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Q&A with Percussionist Joseph Gramley

Multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley is a professor of music at the University of Michigan and will be appearing as a guest artist with the Pavel Haas Quartet on April 18th in Rackham Auditorium. Gramley’s dynamic and exciting performances as a soloist and as a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has generated enthusiasm from emerging composers, percussion aficionados, and successful ensembles around the world.

Kari Dion is a U-M Master’s Clarinet student and UMS Digital Media Intern.

Kari Dion: When did you first start collaborating with other established ensembles?

Joseph Gramley: When I was a freshman at UM, I was selected to join the Spoleto festival orchestra in both Charleston, SC and Spoleto, Italy. There, I was asked to collaborate on the chamber music series and the Music In Time series, all with established ensembles. Then, upon my arrival to New York for study at the Juilliard School, I continued to collaborate — at the Juilliard, with NYC ensembles and as a guest artist for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where in 1993, I was asked to perform the Bartok Sonata for two pianos and percussion with Andras Schiff and Bruno Canino. My schooling at UM and Juilliard with such great teachers as Michael Udow, Salvatore Rabbio, Daniel Druckman and Gordon Gottlieb taught me the importance of collaboration. All of my mentors embraced collaboration.

KD:  As a percussionist, is collaboration with other artists easier or more challenging? Have you collaborated with a string quartet before? Are there other notable ensembles that you have collaborated with? 

Joseph Gramley: As a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with many string ensembles. This includes, Yo-Yo Ma and the full ensemble of artists of the Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, and the Knights. Since 1993 I’ve been a regular performer at the Marlboro Music Festival which is based solely around collaboration and chamber music. I’ve collaborated with Dawn Upshaw and Bright Sheng in concerts and opera performances.  For many years, I’ve been associated with Carnegie Hall and have performed concerts at Zankel with David Robertson, George Benjamin, Sofia Gubiadulina, and many others. For the World Expo in Nagoya Japan in 2006, I was lucky enough to be asked to perform the Chen Yi “sound of the five” on marimba with the silk road ensemble string players Nick Cords, Colin Jacobsen, Mike Block and Johnny Gandelsman.

KD: What do you enjoy most about collaborating with other ensembles?

Joseph Gramley: Collaboration is my oxygen. I really do need it to survive. It’s what I love the most. The communication, the trust, the communal goal, the support. You can’t get much better than a highly communicative chamber music performance.

KD: What is your role when you are playing with a string quartet? How much time will you have to rehearse with the Pavel Haas Quartet prior to the performance?

Joseph Gramley: My role with a string quartet will mimic my role with any group that I collaborate with. It’s about trust and communication. We’ll find what’s important in the musical composition to each of us and, through trust and communication, we’ll hope that the audience has a transformative experience.

KD: What was your favorite musical collaboration?

Joseph Gramley: That’s hard to say; to choose one would place all of my amazing colleagues in second place…..As I’ve noted in this interview, which by the way, has GREAT questions, it’s all about the communication and message. Of course, I can’t continue without mentioned one of my most influential mentors: Yo-Yo Ma. What an angel and a saint. He embodies everything that is right about music, chamber music, and the arts.

KD: Aside from your performing career, you are also a professor of percussion at U of M. How does teaching supplement or enhance your performing experiences, or vice-versa?

Joseph Gramley:  If you attend UM Football Games and stay to hear the incredible UM Marching Band, you’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t have one with out the other.” This is in reference to two great ‘hits’ for the band that are always performed back-to-back.  The same goes for my teaching career vis-a-vis my performing career. They really do go hand in hand. When I tour, I come back to UM so incredibly enthusiastic about my teaching and our great students here.  When I’m on tour, I’m always referencing my students. In fact, my colleagues in the Silk Road Ensemble kid me a lot for writing emails to the studio at UM talking about what I’ve been learning. It inspires me to perform as equally as it does to teach….one informs the other.

KD: Is musical collaboration something that you emphasize to your own students at U of M? Are there important collaborations your students have been a part due to your influence?

Joseph Gramley: Most definitely! I stress it everyday at UM.  I tell my students, “This is what we do, we collaborate.” There are but a few ‘solo’ percussionists in the world and they too have a collaborative element to their careers. 

KD: You have so many elements to your career. Which do you find most rewarding?

Joseph Gramley: Tough call! One of my goals is to give 100% to whatever musical and collaborative situation or aesthetic that I may find myself in. I stress this with my students as well. Whether it be a ‘command performance’ where I’m called upon to perform works chosen by other artists, or a musical situation fully produced by myself, I firmly believe that we have to “leave it all out there on the court.” To be honest, the most rewarding elements are the ones that combine to form the sublime, transformative experiences. Experiences of which that it is my duty to include the audience in.

KD: What music inspires and influences you? We’ve been asking our interviewees to share a few musical suggestions with our audiences. Can you share 3 to 5 pieces or songs that you connect with?

Joseph Gramley: The Chen Yi Percussion Concerto is one of my new favorite works.  Evelyn Glennie has recorded it, and I’ve been lucky enough to perform it with Kenneth Kiesler and the UM USO, as well as GianCarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony.

Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Air to Air’ commissioned by my group, the Silk Road Ensemble, is one of my all-time faves.  It’s on our last album: OFF THE MAP.

Anything recorded by BROOKLYN RIDER is amazing.  Especially Colin Jacobsen’s works and the full groups joint commission: SEVEN STEPS.