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 Horn.
Ates 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 with him."
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 interesting people.
(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 then?"
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 as well?"
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."
A.T.: "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 to play."
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 well I 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 like.
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 soon."
H.M. : "Thank you Ates."
May 28, 1999 Istanbul