The 9th Annual Bonneville Chamber Music Festival wrapped up on March 21st. The Richter Uzur Duo kicked it off on March 2. The duo appeared BYU Radio’s Highway 89 earlier this month. The program was kind enough to offer 15 Bytes a video of one of their pieces “Facing East” and an exclusive portion of the transcript from their broadcast with Highway 89 host, Steven Kapp Perry.
STEVE: Viktor! Welcome back. It’s good to have you in the studio again.
VIKTOR: It’s great to be back! Thanks for having me back.
STEVE: The two of you work together very well, but you live about 1000 miles apart so how did you ever meet? How did you ever start working together?
VIKTOR: Well this is one of the good things, the many good things, that Weber State brought to me. [I] was actually employed there in 2005 and that is when BRAD was hired to write a very large-scale work called Navigating Lake Bonneville. And that involved a cellist, and I was one of those cellists, the hired cellists, and we really hit it off after that. We found that we have similar interests in music and composing and arranging, and also…life.
STEVE: People have written from [across] distances before. I think of operas where a libretto would be sent to a composer, where the composer was in Italy and the librettist was in France. This took a long time. Do you Skype [with BRAD]?
VIKTOR: We use all possible modern technology to make our co-composing and arranging easier, yes. We use musical software, we play for each other on the phone. Not so often on Skype actually, it’s usually over the phone. One of the more fun things is when we get together to tour, we usually get together the night before we have a concert and at that point we usually have a new piece or a major change and the following day we try it out for the first time! When we arrive in the evening, we really [say] “Okay! Let’s not rehearse the old pieces, let’s see how this goes!” because we really don’t have a lot of time to do it.
STEVE: Yeah why not rehearse it once before you premiere! *laughs*
VIKTOR: *laughing* Yes.
STEVE: You also do a lot of musical mash-ups, combining classical with music from Led Zeppelin, the Flight of the Bumblebee, James Bond themes…everything’s game!
STEVE: Is everything open to be re-mixed and mashed together?
VIKTOR: It’s really what we like. You know, we trust each other’s tastes, and we hope that our audiences will trust our tastes. We’re careful about [not] intruding [on] something that’s really and truly valuable artistically and not changing what’s original to it.
STEVE: I heard comments you made before a performance you gave where you played Rhapsody in Blue, and maybe that’s in the sacred pantheon, yet still you’re adapting it for cello and guitar. How do you adapt something like that?
VIKTOR: That one is a tough one. That’s why we’re not playing it tonight! *laughs* It was tough because it’s a very…we used the original version that Gershwin used for just piano solo, and he was a fantastic pianist with big hands so it was a big challenge to arrange that. But it worked! It was quite a sport to do that on both instruments.
STEVE: Now, you started really teaching yourself guitar [when you started playing.]
BRAD: I did.
STEVE: As in, just you and your guitar. For years!
BRAD: That’s true. For the first seven or eight years that I played I was self-taught. One of the reasons I didn’t progress particularly fast was that I had a guitar with just three strings. And so I figured out what to do on those three strings.
STEVE: Were they consecutive strings or were they scattered?
BRAD: They were consecutive. They were the three lower-pitch strings so I could play a bunch of heavy metal power chords, which is what I started with.
STEVE: And really, what more could you ask for. *laughs*
BRAD: *laughing* For a twelve-year-old-boy it was the thing.
STEVE: And then you show up to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, you audition, you get in, and did they say anything like “Wow you have your own unique style” or how did that go?
BRAD: Well the transition wasn’t that clean as that and of course in the biography it sounds like I went from teaching myself on a farm in Oklahoma to the American Conservatory of Music. What I actually did is I moved to Chicago when I was about 18 and I got a job washing dishes and I earned money to take lessons with a teacher in the Conservatory of Music. [This was] about 4 months before my 19th birthday. I straightened out a lot of things I did wrong while teaching myself and then I auditioned. I had no intention of going to college ever, sorry to be a bad influence *laughs,* but it wasn’t in my plans and then he [the teacher] said he liked my playing and asked me to audition, and I did. And, you know, I loved it.
STEVE: One of the comments you made, and I thought this could be a line from a Science Fiction movie I just really loved it, you said (paraphrasing) “something about studying guitar so intensely spread into the rest of my academic life” and then here’s the line: “I could feel my brain changing.”
BRAD: Yeah that’s true. You know [there are] all of the studies that relate intense study of instrumental music to better performance in math, science and reading. I could feel a difference in my brain, starting at about age 20 with my ability to remember numbers, add and subtract quickly. I’m still terrible at algebra and geometry and everything, but my retention… I really did feel a change.
STEVE: Is it a power of concentration? Or willingness to do the work of concentration for a longer time? Or [just] that all the number went together faster?
BRAD: Well I think there are several things that play when that happens. One is that synapses are formed and become permanent and your brain actually does grow. I mean, it doesn’t swell of course-
STEVE: *Laughing* That would be the science fiction.
BRAD: Yeah that would be bad! And then I think the practice of memorizing things, the discipline that it takes to learn an instrument and the focus, all those things, help in countless ancillary ways like math and memory.
STEVE: Viktor, you’re one half of this duo, but you also teach cello at Weber State University, and you’re the founder and director of the annual Bonneville Chamber Music Festival.
STEVE: So you get to play solo, you get to play duo, you get to teach. You really try and do it all.
VIKTOR: I try to do all of the things that I really feel are important. I love being an educator. I also think that chamber music is so rich with so many choices and fantastic music; and I think that our community, our area here, really does need that. And yes, I enjoy working with BRAD, or playing any other pieces. Yes.
STEVE: The Bonneville Chamber Music Festival happens pretty close to March every year: brings international musicians together and that must be really fun for you to look around and thing who are the guests going to be? Who can I get?
VIKTOR: That’s sometimes the fun part. Sometimes you have to be sort of careful about who you are bringing because you are matching people, you’re matching different characters. I do like to [personally] know whom I am bringing. So I usually bring artists that I’ve had a chance to collaborate with somewhere in this world at some point. And it is always fun to have a good group of people who are amazing musicians and fun to hang out with. And that creates a really good energy when we have two days to put an hour and a half program together, y’know. *laughing*
STEVE: *laughs* So everyone learns their parts and then comes and there are intense rehearsals.
VIKTOR: Yes, yes, and that’s what happens.
STEVE: This seems like you and Brad have in common; 1st the willingness to take a risk on something like that but also that you want to make things happen musically. I meant to mention that he also has a non-profit, Lead Guitar, that’s aimed at getting school kids connected with guitar lessons, so both of you doing musical outreach.
VIKTOR: Yes, and he was just actually telling me today, I didn’t know the number, but his Lead Guitar program has grown to (I think) 5,000 new kids are right now playing guitar thanks to that program—that’s a pretty impressive number. And yes, we do like to leave something behind or do something useful for our community.
STEVE: So I have to ask, you were born and raised in (he carefully pronounces) Sumadia i Pomoravlje.
VIKTOR: Very well done, yes.*laughter*
STEVE: *laughing* Oh, thank you. I’ve been working on that. So in Serbia, there’s been so much music written about that part, about the Balkans, about Europe [and] so much music created there—everything from gypsy to classical. Did you feel growing up there that, “Wow I have a really rich tradition?” Or was it just “what you did.”
VIKTOR: This [music] is something you hear growing up and it really becomes part of the things that you [know]. You know self-taught accordion players are really being so virtuosic, we are not talking only about folk music, I mean I know self-taught accordion players that are playing Bach Fugues. And you arranging this music [that was] for church organ because you can do that with accordion. So very, very gifted musicians. Not only in Serbia but in the whole Balkan Peninsula: Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria.