW: I love the idea that you work first to evoke an emotional response. That, to me, is the ultimate goal when I perform any kind of music. I work to discover that essential “something” in a piece that touches both the heart of a listener and me. Then my work is to literally become one with the music and the lyrics — become a part of the vessel of communication.

I also love the architectural and structural elements that you mentioned in composing your music. Can you speak a little more about the way you construct your music?

GG: Analytical musicians who care to look closely will quickly see that even what appears to be new material in my songs is almost always derived from the same two or three motifs presented early on. I like everything in my compositions to clearly belong; I don’t like loose ends or to find myself wondering where something in the piece came from, or what relationship it has to the rest of the composition. If I find myself feeling that way about some part or parts, I get pretty merciless and throw them away or put them aside for use somewhere else.

JW: Do you have a personal definition of creativity that you would share?

GG: I’ve never really formulated a definition. We all know that some people arrive on the scene seemingly having pulled wonderfully creative stuff out of nowhere–and their creativity is apparent to me as a kind of “know it when I see it” type thing. However, I don’t pretend to know what they did to get there.

But I have a very great admiration for creativity that arises out of really thorough knowledge of the basic, foundational disciplines of a particular field–whatever that field may be–and then breaks the boundaries or “rules” while making the results seem inevitable. You marvel at the work and feel this is what HAD to come next.

It seems to me that profound creativity frequently arises not by rejecting the “traditional” knowledge, but by diving right into the heart of the accumulated wisdom, and coming back up to the surface after developing extremely subtle understanding.

I believe that when one can manipulate one’s chosen material from deep within it, one can become a vessel for the source of creativity to use as the source wills.

Now that I’ve come to it, I guess I would say this is the essence of creativity: being so ready in terms of skill and understanding that the ego, or personal sense of doer-ship, or “mortal mind” — or whatever your chosen label for bounded, personal sense of effort is —  gets brushed aside and something comes through you that you could never control with your own individual will.

Performers call this being in the “zone.”  The result touches people somehow — sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, sometimes in amazing ways.

JW: It’s true. Athletes have to train for years and daily warm up their bodies and their minds – and artists, whether we are creators and/or re-creators must prepare.  We go through years of discipline, study, exploration and practice — to perform in that “zone” or place which creativity can pass through.

I like to say that preparation is 90% of what makes a work great. The other 10% is everything else, including the key element of talent.

GG: My mother was fond of what I often think were trite aphorisms. But one she used frequently I now know is actually pretty accurate, and is another way of saying exactly what you’ve just said. She used to say, “Creative work is 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration.”

JW:  I like that.  It’s a more visceral, yet poetic way to say it!

This concludes Part 1 of Greg’s Interview.

Read Part 2 of The Greg Granoff Interview.

Find out more about Greg Granoff.
Explore his sheet music and mp3s.

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Redwoods Trail by Dan Heller

Greg began piano study at an early age in an atmosphere of frequent exposure to a wide variety of musical genres and styles. Already a proficient accompanist as a teen, he was employed as musical director and solo keyboard “orchestra” for a series of Broadway musical productions at a popular local dinner theater in Carmel, CA.

After studies in organ and piano at the University of the Pacific, he entered piano technology, ultimately making it his profession. Employed since 1989 as a full-time university staff piano technician, Greg’s refined skills as a pianist, organist and harpsichordist are often in demand.

Greg makes his home in Redwood country on the north coast of California with his wife and two cats.

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Entry filed under: Inspiration, inspirational Music, inspirational Sheet Music, Inspiratus Interviews, Spiritual Thinkers. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Inspiration for Artists  |  August 12, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    yes! inspirational indeed … great interview 🙂

    Reply
    • 2. juliawade  |  August 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm

      Thank you, “Inspiration for Artists.” Yours is an intriguing title. Please share with us your project – what it’s about and when it will be finished. We’d love to hear more from you. All best, JW

      Reply
  • […] Read Part One of my interview with Greg Granoff […]

    Reply
  • 4. Marie Bisconer  |  August 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you, Julia, for your interview of an outstanding man. Greg has been organist at our branch church for many years. I’ve always loved and admired his talent, inspired skill, and humility. It is wonderful to see that others recognize and appreciate it, too.

    Reply
  • 5. Brian Julian  |  September 1, 2009 at 1:39 am

    This is a great interview. I have known Greg for 8 years. He inspired me to become a piano technician, and he has always been incredibly generous in instructing me. His skills are profound, and he is a true craftsman who also deeply respects the work of other craftspeople, as this historic work is often seen in older pianos now needing repair. I’m sure he brings this sensitivity and craft to his compositional work. I don’t know his music well, but I am certain that it reflects the deep generosity of this man’s soul. Thank you.

    Reply
  • […] Read Part 1 of the Greg Granoff Interview Read Part 2 of the Greg Granoff Interview […]

    Reply

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