Michael Leonhart: Surfing on an Orchestral Wave

Ludovico Granvassu By

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AAJ: That is a really fascinating concept, and the seven parts of the suite feel like parts of a continuum and a journey, even though they are all quite distinctive. Was there an autobiographical aspect in the choice of the travelling butterfly, continuously on the road, going from country to country and absorbing the local inputs and changing in the process... like you do as a musician constantly on tour?

ML: I haven't consciously thought of it that way. But when I hear you say it, it's in there. I'm fascinated by that. The reality of any musician, unless you work exclusively a studio musician, is a nomadic one. The interesting thing is that as a kid I used to get homesick when I went to summer camps. This was until I played music. Somehow when I started playing music, a lot of my anxieties went away. And it's funny that while it was tough for me to spend six weeks away from my parents, now I may go on the road for six or 12 weeks, and I see it in a very different way.

One of the biggest changes in this regard, and this is something I talk about a lot with my wife, has been becoming a parent and being responsible for a life other than my own. In this case, creating a life with my wife, who is my closest friend. With my son growing up so fast, there is a constant change, if not transformation, that makes you see things differently. Milo is going to turn nine soon, and through him I am constantly reminded of what I was like at eight, or nine. But I'm also looking at the way that he looks at life. At this point he loves playing soccer, and if it was up to him, he wouldn't ever stop playing soccer. I get that. On the other hand, how do you learn how to have control of your impulses? At what age do you do that? This is something that we all struggle with, but somehow as adults we've found a way to not just follow every impulse, yet have we watered down some sort of creative impulses? So it's fascinating to see what happens. We get older and our parents and our parent's friends are grandparents die and there's a cycle of life. And now I see 20 year olds that I realize taht I've known since they were babies. So it's all in there. Going back to the painted lady butterflies and the migration route they follow is that it takes them six generations from when they start in Mexico to when they arrive in Canada. It means that somehow, despite their tiny little brains, they know the path they have to follow despite the fact that the previous generation died, and that will happen five more times before they reach their destination. How does that happen?

AAJ: Let's stick with this inter-generational metaphor. As a band-leader you have your idols that you have looked up to and learned from. What would you hope that future generations of band-leaders, especially large-ensemble leaders, will remember you for?

ML: If I can give someone goosebumps, if I can make all the fatigue, anxiety and stuffy reality of the day go away and take people to a place where you're experiencing a higher-level joy—call it any emotion you want, love, ecstasy, passion, fear, even anger—that's an incredible thing to see. Sometimes when I turn around and I see that the entire audience is moving because they just can't help it, that's an incredible thing. I'm looking at people and they really look "in the moment." They're not concerned about what happened earlier or what is going to happen afterwards. That's a great place to be at. Whether that's achieved through melody rhythm, harmony, dissonance, counterpoint, that's secondary. That transcendental kind of thing is what matters. I've always felt that with Ellington and the other great composers. They really, they really know how to bring you there!

AAJ: In this day and age, when people have such a short attention span, especially in how people experience music, distractedly, creating a long suite is quite radical...

ML: I don't know if a most radical thing. But I am very aware of the fact that at a time when the music business and the recorded industry are in a very tenuous place, it is most important for live music to continue. If you can get people off their phones and in a room listening to live music, that's an incredible thing that should continue. And that was one of the reasons I thought about an orchestra that blurs the lines between genres.

People are talking about the future being about pop songs that are one minute long, rather than the current three minutes. And the fact that people don't buy albums or they just buy songs. Is writing a suite a punk move, a counter-culture move? I don't know. I certainly I didn't think about it that way when I embarked in this project.

In the end I would love to try to sell some records or the equivalent of it so that we can make another album. The ultimate goal is to keep on doing it, like film-makers make movies after movie. Tell a story, try to tell a powerful story and be able to tell another one after that. It's my dream to do one album a year. One year it could be a suite, the next year a collaboration with singers, etc. The sky's the limit. If I can mix it up that'll be the dream.

Photo credit: Shervin Lame

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