When approaching the music of River Guerguerian, please be prepared to land somewhere other than the place you started. Guerguerian’s approach can be likened to a journey or, better yet, a quest. Speaking to him as he sits in the lap of his beautifully decorated studio/classroom, it becomes obvious that for Guerguerian, it’s not just about the music, or the grooves, even — it’s about life itself.
And in case you’re wondering if this is a story about a new-agey kind of guy who specializes in drum circles and loves to speak the lingo, think again. Guerguerian’s been around the block, so to speak, having lived and gigged in the Big Apple, spent serious time in places most of us would never dream of going, and knows his way around a classic jazz drum set, ready to rap about inspirations like Papa Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach.
By way of contrast, though, dig this thought and bit of info first, coming from the man himself in a recent email follow-up to our interview. It contains both information as well insight into Guerguerian’s muse, music, and life, not to mention work. “If you are into meditation or really chill music,” he wrote, “here is a link to my CD Tibetan Bowl Meditation. I was asked by The Relaxation Company to put it together and now it is distributed by Sounds True. When it came out in 2010 it was on the top 20 charts of physical CDs sold in the USA for six months ... in its category.
“I used singing bowls, water gongs, cello, bass, and electric guitar to create the tracks. There is no percussive ‘rhythm’ in it. It’s kind of like laying on a raft in the middle of the ocean. I tried to create a soundscape that was relaxing and regenerative at the same time.”
So, Mr. Guerguerian, whose new CD exploring classical Middle Eastern and South Asian materials called Grooves For Odd Times (ShareTheDrum.com), is also “creating soundscapes” and making a living at it? What’s the world coming to?
Guerguerian’s been a working musician for well over 30 years now. In the process he’s become a virtuoso, playing multiple percussion instruments. He’s also a composer (he wrote all the music on his new CD) and educator. To see him in that school studio while talking to him on Skype — a spacious room lined with a beautiful assortment of acoustic guitars hanging across deep-green-colored walls, not to mention two drum sets, keyboards, and, of course, an assortment of percussion instruments — was to see not only an educator of kids but a kid himself.
This gig, no doubt, has something to do with the recordings and concerts he’s made both as a leader and in collaboration with a stunning array of musicians and ensembles. Along with the cofounded Talujon Percussion Ensemble and the world jazz group Free Planet Radio, a short list of collaborators would also have to include the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Paul Winter Consort, Sophie B. Hawkins, Tan Dun, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Chuck Berry (!), the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble, The Billy Sea, and Ziggy Marley/Gipsy Kings.
The venues? Try Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, a variety of music festivals and halls the world over (e.g., Madrid, Jerusalem, Scotland, New Delhi, London), not to mention the White House. In addition to Grooves For Odd Times and Tibetan Bowl Meditation, you can find him on more than 150 other recordings and film soundtracks.
Along the way, Guerguerian got himself a degree in music from the Manhattan School Of Music Conservatory, which brings us back to the educator side of his music world. As mentioned earlier, meditation and music for meditation are a big deal for him. So much so that he’s done a fair amount of research on the scientific effects of sound on the mind and body. Current vehicles for transmitting these discoveries are his Sound Exploration and Rhythm workshops and his work as music director of the Creative Technology And Arts Center at The Odyssey School, located in Asheville, North Carolina, where, since 1999, he’s been living with his wife and three daughters.
And that’s where, between classes, we caught up with him for our story.
Surrounded by all those instruments early on, one has to ask, why percussion?
“I grew up in a Middle Eastern household in Montreal,” Guerguerian begins. “My parents were born in Egypt, but everybody before them came from Armenia. So there was always percussive Middle Eastern music playing, along with the food and culture. As a young boy, my parents put hand drums in front of me, then at nine, a drum set.”
But then two things happened, one while he was still a child, the other much later after getting his feet wet as a professional. “When I discovered jazz at the age of 11, that changed my life,” Guerguerian says. “At the conservatory [Manhattan School Of Music] I was a classical major, but still played in the jazz ensembles, and a lot in the contemporary and percussion ensembles. After I graduated I also studied composition on my own with the head of that department, Nils Vigeland. After being a freelance drummer/percussionist for years in New York, playing everything from Carnegie Hall with orchestras or new music groups to playing jazz clubs, I left the scene and lived off the grid for five years, where I really felt like I found my own musical voice by combining all the elements that I learned and loved.”