Guy Van Duser & Billy Novick
Time & Location
About the Event
PRE-CONCERT Q&A WITH THE ARTISTS
Q: Will you please describe your creative process as you write for documentaries and/or films?
Billy: Sometimes it’s less creative and more technical. I have to write something that supports the scene I’m writing for, so part of the creativity is eliminating things that are extraneous to the scene. I have to focus on exactly what’s necessary. There are stylistic considerations: what kind of film it is, where it takes place (indoors or outdoors) -- different sorts of settings need different kinds of music. The creative part for me is actually sort of minimal, mostly serving the overall purpose of the film.
Guy: It has a lot to do with timing, too. Very frequently I find they need something that’s 14 seconds long. Somehow I need to say what needs to be said and make it effective in that amount of time, and then I’ll find out later on that I was working to the rough cut of the film and that time is really only 9 seconds long. So, what I did has to be chopped up some more and still make some sense; have it convey some sort of feeling that goes with the film. The whole thing is the picture. It’s a very difficult question to answer in mid-air. If you showed me a scene or a picture of something, I might immediately start to get ideas about how I feel about what is going on. Billy and I both play multiple instruments, (Billy - clarinet, flute, sax; Guy-guitar, mandolin, anything with strings on it), so all sorts of possible considerations come in. I might also deal with an excellent film maker who doesn’t happen to be a musician, so the language I can use between the two of us may become limited or may have to be done entirely in terms of metaphors and feelings. I will get a sense of the emotion they would like the viewer to experience while they’re listening.
Q: How many people understand you and all the work you put into your art (this can include family, friends, colleagues, critics, interviewers, collaborators, colliders)?
Billy: I’d say very few, because I do so many different kinds of things. People in any one sort of genre that I do will know that I do that; they will know I do a couple of other things aside from that. I don’t know if Guy knows everything I do! Lately I’ve been recording with an Irish punk band. No one would necessarily make that association – it’s a pretty wide range of things.
Guy: I guess the same would be true for me. Also, when people watch or listen to us play, they may say, “Oh, you guys have so much talent.” Hopefully, we make our playing look easy enough so they don’t say, “Oh, my gosh, how much work they must have to put into that.” We’d like it to feel more spontaneous and conversational, but the truth is that playing the guitar for me has been a project of more than 50 years to get to where I can speak that language as well as I do.
Q: How have the best tunes you’ve been performing revealed themselves and the minds of the composers and arrangers after performing them for all these years?
Billy: So many things that we play are really attached to a genre as opposed to a specific composer. For me it’s more like the spirit of the era in which the music was written. A lot of things we take from one genre and put into another, largely because of Guy’s guitar. Gershwin’s music speaks to us as a duo – almost like it’s like the thing we are most suited to play, because it has a certain kind of elegance and depth as we’re experiencing his harmonic sense and lyricism. There’s something so special about him. His sense of evolution is so much strong than other composers (who I also love).
Guy: Knowing something about the composer – not just who they were, but what their situation might have been – has an impact. (If it was written for a Broadway show, it may have been edited once it was incorporated onstage in context, etc.) It really depends on what the music was for, and what it’s being designed to do. I think of Harold Arlen, who wrote most of The Wizard of Oz on a golf course, I’m told. That was just what he would do creatively to let his mind go. At the end of the day he would write down any ideas he had that day, and that eventually turned into “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” and all these other things. How can you make a connection between the creative impulses in a situation like that? It’s just what it is…and some days you just can’t write a song.
Q: When you play together do you plan ahead of time how you are going to play, or are you spontaneous?
Billy: Rarely do we plan a set beforehand. We have certain things in each song that are sort of arranged and other things are improvised – about 50-50. Sometimes we plan the first and last song, and the rest of the set is based on the mood we feel in the room, with the audience.
Guy: Billy is often choosing a song as we’re finishing one and the audience is applauding. I keep my eyes on him and he whispers to me, “How about this?” We play it as pitcher and catcher. He’ll call a song quietly enough for me to hear it, and I’ll shake him off to say, “No, I don’t want to do that one right now,” then he’ll call another one. When we get into a song, we have structural meeting points. We know how many times we’ll play through it, but that’s about all that’s planned. That comes from playing together for 45 years. We have an awareness of what the other knows about that song from having played it so many times.
Q: What part of parts of the traditions of performing Dixieland music are the hardest traditions to hold onto – to keep them from evaporating in your lifetimes?
Billy: The ensemble playing – how the frontline and other rhythm instruments change relative to one another. That is such a big part of the music. The interplay between instruments is so exciting. Much of jazz today highlights individuals in solo slots, so this New Orleans’ style ensemble playing is just dying out. There is a bit of revival with this style, but it’s the hardest thing to keep strong.
Q: When are you going to create an album of your own compositions?
Guy: When we write enough of them that go together. At lot of things that we write are for sound tracks (movies and other things), not necessarily for us as a duo.
Billy: I have ample opportunity to write for other situations and genres, so I don’t feel like it’s kind of calling to me.
Q: How and at what age did each of you choose your instrument of choice?
Guy: My mother was a concert pianist, so that was my first instrument. For some reason, the piano and I did not get along. I started in a classical direction with it, and it didn’t work for me. At 5 years old, I didn’t know I was going to be a jazz improviser, but something inside me did. My dad brought home a guitar one day because he wanted to learn to play chords on it, and just relax after work. It sat in his closet and just called to me. I would go and steal it from him, then I’d put it back, steal it and put it back. When I was 10 years old, I looked in my own closet one night and there was a guitar in there! My father had the idea that I was making a connection with it, which has never stopped. The guitar has always been my first love, and it hasn’t disappointed me.
Billy: My father is a piano player, and my siblings both played instruments. I started in 4th grade when they offered instruments at school. My brother played clarinet, and it was lying around the house, so I started playing it. I always wanted to play English horn. When I got to 7th grade, they didn’t have any English horns, but I could play the oboe and had a real aptitude and love for it. I got serious really quickly, and then I broke my wrist playing football. My teacher was furious with me, and didn’t want to teach me after that. So, I quit oboe and went back to clarinet. In high school, I switched to sax. I didn’t really love clarinet until I was in my twenties, but kept playing sax. I didn’t totally commit myself to clarinet until my 40s or 50s. I still play a lot of sax.
Q: In your performances around the globe, do you find there are differences in listeners’ appreciation or expectations of your style of jazz?
Billy: Oh, yeah. Alabama was a different world from New York, where I’m from. Guy acted like my interpreter. We tailored our music to certain audiences in terms of songs and the way we would present the music. Some parts of the USA are more enthusiastic and outwardly expressive, while others are less exuberant. I’ve played a lot in China, where their expectations and ways of expressing themselves are very different. It’s harder to tell what they are thinking.
By far, the most appreciative audiences are those that live in the southern US [Guy: …as long as you play their favorite tune! They won’t let you go until you play their favorite tune, and then they will be satisfied.]
Guy: On our first tour in England and Scotland, we discovered - to our surprise - that a great number of the venues that we were booked to play in did not have sound systems. As it turned out, the audiences there completely understood the problem. They’d get their steins and whatever, and when we started a tune, it turned dead quiet. The audience would completely accommodate us and let us play our music, to be sure they heard it, and they would release it all between songs. It was striking to see this in a pub situation. I’d never seen anything like it until I went to the UK. In parts of the US where people live in great expanses, they will go to a great deal of trouble to see us (i.e. driving 200 miles). They are very appreciative – partly because they put a lot of effort into getting there.
Q: Why jazz? You’re artists, comparable to a Paganini or a Beethoven as improvisers ... it begs the question…
Billy: For me, the creativity and improvisation is so exciting. It’s also my musical strength. That taps into my creativity both as a person and as a musician. I’m a spur-of-the-moment kind of person. Improvising is always a challenge – and a priority – for me.
Guy: I would say the same thing. Every performance is different. I’ve broadened my style and technique to the point where I play something spontaneously on an instrument that is very complicated, keeping track of many notes and shapes at the same time. Jazz keeps calling to me. While I play other styles of music, I play more jazz than anything else.
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Billy Novick gained international recognition as a performer, studio musician, arranger, composer, and leader of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band. His versatility allows him to be featured with artists in all different genres, including performances or recordings with J.Geils, Leon Redbone, David Bromberg, Martha and the Vandellas, Freddie Fender, Dave McKenna, and Duke Robillard. His work is featured on more than 350 recordings, film and TV soundtracks.
Billy composed fifteen scores for modern dance. His full-length ballet scores for The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises premiered at the Kennedy Center to sold-out houses and rave reviews. Novick’s jugband adaptation of Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Dave Van Ronk, debuted in New York’s Lincoln Center and his orchestral arrangements have been performed throughout North America and Europe.
Mr. Novick’s most recent recording - the seventeenth under his own name- is Inner Space.
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Rounder and Daring recording artist Guy Van Duser is internationally known for his unique “stride guitar” style of playing, as well as his imaginative and sometimes outrageous arrangements for finger-style guitar, including the amazing Stars and Stripes Forever!
Guy graduated with a music degree from Oberlin College. He has over thirteen albums and CDs available on Rounder, Daring, and Green Linnet Records, and many more in collaboration with artists such as Bill Staines and Jeanie Stahl. He is the author of Stride Guitar from Mel Bay Publications. As a composer, Guy produces soundtracks for films and public television programs, such as Frontline, Nova, and The American Experience.
Mr. Van Duser has served as faculty member in the Guitar Department of Berklee College of Music since 2009.
Easy Winners (Scott Jolin)
Stompin' at the Savoy
You can see an entire two-set performance here