Canadian-born, German-based, Grammy-award winning Chilly Gonzales, who is playing two shows at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this week, is talking to me from Cologne. He is on a park bench with a view of one of the city’s few synagogues that survived the Second World War.
“I always found myself attracted to Jewish culture – its musicians, comedians, writers,” Gonzales says. As for the city where he has chosen to settle for the last 10 years, Gonzales adds, “I truly feel most at home here.”
These realizations came gradually to the internationally renowned musician, as did the creation of his most ambitious project to date, The Gonzervatory, an eight-day residential music performance workshop where seven musicians (chosen from a pool of 800 international applicants) join him for an unparalleled sort of education.
The first Gonzervatory took place in Paris last spring, an epic undertaking that is a key subject in this fall’s new CBC arts show, In the Making about visionary artists at the height of their powers.
Gonzales grew up in Toronto as Jason Beck, the son of what he calls “parents, who, like many others at the time, were overly-assimilated” Ashkenazic Jews forced to flee Hungary. The household celebrated Christmas and Gonzales never had a bar mitzvah. His older brother Christopher is now one of Hollywood’s most renowned composers.
He began to learn about music at age three when his grandfather sat him at the family piano and showed him how to play. Still, as he explains, “I had a lot of teachers but no mentors.” While simultaneously studying classical piano, and dreaming of being part of the 1980s MuchMusic scene, Gonzales couldn’t find anyone to help him combine these visions – something he set out to do on his own.
After completing a degree in composition and jazz piano music at McGill University in Montreal, Gonzales tried to establish a musical career in Toronto but couldn’t achieve lift-off. In 1999, he left for Berlin where he took on the name of what he describes as a music “super villain” and began creating albums that combined punk, rap and electro-pop. “Maybe Canada wasn’t ready for me, but maybe I wasn’t ready for Canada,” he says, looking back on his decision to make the change.
“Only in hindsight,” he explains, “can I say it was the right move.” Starting in 2005, Gonzales began earning international renown for his collaborations with artists including Feist, Drake, Jane Birkin, and Daft Punk. As well, he released a trilogy of critically acclaimed piano albums: Solo Piano, Solo Piano II, Solo Piano III.
Yet Gonzales is by no means a conventional rock star. Genre-defying and audacious, in 2009 he successfully set out to break the world record for the longest-ever continuous solo concert (27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds).
While the world’s greatest classical concert halls commission him to compose and premiere works in their spaces, he shows up for his performances in a uniform of bathrobe and slippers (an attire he also donned when playing at the opening of the 2015 Pan American Games).
“I stick out like a sore thumb in what can be a very conventional world,” he says, “especially when I bring the audience to their feet in an orgiastic finale. It is a subversive but positive experience.”
Such an unpredictable but explosive outcome is what Gonzales aims to teach his students. “Today the studio gives musicians an illusion of control. But for centuries performance was what music was about before recording erased the spontaneity of it,” he says.
Gonzales wants the musicians he trains to erase the line between composing and performance so that they are forced to rely upon their instincts – an approach and sensibility he developed over time.
Gonzales, 46, says that his decision to create a music school was a function of age. “At the very least I can pass on what I have learned so someone can benefit from it.”
Sean O’Neill, the host of In the Making was drawn to him because “we set out to document an artist at a pivotal moment who is looking for deeper meaning in the future. Gonzo(Gonzales) is in that place. He is asking, ‘Now that I have built my empire, who can I help?’ For me it was watching an artist wrestle his ego to the ground while using his characteristic ego to do so.”
In the Making reveals one of Gonzales’s key approaches to musical teaching – something that dates back to not long after his arrival in Europe. “I started doing this routine with my audience where I would play popular songs like Chariots of Fire or Heart and Soul in a minor – rather than major – key,” he explains.
It provoked a “ludic” response, originally from the French word “ludique” meaning “spontaneously playful, but with an educational context.”
All of a sudden, the songs turned into Eastern-sounding laments. “It’s not an accident that the music of many minorities is in a minor key, and that a major key represents the majority,” says Gonzales. There was a humour and a viewpoint to the sound which made him think, “I’m onto something if I can get people to release laughter through music and then make even a larger point.”
Before long his ludic performances became on-stage master classes. Then, in 2014 Gonzales released a book of easy piano pieces for lapsed pianists called Re-Introduction Etudes to be “an antidote to the stale, cheesy, ‘rinky-dink’ repertoire,” that most student pianists are forced to play. He wanted to restore some fun into the learning process. Today the book is in the hands of teachers all over the world including at the Royal Conservatory. “It was a major triumphant moment for me,” says Gonzales, “since that I never made it to Grade 7 there.”
In the Making also explores why of the seven students selected for this year’s Gonzervatory not one was known for having a specific musical talent.
“I needed the proof that they weren’t limited by an identity as an instrumentalist because a musician who defines him or herself only by what he or she plays will always be restricted.”
At this point Gonzales turns back to the subject of his Jewish cultural identity and his life in Cologne. The revered and infamously anti-Semitic composer and theatre director Richard Wagner, he tells me, wrote that you can’t trust Jews to make music in Europe because they will assimilate into wherever they are and they have no loyalty to their culture.
“I see his words as kind of a plus for me,” says Gonzales. “I fearlessly try different styles to explore what happens when you have X and Y interact. Whereas Wagner would say no, both should stay in their proper corners of the sandbox.”
As Gonzales sees it, Wagner’s statement is in fact a positive review for his choice to be a musical humanist whose career has been defined by the ability to constantly evolve, interact, perform, and connect with an audience. For him, it has always been a higher calling to be “a Jewish artist who is culturally omnivorous.”
Gonzales’s Canadian tour continues this month in Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal, before he returns to Germany for several shows in November.