Extended interview with violinist Andrew Forde
This month, I got to meet Andrew Forde, a Toronto-based violinist who has been working on a new project inspired by Glenn Gould. (In case you didn't know, Gould is one of the most well-known Canadian pianists, but as Forde pointed out, was extremely eccentric.) I sat down with Forde at Revolution Recording in Leslieville while he worked on a track with rapper Shad. I wrote about it for Metro Toronto, but Forde had more to say about Gould's and his own philosophies on music, performing, his next steps, and his partnership with Roots Canada.
When did you start playing violin?
The violin’s been part of my life since I was four, well if I’m telling the full story… It’s pretty much always been a constant. My dad’s pretty musical. He’s like a big kind of classical music buff. I was exposed to that really, really early.
I was watching to Philharmonics play, I think it was the Boston Pops (Orchestra), and became super fascinated with the violin. That was when I was three. It became such a fascination for me. I have a sister who’s like five years older and it just so happened that’s the arts and craft age. She would have been like eight. (She) made me a violin out of like a paper plate and just a bunch of things. And I literally carried it around for a year. You know how kids have their blankets? I had this made up violin. For my fourth birthday my parents actually bought me when and put me in lessons and I’ve been playing ever since.
I basically went through private teachers. Martin Bazarian, pretty awesome violinist, was my teacher for most of that time and went to the Royal Conservatory and I went to an arts high school, Unionville. But I didn’t actually pursue violin in university. I did engineering.
What is your connection to celebrated Canadian pianist Glenn Gould?
I had a show at the Hermann & Aubrey gallery in December of 2016. The lady who ran the Gould estate was present at the show. She really, really enjoyed it and I think she was also really impressed with the age demographic that came to my show to hear instrumental music for two hours, which I guess people don’t really think that happens. Most of the artists obviously there’s vocals, there’s lyrics, there’s all these things. No one really, on a big scale, really, appreciates instrumental music the same way.
I feel like the last person who had that stage on a big scale was Kenny G. that’s like 1990, know what I mean?
There’s like this void that I’m trying to fill. I want to get people into instrumental music again because it’s really phenomenal. I’m biased of course.
She basically was like, "You know it’s Glenn’s 85th birthday this year, would you want to have access to his catalogue and create with it and for me?" It was, "Absolutely yes."
Where did you get the idea for the title of your project, Ideas of North?
When I was first asked to do this, the first thought was let’s listen to the music and figure out if there’s anything that we can kind of recreate. (Gould) was very esoteric. He was very eccentric and he had a lot of philosophies that guided his life. When he was 32, he decided he was going to give any more public performances. He thought audiences were bloodsuckers, there was no real trade off. You go there and you watch artists, if an artist messes up, a critic can ruin their career but you sit there and there’s no exchange. You’re sitting there taking from the artist and the artist isn’t necessarily taking back, other than of course money. In the creative sense, there’s not really a creative exchange. That really bothered him. The sort of person he was, there was no farewell tour. He just had a concert and was like I’m not doing this again. And he died never performing live again so it was a real thing. He died at 50.
At the same time, he decided that recording was the way of the future and in the future electronics would be so advanced that people wouldn’t go to concerts anymore because they’d be able to manipulate whatever they wanted themselves. We’re kind of there but people still go to concerts. He worked on just perfecting recordings. He has an extensive catalogue of music that is recorded that is pretty much the pinnacle of recordings. I was worried that if I started to mess around with the recordings I would take away what he achieved and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be disingenuous to it.
How many time have you heard some classical piece cut and sampled on a beat, some trance beat, or some techno beat, or some electronic beat? And it’s been pretty corny. In my opinion it’s super corny. I didn’t want to go down that road. I started thinking about what else can I do that really resonated with Gould and I decided to focus on his philosophies and his writing.
He had a radio documentary from the CBC called The Idea of North. It basically followed what he thought was the Canadian perspective of people who moved and lived in the north. Why they were different than city dwellers, what was the appeal, etc etc. but of course that perspective of what it means to be Canadian in the north, 1960s and 1970s would have been very very narrow. It didn’t talk about indigenous people, it didn’t take about immigrants and first generations — a big part of Canadian diaspora was just not included. So I figured, being a first generation Canadian myself — my dad’s from Barbados and my mom’s from Jamaica — I was like well, I’m also Canadian and I have a perspective that I’d like to share. There’s tons of other Canadians who have fallen into the bucket back then that I wanted to explore. That’s kind of why I named it the Ideas with an “s” cause it’s now multiple perspectives from various groups. That’s kind of how that title came about.
Are you surprised by your success as a contemporary violinist?
This is going to be a long-winded answer.
I feel like our generation is in a place where consumerism, corporate goals, all these things, are so interwoven into daily life that as an artists it’s difficult sometimes to cut through that. I’m privileged enough to not necessarily have to play the game the correct way. This is not necessarily what keeps me economically viable. I’m free from having to bend and fold to what people would consider the package of output if a label is going to sign you, etc etc. I think what that does is it allows me to really take my time to create things that I think have some type of meaning. And I mean like temporal meaning. Meaning that will still mean something to somebody years from now.
Because people, especially within our generation, are so bombarded with quick hits and so much of the pop music sounds the same. I think there’s space and people actually want to hear things that might be a little bit more intriguing, might be a little bit more interesting without it feeling high flighty. For example, I’m not an art major or an art historian but I can go to the museum or an art gallery and appreciate Van Gogh without necessarily understanding the tipulation of brush stroke and all these sorts of things. I can look at it and get a feeling and get a reaction from it. I think that’s kind of what is missing in music. I can do something that might be more intellectually challenging, might get you to feel something, think about something, create some sort of sonic landscape in your mind that takes you on your own journey. I’m not dictating it to you because I’m not giving you lyrics. You can allow yourself to think and explore. It can be done at a really high level but it doesn’t have to feel like it’s over the listener’s head.
Am I surprised? I guess a little bit. It feeds into the philosophy that people want more than what they get served regularly. It’s just difficult to find it because there’s so much bombardment of other stuff.
Have you noticed any changes to the Toronto music scene?
I’ve played in Toronto. I’ve played in other major cities. I find that Toronto has enough people that really appreciate different things but our population is not large enough to create a sustainable source for an artist. No one is going to come watch your show three times a month. They’ll come once, but if you were to do that in New York, even though people are coming once, it’s so much more people that it’s sustainable every single show. Whereas I can do a show and get 250 people to come out and then I do it next week and maybe 50 people will come out. Like the same 250 people are not going to show up.
I think in general Toronto has always been pretty cutting edge in the sense of music. And we’ve always had a lot of talent. I think artists like Drake, The Weekend, are opening the doors for the rest of the world because now the rest of the world is paying attention to us. But I feel like the people in Toronto have relatively always been really awesome. They’ve always had an ear for interesting, good things. I don’t think that’s changed too much.
What is your message and your vision for the future?
My vision is threefold. First is to create music that has people feeling and thinking deeply.
But not in a way that creates any sort of fear. I never want anyone to approach my music and feel like it’s over their head. I want people to, as if you’re in an art space looking at paintings from all the greats, even though you might not understand the technique or all the intricacies of what was trying to be done or even comprehend the highest levels of the intellectual messaging that was there. You still have a feeling and you still react to it.
The second thing that is really important to me is driving conversation. After you’ve had your own moment to reflect and think deeply about something, then talk to your neighbour and talk to your friends about it, and drive conversation forward. That is really what will create change, is people’s frames of thought, and that only comes from talking to people.
The third thing for me is to really bring back music as a performing art. The artist is now a playback device that makes the audience feel good that they’re seeing the person live, which is Glenn’s point.
We’ve turned music into such a product. It’s manufactured that way. It’s become very sterile. When I go perform (with my band the Ghost Tapes), a lot of what I do is improvised with the musicians that surround me...You’re coming out to listen to me and my band create for you. That’s kind of the rush. Maybe it goes really, maybe it doesn’t….you get the excitement.
Roots Canada's Director of Culture and Special Events also dropped by the studio to listen in as Shad and Forde worked on their song, Branches.
Andrew Forde (AF): Ray’s been such a great champion of my work since. I really appreciate that.
Raymond Perkins (RP): Part of our DNA has always been looking out for up and coming artists and we work with lots of them. When you hear something like this appeals to a different part of your solar plexus. When I saw (Andrew's) performance at the Soho House, and the thought when we met...that mixture of having this great Canadian icon Glenn Gould with a contemporary musician that transcends so many different genres... the political message seemed right for me.
It puts this country in a wonderfully elevated place to me. I’m proud of what you do. This is special. We’re in the studio. We’re on the ground level.
AF: We have a Canadian tour that’s going to happen in the spring. Hopefully with roots we’ll be able to go and do a tour in Europe. I’ll probably do a couple workshopping shows before the tour in Toronto. I’ll host small gatherings to go through new music testing...feedback.
I’m trying to do my next track with Daniel Caesar. I have another track I’m working on that I’m going to try to do with Dean Brody. It’s about forward momentum. I hope that Branches, this song, helps the momentum build up.
RP: The time really feels right for it.
This interview was edited and condensed.