On April 19, local composer and pianist Robert Bruce will perform in his neoclassical concert premiere at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. “Songs of Light and Shadow” will include a backdrop of moving images against which soprano Janet Obermeyer, mezzo soprano Martina Aswani, and percussionist Dave Simpson will feature.
“The Tanenbaum Pavilion atmosphere lends itself very well to my music. It’s said that my music itself has a visual quality, so performing there is a good fit.
“My guest performers, Janet, Martina, and Dave are fine musicians. That they feel a genuine connection to my music, and are willing to put so much into it, is gratifying as well as humbling. I rely on their commitment to give the music a chance to soar. A composer and pianist like myself couldn’t hope for more when collaborating with others, formally trained or not.”
Born in Hamilton in the early 1960s, Bruce seemed to be obsessed with music from a very early age, but his family disapproved. He quickly realized he would have to forge his own path and bravely decided to strike out on his own before completing high school.
Bruce struggled in the standard public school system. “I got my grade twelve diploma only because I was stubborn,” he says. “My learning style did not mesh with the traditional educational environment. The same week I finished school, I borrowed a load of books from the library and I’ve continued studying independently ever since.”
Music was always on his mind. By the age of 18, he had written a few original short piano pieces. “I remember the amazing feeling I had when I created a classical-sounding piece incorporating the ‘blues’ language from the pop/rock music I was familiar with. I came home one night and wrote my first full-blown composition. Similar piano pieces came to me later, infrequently, yet they seemed to get better and better.”
Bruce taught himself most aspects of music during the 1970s by talking to musicians and reading extensively. He studied at his own pace, on his own terms, until he reached a point where he recognized a need for some technical training. He signed up for formal piano lessons at the Bedford Studio for a couple of years.
An important influence on Bruce was Keith Emerson, the famed keyboardist of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. “Emerson set an excellent example. I admired his fluency in multiple styles and his high level of musicianship. I recognized in Emerson’s musical ideas a maturity that very few rock musicians had. He also performed in lots of concerts and tours, so I understood public shows were required in the music business. A pivotal moment for me was when I joined a professional band. I had played in amateur bands before, but this one worked in clubs and made money. After a few years, I was increasingly invited to perform solo at private functions and special events.”
To describe his compositions, Bruce coined the term “blues-impressionistic” and settled upon it to name the genre of most of his original works.
“My use of the word ‘blues’ has almost nothing in common with the Wikipedia definition,” he explains. “I use the blues scale extensively in a subtle, almost disguised, way. I studied and developed the ability to play and compose blues-related piano styles, like boogie blues, honky tonk, and stride, in my own fashion.”
Another source of inspiration for Bruce is Claude Debussy, whose work was dubbed ‘impressionist’. “The beauty and expressiveness of Debussy’s music transports you to its own realm. I like that aspect and see it as a worthwhile goal,” Bruce says. “I’ve steadfastly pursued music all my life and my personal style gradually defined itself. I can only take credit for working hard at it.”
According to Bruce, Hamilton is home to a number of good musicians. Nonetheless, for Hamilton to reach its ambitious goal of making a mark as a “Music City”, genres beyond country, blues, and rock must be better supported.
“Several of my recordings receive airplay on radio stations and are used in film and TV programmes internationally, but it takes a great deal more effort to succeed here presenting what I do live,” Bruce admits. “Neoclassical music may not have a dazzling future in southern Ontario, but my next step is clear: to research ways to encourage people to give it a chance.
“Creative expression is inherently uplifting. The key to fulfillment is fully engaging your natural abilities and inclinations, and being open to learning at every stage of your journey.”
Robert Bruce is not alone in noting that, for established or promising artists of any genre and age, Hamilton is ripe with opportunities to develop skills and broaden knowledge, thanks to the top-notch higher and continuing education institutions, not to mention the abundant arts and cultural resources, that surround us.
Robert Bruce: Songs of Light and Shadow
Wednesday, April 19, Art Gallery of Hamilton
Door at 7:00 pm, Performance starts at 7:30
Tickets: $20 at the door or by Paypal at www.robertbrucemusic.com