Interview with Gernot Wolfgang

On March 25th, Kaleidoscope nears the end of its third season with penultimate West Coast Premiere performances of eclectic chamber works by both Nick Omiccioli & Gernot Wolfgang. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Wolfgang and not only talk about his inspirations for composing his piano quintet New England Travelogue, but discover that this Grammy nominated composer genuinely remains deeply rooted in his love of the world that surrounds him. It became apparent that both as a person and a musician, Mr. Wolfgang has worked tirelessly throughout his career to draw up the multidimensions of opposites that exist in both human and literal nature, and utilize music as a language in which to communicate and demonstrate these opposites.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Gernot Wolfgang: I had started playing jazz guitar as a hobby while studying to be a computer programmer. Three years into my degree, however, I discovered computer programming just wasn’t the right path for me. So, I started practicing my guitar more and more, and got to know the guitar teacher at the University of Graz, which was at the time the best jazz program in Austria and Europe. At the age of 24 I got in and attended that program for six years.

CR: Great! So, having been born and growing up in Austria, how did you eventually come to settle in the US?

GW: Well, during my time in Graz I got more interested in composing and arranging rather than performing, so I applied and received a Fulbright to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. When I started at Berklee, I discovered that my training in Austria had been excellent and was basically repeating what I’d already done, so I looked for something else to do with my time there. Ultimately I caught the film composing bug, and did that during my two years at school.  I did wind up having to go back to Austria after I’d finished, but some time after I had met my future wife, Judy Farmer, I had started to think that if I was going to do something with film music, I needed to move to LA. So, we both took sabbaticals from our jobs, eventually got married, and that’s how we got to LA.

CR: Very interesting. So, do you still perform, or mostly just compose?

GW: Just compose. I haven’t played a guitar in a long time because at some point I got more busy with writing and I just didn’t have time to practice anymore. I didn’t have fun playing anymore because I couldn’t put in the time, so I ultimately gave it up.

CR: I see. What’s one of your favorite things about being a composer?

GW: I absolutely love that there is no limit to what we can do; there doesn’t seem to be an end to my imagination. Plus, a composer can get better at any stage. Unlike with performing where with an instrument there are physical limits as you get older, it doesn’t seem to be an issue with composers. There are great composers that wrote some of their best work in their late 80s and 90s. That’s inspiring, that’s an amazing incentive. So, I just love that there are endless opportunities to take advantage of, and I feel lucky that I can explore all sorts of things.

CR: Absolutely! How would you describe your compositional style, especially having so much background in various genres?

GW: Everything that I’ve ever done musically is in my current style of writing. There’s a lot of jazz in it, in terms of rhythm; there’s a lot of film music, in terms of the themes that are extramusical; it’s very much concert oriented, which is a classical tradition. Things do change in my style though, because I believe, especially where harmonic language is concerned, if you write in a certain way for years and years, it gets old. If you never edit your style, it doesn’t feel as fresh so you have to expand. Currently, I’m interested in synthesizing the 2nd Viennese School with jazz harmonies; that’s very rewarding and inspiring. I think I’ll be doing that for a while in my music.

CR: Specific to Kaleidoscope, what motivated you to submit a piece to the Call for Scores?

GW: My latest chamber music record, which was nominated for a Grammy this year, had just come out and we’d recorded a piece that I’d wanted to record for a long, long time. It was a piano quintet, and at hadn’t been performed on the west coast yet, so I figured why not apply. Lo and behold, they chose my piece!

CR: What was the motivation or inspiration behind composing New England Travelogue?

GW: New England Travelogue was a commission from the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society. Since I had lived in Boston, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to write a piece that had to do with New England and the variety of memories I had of spending time there. The first movement is about the main town on Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown, which is a very attractive tourist and fisherman town. The second movement is about a trip I took to Vermont around Christmas time, which was extremely beautiful. Everything was snowed in, and it was a fantastically beautiful trip. The third movement is about a couple of jazz clubs in Cambridge, MA. There’s a square there that has two jazz clubs where I’d frequent. Lastly, my wife and I had taken a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, and being in that place ended up being the inspiration for the last movement.

CR: That sounds beautiful! So, do you typically draw on anecdotal inspirations as influences for the pieces you write? What are some of the things you like to reflect on in your music?

GW: It depends, but I’d say ⅔ of my pieces have extramusical inspirations. I write about inspirations in nature, psychological situations, scientific ideas, and sometimes tributes to people that I admire. It’s unpredictable, really. I usually don’t know how it’s going to work out unless I have a commission where there are guidelines.

CR: I see. So, a core value of Kaleidoscope is the idea of having all people be a part of the equation, regardless of their social and economic status, and be collaborative and engage with the Los Angeles community. We put on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’ve implemented a “Pay What You Can” model by eliminating ticket sales. What are some of your own personal goals and beliefs in connecting to the community through your music?

GW: I believe that one has to be open to the social aspect of being a musician; that makes everything less hard as opposed to working in isolation. I’m involved with the Hear Now music festival and we’re always very much looking to foster community thinking and community activities. But, in the case of Kaleidoscope, just out of principle, I welcome any organization that adds to the fabric and vibrancy of the scene here in LA, especially since it’s a kind of ensemble - a conductorless chamber orchestra - which has never really existed here. From that aspect, I think Kaleidoscope is achieving that and is a great addition to the general classical music scene in LA.

CR: Well said. If you had one, what would be your ideal vision of a vibrant music community?

GW: We need to recognize that we’re all in the same boat, especially in the classical genre. Everyone knows that no one goes into classical music because they want to make a ton of money; they do it because they really love what they do. So, whatever it is, we need to support each other in doing this because everything adds to the relevance of this art form. Therefore, the ideal would be that we’re all as inclusive as possible. In general I feel that to be inclusive is to recognize our differences yet still work to include everyone, which is what defines community,

CR: So the ideal community works together.

GW: Exactly. And not just musicians to musicians. I’ve made some great friends by spending time with people who aren’t musicians but who really love music and choose to support us. So it’s up to us to choose to support them to, and we can do that through sharing music. Passionate people, no matter what they do, are after the same kind of experience. The payoff and satisfaction of a job well done is very similar throughout every field, so as a community we should support one another.

CR: Do you believe that Kaleidoscope supports the LA community well?

GW: By virtue of being around, hosting concerts, and adding to the scene in LA as a conductorless orchestra, I’d certainly agree with that. Kaleidoscope has something unique to offer and something valuable.

CR: More to your person, what are your hobbies outside of music?

GW: I grew up in the mountains in Austria so I love hiking. It’s ingrained in me, and I just like to spend as much time in the mountains as possible. I’m also a passionate skier, and I like to fly fish, The most passionate hobbies I have have to do with spending time in nature.

CR: That’s wonderful! Do you have a favorite quote or mantra?

GW: Yes, out of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: “gravity is the root of lightness, stillness the ruler of movement”. Basically, it implies that if you feel like one thing is true, the opposite applies as well. I feel strongly about artists who recognize that, and make a point of highlighting that because life is not a one dimensional thing. This book has been my main source of inspiration spiritually, philosophically, et cetera. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but the book itself I resonate with.

CR: Are there any charities or causes you’d like to raise awareness to?

GW: My favorite charities certainly have to do with environment, like Nature Conservancy, I give to Western Rivers Conservancy, Mojave Desert Land Trust, places like that.

CR: Great! Any final statement?

GW: From day one I’ve always seen music as a language, a form of communication. I just hope that if a piece resonates with me it’ll resonate to someone else as well, and want to communicate to people in a way that’s sincerely meant. I want my music to be a genuine reflection of myself, as if I were communicating through words, and just hope that New England Travelogue accomplishes that.

CR: Great. Thanks so much Gernot!

GW: Thank you!

Carrie Rexroat