I've long admired the work of Greg Davis, a prominent electro-acoustic composer. Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with him. We met at Burlington's Muddy Waters coffeehouse. I was certain we'd have plenty to talk about, but unfortunately, Davis could only spare an hour; he was on his way to a meditation session at the nearby Shambhala Center.
With his voluminous, reddish beard and soft-spoken demeanor, Davis has the air of a rural sage. He is hosting a series of concerts at the Firehouse Gallery in conjunction with a current exhibit of the sound-and-sculpture works of Mike Gordon and his mother Marjorie Minkin. But Davis is focused on avant-garde composer John Cage, a complex and visionary artist whose musical theories continue to be explored nearly 15 years after his death. This week's event features local experimental collective Nest Material, a band whose sound mutates with each performance. Davis will follow up their set with a reading from Cage's extensive written canon.
The 30-year-old Davis is inspired by Cage's groundbreaking ideas and methods. Many composers approach orchestration as architecture, painstakingly adding and removing instrumental components. Cage did the opposite, allowing chance elements to shape and direct his experimental scores. A Zen Buddhist, he considered music as a process. In this way, he echoed quantum theories of a universe in which chaos has a hand in our perception of order.
A similar sensibility is present in Davis' own output. Swells of organic sound are manipulated via computer processing. Acoustic instruments such as guitar and bells randomly and gracefully surge and recede. Slow and enveloping, his work could be classified as ambient music, were it not for the occasionally jarring juxtapositions. And while some ambient music can soporific, Davis' creations bristle with energy.
Born and raised in the Chicago area, Davis began his musical career as a hip-hopper, scouring record stores for LPs to sample and manipulate. This early audio experimentation provided a glimpse into the possibilities of sonic deconstruction. Later, Davis studied classical and jazz guitar at Chicago's DePaul University, and received his Master's in composition from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He moved to the Queen City last year.
Recently, Davis received glowing marks from taste-making website PitchforkMedia.com for his latest disc, Paquet Surprise. The album, a collaboration with French sound artist Sebastian Roux, is a gorgeous blend of natural and reconstituted audio that alternately clatters and soothes.
Although our meeting was brief, Davis was unhurried in conversation, and opened a window into the world of vanguard music making.
SEVEN DAYS: What are your earliest impressions of music?
GREG DAVIS: I have some fond memories of rifling through my father's record collection. He was really into Dylan, and liked blues and jazz a lot. There wasn't any super-weird stuff, but I remember being blown away by some of his music. Like pulling out a Yes record and going, whoa, what the hell is this?
SD: When did you first startmaking music?
GD: It was probably in junior high. I was really into the hip-hop of the '80s, so I started fooling around with turntables and primitive samplers.
SD: Were you in any rock-type bands back then?
MC: Not really. I had a hip-hop group with some friends. We practiced in the basement.
SD: Were you an MC?
GD: Yeah. I'd make beats and stuff, and we'd all rap. That was kind of my entry in. But I was also a really avid collector, and sampling went hand in hand with all that.
SD: That must've exposed you to a lot of new music.
GD: It was amazing. I'd look at the back of a De La Soul album, and there'd be a list of all the records that the samples were from. So I'd go find those records, and that in turn branched out to more and more stuff.
SD: When did you decide to formally study guitar?
GD: The first year I was at DePaul University, I wasn't in the music school; I was just doing liberal arts studies. At some point I decided that I really needed to be in the music program. So I started taking classical guitar lessons to prepare for the audition, and I made it in. The first half of my time as an undergraduate I was studying both jazz and classical guitar.
SD: What did you plan to do with this education?
GD: Well, I didn't really know. That's why I switched to composition. I didn't feel that I was good enough of a player to make a living that way. I didn't particularly like performing, and I wasn't crazy about learning how to play like Wes Montgomery. At that point I started to develop my own ideas about what kind of stuff I wanted to do. Since I had my own ideas, I figured I should just start writing music.
SD: Is your formal training useful in the stuff you currently create?
GD: Yeah, definitely. I learned how to write music, and about harmony and theory. I still use things that I learned; if I'm doing an arrangement, I might score it to figure out certain things.
SD: You've been called one of the founders of electro-acoustic composition, or "laptop folk." How do you feel about that?
GD: It's hard for me to say. It wasn't anything I consciously set out to do; it was just the music I was making at the time. I was maybe one of the first people to really start using acoustic instruments with certain kinds of beats and rhythms. But I dropped it really quickly, 'cause I felt that it was pigeonholing. I'm making the kind of music I want to make: I just happen to use computers. And lately I've been trying to use digital manipulation as just a color, instead of the dominant sound.
SD: When did you become interested in John Cage?
GD: My first exposure to his music was in college. I had a philosophy of aesthetics teacher and he devoted a week of his class to Cage. It totally blew my mind. Then I started to read his writings and listen to his music. Since then, I've been pretty much obsessed.
SD: How did Cage's work affect your own creative process?
GD: Um, immensely! It opened up the world of sound to me and got me thinking that all things are usable for music making. It was about seeing beyond the limits of a certain kind of style and freeing myself up to explore new territories. And working with computers, it's very easy to combine a sound with any other sound.
SD: Why did you decide to move to Vermont?
GD: My girlfriend was going to school in Chicago and after two years we both decided that we really didn't want to be there anymore. We knew we wanted to move back East, so we came to visit Burlington and it seemed just right. We wanted to be in a smaller town where we could walk everywhere, have a nice community of friends, be close to beautiful nature, have good, organic fresh food available to us and be around politically and aesthetically like-minded folks. All the reasons that make Burlington a really nice place to live.
SD: Do you make your living solely from music?
GD: Almost. I'm just scraping by from month to month doing various music projects, like touring, mastering work, remixes and selling CDs. I always thought it would get better the longer I stuck at it, but it hasn't been that way at all. The financial struggle is a bit annoying, but I try to live in the moment and not worry about money issues. As long as I have enough to pay rent, bills and buy food, then I'm all right. I guess instead of seeing the world and sharing my music with people all over the place, I could've stayed home and made more money. But that's no fun. I feel very lucky and blessed to have all of the opportunities that I've had so far.