Brian R. Banks


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?

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?

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.

In fact, in high school, one 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:

  1. 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.
  2. My supply of Moleskine music notebooks. Pens and pencils, too (though not counted as purely musical artifacts!).
  3. My computer (with latest version of Finale). Can I have electricity?
  4. My iTunes collection (will there be WiFi on the island? If not, I’ll need another Terrabyte of memory, please. And, well, electricity).
  5. 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:

  1. Handel: Messiah. Right now I’m partial to the version recorded by John Butt’s Dunedin Consort.
  2. Bach: Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould’s 1982 recording.
  3. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Neville Marriner/Iona Brown/St. Martin-In-the-Fields version is totemic for me.
  4. 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”
  5. 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?