Name: Gordon Grdina
Occupation: Guitarist, oud player, composer, improviser
Current release: Gordon Grdina has two new albums out: Pendulum and Klotski, both available via his new Attaboygirl imprint.
If you enjoyed this interview with Gordon Grdina, visit his official website for more information. He is also on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
The creative impulse to create comes for me when I make time for it. This is usually to do with a recording session/tour/concert coming up. This isn’t always a deadline but could be just thinking of the group of musicians and intuiting what that would sound like.
I usually don’t have too much trouble getting things going I just need to get the mental space to allow my imagination to flow. It often happens when I’m on vacation or on the road with long periods driving. I often say that most of my ideas come out of boredom.
Like the music for Square Peg came while driving in Northern BC. I sang the different melodic lines for each piece into my phone, almost whole album was written that way. I also found little sections from other larger compositions that I heard could work in the band during this time too.
Like “Sore Spot” is based on a section of the song Benbow which is on the solo album Pendulum and Nomad with the Nomad trio.
There have been times when I’ve been inspired by personal relationships, politics and paintings etc. but generally it usually comes directly out of the music.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I need to carve out the head space and time and then I start to have a visualization of the whole piece. From there I’ll often either sketch out the whole thing with rough vocalizations of different sections or I’ll notate them if they are already fully formed ideas. From that framework I’ll fill in the specifics of the piece and notate the music.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I’ve never really done research or earlier versions of a piece. If it’s a larger composition, I’ll have a sketch of the different sections which would be more of a preparation phase and then finish up with the specifics. I almost always write away from the guitar and use a computer notation program. My handwriting is horrible, so the computer makes it easier to create functional charts quicker, and then the transposition for each instrument is way easier as well.
There are exceptions to this. On my solo album a lot of the pieces came out of technical study and the harmonic limitations of the guitar, so I wrote a lot of that music on the instrument and then notated it and in some cases I didn’t notate it at all.
The end “Blues” part of “Benbow Blues” is an example of a piece written on the guitar in an effort to expand capabilities on the instrument.
The oud is such an idiosyncratic instrument that I like to sometimes write on it but I also like to write away from it to create ideas that don’t sit as well physically and expand my understanding of the instrument.
“Wayward” would be an example of that type of piece.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I definitely enjoy espresso which is usually the spark that gets things rolling! If I’m having difficulty hearing a particular piece and feel like it needs time or to mull around a bit I’ll often go for a run. That way I’m doing something physical that doesn’t take much concentration and I can let the music develop in my head.
When writing “Koen Dori” I needed a few breaks to develop the phrasing and overall form.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I often start with a simple phrase or melodic fragment and then repeat it in my head and sometimes even mentally ask what does it want to happen next. Treating the phrase or idea like it is a living thing that has its own development or biological DNA that needs to reveal itself.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I can usually tell when the piece has come to a logical conclusion, and I try to complete it or at least the full framework all at one time while the inspiration and initial idea is still clear. Sometimes this doesn’t work and I’ll leave it and come back to it with fresh ears and then finish it.
I try not to leave a lot of things unfinished because I don’t work as well that way. I try and work quickly and as simply or direct as possible without being too precious about the decision making process.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I try and relinquish as much control as possible and let the music develop as free from preconceived thought patterns or concepts as I can. This is a little hard to define but it’s the difference between thinking of an idea and hearing one. If you can hear it then it will work.
I think the same way with choosing musicians for a band I’m thinking of people and then seeing if I can hear each person’s individual sounds working together and then the final decision is based on if that sound is inspiring. It’s a slight difference that I find is a guide that works for me. It’s a way to get away from what I want to happen and let what is supposed to happen, happen. That way there is a lot less fighting with trying to make the music fit a mold or preconceived idea. I feel like it’s also a lot easier to surprise yourself and end up with diverse results. All of the music is filtered through my hearing, understanding and voice so it has a through-line or connection, but the intention is to be open and not to stifle the natural process.
With Square Peg I could hear Shahzad and Mat working well together so we got together for a few trio gigs and a recording. We were improvising and the music really went all over the place which was a good sign that there were a lot of options. I also had been wanting to play with Christian for a while and when I thought about him all of a sudden, the band as a quartet made complete sense.
The “puzzle like” freely interpreted compositional concept came out about pretty much right away after solidifying the musicians.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yeah often there will be two or more ways to get out of a given situation. I usually repeat the composition up to the end point and then listen for what comes next. I’ll do this a few times until one direction sort of solidifies and then continue in that direction. Sometimes an alternative idea will come out and become a different piece.
I also don’t try to be too precious and hold on to things like they’re little nuggets of gold or something. This reinforces a feeling that music is scarce or rare when it is constantly flowing and overabundant. Doesn’t mean it’s all good but value judgements can’t be a part of the creation process. There is always time to curate later.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It definitely is similar to meditation and a feeling of complete connection, focus and oneness with the process. I feel a bit more of a spiritual connection maybe during improvisation. It’s the same process really but with improv, when it is really flowing, there is complete oneness and concentration without thought that is definitely spiritual, not supernatural but hyper natural, even more grounded, more real.
The process is something that I think is increasingly important today because it ties into the core of what it means to be human and in a persistently commodified world that connection is lost.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It’s hard to say, sometimes it’s clear and easy that that’s the ending, sometimes I have to just make a decision. Because technically, I could go on forever writing more sections or develop the ideas more but when composing for improvising groups you want to leave a lot of options open so that the music can continually be reinvented. I’m also often much more interested in where the musicians might take the ideas.
After writing the music and playing it with the band there are a few things that need to be fixed or changed but not usually. The pieces then take on a life of their own in the band. The phrasing, dynamic shifts tempos etc. all can end up settling different than originally conceived.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
All of this varies but I don’t like to do too many changes unless something isn’t working. I don’t dictate too much how the piece should be developed or played as I’d rather hear what the musician’s instincts bring out in the music and go from there.
My regular arch of an album would be I write the music send it to the band, we do a rehearsal and then play some shows I try and do a week or so and then we go into the studio at the end. By this time the pieces have been flushed out and clear directions developed, if the band is happening the music sounds different each night and then the album is just one of the versions of the music.
With my trio we played regularly for about 15 years pretty much off of two CDs worth of music but each time we played the music was different so I didn’t write much new music. For Square Peg we’ll be touring in June and I’ll write a new book of tunes. For the next solo tour I’ll play most of Pendulum with a few improvs.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I mostly work with John Raham for mixing and mastering with Chris Gestrin. I am really involved in the mixing process but not as much with the mastering.
I think it is quite important but I also like bootlegs and board mixes for certain things. As long as I can hear all of the parts and get the vibe of the music than that is enough for some circumstances. I’m more interested in the playing than the production.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I usually am really excited after the recording and/or the mixing and then it takes a while to get the music out and by that point I’ve pined over it so much that I’m sick of it, so I get on with other music. Then once it is finally being released I revisit it and am usually pleasantly surprised.
I don’t often have a huge sense of emptiness after a project but will often need some down time to do as little as possible and binge watch a series. Then another deadline is looming and I get started again. I don’t often write without a specific project or CD in mind. I have friends that are constantly writing maybe I’ll start doing that at some point but for right now it’s fairly goal orientated.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think that being an improviser reaches every corner of my life but I don’t put the same focus on everything and I’m not expressing the same thing through everything else.
There is something deeper and more profound that I am trying to express in music. I think it is inherently different for me than making the perfect espresso, but I think that same expression for someone else could come through that espresso.