runs the old New York tourist-guide gag.
Graham Robb, however, has found an alternative route. As a professional musician of many years' standing, Robb has certainly put in the hours, and having written music throughout his career, he's no stranger to having fellow players read his dots on their music stands. But his gig in the Carnegie Hall complex in October will be his first in the guise of opera composer.
"It's an opera short that I've been asked to write – ten minutes of music – and the concert I'll be contributing to is actually taking place in the Carnegie's Zankel Hall, which is a 600-or-so capacity room that opened just a few years ago and has become one of the places to hear chamber music in New York," says Robb, a classically trained double bassist whose CV encompasses symphonic works, television shows including Thingummyjig, jazz-rock gigs on bass guitar, and teaching at school and college levels.
"But it's still the Carnegie Hall and it's a tremendous opportunity to put my work in a shop window, if you like, where the potential customers include the movers and shakers on the New York arts scene. I really can't wait, although there's still work to be done on the music itself and in finding funding sources to make the trip financially possible."
Birnam-based Robb's shot at the New York big time came through his website, which is hosted by an American music industry forum and invites participants to listen to and assess each other's music. Having logged on for some time to be met by good quality but rather all-purpose country rock, he was taken aback one day when in among the guitars and songs about cars and bars, an operatic soprano came soaring out of the ether.
He made contact with the owner of this voice and discovered that in addition to her vocal talent, Monica Hart runs a theatre company in New York, the Remarkable Theater Brigade. She also has major input into an opera company in Nevada and has contacts in Kansas. This, as well as the possibility of cable TV coverage for the Carnegie Hall concert, could lead to Robb's work touring beyond 57th Street.
"We corresponded back and forth for a while and then my wife and I decided to stop over in New York en route to Florida on holiday and I arranged to meet up with Monica," says Robb, who gave up his last teaching job, at Glenalmond College, to concentrate on composing. "I took along some music she hadn't heard, some settings of e e cummings poems that I'd done for an Edinburgh Fringe show last year, and half-way through the third song she asked if I'd like to write a short opera. The idea is that it'll be one of a series of six ten-minute pieces, all in different styles, that will form a showcase of new work."
Aside from the cummings project, Robb's composing experience up to now has been mainly in school shows – he co-wrote the cummings show with a former colleague from Glenalmond, Bob Robinson – and in jazz-rock. He was bass guitarist with the trail-blazing Scottish jazz-rock band Head in the early 1970s and went on to form the larger-scale ensemble Windjammer and his own jazz-rock band, Highland Express.
"Before Head came along I hadn't twigged that music could actually be written by ordinary human beings," he says. "John Davies, the band's trumpeter and electric pianist, wrote some quite complex pieces for us and I decided to give it a go.
"We actually still play the first number I wrote, Liquid Biscuit [which refers to Guinness, if your correspondent's memory for 1970s jazz-rock trivia serves correctly] in Head2Head, the band that drummer Bill Kyle and I formed to reactivate Head a few years ago and which is still active.
"But the point was, I realised that if I wrote for Head, I could have my music performed and that's the whole raison d'etre of being a composer. You don't want music lying unplayed in a drawer or on a computer."
He and Robinson have another musical, written around the Burke and Hare story, still awaiting its official debut. Meanwhile Robb and his librettist on the New York assignment, Jim Stewart, from the creative writing department at Dundee University, are honing and polishing words and music for two, possibly three voices, piano, and string quartet, a line-up that has sent Robb back to his days with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for inspiration – or as he candidly puts it, pinching textures from Ravel, Brahms and Britten.
With a five-day run with Head2Head at the Edinburgh Fringe imminent, Robb is also looking over and refreshing the H2H band book with charts for saxophonists Stewart Forbes and Sam Coombes, trumpeter Cameron Jay, American guitarist Tom Davis, drummer Kyle and himself.
"They're two entirely different styles of writing and there's absolutely no link between them, apart from the fact that I enjoy both," he says. "I really like the challenge of writing within the European classical tradition and have been taking it one step at a time because I want to make the opera as good as it can be. There's no guarantee that this'll lead to anything but there is the possibility of one or more of these shorts – they're kind of like movie trailers – being taken up and the composers being asked to go away and come back with the full work. Whatever happens, though, it's still a gig in Carnegie Hall and I'm feeling pretty chuffed about that."
Graham Robb plays with Head2Head at the Jazz Bar, Edinburgh from August 13-17.
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