Brian R. Banks
“WHAT’S YOUR MUSIC LIKE?”
I am concerned with music as a shared emotional experience: a three-way act of communication between composer, performer and listener.
I don’t write music to justify any theory. Much of my music has a tonal center of some kind, and at times one can hear familiar chord progressions, but at other times the music is more abstract and complex. Often I will juxtapose these elements within the same piece.
I often use paraphrase and quotation techniques in my music, which serves as a kind of autobiographical expression. It’s also a way of connecting with others. I write my music for people, not for history. Currently I am interested in the sense of immediacy in popular music, and I wonder if this immediacy can’t be put into a “classical” context.
The composers I consider part of my musical heritage include: Charles Ives, Duke Ellington, Bartók, Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Arvo Pärt, the Beatles, Philip Glass, and György Kurtág.
I am not afraid to use repetition, but neither am I obsessed by it. I do not use complexity or simplicity “for its own sake.” I say what I need to say with the musical materials I have at hand, taking into account my own musical background, the musical experiences of my listeners, and the music that surrounds us today.
Brian Banks’ compositions are among the most potent and poignant of any composer writing today. Contemporary music has always been a very central part of my repertoire and profile as a performer, and rarely do I come across a body of work that projects such an intensely personal, distinctive, varied and compelling musical language.
I have performed and recorded Brian’s first three piano sonatas, as well as shorter works and chamber music. The experience of playing Brian’s music comprises some of the most deeply fulfilling and rewarding musical experiences of my career. Brian and I have known each other for 33 years, dating back to when we were 1st year undergraduate students at the Peabody Conservatory, and I have so enjoyed watching and being a part of his many musical journeys since then.
Geoffrey Burleson, D.M.A.
Performer and Director of Piano Studies
Hunter College of CUNY
The ﬁrst piece that I played by Brian Banks was in 2011 during my participation in the Forum of New Music “Manuel Enríquez.” I remember that when I began playing the Guitar Sonata No. 1 (“Mosaic”) it was a very refreshing and pleasant experience: it is mysterious and restless, full of contrasting sound images. From then on, I have had a strong collaboration with Brian, including the premieres of the Sonata No. 2 for solo Guitar, Hommage à Arvo Pärt for Oboe and Guitar, The Puget Sound Preludes and his Bonsai Concerto No. 3 for Guitar and Small Orchestra which I will present with The Tijuana Camerata in Baja California, November 5th and 7th,2015.
In my experience in interpreting these 5 works I ﬁnd that Brian’s musical thoughts always express sincerity through a language nourished on the vast culture of our time, joining universes that seem to appear irreconcilable, ranging from a Hindu raga through contrapuntal forms of the Baroque, or from brilliant virtuoso passages to the contemplative pursuit of the sound of the sea. It is essentially emotional music that weaves fantastic stories. It is the beauty of shape and sound that is bereft of presumptuousness.
Latin Grammy-nominated Classical Guitarist
As a conductor, performer and recording producer for Brian, I know first hand that his music is highly engaging for the public, and often highly virtuosic for the performer. Yes, it’s contemporary music that breaks paradigms and rules, but Brian maintains a sense of order that communicates—in a way that both the public and the performer can accept and appreciate.
The first work of Brian’s that I heard was his choral work Oh Tiempo, where I fell in love with his harmonic language and capacity to generate unique sound environments.
Later, I was able to perform and record A Bonsai Garden, Set II for two violins: a fascinating project of micro-movements with highly contrasting characteristics between them, including dissonance, tonal moments, drama and emotions. It was fascinating to work on the album— A Bonsai Garden — because I got to know the whole set of Brian’s of bonsai pieces and realize that their sound world remains consistent, despite being written for different combinations (marimba with clarinet; flute, bass clarinet and piano; guitar and violin, etc.).
Brian has a crazy, stubborn personality that drives his work as an artist. And as a friend and a life-long educator, he tremendously motivates others and cares deeply about successful collaboration so something important happens, musically.
Sergio Castro Medina
Conductor, Performer and Director General de Difusión Cultural
Universidad de las Américas Puebla (UDLAP)
Are you a classical composer?
I’d say that the classical tradition is a part of my training as a musician and composer, although I’ve always loved jazz and popular music too.”
I think ‘classical music’ is in the process of a big transformation. I don’t think it’s dying. The definition is expanding. The old ghettoization of ‘new music’ and the 19th century idea of being in the “vanguard” has run its course. Music can’t simply be about novelty. My approach is based on the sense that I’m in the world, of the world. I’m interested in a conversation. I’m aiming to be interpretative rather than singular.
These days my inspiration is E.M. Forster: Only connect.
Why that motto?
I don’t want people to need a doctorate degree in composition to understand my music. Music is a social art, and I have no problem acknowledging my debt to music of the past. I don’t see what I’m creating—a new piece—as an autonomous object isolated in space. I see it as something connected to the world, to many different kinds of music, to the past, to the present.
With the Internet there’s an incredible breadth of knowledge available instantly. If I’m curious about the music of Madagascar, it’s no problem to get some information or a sound sample. Beethoven, in his time, had to read a score and imagine the music in his head or bang it out on the piano to experience music from another, European, location. But how all that breadth of information gets incorporated into the music today will be different for every person. It’s an exciting time to be involved in music!
So whose music do you really connect with?
I could name a lot of composers, but Charles Ives was my childhood hero.
And Lou Harrison is still one of my big heroes. He would say: “Early on, I laid out my toys on a large acreage.” He used lots of different techniques: sometimes 12 tone, or not. Fixed or free forms. He wasn’t afraid to make pretty sounds.
How is it being a composer born in Seattle who has lived and worked in Mexico since 1996?
Well, in high school I was voted “most likely to live in a foreign country.” And here I am!
Honestly, it’s freeing. I’m always going to be an outsider as an American in Mexico. I think about Haydn out at Esterhazy. He wasn’t surrounded by the other Viennese composers, he was away from the principal center of culture. So he could play around a little, experiment.
When did your musical life begin?
According to my parents, out on walks in a stroller I would imitate the roosters at a house nearby. My parents are both gone now, but they told me this was one of their cherished memories of my childhood.
When I was in 4th grade, I attended a parochial school where we were lucky to have regular music classes. And the music teacher picked voices out of those classes and so I joined a boys choir. I remember singing “In Paradisum” by Fauré. That was a lot of fun for me!
So singing at school was the beginning?
Well, yes and no. My mom bought a piano, she wanted my sister and me to play. So we started lessons with Mrs. Berger, who was 86 years old, a very independent person, who came to our house to teach us. But the lessons stopped when Mrs. Berger fell off her roof cleaning gutters and died. However, after I stopped the regular lessons, I realized I missed it. So I got another teacher: Sister Anne, who I studied with through middle school. In high school I kept studying with Kathy Sharpe, plus I became the accompanist for the high school chorus. I had a hard time as an accompanist! But around that same time—age 15 or 16—I started playing solo things by Bartók: Allegro Bárbaro, for example. The musical material itself was getting more interesting to me.
This is also when I’d start to go to the district library where I found records like Keith Jarrett’s In the Light—a double LP with works for guitar and strings, for brass quintet, harpsichord—not your average jazz album! It was the first time I thought: wow, you can compose new things for orchestra.
Did you think music was something you’d pursue in college?
In fact, in high school, one It was certainly one of my options when I was 15 or 16. But when I began high school I thought I could be an ornithologist—until I learned you had to take a lot of math classes. That was the end of that.
When you were a kid, you were studying classical music, but were you listening to it?
Sure. And I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson at the Seattle Opera House, so jazz was very important to me as well. And as a child, I went to the symphony with my parents a few times.
year I managed to scrape up enough money to buy myself a season subscription for the Seattle Symphony. I got to hear Segovia playing the Rodrigo Concerto de Aranjuez. Claudio Arrau and Emil Gilels I remember very well. I was attending concerts every week at one point. I was hooked!
In high school I worked at McDonald’s on the weekends, so I had some spending money for records, too. There was a great record shop on 5th Ave. in downtown Seattle that I could check out pretty regularly because it was near where I transferred buses to get home from school. They had classical recordings, contemporary music and opera. My tastes had two extremes: music before Bach, plus Beethoven and Bartók. Then I got into this Cageian streak. And I owned the Complete Works of Webern, the four LPs. I got into Stravinsky and Schoenberg. I used to play Pierrot Lunaire to my classmates and they thought I was nuts.
Was it strictly classic music for you as a kid?
Well one of my earliest musical memories was hearing Here Comes the Sun. I was six. I was playing with a friend who had an older brother who was into the Beatles, so they were with me from the beginning.
Besides the Beatles, my other first musical loves were John Denver and Neal Diamond! And because I wanted to be an ornithologist, I liked the film soundtrack of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I was really a pretty normal kid, I think. I liked mainstream pop stuff like Elton John, The Beatles. Rock too.
A big epiphany for me was Queen. We had this weird mall in Seattle with an open court yard. I remember walking into the music store there, hearing Bohemian Rhapsody, and thinking “what’s this? It has opera and rock and everything!” I was really taken by it
Another big influence was Jethro Tull. I liked the way they used lots of references to the past. In fact, the song Living in the Past is one of my favorites. I loved the pseudo-renaissance type sound, the lush orchestral arrangements. I had friends who were focused on rock in its raw form. But that wasn’t me. I was into the production, the details, the orchestral background.
When did you start composing?
I started dinking around with Bartok and Bach in high school. I started playing with Bach’s chorale harmonies and trying to see if I could end all the cadences with tritones! I was supposed to be practicing piano, but I ended up writing instead.
I decided I needed to find a composition teacher, and I ended up taking composition lessons with Robert E. Lundquist up in Bellingham, near the Canadian border.
I would drive myself because my dad didn’t want to make the trip. He didn’t see the value in studying composition. To him the greatest thing that could come out of music for me was to be a lounge pianist.
But Bob was a very encouraging teacher. I’d drive myself every other week—4 hours of driving (2 each way) for my lesson and good conversation with Bob and his wife. His own compositional style was rather conservative, but he really opened me up to new things as a student. It was a great experience. I really got into it.
You’re stranded on a desert island and you can only bring along five musical artifacts. What would they be?
Well, I guess I could make a rudimentary drum or a flute on my own, so I won’t ask for those. I guess I would take the following musical artifacts:
- The London Philharmonic Orchestra (judges, do you rule this as a single artifact?). I might have asked for the Berlin Phil, but my German ist nicht so gut.
- My supply of Moleskine music notebooks. Pens and pencils, too (though not counted as purely musical artifacts!).
- My computer (with latest version of Finale). Can I have electricity?
- My iTunes collection (will there be WiFi on the island? If not, I’ll need another Terrabyte of memory, please. And, well, electricity).
- A piano or guitar (actually, the guitar would be easier to tune).
I’d also like an AUDIENCE. And if you get that WiFi set up for me the London Phil and I could broadcast our music on YouTube.
Now, if you had asked me for five recordings I would answer differently:
- Handel: Messiah. Right now I’m partial to the version recorded by John Butt’s Dunedin Consort.
- Bach: Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould’s 1982 recording.
- Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Neville Marriner/Iona Brown/St. Martin-In-the-Fields version is totemic for me.
- Brooklyn Rider has a recording of the complete String Quartets of Philip Glass, which I’d like to bring along. When Glass writes for strings he tends to push at the borders of his own style, which I like to hear him do. I also like his Fifth Symphony–“Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya”
- Any or all of Ella Fitzgerald’s Song Book recodings (can I take them all?). Or her collaborations with Louis Armstrong (Ella & Louis; Ella & Louis Again; Porgy and Bess)……
…..can I bring 5 more recordings?
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Currently a Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Music at the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico, Brian R. Banks is a highly productive artist with a significant catalog of works—including dozens of commissions, premieres and performances to date—for solo artists, chamber ensembles, choruses and orchestras.
With an undergraduate degree from Peabody Institute of Music, a Master’s degree from San Francisco Conservatory and a Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley, Brian has also earned distinction as a scholar, lecturing widely on composers (Ives, Boulez, Revueltas), the music of Mexico, North American cross-border cultural influences, and issues of arts curriculum at the university level. As a composition student, he studied with Robert Lundquist, Morris Moshe Cotel, Andrew Imbrie, Richard Felciano and Olly Wilson. His original residency in Mexico was as a Fulbright Scholar.
Brian began his musical explorations with grade school choir and piano lessons in the neighborhood. A string of musical encounters during his teenage years—the Beatles and Bartók, Keith Jarrett and John Cage, Morton Feldman and Ella Fitzgerald—helped form his broad taste and omnivorous music collecting habits which continue to this day.
Brian’s works often push at the boundaries between popular/world music and the classical music tradition, which he sees as undergoing a transformation and expansion. His current compositions are influenced by the rhythms and of popular music, the dynamism of Silvestre Revueltas, the humoristic elements of Ligeti and György Kurtág, graphic novels and Manga, and his own training as a late-modernist composer.
Working daily in both English and Spanish, Brian enjoys being a U.S. artist in living in Mexico, free to participate in various cultures of the Americas. “My approach is based on the sense that I’m in the world, of the world. I’m interested in a conversation, in writing music that makes a connection. I’m aiming to be interpretive rather than singular.”
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Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Music at the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico, Brian R. Banks is a highly productive artist with a significant catalog of works—including dozens of commissions, premieres and performances to date—for solo artists, chamber ensembles, choruses and orchestras.
With degrees from Peabody Institute of Music, San Francisco Conservatory and University of California-Berkeley, Brian lectures widely on composers (Ives, Lou Harrison, Revueltas), the music of Mexico, cross-border cultural influences, and arts curriculum at the university level.
Brian’s works often push at the boundaries between popular/world music and the classical music tradition. Current influences include the rhythms of popular music, the dynamism of Revueltas, the humoristic elements of Ligeti and Kurtág, graphic novels and Manga.
“My approach is based on the sense that I’m in the world, of the world. I’m interested in a conversation, in writing music that makes a connection. I’m aiming to be interpretive rather than singular.”
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The experience of playing Brian’s music comprises some of the most deeply fulfilling and rewarding musical experiences of my career.Geoffrey Burleson, D.M.A.
I find that Brian’s musical thoughts always express sincerity through a language nourished on the vast culture of our time, joining universes that seem to appear irreconcilable…Roberto Limón
Yes, it’s contemporary music that breaks paradigms and rules, but Brian maintains a sense of order that communicates…Sergio Castro Medina