Five questions for Gregory Walker
From a family of scholars and musicians, he grew to become an ‘interpretive artist in the classroom from CU
Four generations of Gregory Walker’s family have been scholars and musicians. So perhaps it was destiny – but probably more so an abundance of talent – that he has become a critically acclaimed violinist and award-winning composer as well as a professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
“I don’t think I really got to choose a career … I didn’t really think in terms of having a choice,” Walker says. His father, George T. Walker, is a composer and pianist and the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. George Walker also taught at CU-Boulder. Gregory’s mother, Helen Walker-Hill, is a pianist and music historian, holds a degree from CU and also was a faculty member. Gregory’s grandfather, George Siemens, taught genetics at CU Denver.
Even before he finished his doctoral work at CU in 1992, a family friend – Associate Professor Emeritus Donna Bogard – encouraged Gregory to apply for a teaching position at the university: “Way back in 1991, the music faculty here knew they wanted somebody comfortable with rock music, but really didn’t know where to start. Lucky me.”
Walker has been a soloist with orchestras and symphonies around the world and composed numerous pieces, including those for electric instruments. He has produced CDs for several record labels and performed with a diverse group of artists, from pop star Lyle Lovett to violinist Itzhak Perlman to pop and jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen.
He says music (to the occasional impatience of his wife, Lori, and sons Grayson and Dashiel) doesn’t go away when he gets home from “work,” but he finds time to participate in the traditional Chinese martial arts and to write. His novel, “Trigram Cluster Funk,” will be published by Double Dragon Press in October.
1. Your CD, “Electric Vivaldi: Global Solstice,” will be released in September. How did this collection come about and why is it special to you?
One of the reasons I enjoy working with my College of Arts and Media colleagues is that their mission of creating an intersection of art, technology and commerce resembles my own passion. That maybe doesn’t have so much to do with commerce as it does with extending new artistic expression to a wider audience, which just happens to include that commercial population. I think I’d be happy pursuing any number of creative directions, but about 10 years ago, I was listening to an obscure European orchestra’s colorful approach to the popular Vivaldi Four Seasons violin concerti. Suddenly realizing that it might be possible to not only take the orchestra’s ideas even further, but also create an accessible version of the music for contemporary audiences with electronic sounds, I launched into a yearlong process of pulling together financial and artistic support for a first “Newport Classic Electric Vivaldi Four Seasons” compact disc. When it was released, I knew there were possibilities that still hadn’t been fully explored, but my creative attention span is much too short to continue mining the same vein for very long. Consequently, this latest Centaur Records “Electric Vivaldi: Global Solstice” adds elements of world music and a new instrument that was a big part of my youth, the electric guitar.
2. Tell me about the instruments you play and your compositions.
At one time or another, as an orchestral soloist I’ve been engaged to play a variety of different kinds of violins, guitars and electronic paraphernalia. For other types of engagements, I may resort to other instruments, usually ones with strings. Even the instruments I love the most don’t necessarily come easy, but I’ve always been motivated by untapped potential, theirs and mine. And I do admire anyone who can play the piano.
I’ve written dozens of songs for local progressive rock bands and electronic dance music producers, as well as a similar number of large-scale symphonic, chamber and electronic works that have been premiered around the United States and abroad. Then there are the recordings and music videos that I contribute to as engineer, director, editor, art director, you name it. This summer, there’s even been an invitation to show off mellow stylings I did not know I had with Swing Je T’aime, an up-and-coming gypsy jazz band.
3. Why did you choose to compose for and perform with orchestras? What are the actions you take when you compose?
I grew up in a family of classical musicians. Music wasn’t entertainment, wasn’t a job, just a way of life. The symphony orchestra was considered the ultimate medium. In some ways, the orchestra is the closest music can get to the diversity of the natural universe. On the other hand, it also embodies culture’s regimented, domesticated mass obedience. The soloist is a defiant point of light.
When the time comes to actually write for the thing, I go to the instrument for which I have no aptitude, the piano. Every little idea emerges clumsily over weeks because my fingers can’t move any faster. So slowly, many ideas are just lost mid-stream, but we can hope that if they were forgotten, they were forgettable. Eventually, imagination and the wonders of computer software allow me to add additional dimensions. And when the world premiere finally arrives, it’s over in minutes … maybe leaving an impression there was something behind the notes.
4. What are some of your favorite stage performances? What made them special?
There are two aspects of musical performance that are especially poignant for me, but they’re easy to miss.
The first is the sensation of audience connection, real or perceived. Some years ago, I was hired as a violin concertmaster for a small orchestra performing Handel’s “Messiah” at a church in Boulder. At one point, a profoundly bitter and inebriated homeless man walked in the door and loudly proceeded to the front of the audience. We all just tried to concentrate and ignore him. When we got to the famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” the audience joined in singing along with the orchestra’s choir. After the last chord and before the next aria, the homeless man stood up and walked toward me. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, reached over the edge of the stage, and we shook hands.
The second aspect is personal challenge and visceral risk. In 2009, the Philadelphia Orchestra engaged me to premiere a violin concerto by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Walker, my father, with a $4.5 million dollar Stradivarius in a performance that was broadcast nationwide on National Public Radio. This would seem like an enviable, dossier-enhancing activity for anyone who has not suffered from lifelong stage fright.
My father’s music carries a unique meaning for me not only because it’s cool to play your dad’s music, but because I believe he’s an unsung musical genius for the ages.
5. What is your teaching philosophy and what do you hope students take away from your classes?
Compared to my diverse and accomplished colleagues at the College of Arts and Media, I’m not much of a teacher, per se. I try to be a kind of interpretive artist in the classroom. The value of a music curriculum, of all things, can be just like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it – unless I can interpret the curriculum’s significance and bring them around. Going to where those who share this world – the students – are, and coming to a mutual understanding so they can actually be inspired to accompany me. Because the only thing they’ll ever bother to take away is what became significant.