Brian Smith (of Odd Trio, Georgia Guitar Quartet) Speaks: "Daedalus" @ Canopy Studios

If you're listening to the news, it's hard to disagree with the sentiment found in Chinua Achebe's title for his 1958 masterpiece "Things Fall Apart".  While all is in flux half a world away, in our own backyard musician and composer Brian Smith has been busy bringing worlds together with the premiere of his latest musical suite titled "Daedalus". 

On Saturday, March 19th at 7pm and again on Sunday, March 20th at 3pm, Canopy Studio at the Chase Warehouses in Athens, GA will host a remarkable union of original music and gorgeous aerial artistry, joined under the vision of composer Brian Smith with his troupe of talented musicians (including wife-flutist-trapeze artist, Natalie Smith, members of Georgia Guitar Quartet, Odd Trio, Maps and Transit) and aerialists performing on trapeze, silks, hoops, even bellydancing!  

Brian was kind enough to discuss "Daedalus", his inspirations and his process, in a recent interview:

AT: What was the inspiration for this particular suite of compositions? I know that the Greek myth is the central theme, but is there any other driving force or catalyst that led you to create this work? Does it help push you that not many people are doing this kind of avant-garde, chamber music performance in the indie-rock dominated landscape of Athens, GA? You're part of an impressive network of very talented musicians, and it's got to be exhilirating to join forces in this way.

BSmith: The inspiration for this work came about at the last Canopy show actually. Julie [Phillips] was performing a silks piece to a duet that I wrote for Natalie [Smith] and myself and the silks looked like wings and there was a big drop in the piece. It made me think of Icarus and I thought it would be neat to write a piece for Julie to perform based on Icarus. When rereading the Icarus story, however, I noticed that I felt more of a connection to Daedalus rather than Icarus. I really felt the tragedy of a father losing his child now that I’m a father as well. Also, Daedalus appears in so many other well known Greek myths and in most cases is the catalyst, so I thought it would be interesting to follow his story.

Here in Athens, there are so many great musicians doing so many great things, I feel like a drop in the bucket. I think everyone here pushes the envelope and blurs the lines of style and concept. It’s very inspiring to be immersed within such a place. As a composer, I feel like I just have to do what I do and hope someone likes it.

It’s absolutely exhilirating. I feel so lucky to be able to work with so many amazing musicians and aerialists and dancers and it’s even better to know that they are all good friends. It’s nice to have a reason to get all these folks together in one place. I like to think that I’m just creating a platform for all of these great artists to shine and have a good time making music.

AT: In previous discussions, you've mentioned mathematics and number theory -- like the Fibonacci Sequence that describes nature's spirals as in a sunflower -- as those relate to music. How do you use number theory to inspire your pieces, and are there particular rhythmic patterns that the audience can listen out for during the upcoming performances of "Daedalus" ?

BSmith: Absolutely. Over the past few years I’ve been developing my writing style using what I call “numerical symbology”. I got the idea from Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s idea of the collective unconscious, wherein universal archetypes are similarly expressed throughout human culture worldwide. Joseph Campbell discusses the idea of archetypes within world mythology characters and symbols. I think people have the same universal symbolic perception and experience about numbers, their shape, sound and meaning. I have tried to craft the pieces using some basic number symbols as well as more deeply hidden symbols for those who care to study the score more closely. I also think that there are certain musical mathematical symbols expressed in pitch, harmony and rhythm. Whether someone considers themselves “musical” or not does not matter in terms of their perception of these symbols. It is the people’s like or dislike of the music itself that illustrates the symbol’s success. With this work, I tried to pull many cords within people’s psyche. We’ll see if it come across.

AT: The Cretan labyrinth is part of the story of Daedelus. Is there any purposeful misdirection in the work, at all? Do you want the listener to feel a sense of confusion at any point on the way to a deeper resolution, that epiphany moment when the puzzle is solved?

BSmith: I found the labyrinth story of Daedalus to be the big connector of the entire story. In this work, the piece “Labyrinth” is the big connector of the work as a whole. The piece is subtitled “Puzzle Piece” and the piece itself is a big puzzle. If someone studies the score, the piece can be solved. I created 3 “tries”, basically 3 different scores, that help in solving the puzzle.

For the listener, there are big chunks missing in the piece and recognizable melodies arise that help determine the solution. The epiphany moments will perhaps come after the concert is over. All the pieces of the work draw from the “Labyrinth” and all the pieces lead to the “Labyrinth” in some way. It’s a cornerstone.

AT: Based on some of the main character's actions, I'm not sure he's such a friendly mythic hero. Are there certain melodic devices or key signatures that you prefer to use to depict that feeling of fleeting malice or impropriety? Not a nice Uncle, really!

BSmith: Actually, I felt like Daedalus was a sort of tragic hero, a very human figure. He’s also one of those characters that really undergoes a change over the course of his life and suffers greatly for the folly of his younger days. I think he really tries to do the right thing for the most part, but due to his past transgression with Perdix, he always seems to end up in tragic situations. But, he also helps a lot of people on the way, stands up against the wicked rule of King Minos, is respected at his craft and is well taken care of by the generosity of others. Overall, he’s quite a balanced figure symbolically. I use octaves to represent Daedalus as well as the key of b-flat. All the characters have their own musical gestures, pitches, intervals and keys. (i.e. - Icarus is chromatic falling gestures, the notes f and f#, 9ths and the key of F) As a dad, I think Daedalus does what he has to do in the given situation. Well aware of the risks, but without many options. Fatalistic, I guess.

AT: I realize that composition and arranging are arduous processes; are there modern tools that make the job a little less painstaking, or is it still a lot of sharpening the quill, mending holes in the parchment, cleaning up spilled ink and managing frustration, fending off mental illness? I know you know the image I'm drawing from: Amadeus, the scene with the cue ball on the billiards table, repetitvely banking off the cushions and back into Mozart's hand as he fervently scratches away at a masterpiece.

BSmith: Ha! Well, for me personally, I fret and stew and tweek and change pieces a lot before they get printed and I’m usually still making changes at rehearsals. I spend a lot of time in my head going over and over things. Probably get a little too obsessive at times. By the time I get to the computer, things move pretty fast. I like the speed of entering the music on the computer and I like not having to use a pencil or pen to make everything look pretty. I have poor penmanship and it hurts my hand to have to be that meticulous. I think all musicians stew over their work and are probably never completely satisfied. I think you just try to make each piece you write the best that it can be and when it’s time to let it go you have to let it go, warts and all.

Thanks to the composer for the insights that will make the experience of "Daedalus, a work by Brian Smith" all the richer.  For more details about the two shows on March 19th and 20th at Canopy Studio, follow links below:

The MusicSmiths
Canopy Studio
Georgia Guitar Quartet

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