RICKY GARNI

On the Basketball Court

I Always Forget the Letters in Your Name

We Can Always Have Another

I Misspelled Hallucination

From the Artist:

I began playing the piano at four, and for a strange reason – this was the year I developed asthma. It was so severe that I would sometimes be taken to the hospital, or have an oxygen tank in my room. From what I was told, the doctor asked when these attacks occurred, and my parents mentioned that the often did when my (older) brother would be engaged in a piano lesson. “Does Ricky play the piano, too?” he asked. No, they replied. “Perhaps he should.”

From that point on I was taught a typical course of classical music, gave it up (as most do) and then returned to it on my own, taking lessons and learning a little jazz and boogie woogie with a dapper gentleman with a starched white shirt and pleated black pants named Mr. Phillips. In high school (in New Hampshire) I was lucky enough to be taught by Tom Gallant, who had worked with Duke Ellington, and he was able to show me first-hand several arrangements of his pieces. This was truly a lesson in humility – the first of many.

Later in college I worked fiercely (and poorly) at standard scales and exotic scales and exercises. I definitely mastered the Phrygian! I was told by a friend that I should contact Mary Lou Williams who was giving lessons there at the time, and so I did. She called (before answering phones, 1978 or so) and I hopped out of the shower to answer the phone. “This is Mary Lou Williams,” she said. “I’m sorry that it took so long to answer the phone” I apologized… “ I was in the shower.” “Perhaps you should go back to it then” she replied, and that was the sum total of my musical instruction under Mary Lou Williams.

And so I was off to rock n roll. I started a band called FAMOUS COOKIES in my junior year, and later, HUMAN FURNITURE. 50/50 original and cover material, stuff ranging from the Velvets to Elvis to, well, the Velvets. Sometimes we would throw in a few things like the HOKEY POKEY or THEME FROM MANNIX, too. Biker bars and student bars, Salaam Cultural Center (my favorite) and whoever would have us. It was all sorts of fun, and often peculiarly received, often with good reason.

During those years I took piano lessons (3) from a guitar player (Dave Feinstein), which essentially were lessons without playing or instruments and he taught me two things that I have kept close to my heart ever since:

 

  • There are still a lot of songs to be written in the key of C Major
  • The hardest thing in the word to write is a memorable tune

 

I recall the second quite often when I tend to lapse into noodletown in my music, which I do (still tend to do.) Don’t forget the song.

After college, and while being a part of a family with a young son, I started staying home and recording, first on a PortaStudio, and eventually on a 16 track Fostex recorder with a Soundcraft board and a host of wonderful instruments (ARP 2600, Oberheim Xpander, OB-8, Minimoog, Farfisa, Vox Super Continental, EMU Emulator, Yahama DX-7, EMS AKS suitcase synthesizer, etc.) It was a wonderful, delightful and sleepless time for me. I would occasionally bribe my (3 year old) son to sing or talk on a recording in exchange for a chocolate chip cookie.

Over the years, and for a number of reasons, I lost my studio – to floods, sales by necessity, and on one memorable occasion, to a lake. I stopped playing music for close to thirty years, only occasionally playing my terribly out of tune Wurlitzer spinet (a gift to my mother in 1954) – perhaps once or twice a year. It was dusty and sad and sounded quite bad. I had little interest in playing and the instruments I had sold as relics were now steeply out of my price range – until 2013.

That was the year that I lost someone very very dear to me. My younger son (fifteen at the time) asked: “What are you doing with your time?” And I told him – work, writing, bicycling…“But you always did those things,” he replied. “What are you doing with the time you used to spend with her?” Good point, I thought to myself. I needed a next step.

Shortly thereafter, perhaps even that week, Todd Jones, a friend and gifted musician, asked if I were still playing. I told him no. “Man,” he said, “you got out at the WRONG time.” He quickly brought me up to speed on what was possible that was unthinkable (and/or unaffordable) thirty years ago when we were starting out.  I decided that this was perhaps the one thing more I needed to do in my life, and felt as though I might have gotten this little push from the beyond…

And so I did. With a few initial missteps, I engrossed myself in the new order of music – purchasing Native Instruments Maschine, Ableton Live & Push, the full catalogue of Arturia VSTs, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, etc. etc. I was utterly astounded that instruments like the Synclavier, which were once over $200,000, could now be purchased as part of a 12 piece VST software set for $200. Or even more delightfully, Fairlight, once a $75,000 machine used by Peter Gabriel and Laura Anderson, was now available as a $20 app for your iPad. And the 400 lb Yamaha CS-80, which sold a grand total of 1000 units and was owned only by famous people? Yep, that was part of the $200 collection that included the Synclavier. Now both Stevie Wonder AND I own this thing.

The value added was mind-boggling. I all but wept the first time I realized that these instruments now offered mixing board automation, a feature once reserved for million buck SSL boards. Some quibble about the fidelity of the sound, (I don’t, with the A/B tests I’ve heard) but often these products are developed in coordination with the original designers, and often offer far more than the original (the Arturia Minimoog is a great example: it contains all the original features plus polyphony, and has a secret panel that, when exposed, offers a host of new and oddball features unavailable until now.) They even have changeable “skins” to alter the aesthetics of the model, depending upon which era you bought the product in. And yes, although I do miss the feel of the originals – the beautiful woodgrain on a Prophet V or Minimoog, the toggle switches on a CS-80 – I don’t miss the drifting oscillators of an Oberheim, the clunky keys of a Vox or samplers that cost as much as a house. These, truly, are the good old days, and I relish them.

But it’s more than great product and product features. Because of the speed and efficiency of modern equipment, I have been able to produce over four hundred pieces in three years. Yes, they could use some work and serious polishing at times, but this would have been unthinkable (and unaffordable) 30 years ago. The days of purchasing a $100 reel of analogue tape are gone, at least for me – although were I able to afford it, I would. There is a permanence to the traditional methods that we haven’t quite properly addressed yet in the digital medium. I do hope, for example, that MP3 and WAV files don’t become the 5.25 floppy disc of 2025!

If there is any downside, and it is relatively minor, there is truly too much to choose from, too much to master, too much to grasp. It’s hard to focus at times, and narrow your scope, but as problems go, it is a cherished one.

And because of this change of paradigm, even recording, and conceiving ideas for recording, has evolved for me considerably (as I am sure it has for others.) I don’t want to sound coy by saying I never sit down to record, but truly, I don’t. I usually sit down just to come up with a new sound, or perhaps practice a drum pattern (the weakest link for me) and inevitably it evolves into something musical, and I look up at the clock and it is 2:00 in the morning. There are times, once I realize that I have transcended from coming up with a sound to coming up with a musical piece, that I set certain directives or limitations for myself: What about if I only played 2 out of every four bars? What if the only instruments I used were samples from Disney songs? What if I use an arpeggiator in the absolute wrong way? What if I put seven different processors on the kick drum? How can I make something equally endearing and annoying? Stuff like that. I find these sort of games (or ‘strategies’, as Eno might say) are of great assistance, although quite often I will eventually abandon them. And that helps, too.

The one improvement I feel I have made over the last three or four years has been the ability to sit back and NOT play – to remain happy with a track that might include only two bars of music or sound out of 128, things like that. I realize that everyone I love has mastered that, and I tend to blabber on (with sound) far too much. Sometimes it’s important to be the first one to leave the party.

What have I missed here? My job. I work as a graphic designer for a wine company. I am able to do much of that at home and it affords me the luxury of turning to the desktop studio for occasional relief. Although at home I listen primarily to stuff like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, my work would never be confused with theirs! I imagine unconsciously my greatest influences were Raymond Scott and Brian Eno, both of whom taught me the magical confluence of squiggly sounds and melody.

I have rarely been reviewed, but one kind fellow described my work as “psychedelic circus music” while another (who, years ago, kindly burned my cassette sampler to a CD) suggested I was the bastard child of Nino Rota and Pee Wee Herman, and I am fine with that.

Unlike the old days, I am actually listening to music other than my own these day – a mess of Jane Siberry, for example, who keeps me (very) humble, because I feel as though she has perfected what I adore. Just as a brief glance to my general listening, my Spotify for this month includes: Robert Wyatt, Soul Survivors, Astor Piazolla, Donny Trumpet, Pugh Rogefeldt (an odd discovery – listen to LOVE LOVE LOVE!), Eugene McDaniels, The Ace of Cups, and as always, the Beach Boys.

It’s also wonderful to rediscover old hits or bands that you’ve pretty much forgotten – It was nice to rediscover Steely Dan this month, although under tragic circumstances for them. I thought I hated them! In fact, they are quite amazing. And Sugarloaf’s DON’T CALL US, WE’LL CALL YOU. What a little wonder! Not sure you could release that one now!

It’s all good news, in terms of creation, these days – nothing is theoretically impossible now. Please, nobody complain about anything in that regard! And I do hope with all my heart, that this abundance of possibility will not blind a new bunch of youngsters to the joy of scales, harmony, finger muscles, theory, and all that stuff. Despite my undying affection for noise makers and the magic ephemera, there’s nothing more beautiful and depth-charging to the soul than an hour on a beautiful piano, under a small candle, without an outlet in sight.

Ricky Garni grew up in Miami and Maine. He works as a graphic designer by day and writes music by night. COO, a tiny collection of short prose printed on college lined paper with found materials such as coins, stamps and baseball cards, was recently released by Bitterzoet Press.‎ / PHOTOGRAPH BY KAIT MAURO

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