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A classical act

CultureA classical act

Australian musicians Slava and Leonard Grigoryan have recorded 12 studio albums and performed at venues around the world as the classical guitar duo Grigoryan Brothers. In the run-up to their Delhi show, to be held at the India International Centre on 11 December, they spoke to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about the creative potential of the guitar, fusing styles and melodies, and making music that says something. 

Q. Tell us about your beginnings in music.

Slava Grigoryan (SG): I received my first guitar at the age of six. Mum and dad were classically trained musicians and since they were my teachers, it was only natural to dive into classical music. My earliest influences were John Williams, Julian Bream, Pat Metheny, Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin amongst many others. I was signed to Sony at the age of 17 and when I was 18, I was fortunate enough to tour with Paco Peña and Leo Kotke. I spent some time in London before coming home to Australia. It was around this time that I started working with Lenny [Leonard Grigoryan]. While I have toured the world performing solo and with orchestras, the duo project with Lenny is my main focus and brings me most joy. I also like collaborating with other musicians. These opportunities are complementary to my work with Lenny.  

Q. You come from a musical family. How did that shape you as musicians? 

SG: In some ways it underpins everything we have achieved. As music was all around us when we were growing up, we had no choice so to speak. We were immersed in music day and night and we loved it. Our parents were a major influence on our musical tastes, both in performing and listening. They both love music of all kinds. Rather than preferring a particular style, they like all music as long as it “says something”. As a result, we grew up listening to classical music, rock, pop, jazz and music from diverse cultures around the world. While we are classically trained and are familiar with classical repertoire, we love performing in diverse styles and introducing new repertoire to our chosen instrument. For us, communicating the beauty and message of the music we are playing is of paramount importance, regardless of the genre.

Leonard (L) and Slava Grigoryan. photo: Simon Shiff

Q. What kind of difficulties did you face in establishing yourselves in the industry? 

SG: The challenges any person in the arts experiences—maintaining the drive to learn and develop your craft over many years and many disappointments. Then, being able to support yourself and your family in a profession that is not very secure. Unfortunately, being adept in your chosen art form does not necessarily translate to a regular performance schedule. We are still striving to achieve all we wanted early in our careers. And while it presents its challenges, we wouldn’t be doing anything else.

Q. What is your take on fusion music that combines classical and contemporary forms? 

Leonard Grigoryan (LG): For us, the important thing is that the end result should have some integrity. This is difficult to define for it is a very subjective thing. The fusion of any genres is fraught, but if approached with the intention to create something new and interesting, then it can be a beautiful thing.

Q. Since you play classical jazz, how has jazz evolved over the years in your experience? 

LG: While we do not regard ourselves as “jazz musicians”, we include improvisation as a component of our performances. We also include jazz sensibilities to some of the music we compose, commission and play. Improvisation is a key component of jazz music. Early classical musicians improvised a great deal. So this form of “spontaneous composition” goes back a long way. These days the possibilities are endless with collaborations of cultures and musical styles occurring everywhere. As long as the music connects with the audience, that is all that matters to us.

Q. You have performed at various prestigious venues around the world. And how have these experiences influenced your music?

LG: We love playing at all sorts of venues—from large concert halls to churches, arenas, recital halls, clubs, salons, outdoor venues and more. Obviously, if the space has a warm and reverberant acoustic, it makes the experience great for all, i.e. the audience and us. Sometimes you can feel “lost” in larger settings. For example, a few years ago we performed with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the music bowl in Melbourne to about 10,000 people. We spend a lot of time travelling around Australia playing in small country towns, in community halls and churches. These concerts are as meaningful to us as the larger venues. But we don’t think the venues we have performed in have influenced our music.

Q. You have often collaborated with other musicians on various projects. Tell us about your most memorable collaboration? 

SG: Each collaboration brings its own joy. So to point out only one collaboration of the many we have experienced is really tough. We have over a number of years collaborated with the amazing Austrian guitarist-composer Wolfgang Muthspiel. This is memorable due to the fact that we have developed an entire concert program with Wolfgang incorporating his compositions, our compositions and other pieces we feel work in the trio format. Like us, Wolfgang was classically trained but chose to look elsewhere for further inspiration. He truly has his own voice on the guitar and playing with him brings a certain ease and familiarity that only comes with working alongside like-minded people. That we play an array of guitars (electric, classical, twelve-string and baritone) in this trio adds a harmonic dimension which is quite unique.

Q. What have you planned for your upcoming performance at Delhi’s India International Centre on 11 December? 

LG: The repertoire for our concerts is generally a mixture of different genres from different eras. From standard classical works to jazz and music from around the world, our own compositions and commissions from friends and peers. We sometimes don’t decide what we are playing until the day of the performance.

Q. What are your upcoming projects? 

SG: Other than duo concerts and recordings, plans for collaborations over the next couple of years are well in place. In June/July next year, we are collaborating with the amazing Australian vocalist Paul Capsis who is presenting an adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning author Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Capsis is the only actor in the play and we join him on stage providing the music to his creation. We are also working on a commission with a museum in Australia to write music based on items in its collection. This suite of works will be premiered in 2021, and we also plan on recording this work which will involve collaborations with other Australian musicians. We are also planning a duo recording in a particular genre of music we have not covered before as a single project.


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