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I like to find a way to pull the audience into the creative process, whether they want to go or not," says Dr. Gregory T.S. Walker, chuckling slyly. A six-and-a-half-foot-tall violinist/composer who won't hesitate to drench folks in the orchestra seats with a water cannon in order to include them in his artistic vision, the eccentric 41-year-old associate professor of music at the University of Colorado at Denver rarely skimps on spectacle.
"Some people definitely had to towel down after xy techno theatre," Walker says of a multimedia performance he presented two years ago. "But the people who followed instructions and brought their umbrellas were okay."
Walker's approach to composition is as innovative as it is refreshing. Consider his knack for inserting video projections and gigantic Bunraku puppets into a two-act opera. Or incorporating dance and martial arts into a planetarium-orchestra setting. Or slapping a sampler onto his synth-guitar with Velcro so he can explore the groove-oriented mating rituals that take place in a computer chat room. Or even enlisting a street-smart MC with a nose ring to commemorate Martin Luther King Day with Dream N. the Hood, arguably the first-ever "rap symphony."
Ridiculously educated with a Ph.D. in composition and two master's degrees in music, Doc Walker has organized the AvantGuitar Summit, an evening of brain-tickling musical theory that incorporates the beguiling microtonality of guitarist Neil Haverstick and the electronic wizardry of sound artist Ron Bucknam.
"The three of us are taking one of the most universally beloved musical instruments to a place that most people aren't accustomed to going," Walker says. "Most of the concert is going to be individual sets. Then there's going to be a little section at the end where we get together, bow down to the school of improvisation and see what the other person has under the hood -- and just be completely open to the possibilities.
"You definitely enter the tightrope at that point," Walker continues. "And the audience is taken there, too. It might not be pretty, but we always are going for that thing that's just out of reach, just creating that moment that can't be duplicated."
Blurring the distinction between what's live and what's Memorex, Walker plans to include a high-tech approach to six-string feedback manipulation ("Feeding Time") as part of his solo Summit contribution. He'll also resurrect the amusing "Chat Room Apotheosis," part of a previous concept show called "DJ Data Dada."
"One of my goals was to somehow bring electric-guitar virtuosity into the 21st century by melding it with the DJ techniques that are really a lot more characteristic of the pop music of our time than extended guitar solos," Walker says. "The moment you start setting things in bizarre contexts -- like a Bach toccata in B performed by electric guitar -- there's this satirical angle you stumble upon."
To the uninitiated ear, headbanging to society music might seem more sacrilegious than amusing. Yet for Walker, a concertmaster for the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and Sinfonia of Colorado who's performed throughout the United States and abroad, including in Cuba and Poland, such uncommon technical applications reward a close listen. Then again, it depends on whom you ask -- especially when it comes to Walker's highly esteemed father, George Walker. In 1996, the elder Walker became the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music; his prize-winning Lilacs; written for voice and orchestra, utilizes four stanzas from Walt Whitman's poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, a reflection on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
"I knew that in watching [my father's] career, I was less and less inclined to pursue a career in composition," Walker says. "I felt as if I'd never get out from under his shadow."
As the 2000 recipient of the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for micro*phone for Amplified Orchestra and Sonata for Violin and Piano, Walker has plenty to feel proud about -- despite any mixed blessings expressed by his pop.
"When I won this award, he was stunned," Walker says. "He couldn't really express how happy he was for me and, at the same time, how disappointed he was in his colleagues in the Academy for having selected those pieces. There's a lot in the music world that my dad just does not accept. Most of the people who've won the Pulitzer Prize before him and after him are disappointing to him. He suspected that [his own award] was just some kind of political positioning to make up for the fact that Duke Ellington had never gotten any recognition with the jazz idiom by the Pulitzer committee.
"So it's a little brutal environment to grow up in," Walker continues. "But a lot of artists, especially the older we get, just have a more refined view of what's artistically right and what's artistically wrong. I know even amongst the people on this guitar program, there's some I can see have developed that acute sense of taste, and another who's an exception to that rule."
It's hard to imagine how George Walker might respond to his son's partners in the AvantGarde Summit. Committed to absolute musical precision, Haverstick, a blunt 52-year-old Swallow Hill faculty member and private tutor, employs non-standard tunings from custom-built guitars to create aural galaxies of sound. Among his curious collection of six-strings are a fretless Flying V, a nineteen-tone Starr guitar (created by local luthier John Starrett) and an unruly 34-tone Telecaster. The author of two books on musical theory and several CDs including the just-completed If the Earth Was a Woman (available through www.virtualchautauqua.org), Haverstick has been lambasting the Western Hemisphere's over-reliance on the twelve-tone equal-tempered scale for years.