The Chamber of Musical Curiosities Podcast: Paul Grabowsky
For this edition of the podcast, Paul Kildea sits down with pianist, composer and jazz enthusiast Paul Grabowsky. The pair begin by talking about Paul Grabowsky’s heritage and the fascinating history of his father, which includes forming a swing band in Townsville during World War II.
The podcast continues by talking about Paul Grabowsky’s fascination with music from a young age and his music education or rather, his education through music. They also discuss Paul Grabowsky’s monumental choice to stop studying classical music and instead focus on jazz. The conversation also touches on his decision 10 years ago to improvise for 40 minutes on the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, something that he will be revisiting later this year in a special tour for Musica Viva Australia.
Listen to the full episode below.
PK: Hello, I'm Paul Kildea, artistic director of Musica Viva Australia. And I'm here today with the musician Paul Grabowsky who has a bag of aria, opera, AFI awards and nominations under his belt. Hi, Paul.
PG: Hello, Paul,
PK: I'd like to start with your surname, which hints at the polish counts or owners of vast estates outside Lublin or near the Baltic Sea. Am I anywhere close?
PG: Well, maybe not Lublin or the Baltic Sea. I'm rather sketchy understanding of my ancient history. Familial history is that it's probably located around Krakow actually, but I'm told from a somewhat apocryphal history written by an eccentric uncle of my father's, that the Grabowsky family were aristocracy who ruled over three counties of Poland, but they were closely associated with the Royals that they rode with Sobieski and the relief of Vienna against the Turks and all. This sounds incredibly glamorous and full of pageantry. But of course, Poland was carved up like an apple pie between its three surrounding neighbours Russia. Austria Hungary and Prussia during the 18th century and the family seemed to have gone into exile with the last king of Poland, who was Stanislaw August Poniatowski who actually did have a mistress whose name was Elzbieta Grabowska who had been the wife of a General Grabowski. But whether or not she is in any way related to us is still highly contentious. But that's the origin of the family name.
PK: It's a great origin. I wonder if you've spent time in that beautiful cathedral in Krakow or if you've had a relationship with Poland since you've been an adult.
PG: You know what? I haven't even been to Poland, I'm very ashamed to admit. And I hope to make that right in the next period of time.
PK: So therefore, extrapolating from that Polish heritage probably didn't mean a lot to you growing up in the Melbourne suburbs in the seventies.
PG: Well, look, you know, my father's story is an interesting one because by the time my father was born, which was 1909, so he was the last of many children And I was a late addition to his life. He was 50 when I was born, he spoke of his earliest memories being quite extraordinary. His father owned a shipping line which traded with czarist Russia. So dad was born into great luxury, essentially wealth on the west coast of Scotland, on the Gare Loch near Glasgow, Helensburgh. And when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, pretty much the Grabowsky assets were all located at that point in Russia. So, the ships were in Russian harbours, they had a lot of real estate holdings and I know that various of his brothers and sisters were born in places like Helsinki and Petersburg. And in fact, we have a photograph taken of my grandmother and the children all in their sort of very fender circle finery shot by the Russian imperial court photographer. So they definitely had connections, but they lost the lot and then I think Carl Grabowsky went over to Russia with a British trade delegation to try and do something about negotiating a deal that went very badly. And in fact instead that he spent some time in jail in Russia while he was there then he was released through another British trade delegation. And his sons who had had commissions in the Royal Navy were offered land under some kind of repatriation scheme or a soldier settlement scheme actually. And they came out to Australia in 1921 to a place called Fish Creek which is in South Gippsland near, um not far from Wilson's Promontory. So you can imagine what a kind of quantum shift that was for them, some of them were able to kind of make that transition reasonably well but the old man just couldn't cope and he was a very angry person. He ended up going back to Scotland and died there. My father's eldest brother was Noel. He died in the maiden voyage of the Dirigible R101 that the largest airship that the British ever built which crashed on its maiden flight in 1930. So he, that was his story, the second eldest was called Ian and he was an aviator and he went to New Guinea where he became well known as being the pilot who flew explorers around New Guinea. And dad went to join him. Dad went up and started to work on an oil rig in the Fly River in 1930 and then spent all of the 30s in New Guinea. Being an adventurer, you know, flying planes, cutting roads through the jungle, playing the drums in the band. And then he eventually returned to Australia when the war broke out, built airfields for the Allied Works Council in Queensland in 1942, met my mother and on it went.
PK: So how how does the son of a New Guinean adventurer discover his taste in music and his talent for it?
PG: See, dad loved music and he was, to all intents and purposes, an amateur musician, in fact, when they were stationed in Townsville during the war, dad had a swing band, which of course at that time was the popular music of the day. That would be like the equivalent of having a covers band now and they were called, believe it or not, Grabowsky and his Hot Shots, I tell you, no lie,
PK: I do believe it.
PG: Actually, had played the drums and sang, He did a bit of a crooner thing, sort of a Bing Crosby kind of thing. And he had some really good players in that band, including harmonica player Hori Dagi, and some American servicemen played in it. So it would have been totally okay. And then my brother who was born many years before me, same parents. But he was my brother Michael, my late brother now, was born in 1942 And I was born in 58 and my brother and I both became musicians. So, go figure it was clearly in the gene pool somewhere. And I believe my father's mother, who was Irish called Mary McCarthy, couldn't be much more Irish sounding than that, played the harp, of course, being Irish. So there was definitely music on that side of the family. I can't see there being any musical connection on my mother's side because she largely came from Cornish tin miners or, you know, sort of teetotaling, Presbyterian, Scottish jewellers. So there wasn't a lot of knees up on her side of the family, I don't think. But I think that there was probably a tilt towards aesthetic sophistication in the Grabowsky family.
PK: Because I was about to say, your training as a musician was anything but being a crooner, it was kind of very serious standard classical training with a rather wonderful teacher, Mac Yost. How did all that come about? And what were the kind of repertory decisions that you're making then?
PG: I love talking about Mac. It's one of my favorite topics. So, look, I showed a proclivity for music and interested in music when I was very, very young and as my mother used to tell the story and I never knew to what extent she was slightly building it, but according to Charlotte I didn't speak very much at all in my first couple of years, but I apparently was listening a lot. But she was concerned that I had some kind of language issue and all of a sudden, I started to talk in sentences and a lot of it was about music and then I discovered records and I, I had this kind of obsession with trying to wash scratches off our collection of 78s. I put them in the hand basin and try and wash the scratches off. So you know, music, music, music. And then they bought a piano when I was four and I immediately gravitated to the piano and started to make noise on it. And then I went to the local piano teacher. We were in Glen Waverley in Melbourne, which was on the Melbourne's Eastern Fringe in those days. Mrs Meers was her name, and she was lovely and started me through the tuner day, kind of the normal beginning that every child has at the piano. And when I was in grade two at single primary school, my teacher whose name was Mr Peter Hillebrand, he was an organist who had something to do with St. Pat's and I remember he took me in there with my mother one day and he played the organ. I think he might have even gotten me out there to play a bit, but he knew Mac and he said to my mother, Paul is musically gifted and he really should be with a teacher who is going to be more on that kind of, you know, start him on that sort of pathway. And I know just the guy and it was, it was quite a call because Mac at that stage had never taught a pre-teen, but he just used to call me my boy and that continued until I was 18. You know, Mac was somebody for whom music was an absolute calling. And I think that that's one of the things I learned from him. We're not in music for any other reason than music itself. You know, if you happen to get wealthy from it or if there's some other kind of thing that happens via music, then okay, good luck to you and well done, hooray. But that's not the reason we do it. And we should never lose sight of the fact that the reason we play music is because of music. And um you know that that just became clearer and clearer and clearer to me as I got older. And I mean part of the reason why I gravitated to jazz was because of that sense of, well this is the calling aspect of this. What is calling to me in music is that music, once I discovered it, once I started to explore it. And the more I worked out what it was and what it invited of a composer and of a pianist, you know, what the relationship with the instrument was going to be and how you're going to express yourself and how you're going to apply your pianism to that particular world of creating music that was still about the music. It wasn't, so I often joke, you know, I'm not in jazz for the money because I don't think anybody is. And Mac, yeah, it was a kind of an ethical education through music. And as I got older, I started to get interested in his book collection, for example, or his art collection. He was a great art collector. He had works of particularly Rupert Bunny, a drawing of Rembrandt, John Russell, the Australian impressionist painter. The first I'd ever heard of Russell was through Mac because Mac had bought a Russell at auction and he was very excited about that. So, you know, he introduced me to all these things and then his book collection had these amazing, like the complete long form version of The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. You know, the kind of proto comparative mythology book, amazing stuff. So I used to sort of dip into those when I was waiting for my piano lesson. Or if I'd go early, I'd listen to him practicing Charles Ives. He was one of the first pianists in Australia, in fact, he may have been the first to play the complete Concord Sonata. So these were very early input kind of things that I just sat there and soaked up as a kid. And he also got me to play unusual things, like he would, for my contemporary music List B or something, he'd say, well, you know, here's Klavierstücke by Webern, this will be unusual, but you'll like it. And sure enough I did. And later it was the Webern Variations and the Bag Piano sonata, which I played my first year recital at the con, so I can't thank him enough. And the thing that I still every day thanks Mac for is Bach, which is a great way of, you know, relating everything that we've said thus far to where we're heading with all this, I suspect.
PK: And in your suspicions, you are correct, but just land that point on Bach because it was my great love student, I learned from a colleague Max Cooke and Bach was a way of escaping Max's taste for the romantic and I just wonder how it, how it featured in your imagination and Max at this time. Well, look, Max's love of Bach of course was very well known and probably not dissimilar from Mac, I suppose. I mean, Mac came out of a tradition of Russian pianism. Mac had studied with Ignaz Friedman, who represented very much the Russian tradition and I think there's a lineage in terms of piano teachers from Ignaz Friedman, which somehow goes back to Clara Schumann. I'm not sure how that works, but I'm pretty sure that Mac told me that his kind of, your ancestor was Clara Schumann from a pedagogical point of view. Mac always referred to Bach as the master. Max. I've got a funny story about Max actually, it seems not, not, not inappropriate to share it at this point. I had organized a lunchtime concert at Melbourne Hall, the concert hall, the recital at Melbourne University Conservatory of Music in Parkville, beautiful hall, and they just bought a new Steinway. See, and we were having a rehearsal slash sound check, I mean, you know, you've got to imagine Paul, you know, we were first year students,
PK: But a first year student playing the Baird Sonata.
PG: No, no, no, absolutely no. First year student who was a classical pianist who certainly had promise, I'm not denying that for a second, you know. Berg and the Schumann Papillon I remember was on that recital two was pretty ambitious recital program when I look back at it, sort of thing, which would make me go to water now. But anyway, but we weren't great jazz players. This is the point I'm trying to make none of us could really play jazz. We all thought we could play jazz, but we really couldn't. And anyway, we were we were limbering up for this concert and Max came, I'm telling you storming. I've never seen Max storm before, but Max stormed into Melbourne Hall and the immortal words, there will be no jazz played on this instrument came from Max's mouth.
PK: That's the best pen sketch I think I've ever had of Max Cooke, a teacher that I sort of was slightly more scared of than revering of, but there we go.
PG: Yeah, he can be pretty intimidating. So Maria Prendergast I think was the secretary of the faculty at that point. And I went to see Maria and I said, is there anything you can do about this? And she went and hosed him down and the thing all went ahead. But what I do remember about the concert, apart from the fact that the music was probably acceptable was that Mac and Ron Farren Price both came and they sat, you know, in the front row just to be supportive. And when at the end of second year I decided to take a deferrer year and I went back and during that deferral year my father died and I've gotten even more into jazz and you know, something has really shifted in me about do I really want to continue my classical piano studies? Is that how I want to spend my time? My mother and my brother were horrified that I was considering not continuing because I was just sort of, you know, the one who had gone to university and I went back, attempted to start my third year and I lasted about five minutes. I just thought I can't do this. So I went to Mac and I said, look, I really just want to go and play jazz, I have to do this. I've got to follow my own muse here. And you know, he said, look, I'm sorry about that, but I understand. He was very understanding and you know, years later, Mac came to my gigs and years later when I was asked by Richard Mills to play the Bach D minor with the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra, what did I do? I went back to Mac, you know, it was just fantastic to be back in that seat again, back in that relationship and you know, we used to have him as a dinner and it was just, you know, he came to my wedding, so he was a friend and yeah, it's a beautiful relationship, I miss him.
PK: Why not talk a little bit about then, the project that you're doing for us, which is a kind of full circle in some senses of this young kid learning Bach and soaking up everything that Mac sent your way. And I'm very grateful, I described this project the other day to a friend saying that you completely saved my bacon in the Perth Festival over 10 years ago, when I rang him and said, you know, look, there's a very specific brief which is to come in and improvised for 40 minutes on the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and I'd forgotten this detail, you told me this, that you had just been in Perth at the festival, had flown all the way back to Melbourne when the call came. And of course, you just jumped on the plane and came and gave this just barnstorming performance, man, it was great. And you haven't even had time to think about it. And I suppose that's the joy of jazz. If you've got this kind of amazing imagination and and mountain of ideas, you can, you can draw on them. But yeah, I did say to this friend, I feel as though I've owed Paul for a very long time, and this is a very nice way of repaying that debt, which is by asking you to repeat this project with a different pianist, Andrea Lam
PG: It's beautiful. And you know, I was thrilled of course, to be asked. Yes, it is a funny story and I'll never forget that call. And indeed, I had just been playing jazz jazz with my quintet at the Festival of Perth. Actually, the call came through to me in Brisbane because at the time I was the AD of the Queensland Music Festival. So I've flown back to Brisbane and it was from Brisbane that I took off and flew to Perth and no sooner had I put the phone down from you than I thought to myself? What have I just what have I done? What if I agreed to do? Are you an idiot? And I remember sitting backstage and listening to that Russian pianist playing the Goldberg Variations and thinking, how on earth do I follow this? How am I how am I going to not make a complete and utter ass of myself having listened to that? I mean that music is the best music in existence. How can you do this? Talk about impostor syndrome? So anyway, you know, here's the thing, different people have done different versions of this particular idea. This is not the only example of an improvising sort of jazz based musician taking on the Goldberg Variations as a project. There's a guy in New York Dan Tepfer, incredible jazz musician. And his take on it is that he actually does 30 variations, You know, he looks at each, I guess from, I don't know, a technical point of view, or he's a very analytical kind of person, so he makes it into a kind of a almost, I guess a compositional slash improvisational paradigm. And I think the Melbourne pianist Joe Chindamo, does something with Zoe Black around the Goldberg Variations too, although I've never heard that.
PK: It's actually very literal, funnily enough that that performance,
PG: That's what I imagine it would be, yeah. My mind is based on a very different kind of direction, I suppose, of the whole question around the role of the improviser And my philosophical jumping off point comes from an unlikely source and for classical lovers, lovers of classical music, a name that people may not be familiar with. And that is the great American alto saxophonist and sort of philosopher Ornette Coleman and Ornette Coleman, who passed away a couple of years ago has been famous for something which has been associated with him, which is completely kind of inappropriately named or the association of his name with this concept is quite wrong, in the sense that Ornette Coleman and the words Free Jazz seem to have been brought into some kind of direct relationship. And you know, when I hear the words free jazz, I tend to think of something which is largely unstructured, you know, very Dionysian sort of fully improvised thing, which is largely driven by setting out not to know what you're going to do. That, and at no point should that ever play a kind of determining role. And you know, it places it in a very particular kind of musical politics too. Ornette's music is not like that at all. Ornette’s music, and the reason why he's associated with free jazz is because he made an album called Free Jazz. But Ornette’s music is based on a theory of music of his own devising called harmolodics and harmolodics like most of Ornette’s utterances which are chimerical. they are very difficult to pin down. He had a very idiosyncratic way of expressing himself, both musically but also in words and I had the opportunity to discuss these things with him. So I have been subjected to his eye crossingly bizarre method of formulating sentences and explaining concepts, but from what I've been able to glean from my own years and years of listening to him, harmolodics says this, that the life of every musical instant is relational to the life of every other musical instant. In this way you could say that music is not dissimilar from what we have learned about the structure of the universe, in the sense that the universe is made up of subatomic entities which are of such a nature that we don't actually ever locate them except in relation to each other, so that the universe essentially is created out of a relational proposition. This is the structure of matter, and music is about that too. And so all the events in any piece of music are really about their relationship to each other. Pitch relationships, relationships are pitched to harmony, particularly the confluence of pitch which expresses itself as harmony because Ornette would maintain that there is no such thing as harmony as the Germans would say, ‘an und für sich ‘, there's nothing in harmony which is self-standing. We teach it, but what we're teaching is in fact something which is a construct, it doesn't really exist except because it happens to be the result of the convergence of simultaneous lines. And they result in harmony. And that's why when we teach harmony, it's all about voice leading and moving voices. It's because harmony is resultant out of those processes. And then there's rhythm. So rhythm is again a very soft stand that is soft standing and very important and it contains its own internal processes. But the relationship then between it and melodies and you know, in Ornette’s music, very important that you hear it so beautifully expressed in the relationship between melody and bassline. Now, the thing about this music of course is that improvisation plays a gigantic role in it. And so the capacity of the musicians to be able to play this music is fully dependent on their ability to a, understand their function within the music as being independent, complete in and of itself. And yet at the same time mutually interdependent on the other things that are happening around it. So in listening to any piece of Ornette Coleman’s, you can approach it from a number of different directions, like in Alexander Calder mobile or something. And it will always be a fully rewarding musical experience. And I would say that is totally true of all of his music, including the music that he’s written for classical ensembles. His very large work for orchestra and improvisers called Skies in America, very rarely performed, but it's one of those sort of maverick American masterpieces and certainly true of his small group work. So Goldberg Variations, you know, for me setting out from the platform of the Goldberg Variations, my challenge then is to go, okay, that is a platform. I have the driving idea of Bach and the principles inherent in Bach’s music now, where Bath and Ornette Coleman kind of converge, is it Bach, in musical historical terms, represents the apogee of the contrapuntal tradition. And its kind of, its simultaneous emergence as the sort of also high point of Italian music which resulted in the circle of fifths and voice leading harmony and dominant relationships in music. All of which will then express through equal temperament, which happened to coincide with Bach, you know, who would have been used of course, to organ tunings, which would have resulted in extraordinary internation issues in certain keys. You know, I've been learning to play the Goldberg Aria in all 12 keys, so I can play the Goldberg Aria in all 12 keys now. And it's really interesting to me. I was talking to Genevieve Lacey the other day and I said, I've been playing the Goldbergs, Goldberg Aria in all 12 keys. And she said, oh, that's interesting. She said, what does it sound like in D. Flat? And I said, well, it's weird in D. Flat, I mean of course, is at the piano makes excuses for it because we can make it sound like it's a piece in D. Flat. I mean what sounds weird in D. Flat about the Goldberg Aria is the register in which it's being played, is the tenor register or its way to soprano, you know. It doesn't sit kind of register where it completely makes sense. But boy, oh boy on an instrument in 1720 tuned according to the principles of 1720 tuning. If you played it in D. Flat-
PK: You'd know about it
PG: Screaming from the building, you know, it would be amazing actually. And I mean that's what we so miss out on. I mean he wrote it in G major and he wrote it in G major for a bloody good reason because he could do 30 variations on it in G major and it would be fine, no one moves, no one gets hurt kind of thing. Now the sort of conceit that I have as a pianist is I can shift it around and I think that one of the tools that I do have at my disposal is modulating it. And I think the only thing that I had bothered to do for the original Perth gig was that I had written out the chord changes in like a couple of different keys so that at least I could improvise on the harmonic structure and get away from playing in G all the time because that's that's perfect for Bach because he's come up with all these little musical puzzles and you know, the canons, it's typical of Bach, he’s made this into a kind of a let's see how clever I can be here situation and always is breathtakingly clever.
PK: Can you remember whether you finished in G in Perth?
PG: I did, I did, I did. I remember I came back over an ostinato, I set up some sort of a rippling sort of bell like ostinato and then I just plunked the melody on top of it, you know? And then I think, I think I got halfway through it and then I played the second half back to the original again. But what I love to do in this gig is just take the listener on a journey really, in which they know that everything that I'm playing is somehow coming out of my relationship with the Goldberg Variations, but I'm not trying to do my Goldberg Variations, That is definitely not what I'm setting out to do. But I will start with the Aria and I will finish with the Aria and in between it, I will take people through the whole world of different things and I guess like Bach does, I'll explore some technical and phenomenal logical challenges thrown up by the actual piano itself. And it's really funny trying to play, as you would know, and you could probably play them very well, but it's really incredible, for the double manual stuff that he's written, which, you know, on a two manual harpsichord from a technical point of view, okay, it's all doable right. But on the piano, you know, some of this stuff is like, ridiculous, ridiculous and hilarious. So that you end up with these kind of mirrored arpeggios which are literally doing that and you've got to find a way of doing that and getting the fingers out of the way like, would you get out of the way, you know this thing and I love it. I really will look forward to to hanging with Andrea and just talking to her about how she's gone about wrestling those to the ground because they really are very hard.
PK: They really are. And that was more or less my brief to you start with the Aria, finish with the Aria and then take the audience on this magnificent journey, which I know you're going to do. And I look forward to seeing two things, the similarities, but also the complete differences in your performances over the concert tour. So Paul, it's a delight to spend time in your company and brain and I'm going to just revel in doing the same on tour. So Paul, lovely to speak.
PG: My absolute pleasure, Paul, great to speak to you.