An Interview with Hugh Marsh
Canadian musician Hugh Marsh has captured the attention
of audiences around the world with his unique, cross-cultural brand of
improvisational violin. In addition to his solo work, Marsh's playing
has complemented the music of popular and classical artists from many
different countries including Robert Palmer, Loreena
McKennitt and Ihsan
Özgen. In Istanbul, Turkey on May 28,1999 Marsh teamed up with other
Canadian and Turkish musicians, including Özgen and Mercan
Dede, to produce an event of exceptional artistry. Immediately following
the concert, Marsh spoke with Ates Temeltas, president of Golden Horn
Records (USA), to discuss the artist's current success and future projects
which includes a collaborative work with Özgen to be released by Golden
Temeltas: "Welcome to Istanbul."
Hugh Marsh: "Thank you."
A.T.: "When was the first time
that these sounds from what we call the East came to you?"
H.M. : "Well, I think I've always listened to a really
wide variety of music. I've come across various influences over the course
of the last fifteen or twenty years and certainly (by) playing with Loreena
McKennitt and Rick
Lazar's Montuno Police, whose band I also play in. They're constantly
utilizing a lot of different music from different cultures. In Loreena's
case there is in some ways more of a nod to it. She investigates a lot.
It's more or less like a springboard to be able to, if you so desire,
go and search these things out for yourself.
I've also had the opportunity to play with a lot of
different musicians from different countries in the past. I've done three
records for an East Indian sarod player and also just worked with a Cuban
piano player. I've always been interested in the music from different
cultures. Generally what happens is I hear something that I like and then
I'll move and go and try to research it myself."
A.T.: "How did the collaboration
with the sarod player Pandev Pandit come about?"
H.M. : "He had heard a record of mine on the radio and
he just rung me up and wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing something
A.T.: "Turkish listeners are hearing
your music even though your records are not being distributed here. Your
music is finding its way to Turkey."
H.M. : "Yes, I know. I find that strange because I don't
know where they could be coming from. The last recording I did for a major
record label was in 1987, a record I did with Robert Palmer that was quite
popular in the States and in Canada. But I don't believe that it had any
distribution in Europe at all so I don't know where they're getting them."
A.T.: "Still, your records are
circulating here and there is quite a bit of interest in your music in
Turkey. But before we examine this current interest let's start with the
basics. Tell me about your life story. Where were you born and when?"
H.M. : "I was born in Montreal in 1955. I moved around
quite a bit because my dad was in the Air Force. We lived in England for
three years and Sardinia for six months. We finally settled in Ottawa,
the capital of Canada. That was around 1969. I went to high school there.
All the time, I was studying violin from the age of
five until twenty basically. I studied only classical music and then while
I was in high school I took up saxophone and that's what got me interested
in improvisation. I was about thirteen and started playing (saxophone)
and my father said to me, 'Why don't you learn how to improvise on violin?'
At the time I had a sort of love/hate relationship with the violin. I
was extremely interested in saxophone and I started listening to Miles
Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all this jazz stuff, and I didn't
want to have anything to do with the idea of improvising on violin. I
thought, 'Violin has no place there.'
Then one day my father said, 'Come into the living room.
I have something for you.' He had bought me an amp and a pickup for my
violin. I was still a bit hesitant about it. I was playing saxophone in
a rock band at the time. One of the guys in the band came over and saw
the violin with the pickup on it and said, 'Great. The next concert you
have to play a solo on the violin, improvise.' So that was the beginning
of it. Then I realized I had all this facility on the violin, this technique,
so why not try to apply some of the ideas that I'd been playing on saxophone
to the violin? That was how I started improvising.
Eventually I left the saxophone behind and worked only
on violin improvising. I played in various bands around Ottawa and it
came to a point where I wanted to move to Toronto. I moved down with three
other friends, who are all studio musicians now in Toronto, and just started
playing. The idea in the beginning was to become a jazz musician. It was
very tough. It was a hard thing to break into, but it was a very interesting
time. I gave myself a year to try and get in and I played with a lot of
(Then) there was a concert series that was promoted
by Esso. They chose three major jazz people, Oscar Peterson, Moe Koffman,
and Rob McConnell. Each one of them chose a young player and Moe Koffman
chose me to play. That was a big thing for me. Eventually I got a bit
better known as a jazz player, but I've always been interested in many,
many types of music. In Canada I'm known as a jazz player, but in fact
I really don't consider myself that. I play with a lot of jazz people,
but I don't know what I do, to tell you the truth."
A.T.: "Your music is not genre-specific
H.M. : "No."
A.T.: "You're a musician."
H.M. : "That's exactly it."
A.T.: "At that point, in Toronto,
were you playing professionally?"
H.M. : "Yeah. What happened was after about a year there
I met a guy named Bruce Coburn, who is a very big, popular singer/songwriter
in Canada. He saw me playing in a bar and asked me to join his band and
that's when I started getting more public notice on a broader spectrum.
That led to other acts like Loreena McKennitt, and it just sort of moved
on from there."
A.T.: "Do you play acoustic violin
H.M. : "No, I stopped playing (acoustically) when I
was twenty, although I just did a record with a Cuban piano player named
Hilario Duran and I had to be part of a string quartet. That was the first
time I played the acoustic violin in twenty-three years mainly because
I tend to use a lot of processing and I like changing the sound of the
violin somewhat. I didn't do that so much this evening, but there's a
lot of stuff I have that actually changes it quite drastically on a couple
of solo records you'll hear with a lot of distortion stuff, harmonizers,
creating loops on the fly and stuff like that. It's hard to do that with
an acoustic instrument."
A.T.: "You know Loreena McKennitt
is hugely successful in Turkey. The sound in tonight's concert, especially
the contribution of Canadian Brenna
MacCrimmon, held a lot of similarities to McKennitt's music."
H.M. : "Yeah, that was interesting. There was one piece
that was definitely in her (McKennitt's) milieu."
A.T.: "You tour with Loreena McKennitt
frequently. When you're not touring with her, you're recording and playing
with other musicians. How do you go about that? Do you pick the musicians
or do they approach you? How do you schedule yourself?"
H.M. : "Mostly they approach me because most of the
time to be honest, I like having a lot of time for myself to write. In
the last couple of years it's actually been a bit of a problem to find
the time because Loreena tours quite a bit. When she goes out it's for
quite a few months at a time. There are two or three other artists that
I tour with regularly and so now this summer I'm trying to finally cut
all that off and try and get out another record of mine. But generally
I get a call from somebody and they say, 'Come and do this record or this
jingle or this film score', things like that."
A.T.: "Actually that brings up
the question regarding your work as a musician for films."
H.M. : "I've only written for two films, just small
features. I've been lucky enough to play on some big ones. The first bigger
scale one I did was called 'Camilla'. Perhaps it's not so well known here.
It was with the Oscar winner Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda. Daniel Lanois
wrote the film score. In the movie, Jessica Tandy plays a violinist and
I play all her (violin) parts.
The movie I did after that, a big one, was 'Armageddon'.
Both of those came out of the same thing, just somebody phoning and saying,
'We'd like you to come and do this.' In the case of 'Armageddon' I think
it was the producer's wife (who) had seen me play with Loreena in Los
Angeles and suggested me."
A.T.: "Who were the influences,
musicians or otherwise, who actually changed your life or had a major
impact on your life as a musician or as a person?"
H.M. : "The major one would be Miles Davis for sure.
Frank Zappa I listened to a lot when I was a kid growing up. Prince, or
the Artist, whatever he wants to be called now and some classical composers
like Bach. I love Bach. Also Stockhausen and people like that.
There's a lot of stuff I listen to and I think there
is going to be, in no matter what type of music you listen to, a few exponents
of it that are so creative
that you can't help enjoying it. That's why
when people say, 'I don't like this kind of music', I think that's an
impossible or a really false statement because there's bound to be somebody
who has an incredible voice in that (music) in any genre."
A.T.: "Among the violinists, who
do you like to listen to?"
H.M. : "There's only been two because I didn't really
listen to violin players. I listened to saxophone players and trumpet
players, but the two (violin) players that I really liked were Sugarcane
Harris and Stuff Smith and that's basically it. I listened to a lot of
other people, but very briefly, and to me those two guys were the most
important for me.
There's not such a huge legacy of improvising violinists.
You can name a few, but I'm sure even Stephane Grappelli would listen
more to say, Charlie Parker or Roy Eldridge, or those type of people.
Those would be his influences and he would be listening to other instruments
to get an approach to improvisation.
One of the main goals that I had as an improviser was
to try and sound more like a saxophone as far as phrasing goes, choice
of notes, those types of things that weren't particularly 'violinistic'.
The idea for me was if I was going to learn to improvise, why get the
information second hand? Consequently, I never really listened to (many)
other violin players."
A.T.: "I'd like to talk about
tonight's concert. You played in Turkey and the audience was mostly Turkish.
The music itself was quite a mix of melodies from all over. Do you think
that music is the universal language?"
H.M. : "Absolutely. With a lot of people here I can't
communicate with speaking, but hopefully when I get a chance to play I'll
be able to put something across that they'll understand. In some ways
I feel lacking because I don't totally understand the makams and all the
skills, but I have pretty good ears so I can hear where the tonalites
are going and although I may not be totally faithful to some of the modes
I can usually work my way around them.
The nice thing about playing with this ensemble is that
everybody's very open and accepting of these types of things. Also I bring
my voice to something which is also an important thing I think for anybody.
Basically it's just music and it's a good thing. People will find a way
to accept that and to listen to it. Hopefully they will anyway."
"I read in one magazine, right before your concert in Ottawa with Ihsan
Özgen, that you did not know his music, but you'd heard about him. What
did you think about him prior to the concert and what did you think afterwards?"
H.M. : "Well, obviously he's a complete world-class
player and I was extremely looking forward to playing with him and when
I got the chance to play with him it was even better. His sound is so
beautiful and his approach as a human being is so open you can't help
but be drawn into his music. It was a great experience for me and it was
great to be playing with him again. I feel a strong connection with him
even though I don't totally know the music at all really, I just use my
ears. But like I say, Ihsan is someone who is very open so you feel comfortable
about bringing whatever you have to the music."
A.T.: "What did you think of the
introduction that the Özgen family played for 'Amazing Grace'?"
H.M. : "I thought it was just fantastic! I absolutely
adored it, just loved it! It was so great to play with. They're all such
good players. I loved the canon idea with just the echoing of the phrases
because on the recording I did there's actually a lot of reverb on that
tune. The instrument speaks by itself and hangs on for a long time anyway
so this was kind of a natural echo which was absolutely fabulous."
A.T.: "How did you feel in general
about having other Canadian players in the group tonight, namely Ben Grossman
and Brenna MacCrimmon?"
H.M. : "It was great because they're both really great
at their craft. It's a nice touchstone for us as well. The nice thing
about it is there's a 'comfortability' when you know people as people
as well (as musicians). Then you can relax into it. It was a really interesting
combination of players and personalities and they were another addition
to that combination."
A.T.: "You played with the Mercan
Dede Ensemble in Ottawa and here in Turkey. What if anything do you think
was very obviously different in terms of the concert halls or the mood
of the concerts?"
H.M. : "The place we played in (tonight) was a stunning
place. It's an old armory called the Tophane. It was a beautiful setting,
absolutely stunning. In Ottawa we played in a smaller concert hall, but
the setting for this concert was completely idyllic, a beautiful place
A.T.: "You are familiar with the
audience response to music in the West. Now that you have had some exposure
to Turkish music, Turkish classical music, and various Turkish musical
instruments such as kemeche and ney through the works of Ihsan Özgen and
Mercan Dede, what do you predict will be the current Western reaction
to Turkish music?"
H.M. : "Well, I can only speak for myself. Just having
played the few concerts that I've done makes me really want to investigate
it (Turkish music) more. From what I know of Ihsan's playing, I've decided
to look back at who his influences were and the obvious one is Cemil Bey,
whose records I've gone out and bought while here to listen to them. I
could only get one in Canada. It's an incredible body of work so I'd like
to really investigate that."
A.T.: "Might you do a piece based
on the work of Cemil Bey?"
H.M. : "Oh yeah, I'd definitely like to keep it in mind
for sure. But I'd also like to take a look from my own standpoint, technically
understanding what some of the scales are because, as I've said before,
I can only approximate them. But I'd definitely like to investigate it."
A.T.: "I think the music really
got through to people tonight. I saw a lot of people with closed eyes
just taking the music in. I'm sure many people would like to know which
projects you're currently working on under your own name."
H.M. : "The record that I'm doing right now is
hesitate to use the word 'hip-hop', but there's something in 'hip-hop'
music, the collage aspect of it, that uses samples in a particular way.
There's not going to be any rapping or anything on the record, but I like
the way that pieces can be constructed out of using certain loops. I do
a lot of electronic music at home just for my own pleasure. I use a lot
of looping and sampling of violin and use different processing. Through
that I got interested in a lot of different electronic music, some lesser-known
bands perhaps from Germany like Oval and Microstoria whose music I really
At the same time there's some urgency in rap music, groove-wise.
I'm very interested in funk music and I grew up playing it like James
Brown and Parliament Funkadelic I like to incorporate a lot of those aspects
too so the new record should have a lot of those influences, and jazz
as well. But at this present time the people I'm hoping to get on it are
Michael and Randy Brecker. I just did a concert and a record with Randy
last fall and so I will try to get him and his brother to come and play
on the record. I'm still trying to get the singer Björk and Tom Waits.
It will be a kind of far-reaching group of people, but I think that for
the pieces I want them for, it will be a really interesting palette."
A.T.: "I thank you very much for
taking time out of your busy schedule and I hope to hear you play again
H.M. : "Thank you Ates."
May 28, 1999 Istanbul