Early musical influences

Thomas Rimes talks about his early musical influences and their impact on his opera composition.

[Excerpts from Thomas Rimes’ Interview with Ingrid Scott]

I.S. What were your earliest musical influences?
T.R. A huge amount of the music that I love listening to, and have had a fair bit of experience playing, is in the pop and rock genres - jazz and blues as well. All of this music was a huge inspiration to me growing up. I started playing classical piano, then later played jazz piano and guitar in bands and became interested in pop, jazz and blues, disco. All the time I was at school and in my teenage years, I played a huge eclectic variety of music; classical on one hand, and everything else as well. It was a big mixture of things growing up. Later on I spent quite a lot of time writing pop songs in a band that I was in based in Sydney. We spent a lot of time writing: our own material, released a couple of mini-albums and had a backlog of a couple of hundred songs. That was a very intense time of writing, usually in short, pop song formats: rock music and so on. We performed in clubs and bars in Sydney. Over the course of three or four years we released two C.D.s and recorded demos. We had a big repertoire. There was another guy in the band who I collaborated with in the writing process. A lot of the time I wrote by myself. The two of us were the leading lights in writing. I played guitar onstage and in the studio I played piano or keyboard and sang. I gradually learnt more about how to play the instruments and we learnt the process of writing. We developed a lot in a couple of years. You learn about yourself as a writer and you develop what you think works well. I think that in this situation you become better at editing. When I look back, that had a big influence on the later work I did writing classical opera.

I.S. So you had to decide which music to focus on; either commercial or classical.
T.R. For a long time they were separate. I had classical teachers who had no experience in jazz or pop who were keen for me to do just that, and thought I had talent in that area. On the other hand there were people who only saw me doing pop music that had not seen me performing classical music. Over time I had to work out which was the priority, or find some way to combine what I did in the different styles. In a lot of ways the skills are very different but sometimes they influence each other in very interesting ways.

I.S. When did you become interested in gospel music and jazz?
T.R. It’s a big contrast to classical, the gospel music. The church music I experienced growing up was English style: high church, cathedral choir music. I was a boy chorister in Tasmania for many years until my voice broke, doing several rehearsals a week, a couple of services on Sunday, very intense. That had a big influence on me. Then there was all this - American gospel, blues, soul. I loved listening to it growing up. I was very drawn to it through listening to records and seeing documentaries, studying the history of it, but also from the great distance of being in Australia.

When I had a chance to travel to the US for the first time, in my twenties, I spent about three months here. It was very exciting to come in direct contact with the musicians and their performances of all the American music I loved. I was particularly drawn to the city of Memphis, and I ended up returning to live there for two years. Memphis is an amazing southern city for gospel, blues, rockabilly and soul music. For quite a small city it’s an amazing musical center. When I got there I had the chance to play in a gospel church for a year. This was a most extraordinary experience. The intensity of those services and the passion of the singers are amazing. I played in a church for a year, playing piano. I’d already played similar styles, playing by ear since I was twelve or thirteen. There had been a really outstanding jazz musician, also a classical musician at our high school in Tasmania who started a jazz department at the school so at that time I began playing jazz charts. But it was an amazing experience playing in the churches in Memphis. The musicians were just phenomenal and their training was completely different to what I’d grown up with. They all played by ear having grown up with the music, hearing it as young kids. They grew up hanging around musicians and learning from what they heard. Although a lot of modern gospel music is very complicated, with tricky arrangements, they would be able to sit down and process it all by ear. Amazing. So I learned a lot. I don’t know if that influenced my writing a classical opera, but at the time, it made a huge impression.

You can see the thread of gospel music which goes all the way through so much black music and popular music in the U.S. So many jazz musicians and pop musicians have grown up playing in churches and have grown up with that sound. You see what an influence that has on so many great musicians. It’s no coincidence that the black church has been a huge breeding ground for great musicians; as the music is central to the services. They’re such a big part of the culture. They really celebrate it. It’s no coincidence that so many of the musicians go on to make a mark in other areas.

I.S. You’ve had a wide experience in popular and classical and you continue to draw from both.
T.R. Yes. I was very conscious never to make a big distinction between the different types of music I was doing even though I understood there were different techniques and different sounds and harmonies. I didn’t think there was any reason to make a big distinction in my approach to writing or to choose one over the other because once I started working as a writer and composer I could see many ways that one could inform the other. If you look all the way through musical history to those people who have made the great innovations from classical to pop music and jazz, you can see so many stories of people who have drawn together different elements no one thought could be put together. For example in the pop music world I grew up loving the music of bands like the Beatles where you could see so many strands of the music that they’d grown up with. I could hear how they put these styles together. I felt that in writing and composing you have to think creatively about how to put the things within your experience into something new and innovative. 

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