Frontispiece on J.S. Bach’s Prelude in G major commissioned by Eric Jacobsen and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Premiere on April 7

On Saturday, April 7, 8pm, at the Bob Carr Theater (401 W Livingston Street, Orlando), the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra will premiere my Frontispiece on J.S. Bach’s Prelude in G major, a 4+-minute work that features as part of it J.S. Bach’s solo cello Prelude in G major. Music director Eric Jacobsen will play the featured cello part himself. The piece presents the prelude in its entirety at the center of it and is fully orchestrated, with countermelodies, and an introduction and closing based on the main Bach motive. The orchestra is the exact same instrumentation as Brahms’s Symphony #1: double winds, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings, with the added solo cello. The Bach Prelude exhibits that special magic that he’s so famous for amongst composers, particularly the outlining of chord structures and polyphonic lines within the solo cello part. He also, once G major is established, takes a kaleidoscopic detour away from the home key before returning to the spectacularly sunny opening motive. I tried to capture the various tonal worlds and motives that Bach crafts in the original and amplify them with my orchestration.

Click here for tickets.

Also on the program:
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor
Rimsky-Korsakov – Excerpts from Capriccio Espagnol
De Falla – Master Peter’s Puppet Show

Eric Jacobsen, conductor; Awet Andemicael, soprano; Alexander Elliot, baritone, William Ferguson, tenor; Kevork Mourad, visual artist

Guest lectures at the 2018 Epcot International Festival of the Arts

Between January 19 and February 19, I will give five different thirty minute invited lectures as part of the 2018 Epcot International Festival of the Arts. The lectures were great fun to prepare and to give to an enthusiastic audience of park-goers at the Odyssey Festival Showcase. The lectures are:
The Evolution of Flow in Hip Hop. Here, I trace the growth in lyrical and rhythmic complexity in Hip Hop from the late 1970s onward, with a special emphasis on the musical, Hamilton.
Maverick Composers. American music history from its very beginnings before the Revolution to the present has its strain of independent thinkers that changed how we all see things. Composers included here are William Billings, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage and George Crumb.
A brief history of Jazz. I trace the several musical threads that lead to the birth of Jazz, with a close look at New Orleans itself, because understanding its specific culture helps us better appreciate jazz. We end with a quick tour of the trail blazed by the giants of this uniquely American genre.
The music of John Williams. We put John Williams’s music in context both in film music history and classical music history, with a special emphasis on how Williams so successfully navigates the special demands placed on composers for film.
Women Composers. From a small handful of historically recognized women composers prior to World War II, women have fought and powerfully earned a central place on the world stage of the concert music tradition. We’ll survey this history, with special emphasis on the amazing and varied voices that women composers represent today. Composers featured in this lecture include Hildegard von Bingen, Joan Tower, Jennifer Higdon, Wendy Mae Chambers, Julia Wolfe, and Sarah Kirkland Snider.

City Night performed by the Piano Duo Gastesi-Bezerra at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach on November 19

The Piano Duo Gastesi-Bezerra will be performing a selection from my suite of pieces for piano four-hands From the Faraway Nearby, inspired by paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach on Sunday, November 19 at 3:00 p.m. This and other works will be performed as part of Climate Keys, a worldwide series of concerts in which pianists play music and scientists lead discussions about climate change.

El Paso de la Siguiriya to be performed by Berkeley Women’s Community Chorus November 19

The Berkeley Women’s Community Chorus, directed by Debra Golata will perform my El Paso de la Siguiriya, a flamenco-inflected setting for women’s voices of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Antoinette Catalla will be the soloist. The concert will take place at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, California on Sunday, November 19 at 4pm. Other works on the concert include Jubilant Song by Norman Dello Joio, Dixit Dominus by Baldassare Galuppi, Oiseaux Si Tous by Mozart, Wir eilen by JS Bach, and Tundra by Ola Gjeilo.

Percussia to perform Cambiando Paisajes, June 15 in Queens, NY

The Queens-based ensemble, Percussia will present Hammers & Keys: music for piano & percussion, on Thursday, June 15, 2017 at 7:30 PM.

This program will feature several works by composers with Queens connections, including my Latin-influenced Cambiando Paisajes, (Shifting Landscapes) for piano and two percussionists, as well as the hauntingly shimmering Not the Light, But the Fire That Burns by Gilbert Galindo. Rounding out the program are the post-minimalist groove Tight Sweater by Mark Mellits, the ritualistic Invocations to Vahakn by the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, and Prisoners of the Image Factory, a trio for keyboard percussion and piano by Bob Becker.

Church-in-the-Gardens
50 Ascan Ave.
Forest Hills
Queens, NY 11375

Tickets: $20/adults $10/students at the door

First Contact: Biblical Fan Fiction and Orlando Fringe – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

“Be true to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do.’” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m an atheist. I’m an atheist who grew up half-heartedly Catholic, and during CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes, around age eleven or twelve, I worked drawings and commentary about my hamster into our assigned journals on Jesus and God’s presence in our lives at every opportunity. The fantastic stories in Greek and Roman mythology I was learning around the same time did not seem too different in tone or likelihood from Bible stories. The only difference, as far as I could tell, was that I was being told only some were true. I chose Thomas as my confirmation name because it was the closest I could get to expressing my doubts at that age.

John the Baptist’s head on silver platter. With fries. Art by Miles Griffin
Yet, I went on to become a paid church singer during and after college for seven years at a Catholic church in Queens and an Episcopalian church on Long Island. This gave me long and regular exposure to Bible readings, sermons, and sacred music. I developed a love for the pageantry and drama surrounding the narrative arc of Jesus’ story, and a fondness for the sense of community that a church can provide. As a composer, I have written many choral pieces for church and synagogue use, and don’t feel hypocritical about it, because I map my personal beliefs about my place in the universe and the beauty I find in science and nature onto the monotheistic beliefs of the faithful.

I am raising two amazing sons without religion. They are good, loving, respectful, flexible, curious, and every other favorable thing I could possibly imagine. And they have very little knowledge of Bible stories. So it made for a fascinating conversation one day about a year ago, as we drove past the Holy Land Experience, off I-4, with its elaborate mural. We’d passed this building many times, but my older son noticed it for the first time and asked about it. As a ten-year-old, his special curiosity about the image of the boat and the animals was unsurprising.

I proceeded to tell my sons the story of Noah and the Ark as neutrally as I could. Their questions were as much revelatory to me about their own sense of right and wrong as they were about the disturbing questions the Bible doesn’t address directly. God was unhappy with everyone? Everyone? Even the kids? Why did the animals have to die?

Joe Llorens. Photo by Charlie Griffin
I began to think a lot about that story. What happened during those 40 days of rain? How did people react to it? Did anybody run for higher ground? What about babies born after the rain started? Did anybody get on or build boats of their own? How would I feel and what would I do if I knew that the world was truly ending? What would I tell my sons then? These thoughts led to alternately humorous and deeply dark places.

I began telling people about my conversation with my sons and my subsequent musings and imaginings, and one of them made the comment that it “would make a great show for the Fringe Festival.” As I’ve written about it in recent months, improv comedy is something that has become important to me, but I’d not considered the possibility of creating a show of my own. I looked into it and learned that the Orlando Fringe has a lottery process for its shows. That’s it. A lottery and nothing else. No curation. You sink or swim if you get in.

I recalled the year I’d ran my first marathon in New York City. I’d caught a flu that knocked me out of commission for a few weeks. I had been training in jiu-jitsu at the time, and when I went back into the dojo and it came time for grappling, I felt like I got tossed around like a rag doll by guys I was tossing around myself a few weeks earlier. I was distraught about it and decided to add one- to three-mile runs into my weekly routine to recover and improve my conditioning. Ludicrously, at some point I decided I would enter the lottery process for getting into the marathon. I had never run much before, and had been at it for only about a month or so. I got in.

Flyer for the show, by Lynde Schmidt.
I took it as a sign to train for it, with the internal understanding that I could stop running and drop out at any time. But as the race drew nearer, I knew I had to go for it. I don’t regret it. Running a marathon (I ran twice in New York City and once in Chicago) was a powerful, memorable experience, and the first one especially felt like a trauma and a triumph at the same time. Much like going to church, there is pageantry and drama, and a strong sense of community amongst marathoners.

What drove me to enter the lottery for the NYC Marathon was the thought that I would benefit from being in over my head. I didn’t know if I could do it, but wanted to prove to myself that I could. Entering the Fringe lottery felt the same way and had the same result. I got in. I took it as a sign. I’m preparing for it. I’m stretching in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’m writing sketches. I’m writing lyrics. I found other performers whom I have to direct.

The cast includes Joe Llorens, one of my trusted buddies with whom I went through some of Sak Comedy Lab’s improv and stand-up classes; Lynde Schmidt, a great young actor that I met in Art Sake Studio’s Film I/Meisner acting class; and Christie Johnson, an acting and dancing talent I discovered through Fringe’s Unified audition process.

Two months ago in this column, I wrote about one of improv’s time-honored principles, namely the concept of “yes, and.” “Yes, and” demands that an improviser treat whatever their scene partner does or says as an offering that must be accepted as part of the reality of the scene. The improviser then builds upon the offer with their own contribution, and so on. Biblical Fan Fiction is essentially an extended “yes, and” to selected Bible stories. What that means is that we accept selected stories as true, namely Elisha and the Bears, John the Baptist, and Noah and the Ark. Using sketch comedy, improv, video, children’s art, and music, we tell the stories, embrace anachronisms, fill in some blanks along the way, and answer some questions the Bible doesn’t, like: Is God bald? Where do babies come from? How good does a dance have to be to get someone’s head chopped off? Was Noah the only guy with a boat? Why are there no unicorns?

Salome dancing at Herod’s Birthday party. Drawing by Miles Griffin.
When it’s done well, improv doesn’t always necessarily result in laughter. Sometimes a scene unfolds from a “yes, and” and leads to an unexpected place. While imagining an interview between Noah and an animal candidate for admission to the Ark will naturally lend itself to humor, imagining a parent building a boat to save his children from certain death might lead to something more profound. The lyrics for a song I’m working on for the show try to grapple with some of these questions I would certainly be dealing with as a father

Our world is ending soon my child.
For all my sins and heresy,
All the years that I ran wild,
The ground is giving way beneath us.
I’m sorry.

The cost is far too high, my son,
And I can’t let you pay it
When I’m the guilty one.
The tides are rising all around us.
I’m sorry.

Hush my little angel, don’t you cry.
I know what you are thinking,
but this doesn’t mean goodbye.
I’ll do anything for you,
Anything, for you.
My very last breath,
I’d give that to you too.
I’ll build you a boat
Watch as you float
Away, away, away.

Imagine all this falling rain
Isn’t the flood it seems to be;
But a love so overwhelming
That it rocks the world and swells the seas.

My love is stronger than this pain.
Please go on and thrive for me.
Grow up and be a good man.
Live in love and harmony.

Long, long after I’ve left this place,
Even the memory of me
will remember your face.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
That’s how much I love you.
Love you.
Love you.
Love you.

One of the primary differences between producing Biblical Fan Fiction and running a marathon is that I absolutely could not be doing this alone. I’m grateful to my cast and the people who have encouraged me along the way. I love being a part of the arts community in Orlando, and I hope you’ll come out like non-runners do for a race to encourage us and cheer us on. Give us the equivalent of orange slices or banana halves. I’m still scared, but facing the fear is part of improv, part of performing. Richard Bach said, “When you have come to the edge of all the light you have, and step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two will happen to you: either you’ll find something solid to stand on or you’ll be taught how to fly!”

Performances of Biblical Fan Fiction at the Orlando Fringe Festival will take place in the Purple Venue on Wednesday, May 17 at 6:15pm; Saturday, May 20 at 1:30pm; Monday, May 22 at 8:45pm; Friday, May 26 at 7:00pm; and Saturday, May 27 at 11:15am. Tickets are $10.

Pre-Order tickets here.

First Contact: Chakra Khan – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Alexandra Love Sarton and DiViNCi have long, overlapping musical histories here in Orlando. They both co-founded the hip-hop quartet Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently formed a duo working under the band name Chakra Khan. They appeared on my WPRK radio show, Zero Crossings, on February 6th, to discuss their upcoming album release, The Cope Aesthetic. What follows is an excerpt from a two-hour conversation.

Image provided by the artist.
Charlie Griffin: DiViNCi, you’re a producer and an MPC-ist. Some people may need an explanation of what that means.

DiViNCi: Basically, I play drum machines live. An MPC is a MIDI Production Center [MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface—the code protocol used to translate musical information from electronic instruments to computers]. I’ve been called a finger drummer or a controllerist. It’s got a lot of names because it’s a newer art.

It’s a series of pads into which you can load audio samples of any kind, with the additional capacity to run those samples through filters and reverbs, or otherwise process the samples in real time with all sorts of effects on them. And you can layer them, loop them, and create entire songs this way.

DiViNCi: Right, right. I can assign any sound I want to any pad. I can add in drum machines and guitar effects pedals too. It’s like a science experiment on stage. The same thing that I use to create all the music in the studio is the same thing that I bring on stage.

You’re self-taught. When it comes to music, there are only so many formal learning pathways, and they’re very traditional. There are only so many mechanisms available to a curious, creative mind interested in new technologies. The existing mold doesn’t fit everybody. I’m really fascinated by the trajectory that you wind up taking, where you have the passion, you have the desire, and you have a developing skill set, but there’s nobody there to guide your thinking.

DiViNCi: Which is a benefit, I think, because there are new molds to be made. I’m giving a talk at Full Sail University this month, for their Hall of Fame Week, about all the different careers that exist now because of all these different molds. I attribute my secure place in the industry to my unconventional musical upbringing.

In the beginning it can look like a completely foreign, scary territory, and at some point you turn around to look back and discover that you’ve carved something out for yourself.

DiViNCi: Luckily, I started when I was a kid. My ignorance was also a part of my musical upbringing. Because I was driven just purely by passion, with no working knowledge, it brought me to a place where I found my own voice. I grew up in a small town called Womelsdorf, in rural Pennsylvania. My mother was a caterer and a waitress. My father was in the National Guard and Army Reserves. Martial arts was the first thing I got passionate about, and it colors how I look at everything else I know. I pull a lot of things from my martial arts training into my music. I studied a few different martial arts. A lot of Okinawan Kempo. My father is Filipino, and the thing that stuck with me the most was Filipino martial arts, like stuff you’d see in The Bourne Identity. The Holy Grail of martial arts, as taught to me by my father, is the experience of being in flow. When you get a technique down well, you practice it so long it becomes reflexive. You don’t have to think about it. The greatest part of music to me is performing. And that’s where I found the greatest example of the flow in my art, where I don’t think, and things just happen spontaneously. I’m taken care of by something greater. I let the music come through me rather than try to control it.

Is it safe to say that there’s a certain physicality to how you approach the MPC, then? You build up a muscle memory around patterns?

DiViNCi: Right, right, right. It’s definitely all about physicality because the thing that stops flow is when you get in your head. And one of the easiest ways to get out of your head is to get into your body. And I find that both in martial arts and in music. When I’m sitting still and creating music in the studio, the sedentary nature of being at a computer lends itself to getting trapped in my head a lot more, and not really trusting that I don’t need to be in total control to create something that I like. I get to trust a bigger part of myself when I’m performing, because I’m actually trusting my body. It’s one of the reasons why I move so much on stage.

In order to be in that flow, there still must be a preparation phase as well. When you’re at the beginning of building up what will become your track, you must collect in your imagination a palette of sample options, timbres, and textures, and a sense of how they’re going to layer, work together, or contrast before you ever get to the live performance. What is that process like for you?

DiViNCi: It’s a different form of flow, I think. There’s much more of a dance between learning and practicing and playing around and experimenting. I have a ton of options these days. I get the question a lot, “How do you know when something’s done; how do you know when you’ve got the right sound?” For me, there’s a very physical reaction. Sometimes, if a song’s not done, like it’s 98% done, and I feel the 2% is missing, I’ll start to dislike the song. It annoys me. I keep working at it, that little 2%. And then I love it, when I find it.

How did Solillaquists of Sound, and more recently Chakra Khan, get formed?

DiViNCi: I came down here to study in Full Sail University’s Recording Arts degree program in 2000. Towards the end of my time at Full Sail, I was introduced to MC Swamburger, who knew Alexandra Love Sarton from Chicago. We started working together. He brought down Alex. Alex and I knocked an album out in a week. And we all hit it off. We formed Solillaquists of Sound along with my wife, Tonya Combs. We’ve all been living together since, for the last 15 years.

CG: (To Alex) How did you and MC Swamburger come together?

ALS: I went to Columbia College in Chicago to study film directing and editing. I met Swam there and we became good friends, and he heard me singing one day. He said, “Wait, why are you going to school for film? You should be singing.” I hadn’t really thought about it before. But he and I started making music before he moved back to Orlando because his parents were here. After he met DiViNCi and Tonya, they all came up to visit me in Chicago. They came on a Sunday, and by Wednesday I’d given away all my stuff to move down here. I hadn’t planned on doing music, but when he said it, it felt right.

CG: And you all live in a house together?

ALS: Yes, we live in a house together, which is great, because it’s a big enough house where we all have our own space, but then we can make music constantly. So it has been like a non-stop factory of creativity for over a decade.

CG: Here’s what I’ve picked up about you from knowing you at Sak Comedy Lab, but even more from your presence on Facebook: You seem devoted to creativity in every form that you can muster. You sell mandala and other types of coloring books; you have several musical groups that you belong to; you are very philosophical on Facebook and spiritually generous about it. The language of self-help is common on Facebook. But you have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than most. I wonder what kind of stuff you’ve studied to arrive at the things that you’ve said.

ALS: For me, it’s weird to talk about these things because it’s so easy to fall into cliché, and I’m hyper-aware of that possibility. I share authentically, and the BS factor is way down, or non-existent, because I don’t live in that place. I try to just use my own experience and the things I’ve learned from it. Moving from Chicago to Orlando and starting over, trying to be an entrepreneur, building something up in the music industry, going on tour in the country and then the world—there are a lot of lessons in all that.

CG: What stood out for you on tour?

ALS: A recent performance with Solillaquists was a festival on an island off the coast of Madagascar. France has an unlimited amount of creative, beautifully put together festivals. But I most love performing in natural, outdoor spaces.

CG: You just opened for Lauryn Hill. How did that come to pass?

ALS: DiViNCi’s been working with her for the past five years, so we got know her and her crew.

CG: What about your musical background? I imagine you’re doing the bulk, if not all, of the composing for the women’s vocal group you lead, Beautiful Chorus. Are you writing some of these songs for Chakra Khan too?

ALS: I played the violin for nine years. I grew up playing in an orchestra. I sometimes will write lyrics and a melody and give them to DiViNCi, or sometimes he will give me just a drum track, and I’ll create a symphony of voices over that. I write all the Beautiful Chorus stuff. We do full rhythmic songs; we do a cappella hymns; we do wordless waves of harmony with music; and we do mantras, which are, for lack of a better term, positive affirmations repeated in harmony.

CG: What’s the story with the newest Chakra Khan release, The Cope Aesthetic?

ALS: We’re releasing the album song by song. We’re releasing one on Valentine’s Day. And then a song every few weeks from there for two or three months, and then we’ll release it as an album and have a party.

DiViNCi: We just want people to follow the process, follow the website, and have an extended experience of the release instead of dropping it all at once. With all the projects we do, we want to include people in the process as much as possible.

ALS: I’ll be making music videos for many of the songs. And artwork for the album. For the cover, we’re going to work with geometry. It’s about looking at our lives like, this plus this is creating this reality for me, so if I can change one of the two variables involved, then my trajectory is different. What it equals can change. The Cope Aesthetic is like looking at things differently, which to me always feels like geometry. Ever since growing up, I felt like there was an equation to life that we could implement that would help make it easier. And I feel like my life experience has been about uncovering what that means for myself.

Follow the release of The Cope Aesthetic at https://www.chkrkhn.com/

Deanna Morse’s short film, “Clear” premiered at Art31’s CulturePop, March 3

I collaborated on the score with composer Stephen Cox for Deanna Morse’s short film, Clear (see below). The film was the result of Morse’s residency at the Art & History Museum of Maitland, FL. The film was premiered at their Culture Pop event, part of their month-long celebration called Art31.

More than an exhibition opening, Culture Pop! engages guests with art and the artists. Be the first to see the Art31: Borrowed Light exhibition, in A&H’s Maitland Art Center, featuring Stephen Knapp, Deanna Morse and Ryan Buyssens. Join as we kick off the most experimental and collaborative art festival in Florida:

• 10 Questions with the artists & A&H’s Chief Curator
• Nathan Selikoff’s Audiograph — interactive art projection
• C.R. Barnett’s immersive Art31 Talking Room
• Short films from the Enzian Theater
• Live music by The Pauses & James Dreffen
• Literary readings, moderated by A&H’s Writer-in-Residence
• Pop-up exhibition by Artist-in-Action Suzanne Oberholtzer
• Try the Earthtones: the Ixchel Song Garden instruments
• Meet A&H’s Artists-in-Action & Art School instructors
• Light bites & cash bar

Admission: $5; FREE for A&H members
Culture Pop! is presented by Maitland Vision Center and Orlando Weekly with special thanks to community partner Performing Arts of Maitland. Art31 is produced by Art & History Museums – Maitland and funded in part by Orange County Government through the Arts and Cultural Affairs Program.

First Contact: Yes, and Dave Gibbs – Originally published in Artborne Magazine

Improv comedy is alive and well in Orlando, and it’s as fascinating a world on the inside as it might seem from the outside. I caught the improv bug about two years ago, following a whim instigated by a coworker who was going to try one of Sak Comedy Lab’s free trial improv classes in downtown Orlando. Back in New York, more than a decade ago, I’d been on a couple of dates with a woman who animatedly swore by the power of improv. Although I can’t remember her name, her love of improv somehow was registered permanently within me as something worth trying.

Amy Poehler told Charlie Rose that, “Improv turns me on, because it’s truly dangerous. It’s an alchemy. It’s dependent on the other, on listening actively and taking risks and chances.” It’s also a tool for unfiltered self-expression—for being accepting, present, and spontaneous—and for mental flexibility. It’s not for everyone. It can be a helluva lot of fun. And it can be rough. To clarify the distinction between improv comedy and standup comedy: improv is a form of theater where most or all of what happens on stage unfolds collaboratively in real time between the scene partners, without a script or prepared dialogue. Short-form improv usually overlays a game of sorts over the improvisation, while long-form improv usually creates strings of short scenes that are somehow linked by interrelated themes, characters, or stories. Most improv scenes take a suggestion from the audience to inspire the start of it.

Sak Comedy Lab has become a powerful regional force for quality improv comedy. They offer six levels of classes that fill regularly. There are two levels of advanced, non-professional performing ensembles. They additionally offer workshops and public performance opportunities for aspiring improvisers such as the Rookie Rumble series and The Brawl for All. Many smaller improv teams have formed in recent years after going through Sak’s classes, and are successfully performing at improv festivals throughout the Southeast. The pro ensemble also does special corporate performances.

Improv workshops and seminars have become a frequent feature in corporate training and development since the 1990s. Corporations often want their employees to embrace at least one of improv’s time-honored principles, namely the concept of “yes, and.” “Yes, and” demands that an improviser treats whatever their scene partner does or says as an offering that must be accepted as part of the reality of the scene. The improviser then builds upon the offer with their own contribution, and so on. As Forbes magazine puts it, “These skills turn out to be particularly useful in workplaces that rely on adaptability.”

A wonderful feature of the pro-ensemble performances at Sak shows and on many of their corporate run-outs is that there is almost always another performer off-stage, unseen but definitely heard. Sak utilizes a bevy of improvising pianists: Kristin Eley, Dave Gibbs, Chris Leavy, Steve Merritt, Anthony Riley, and Tim Turner.

Dave Gibbs, photo by Jason Fronczek
I spoke with Dave Gibbs, who has been playing piano with Sak for almost 15 years. He began formal piano training at age six, and was classically trained for 11 years. He almost finished college with studies in chemistry and microbiology, working towards a pre-med degree, but music kept luring him back to its path. Not only a pianist, Gibbs is also a talented vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Just like improv, music careers are often built on “yes, and.” We say yes to everything. Sometimes too many things. Gibbs joined or fronted bands that sometimes got close to that elusive combination of synergy and timing that allows for an emergence onto a broader-than-local stage. One band, Alter Ego, had some regional play. Another, Canvas, almost got signed. Gibbs also worked at Sam Ash and Mars, demonstrating and selling keyboards and related technology. He started a career teaching music theory, songwriting, and project development at Full Sail University, where he still is teaching today. At some point in there, Gibbs said “yes, and” to Sak and added that to the mix, too.

A work-mate from Mars Music, John Wagner, who was playing piano for Sak at the time, invited Gibbs to a performance. Gibbs thought, “It looked like fun. I watched a few shows and I just started doing it, working in the Lab. I did that for a few years pretty regularly, on the weekends. It was a steady income.”

What drew him to it was the sense of fun, but he also discovered aspects of his musical self in the process. “Because of my range and classical training, I discovered I could apply a film score to something instantaneously. I always felt that whenever I watched anything or composed anything, I could move emotion around musically, almost instantly, innately. Some musicians really like to know in advance what they’re going to be playing, but I really like playing off the cuff. I really like improvising.”

Even though it’s happening nearly instantaneously, there’s still a process underneath. “You have a filing cabinet, a bag of tricks that you’re used to. I know how to make something sound like depression, or joy, or French, or this or that. I’ve got all these little tricks. I’ve gathered them over the years, and if you know music theory, you can remember it, because you understand what makes up the [intended] musical language.”

One of the things that sets Sak apart from many other improv troupes is just how often on-the-spot songs are improvised by the actors. “With songwriting, you learn how to guide them through the songs that they make up. You know what a chorus is. You know what kind of chords to use. You know the places in the scale you want be. And how to raise the tension and release it, because that’s all it really is in the end: tension and resolution.”

Gibbs loves the behind-the-scenes aspect of performing with the actors. “One of the most beautiful things about it is you’re not the center of attention. I get to be something else. It’s not me on stage playing for a crowd.” Since he has been doing this for so long and has become so familiar with the language of improv, Gibbs gets to be another actor. Which means that he gets to make offers to the actors. “I really try to support them. To make the jokes that much better. I play like an actor. When they’re doing a Forward-Reverse scene, I’ll play what I just played backwards whenever they need to go backwards. If they slow down, I’ll move down in register. I remember because they have to remember, too. They taught me so much about music, about not overdoing it. To create space. To get to the heart of it.”

What Gibbs has gotten from playing improv sounds a lot like what my date in New York got from it, and what I myself have gotten from it: “It not only changed my sense of humor, but it’s elevated my conversational skills. And my teaching! I listen. I’m more accepting. Being silly and free is really cleansing. To let go and have that trust, and to find laughter in it is really illuminating. Every musician should experience a role like this. There is no sheet music. You’re not the center of attention. You’re improvising, but not soloing. It’s a musical place that every musician should get to try.”

Gibb’s most recent original music project was the band The Deep Field Now, a creative future-rock sound collaboration. More currently, he is concentrating on writing solo singer-songwriting music for guitar and piano, and writing music for a new project called The Peace Lounge. A new rock band is also in development. You can hear some of his work with The Deep Field Now at thedeepfieldnow.bandcamp.com.

You can see more at: SAKComedyLab.com