People in technology and business circles like to talk about ‘disruptive innovators’; people, companies, or products that subvert existing products and markets using new and innovative techniques. One of the most visible disruptors is the popularization of downloadable media: photographs, videos, books and music (which has recently surpassed sales of physical music). Eventually, some disruptors become mainstream, and everyone can enjoy the benefits of innovation – at least until the next disruptive cycle starts up. New innovations generally come from people outside the ‘accepted’ circle, since corporations have typically have no inclination to spend money on change if it isn’t forced (although that notion is changing slowly). In Canada, Gonzales may have started out following a well-worn path for musicians by signing his band Son to Warner, but he quickly saw the downsides of corporate ‘ownership’ and decided to make his career work outside of the system. Achieving success as an independent solo artist is a formidable achievement, but the recent inclusion of Gonzales’ Carnivalse in the latest Royal Conservatory of Music Celebration series is more of a disruptive achievement than most people realize.
If you look at the trajectory of music in general, you can trace a path back from pop to rock to jazz, to modernism, romantic, baroque, and so on. Ravel and his impressionistic peers turned French ‘parlour’ music into something that was accepted by a new generation. Every generation seeks to build upon the last and not merely replicate it, and favouring impressionistic music over romantic composers was a way of ‘disrupting’ established notions of music. Ravel himself regarded jazz as the next wave of music and looked towards people such as Gershwin to move music along and appeal to the next generation. Jazz influenced rhythm and guitar players, who combined it with folk and country to create the early vestiges of rock and roll. As evidenced in a recent London-based big data study, rock and roll was a musical disruptor, as was hip-hop a few decades later.
If you look at the list of composers in the RCM book, you’ll notice that the vast majority are quite dead. Only 6 of the 30 or so composers are alive, and of the 6, Gonzales is the youngest by a wide margin (the others could all be his parents). This ‘generational’ gap means that Gonzales had an entirely different set of musical influences in his youth from the other composers – influences more closely aligned with pop and rap than Beethoven and Hayden. When I personally opened up the RCM book and saw “Chilly Gonzales” listed at the bottom of the table of contents, it was a bit surreal; a David versus Goliath moment, and David had just won.
“Chilly Gonzales (b. 1972)” – just seeing that on the top of page 130 makes me grin widely. The grin says, “He did it.” Gonzales’ talent, single mindedness, faith, and belief in himself and others finally pushed through countless barriers and was heard and felt by people in the ‘establishment’. Gonzales’ drive to be a ‘man of his time’ and his musical message is influencing orchestras, chamber ensembles, soloists, hip-hop, rap, pop and even musical education companies, such as the RCM. This is just the beginning of another disruptive revolution as the next generation seeks to inject humanity into their pre-processed digital worlds, while the established orchestras and artists seek to appeal to a younger, smarter, more savvy audience.
To an outsider, one might read a few articles and watch the video of Gonzales’ inclusion in the RCM book, but the gesture speaks to so much more than kids leaning Carnivalse for the next 7 years (the selections are reviewed every seven years). It means that some of the kids who learn Carnivalse will also read about and be motivated by Gonzales – his music, approach, and willingness to share and teach. It means that out of the countless students who make it through the RCM, there may be a few who decide to be ‘of their time’ and push boundaries with their vision (musical or otherwise). And maybe one day, when an interviewer asks them who inspired and influenced them when they were young, they’ll respond: “Chilly Gonzales”.