Interview with Trevor Gordon Hall

2 Mar

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When you first hear about Trevor Gordon Hall and his kalimbatar, the idea might seem strange, perhaps even a little crazy. But it all makes sense once you listen to the wonderful music he creates with it. Trevor shares with us how the idea to stick a kalimba on his guitar came about, and drops some philosophy along the way…

Could you talk about your musical influences? What led you to play solo acoustic guitar?

My influences are an ever-changing thing for me, but my roots range from classical to anything by the label Windham Hill.  My mom played a lot of different music in the house growing up and I think it is all still affecting the way I hear and compose music.

Through the years I have gone through the punk, metal, etc, and in more recent years it has been a lot of jazz.  Most recently I have been on a pre-1950’s kick.  I just love the mood in those eras, and the string arrangements and harmonies give me the chills.  They just don’t write music like that anymore!

I am constantly trying to find sounds that interest me in the hopes that if I really enjoy what I compose, others may as well.  I have enjoyed many players and composers over the years.  My mom played a good bit of Michael Hedges in the house growing up, so it was cool to have all of those textures in my mind before I even started the guitar.  I loved anything by Phil Keaggy. Shawn Lane hits me to the core every time I hear his music.  Pat Metheny  is about as good as it gets!

All of these have affected me in a certain way and I look forward to spending the rest of my life being inspired by the inspiration of others.  That is what it’s about to me.  The experience of music is a fundamental human experience that I really cherish.  It’s all one big inspiration cycle and I feel honored to be a part of it.

Solo guitar for me is a way to bring all of these influences into one medium.  I love that I can express my harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, atmospheric, and emotional ideas through one instrument.  That is why the acoustic guitar has always intrigued me.  You can go in so many directions and it’s portable!  I tend to really love my solitude as well, so solo guitar is the perfect way for me to express myself.

I really enjoy playing with other musicians and would like to collaborate and compose for other instruments as I get older, but I will never be able to shake the solo guitar thing.  When I pick it up it just feels right!

Did you have any formal training?

I started guitar when I was about 10.  After a year being self-taught, I hopped into lessons at a music store. Then to a few music schools and then
got the opportunity to study with a professor of theory and a classical jazz mastermind when I was about 14.  He really helped me see a lot of interesting things about music that I am still processing through to this day.

Philosophy is about the fundamental questions of who we are, why are we here, why the universe is the way it is and this excites me to compose more than studying a music theory textbook.

I originally wanted to go to school for music, but ended up studying a seemingly different but — I feel — completely related subject. I got my degree in Philosophy/Theology.  Music is about communicating something, and for me I felt it would be more effective to explore things to communicate than to study the mode of communication (at that time.)

Philosophy is about the fundamental questions of who we are, why are we here, why the universe is the way it is and this excites me to compose more than studying a music theory textbook (although I do still do that! Theory is vitally important, but it must be kept in perspective.)  I am always trying to study music, but I balance it out with other studies in Philosophy, Science, Theology, etc.  These really energize my consciousness and help me compose from an exciting place.  That is why the latest record is called “Entelechy.”  It is a concept from the Greek philosopher Aristotle that really amazes me and inspires a new way of approaching my studies and compositions.  I could talk forever on that…

Please do!

Entelechy is an intriguing concept to me.  It comes from the Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who basically believed that reality is comprised of two things: potential and actual.  Entelechy refers to the vital principle that guides the development and functioning of all things from their potential to their actual.  All living things strive for full and complete being, which means full realization of their potential within the constraints of their type of being.

So he believed that the tree is already present inside the acorn, because the acorn never becomes anything else but a tree.  That is the fullest potential imbedded in it.  The reality of the butterfly is already in the caterpillar potentially. Entelechy is the principle he says that guides the acorn to the tree or the caterpillar to the butterfly (which is hinted at in the artwork for the CD with the caterpillar to the tree, the seeds to the grass, the acorn to the tree, and the tree to the guitar etc.)

On a bigger scale, it is interesting to think that at the moment of the Big Bang some 15 billion or so years ago, all that the universe is at this moment existed in some way as a potential.  The process of the unfolding of all things from that point, which continues to happen, points to this idea of entelechy.  All things are still striving to unfold their potential. Aristotle tied this concept in many different ways.  He believed that to be fully human was to actualize your fullest possible potential with excellence.

I would rather fail at doing something I feel is different for me than succeed at doing what I know feels safe.

This is what I have been trying to internalize through this project: explore my potential with excellence.  So with the process of envisioning and designing the kalimba idea and these tunes, I have had to work hard to guide the potential of this record to its actuality.  I kept this idea of entelechy in mind as I was getting the songs from my head and heart, out to the fingers and eventually to other’s ears!  I was reading about it at that time and it just seemed to really fit my composition process. Cosmology and Philosophy have some cool things to chat about so it was neat to explore that conversation while composing.  It also gets my mind out of the norm and lets my imagination fly, which is always great for inspiration!

How did the idea to attach a kalimba to the guitar come about?

This has been the evolution of an idea.  I have always loved the sound of ringing metal.  Whether it is a music box, a fender Rhodes, handbells, etc
they all fascinate me.  I saw a kalimba being played some years back and was just floored by the sound of it.  Years later I bought one for fun. It was a cheap one key, one octave kalimba.  It was quiet, so I tried amplifying it by placing it on boxes, and even the wall to resonate the vibrations.  I tried it on the surface of my guitar and it just lit up.  It really sounded nice blending with the steel strings, and from there the idea has grown.

The kalimba I used for the latest Candyrat record was one I designed with a few builders.  It needs some kinks worked out, so I am now having a new one built which I should be getting sometime soon.  I love having 2 chromatic octaves on the guitar to work with other than the strings.  It’s like having a mini piano at my disposal and the interplay between the steel strings and steel tines is a sound I am falling in love with more and more.  I am trying to really take this as seriously as I can.  The last thing I care about is trying to come up with a gimmick or something.  Not at all.  This is a way for me to further express the sounds I have grown to love over the years through my different influences.

How long did it take you to become familiar with the new instrument? Any unexpected difficulties or discoveries?

I feel like it took a while, but from the time I got it back from the builders to the time I recorded a full album with it was about a little over a year.  I burned many many many hours, not only trying to figure out what to do with it, but developing the muscle strength to play it and the guitar at the same time!  I had lots of slow and concentrated practice.

Once I got used to the range and potential, I started composing my ideas apart from the instruments to ensure I was thinking musically and melodically.  It really helped me break out of the normal guitar patterns we sometimes fall into!  I focused on the sound and it really made all the difference.

I will say that every possible difficulty came up.  From not being able to find the right tuning for the kalimba, dead tines with no sound, amplification issues, etc.  It has been a headache and a half but well worth it.  The whole time from start to finish I didn’t even know if this would work.  I had to do certain practice exercises for months before seeing any results.  It was a shot in the dark but it was exciting. I really put myself out there, but man am I glad I did!  I would rather fail at doing something I feel is different for me than succeed at doing what I know feels safe.

What kind of guitars do you use? How do you have them set up?

Right now I have a Martin OMC16eKOA with my kalimba.  That guitar fits like a glove and the tonal balance is just perfect.  I also have a Stonebridge 22CR which blows me away as well.  Both guitars have very different sounds.  They hear notes differently, so that really affects the way I play them.  Both have action as low as humanly possible and both have a DTAR Multi-source pick up system.  I love those guitars!

You obviously have no problem with overdubs in the studio. Are those songs meant as studio-only pieces or are there plans to do them live? With other musicians perhaps?

I try to make sure that whatever I do on an original album I can do live in a solo setting (aside from a few production effects.)  The Christmas album I did would require more musicians on some tracks to pull off live, but everything else can be achieved with Looping FX.  I love walls of sound.

This last album I have gotten away from that and am trying to get back to nothing but the guitars, the kalimba, myself, and a touch of reverb.  It feels really exciting to not have anything else to rely on but me.  FX are great and I will continue to explore with them, but I got too reliant on them so I needed to take a break for a while.  I do look forward to collaborating with other musicians in the coming years though too.  That is something I really enjoy and gives me a break.

You already have quite a few live dates lined up for 2012. What else can we expect from you in the near future?

I am trying to get out and play as much as I can.  I have the Candyrat USA tour in May and a Candyrat Canadian tour in July.  I really look forward to those.  I haven’t toured yet much with the kalimba, so I hope audiences enjoy it as much as I do!  I am planning out my next album and starting to work on that.  Once I get my new kalimba, being built right now, it will take me into some new directions.  Other than that, it is just the daily grind of work work work!  I love it!

Big thanks to Trevor for doing the interview! Visit his website to keep up to date on upcoming shows.

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