GREGORY WALKER CONTINUES TO FIND INDIVIDUALITY
Experimentation is how we progress in society. New thoughts and ideas do little to progress us culturally or technologically while they still remain untested. CU Denver Music Professor Gregory Walker has spent his life experimenting with new musical and technological ideas, meshing science and art into a hot spring on innovation.
Mainly a violin player, Walker’s musical training was mostly through classical programs. “I’ve been trained as a straight-ahead classical guy,” Walker said. “I studied at a few conservatories, studied violin in Indiana, a couple places in California. I was a concertmaster violinist of an orchestra in California, and a couple here in Colorado.” Walker also holds a Masters of Computer Music from the University Of California San Diego and a Doctorate in Composition from CU Boulder.
Walker has been a musician practically since the day he was born. His parents were both classical musicians who instilled a love of music in him. “My family is all musicians,” Walker said. “My father was a concert pianist, my mother, my two aunts, my grandmother. It would have been weird for me not to be a musician.”
However, being the child of two highly trained classical musicians can prove to be challenging for a young explorative musician. “When I was growing up the basic plan for me was to be a concert violinist,” Walker said. “I wanted to play electric guitar, but in my household that wasn’t really approved of.”
“Students tend to have the boldest ideas.”
Music Professor | College of Arts and Media
According to Walker, electronic music of the past bears little resemblance to what we think of it as today. Today, electronic dance music is incredibly prevalent, but it is more based on dance and rave culture than it previously has been. “It had nothing to do with pop,” Walker said. “It was really abstract, intense experimental stuff. When you wanted to work with electronic music you would go and work with enormous mainframe computers.”
Walker makes a point to dive into unexplored musical waters. “I was aware early on that violin is very competitive,” Walker said. “So I decided it might be a good idea to find something a little more uncharted.”
He is currently working on a project that is being debuted at the Samurai exhibit in the Denver Art Museum near the end of April, which involves Samurai armor and features one of Walker’s inventions, which he calls the “Video Guitar,” an instrument that is designed to manipulate video when it is moved to specific positions on its axis.
Walker attributes the influence of his yearning for new experimental forms of music to two people: Milton Babbitt a composer, music theorist, and electronic musician, and Walker’s grandfather. Babbitt’s article written for High Fidelity magazine entitled, “Who Cares If You Listen?” influenced the way Walker and many other experimental and abstract musicians approached the art form.
Babbitt’s idea was that if an artists is truly attempting to explore new ground, he or she should not need to try to appeal to anyone. “Babbitt’s article said, ‘If you’re an advanced musician why should people understand what you are doing?’ And that’s kind of what I got trained along the lines of,” Walker said.
Walker’s grandfather George Siemens, who was a genetics teacher at CU Denver, also helped him realize his love for experimentation. “He was a scientist and was always exposing my brother and I to all these expeditions and discoveries through history and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Walker said. “So, I extrapolated that to music. I was thinking how cool it would be to invent something that other people hadn’t done.” Walker still wears his grandfather’s hood at commencement ceremonies.
Being a teacher at CU Denver has also given Walker some of his greatest inspiration. Some of the works he is most proud of have come from collaborations with current or former students. “Students tend to have the boldest ideas where you just see this flame of talent that stands out in a way that you don’t see in more established artists,” Walker said.
Despite Walker’s own musical beginnings, he sees that the struggle for current CU Denver music students can be facing the realities of being a musician in the 21st century. For Walker, there wasn’t even a thought growing up that he wasn’t going to be a musician.
“It would have been scary to go into business or go work at Denny’s,” he said. He admires the students he watches fight for their passions. “Students are going for it against all odds. Man, that’s what it really is to love something,” Walker said.
Being an experimental musician isn’t always as easy as it sounds, however. “If you do music for a long time there will be times when you wake up and think, ‘I don’t know if this was the best deal’.” Walker said.
Coming up with new and interesting melodies and harmonies can prove to be a challenge when someone has devoted their whole life to music and has heard and analyzed more than most. At this stage in a musician’s career it can be difficult not to repeat oneself.
“That’s one of the reasons why it is great to be going to college in music,” Walker said. “At that phase in your career you totally follow your bliss. There is a bare minimum of not wanting to repeat yourself. That is a great phase of life.”
Though Walker sometimes struggles to keep originality, his musical experiments do not appear to be lacking in that area. With his newest musical piece at the Denver Art Museum accompanying the Samurai exhibit, he plans on having the orchestra stand up and move into battle formations similar to the battle that was the inspiration for the music.
Walker constantly takes huge risks when attempting such outside-thebox ideas; while they can seem great on paper there is no guarantee they will actually work. “How would I even know if it’s going to work out? I’ve never done it before,” Walker said.
Still there is some leniency with the way audiences approach experimental acts compared to more traditional performances. “In a way there are no expectations, because it’s so strange people don’t know what’s right or what’s wrong,” Walker said.
When asked how he comes up with these odd concepts, Walker’s response was surprisingly analytical. “The ideas take a while,” Walker said. “Once you’ve got the core idea then you start to figure out how to do it. From my point of view, I’m looking for a real unified approach. I’m looking for a theme.”
Walker’s willingness to attempt something never before seen makes him an interesting character in music. A common complaint among many music enthusiasts is that current artists lack new ideas—that everything listeners hear now has been done before.
Gregory Walker proves that these critics are misguided. There is originality in modern music, critics just aren’t looking in the right places for it. “You can’t just be regurgitating what’s been fed to you,” Walker said. “Somehow, with you and your one life, you have to make something that is uniquely reflective of that. Otherwise we are just computers. Data in, data out.”