Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Graham Reynolds

"I go through waves and layers of obsessions. The thing I'm most interested in is learning and growing and discovering." — Graham Reynolds

To say that Graham Reynolds is just a musician seems like a bit of an understatement. True, he writes and performs original work, but he also composes scores for ballet and opera, and he’s one of the go-tos for filmmaker Richard Linklater when looking for someone to write the score for one of Linklater's projects. Most recently, Reynolds worked with Ballroom Marfa on a three-part commission that culminated with the creation of the chamber opera Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance, an exploration of West Texas history and the diverse musical landscape of Mexico. At the heart of Reynold’s work is a spirit of curiosity. As he told us during a phone interview, “The thing I'm most interested in is learning and growing and discovering.” Here’s more from Reynolds on his obsessions, his approach to creating a film score, and how having great teachers led to his life as a musician.

NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist?

GRAHAM REYNOLDS: I started taking piano lessons when I was 5, and I was always interested in music. I always was most interested in whatever subject I had the best teacher in. I had great teachers in all sorts of subjects but over the years I had more great music teachers than anything else so that's how I ended up being a musician.

NEA: If you had to write a job description for the work you do as an artist, what would that be?

REYNOLDS: Composer, bandleader, and improviser. The job entails three big categories: making music for other people's art—film, dance, theater, things like that; making music for the concert stage, and that's more like notated music for people to play that I'm not participating in; and then bandleading, and that's writing music where I'm going to be one of the performers and there's improvisation involved.

NEA: I'm struck by the diverse styles you write in. Do you think there's something that’s recognizable about your work no matter what the project is?

REYNOLDS: I'm not sure if there's a through line that you can hear. Looking at twentieth-century music and art [you can see] where it got super micro-focused and the styles got very consistent. You think of some names like Jackson Pollock or Rothko or whoever. Musically it's similar. You can identify [someone like] Phillip Glass right away. There's diversity within his style, but there's very little Phillip Glass you don't recognize right away as Phillip Glass. I decided not to try to develop a personal style….I was interested in a wider exploration and not being that focused... Creating a style is consciously repeating yourself, and I don't mean that in as bad a way as it sounds. I figured I would repeat myself enough already without consciously trying to develop a style.

NEA: What makes you say yes to working on a particular project?

REYNOLDS: A lot of different things. For the first good chunk of my career I tried to say yes to as many things as I possibly could handle and feel like I did a good job on. I try to be more diligent about not overextending about myself now. [The projects I accept] are mainly things that I want to do and that open doors, things that let me try things I want to try. There are a lot of things I want to try so it's not that hard to convince me.

NEA: What are your artistic obsessions?

REYNOLDS: I go through waves and layers of obsessions. The thing I'm most interested in is learning and growing and discovering. So I will be interested in a period or a style or a genre or an instrument and I'll try to learn [about it]. Like I was interested in country music moving down here to Austin. It took me years to figure out a doorway in but then I started working with different country musicians here and eventually did a larger-scale country music project. Sometimes it takes years and years and other times, it's very quick. But I've always got a long list of things I'm excited about and studying and exploring at any given moment.

NEA: What are you excited about and studying right now?

REYNOLDS: I've been studying synthesizers. I've been using various plug-in, music software for years... but the basics of synthesis are not just something I understood very well, and so that's something I've started focusing on a bit more. Each project opens a different door. Bass drum is an instrument I've been interested in for a long time, and I've written a lot of pieces for bass drum. So now I'm working on a bass drum concerto and we're doing recordings using bass drums in all sorts of different ways. I studied a lot of Mexican music for this opera we've been working on, Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance, and that's just a huge mountainous subject to look into and try to understand regional styles, period styles, what's ubiquitous, what's highly regional. It seems like every region of Mexico has a specialized set of guitars and instruments that are very localized, so that's been something I've been learning a lot about lately. The list sort of goes on and on. I've been playing with a drum machine called Nerve that Deadmaus and a friend of his made it and it's made for EDM, techno, things like that, but I've been using it for everything and every day just making different drum beats on it, and trying to learn how to use the software.

NEA: You mentioned that part of your art practice is undertaking commissions. How is working on a commission different from working on a self-generated idea? What are the opportunities that a commission presents that perhaps you don't get otherwise?

REYNOLDS: Commissions are just another kind of collaboration. It's usually a lot looser than say scoring somebody's film. One of the more extended commissions I've done is with Ballroom Marfa, an institution way out in deep West Texas. The first thing we did, like with any collaborator, was sit down and talk about what the basic ideas were and what people were interested in. They were very open about what I wanted to do, but at the same time opera was something that was of interest to them. I was interested in West Texas as a subject and a source of inspiration, which they were fine with it. We ended up doing both and I did a triptych. The first part was a country music project, the second one was a live score from sunset to moonrise in the desert, and then the third one was this Pancho Villa chamber opera. We got to do everything we were all interested in. I got to explore country music and Mexican music in a very deep way that I hadn't had the project to do before. I got to explore West Texas and research West Texas history and geography and all that while tying it to the work I was making. And they got the opera they were interested in.

NEA: You said working a film’s a little different. What's your entry point when you're scoring a film?

REYNOLDS: The entry point differs depending on the director and the project. When you sit down with someone who's commissioning something, there's no script, there's no clear endpoint. Usually with a film, there's a book or a subject or a story. Like [the Richard Linklater film] Bernie was from a Texas Monthly article. So the first thing I'll do is usually read the novel and read the script, talk to the director and see if they have anything in mind in terms of instrumentation or style and oftentimes they do, but just as often they don't, and then start working on palette.

NEA: What do you mean by “working on palette?”

REYNOLDS: The palette is what instruments are going to be in the score, if there's a genre or style to it. At the next level, maybe basic thematic ideas. It’s narrowing down from all the instruments and instrumental colors and all the styles in the world to a smaller handful of tools you're going to use to make this score.

NEA: You also write about music. Can you talk about that?

REYNOLDS: Most of the reviews I write are usually of music books…. I'll come at the books from the perspective of a musician reading a music book and what does that bring specifically since you bring a different knowledge to it than a non-musician. And I'll consider whether or not the book works well for both the professional reader and the non-professional reader. [For] some music books, the only audience really is other musicians. And other books, it's a general readership. Some manage to combine both somehow and that's a little more challenging and a little more magical. As far as writing about other musicians, usually it's someone where I'm really passionate about what they're doing. The same way that I look for projects that give me an excuse to explore something I'm excited about and interested in and passionate about at the moment, that's what the article is. I did an article about this country musician a while back, Billy Dean, and it gave me an excuse to talk to Billy Dean, ask him all these questions I was curious about anyway, and then meet the people he played with and get a fuller context. It gave me an excuse to go to his shows over and over again. I just got to know his world in a deeper way than I could just by showing up as a regular audience member. That's what's exciting about writing about other musicians, diving deeply into that world.

NEA: What's your superpower as an artist?

REYNOLDS: It's court vision. I'm not the greatest piano player in the world. I'm not the greatest orchestrator in the world. I'm not the best at any one kind of music. But I can pull back and see the scope of things, [the way] a basketball player with court vision can see everything that's happening on the court and know where that ball should go, not just in the rim, but to which player and what's going to happen next, and see beyond this narrow focus. So that's what I try and develop in myself more than specific skills as far as playing go or orchestrating or things like that.

NEA: What do you wish you were better at as an artist?

REYNOLDS: I wish I was more technically facile. I wish I didn't speed up so much. I play drums and I play piano, and I can't help it—if I play louder I play faster. If I play quieter, I play slower. And I've tried to fix that and have just never been able to.

NEA: The arts matter because...

REYNOLDS: The arts matter because it's our way of exploring, thinking about, and experiencing at a level that you can't in normal language or in other more typical day to day experiences. There's a layer that gets exposed through art. You see it in the way art lasts through history when other things don't. [The arts] create this deeper layer of meaning and connection, and they have this power to do things and to reveal things about individuals and humanity in general that no other tools do that I know of.

Interested in hearing from more musicians? Browse our NEA Jazz Masters page for interviews, photos, music samples, and more! 

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