Instrument(s): Opera Voice, Guitar, Piano, Flute, Drums, Bass, Mandolin
Genre(s): Classical, some jazz, classic and progressive/art rock
Tristan Zaba is a Canadian composer, arranger, producer, and instrumentalist. In 2012, he released his first album, Thoughts Past Pondered, and released his second album, In The Round, in 2014 with his band ZABA. Both albums feature the band's progressive rock style bringing in modern influences such as Steven Wilson, Rush, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. Currently he is studying music composition with the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba.
Ashley: Let's start with you telling me how long have you been playing?
Tristan: I have been playing guitar since I was in grade 1, but I don't have much formal training. Actually, I never really received any formal training on guitar, but I’ve always made an effort to drill myself technically so I consider myself decent with classical and jazz technique.
As far as the instrument I’ve studied the longest in a formal setting I would have to say is voice. I’ve been singing opera for 6 or 7 years now. I trained when I was living back in Calgary.
A: That’s where you are from, right?
T: Yeah, I’m from near Calgary but I was originally born in Toronto.
A: Did you move to Winnipeg for school?
T: Yeah, I did. I’m living in residence right now, and I came here because I’m a composer. The composition program had a really good offer. It came down between this and McGill and this seemed like a way better choice.
A: How so?
T: I was accepted at a few places, like University of Victoria, UBC, McGill, University of Manitoba and University of Western Ontario. For each university, I was accepted into their direct entry composition. The thing is, at McGill they have the largest number of music students of any school in north america in terms of sheer numbers, and it’s not huge in the composition faculty. I mean, there are only 8 students here. But there is not nearly as much flexible [at McGill]. Yeah, they are going to give you a great training but, it’s extremely regimented and you know exactly what you are going to be doing for your entire degree. They have it all mapped out.
Here at the University of Manitoba, it’s extremely free. I’m getting the same sort of training as I would at McGill; but I can also get away with a lot more. Gordon Fitzell and Orjan Sandred are fantastic composers. If I want to compose an opera or a chamber opera, even in my first year, I can get that performed. It’s great. That would never happen in McGill, not for awhile at least. Definitely not in the early years.
A: So how hard do you push yourself when you practice? How often and how long?
T: The thing is because I played so many instruments, it’s hard to say. What I perform on most with is voice, I do recitals every now and then and perform in my own compositions. And now I’m currently in the Manitoba Opera Chorus for their production Turandot. But for that, I don’t practice as much as I should. I practice maybe a couple hours once or twice a week; but the thing is it’s different because I’m doing a lot of practicing anyway. I’ve got opera rehearsal from 7:00 to 10:00pm every single night except Thursdays and Sundays so I’m doing so much singing anyways. I just don’t want to spend the extra time on it right now.
A: So when you are practicing, what are you doing - exercises, new music, technique, etc?
T: Actually when I practice on most instruments the first thing I think about it tone production.
A: What does that mean?
T: On flute especially when I’m practicing long tones there are extremely specific ways to get a really good tone and there are slight changes between octaves. And I think with singing and with wind instruments, it’s all about proper breathe support and from there you can kind of work on your tone so it comes a lot easier.
Piano and I have an interesting relationship. I had already learned a lot of instruments before I started playing it. I didn’t learn any piano for a long time but then university started coming up and I thought to myself “Oh I better start learning piano.” and after two years I went from knowing nothing to grade 8 Royal Conservatory. I did the same thing with theory.
When I’m practicing anything with dedication for a performance, it’s important to focus on the small sections that you can never get. Because those are the sections you really need to go over. When I was practicing piano every day, my mom would freak out at me because I was playing a measure and a half for an hour before I would move on and it drove her nuts.
A: Who inspires you musically when you are composing or performing?
T: I’m going to say Frank Zappa. He was a classical composer active from maybe mid 60s to the mid 90s. But he was one of those 1970s counter-culture figures. He was a classical composer that did everything else, like jazz and rock.
A: Like you?
T: Kind of like me, but he had a lot more attitude. He blends everything into everything else. He realized that it’s extremely hard to make money as a classical composer in this day and age, so the best thing to do is diversify and he did it without compromising which is really cool!
When you listen one of his rock albums, there are atypical instrumentation and all sorts of bizarre classical stuff. His classical is just off the wall and the amount of material he wrote was just unbelievable. He released 100 albums and he only lived to 55. It’s totally bizarre. If you listen to his jazz, it’s all mixed up with that stuff too. He is also extremely famous for basically pissing everyone off.
A: Anyone else?
T: There are people who have really inspired me on different instruments. In composition, Zappa is one of the composers I’m really influenced by; but, I’m also really influenced by Richard Wagner because I grew up on his music. I was immersed in his music as a kid. I went to see The Ring Cycle live in Toronto when I was in grade 5 or 6 and it made a huge impact me. I really enjoyed it.
As far as other composers go, I really enjoy Ligeti and some other minimalists. There is a lot of stuff I’m into but I try to blend it. On the rock side of things, I love David Gilmore from pink floyd. I love his guitar playing and I decided I wanted to play like him. Then I got to a point where I was like “okay, I can play like David Gilmore, now what?” and since then I’ve learned a lot more since learning to play like that.
A: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
T: It’s hard because music has always been such a huge part of my life. If I weren’t doing music I would have no idea what I would be doing. I can’t think what my life would be like without music. As far as my greatest accomplishments, I’m proud of my second album. My rock album “In the Round” that I released last year. It’s hard, I feel accomplished about certain things about certain pieces too.
A: What advice would you give to beginners who are just starting out performing or starting composition or maybe starting to get out there?
T: I’m pretty sure everyone giving advice to upcoming musicians would say “put in the time man, practice” and that’s part of it but I think the biggest part of music or being a good musician and creating music people with appreciate, is understanding what music really is and what it’s meant for. This is kind of weird answer, but in a philosophical way, but what it the music is supposed to mean to the performer and the audience? When you love a piece a music, what is it you love about it? And you do want other people to feel that way with whatever music you are producing? I think if you understand that, there is that underlying drive that is going to make you practice.
A: How do you balance your music with your other obligations?
T: Music takes up a huge portion of my life, and it has for a long time. I took a gap year before I came [to university] where I basically just practiced. I’m also a black belt in tae kwon do, but I haven’t been keeping up with it since I moved because there aren’t any schools in Winnipeg that studies my style. This year, I have been really buckling down about making everything about music. I have many commitments mostly music oriented.
One exception, I guess, is I have been doing other classes. I’m in an english class on the thematic approaches to the study of literature with a focus on horror literature. I just got a paper back from my professor that he is wanting me to revise and actually submit for publication. So I’m going to see how that works out.
A: Anything you are currently working on or that you are preparing that you would care to share?
T: Composition wise maybe not so much as I’m starting to buckling down to prepare for juries; but, I have a new band together here in Winnipeg that I’ve been working with for the past couple of months. We’ve been meeting weekly and working on the material from my most recent CD. We’ve got a reasonably big upcoming show with DNA DAY downtown at 72 Princess street on April 24th, 2015. I will be playing guitar and singing. Also Bryson Debroni will be playing drums and Nicolas Pura will be on bass.
Support Winnipeg Musician Tristan Zaba!
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