BCF Interviews George Spicka

July 5, 2020

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Your music background and anything else you’d like to share.
I’ve always been curious and creative. As a kid I loved to explore the woods around the small farm I lived on. My parents fished as a hobby, taking me along to the various lakes and creeks they frequented. Rather then join them though, most of the time I’d be looking at and turning over rocks, or gawking at the various insects and spiders I’d encounter, and other such activities.This was the beginnings of my interest in natural science, which I’m still involved with more then ever.

I was also into drawing and painting, with several of my efforts being hung on the wall of the grade school I attended. This took off around 1973, around the same time I began to seriously study music. This had ebbed by around the year 2000 (the music however continued), only to be replaced by photography. In the 80s, a number of my pen & ink drawings were used as newsletter covers. In 2016, a couple of larger drawings were on display in Annapolis at an Exhibit, “Mental Health Awareness,” that was hosted by Maryland’s First Lady, Yumi Hogan. One of these was used in Mental Health America’s awareness campaign. – https://georgespicka.weebly.com/art-work.html

 

How would you describe your musical style or styles?
I like many different genres of music and have written pieces that range from popular, to educational, to experimental, to synthesizer and sound works, to harmonic sketches and stream-of-conscious improvisations. As a composer though, my two main areas of concentration are “New Jazz” and Modern Chamber Music. I always keep my ears and eyes handy, should I encounter new inspiration(s).

 

What and/or who are your chief influences?
1) With regard to classical music, I remember being blown away in the 5th grade when the music teacher played Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” In college I was especially attracted to Impressionists like Ravel, Faure, and Debussy. I also liked the percussion ensembles, which to me are like an orchestra all to themselves. The BCF itself has exposed me to the many ways of approaching composition.My experience with modern chamber music began in the late 80s when I studied with John Stephens, director of the American Camarata for New Music – and a student of Pierre Boulez. Most of the time was spent analyzing the music of Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg.

Then in 1992 I joined the Baltimore Composers Forum, and soon became the recording archivist. Not only did I hear the music at concerts, I was able to listen closely to what was happening as I edited the performances.

Of all the works I listened to in those early years of the BCF, I feel the composer that influenced me the most was former BCF president Stephen Makofski, who studied with Peabody’s Ray Sprenke.

2) My initial experience with jazz was hearing the various television and movie themes of the 1950s and 60s. My true indoctrination though was when I heard pianist/composer Bill Evans in an intimate motel lounge setting, when I was living in Rochester NY the summer of 1972. We had been seated in such a way that I could hear and see everything he was doing. I just had to learn how to do that!

Also, we were staying at a motel that a lot of bands touring through the region would stay at also. When hanging out, a lot of them would be playing jazz in their rooms. I was especially impressed by the music of Miles Davis.

Previous to that I had been writing what was called “art/progressive rock” music, but when I moved back to Baltimore in 1973, I began to study with Jessica Williams, who though 2-years younger then me, had already written over 500 jazz pieces.

Being her first student, she really didn’t have a method. She’d play and have me stop her if I heard something I wanted to learn. However, we did a lot of critical listening to the recordings of jazz masters and in this way, their music got into my “ears.”

In addition, I purchased a copy of the “Real Book,” which is like a bible of jazz, and began to analyze the tunes in it. I started with Miles and expanded from there. Theory was my best subject in college, and I intuitively understood what was going on with the harmonies, progressions and related melodies.

Also, while on the road, I had gathered up as many books as I could find that were written by the Head of Julliard’s Jazz Program, John Mehegan. The four main volumes covered the history and current trends in jazz piano for the time. Other volumes had pieces that explored various harmonic concepts.

The most important aspect though, was that I began to write my own pieces in order to help myself better understand these concepts, which turned out to be the first major step in my becoming a jazz composer.

By the time I began to study contemporary classical music in the late 80s, I already had 200 jazz works under my belt.

 

Can you name something you did in a piece of music of which you are particularly happy with the result? Can be a small section of a piece up to a whole piece.
1) With regard to my jazz works, there are two results that I’m happy with. First is pushing at the boundaries of chord progressions and the specific harmonies involved. One way is to create a melodic line that ties together what at first might be considered to be unusual or abstract harmonies, into something that over time becomes familiar. The final arbiter is how it sounds to the ear, which of course can be highly subjective. Is it nonsensical gibberish, or is it something that tweaks the cilia in a positive manner?Second is freedom from rhythmic constraints. I love traditional jazz music, but as a creative person, there are times I hear music in my head that doesn’t fit into the concept of “swing.” Consider: Duke Ellington wrote the tune, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” But did he mean that literally? After all, he wrote Latin pieces too.

Personally what I think what he was referring to was the integrity of music’s rhythmic pulse, whether it be actual swing, or Latin, or rock, or whatever may come in the future.

My 2003 piece “Cybernation” is an example of this. It is a 16-bar ballad, at 92 bpm. There are no sections, i.e. [A][A][B][A]. Instead the piece continually evolves harmonically through those 16-bars. Improvised solos are then performed over the harmonic content of those 16-bars. The time signatures involved are 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4.

2) As for chamber music, it’s mixing jazz influences with modern composition. As I found out when I joined the American Music Center (Now New Music USA) years ago, there’s no restrictions to what you as a composer can use in your creative processes.

I generally don’t have a specific plan, but let the piece develop as ideas come to my head. One thing I do like are contrasts: passages that are tranquil to those that are agitated – sections that are relatively rhythmically free, to those that are highly controlled, etc.

In general, I attempt to tell a story about things I’ve experienced or learned about. The themes are often scientific or political in nature.

I’m Curator of Paleontology for the Natural History Society of Maryland, and I wasn’t awarded the position just because I have a pretty face 😉 Besides taking four years of honors geology courses, I was an educator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History’s “Naturalist Center” for three. I’ve collected from over 50 localities in the region, and have given talks about the region’s incredible wealth of fossils.

Writing those pieces is a way for me to share what many people here don’t know about concerning the fascinating history under our feet, something like “Upon Acquiring a Sauropod” (2014) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNFWKti5GuA

How many know that we have dinosaurs in Maryland, or that the Maryland State Dinosaur (Astrodon johnstoni) is a sauropod (the “veggiesaurus” in Jurassic Park), or that it was found in 1853 near Laurel in an iron mine (in colonial times, Maryland was the leading iron producer for the 13 Colonies), or that in Laurel we have “Dinosaur Park,” where two weekends a month, people can dig for dinosaur bones?

Politically, my influences are mainly George Orwell, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Eric Hoffer, all who have written about the psychology of political extremism. It doesn’t matter whether it be Fascism, Totalitarianism, religious or Nationalistic – the underlying psychology is the same. The warning is that we all harbor those seeds of destruction, and that it takes a conscious, moral effort to be truly rid of their influence. The piece here would be my 2012 solo piano composition, “Tolerance,” performed by Ruth Rose – https://georgefspicka-composer.weebly.com/tolerance.html

Are you published anywhere? How could someone who is interested purchase your music?
For purchasing, at least for now, the best way is to contact me directly. jazzstreet@aol.com
If you could offer one piece of advice to other composers, what would it be?
It’s a lot of work, essentially a lifetime of commitment and study, but the reward is being to contribute to the wealth of humanities cultural heritage.

 

If you could put 3 pieces of your music on the Voyager spacecraft for dissemination to the stars, what would they be? Also, please give a brief description of each piece and a link.
Hmmmm … I could put all the names in a very large hat, then have a complete stranger pick three at random. However:For an orchestral work, I’d choose “Tectonic Motion.” – https://georgefspicka-composer.weebly.com/tectonic-motion.html

For improvised piano, there’s “The Two Minutes Hate.” – https://georgefspicka-composer.weebly.com/the-two-minutes-hate.html

And for a jazz tune, I’ll pick S.E.T.I., in fact, a live performance thereof. It honors the SETI “Institute Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence”. It’s what I call “New Jazz.” Each line of the melody consists of four measures with the following meters: 5/4 – 4/4 – 3/4 and 2/4. Solos are in 6/4. – https://georgefspicka-composer.weebly.com/seti.html

 

Anything else you’d like to say?
“Well, it’s one for the money. Two for the show. Three to get ready. Now go, cat, go.”Seriously, and speaking for myself – at times I’ve experienced so much frustration, and with a natural disposition towards depression, I’ve just wanted to throw everything that involved me with music out the window. However, I’m still here.

What really helps besides the support of friends, are organizations like the Baltimore Composers Forum. Except for a period of political dysfunction in the late 1990s, it’s been very supportive of its members.