River Guerguerian

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?

In The Beginning, Sort Of

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.

In The Beginning, For Real

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.”

The “grid” being everything connected with modern life, Guerguerian had jumped ship to travel, study, and live, mainly in the Himalayas, but also Morocco and Northern Maui. It was all about exploring “the groove consciousness,” he goes on to say, “and instruments of non-Western world music, the unique vocabulary and nuances of Western classical music, and the improvisatory element of jazz.”

Guerguerian’s Setup

Guerguerian’s Setup

1 16″ x 6″ Cooperman River Guerguerian Signature Oak Frame Drum
2 21″ x 6″ Cooperman River Guerguerian Signature Oak Frame Drum
3 21″ x 14″ Egyptian Dumbek
4 20″ x 10″ Palmetto Maple Bass Drum
5 10″ x 6″ Joel Pulver Custom Snare Drum
6 15″ x 15″ DW Maple Floor Tom

A 12″ Zildjian prototype hi-hat
B Pearl Remote Hi-Hat Pedal
C 22″ Bosphorus New Orleans Ride
D 12″ Sabian Evolution HHX Crash
E Chinese Gongs

River Guerguerian also uses DW 5000 bass drum pedal, Aquarian heads (bass, snare, and floor tom), Cooperman kanjira and riq, Kevork tambourines, Digadapter collapsible frame drum mounts, and Vic Firth Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson or Peter Erskine model sticks and Regal Tip Jeff Hamilton brushes.

From there, it was just a matter of time before he started to develop his own sound and musical vocabulary. (Asked for major influences, Guerguerian was slow to rattle off any names, but one that did come up periodically was — big surprise — frame drum master Glen Velez.) “After years of creating that music,” Guerguerian adds, “the techniques on the various instruments I had been learning for 20 years were becoming more refined into a setup that allowed me to play the music I heard in my head. In other words, I had part of a jazz kit, some hand drums, and gongs, all in one kit.

“So, to answer your question, I am really trying to embody the idea of ‘Percussion’ with a capital ‘P.’ It’s really the umbrella word for anything you ‘touch’; it doesn’t have to be separate. It can be either a person who plays shakers and tambourines in a world-beat band, a person who plays tympani in an orchestra, or a drummer in an R&B band. It can be someone who tries to embody all of it by playing in a way that can access all those styles or formats.”

Getting Odd

When asked about his fascination with music-making, odd-time signatures, and how he combines them in the same tune, as on the frame-drum oriented Grooves For Odd Times, Guerguerian brings it all back home. “When I lived in the city for the first part of my life, I was inspired by all the great musicians and art around me. When I lived out in nature for years, I was inspired by walking in the woods and allowing music to come to me. In those walks — and I still do it now — I’d pick up the natural frequencies that were around, whether in the outer world or my inner world.”

Along these lines Guerguerian notes he’s a firm believer that there are constant “inaudible” rhythmic frequencies surrounding us. “So,” he continues, “when I tune in to a frequency that’s very strong, I play with it in my head until I have it memorized by the ability to sing it, even if it’s a long phrase. It has to have a strong melodic groove. Then I go back to my studio and play it, and then either record it or write it down.

For many years, a lot of these rhythms were coming out in an odd meter. The ones I really like I turned into compositions, which ended up on the album. I like to come up with different frequencies and pitch material that seems chaotically natural sometimes. For example, on the CD, on many pieces, you’ll hear different rhythmic patterns that come in and out like waves. Almost in an unconscious way that flies by you; like walking in the woods or the city and paying attention to all the waves of sound that fly by you.”

Prepping for Grooves For Odd Times was five years in the making and included writing for both solo and mixed groups (see the review of the album in the February 2012 issue of DRUM!). Musicians included an array of artists who augment Guerguerian on selected cuts, playing, among other instruments, piano, electric guitar, violin, oud, gongs, electric and acoustic basses, didgeridoos, and vocals. Reminder: This music can send you places.

Sound, Meditation, And The Groove

Which brings us back to the beginning, so to speak, where Guerguerian’s interest in meditation and the science surrounding the effects of sound on the mind and body is so central to not only his playing but his teaching as well. It’s an educational process that he shares generously with people of all ages, by the way, and one that the K–12 students as the Odyssey School benefit from greatly.

“When the Relaxation Company asked me to write the hour’s worth of music for the Tibetan Bowl Meditation CD,” he notes, “I used 15 years worth of research on different people from across the globe. I also investigated more of the scientific studies done on this. This area of study has grown quite a lot in the last decade, but it goes way back to early humans and how we originally used sound. Even though there is a lot of research, I only present what I do through what works with my own experiments. One thing I’ve learned is that you can play a sound for an audience and one person will receive a sound as totally transformative and blissful and another person will be totally repelled by the same sound. At the end of the day, a person who uses natural tones and frequencies, like percussion instruments, has to use their natural instincts and intuition as much as they can. And the older we get, the more that process gets refined and we understand how we do it. This even holds true if you’re just playing funk and people are dancing … the drummer has to feel the crowd and intuit what needs to happen next.”

An example of how Guerguerian takes his research on sound into the classroom at the Odyssey School goes like this: “In the first class,” he says, “all the students sit on the floor, sitting upright in a horseshoe. I tell them to pretend there are little ears on all the cells of their bodies. I carry a low-pitched gong while playing it in front and behind them within 6″ of their bodies. In this quick example, I explain and simultaneously demonstrate the properties of a sound wave and it’s physiological and mental effects.”

Getting back to the the idea behind Grooves For Odd Times and how it represents a body of work that spans all of five years, Guerguerian somehow manages to tie it all together. “Basically,” he says, “I gave the life of this album its own organic time. I knew it was going to be an opus for me, and I didn’t rush it.”

Part of why making Grooves For Odd Times took as long as it did was because he was also working on three other CDs. “The one thing I can say about the new CD,” Guerguerian concludes, “is that even though I am 44, and have recorded on over 150 records, it’s the first set of work that really feels and sounds like me. As I was saying above about finding your own true voice, for me it took a long time because I spent so many years trying to learn many instruments — whether it was drum set, tympani, frame drums, marimba, djembe, you name it — along with styles and concepts of music.

Even though I was one of those people who spent ten years of my life practicing ten hours a day, I’ve never been in a rush to get somewhere, and I’ve always known that percussion music was going to be my life’s devotion and work. So, therefore, we must take our time, and enjoy the sounds we make in the moment, and realize there’s a greater cause for our inspirations.”