The Terra Verde Corner

The journey home
An interview with Scott Kirby
by Lynda Lester
From The Secrets of Terra Verde

The Painting

Could you say a little about your new Terra Verde composition, The Journey Home?

The Journey Home is a suite of 21 pieces, all interlinked.

They can be performed as whole, or performed individually, out of context. I wrote most of it in a space of 3-1/2 weeks, except for a couple of pieces. The journey home is a metaphorical journey, not a literal one. Usually when I compose, I don't know until a long time afterwards what the composition is about. Music is a way to work through things I'm going through in my life. I might not know what it was that inspired a piece till long afterwards. In this case, it was the idea of home.

I ran into a difficult problem when I was thinking about translating the liner notes into French: in French, there's no word for home. Of course, there's chez, where you live -- but that's not the same as home. Home is a rich word, it covers lot of territory. It can mean where you live, where you're born, where your heart is ... it can mean the end of a cycle, it can mean home plate [laughs]. It could mean death -- death is home. It could mean birth, it could mean being inside the mother. It could mean earth. It's a concept that means all sorts of things, you can't pin it down. But in simple terms, it's a metaphor for the process of self-discovery.

The suite has 11 major pieces, which have names; they're separated by 10 interludes, all waltzes. The major pieces are "Prelude," "From Foreign Shores," "Elegie," "Nightmare," "Horizon," "Reverie for the High Plains," "Delirium," "Recovery," "Tango," "Threshold," and "Postlude." You can see that these titles are still pretty general, but there's a specific pattern that emerges when you go through something and come out on other side.

The irony of the suite is that I never arrive home. It's a welcome paradox. In order to go forward, you have to go back. To progress, you have to explore the origins. The idea of home works in both ways.

The Journey Home is as personal and specific as I've ever been. It's still new; it will take a while before I'll be able to play the whole thing, record it, or play it in concert, like David Thomas Roberts did with his New Orleans Streets.

The piece "Recovery" is so beautiful. It's a good example of Terra Verde music, isn't it? It certainly isn't ragtime.

No, it's not ragtime.

The first part is very distant from ragtime. The second part has a duple-meter bass like ragtime, and the right hand is quite raglike -- it has a melody that's syncopated in pianistic style. However, there's nothing raglike at all about its feeling and sensibility, which are very different from a ragtime piece.

Sensibility is something that's terribly difficult to explain in literal terms. We had this difficulty when we had a Terra Verde symposium in Fresno -- a lot of people wanted to know how Terra Verde is different from ragtime.

It's a valid question, one that's difficult to put your finger on. When you hear it is when you know. It shouldn't be defined. Like I said in the liner notes for the Terra Verde album, the music is like a spectrum of light. At no one point can you say, "This is no longer blue, or green" -- it fades between one and another in gradients. That's why we put a lot of different styles on the album. We don't want to get into the business of defining.

Jack Rummel's "Lone Jack to Knob Noster," for instance, is clearly new ragtime; that's one end of the spectrum. "Recovery, Part 1" is on the other end -- that's as far from ragtime as we get on that album. In the areas between you'll find Latin American influence, ragtime influence, a lot of romantic influence.

What are some of the romantic influences in Terra Verde music?

Speaking for myself, the main romantic influences would have to include Chopin and Schumann. Also, Rachmaninoff has affected my harmonic sensibility quite a bit.

One similarity that I would mention is the developmental nature one finds in much Terra Verde, particularly in my own works. I usually begin with a few ideas, and through the course of the piece these ideas change and twist and often combine. Echoes of a phrase from one strain find their way into another strain, but the change in the phrase (as well as the change of context) helps to create a narrative tone.

The average rag, on the other hand, has three or four strains, separate ideas, grouped together. Although there are exceptions to this, it is safe to say that most ragtime is just not developmental in the same way. Each strain makes an independent musical statement. Terra Verde, therefore, can be seen as closer to 19th century romantic music than ragtime in this respect.

For myself, romantic music is a more personal mode of expression than other types. It's interesting to note that, although ragtime on the whole is not developmental, there's a strong romantic component in much of the best of it, particularly in classic ragtime. The problem is that it's rarely performed with this sensibility. Many performers exaggerate the percussive and technical aspects of this music at the expense of its real expressive potential. Some skeptics argue that in order to bring out the romantic presence, the performer must sacrifice the effect of the syncopation by changing the tempo. This is just not true. The fact is that it is one of the greatest challenges of interpreting classic ragtime -- to maintain the pulse and create the illusion of rubato simply with phrasing and dynamics.

Would you like to play more Terra Verde concerts?

I'm hoping ... well, Terra Verde has been a touchy subject in ragtime circles until now. It wasn't our intent to create controversy; things just took their natural course.

I know, speaking for myself, that I can't try to write within a certain framework, a certain set of expectations.

There's a lot of support from ragtime community for Terra Verde, but in general, I have to say that the ragtime venue is probably not the right place to present some of the new music. People come expecting ragtime, and they should get it.

On the other hand, my philosophy is to present it in a way that enriches the audience and broadens the general experience of hearing the music. It's better to play ragtime in context, as part of the family of American music -- to show how it developed, what are its relatives, how it relates to new music, South American music, Caribbean music -- that's a much more meaningful experience than presenting ragtime in a vacuum.

Do you find it annoying at concerts when you want to present certain pieces and someone in the audience yells, "Play Maple Leaf Rag"?

Not the "Maple Leaf Rag," but I know what you're getting at.

That's a good question. No, "annoying" is not the word ... it all depends on how the request is made. If someone makes a request for a piece I used to play and don't play anymore, I try to take it the right way: "People love the music I used to play -- good for them, I'm glad they support it." If I turn them down and there's a reaction -- actually, that's where you find out where people are in their minds, how they react when you decline. If they go, "OK, that's fine, what would you like to play?", it's great. But if they're disturbed when I decline, it's unfortunate, and revealing. When they're overly attached to a certain personage or a certain repertoire, it can be inhibiting.

Change is difficult, as we all know. And music reflects change for me, when things in my life change. So I don't want to throw anything out, but to try to go back and play music that I'm not comfortable playing anymore is like trying to be the person I used to be. There's a discomfort that accompanies that feeling -- it's like someone telling you that you have to go back and relive your teen years.

It's hard enough to change and grow in new directions, both in music and in life; it makes it harder when the audience mourns the loss of the person you were or the music that you used to play to the point at which it detracts from their appreciation of who you are now or the music you're playing now.

In the last five years I've changed dramatically. I remember coming to Boulder the first year -- I was playing a completely different repertoire, and was a lot less careful how I interpreted classic ragtime. I was playing a lot of flashy stuff, with quite a bit of emphasis on rhythmic material.

Over the past five years I've become more attracted to melodic music, and I've changed the repertoire I perform to include more reflective, more melodic material, definitely more romantic material. This includes not only some of the more thoughtful Joplin pieces but also some Ernesto Nazareth and contemporary compositions by Hal Isbitz and David Thomas Roberts.

But the biggest change is that I'm playing my own pieces. I don't play as much boogie woogie, blues, or Eubie Blake. And I've encountered a certain degree of disappointment in the audience. Not that I don't enjoy Eubie Blake, it's just not the right music to express what I'm feeling right now.

How do you compose music?

Often I compose in a sort of blindness -- it's as if I compose in darkness. Like I said before, I don't always know what the piece is about. It's finding or exploring or trusting. Composing in this fashion and developing this kind of trust is a lot of what The Journey Home is about. In The Journey Home, I abandoned all my self-imposed restrictions relating to form and style. I didn't know it was a suite, I just wrote one piece after another and trusted what was coming out.

Just as a footnote here, I saw the movie Crumb. In some of the early scenes, he's talking about how he draws. He says he doesn't always know what he's drawing -- he just moves the pen and trusts. Things come to the surface from down deep in the subconscious, and he reveals things to himself about himself. That's what The Journey Home is like for me.

When I compose, it's different each time. Sometimes I compose away from piano, sometimes I compose at the piano, sometimes I hear a melody in my head ... sometimes a melody comes when I play certain harmonic progressions. I never compose on paper first.

Do you practice?

Yes. I didn't earn the nickname "Tedium Boy" for nothing! [laughs] How long I practice varies as my schedule changes. I average six to eight hours per day at the piano, but that's not always practice; sometimes I'm notating.

What is the purpose of art?

Ah! I'm going to go way out here ... the purpose of art for me, on one level, is to communicate or express something -- which implies that there's a listener, someone who's receiving. If you take that to the extreme, it's not just communication, its communion: merging with another's soul, for lack of a better word.

Why do we have this desire for communion? Well I guess this could be answered in a couple of ways, spiritually or emotionally. Either (a), we want to become one with the divine realm, whether that is God, another universe, or whatever your pleasure, or (b), we want to regain the closeness we felt in the womb. I don't want the Freudian implications of this to overshadow the more basic idea. The desire to be "with" or "part of" someone or something other than ourselves, I believe, stems from the experience of being "part of" or "inside" our mothers. That's the closest we can come to being one with another person, as far as I know.

Some of the classical composers -- Handel, Mozart, Bach -- purportedly saw that divine realm. Do you?

I don't know exactly what all that entails. Like I said before, I don't know if musical expression is some meeting of souls, some divine occurrence, or if it is simply one person trying desperately to express something and another person reacting to this expression combined with their own psycho-baggage in such a way as to make it feel transcendent.

How much are you able to express?

I feel more than I get out. There's no such thing as pure communication between people. You can approach it, you can strive for it -- but no one ever feels and experiences exactly what an artist does, for example, when he/she is performing, writing, or painting. I feel much more than I can express.

Could you explain some of the extramusical aspects of Terra Verde music?

We prefer to compose and perform music that is not only alternative, but, in a certain sense, subversive. Anytime you can create a sense of community, you're being subversive. What we're trying to do is create a situation in which people can share something more intimate, more meaningful, than the grinding of their groins or sing-alongs around a piano bar.

What does Terra Verde music have to offer that MTV doesn't?

If people are watching MTV in their living rooms, isolated from each other, they're not able to experience this euphoria that is the goal of all art, in my opinion. When people come together in concerts and share an experience through music, they can become aware of something greater than themselves, or of something great within themselves. Either way, it promotes community, self discovery, growth, and culture.

This brings up the factor of intelligent listening.

Yes. How you listen is very important. A lot of people want instant gratification, they don't want to work at anything. You see the ads on TV: "Get your abs in shape -- it's quick, it's easy!" Everything is easy -- easy this, easy that.

There are people who want to see a flashy performance as opposed to listening. Now you can be entertained for an hour quite easily, but to walk away with something that makes life more meaningful, you have to put more into it.

What you take home is meaning.

Yes ... that's what enriches our lives.

What's the purpose of your life?

I'm here to make music: to compose and play music, to bring people together through music.

How do you make a living?

Through concerts and album sales. It's hard, and it's getting harder. Going in new directions is costing me a lot of my existing audience -- I'm changing my music and losing work. But this is my own choice. I accept the challenges of searching for a new audience if necessary, one that wants to hear my music.

What do you find fun -- and frustrating -- about festivals?

"Fun" is overrated. I'd rather say "fulfilling."

I guess this needs some context. Ragtime festivals, with the exception of the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival, overemphasize the recreational or entertainment-oriented aspects of performing. Not that this dimension of the experience should be negated or devalued -- it's just that there has always been such an enormously imbalanced treatment of ragtime stressing the fun and the party and that whole scene, that much of the soul of the music is never allowed to surface in performance. How are you supposed to reach deep enough into your guts to bring to life a masterpiece like "Solace" or "Ragtime Nightingale" in an atmosphere that encourages performers to dress in drag, do silly skits, or see who can play loud and fast enough to hurt the feelings of the worst clunker of an upright piano?

How did you get into music?

I've always been into music, as long as I can remember. I discovered ragtime when I was ten -- I had the soundtrack from The Sting. I played solos in talent shows, some of that, but not a lot. I played in recitals, like your average student.

In college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I was at Ohio State University in Columbus, and I started out with a music scholarship -- there was lot of pressure to be a music major. But I didn't like the music program much because it didn't give me enough space to take electives. I didn't go to college for training, I wanted an education, I wanted to experiment. So I became an English major, but I was taking courses in anthropology, history, ethnomusicology, the philosophy of religion -- that's what I went for.

I did take piano lessons. I also started playing music on the street -- acoustic blues with another musician, a guitar player. I played harmonica and washboard.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine graduated before me and went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. He came back and told me about it. So after I graduated, I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras -- and stayed.

After a year, I got a piano and put wheels on it so I could play on the street; I played music on the street for five or six years. Eventually I rigged up a trailer and traveled around the country.

I don't play on the street anymore, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it's not the place to perform the music I'm composing now.

Do you have any "tales of the road" to share?

Once I was trailing two pianos behind my truck from New Hampshire to New Orleans. I was passing through Nashville after midnight and I stopped at a Waffle House -- it was a Waffle House, of course. [laughs] I ate and came out and saw that one of the pianos in the trailer had a flat tire. So I decided to change it.

I pulled everything out of the trailer -- all my tools, all my supplies. I moved the other piano out of the way and jacked up the piano with the flat. I took the tire off, but I couldn't get the tube off the rim.

So I put the tire and everything else -- my tools, my supplies, and unfortunately, my keys -- back into the trailer, and locked it with a huge Masterlock. Then I realized what I'd done. So there I was, grease all over me, locked out of my trailer, somewhere in Nashville in the middle of a Waffle House parking lot in the middle of the night.

Amazingly, I found a gas station around the corner that was open until 2 a.m., and it was just closing. The guy said, "Bring the trailer over, I'll blow off the lock with a torch."

I said, "I can't drive it, my keys are locked in the back."

So he drove his car over to the Waffle House. He hitched the trailer to his car and pulled it over to the gas station -- meanwhile, the piano inside the trailer was still up on a jack in mid-air. We got to the station and he blew off the lock with a torch.

After all that, he wouldn't even charge me.

That's an example of what can happen on the road. These are the kind of people you meet who make traveling worthwhile.

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