Name: Greg Foat
Occupation: Composer, pianist, improviser
Current release: Greg Foat's Symphonie Pacifique is available from his personal bandcamp account.
Recommendations: Most of my albums and compositions have been named after book titles so I have always hoped people would discover these books through my music.
A classic book that inspired me to travel around America in my early 20’s was ‘Autobiography of a Super Tramp’ by WH Davies. Originally published in 1908 and still in print to this day. It is an incredible, true story of the poet’s life travels. Obviously, I could not use that title for anything since the band Supertramp got there first in 1970!
My favourite artist is Henry Valensi (1883-1960).
As part of the second generation of Abstract Artists, Valensi is credited with creating the concept of Musicalism in his paintings. Having dabbled in Neo-Impressionism, he emerged as a brilliant landscape artist before coming to perceive objectivity alone to be inadequate as a means of expression. It was then that he created his own means of artistic expression, for which he himself preferred the name ‘Musicalism’ in reference to Baudelaire’s sonnet Correspondances. He used a rhythmic division of the canvas like a vertical musical score, to superimpose the different sensory aspects of a single vision. The works of art of each period of history, he argued, were like tributaries oriented towards a single major art form: architecture for the Egyptians, sculpture in Greece, painting during the Renaissance, literature from the 17th century to the 19th century. According to Valensi, music was the art form that reflected the scientific dynamism of the 20th century. Art should therefore ‘musicalise’ itself and artists should integrate the principal laws of musical composition into their works: evocation, rhythm, dynamism, the use of symbolic elements, and so on.
He painted 197 incredible works of art including the beautiful ‘Symphony Pacifique’ which I licensed for my album of the same name. The music was inspired by the painting.
If you enjoyed this interview with Greg Foat, his personal website is an excellent point of departure into his musical world. He is also on Facebook and Instagram.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started composing around 11 or 12, I guess. I had been having piano lessons since 10 years of age and after learning the basics and classical tunes my teacher taught me some ‘microjazz’ tunes by Christopher Norton. This gave me the basis for boogie woogie and 12 bar blues and I used to play for hours improvising on a blues in C.
I grew up with my parents record collection and loved Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and initially wanted to be a lead guitarist and even had a bright red fender Stratocaster. I spent my youth collecting records of blues and rock music and later jazz. This is because, when I was 15, I attended a jazz workshop with Jeff Clyne, Olaf Vas, Trevor Tomkins and Nick Weldon and became totally obsessed with jazz. I got a jazz encyclopedia for Christmas from my parents and found Jeff Clyne’s name in it listed as playing bass on an album with Pianist Gordon Beck called ‘Experiments with Pops’. I later went for an audition with Jeff for a jazz summer school scholarship and after failing the audition I asked Jeff about this album which he later sent to me on cassette tape. I fell in love with Gordon’s playing and that album is still one of my all-time favourites nearly 30 years later.
This was the defining moment when I decided I wanted to be a professional jazz musician as I had never experienced anything as wonderful before or since than playing music and being in the moment with other musicians.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
After I discovered Gordon Beck, I tried to learn as much as I could about jazz piano, and I eventually went to Chichester College to study jazz and that led to me doing a degree in jazz at Middlesex University. I djayed parties on campus and then started playing nightclubs in London. I studied for 6 months in Sweden on an Erasmus grant and played my first professional studio session there at 21.
After graduating I worked playing gigs and djing around London and Sweden for a few years. All the time I was collecting records and ‘crate digging’. I learnt a lot about music from old record shops, including working Saturdays at Jazzman Records shop in Camden Market. This was pre YouTube, shazam and Spotify and nowadays it is a lot easier to discover new music but this also makes music more disposable.
I guess I naturally transitioned from wanting to sound like my heroes to finding my own voice through experience.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don’t. I think that as soon as you become self-conscious about this, it stifles creativity rather than nurtures it. Identity is irrelevant and as jazz trumpeter Clark Terry said ‘a note don’t care who plays it whether you’re black, white, green, brown or opaque’
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main creative challenge at the beginning of my career was not a lack of musical ideas but rather my inexperience in how to make and release a record.
However, trial and error are great teachers. I have made and released around 15 albums in the past 10 years but prior to that no one was interested in releasing my music. I eventually made the right contacts and now I am doing ok. However, it is still a struggle for me to navigate the music business. It is unfortunate that so many musicians struggle with this side of things. Most creative people are not good at business.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Time is relative. The length of time a piece of music takes is subjective. We all hear it differently. For some it could be too short and others too long. When I compose a piece of music it is however long I want it to be. Jean-Michel Basquiat said ‘Art is how we decorate space and Music is how we decorate time.’ I enjoy exploring space and time in my music and exploring minimalism which means that every note carries a lot more weight than in faster music.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
They are one and the same. It is impossible to differentiate between the two. A painter will paint with a certain colour palette. The colour is essential to the composition. Music is no different. Sound and colour are one and the same. Musicians compose with sound the same way an artist composes with colour.
I like to have depth to my mixes so each sound can blend but also be heard. Again, it goes back to the idea of a spectrum. In this case a spectrum of frequencies or Hz.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I am a working musician. I want to work with anyone I can, especially people I admire musically, but also make a living from it. Now I have my own career as an artist, I have a lot more creative control over the work I do and I find this is much more rewarding.
Previously, as a young session musician, I took whatever work I could get and I learnt a lot. But this also meant I had to work on albums and other artist’s music that may not have been exactly to my taste. However, this good to an extent in broadening horizons. I prefer working in a room together although it is possible to bounce ideas around with WAVs via email.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Music is my job. I have a family which is a much more fixed schedule. At home I mostly concentrate on family life, looking after my baby son, doing the school run and cooking meals. I listen to new music in my car mostly and work on music in the studio depending on whatever project I am working on.
Recording is the quickest aspect of this. The recording may take an afternoon or at most 3 or 4 days. Mixing takes much longer and usually won't start for a few weeks after the recording session. This helps me to approach mixing the music with fresh ears and a more perspective.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I guess my breakthrough album was Dark is the Sun which I recorded in Sweden in 2010 and was my first album as band leader. It was funded by me selling my EMS Synthi to Mattias Glava in exchange for a week in his studio in Gothenburg. I had enough of being a session musician as it can be a thankless task so this was my last ditch attempt at recording an album for posterity. It worked out well as Jazzman Records loved the rough mixes and immediately offered to release it.
After the release I started getting offers of work and interviews. I have played gigs all over the world and regularly get emails and messages from fans of my music from many different countries. The album is still being repressed ten years later and has sold quite a lot for a small independent jazz record.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter this state more easily?
It is called the flow state. Athletes have these moments as do artists and surfers. It is when you are at one with the moment. Without conscious thought. I first experienced this at 18 years old playing a piano solo during playing some jazz standard at a recital in Chichester College. I have been chasing that feeling ever since.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
We are all vibrations. From a cosmic level, to a subatomic level. Sound waves are just part of this spectrum. On a more personal level people can relate to the emotional content of the music, whatever the intention.
Music has been my salvation but also my biggest frustration. Self-expression is a constant evolution of ideas that are trying to communicate a mostly subconscious feeling.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Nothing in our society exists in a vacuum. The very nature of humans means ideas will spread throughout different cultures and will be developed naturally.
The concept of cultural appropriation can be terribly misused. It can be used in an extremely negative way. When I was at university a fellow jazz student told me that I would never be truly able to play jazz because unlike him, I was not of African heritage. I carried that hang up for years until I went to America and worked with some incredible African American jazz musicians who told me they loved my playing. They could hear my English accent in my playing, and it was so refreshing to them to hear someone with a unique voice. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I felt like crying.
Jazz has a rich history of over a century which includes musicians of many different cultures. I think genres are for libraries not musicians. Jazz is not a genre. Jazz for me is ultimately freedom through knowledge. Jazz musicians come from all different parts of the world, and all are united in one commonality: mastering an instrument for the absolute freedom of self-expression and able to play in any situation. It does not matter what race, gender, sexuality, social or economic background the musician has. The only thing that matters is the music.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
This is a good but difficult question to answer because for me it is all on a subconscious level. I guess a good start would be ASMR. Audio Sensory Meridian Response. That feeling of well being and/or ‘goosebumps’ when you hear certain sounds or music. Also an infectious beat can inspire dancing quite involuntarily so I always like seeing people dancing or head nodding at my gigs.
Ultimately this tells us that we are all connected. Our senses are not isolated but part of an entire spectrum of the human experience.
Art can be a purpose, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach is art for art’s sake. I try to avoid thinking commercially. I also avoid politics. I find both can date the music terribly and I prefer to make something timeless that can be appreciated for how it sounds rather than what it supposedly represents.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is the ultimate expression of both. The entire sum of human existence can be encapsulated in one piece of music.
Beethoven’s 7th 2nd movement is a good example. So is ‘And still she is with me’ by Gordon Beck.