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15 Questions to Greg Ryan

img  Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi! I am very well thank you. Currently in my home town of Newport, South Wales and hardly visible under a pile of things to do!

What’s on your schedule right now?

Sorry to be boring, but I’ve spent the last few days sat down, organising events and sending emails! The internet is a great place to promote yourself as a musician but I’m itching to get out there and perform again. Aside from that I am trying to keep on top of managing my labels ‘Red Scarf Records’ and ‘Red Scarf Classical’.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in?
I live in Wales so music is and always has been, nearby. In all seriousness, it’s a fantastic place to be a musician. Newport lacks that elitist atmosphere that can often strangle newcomers to the music industry. All the local theatres and concert halls have links with the schools and colleges and there’s always something going on that promotes the arts and showcases new musical talent. I doubt I’ll be leaving any time soon!

When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I remember dabbling in composition around the age of 12/13 but my passion was really ignited when I heard David Lanz’s Variations on a Theme of Pachelbel’s Cannon. Lanz really shaped my style of composition by showing me that composition is as much about the feelings behind the notes as it is about the notes themselves. I’m not a big fan of reading music but I did buy Lanz’s Music Book and it didn’t take long before I realised I wanted to try making music of my own. Another person who greatly inspired me was a fantastic pianist called Elijah Bossenbroek. The thing which struck me about Elijah is how he has achieved such success and momentum from so little. He started with some ideas and a synthesizer to record, not thousands of pounds to spend on studio time and publicity. This made me see that as long as you work hard enough and are confident in your abilities, you could get where you want to be, even in an industry as competitive as music.

What do you personally consider to be incisive moments in your work and/or career?
The release of my first album Scribblings was a huge moment for me as a composer. It was really amazing to go from an audience consisting of my parents and a handful of friends to having emails from people all over the world telling me how they love listening to my music on their daily journey to work or while studying for exams. Of course every musician dreams of awards and financial success to a certain degree but, without meaning to sound too cheesy, I really was blown away by the sense of achievement you feel when you’ve brightened a strangers day!

What are currently your main compositional challenges?
In a word: concentration! I always joked that the reason I refuse to read music is that I don’t have the attention span and I’m afraid that same problem can be applied to composition as well. The nature of how I compose means that it’s hard to know when your next eureka moment will come and so it’s sometimes hard to keep yourself from getting disheartened when you go through a period with little or no inspiration. I think another problem linked to this is the tendency to write a melody and then pad it too much with improvisation in the recording. I think one of the things I’ve tried to achieve with my second album is to properly structure each track from start to finish – this always takes longer but is always well worth it.

What do you usually start with when composing?
All my best pieces have come from improvisation. From there I get a melody or theme and it really is amazing how fast things fall into place and how exciting those moments can be. I really don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it really is the best feeling in the world when you have been mindlessly playing for a while and you suddenly engage your brain and realise you’ve accidently stumbled upon your next piece.

How do you see the relationship between timbre and composition?

I think this question is very different for a composer of solo piano than it would be for an orchestral composer. For me, although the melody takes priority in my work, I see it as essential to get the right piano sound and instrument layering in order to make the piece easy on the ear. I began my composing career, trying to dazzle people with the most technically brilliant tunes my fingers could manage. I soon realised that if you don’t know where you are in the sense of how you are playing it, how it is produced and what this means for the listener, you have got your priorities wrong as a composer.

What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Pure improvisation, to me, is escapism. If I’ve had a hard day or am just in a bad mood, there’s nothing like working that stress out on a piano! I’d say that I see improvisation as ‘just for me’ and from that comes composition which is something to share. Composition is worked on, it requires thinking and planning; improvisation is the mindless, raw emotion behind the piece.

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
My mum is a classically trained piano teacher and my first experiences of classical music were of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata and Bach’s Preludes and Fugues so there’s always that small desire to achieve that same visible virtuosity and structured musicality as the classical greats. However, that is almost the exact opposite of how I view my piano music. My music is all about the images it creates which is apparent in the visual titles of so many of my tracks. Some of the most fantastic and uplifting comments about my music have been from people who are, for the most part, completely alien to classical music. Of course I am flattered when someone compliments the technicalities and structure of ideas within my music, but I am far more excited when I hear of the stories that my music has conjured in someone’s mind.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to closely work together with the artists performing your work?

Interpretation is a word I struggle with. On the one hand, I find the idea of someone taking my music and playing and reacting to it in their own way is a thrilling concept to me. On the other hand, I’m ashamed to say that I may be too much of a perfectionist to really be entirely comfortable with the idea. I am always interested to see how people interpret my music and how they approach the feelings and emotions behind it, but as far as performing my music is concerned, I think I need to develop a bit more trust before I let that happen!

The role of the composer has always been subject to change. What's your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of composers today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?

I think composers work more for themselves these days. With the birth of computers, synthesizers and home studios, modern composers can compose when and where they want and then decide where they want to go with their completed compositions. Whereas the chamber composers of the classical period were writing for an incredibly specific group of people, modern composers can upload a track to the internet and be heard by millions of listeners at a time. Although the role of a composer has always been to make people feel something that words and images fail to do, I think the way a composer goes about this is so much more flexible in our modern age. No matter how obscure your style, the internet and social networking means you are sure to find someone who relates and reacts to it in a way that you want. I think this can only be a good thing.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience?
I think there are a lot of tags attached to my type of music in particular which can scare people away. Words like “New Age” and ‘contemporary’ can give the impression of spiritual mysticism or overly abstract thoughts beyond the intellectual realms of the layman. I think the key, if you’ll pardon the cliché, is to be yourself and let people make their own decisions as to what your music means to them. This will undoubtedly make your music more appealing to a much larger demographic.

Composers have traditionally found it hard to secure a living with their art. What are the financial realities you're living with and in which way, do you feel, could they be improved?
I think the key here is to be wise with your money from the outset. You don’t need a million pounds and a plush studio to make it as a composer, you just need the ideas and a way of getting them heard. One thing that has really amazed me is how gracious and down to earth so many top industry professionals can be. It doesn’t cost you anything to send a load of emails and you never know what you might get out of it.
I am 100% behind the people who say ‘follow your dreams’ but I think you always have to be realistic as well. The reality is, when starting out, you do a heck of a lot of things for free and you need something else to keep the money coming in.
At the moment, if people ask me what I do I tell them I am a record producer. Maybe one day I’ll be privileged (and brave) enough to tell them I’m a musician!

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
I’m sorry to say that this isn’t something that has crossed my mind! I always aim to be improving my music and don’t like the idea of being defined by one piece or project. But then again I’m young, maybe one day I’ll think differently!

Intro by Hannis Brown

Scribblings 2010

Greg Ryan

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