ROB BUCKLAND: Howard Popeck interviews this Musician | Composer | Arranger | Educator

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ROB BUCKLAND is internationally acclaimed as one of the most distinctive and versatile Saxophonists of his generation. Appearing as concerto and recital soloist, with his Equivox Trio (with pianist Peter Lawson and percussionist Simone Rebello), and with the Apollo Saxophone Quartet, Rob performs throughout the UK, Europe and Japan. Recent highlights include the British Premiere of Jacob TV’s Saxophone Concerto in May 2009, a solo performance of John Williams’ Concerto “Escapades” with the RLPO in Feb 09, and CBSO in Oct 09, a performance of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s “Panic” Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall in London, at the invitation of the composer, a gala concerto performance by invitation at the 14th World Saxophone Congress in Slovenia, a performance with the Macau Chamber Orchestra and three performances with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra in Beijing in the orchestra’s prestigious new-year concerts in Beijing, televised and broadcast to 1.5 million people. Forthcoming Concerto performances include the premiere of the orchestral version of Andy Scott’s Dark Rain (a double concerto written for him and John Harle) in the spring of 2010, and a performance of John William’s escapades with the Orchestra of Opera North in Feb 2010. MORE


I guess you’re a polymath. Musician, Composer, Arranger and Educator. So which one gives you the most personal satisfaction?

I see it as all pretty much part of the same thing - being a creative and innovative musician working in the 21st Century means that you have to be comfortable working in a whole variety of fields - performer, composer, arranger, project co-ordinator, producer, teacher, manager, terms of satisfaction, for me performing is still the most important and satisfying part of what I do. In an age where pretty much everything can be created, improved, enhanced and distributed electronically, it seems to me that live performance is now more important than ever - the only thing that cannot be replicated, and in essence the part of being a musician that defines who you really are.

Are you of the view that music is a civilising force – and if so can you cite examples please?

I would absolutely agree with this statement - there are countless examples, but the most recent example in my life is the Saxophone Day that I am co-artistic director of (with colleague Andy Scott) at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (I am Professor of Saxophone at this fantastic Conservatoire) - we have over 250 saxophonists from across the UK, of all ages (8-80), backgrounds, levels of experience, all playing together in a massed saxophone orchestra, and then sending a day taking part in workshops, concerts, master class, and enjoying concerts by the worlds leading classical and jazz players - it’s such a wonderfully calm, happy and uplifting day, and I always find myself summing up in the closing speech with the thought that if everyone in the world played the Saxophone (music), the world would be a better place....slightly tongue in cheek, but actually, I think we all know that music, and collective musical experience, is a harmonising and altruistic experience.

Would you care to comment on the current state of music education in schools?

Here in the UK, it seems to vary hugely from school to school and education authority to education authority. When I was growing up, schools offered free instrumental tuition to all, including supplying free instruments in the early years, and I know that I wouldn’t have been able to follow a musical path without that early support. These days, that’s all gone, and so there’s a real danger that music is once again becoming the preserve of the privileged few.

There are occasional schemes where whole classes are trained together on a variety of instruments, but that ironically, in my opinion, just increases the feeling that music is a waste of time, as no child will really achieve any degree of personal improvement in a group like that. The argument that this is better than nothing fails for me too - I think it’s worse than nothing, as it cements an experience in the early years that music is pointless, just mucking about... Instruments need to be taught one to one, and of course the accountants can’t see beyond the bottom line, so it all gets cut...the only way it’ll change over here is if our politicians and government have children of their own who want to take up musical instruments...

Do you attend live music performances of unfamiliar and perhaps initially ‘inaccessible’ or ‘challenging’ music and if so, why?

I’m pretty busy touring most of the time, but try to go to as many concerts as I can, and have always been far more engaged by the new, and challenging, than by the traditional and safe. I play some pretty challenging music sometimes, in some of the groups that I work with, but it’s our job as performers to communicate with our audiences, talk to them and invite them into the music - I believe you can play pretty much anything to anyone, as long as you help them to understand what they are hearing...

While music must axiomatically must be borne of noise it isn’t true that all noise masquerading as music is in fact music is it? Or is it?

I guess that everyone’s tastes are so unique that music that for some is noise will be more acceptable to others, and vice versa. We can only listen, open our ears to the sounds, and then respond with honesty as to whether it connects with us or not.

Many performers say that even the finest audio systems fail to convey the magic of the original recording, the dynamic and atmosphere of the concert performance. Is that your experience?

I don’t think it’s possible to capture the feeling of actually be inside the sound of a group, orchestra, band, in an acoustic - music feels different live than through speakers. Also, I often hear musicians complaining that recordings lack the impact of actual performance but it’s impossible for a performer to have real perspective, simply because when you are playing, you hear yourself most prominently, then those around you and the more distant instruments sound less defined, but of course the musical whole that reaches the audience is much more balanced, and this is what we try to emulate with the mix in a recording, much as a conductor would with an orchestra. But being in a live venue enables you to feel the music as well as hear it, to observe the interplay between the performers, and feel a connection with the ‘now’, as if you yourself as a listener are somehow a part of the sound also. These things are impossible to re-create electronically. Ironically, we can probably make them sound better recorded than when live, because of the control we have over acoustic, reverb etc, but the essence of actually being there can never truly transcend the recording process.

Musical accuracy when music is reproduced in the home. Is that phrase an oxymoron?

I suppose technically it is. This pretty much encapsulates what the previous question deals with. Each speaker system in each home setting will have it’s own strengths and weaknesses, and so inherently is a compromise when compared to experiencing music live.

How do you feel when a recording you’ve made is played back in the studio and sounds different to the way you heard it?

Again this depends on the studio, and whether you are listening to a rough mix, or a finished mix. I work a lot as a producer, for my own and other’s projects, and whilst the listening back to takes in the studio can be very revealing, this must be done in conjunction with the producer, so that you know how to assess what you are hearing - if reverb etc is to be added later, really you are just listening to ensure that your individual sound has been captured faithfully, and that the energy and atmosphere of your performance has been communicated in the way that you hoped. I have a small home studio, and listen to myself playing all the time, a) because it’s such a useful practice technique, and b) because it teaches me how to play when being recorded, how to temper my play and use the microphone as part of my set-up if you like, to capture everything I want to from my playing.

And how do you feel when that cherished recording is played back on a home system – usually inferior to a studio playback system?

There’s always a compromise, but serious musicians, and music fans, usually have a good quality system, or even more commonly these days, high quality noise cancelling headphones. You can’t mix a recording to suit every hi-fi, and you have to ultimately record the music to the best ability of musicians, engineers, producers etc, and put that out there for people to listen to - it’s up to them how much time, money and effort they invest in hearing the music on the best system available.

And via an MP3 player?

The sheer convenience of mp3 players means that we’re all going to carry our music around with us whenever we can - OK the sound quality isn’t quite as beautiful as on the very best systems in the world, BUT at least people are still making listening to music an important part of their lives. I’d rather people listen to mp3s than to nothing at all.

Do recording engineers, vital though they are, contribute to the characteristics of the recording or do they just ‘push the buttons’?

These days, depending on the scale of the recording project, the engineer and producer can almost become one and the same. But on a larger project, and experienced engineer can make a huge difference. The “button pressing” is pretty much standardised these days, but what cannot be replicated is the experience of which mic to use on which instrument, and crucially exactly where to place the mic to get the best out of an instrument or voice. You can enhance a bad recording with all of the electronic toys now available to us all, and make a bad recording OK, but a great recording will only sound great if it’s recorded with good mics, with the right mic placement, in an appropriate acoustic/setting. After that, it can all be enhanced if needed, but if you spend time capturing the right sound, all post production will be much easier.

From your perspective, what is the role and what are the benefits of the record producer in the studio?

It varies from project to project, but essentially for me the producer is the bridge between the performers and the technology, and as such must have a high level of understanding of what is required from each party - how much to push the performers to really explore extremes of nuance, tempi, dynamic, energy etc in the recording, tempered with a knowledge of what is possible technologically both at the time of recording, and in the mixing, edited and mastering stages. In essence, the producer should understand exactly what the performers want form the CD, and set up the session to enable that to happen as effortlessly as possible and to keep the session flowing at a creative pace that helps the whole project to find it’s own rhythm and pace. It’s all too easy to lose the architecture and pacing of a longer piece of music when it’s is recorded in separate takes, often in different sessions - again a necessary evil of the modern recording process, as time is money, and it can sometimes be easier to have say a 30 piece string section in for one session, and then drop the woodwind and brass solos on top in a series of shorter overdubs, but the performance won’t quite have the flow and cohesion of a single take with everyone playing together, but by the same token, any performer will be more tired at the end of a 6 hour recording day than at the beginning, so maintaining energy levels is difficult if the performers have to run whole movements again and again. As I said earlier, each project needs to be individually assessed and produced according to it’s specific needs.

Where do you sit regarding the analogue versus digital accuracy debate?

Each has it’s merits, and each has it’s draw backs. Our ears adjust very quickly to the sound of a particular recording, and only when we A-B the same recording in both analogue and digital formats, on a suitably high quality system, do we really start to hear the subtle differences. And ironically, by analysing the sound to this degree, I think we end up ruining our relationship with that recorded, rendering ourselves unable to simply step back and enjoy what has been recorded, rather than hyper-critically examining every tiny detail.

Do you still use records and if so, then why?

I don’t own a record player any more - the CD came into being just as I was starting to build my own music collection, and so it’s been the format of choice for me pretty much from day one.

Are the running order of tracks on CDs a considered process, or merely random e.g. do you attempt to set the tone with the first track; leave a haunting memorable image with the final track, etc?

The order of tracks is hugely important, and depending on what you are trying to convey, or achieve, will have a massive impact on how the listener perceives your music. Speaking personally, on one of my own CDs (The Time Is Now: Equivox Trio (E301)) I wanted the listener to be drawn in from the opening number, gradually introducing more demanding listening experiences as the album progressed, but then finished with 4 short, melancholic and melodic tracks, group together in what I titled “The Quiet Zone” where I wanted the ending of the CD to gradually bring the listener back to a very calm and emotionally warm place, after some quite strident music in the middle of the disc. On my first Solo CD (Towards The Light: Rob Buckland (Quartz 2020)) I start with a real explosion of sound, as I wanted to startle the listener, and imply an energy and dynamism that would inform the rest of the disc.

What system do you use at home?

I have various systems around my house, a nice TEAC digital system, with a sub woofer hidden away, for general family use, but a system in my music room made up of various components from various sources, some of them quite old - my amp is an old AKAI stereo receiver/amp, but has a lovely warm sound, linked to a JVC Cassette deck (which doesn’t get much use these days, but has a varispeed on it, which great for transferring old cassettes onto CD) and a Technics CD player, and then the studio part of the music room has Yamaha studio monitors, Focusrite Pres, and the obligatory Sennheiser HD 25 headphones for mixing/recording at home. My car has a lovely 9 speaker system in it too - I find that I do a lot of listening in the car - a necessary evil of being a travelling musician, so a good system is a real luxury.

In your view do you feel that musical credibility re playback convenience and portability is negating the desire for accuracy?

It seems to me that people will always want to be able to take their music with them, and even if the actual quality of sound they are listening to is inferior, it’s good enough for what they want. Our job as musicians, recording engineers and producers is still to make the very highest quality recordings, so that when this music IS heard on an appropriate level of system, those same listeners will immediately hear so much more in the music. We shouldn’t dumb down the quality of our product simply because it can be listened to on inferior equipment.

I sat with my youngest daughter the other day, and she had been listening to one of her current favourite songs on the iPod, and I played it to her through my studio headphones, and she was literally speechless at how much more detail she could hear, particularly in things like the strings in the middle of the mix, and the higher and lower frequencies - so the mp3 got her into the music to start with and then she discovered so much more with better equipment. Both of my daughters are musical, both great singer-songwriters, and spends a lot of time in my home studio demoing songs, so they have a good feel for what can be done with good mic placement, what’s possible post-recording, and the intricate and subtle differences between low quality and high quality recordings.

As a professional musician – among other things, how do you perceive the obsessions that plague so much of the audiophile world?

With my musician hat on, my performers hat on, I am primarily concerned with musicality, communication, emotion and energy, my sound, and if that is captured, then endless debates about audio quality seem a little redundant - some of my favourite recordings are live recordings, where the actual sound is nowhere near as well engineered as a studio version of the same music, but the recording has so much more energy and emotion, that I much prefer the whole experience to a more controlled but less emotional studio recording. Again, I guess it goes back to my earlier point - if the actual music-making is of the very highest quality, then the recorded sound, and subsequent post production techniques are a smaller part of the equation - if the performance is weak, then we need all the post production help we can get, but the music will always lack something.

What music are you listening to currently?

I have very eclectic tastes, and my listening changes depending on what I am working on in my performing schedule at the moment too...I have just bought Pat Metheny’s new Unity Band CD, which is consummately recorded and produced, but captures some of the most astonishingly creative and communicative playing and musicianship I’ve ever heard. I’ve been listening to Maria Schneider’s Sky Blue, again, incredible music and performance but recorded beautifully. I’ve also just got hold of a CD recording that I played on with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra performing Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances - the orchestra in their stunning home at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool have been amazingly recorded, and this disc really captures the energy of what it’s like sitting in the middle of a real live symphony orchestra in a perfect acoustic.

Which musicians do you most admire?

An impossible question to answer - Pat Metheny, Bob Mintzer, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, John Adams, Graham Fitkin, Louis Andriessen, John Harle, Vincent David, Marius Neset, Michael Brecker, Paul McCandless & Oregon, Chick Corea, Richard Rodney Bennett, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, John Williams, Hakan Hardenberger, Julian Arguelles, Tim Garland, Jason Rebello, Marius Neset, Manu Catch, Jan Garbarek, so many great players and composers, it’s impossible to write a definitive list.....

Which three artists have had the greatest influence on you?

What a tough question! John Harle - one of the most pioneering and distinctive performers and teachers, and good friend. Bob Mintzer - the most eloquent and beautiful jazz playing and writing, and such kind and generous man. Pat Metheny - I love his melodic gift, his harmonic language, and incredible performances. Many more......

Who’s driving the industry today Rob, the music publishers or the hardware makers?

Again, difficult to answer - there is a depressing lack of support for the many amazing, talented and dedicated musicians in all musical disciplines striving to make high quality music, whilst the media’s obsession with short-lived, manufactured celebrity means that it becomes ever harder to make yourself heard above the constant cacophony of mediocrity-masquerading-as-talent that the TV and Radio force upon the unsuspecting general public. Ultimately, the musicians should be driving the industry, but alas it’s more usually accountants.

What’s your commercial philosophy Rob?

If it’s good, high quality art, music, it will find it’s audience - it doesn’t need to be dumbed down, but should be delivered in a communicative, inclusionary way. What’s difficult is that we’re not on an even playing field because the bulk of the financial backing and media support is for quick fix, short term commercial projects, rather than long term investments in quality. I don’t really think that’s a philosophy, but there we go....

And your personal philosophy?

I’m just trying to be the best me that I can be, to be honest in my playing, performing, producing, teaching, to not shy away from challenging and changing the paradigm, and to always strive to be better. I believe that as musicians, the audacity of our imagination drives our technical development, and so we must listen to everything, incorporate everything that touches us, and strive to bring all of what we know and who we are into our playing and composing in order to continually raise the bar on what’s desirable and even possible.

Okay Rob – it’s Desert Island digital time. Given you can choose just eight recordings, what would they be?

  • Pat Metheny - Unity Band
  • Maria Schneider - Sky Blue
  • Joni Mitchell - Both Sides Now
  • Vince Mendoza - Epiphany
  • Yellowjackets - Greenhouse
  • Frank Sinatra/Count Basie - Live at the Sands
  • Pat Metheny - Secret Story
  • Belshazzar’s Feast - Rattle/CBSO

This is sooooo difficult...choosing 8 albums.....

And your one luxury on that desert island?

A good hi-fi system to play my 8 recordings on!!!

Was Hendrix really the greatest rock guitarist of all time? If not, then who was/is?

Unanswerable - music is a subjective art, and we all like different things about different artists, and I look for different things to suit my moods, or what I feel like listening to. I’m not really interested in instruments - for me it’s all about the person, what they say in their music making, the emotion and honesty of their performing, and the way that after their contribution, music is somehow changed forever.

And the greatest saxophonist?

Same answer as above.

Bach or Beethoven for piano composition – and why please?

Pointless limiting this to just these 2.....if you think about the world that these great composers lived in, the music they heard most regularly was their own - unless they went to hear a concert with music by other composers, but even then, they would of course only hear the live performance, maybe only once in their lives, and then rely on their memories of that piece, rather than buy the CD and listen to 10 different versions over and over, as we can now. Because we have all heard so much music now, it can be difficult not to feel that you are writing something that sounds like such and such a piece from such and such a CD - it’s certainly much easier to cite your influences, as more people have heard more music....if Beethoven told his colleagues that he was influenced by a performance of some Bach that he had heard, but they had not heard the same performance, how would they hear that influence in his writing?

What do you feel is your greatest strength at the moment?

An awareness of what I know, and what I still have to learn - the former is ‘very little’, and the later is ‘almost too daunting to contemplate’!, but I feel at this mid-point (hopefully!) in my life, I now have the good grace to trust my own instincts and play and write with honesty and enjoyment.

What would you do differently in your career if you knew then what you know now?

Learn to play the piano properly at an early age, practice my scales and long-notes from the beginning, be braver about having a go at new things, instigate more new projects and groups, talk a lot less and listen a lot more.

Finally, any message you’d like to give the readers?

The more people that listen, really listen, to high quality music, whatever the genre, and understand what it is to create music and perform with other people, the better the world will be. And however good hi-fi becomes, live music is almost always better!

Thank you! It’s been really interesting for me to have to think about these questions!!! I don’t know how you found me, but really glad you did!

Thank you Rob.


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