Interview with the Jellyfish

In the interview that follows, The Jellyfish Brothers talk about rehearsing as a duo while each lives in a different country, writing music for silent movies and life as travelling musicians away from their families, ending with a reflection on playing in the shed.
It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with Randy, whose CD Puerto Viejo, I admired so much, and to listen to Ben’s compositions and talk about music with him again.

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Les Freres Meduses

I had the privilege of hearing Les Frères Méduses (aka The Jellyfish Brothers) for the second time this year. The first time was in Louisville at the GFA and this second time the dynamic duo of Benoît Albert and Randall Avers played in the shed.
In a veritable fluther of jellyfish activity, we were treated to duets by Machado, Bogdanovic, Ivanovic, Laborde, Rami Vamos as well as music by the duo off their latest album “Modern Guitar Duets” and some of their live music for films by Georges Méliès (of “Hugo” fame), “Mekanisk”.
The playing was stunning as well as playful – this was remarkable as Randy had just arrived from Norway and Ben from France a few hours before playing.
Like everything else they do, the ensemble is beautifully precise yet thoroughly musical. There repertoire comes from a less familiar branch of modern guitar music, namely Balkan rhythms with jazz and folk idioms thrown in.

The next couple of days they rehearsed in the shed with Kathy Gowers, a violinist of towering ability. This distinguished trio worked on a massive score of almost an hour’s continuous music for a silent movie, “The Unknown”, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney Sr  and Joan Crawford the music for which was originally commissioned by the Austin Classical Guitar Society

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Ben, Randy and Kathy in the shed

In between musical episodes, we ate, walked down the river to Iffley village and talked. It was an unprecedented opportunity to find out about how the duo worked and their attitude to music which resulted in the following fascinating interview, a first for this blog.

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Party – Ali, Ben, Randy, Geri

I also managed to get a clip of their encore, an improvisation which leads into l’Ego Land by Ben Albert and Christian Laborde, which gives a good idea of what they are about.

The interview was done very much as they rehearse, passing the questions and answers between us by email -so here goes…the video is at the end of the page.

INTERVIEW with the Jellyfish

You both live in different countries – Scandinavia and France – 
how do you manage to rehearse together?
That’s a big question.  Between that, our teaching obligations and families, we mostly rehearse together when we’re on tour – which is about every 2 months.  We also use the computer to prepare for rehearsals.  Our most effective resource has been the programmable MAC drum machine Doggiebox (www.doggiebox.com), where we map out the rhythmical and ensemble aspects of a piece in detail.  We begin with a template, send the file back and forth, refine it, and then make final changes during the rehearsal.  We now have database of our entire program and update the existing files quite a lot.

Have you ever had to play immediately you got off the plane?
Yes, it can happen.  “L’egoLand” was never really rehearsed before the first performance.   We both met up at a baggage claim at an airport somewhere.  One of us had to wait for the luggage, so we took out our guitars and rehearsed the tune for the first time together there.  We were driven off and had to perform it in concert a few hours later.
 Your repertoire is quite eclectic – how do you choose it? 
 B:
The idea was to play only music that was really excited and rhythmical, we missed that aspect in the classical training in conservatories. But basically we choose what we like.
 R:
We really enjoy playing a broad range of music styles – so in a sense we have to be very selective about what we play.  It generally comes down to two prerequisites: we both have to be crazy about the piece or composer, and then feel like we can learn something from it.  Just now we’re beginning to work on a commissioned piece by North American composer Joe Williams II for a performance in Austin this November.  It’s fantastic.
How much of it is created by you?
In the early going, most of the compositions we performed we written by  guitarist/composers we idolized.  Now, we have three different programs, and half of the repertoire was commissioned and written by us.  If we include arrangements and improvisations – most of the music was developed by our duo.
You have recently been commissioned to play live music to silent movies – 
what are the films? 
 Yes, we were first commissioned by the Austin Classical Guitar Society and Alamo Draft House to create a live score to the 1927 genre film “The Unknown”, directed by Tod Browning starring Lon Chaney Sr, and Joan Crawford.  The score was written for 2 guitars and violin, premiered in June 2012.
In early 2013, we were commissioned by the Bærum county in Norway to create a film score to be performed live around schools in the region.  The performance, called “Mekanisk” was sculpted around a patchwork of short films by the French film pioneer Georges Melies – probably most know for his film “Voyage to the Moon”.  We will do our second tour this fall having a total of 60 performances this year.
How do you go about providing almost an hour of live music? 
We’re effected by both the film scenario and the type of performance we imagine.  For The UNKNOWN, close to half the score was written out by us.  We sent a Sibelius file back and forth 110 times before the score was complete.   We also felt it was appropriate to include pieces from the repertoire that resembled the mood of the film.  We paraphrase «Tzigane» by Ravel, Albeniz’ «Granada», «La Maja de Goya» by Granados,  «The Ritual Fire Dance» by DeFalla, “Jovano Javance”… these pieces not only fit the mood, but mix perfectly with the action and dialog.

Georges Méliès

As for Mekanisk, this was a completely different animal.  From the beginning,  we enlisted our stage adviser Pierre Michel Faure to help us create a live-music/theatrical performance for children.  He had us moving around and acting alongside the images on the screen.  We use guitar straps and wireless miking systems to make that possible.   The music was composed after all of the theatrical elements were put into place.   Through the 35 minute presentation, we have roughly 15 minutes of varied improvisation.

Do you use other instruments in the film music score?
 We’ve included only violin in the Performance of “The Unknown”.  In the US, we’ve been so fortunate to have Will Fedkenheuer of the Miro String Quartet perform the work with us and we’ve just enlisted the brilliant London-based violinist Katherine Gowers to assist us in Europe.
In November, we will perform Mekanisk alongside the scenographer, who is also a modern dancer.  Mekanisk is also expanding to include Chamber Orchestra for  performances from 2015.
What do you see the role of the music as fulfilling?
Yes, of course.  The separation of image and sound gives the audience the opportunity to appreciate each of these arts individually, and then seeing them put together is really a powerful experience.
 Do you work solo as well as in a duo?
Yes, but 80% of our work is link to the duo.
Do you think composing your own music is important for contemporary guitarists?
B:
Yes
Randy:
I feel that composing and improvisation (they are the same thing) have made my life as a musician more meaningful, more complete – I’m also more productive.
Do you have solo recordings?
Randy:
Puerto Viejo – Music of Spain: Mompou, Albeniz, DeFalla, Rodrigo
Man in the Moon – Music by Ralph Towner
Ben
So far I’ve released one solo recording with my compositions «Paysage Hypothétique», two recordings of solo guitar and electronic «Ring Triptych» and «Songes» also with my music, two chamber music recording: one on Piazzolla’s music and another on my chamber music works called «Detour». As a duo we recorded one CD in 2012 «modern guitar duets». All those recordings are available at Clear Note Publication USA.
How did you get your name (Les Frères Mėduses)?
R: It was the name that stuck – the name that kept coming back.
B:  In a zoo in Akron Ohio 🙂
You both have families and children – how do you cope with a busy travel schedule and family commitments? 
Does your family ever travel with you to gigs, or do you prefer to keep the two worlds separate?
Randy:
We limit our time away from family – usually 2 weeks at a maximum, and try to be as effective as we can with our work while we are away.  It’s not easy.  Fortunately, we have supportive wives.
Ben
For me it’s a constant delicate balance between family, concerts, composition, publications and teaching. More and more I really try to separate my artistic work and the family life. My wife was a ballet dancer, now she teaches and she knows how difficult it is to maintain that balance, she helps a lot. Working at home most of the time needs a real organization… work in progress.
Randy: For me, I keep these two worlds separate as much as possible.  That said, if there was a gig in Hawaii, you could expect the whole family to come.
Did you like playing in the shed?  
 Ben: Yes, of course, the last concert we did before the shed was in that big venue in Louisville for the GFA, so you can imagine the “stretch”. It was very easy to play in the shed, I felt like at home in a way, with some friends listening before having a party.
Randy:
Top-notch Gerald!  This was a wonderful experience – Great place, great people.

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