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Published: 2011/06/07
by Randy Ray

Bruce Hornsby Brings the Noise

RR: To me, the most interesting and spectacular moments in your time with the Dead were those sections of dissonance; those sections where, suddenly, you were pushing them in a different direction; sometimes, subtly, sometimes, under the surface, but very apparent. It really made for some lively moments in the early 90s.

BH: What you are saying brings a couple of things to mind here. One, I got into this music in college at Berklee when I was in Boston. I had finished at the University of Miami, and that was sort of the best school for me, but I spent two semesters in Boston at Berzerklee College of Music as we call it, and I found the greatest resource in town was the Boston Public Library. I would go over there and rent out, or borrow albums. You could borrow albums. I went crazy in their classical department, and I got very involved in Charles Ives’ music. It continues to this day. My first single, my first record, “Every Little Kiss,” featured an intro that was an homage to the 3rd movement of the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives called “The Alcotts.” In fact, they threatened to sue me. My response was “Yes, you’re absolutely right, and you can read 1,001 interviews with me giving credit to Charles Ives regarding this.” And they said (laughs), they were so

surprised at my honesty, my candor, that they said, “Forget it.” (laughter)

I’ve been involved in this area for many years. It’s just the last few years that I’ve gotten deeply involved. When I signed with Columbia in 2003—one of the great aspects of signing with Columbia Records is that they have the ‘Catalogue of Life’. You can just raid their vaults for free. It’s just unbelievable. I took their printed catalogue and ordered 180 CDs from them. (laughs) So much of it was…like the Glenn Gould catalogue where he’s playing Schoenberg and Webern and Berg and modern music when he was a real proponent of modern music in 20th century music. Webern, Berg, Elliott Carter—so many people—so, that was a great education for me, and I got really deeply involved in this, and it’s influenced my writing. I guess, mostly, it has influenced my writing I am doing for our play, SCKBSTD. That’s a different topic. (laughs) There’s so much going on. My musical life is pretty full here for me.

From what you were saying, the other thought that reminds me is that the first time we ever opened for the Dead was at Laguna Seca Racetrack, May 1987, Monterey, California. We’re up there opening, and I hadn’t met the guys at the time. We’re playing away; we’re playing our set, and I see Phil [Lesh] watching our band from the wings. I knew a little bit about Phil’s taste. I was doing a piano intro to a song, and I looked up and I saw Phil looking at us, so I instantly went into a bitonal version of “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin—the right hand is in C, and the left hand is in C-sharp—and, sure enough, that just lit him up. He got the biggest grin on his face, and threw his head back laughing, and we became friends from that point on. (laughter)

RR: Blood brothers right there.

BH: (laughs) That’s right. Brothers in the Dissonance. Brothers in Chromatism. (laughs)

RR: I just spoke with Bobby Weir because he’s doing some work with the Marin Symphony Orchestra.

BH: Wow, I’d like to hear that.

RR: Something I discussed with Bob was the relationship between classical music and improvisation. The thought being, held by many, is that on the surface, one is structured, and the other is allegedly very loose and undisciplined. Do you see the relationship between these two forms of music from your own studies and work?

BH: Certainly modern music has a relationship, has a kinship because there is improvisation in modern music. Certainly, John Cage’s aleatoric, or chance music is all about things happening in the moment. And through the history of classical music, certainly in classical piano music, there were improvised cadenzas that were in the compositions of the Romantic era. I’m not so interested in the Romantic era; I mostly deal with Bach, and then straight to the 20th century. (laughs) The rest of it is a little

florid, a little ornate, a little rococo for me. The harmonic content of modern music and the harmonic content of jazz music definitely intersect.

RR: Do you feel composers like Stravinsky are still relevant because he pulled away from some of the elements you discussed in the early 20th century?

BH: Yeah, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg who was the inventor of twelve-tone music. I think that is an area of music that Phil has been interested in for many years. Stravinsky, I wouldn’t say specifically, but anybody who was forward-thinking on a harmonic level, anybody who was pushing the envelope with chord progressions is someone who is still relevant because that’s still being done. Of course, it goes against popularity because most people want to hear simple music, and I understand that. I love simple music, also. Some of my favorite music that I’ve written is three-chord music. But, definitely, these people remain relevant to me because the music that they wrote in 1920 is still incredibly challenging for most people, including myself—to listen to, and to play.

RR: And that draws me back to your solo piano gigs pulling in bigger crowds than your gigs with the Noisemakers.

BH: Well, a bigger crowd than the Noisemakers, and it is clear to see why. Most of the older audience who is interested in me are more interested in the solo thing because it somehow sort of goes down easier. Our band gets a little rowdy, a little noisy (laughs), and just a little freewheeling. Our approach is that we’ll go into a song that we’ve never played before. Something will just come into my head, and I’ll just try it. I’ll look at the guys and say, “Well, good luck to us; here we go.”

I guess what I’m really saying is that we don’t mind sucking. We’re O.K. with mistakes; we make them all the time. But for people who want to hear their music a little straighter, or a lot straighter, then that’s not what they’re there for. Mind you, in my solo concerts, I inflict way more of this sort of modern music consciousness on the audience, but since it’s just piano, maybe it’s more palatable on a sonic level. That’s why I think it’s time for our band to get out and play for more like-minded individuals, so, hence, we’re playing Bonnaroo and Summer Camp and on and on.

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