From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)
August 1, 2011
It all began at the start of this month with an exclusive interview with Mike Garson talking about his new solo album, the David Bowie Variations for Piano (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive). Bowie’s stalwart keyboardist since 1972, Garson is up there with some of the more creative collaborators Bowie has worked with. As I noted in earlier posts of this series, I had the privilege of talking with Garson back in 2004, backstage at what would have been Bowie’s tour stop in Miami for the Reality tour.
The publication of the story in the pages of the record collector’s magazine “Goldmine” hinged on whether I could get some exclusive quotes from Bowie. As detailed in earlier posts in this series, it was not to be, and the story languished until Bowie quietly slipped away in an unannounced form for retirement.
Out of the blue, in May or so, I dropped Garson an email to see what we could do with this interview. He told me about the upcoming release of his solo record (Garson will sign a copy of the CD for anyone that orders directly from his website). We spoke again some more, and I resurrected my 2004 interview, which totaled about two hours of talking. Here are the last tidbits of our conversations, from 2004:
Hans Morgenstern: Is there some distinction for you personally between what’s jazz and what’s classical music?
Mike Garson: To be honest with you, I don’t actually have a personal line or barrier or distinction. That might be a plus, and it might be a minus. I never figured it out, but to me, it’s all music, which is probably why I have no problem crossing barriers. I’m very comfortable with fusion music and playing angular things on David’s music and this and that. It’s like whatever I hear is what I play, whether I’m playing solo piano or playing jazz or I’m playing with my trio or playing rock and roll with David. In other words, if I hear it, I play it. I don’t feel, 0h, I’m slipping out of rock. I’m playing jazz. If I hear it, and it seems appropriate for that music, I’ll play it. Once in a while, somebody will say that didn’t sound right, but usually because I’m not in the moment. If I’m in the moment, I’ll usually make the right calculation.
That’s what I was wondering. Is there a rock hat you put on? Do you have a creative pool that you reach for the classical notes and a separate one for the jazz?
It looks that way, but it’s really not for me. It can be, but I don’t opt for that.
How does Bowie’s music fit in with that?
There might be a few rock tunes that I’m required to play rock piano through the course of the night like “Suffragette City” or “White Light[/White Heat],” that Velvet Underground song. I’m just playing…
… But there’s a lot of songs like … We were playing “Ashes to Ashes” one day, and I was playing a synth solo. He says, “Ah, that sounded too much like Herbie Hancock. Why don’t you switch to piano and play like a piano solo, more like ‘Aladdin Sane’ kind of stuff?” So now I do that at the end of the song. Now, that’s not on the original record, and that’s not recorded anywhere, so I’ll get to stretch out on that tonight, if we play that song, and that’s very unusual for me because it’s a three-bar phrase, and it’s a G-minor, an F-major and a C-minor chord, and it revolves in three bar phrases, and it’s not easy to improvise on. Especially since I’m improvising in an avant-garde way, so it’s a challenge for me every night. Whereas when I play an “Aladdin Sane” solo it’s just A and G. It’s easier to improvise on that than:
So there I’m functioning like all the instruments coz I’m playing as a solo pianist. I won’t be doing so much left hand later, or I’ll play it differently. There I had to cover the fullness. There’s some jazz elements and classical elements there.
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That was the point where my hour-long tape ran out, as I was only supposed to have a half-hour with him (yes, just as he was demonstrating his Bowie-related playing). I did call him up about a month later to round out the interview, as really we sort of “improvised” it on the day we first met. Most of this later interview I have already shared (From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2)). However, I still have some left over bits that do explore other facets of Garson’s life, creativity and technique:
Hans Morgenstern: We did not talk about your institutional studies. When did you go to Julliard and what did you get out of it?
Mike Garson: I studied with a Julliard teacher. In fact, over the years, three Julliard teachers. The Julliard teacher, I never had to go to Julliard because she lived next door to my house, so I didn’t have to travel there. So I had a Julliard teacher for classical, but I didn’t have to study at the school. My college was Brooklyn College.
So it was informal?
It wasn’t informal. It was serious piano lessons. I just didn’t go to that school. My degree is from Brooklyn College for music and education.
I used to put them on after they got sore, now I put them on before, so it’s preventive medicine. I probably hit the keys too hard, I guess. (He laughs). And every time I try to play without them, and, I start off playing soft, I still end up banging by the end of the show, so I keep them on. They really help. Occasionally, I’ll catch a wrong note because of the thickness of the Band-Aid but most of the time, I know how to compensate. I’ve been wearing Band-aids for 30 years.
So that started on a regular piano, but you still need them on a synthesizer?
Well, on stage I have a piano with a piano action, so I need it for that, and of course the synth is right above it, so I don’t take the Band-Aids off. I don’t need them for when I play synth, technically. I need it for the harder action.
Yeah. I probably didn’t learn right from the beginning because I probably shouldn’t need Band-Aids because most people don’t wear them, but you know the old expression, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”? So I don’t deal with it. But I’m probably not hitting all the proper parts of the fingers because the band-aids help the sides, and you really should be only hitting in the center part, so I’m probably not even hitting perfect. But, whatever it is, you sort of develop your own way of hitting and playing as the years go on, and if it works, you leave it alone. But it’s probably not a hundred percent standard. Nothing I’ve ever done is standard, connected with the piano.
I have 2,000 in classical and 2,000 in miscellaneous, jazz and pop.
Do you ever fear that the vast amount of pieces you have written out there might diminish the value of each piece?
Well, the truth of the matter is that I feel that maybe one out of 10 is probably good. So I probably have, out of the 4,000 pieces I wrote, 400 that I’d be proud of, and the reason I write so much is to get that one out of the 10. It doesn’t diminish the value for me. Maybe for the commercial world that likes to put scarcity in abundance on things, I’d say, What was the only composition he ever did? or something like that, but I don’t think about those kind of things because I just write music. Hayden, the composer, wrote hundreds of pieces of music, but we play the ones we like. The same with Bach and Beethoven. You find that it’s kind of like the cream rises to the top. I mean of the 400 I would chose, maybe if I was dead, maybe [someone] would chose a different 400, but I would say I would have 400 that I would be proud of and then probably 400 that are OK and then probably 400 that are fair and then probably a thousand that were just bullshit, that were getting me to the other place. Both as a student and a teacher, I tell everybody that: if you want to be a good writer or composer, write a lot, so I wrote a lot. When I used to write pop songs, I couldn’t write good bridges, so I spent a year just practicing writing the bridges of songs, just as a discipline, you know? But since I compose a lot of the music on the Yamaha Disklavier, they take less time to write because I’m actually improvising them on to disk. Then they get printed out, so I’m not having to write it by hand anymore, like I used to do in the sixties and seventies, so my composition has become almost the direct output from my fingers to the piano, so it’s sort of a gift that opened up when I turned 50. It’s kind of exciting in a way.
So you’ve only been doing this since you’ve been about 50, for about eight years?
How do you get the music out there to the other players?
What happens is I first give the disc to this guy who works for me, who prints it out in Finale, and then he makes it look real good, and then I check it over. And then, you know, as I travel around the world I meet people, and I say, “Have a listen to this recording, and if they like one of the pieces, I’ll send you the music,” and guys play them.
Someone played one of my nocturnes in a recital last week, I got a communication last week. I did get asked, just yesterday to play with a symphony orchestra next year, and they want to do my concerto, which I told them, they have to do it by my rules because even though the concerto was written, I was going to play a different piano part with the orchestra playing the same part. It kind of threw the conductor off, but they said, “Why not?”
So you never play the same thing twice, do you?
I try not to. Sometimes I have to on a gig. Like there are certain things that David Bowie wants to hear, I’ll give it to him all the time, but other times I have leeway.
The trouble with my thing is, all my records are out of print, so it’s very hard to find a Mike Garson CD. I have a couple of things floating around. You find them on eBay and this and that, but there’s really nothing, and I’ve done 11 albums.
What’s this Now Art that you are working with?
That’s a whole other part of me that developed in the last six years: computer-generated art that I kind of do like my Now Music; I kind of improvise it. Somebody had given me a program called Photoshop, but I didn’t know you were supposed to use it with photos, so I started drawing things from scratch, and I ended up creating thousands of pictures over the last six, seven years. I had my first art showing in Portland last month [On April 12, 2004, Portland’s Brian Marki Fine Art Gallery hosted a premiere reception of his artwork]. When we passed through Portland some gallery asked me to take some of these computer-generated works and have them put on canvas. There’s a process that you can get them put on canvas. So I had them put on canvas, and they look beautiful, so we sold them. And anyone who bought a piece of artwork at the gallery, I had a piano there, I composed a piece on the spot for them that went with the artwork.
So you create these by just working in Photoshop?
Photoshop, Painter, Artist, (some others) a lot of programs, mostly Photoshop, but I create them from scratch by using the different tools that are in there, with plug-ins and whatever, and I just got a very good knack for colors and balance.
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And these were all the components that would have made a lengthy feature profile on Garson. I probably gathered enough material to write a book, so inevitably lots would have had to have been cut back for a magazine. But thanks to the Internet, and unlimited space, here is a testament to my research. Because of the release of the Bowie Variations, I found a good time to publish it all. Who knows? Maybe one day a proper story in a publication might appear with some of Bowie’s quotes. If there is one thing I know for sure about David Bowie, it’s that nothing is ever final with him.
As Garson has said, he had been thinking about variations on Bowie’s music for a while, so I will leave you with a performance of his variation of “Space Oddity” in 2007:
This is continued from Part 4: From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)