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Australian classical guitarist duo Slava and Leonard Grigoryan on their multicultural repertoire

One part of the duo, Slava, speaks about playing the plucked instrument, their early days and influences, as they perform in Delhi today at the India International Centre.

Written by Tanushree Ghosh |
Updated: December 11, 2019 8:53:46 am
guitarist duo Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, music, Grigoryan Brothers, Leonard (left) and Slava Grigoryan Simon Shiff

That a good piece of music transports to lands unknown is a hackneyed saying. However, Grigoryan Brothers, touted as one of the finest among their generation, evoke through their music — calm, dulcet, invigorating, taking you back in time — the imagery of sitting by and witnessing sea waves, desert whirlwinds, or walking down ancient Rome. It could well be a score for an espionage film or of a story of unrequited love and separation.

Adelaide-based Slava, 43, and Sydney-based Leonard, 34 (who has also played the trumpet for years), are of Armenian descent, who grew up in Kazakhstan and moved to Melbourne, Australia in the 1980s.

Their album Bach Concertos, “arranged for us by our father,” says Slava, “recorded with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra”, picked up awards after its release in 2019, including the AIR Award for Best Independent Classical Album. Playing together makes the solo-artiste brothers “complete and richer in terms of musical and sonic possibilities”. One part of the duo, Slava, speaks about playing the plucked instrument, their early days and influences, as they perform in Delhi today at the India International Centre, in between Mumbai and Kolkata gigs. The duo finds Indian audiences “incredibly communicative and easy to connect with artistically”. Excerpts:

Why the classical guitar and not violin, since you first learnt music from your violinist parents, or the Central Asian fiddle or lute since you grew up
in Kazakhstan?

Both our parents loved the sound and stylistic flexibility of the guitar. This was the first instrument I received as a six-year-old and it stuck — I never wanted to play anything else.

Who have been your classical guitar heroes?

Those we had growing up were varied, from John Williams and Julian Bream to the Assad Brothers. But we always listened to, played and were inspired by different styles of guitar-playing — from Pat Metheny to Paco de Lucia, Jimi Hendrix to Ralph Towner.

What is your first memory of music?

Probably of mum and dad practising their instruments. They were always rehearsing, thinking about or listening to music. It was a language that filled our house. Our father was a professional drummer (also a classically-trained violinist) for many years and loved jazz. This was definitely a genre that wasn’t easily accessible back in the Soviet times.

Tell us about your family and the move to Australia.

Our family name is Armenian. Our father was born in Belarus and our mother was born in what is now Ukraine. They moved to Kazakhstan with their respective families at the age of five. I was born in Almaty in 1976 and Leonard, in Melbourne, in 1985, after the family immigrated to Australia to start a new life; our mother had a few cousins living there. Being a country made up of immigrants, we never felt unwelcome. Music was a great platform for us to connect. The guitar as an instrument had much more cultural value in Australia than in the Soviet Union back then, which made our development possible.

As migrant artistes, do you think migration adds to the art and culture of a place rather than taking away from it?

We grew up playing more music from Spain and South America than anywhere else. In recent years, we’ve arranged and recorded a lot of classical repertoire not associated with the guitar. For instance, the compositions of Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Bach. We improvise a lot at recordings and concerts, and other ‘tonalities’ (classical European, Soviet, Central Asian and so on) can appear when we do this. This is probably where our Australian influence really comes through. Growing up in Australia, we believed anything was possible, rules didn’t have to be followed like they are in other countries with great musical traditions.

How would you define your music?

That is tough to answer since we vary things around so often. Our sound and technique can best be described as classical, however, musically, we veer into other worlds very often. Jazz, Latin and folk influences always have a way of coming through. We’ve released 12 albums as a duo, are working on a handful of new projects/recordings: an album of Handel keyboard suites, our first Spanish album as a duo, a theatre work due for premiere in July 2020 and composing for a commission for the National Museum of Australia.

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