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An interview with...The Threefifty Duo

Threefifty Duo on New York subway platformThe Threefifty Duo, aka Geremy Schulick and Brett Parnell, were formed during musical studies at Yale, under the tutelage of Ben Verdery.

Drawing on rich diversity and influences from their hometown, New York City, the duo are renowned for their programme scheduling, mixing JS Bach, Brahms and Handel alongside contemporary musiscal styles, including the likes of Coldplay (see the second Youtube clip to the right here).

The duo has performed at a range of many respected venues and festivals within the United States. These include the 92nd Street Y, Southpaw, Pianos, The New York Guitar Festival, The Monkey and Bennington College in addition to playing at various Guitar Societies across the country.

What age were you guys when you started to play and what do you remember of your early playing days?

Brett: I starting playing guitar when I was 13. I actually tried to learn earlier. After about 5 or 6 complete failures I ended up learning the opening bass line to "Crazy Train" and from that point on you couldn't get the thing out of my hands. My brother taught me how to play so most of my guitar skills early on were learning rhythm guitar parts to a lot of glorious early 90s rock songs so that my brother could play the solos on top of them. That along with my obsession for all things Randy Rhoads pretty much summed up my first couple of years on the guitar.

Geremy: Similarly, I started playing rock guitar when I was 14. My cousin had started playing shortly before me, and I remember thinking it was so cool watching him do it, so I had to learn myself. I learned on my dad's Alvarez dreadnought from the 70's and took lessons with a friend of the family. I have such fond memories of those years, because not only was I loving the process of learning how to play, but through my lessons I got introduced to so much music I'd never heard before so I'd be buying CDs all the time and savoring all these amazing albums.

In addition to the songs I learned through my lessons I would go online and look up tabs and also try to figure out stuff by ear on my own. I never thought of it as work, just fun. It's what I wanted to do in my free time, so I never thought of it as "practicing" per se. That's why I tell my students to think of "playing" the guitar as opposed to "practicing," since I think you actually do the best work when you're having fun.

When did you first think that you could devote your life to playing guitar?

Geremy: Well, I was pretty sold on playing guitar basically right when I first took it up, but I'd say that I entered a new stage of obsession with it when I first started taking lessons with Frederic Hand as an undergraduate at Bennington College. I'd been shown the very basics of classical guitar a year or so before I went to college, but I'd never really seen the classical guitar played at such a high level before, so when Fred first played for me my jaw literally dropped. I had no idea the guitar was capable of such things, and I was mesmerized -- I knew I had to study that style of playing. I wasn't sure if I would be a music major when I first entered college, but after my first few lessons with Fred it became very clear to me that that's what I was more passionate about than anything.

Brett: I think that I was hooked right off the bat. I remember 14 year old Brett's internal struggle of deciding if he was going to be a professional musician or if he was going to be an incredibly successful pro basketball player. Alas, all of Michael Jordan's scoring records are safe because I realized that not pursuing guitar was not an option. The fact that my parents were incredibly supportive made me feel good about trying to pursue music as a career. I don't think that they ever asked me what my "back-up plan was." They had faith in me and that was always empowering.

Who have been the greatest influences on your playing career to date and why?

Brett: Wow, that is such a tough question. I feel like there are so many people who have helped me along the way. The people that pop into mind first are Ben Verdery and Dominic Frasca. My entire approach to music and art has been affected by these two. Aside from being amazing musicians they are both very empowering individuals. They have really encouraged both Geremy and myself to push ourselves harder and to believe in what we are doing. Ben did a complete overhaul of my playing when I started studying with him. He pushed me to be better on every level. Many long talks with Dominic got me to start thinking outside the box a little in regards to my playing as well as my approach to my career. There is no way that "Circles" would be what it is without his help. They are also two incredibly cool dudes to hang out with.

Geremy: Absolutely. I am forever grateful that two such mind-blowing musicians as Ben and Dom took us under their wing, so to speak. When Dominic agreed to produce our album I was so excited I was kind of in disbelief actually. I was a huge fan of his music long before I was able to meet him, so it definitely felt like I was getting to collaborate with one of my heroes. He was very serious and affirming about it from the beginning, too -he was very clear that he didn't want to invest his time and put his name on something he didn't believe in.

I also owe enormous gratitude to Fred Hand, who I mentioned before. It's really because of him that I decided to become a professional in the first place. Fred not only taught me a gigantic amount about playing the guitar, he really taught me what it means to be a musician. He always emphasized the importance of self-expression through music, and how music is at its essence an emotive communication. I think that's what was most inspirational about his teaching, and that's what really lit the fire in me.

More recently I've drawn great musical/professional nourishment from the community of amazing musicians I know here in NYC (New York City). It's just a really cool feeling to go out to some of the hippest venues in town and hear your friends play, and also to see friends and musicians you highly respect at your own shows.

Who are your favourite composers?

Geremy: I could really go on forever with this question since there's so much music that I love, but I'll try to narrow it down so I don't end up writing a whole dissertation here!

I'll start off by simply saying that J.S. Bach is the closest thing I know to a musical God. A lot of people first comment on Bach's technical/mathematical genius, which is certainly true, but above anything else I just find his music to be incredibly profound. With pretty much any of my other favorite composers I can at least grasp to some small extent where their notes are coming from and what their compositional process is but no matter how intensely I analyze Bach I ultimately feel a deep sense of mystery as to how he creates the music he creates. He uses the same 12 pitches everyone else uses, the same standard rhythms, a lot of times his harmonies are not even that complicated, and yet I always feel like there's something beneath the surface of his music that truly transcends anything remotely tangible. I'm also just a big fan of the baroque aesthetic in general -- other favorites are Scarlatti, Rameau, Weiss, Couperin, Vivaldi.

I've been a fan of minimalist music for some time now, and many people say they hear its influence in our music. For Christmas this year (2009) my girlfriend gave me an amazing box set of Steve Reich's collected works from 1965-1995 and it's been totally blowing my mind. One of the many things I love about his music is that I end up being put into a sort of trance from his pulsating repetition, but then when he does change the texture/harmony/rhythm in some way it feels truly monumental because you've grown so accustomed to what you'd been listening to for quite some time before. I also feel that Reich's sense of timing is impeccable and he knows exactly when and how to change things up, whether subtly or drastically, so that you always remain interested and totally engaged in the music.

Aside from classical music the other huge force in my musical life has been rock music. I played rock guitar for about 4 years before I was ever introduced to classical playing, and those were truly formative years for me. At first I fell in love with older rock music -- The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits to name a few. Now I've been listening to a lot of contemporary and indie rock and electronic music -- Radiohead, The National, The Arcade Fire, Ratatat, Daft Punk, The Books, Sufjan Stevens.

Brett: Two words: Wizard Rock.

Which players do you admire the most?

Brett: I've always liked players who make a statement when they play. It can be cool, profound, scary, amusing, beautiful, or anything else as long as it moves me in some way. Sheer virtuosity doesn't really push my buttons. I need some content. That is why I love Bream's playing so much. It always sounds like he put more thought into one note than most guitarists put into an entire piece. I feel the same way about Ben and Dominic's playing as well. It actually took me a while to find a guitarist whose playing really resonated with me. The first time I saw Ben live was the first time that happened.

I love and highly respect guitarists in other styles as well, not just classical. I think that Jonny Greenwood, from Radiohead, is a brilliant guitarist and incredibly innovative musician. The textures that he and Ed O'Brien create on two guitars are amazing and definitely a big influence on me.

Geremy: I couldn't agree more -this is actually so much of why we became a duo, because we discovered that we have such similar tastes in music. Other players I've admired through the years have been Kevin Gallagher, Kazuhito Yamashita, Chris Thile (mandolinist), Jimmy Page, and Mark Knopfler. Knopfler was actually my first guitar hero; what's always drawn me to him is his ability to seamlessly craft these incredibly catchy, expressive melodies in his solos. Similar to what Brett said before, I feel like a lot of times lead guitarists just treat the solo as their chance to show off, but I never felt that way with Knopfler, even though his chops certainly are impressive.

Do you have any future ambitions or projects you want to fulfil?

Geremy: Yes, far too many! As we usually are, we're both working on new compositions and that in and of itself can feel like an all-encompassing experience. We've come to enjoy writing so much, even though both of us were performance majors in school. It's really through composing that we feel like we've been able to find a more distinctive sound, and I think our own pieces will continue to be at the core of what we're about. That being said, we have long felt blessed to be surrounded by such an amazingly talented community of musician friends here in New York City, and we have ambitions of a future album featuring new works by some of our favorite composers we're fortunate enough to know here.

Ever since we started playing together we've also fantasized about doing an all-Bach album featuring all original transcriptions, mostly of keyboard works, but the pieces we have in mind are so ambitious that we know it would be some time before the project could come to fruition. Recently we started collaborating with the amazing multimedia artist Jennifer Stock who created stunning videos for our CD release concert, and we definitely want to keep that collaboration going. We're also going to be meeting with an awesome percussionist friend of ours, Mike McCurdy, to investigate what he might be able to add to our music.

The biggest challenge is really to juggle all of this with our more immediate work in setting up more shows and promoting Circles, which was truly a mammoth project for us so we want to make sure that we give it as much exposure as we can. Essentially it's always a balancing act between promoting what you've done and furthering your creative pursuits so that you continue to develop as an artist. Plus we both have a full schedule of students to teach, so that adds another element to the managing of one's time!

Brett: My future plans are to not let Geremy answer interview questions first. He says all the good stuff!

How do you approach learning and playing a new piece?

Brett: I think that I approach each tune that we play a little bit differently depending on what it inherently calls for. What are the tricky bits and what is the most important aspect of the piece that I want to make come across. There are tunes that require a lot of chops work. The last track on our new album, "Moanna," is like that. It really just required a lot of warming up on a lot of exercises just to get the fingers moving and then working it up slowly with a metronome. I try to figure out which parts are going to give me the most trouble early on and give them a lot more focus while I am working on it. I think that the main thing is to make sure that your hands are doing what the music calls for and not the other way around.

Geremy: Yes, certainly a lot of our tunes have required a good amount of technical work to pull off. I actually enjoy technique practice much more in that context of having to do it in the service of a particular piece you're excited about playing, since then it's toward a clear musical goal. Composing has actually improved both of our techniques considerably in this way, I think, since I'll often find myself sitting down to practice a piece I myself have written and being like, "Damn, I can't play this!" It's also very cool for me to have to learn Brett's music too, since our techniques have different strengths and weaknesses and we both tend to write to our strengths a lot of the time.

As a duo there's also a whole other level to practicing of course, and that's being tight as an ensemble. Certainly that's something we've had to put a huge amount of work into over the years, and again largely because of what's called for in some of the pieces we've written. "Circles," for instance, has a section where we're having to do a great deal of bouncing back and forth off of each other, alternating the playing of sixteenth notes between the two guitars.

I remember that was one of the tunes Dominic really cracked down hard on us with. When we first showed up to the studio to record that one he was just like, "You guys have got to go home and practice." He had us practice passages at half speed all the time and then slowly work it back up to tempo. He also told us to record ourselves every time we rehearsed to truly get an objective view of what it sounded like, since we learned that especially in a duo your perspective of what you sound like while playing can be very different from what is perceived by an outside listener. I feel like I was a meticulous practicer before I met Dominic, but he certainly brought it to another level!

Music or memory? Which do you prefer when performing?

Geremy: We definitely prefer performing from memory. We've both observed that a certain disconnect can occur when performers are directing their attention towards a music stand instead of out towards the audience. We also feel that we simply play better when we have the music memorized, just because through memorizing we come to know the music all the more. Certainly it's very common for solo guitarists to commit music to memory, I think for these same reasons, but what's perplexing to me is that it's far less common in chamber groups.

I almost feel like the advantages of memorizing are even greater with chamber music, since not only are you having to direct your energy out towards the audience but you're also having to communicate on a very intense level with the other musician(s). Brett and I communicate a good amount with visual cues and I also just feel like I'm able to sync up with him much better if I'm able to look over at him a lot of the time and watch his fingers. I know I'm just speaking for us though, since I've seen plenty of extremely tight chamber groups who perform with the music and are able to communicate very well. It's certainly one of those more personal things.

Brett: The decision to go completely from memory came pretty early on once we finished school.

To finish off, do you have a tip for playing, practising or anything classical guitar related?

Brett: Listen to tons of music. Not just classical music. Listen to anything that you can get your hands on. Every time I am exposed to new music I feel like I am feeding my own creativity. Even when it's music that I don't particularly like- in a way you learn just as much about yourself as a musician when that's the case, because you come to understand more closely just what pushes your own musical buttons.

I feel like there are so many different ways to express yourself musically and I personally have only heard about 3% of them. Not to mention that listening to music is the reason that I started playing music. It wasn't the glamorous appeal of countless hours spent in a windowless practice room that got me to pick up a guitar. It was blaring "Crazy Train" on my brother's stereo while dreaming that one day I'd be able to play that opening riff. I still get that rush from listening to good music and I think that is what keeps me so passionate about my own playing.

In my experience one very important thing that often gets neglected amongst performers is that one should predominantly play music one loves. Sure, there can be a benefit to playing a particular etude that exercises a technique that needs work even if it's not your favorite piece ever, but I feel that overall there's way too much amazing music out there to play something you only feel lackluster about. I think too often people play pieces just because they think it's what they should do or because it's virtuosic or because it's part of the standard repertoire.

The bottom line is that you should be playing music because you love it, because it feeds the soul in some way, and in order to truly give an impactful performance of something I feel like you have to love it, first and foremost. I have such lasting memories of what it felt like when I was a student to witness a piece I knew and loved from listening to it over and over again slowly and blissfully unfold underneath my own fingers. It's that process of discovery that's kept me nourished as a musician.

Ed-Many thanks to Brett and Geremy for giving this interview and we wish you all the very best with your forthcoming release and future projects!

Where do you want to go to next?

Read our review of the duos, latest CD release, "Circles"
Visit the Threefifty Duo's own website and purchase their recordings
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