Thirteen Strings: John Geggie composes from both sides of his musical brain

Ottawa's very versatile music man John Geggie.

As part of this season of concerts by Ottawa’s chamber orchestra Thirteen Strings, are new works by Ottawa-based composers. One of those artists is the well-known music man about town, John Geggie, who is also a member of the ensemble in which he plays the double bass. His piece Paraphrase will be performed on Dec. 5., but before the baton is raised, Geggie spoke to ARTSFILE.

Q. I know you more as a jazz guy John. Fill me in on your classical roots? 

A. I have spent much of my professional life trying to reconcile or straddle different styles of music. I studied primarily in Ottawa and Bloomington, Indiana. In both those places, I was fortunate to have been able to study with teachers and mentors in both the classical and improvised music worlds. After I finished my university degrees,  I was able to work with ‘jazz’ bass soloists-teachers in New York, Kingston (New York State) and in Sweden (Stockholm and Göteborg)

Q. The double bass is, in classical music, often relegated to the sidelines as a provider of a “bass line”. Do you think it deserves to shone more? Why?

A. The double bass has traditionally had a role in an ensemble to anchor the pitch centre (harmony) and the rhythm. That role has changed and bass parts can also be quite virtuosic and melodic; romantic to late romantic and later literature demonstrates that. With a virtuoso double bassist like Joel Quarrington in the NAC Orchestra, composers have come to realize what is possible on the instrument.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to play a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina for bassoon soloist, five cellists and three bassists, each person with their own part — it was an eye opener for me.

Q. Jazz and classical — do they complement each other or contradict each other?

A. Music seems to be for me a form of communication (hopefully universal communication that can transcend cultures, ages, beliefs, styles). Within the classical world, there are so many beautiful, profound and spiritual pieces written over time from ancient times (plainchant) all the way up to the present. In the improvised music world, the same is true since improvisation has existed in music well before jazz; soloists  (be they violinists, pianists or whoever) used to improvise their cadenzas. Perhaps all these different styles are more like dialects of a bigger sonic form of communication. In whatever context I am playing, I am always trying to do so with a good sound, intonation and rhythm as is required in each style.

Q. Do you prefer one over the other?

Nope; they demand different skills of me though.

Q. How many pieces have you composed for Thirteen Strings? What are they? Tell me a bit about them/it?

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called St. Andrews’ Vibrations; it was written using the acoustic qualities of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church on Kent Street, where Thirteen Strings used to perform. It featured the upper strings playing improvised structures in various locations in the church, so that the audience was surrounded by the sound. Eventually they found their way back on stage for the remainder of the piece.

Q. When you approach a new work how do you begin?

A. Depending on the needs of the style or context in which I am writing, I try to do some research and get some background of material. I am also listening to lots of different musics over time so I am interested in what kinds of things are being created. I am checking out electro-acoustic things as well as things that cross over to different media and styles. My listening tastes are eclectic and I am pretty curious about all kinds of music. In a non-related fashion, I have also been checking out Lorde’s recent CD as well as some trance and downtempo music.

I do sketches of ideas and see what seems to resonate for me; lots of the sketches or ideas that I write end up not being used. They serve at times to be the means of coming up with another idea that might work better.

Q. Tell me about this latest work.

A. The piece is entitled Paraphrase because it is influenced by a hymn or chorale melody — I used that melody as the source of inspiration (a point of departure) and then I created a piece that has paraphrased the melody and maybe transformed it. Kevin (Mallon, the music director of Thirteen Strings) and I had a talk some time ago and he mentioned to me the theme around this upcoming concert. There is chorale melody associated with Michael Praetorious’ Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. It is a well known melody and we discussed the concept of a piece referencing that melody. The conception I had in my head makes me think of various works by Vaughan Williams, Arvo Pärt and Erikki-Sven Tüür, among others.

Q. Does it employ all the members of Thirteen Strings? 

A. Paraphrase is written for everyone in Thirteen Strings — no extra players and no harpsichord. Ideally I would love it, if it would get played by other string groups but one step at a time. There are solo sections for Manuela the concert mistress, as well as solo viola and solo cello. The double bass is in no way front and centre — more like back and centre (back of the group and slightly off centre in terms of the sonic panning). It should come up to about five minutes. Hopefully it will be five compelling minutes instead of 420 interminable seconds.

Q. What’s up on the jazz side of your career?  

A. I am not really touring any more. I have been quite busy playing jazz with a group of great players here in Ottawa — Roddy Ellias, Steve Boudreau, Mark Ferguson, Petr Cancura, Michel Delage and Garry Elliott. I played recently with Kellylee Evans at the NAC studio. I am finishing up the mastering of my new trio CD with Roddy Ellias and New York-based tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Lately, I have been recording with a bunch of folks for their own projects — Roddy Ellias, Terry Tufts, Steve Boudreau, Robert Young (a classical saxophonist from North Carolina) Anne Lewis, Ian Tamblyn, Jeff Reilly (a bass clarinettist in Halifax) and Wayne Eagles.

Q. Still teaching? 

A. I still teach in upstate New York at the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam and I also have students at the Conservatoire de Musique in Gatineau. Of late, I have working on workshops involving improvisation for musicians who haven’t done that before or improvising in a global context (not specifically ‘jazz’ improvisation).

Q. Tell me about your double basses.

A. I have a couple of double basses, one set up for orchestral music and the other set up for jazz. The classical bass is English, made by James Brown (I know what you are going to say about that!) in 1823. My jazz bass is German from the early 1950s. My wife Laila has assigned names to each instrument … the jazz bass is Betsy and the Brown bass is Marie-Antoinette.

Candlelight Christmas
Thirteen Strings
When: Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.