Persian percussion with kabbalah-like lyrics is what some might refer to as world music "fusion." Yet to composer David Garner the better word to use to describe it is "hybrid."
"Fusion is a dead term, affected and outdated," he said.
For more than two decades Garner has been involved in creating compositions that blend one cultural aspect with another. For example taking the words of women poets from the 19th and 20th Centuries, (one of his first major compositions written back in 1986) which were primarily written in German and then set them in song-cycles.
"I have always been drawn to languages and the subtleties of linguistics," he said. The son of a college English professor who he said "stemmed from a long line of failed haberdashers and farmers," Garner was born in Nebraska. The family moved to Oregon when he was 13. Trying to follow the conventional path of his father, Garner admitted he was not too happy at University of California, Los Angeles.
"At UCLA it was difficult for me to focus and I was simply drawn more to music," he said. Yet, Garner quickly learned the importance of discipline and so applied himself to the rigorous aspects of classical music. That training serves him well, especially as he frequently ventures creatively into "uncharted territory."
"No, it never seems I am in over my head with the hybrid music work I have been commission to do." "But for me, I work best when things are a struggle and I’m stressed out." On the initial surface when meeting Garner for the first few times one - like this reporter, would think, in keeping with his Nebraska roots and European extraction and classical training that he would be into the likes of Mozart, Beethoven or Wagner.
"I appreciate them, he laughed, but what I am working on is anything but dead white guy music," said Garner. In the song-cycles he has been involved with over the years like Vinetas Flamencas (in Spanish), Seven Nocturnes (in Greek), and the Persian Melody Project (in Farsi), the boundaries of culture and music are pushed back, expanded. And this is what Garner has become accustomed to with great enthusiasm. "I am used to working with performers who have their particular side to the composition. No stranger to unusual eclectic mixtures, Garner admitted that there is some frustration when one side that works with the poetry and the other side that works with the style of melody get difficult.
"It is not uncommon to have to go through many revisions, to get it just right," he said. And when working with languages like German, Polish Yiddish, and even a bit of Farsi, the collaborations can get intense. Yet, Garner said it is all worth it, "especially when it moves the audience. I can tell when an audience has been reached," he said.
David is simply one of the best living composers writing for the voice, said soprano Lisa Delan. Over the years as both composer/musician and teacher, Garner has not only established a fine reputation but also has a following of fans. “My opinion is shared by the countless musicians, said Delan, who have performed and recorded his music,” she said. “His gift for prosody - in multiple languages - is uncanny, noted Delan.
“His ability to convey the subtlety and depth of the texts he sets is astounding (this also applies to his crafting of the instrumental voices employed alongside the human voice in many of his songs),” Delan added. “I happen to find it remarkable that given the complexity of his work I have never encountered an audience that is not compelled by the immediacy of it - they experience it on a visceral level, without having to process it on an intellectual level... unlike those of us in the trenches lovingly cursing David's name through countless rehearsals!
But when all is said and done, we as performers of David's music get to share the experience of the audience - the rigors of preparation give way to something akin to rapture,” Delan said.
Currently, Garner and Mezzo-soprano Crystal Philippi are working on the Ishtar Project.
She agrees with Garner that "hybrid" is the perfect term rather than "fusion." "Ishtar Project is a hybrid definitely," she said. "How can I describe it?" She explained, "this sound is a mixture of 'Gothic symphonic,' heavy metal and world music beat." Like Garner, Philippi is classically trained and is also a professional dancer. She emphasized the discipline and dedicated focus in the project.
While the heavy metal element is something she enjoys and appreciates she noted that the sound steers away from "the demonic" and moves towards "the classically trained female voice." "its way more than what most of those heavy metal vocalists out there are singing," she said.
She admitted she is partial when talking about Garner, for they have been together as a couple for three years. Yet she noted. "I have been partial to his music since the first day we met at the SF Conservatory of Music." Philippi noted how relevant Garner's music is and that "he is not trying to be too intellectual. His pieces are completely different from one another and they truly spring from him and his original creative source," she said.
"Unlike other "fusion" artists and musicians, "David's music moves forward and Ishtar Project is a progressive work," said Philippi. She is enamored with compositions where 'East meets West.' The melding or blending of the two is fascinating. "In my opinion with others in the attempt at 'fusion' it is really cheesy and just plain bad," she said. Philippi believes the reason why is due in part to the classical training and the years of experience taking on creative challenges.
She noted that in other works Garner has composed, he has mixed Haitian rhythm with blues and created a "voodoo requiem, the Creole-French aspects were well-crafted," she said.
Yet, back to the Ishtar Project, Philippi noted that the mixture is structured a bit with opera. What does heavy metal and opera have in common? “Gothic symphonic already has female "angelic" vocalists. They are just singing pretty but what I will be doing is combining the power of the scream with the pretty sound of the female voice.” While heavy metal rock singers do scream, think about it, so do opera singers, only the emotional frenzy is focused and that is what makes an aria," she said.
Philippi noted that many arias are releases of rage, lamentation and passion. In fact she pointed out some of the Persian style of music which is part of Ishtar Project are cries. In addition to the Ishtar Project, Garner is has also been involved in the Persian Melody Project with Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai. Their collaboration has produced many performances and "we hope to go into the recording studio and make a CD in August," (of this year) said Shehabi-Yaghmai.
She praised Garner saying, "he is ineradicable." "He is really in tune with the Persian culture." Yet, Shehabi-Yaghmai admitted we challenge one another and yes, I do keep him on his toes." Shehabi-Yaghmai selects the songs, which are primarily Persian folk songs and then Garner arranges them, stirring in his creative musical magic. While Shehabi-Yaghmai also believes it is his classical training that serves him well in this capacity; "in this type of work, David has to leave the likes of Beethoven far behind," she said.
"I chose David not only because he is in tune with the culture but because he is an American with his rock and roll side as well as a classically trained side," she said. Shehabi-Yaghmai also described their collaboration to be more "like we are siblings," she said. She refers to him as "Davood-Kan Joon" (translated as "Mr. David - so dear"). That is how much the collaboration means to Shehabi-Yaghmai.
Sometimes the work on the songs can be very difficult but very important understanding the nuances, "he got it," she said. There are times she thinks of him as a fellow Persian.
Yet Shehabi-Yaghmai noted that "this is not an intellectual project." They are not out to impress anyone. Culturally, for her and for those who treasure Persian music, it is much more than that. Reaching Western audiences is a bridge. "This is a way for me to reach out to the world and foster a sense of unity and universality, for art and music is in every culture all over the world," she said.
She and those in the cast of the Persian Melody project are so pleased their work has been well received and Shehabi-Yaghmai is looking forward to bringing the experience into the musical curriculum of the SF Conservatory and other schools. That is something that has been in the works for some time.
But, Meanwhile Garner, Philippi and crew are hoping to get funding to get Ishtar Project up and into the spotlight.
Funding is always an effort, something that lyric soprano Nanette McGuinness knows well. "I haven't done a lot of grant writing, as I am a musician first," noted McGuinness. She currently collaborates with Garner on the Jewish Music and Poetry Project. "We received a grant in 2010 for the song cycle In Dieser Zeit, which uses the texts of German female poet Mascha Kaleko." McGuiness finds Garner’s music “fabulous and organic,” and his character "brilliant. He’s easy to work with and generous with colleagues," she said. The two have been working on funding for the Jewish Music and Poetry Project over the past few years.
"Few grants are awarded to individuals, and most of those require some type of fiscal sponsor," McGuinness said. "Each foundation and grant has its own rules and requirements, which can be picky." She added, "You need to look for grants and foundations whose interests match the work you're passionate about creating and your project,” she said. "And then it’s much like school, added McGuinness, in that you have to follow the rules."
Garner is hopeful funding will emerge and he and his colleagues will be able to complete the work. He mentioned to this reporter that getting enough funding is crucial.
"Use of a pipe organ in a Cathedral sort of setting would be great, the acoustics would be awesome," said Philippi.
For more information about The Ishtar Project,the Persian Melody Project and the Jewish Music and Poetry Project visit their websites.