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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation With Stephen Hill, Jul. 2005
A Conversation with Jeff Bjorck, Jun. 2005
A Conversation With Patrick O'Hearn, Jun. 2005
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With Craig Urquhart
September 2004
The first thing I noticed when I listened to Streamwalker, Craig Urquhart's fifth and latest solo piano recording, was his incredible touch - notes just seem to effortlessly emerge from Craig's hands. Clearly, Streamwalker shows Craig to be a top notch player. But as great as Craig's playing is, it's only part of the story. As composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein said, "Craig Urquhart is a truly gifted composerů his tonal approach is not merely 'sincere', but genuinely moving, with a private beauty of its own."

Craig draws on a wide range of musical influences when creating his music. In addition to classical keyboard composers Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy, Satie and Copland, Craig also considers pop/rock musicians Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Brian Eno as creative influences. And from our conversation, you can add the Smiths, Devo and Eminem into the mix.

Craig also graciously acknowledges in our conversation, the standout work of his co-producers on Streamwalker: Scott Petito and Alexander Ostrovsky.

You can learn more about Craig, by checking out his web site.

NAR Editor Note:

Check out RJ Lannan's review of Streamwalker

Craig Urquhart
"... I believe music is the language that can link one's heart and the earth." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: You write about your most recent release: "Streamwalker is about the impact of nature on me as an artist and human being, and the many moods it inspires." Has nature, and your surroundings in general, always had such an impact on you artistically as on Streamwalker, or is this a new exploration for you?
Craig: Nature has always been a source of inspiration for me. Nature for me is the core of my spiritual being. In nature I find a mysterious logical key to our existence. In nature I see perfection, power, grace, melody, rhythms, beauty, peace, and harmony. I record on my own label HEARTEARTHMUSIC, because I believe music is the language that can link one's heart and the earth. Music is as elegant as mathematics, but more so because it is mysterious. Nature is also mysterious, from the perceived silence of the desert, to the color of a cardinal. Nature is what rejuvenates and opens my heart to infinite possibilities.
Jamie: Great point about math and music! I think it's interesting to see how many people who are good at math are also good music -- particularly styles of music with complex harmonic relationships.

How does the inspiration you receive from nature realize itself in your music? Are you thinking programmatically when you are writing and playing or does nature affect you in a more nebulous manner?
Craig: I may be good at music, but I still can't balance my check book! However, before I answer your questions, let me say that in my opinion the most elegant mathematical equations are usually the most simple! My music is inspired by nature in that nature gives us rhythms, cycles, harmonies, melodies and so much more and all of these are a part of my life and transfer into my creative being. My compositional process is multifaceted; sometimes I just through-compose a piece in a single sitting, sometimes I use pencil and paper and work out a work. Always, it is one little fragment that starts the generation of a composition. I usually do not think programmatically when I write, though "Beach Music" on my first CD, Songs Without Words was definitely programmatic, as was the concept of The Dream Of The Ancient Ones. Titles are the hardest part of compiling an album, Most often the titles are inspired by the music! And most times the music reminds me of nature. "My music is inspired by nature in that nature gives us rhythms, cycles, harmonies, melodies and so much more and all of these are a part of my life and transfer into my creative being." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: That sounds a lot like how I write... I usually "collect" a bunch of little ideas that I'll try to develop into bigger ideas and then hopefully into finished pieces. And titles are a real challenge for me too. The toughest pieces for me to name are the ones that are the least "about" something. I'm lucky in that my wife helps me out on a lot of my titles -- otherwise I'd probably have quite a few tunes named: No.1, No.2 etc.!

Streamwalker has, to me, a very free, almost improvised feel to it -- I mean this in the best way. Which leads me to wonder -- how much, if any, of your music is improvised?
Craig: Actually, Streamwalker is the least improvised of all my albums. I worked and crafted every composition. It is interesting to look at the manuscripts in their sketch form and be able to play the whole work from the sketch. That said, some of the ideas came from improvisation, but really were just kernels from which the composition developed and grew. Streamwalker is the least improvised of all my albums." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: For me, the overall sound quality on a record is a combination of the player, the instrument, the acoustic space, the recording chain (from mic to recorder) and the skill of the engineer to set everything up "properly". I would also have to add the mastering engineer into the whole equation. One of the challenges for pianists is that they have, at least to some degree, a more difficult time in the recording process than some other instrumentalists. One studio may have a phenomenal piano and beautiful room but lousy gear. Another studio may have a great piano and top notch gear but the room is just terrible. On Streamwalker you seem to have found the right balance between the various elements. Was it difficult finding the "right" piano-studio-engineer combo? Did recording in New York City present any problems (i.e. traffic noise, etc.)?
Craig: Actually, I have the great luxury of recording in my own apartment on my own beautiful Bosendorfer piano. For some reason the acoustic in the apartment is perfect. Of course we have to hang blankets to cover the windows to block out street noise, but my apartment is very quiet, sometimes the fountain outside my window can be a problem! My recording engineer is also a very fine musician; his name is Scott Petito, he was and still is the bass player for the Fugs! He knows exactly how to mic the piano and my wonderful piano technician Alexander Ostrovsky is on site to keep things in order. After the recording session I work with Scott in his studio to get the exact sound we both like. My wonderful piano was reserved for Leonard Bernstein to use in his hotel suite in Vienna when he was working with the Vienna Philharmonic. He graciously let me buy it so I could have it. It is a beautiful, full and balanced instrument. It responds to my imagination like no other piano I have played. I guess with this combination -- you could say I am extremely fortunate!
Jamie: Wow -- Bernstein's Bosendorfer! I bet you do feel fortunate! You also have a connection to Bernstein that goes beyond the Bosendorfer -- you were his assistant from 1985 until his death in 1990. That must have been an incredible experience! Bernstein was obviously a genius and just being around him must have made an impact on you on a personal level, but did your time with him affect your own music in anyway?
Craig: Yes, indeed I was very lucky to know Bernstein for many years, and yes he was a very special person and a great musician and mind. His effect on my music was to tell me to trust my own voice. This seems like a simple lesson, but it is an important one. When I first met Bernstein in 1976, I sent him some of my academic atonal music and a few tonal songs. He asked me which of the pieces really reflected my soul? Well, it was my tonal music that rang true. So what I learned from him is to have confidence in my creative process and to listen to my voice and to honor it. And I hope I have honored that lesson from the Maestro. "(Bernstein's) effect on my music was to tell me to trust my own voice." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: That's probably the greatest lesson (and challenge) of all: to be sincere in whatever you do. It can be tough to find a balance between your head and your heart. And if you add in the realities of life (food, shelter, clothing etc.), making music that reflects your soul is often risky business. But for many artists, there simply isn't a choice -- they have to play what they believe and feel to be true.

Just to change directions for a bit... you were the musical coach to actor Tom Hulce for the Academy Award winning film "Amadeus". It must have been a lot of fun working on such a successful project! Was it difficult preparing Hulce for the role? Any intention in doing more musical coaching work in the future?
Craig: Oh my, that was so long ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. But it was great to work with Tom, he is an extremely gifted and talented artist and was totally into doing what needed to be done to master his role. Concerning coaching, I love to teach and really enjoyed the years when I was a full time teacher, and at some point I'd like to get back to it, but living in NYC is expensive and I had to make a choice between teaching and NYC so I choose NYC. But with that said, I have a few friends that are and were vocal students attending Juilliard, and as you know, I also write art songs, and it is always great fun to work with them on my new material. "...I love to teach and really enjoyed the years when I was a full time teacher..." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: Which segues perfectly into my next question... Is there much crossover between your work in the Classical field and your own records?
Craig: I really am not sure what the question is, but I will try and answer it. First of all I am not one for labels, especially when it comes to music. Am I Classical, New Age, Adult Contemporary? These to me are labels imposed on musical artists by record companies and marketers to help define someone. As far as I am concerned I write music. I was classically trained. I still read through the piano masters, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Brahms etc. But as I was learning the repertoire, I was listening to the music of my time, The Doors, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and many others, then later I was really into the Smiths and Devo. I also like Broadway songs, and actually I like some Eminem.

But I see no difference from my classical music and the music I write on my albums. All my music is grounded in my classical training and I feel that my music on my CDs is closest to Chopin than to anything that is referred to as "New Age". I believe that my music is reflective of my own voice and like I am, it is varied, rich and fluid.
"Am I Classical, New Age, Adult Contemporary? These to me are labels imposed on musical artists by record companies and marketers to help define someone." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: I hear you... But still... labels do exist. And whether or not they are driven from a marketing/business point of view or from the need of listeners to differentiate the incredible amount of music in the world, we, as artists and labels owners, have to deal with this reality. And yes, it's less than ideal that music can't be seen simply as music, but, for me, how something is categorized doesn't have to (and doesn't) solely define it. Style is transitory, but it can, and does, reflect both the here and now and where we've have been.

So what's up next for you? Any new recordings or gigs you'd like to talk about?
Craig: Jamie, yes you make a very good point about labels helping people wade through the incredible wealth of talent and music out there, and I am glad that we both feel a label does not have to necessarily have to define a person or one's music, in most cases it is more rich than a simple label, just look at you!

What's next for me? Well, I am finishing up a song cycle for a very talented singer, I have a violin and piano piece I'd like to finish and as always I am working on the next album. I just got through playing a few concerts, one in Indiana, another in New York and one on Cape Cod. This fall I will be performing in Paris and Berlin which is very exciting for me. And I am looking forward to a few weeks out of New York City on the Cape to whale watch, beach walk, sunsets and quiet to recharge and reconnect.
"This fall I will be performing in Paris and Berlin which is very exciting for me." - Craig Urquhart
Jamie: Performing in Paris and Berlin... now that would really would be a lot of fun -- best of luck on the gigs!

Thanks for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation!
Craig: Jamie, thanks so much for this fun and provocative time together. It has been great talking with you, and having the opportunity to share some thoughts and insights with you. I hope we will keep in touch and good luck on your new CD My World, I have been really enjoying it.
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