The Difference Engine

Local composer Graham Reynolds discusses his two new discs.

Back to back CD releases this weekend – Friday at the United States Art Authority with Mother Falcon for triple concerto The Difference Engine and Saturday at the Continental Club for Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington – sum up their celebrant Graham Reynolds in a word: ambitious. We emailed about Ellingtonia, concertos, and remixes.

Austin Chronicle: When and where did you first come in contact with Ellington and/or fall in love with his music?

Graham Reynolds: I’ve known Ellington’s work for a good portion of my life, long enough not to remember when I first encountered him consciously. I had a double album of his in high school that I listened to a lot. But when I moved to Austin I greatly reduced my jazz listening for a number of years. I don’t have an exact reason for this, but I think it has to do with rediscovering where my voice was coming from. I ended up playing jazz in junior high and high school because my brother and I were improvising and composing and a jazz teacher was the only one who knew what to do with this. But jazz is not what we were playing and, while it was a great experience, my entrance into jazz was not an organic one. So, I took a break. When I returned to jazz, it was not the hard bop or cool jazz that brought me back, but early jazz: Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and many others. I spent several years diving deeply in to this music before embarking on my own Ellington project.

AC: How do you translate Duke Ellington for Generation Z in the 21st Century?

GR: The original goal wasn’t to consciously translate Duke for anyone, instead the project was meant to give me a break from composing so I could just cut loose and play. As we continued, the shows and my ideas developed so I grew more concerned about aesthetic and interpretive concepts and what it meant to me, the audience, as well as how it reflected on Ellington’s music and legacy. The three templates I set up (band, strings, and remixes) each had a separate but interwoven role. The band versions are high-energy, driving, very much in-the-room music. I’m exhausted at the end of these sets, as is Jeremy Bruch, the exceptional drummer that’s been playing all these shows and on the album. The string quartet abstractions allow me as a composer to come out; for most of them I took tiny fragments of Duke’s material and recast it in new, original pieces. The remixes, with their reliance on new technology, are the most clearly updated and couldn’t have sounded like this in Ellington’s time.

AC: I ask because I feel you've done exactly that on Duke! – update Ellington – but how do you engage a new young music-goer in a music whose association is ancient?

GR: The hope is that there are many paths into this album, not just for the new young music listener, but for listeners across a broad spectrum of ages and listening habits, while still maintaining a whole. I’m stronger at variance than focus, so I tried to bring that to this material. For a jazz listener there are the band tracks. For the classical listener, there are the string tracks. For the adventurous pop music listener, there are the remixes. But I didn’t format it with specific markets or age groups in mind. I was just trying to make an interesting album that interpreted Ellington in very different ways, allowing me as diverse a palette as I could while being tied together by the concept and musical source.

AC: Taken as a whole, what were you going for and/or trying to accomplish with your triple concerto on The Difference Engine? The whole reminds me very much of some of your Alamo Drafthouse silent movie scores.

GR: A concerto, a piece for soloist and orchestra, is a form I’ve always loved. It allows for a huge range of expression, from the intimate and personal playing of an individual, to the richness and majesty of a large group. A triple concerto then, is a piece for three soloists and orchestra, in this case we used a string orchestra. I had been writing a lot of music for violin, cello, and piano, and when Golden Hornet Project had a string orchestra concert coming up I decided to merge these two palettes. The most famous triple concerto ever is by Beethoven and also features violin, cello and piano, so in no way was this an original thought, just one that excited me.

AC: The Octopus Project and DJ Spooky remixes on The Difference Engine are terrific. Did either give you any new insight to your own compositions?

GR: The first remixes of my music that I experienced were for the A Scanner Darkly soundtrack. I decided immediately that I wanted to experience that more. It’s a kind of collaboration that new technology has made possible. I’m not in the room – once I’ve turned over the material I’m involved very little in the process really – but then it comes back to me and I love to hear what people have done. It’s never what I expect and there’s a real joy in that.

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Graham Reynolds, Duke Ellington, Octopus Project, DJ Spooky

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