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Interview with Hana Gubenko for Fanfare, issue 47:1 (Sept/Oct 2023)

It’s May 15 and raining outside—this is my favorite sense of spring, reaching me through the open window. As my old Russian typewriter twinkles a supportive smile at me from the old world, I am excited to interview composer, guitarist, arranger, and teacher Graham Campbell about his artistic credo and his latest release, Palms Upward.

Graham, I am so thrilled to have discovered your work, thanks to your latest release. Additionally, I’ve listened to different things of yours on YouTube, and it seems that you have a very interesting style that crosses many musical genres. Take me back to your earlier years: When did you discover an interest in composing?

I think I was drawn to composing as soon as I started learning an instrument. My parents tell me that when I was six, I came up with a different ending for the “Ode to Joy.” According to them I thought my ending was better, but I had to play Beethoven’s ending at my piano recital. In grade school my best friend and I would write raps and songs for our school projects. I’ve never stopped writing music since then.

Did you study classical guitar?

Yes, when I was in high school I studied classical guitar, but jazz was my first love and I ended up going to school for jazz guitar.

Your father is an established musical artist in Canada, and I see that you do work together. There is a theme of father-son relationships throughout musical history, if we just think about Mozart, for example. Did you ever feel like you were standing in your father’s shadow?

No, I’ve taken my own path as a musician that is quite different from his. But I have a lot of respect for him and would be proud to stand in his shadow!


Did his establishment in Canada affect your career and self-esteem?

Very much so, but only in positive ways. Early in my career my most important mentors were my dad’s colleagues from the jazz world, such as David Baker and Gene DiNovi. I’ve always performed a lot of jazz, folk, and popular styles of music, but working with my dad also opened the door to chamber music. I’m not a classical performer, but I’ve collaborated with many classical musicians who I met through my dad.

How would you describe your influence on each other?

Musically, he’s drawn me closer to chamber music over the years (perhaps unintentionally). Having grown up around it, there’s something nostalgic about chamber music for me. Every time I hear him play Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, it takes me back to being a little kid and hearing him practicing in the next room. As well as a clarinetist, he’s also an artistic director of a chamber festival. As a composer, his perspective as an artistic director has been a great resource for me.

If we talk about your artistic relationship, it seems pretty typical. In these cases, the child learns from his parent, grows up in his parent’s field of work, starts to share it, and then becomes equal to his parent. Can you think of anything or any new matter which your father might have learned from you?

I can’t speak for him, but I think maybe I’ve taught him a few things about jazz. We also play a lot of Brazilian choro music together, which is a style of music I learned and introduced him to.

How did this affect his artistic path further? Would you describe yourself as a classical music artist?

I think of myself as a crossover artist (for lack of a better term). I’m not a classical performer, and when I was younger, I had no plans of becoming a classical composer. Even my Master’s degree is in jazz. But at some point early in my career I fell in love with chamber music. I studied scores and found teachers. I joined a composers collective and produced three or four concerts a year. I would now describe myself as a classical composer, among other things.

How do you see the gap between the genres in music nowadays?

I think there’s a lot of overlap. I live in the musically rich and diverse city of Toronto, but it’s not as big as a city like New York. Musicians in Toronto are accustomed to performing all sorts of different music and working with other musicians from different backgrounds. I appreciate the amount of collaboration that goes on.

From your point of view, should musical genres stay divided, or should we try to reunite them?

I think genre overlap is a good thing, without losing sight of tradition. While musicians tend to focus on their particular niche, audiences are very different. Some people will listen to classical music in the morning, hip-hop in the car, and then go to an experimental jazz concert in the evening, for example. I think musical genres can grow their audiences through collaboration.

You are composing for the screen. How was it for the first time?

It was exhilarating. I had a lot to learn from a technological aspect. Most film composing these days is done “in the box,” meaning one person on a computer. I had to learn to use synths, recording and producing techniques, etc. I love letting the story on the screen be my guide. Scoring films has had a big impact on my concert music. For some of the pieces on my album Palms Upward, I invented stories to compose music to.

Which film music composer would you call your role model?

There are too many, but I love Bernard Hermann, Carter Burwell, and Hildur Guðnadóttir, to name a few.

Do you have a very favorite film soundtrack?

It’s hard to pick just one! The first to come to mind is the score to Escape from Alcatraz by Jerry Fielding. It’s written for an orchestra with no violins!

And a favorite movie?

Also hard to pick one! I love all the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone, such as The Good, Bad, and the Ugly. I also love Fargo by the Coen Brothers.

How do you view the new trend of cinema on a concert stage with live orchestra?

I think it’s a brilliant idea. Many 20th-century film composers were greatly influenced by Stravinsky, Debussy, etc., and so their music really carries the torch of that tradition. It also brings new audiences to the concert hall, who have maybe never seen a live orchestra before. Some regular symphonygoers may look down on film music, but I believe a lot of the classical music tradition lives on in film music.

If you could have one free wish, which film director would you most like to work with?

Maybe the Coen Brothers. I love a dark slow burn with a hint of comedy.

I think that music and literature are two sides of the same coin. Is there any writer you particularly identify with?

I’ve read a lot of John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, and Haruki Murakami.

Is there any piece of literature you would like to set to music?

I haven’t thought about that before, but what a great question! The first that comes to mind is Endurance, the true story of Shackleton’s expedition surviving in Antarctica for two years after getting trapped in the ice. I think the intimate and personal aspect of surviving with a small crew of people, combined with the unforgiving Antarctic environment, would be an interesting setting for music.

How do you experience life these days? Are you a person of today, or would you prefer to live in any other time period? What is your favorite art period? Do you enjoy music as a part of the audience? Can you just go to a concert as a listener?

Absolutely. As a musician, that’s how I recharge. I listen to music for enjoyment every day, and always have an eye on events in my city that look appealing.

I saw you are very engaged as a teacher, taking part in social projects too. When did you begin teaching?

I started teaching when I was 18. Initially, I hated it and was very bad at it, but obviously that has changed.

What about teaching music do you like in particular?


I work with a lot of kids. It reminds me of what it felt like to fall in love with music as a kid. There’s no baggage about ego and career. There’s no self-judgment. All they care about is having fun. Teaching also gives me insights into how people learn, which is usually with not enough patience.


Did you start with guitar classes?


I started on piano and took up guitar later.

Did you experience a turning point, a change in your didactic method?


I’m always changing my approach to teaching. I think the best teachers are creative and flexible. I tend to approach each student differently.

What has been your most memorable teaching moment?


Once I was having a recital for my students. A former student, now a graduate student, showed up and asked if he could play a song. He played guitar and sang. It had been years since his last lesson, but it was very meaningful to me that music was still something he enjoyed. Most of my students don’t pursue music past high school, and I hardly ever get to see if it continues to be something valuable for them.


If you think to your own teachers, can you identify yourself with them?


Yes, I’ve been lucky that most of my teachers and mentors were genuinely passionate about teaching. As a student, you can always tell how much a teacher actually cares. When I was in high school my mom would pay my guitar teacher for a one-hour lesson, but I would end up staying two to three hours sometimes.


Are you following their line or did you take another path?


In some cases, I’m very closely following the path of my teachers. In graduate school I studied with Andrew Downing and David Braid, both of whom are jazz musicians who crossed over to become accomplished classical composers and have also written music for film. They are my most important role models.


What are the intersecting points and the biggest differences between your way of teaching and the way you were taught?


I think there are more differences, because I knew from a young age that I wanted to pursue music, and so did my teachers. Most of my students don’t go on to become professional musicians, and so I think a different approach and mindset is necessary. I understand that for some students, music is not their top priority. Some teachers don’t like working with students who aren’t serious, but I feel that music is for everyone, regardless of their commitment level. One thing I do for my students, which certain teachers did for me, is to make listening to music part of the lessons. My teachers used to lend me CDs, but I just write down things for my students to listen to. It’s an essential part of learning music, regardless of how serious or committed the student is.


How do you see the role of music nowadays in the global social context?


It’s a cliché to call music the universal language, but there’s a lot of truth to it. I live in a very culturally diverse city, and through music I’ve been able to meet all kinds of people and even learn new languages. Music and culture are reminders that we’re all human beings, and not so different from one another.


How is the prospect for the future, from your point of view? What do we need to do to not only keep our art alive, but to get a larger, younger audience into the concert hall or to buy recordings?


I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think it involves branching out without giving up on tradition. I think performing film scores in symphony halls is a great way to bring in a new audience, but we can’t forget about the people who just want to hear Beethoven. There’s an anxiety that classical music lovers are old, and in a generation there won’t be any left. Aside from being morbid, I don’t think this is true. The same anxiety existed a generation ago, and a generation before that. For whatever reason, more people discover a love for classical music later in life, creating the illusion that the last generation of classical music lovers will be gone soon.


Thanks to the quite controversial impact of the avant-garde, the impression that contemporary music is scary is an old and omnipresent problem within the ranks of larger audiences. What can we do to help innocent music lovers avoid the fear that they will be horrified by contemporary music in the concert hall?


I once had an audience member tell me, “It was so nice to hear a piece of contemporary music that didn’t make me want to slit my wrists.” It’s a tough question, because the avant-garde has a very important place in the classical music landscape, but at the same time we can’t kid ourselves that what a bunch of experts and academics think is good will also please a large audience. On the flip side, creating music with the goal of getting as many Spotify streams as possible is also not a good idea for the longevity of the art. Somewhere there’s a balance, so that avant-garde music still has its place, but it doesn’t dominate the entire scene.


Earlier, in the 1930s, it was the other way around. There was a desire to get to know the most recently written pieces. People awaited the musical premiere in the same way as they awaited the latest issue of the newspaper. And now, classical music is more like a club of like-minded fans from a certain archeological heritage. How do we get out of this state of being?


I don’t have the answer, but I’m optimistic about the future. There are some well-attended contemporary festivals in my city doing really interesting things. If the current trends continue, I think larger audiences will once again think favorably of modern music.


With the very best intentions, the IMSLP has brought up a very important issue: the preference to play music without copyrights in order to avoid paying for sheet music. What can we do to bring this back into balance? Or, to ask this in another way, how would you define the importance of recordings nowadays?


It’s true that it’s tough to make money from a recording these days. Most of the time, artists lose money making a recording. I think of it as a promotional tool. Hopefully if someone hears my album and likes it, they will go to a concert where my music is being performed, and maybe even invite a few friends.


Why do we still do it, when we hear from everywhere that nobody is going to buy CDs anymore?


Speaking personally, I don’t think I had a choice but to make an album. I’m a composer, and if I’m not composing during the day, I can’t sleep at night. It’s true that I could just write music and not release it to the public. I’ve done that before, but it’s not as fun. I also tend to work faster when I have a deadline, and sometimes that leads to better results. For my latest album Palms Upward, I booked the musicians, recording studio, and engineer before I had finished writing the music. I finished writing the final piece about a week before the recording session. I like the things I come up with when I’m under that kind of pressure. When I’m writing, I try not to think about what anyone will think about it, critics, audience, other composers, or musicians. My only concern is if I like it. If I don’t like it, then it’s unlikely that anyone else will like it. After that, I can’t control what other people will think, so I don’t worry about it. If I tried to please everyone, I think the results would be boring or confusing.

What is the point of recording? Is it only a matter of self-promotion, a narcissistic endeavor of self-establishment, or is it really needed by other people? What matters to you more, the reception by critics or the non-expert opinion of the audience? How do you deal with critics of your music?


How much of a narcissistic composer do you bear inside of you, or rather not at all?


I think there’s a bit of a narcissistic composer within me, but I only let that side out when I’m composing. During the process, it helps to become totally obsessed with the piece, and to feel like I’m doing something very important. But after that, I take a more realistic view.


To the album: Why this title?


It’s a reference to meditation. I’ve practiced meditation on and off for most of my adult life. The title track, “Palms Upward,” is a programmatic piece inspired by what often occurs during the practice of meditation. It begins with a calm energy. The overlapping guitars are like little thoughts coming and going. Eventually, there’s a bit of tension building, like the mind traveling further away from the present moment. There’s a silence in the middle of the piece, like resetting the mind after getting lost in the past or the future. Inevitably, the tension builds again until coming to a climax that is interrupted by a “meditation bell” played by harmonics on the guitars. The rest of the album mostly follows themes of dreaminess and inner worlds established by the title track.

It seems to me that this album is a modern sort of suite with lots of reminiscence. Is the title, Palms Upward, a prologue or an overview—as if you are inviting us to view the entire cycle from above while we approach it closer and closer? For me it sounds very inspired from very different influences, but by Viennese Art Nouveau, in particular Mahler, early Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and then suddenly Ravel. Would you agree? The French touch of the

1930s in the track “Between Breaths” seems particularly charming. Could you specify the meaning behind this title as well?


Yes, I’m very influenced by a lot of Romantic music, in particular Schubert, and also Debussy and Ravel. The title “Between Breaths” is another reference to meditation. Sometimes during meditation, I like to focus on the brief moment when the breath changes direction.


I also feel a strong sense of loneliness, perfectly captured by the parallel instruments playing alongside each other but separated through an invisible wall of being focused on oneself. You write in a symphonic manner by bringing out a really well-defined counterpoint between the strings and the bass line, which creates a good dialogue in the score. Have you ever written a symphony? Is “The Snow Rider” a waltz? The track “Dive” is a very new sort o

scherzo written in 3:2 rhythms, much like a Turkish aksak dance. Did you intend to incorporate some “orientalism” here?

I haven’t written a symphony, but maybe one day I will! I’ve dedicated much more time listening to and studying chamber music, and so far that seems to be the medium in which I like to express myself. I don’t think of “Snow Rider” as a waltz, although maybe it’s subtly implied. To me it’s more like a very slow 6/8, even though I did write it in 3/4. I don’t think I intentionally implied any specific rhythm in “Dive,” but I agree the subdivisions remind me a bit of some Eastern European folk music.


In the track “Kettle Vapours” I do hear a prelude, or perhaps it is better to call it a sort of interlude. It is quite Scriabin-spirited, like Verse la flame. What did you have in mind for this piece?


I wrote “Kettle Vapours” after becoming fascinated with Ligeti’s piano etudes. The motion and ascending momentum of some of the etudes remind me of a kettle slowly coming to a boil, and so I wrote this piece on that theme.

“Lost Souvenir” brings a mood of nostalgia about the long ago past. It sounds to me like a “Ballade Ricercare.” Were you in a troubadour mood?

“Shadows on the Ice” really speaks to me and I love the voicing! Suddenly we are in the 20th century and I’ve got nostalgic feelings about Shostakovich. How do you make this clear move, showing that this music belongs in the here and now? After listening to the “Driftless Sea” I wondered if you have a Jewish background. I felt very homesick as a Russian Jew while listening to this piece.


Yes, I was listening to a lot of early music when I wrote “Lost Souvenir.” I didn’t try to copy any 16th-century techniques, but I allowed that music to influence my own Romantic style. I would describe the mood as “optimistic melancholy.” It’s a bit of a theme and variations that starts in the dark Phrygian mode, and gradually becomes brighter, ending on a major chord. You’ve guessed a lot of my influences, as I also love Shostakovich! “Shadows on the Ice” is probably the most jazz-influenced piece on the album. The form is structured like a typical jazz piece, with the same theme at the beginning and end, and an “improvised” solo in the middle. Of course, in this piece the viola solo isn’t improvised, but it’s meant to sound that way. I don’t have a Jewish background; however, I have played a lot of Jewish music. I play in a band called Queen Kong, which is led by a Jewish drummer/composer named Lorie Wolf. It’s a mixture of Jewish music with jazz fusion. I also play in a Jewish wedding band, playing traditional Jewish music. I find Jewish music can seamlessly move between pain and pure joy, which appeals to me.


In my eyes you are a Postmodern Romantic composer. Would you agree? This album honors the past while seamlessly connecting to today. How would you define your artistic appeal to society?


Thank you, I’m very glad to hear it strikes you that way. It’s a very personal album, and I hope that listeners can find their own personal meaning in the music. In this fast-paced digital age, we sometimes forget to check in with ourselves. I hope this music will help people to connect with themselves in a meaningful way.


Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and the new release!

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