An interview with master-class musician Chilly Gonzales

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Gonzales. Photo by Karel Chladek

Classical pianist, rapper, songwriter, screenwriter, Grammy winner and pop-music theorist Chilly Gonzales has developed an extensive musical resume over the last two decades, releasing acclaimed solo works, collaborating and producing exceptional albums, and even finding time to break a Guinness World Record. There seems to be no end to the talents of Gonzales, but a critical part of his success was only realized after leaving Montreal. Discouraged by the Canadian music scene, Gonzales moved to Europe at the turn of the 21st century, first to Berlin and most recently Cologne, Germany.

This homegrown virtuoso has now returned to Montreal to host a week-long instructional series for the Red Bull Music Academy, which is aptly entitled the Gonzervatory. Based on his body of work, we can expect a rather eclectic approach from this “Gonzo” musician’s masterclass on composition. Unlike other composers, Gonzales is eager to work with musicians outside of the classical spectrum, and his creative friendship with the synth-shock icon Peaches, is detailed in a recent episode of the animated short The Junction. The Gonzervatory Masterclass finds Gonzales fulfilling an entirely new role, that of the music instructor, and in an RBMA lecture last week, he discussed his influences and methodology.

I recently had the privilege of asking Chilly Gonzales some questions on behalf of Cult MTL.

Kyle Carney: So what’s it like returning to Montreal for the Red Bull Music Academy?

Chilly Gonzales: I’m always happy to return to my hometown. I spent quite a bit of time here this year, I took a sabbatical from concerts and enjoyed having space in my brain to work in other ways. The lack of travel and adrenaline allows for different kinds of creative thinking. That’s why tech CEOs take sabbaticals, to make space for that next new counter-intuitive idea.

KC: What aspects of musical composition are you planning to focus on during the Gonzervatory Masterclass?

CG: I will focus on performance, and how to put together a concert. This involves the creation of custom-made arrangements for the musicians, rehearsal technique, motivational speaking and finding the sweet spot between risk and confidence. It’s the first time I’ve done something like this so we’ll see if it works!

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Gonzales. Photo by Maria Jose Govea

KC: Can we expect a highly improvised set for the Gonzervatory Masterclass Concert?

CG: We are trying to prepare as well as possible but inevitably the best laid plans turn to pure chaos when the show starts. Let’s say that one prepares so one can feel safe trusting the instinct to improvise.

KC: Your more orchestral works sound meticulous, especially last year’s Chambers. Do you ever dabble in the music of chance?

CG: Sure, I’ve dabbled in using the letters of a girl’s name to create musical motifs — much as Brahms did with Clara Schumann. My initials C and G make a good baseline and I’ve enjoyed working with broken synthesizers, harnessing the power of an accident to capture a unique musical moment. Every time I play a chord I’m taking a chance.

KC: What has the Chilly Gonzales persona come to represent over the last 17 years?

CG: I’m not nearly objective enough to know what this strange combination of letters might represent beyond my music and my persona.

KC: It’s somewhat rare for a classically trained pianist to also have a strong presence in pop music. Did you pursue both of these goals at once?

CG: Yes — I want to be a man of my time despite my skill set. I had two influences growing up: my grandfather maintaining a sense of European culture in our Canadian household through Bach and Beethoven, and the birth of music videos, which made me dream of dancing on the ceiling.

KC:  Do you think there should be more of a dialogue between pop musicians and classical composers?

CG: If they get along well, then yes. It shouldn’t be forced. Certain composers have become genuinely curious and have real respect for pop music; some others think of it as away to expand their market. On the pop side, most musicians seem eager to explore what are still seen as more “legitimate” forms of music. I mean which singer/songwriter or rapper doesn’t dream of being backed up by an orchestra?

KC: In 2009 you broke the world record for longest solo performance. How did you prepare for that, mentally and physically?

CG: My ego made sure it all happened as planned — the preparation didn’t really matter in the end.

KC: Last year you took part in a Spotify session. What are your thoughts on music streaming and the value of music in 2016?

CG: Streaming is just another way of getting my music heard and creating new converts, so I’m satisfied with the state of music today.

KC: Are you still writing rap lyrics? Can you give us a parting freestyle?

CG: “Absolutely not/my rap thoughts/are based on a slower pace/whether lower-case or caps-lock. ” Or something like that. 

The Gonzervatory Masterclass Concert is happening on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Tickets are sold out.

Watch a video from Chilly Gonzales’s RBMA lecture from last week here.

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