By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Musically speaking, Gregory Walker is a hard man to figure out. And he's not about to make things any simpler by explaining himself.
"Well, I'll start off with this disclaimer," he says. "For some reason--maybe it's narcissism--I love to hear people describe me. I mean, I can't tell you anything you don't already know. I'd much rather hear you describe my work than me."
Doing so is quite a chore, since Walker is a combination of many different elements. Half African-American, half Canadian, with eyes so blue they make Paul Newman's seem washed out by comparison, Walker, 34, is an intellectual, but an affable one; he likes to sprinkle his just-folks conversational style with words like "paradigm." Likewise, his resume brims with seeming contradictions. He currently serves as assistant professor/director of ensembles at the University of Colorado-Denver and concertmaster for the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, and his superb violin playing has caught the ears of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, with whom he'll perform as guest soloist on January 9. He's also a distinguished composer, but he's as apt to employ pop sources ("Like 'Dis," a chamber piece recently performed by the CSO, is inspired by Aerosmith's "Walk This Way") as more traditional ones (he based failing, a multimedia production that ended its run earlier this month, on Cervantes's Don Quixote). And on the cover of his new CD, Quaurivium, Walker eschews tux and tails in favor of a less conventional outfit; he's pictured holding a guitar and wearing nothing more than a loony grin.
To Walker, his ax is the key to Quaurivium. "The thing that would be really difficult to guess from looking at the credits or listening to the music is that everything comes from the guitar," he notes. "Guitar playing, for me, is directly hard-wired to my soul. My subconscious comes out through that. Everything else is just an elaborate construction. Maybe occasionally it will reflect one style or the other, but it's there just to set up my guitar ideas.
"I don't think a lot of guitarists worry a heck of a lot about these matters," he continues. "They just want to shut up and play, do their thing. I admire a lot of these guitarists very much, but they remind me of Picasso, who was a famous painter, but also known for constantly scrawling out creations on napkins and giving them to people. Some guitarists spend their whole lives working with napkins. But I want to have the canvas of all possibilities to fit my guitar work--and to be able to explore these different worlds, I need to create with this vehicle that is my guitar. That's the whole reason all the gigantic multimedia shows I've done have evolved. It all comes from that little germ."
On Quaurivium, Walker recognizes no boundaries. By combining approaches associated with a wide assortment of artists (Kate Bush, Devo, Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Richard Thompson, Leo Kottke, Segovia), he winds up with a bizarre hybrid--a cross between techno-opera and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Walker's style of playing is equally difficult to categorize, in part because of the equipment he uses. Thanks to an assortment of electronics embedded in the back of his electric guitar, the instrument is essentially a portable synthesizer.
"Not only do I try to play some unusual notes, but the sounds I use are always my own," Walker elaborates. "I never use anybody else's factory sounds. That hot-rodded guitar is my pride and joy. That's why I'm holding it so you can see the back on the cover of the CD. It might just look like some weird, fancy paint job in the photo, but those areas are little slabs of metal or rubber that are covering up various on-board synthesizers and shocking devices."
The tones Walker pulls from his customized invention recall those emitted by Laurie Anderson's modulated electric violin; they're simultaneously fragile and steely. He's proud of his distinct style. "I don't want any aspects of my sounds to resemble other people's sounds any more than they have to," he declares. "So, to guard against that, I have to go into the atomic nature, the molecular nature, of my sound and rework it so that there's not even a danger that people will confuse my sound with anyone else, whether I'm on guitar, violin or whatever."
Walker's compositions are just as diverse--and they take more chances than one might expect from a self-described "overly schooled, technical kind of guy." He acknowledges that his disc is "not exactly a mass consumption item," but he insists that's okay with him.
"It is what it is," he concludes, adding, "I really don't have the lofty goals that other people seem to need for their sense of self-worth. I take on a project and figure to get the sucker completed, have it in my background and then face the question of going on to the next thing. So, because of that, I feel I'm not asking too much to be able to progress in my art. I'm not asking for some leap of faith. I just want the little steps.