The journey Guy Barash takes us on with his new album, Killdeer, is remarkable and dizzying at times. His years-long collaboration with author and poet Nick Flynn fully pays off here. Joined by an all-star ensemble, they create a world where big ideas like generational trauma and parenthood are explored through small, visceral moments. Spoken word and intricate sonic atmospheres collide in surprising ways, imbuing Killdeer with an emotional heft with its own gravity.
Killdeer will be released on February 10 via New Focus Recordings. Pre-order HERE.
Guy Barash can be reached through his website HERE.
I always like to go all the way back to the beginning to start interviews. Can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?
When I go all the way back to the beginning, there’s mostly sound. I spent a big chunk of my childhood in hospitals, in surgery, so the sounds of the medical equipment and of the commotion around me must have been imprinted on my psyche (I guess that explains a few things?) But, I also remember Chopin and Schumann coming from the living room at my grandmother’s house, blending with the voices of radio talk show hosts coming from the bedroom. Or loud Greek music in car rides with my father. I also loved taking all pots and pans out of the kitchen cabinets and banging them with wooden spoons to “entertain” my parents.
Did you always want to be a musician or a composer?
I don’t remember ever making that decision. Perhaps I always have been a musician 🙂
When I think about your work and your practice – which obviously applies quite directly to Killdeer, which we’ll get into, it is your collaborations with artists from other disciplines. What drives you to seek out and create interdisciplinary projects and collaborators, and how does working with artists outside of music influence your own practice?
The way I look at it is that we, artists, are all trying to “solve” the same “problem.” Working with artists from other disciplines shows me another angle, another approach that I probably wouldn’t come up with from my narrow musician angle. And it makes every project fresh, and different, and fascinating… In general, I see composition as collaboration: with musicians and/or artists from other disciplines. I can’t even imagine myself creating in an aesthetic vacuum anymore. And I think after several years of isolation (Covid), the importance of community has become clearer to many artists, not just me.
So let’s jump straight into Killdeer. Can you first tell me a bit about how you and Nick Flynn met and started collaborating?
One of the first things I did when I arrived in New York in 2008, fresh off the boat, was to look up local poetry to set to music. It wasn’t long until I came across Nick’s poem Imagination in a collection of poems (State of the Union), and I was so inspired that by the next day, I had a new piece for soprano and percussion ready.
So I dug up Nick’s email address (thank god for the Internet), and in my typical Israeli chutzpah and back then broken English, I wrote to him: “Hello, I wrote song. Let’s drink coffee,” trying to get him to meet me. After a quick exchange, he agreed to meet up for coffee. We had a nice conversation and quickly found common language. This meeting marked the beginning of a fourteen-year-long friendship that also birthed many, many works.
Poetry/spoken word set to music – particularly music that falls into more experimental spaces – has long been one of my big interests as a listener and a musician. Killdeer is a remarkable example of what is possible. What is it that draws you to poetry, especially contemporary poetry?
Poetry has long been a source of inspiration for me, especially contemporary poetry by living poets because they usually explore similar themes to the ones we all are trying to understand but are struggling to put into words. When I read a poem that “does it to me,” it’s like a eureka moment, which is what I like about Nick’s poetry specifically. It is so subtle – really sneaks up on you like a Zen Koan (riddle). Also, his pace – his poetry grooves – it almost immediately translates into music in my mind – makes my job very easy.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of this album coming together? I am amazed by the description: “One rehearsal, one performance, and one recording session later, Killdeer received its final form.” I am struck by how the sonic atmospheres and Flynn’s text work so well together and really heighten each other’s impact. I’m curious how much discussion there was beforehand or if it happened more organically in that rehearsal. It’s remarkable, however it happened.
Many of the works I wrote with Nick’s poetry were pretty large-scale. At some point, in conversation with Nick, we decided to try to create something more “compact” that would be easier to tour. This was the beginning of Killdeer – a duet, just Nick and me, and it felt right.
Over the years, I also played with Kathy, Frank, and Eyal in many different combinations and settings. Never all four of us together, though. In Spring 2022, an opportunity to play together presented itself. Kathy was offered a gig at the Old Stone House and invited me to join. I suggest we’d do Killdeer with Nick and invite a couple more guests – Frank and Eyal.
Because, at first, I was the only one performing the music, I never bothered creating a traditional-looking score. I used the poems themselves as the score. I highlighted certain phrases and used graphics and numbers to mark where to enter or which musical material to use. So we had one rehearsal where I presented the concept, which sparked some very creative ideas from everyone, and the next day we played the gig. It went really well – everyone in the band thought we should record it. So we did a few days later, and here we are.
As for the record’s subject matter, namely the themes of intergenerational trauma and fatherhood, how did you feel when you first read (or heard) Nick’s words for the album?
On an aesthetic level, I felt thrilled, like I stumbled upon pure gold. On a more personal level, I felt hopeful, like I stumbled upon a roadmap to processing my own trauma and to becoming a better father.
More generally, how has music helped you express and process your thoughts and emotions regarding heady subjects like this? For me, it’s also an interesting way of finding surprising ways of connecting with a larger world, for instance, while processing my own reactions to some of the ideas expressed on Killdeer and associations with the actual sonic elements happening beneath the words.
The creative process, very much like the emotional healing process, is an inquisitive one. It’s all about asking questions. And here, we do that in words and music. It’s not necessarily about answering them. More about the curious exploration of raw ideas and materials and making something beautiful with them. Some might call it transforming suffering into wisdom. And yes, there are ideas here that many can identify with, I believe.
You recently became a father. How has exploring some of these themes through your music helped you get used to the idea of becoming a father?
Having had a father who struggled with addiction, I ask myself what kind of father I will be to my daughter. In Killdeer, this was one of the questions I was holding before my eyes, trying to figure out how to raise my own daughter in a world on fire. I got used to the idea of becoming a father immediately as she emerged into my arms, but now after exploring some of these themes more deeply, I think I have the beginning of an idea of what kind of father I want to be to her.
Beyond the obvious ways – i.e. having less time/sleep/energy/etc. – how has it impacted your music and art in ways you didn’t see coming?
Maybe I have less sleep and time, but I feel a lot more focused and driven. The past six months since Isha was born were some of my most productive months. It’s like I tapped into an energy reserve I never knew existed. I was preparing for the exact opposite and didn’t see that coming at all.
On a different tack, the ensemble you put together for Killdeer is fantastic. How was this group assembled?
Fantastic. So much talent here. Truly an all-star team of artists from various corners of my musical life. I think subconsciously, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to put them all together in one room. I just knew on some level that if I put these people together, it will be magic.
What were some of the most significant challenges you faced concerning Killdeer?
Can’t think of any at the moment, but let me get back to you on that in a couple of years.
What’s next for this ensemble and this project?
I would love to take it on the road and present it in venues across the globe.