Pianist, accordionist, composer, conductor, arranger, and more besides: Gil Goldstein is a Renaissance musician, ready to turn his skills to any interesting project that comes his way, whether it’s cranking out arrangements for the annual Rainforest Fund Concert in Carnegie Hall, for bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, or even adapting Chopin’s piano music for big band and Bobby McFerrin – and that’s just some of what he’s been working on so far this year!
Gil and I spoke early on a Friday morning just as spring was springing in New York. We discussed his Chopin project, how he uses Sibelius, and his approach to arranging. More after the jump.
If Gil is himself something of a Renaissance man of music, it’s appropriate that he should be working with ten-time Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed vocal improvisor, with a range of four octaves and an ability to turn his talents to more or less any kind of music.
Following the orchestra
“I first worked with Bobby eight years ago,” says Gil, “as producer and arranger of his record Beyond Words. It was a collage of Bobby’s short compositional ideas woven together into a tapestry, and featured Richard Bona, Chick Corea and Omar Hakim – along with myself on accordion and electric piano. At that time, he was in Minneapolis. Then he decided to move to Philadelphia because he liked the orchestra there. So he moves where he likes the orchestras,” he jokes, “and he now lives about an hour outside New York.”
The project that has brought these two musical polymaths together is certainly unusual. Gil explains, “To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival commissioned me and Bobby to create a work that’s going to be performed first by the NDR Big Band from Hamburg.”
The Schleswig-Holstein Festival has been running for 25 years and nearly 150,000 people attend the event annually. This August, it will play host to Bobby’s vocal stylings while Gil directs the NDR Big Band in a programme that takes in not only Chopin, but also other composers too.
“We also chose to include some Polish folk music that influenced Chopin, plus some composers who were influenced by Chopin, such as Debussy, who said that French music would have been radically different without Chopin: he almost started impressionism in music,” Gil continues. “And also Jobim – everybody knows that Chopin’s Prelude no. 4 in E minor sounds like How Insensitive, and I contacted Paolo Jobim, Tom’s son, and he agreed. He said there was also a waltz, Luisa, which starts with a quote from one of the Mazurkas, Op. 24 No. 4. So I did kind of an interplay between Jobim and Chopin, and they sound remarkably alike, both in spirit and musical material. It’s something that I wouldn’t have expected. I attributed How Insensitive to an accident, rather than a real homage, but the more I listened to it, the deeper the connection between Chopin and Jobim seemed to grow.”
Despite models such as Jobim, at first Gil didn’t know where to start.
“I was kinda stumped,” he admits, “but that’s my normal method of working. Usually the deeper down I get in my inability to come up with anything, the sooner I’ll turn the corner. Hitting bottom can be liberating! If, on the other hand, I feel right away that I know how to do this, then I find I don’t get as much of a creative bump as when I’m really confounded. So for a long time I was confused, but then I just started to make some progress.”
The first step was to go through all of Chopin’s music and find things that seemed adaptable to a big band instrumentation, all the while thinking about Bobby and what he would find interesting and enjoy singing. “We had a meeting about two months ago and went through some pieces, and some he liked and some he didn’t, and that gave me a start.”
Gil has great admiration for Bobby’s talent and his unconventional approach to singing. “Bobby never sings lyrics – it’s not his thing,” he says. “But Chopin is perfect for Bobby because there aren’t many other singers that could cover the range of a piece written for piano. And he’s unfazed when he looks at music and it goes out of range, as for example the Minute Waltz did. He just looks at it, and says, ‘oh, no problem, I’ll adapt that.’ He’s sung a lot of classical music, like violin concertos, and he just adjusts the range, and you don’t even really notice it. He’ll find a way to sing those pieces.”
“The first piece that I started working on was Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49,” he continues. “It’s a piece I didn’t know before I started researching this, and when I heard it, it was just a piece that sounded to me like Bobby. When I played it for him, he said, ‘That sounds like something I would write!’ which seemed like a good place to start.”
The Fantasie in F minor is around 12 minutes long, and consists of themes followed by developments on those themes, a satisfying parallel with big band music in which a theme is followed by improvised solos on those themes. “What I did was simply leave out the development: this leaves a nice solo structure based on the themes with room for Bobby to improvise.”
Don’t change the notes
Taking Chopin and arranging it for big band is an exercise both in adventurousness and restraint. Knowing what to change and what to leave alone is one of the arranger’s key skills.
“Gil Evans wrote a piece for a film called Insignificance, and he re-orchestrated the slow movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and I said to him that I would love to look at the score, and he told me that he hardly changed any notes,” says Gil. “I took that as something of a challenge and an inspiration: that you can make music sound really different just by the way you orchestrate it, and there’s no reason to add or change material to make it sound contemporary or to see it from a different angle. So I tried, whenever possible, not to change the actual notes.”
Gil found that the music would tell him when he was overstepping his bounds. “Sometimes I would try to thicken up a chord a little bit and it just sounded wrong,” he says. “There were times when I could do it: for example, I wrote an example of the Fantasie-Polonaise, the one that became the popular song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. That one was a clear candidate for one that needed to be a little dressed up harmonically. It’s a little bit underdeveloped, for my tastes, given our perspective on harmony these days. So I could elaborate on the harmony a bit and it didn’t feel like I was moving it too far away from Chopin. You can add, and you should try to add, when you’re doing arrangements, but you have to have a built-in meter for whether you’re going too far.”
Perhaps the arrangement that ended up furthest from Chopin’s original was that of the Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1, famously known as the Minute Waltz. “That one really stumped me for quite a while. My first idea for an arrangement was just Bobby!” he laughs. “I wanted it to sound like him just singing the melody and tapping the rhythm on his chest. But then I started to notice that it had the same metrical break-up as a Spanish bulerias, divided in two bars of three, then three groups of two. I started to hear it as a Flamenco rhythm, and that sent me off into a whole new direction. I came up with a bass line that worked against it that stressed that rhythmic division. It would have been too literal to have the orchestra use the same texture as the original piano music, so I started moving in that direction. It seemed like a logical way to go.”
Gil has used Sibelius for years, and on this project – as so many others – it played an important part in his process. “I had a great process working on this music,” he says, “at the heart of which was Sibelius, for sure. I found a web site called OurChopin.com, which had literally every piece of music that Chopin ever wrote, both in written form and with MP3s, and I was able to find MIDI files of several pieces that would open up pretty good in Sibelius – though only if they played it in time. If they played it really rubato the rhythms wouldn’t look right, but maybe five times out of ten I got something that looked pretty good, and it was incredible that I could already have something in Sibelius to start orchestrating.”
Sibelius is a great help with the practical aspects of arranging. “Going back to the Minute Waltz, I knew Bobby wasn’t going to be able to sing it in D flat, so I transposed it until I found the key that was right for Bobby. I can’t imagine what the process of doing that would have been like without Sibelius!
“I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad habit, but for the last couple of years I’ve been working right into Sibelius. I will play ideas at the piano, and I have a beginning start to how I’m going to do it, but recently I haven’t normally been producing an elaborate sketch on paper first. Having said that, I just did three arrangements for Kirk Whalum, and the best one I did, I wrote on paper first. So I hope it doesn’t short-circuit my process that I’m working more and more directly in Sibelius.”
In common with many professional musicians, Gil sometimes feels ambivalent about the impact that the playback features of software like Sibelius can have on the creative process. “To me, the scariest part of working when you can hear it instantly is just that it can short-circuit your process. Sometimes in the past when I was working on paper and I couldn’t play all the lines at once, I would not be absolutely sure that this line and that line would sound perfect together, but I’d have a good feeling about it. And I miss the shock of hearing one of your arrangements as a completely new thing when the ensemble plays it for the first time.”
On balance, though, Gil finds Sibelius a huge benefit. “Using Sibelius allows me to do more. I can enter notes so fast now that to me it’s almost like writing, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to write on paper first,” he says. “I think it’s about the same to write something and then enter it in Sibelius, or just to write straight into Sibelius. I work with a Wacom Bamboo tablet as my entering device, which makes it more like a pencil for me. I’ve got incredibly fast at working with it, just moving the cursor around fast as anything. I don’t really have to use two hands because I can jump to the Keypad or click a note exactly with the pen. I feel like I’m still writing with a pencil, which further gives me that satisfaction.”
Sibelius never dictates what Gil writes. “Sometimes I’ll use copy and paste, but other times, when I can enter things so quickly, I simply write it out line by line. I like to think that everything I do is premeditated by my musical imagination, and I still think that governs everything, so getting things into the computer is not a shortcut for me – it’s just a way to get the music down quicker.”
Of course, with music that is destined for live performance, the job’s not done until the parts are on the music stands and ready to rehearse.
“I’ve been doing my own parts recently,” says Gil. “I’ve had a few bad experiences with other people doing them for me, so now I tend to think of it as part of the process of doing the arrangement. I have also had some great experiences, too: I did some work with Jill Streater in England when I was working with Isobel Griffiths. Jill was so good that it was really relaxing to have her touch the music.”
Gil tries to look at a job that could be seen as mundane as part of the creative process instead:
“I honestly feel that if you follow the music through to the end of the process by preparing the parts, you’re going to catch some things that you would have otherwise missed. I almost always make things better by preparing the parts.”
What’s next for Gil?
One of the great things about being a gun for hire is that the work is varied and never boring. I asked Gil what his schedule is looking like for the next few months. “I’m going to play and conduct this material twice in Germany and twice in Poland, in August. And they’re already talking about orchestrating this for a full orchestra so that Bobby can perform it with orchestras, plus we may even do a record, and find yet another way to adapt this music for another ensemble.”
For the past couple of years, Gil has also been heavily involved in the annual Rainforest Fund Concert at Carnegie Hall, organised by Sting and Trudie Styler’s charity. He recalls how his involvement started.
“I was shopping with my wife in Ikea,” he says, “and I got a call from Greg Cohen who told me about the concert and asked if I’d play accordion, and I agreed. Then he said that the might need a couple of arrangements, too, and I agreed again. Then he asked me whether I would feel comfortable to conduct, and once again I agreed. But of course it turned out to be more than a few arrangements – more like 10 – and this was five days before the concert! So that was the most stress. It’s always fun, but I feel pretty warmed up now as an arranger, and I’m ready for the challenge.”
Although the concert is fast approaching, and despite having more than one week’s notice this year, Gil hasn’t started on the arrangements yet. “In the last two weeks everybody decides what they’re going to sing, so it’s an arranging frenzy and a key frenzy,” he laughs. “A funny component to that job is that Narada Michael Walden is the musical director, and he’s in San Francisco, and he’s got a guy who writes out the chord changes, and another guy in Tennessee who does the horn charts, and I’m supposed to arrange the orchestra – but I have to include somebody else’s changes, and somebody else’s horn parts. Sometimes I can make them match, and sometimes I can’t. At the end of it, I’m the conductor, so I’m carrying the can, so I change it if I have to. It’s usually 10 to 15 songs to arrange in two weeks – it’s always impossible!”
Gil has been working as an arranger for decades now, but he retains a healthy sense of adventure before embarking on any new project.
“To me, every job is a new definition of what arranging is. You can’t just impose a style: hopefully we do have a style that we bring to things, but it seems to me that every job should be custom-made, and you should try to invent something new both for yourself and for the person you’re working for. I would hope that my arrangements sound like they’re mine, but every job should sound like a new version of yourself.”
And he’s always on the look-out for the next interesting project. “If anybody reads this, and needs some arrangements,” he jokes, “I’m very warmed up and ready to go!”