In Conversation—with The Brilliance

The Brilliance is hard to pigeonhole.  Their music is a unique mix of classical and pop, so you might call it prog rock with no hubris, or classical music without pedantry.  The highly original sounds created by the duo John Arndt and David Gungor, close friends who haven’t lived in the same city since The Brilliance began, are salve to both the ear and the soul.  Their albums have delivered songs in suite form, the latest being World Keeps Spinning.  Recently Josh Arndt, now in Paris, took the time to chat with Wanda Waterman about their new album, their collaboration, and what it feels like to be part of something much bigger than a couple of guys making music.

Give me doubt so I can see my neighbor as myself

Give me doubt so I can lay all my weapons on the ground

When the armour of God grows too heavy for peace

Give me doubt, give me doubt, give me doubt

What be my courage now, my shield from evil?

Love be my courage now–

I shall not fear.

~ “I Shall Not Fear,” from World Keeps Spinning by The Brilliance.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

Dave Gungor and I grew up together in a small town in Wisconsin.  Our fathers were in a band together in the seventies.  We all went to church together, and music was a huge aspect of the life of the church.

We loved everything about church.  Every time we would go it would be like a party.  There are videos of us as young as one, before we could talk; you could see us in a room banging on things, yelling at each other.  And so creative collaboration and making music together has kind of been ingrained in our relationship, and ultimately I would say, an exploration of spirituality and the meaning of life.  The meanings of death and doubt have always been a part of our music as well.

We’re always trying to explore the big ideas as opposed to making having-a-good-time-at-the-club kind of music.

I left my childhood home, going off into the world, really, with a mission.  I had this really clear sense of purpose and truth.  I was the type of kid that you could have sat me down with anyone and I could have told them exactly how it is.  I could sit down with the Dalai Lama and set him straight.  I had all the answers.

A number of experiences led that to shatter.  In many ways the music that David and I have made with the Brilliance came about with the shattering of my faith.  In many ways I became an atheist.  Although I love so much about spirituality and Christianity, I rejected most of this, and yet David has actually been in ministry for the last twelve years.  So it’s been the atheist perspective hitched to the believer’s perspective.  In many ways it creates a richer, deeper music.

David played guitar and bass growing up.  I was the one who played the piano and became very serious about studying music.  I could play pop songs by ear, and people thought I was a genius.  And then I heard Bill Evans.  It was something completely foreign to me, something I could not understand because he was never playing bass notes the way I understood music, especially in pop music, where there’s a bass note and a melody.  Basically if you can understand these two things you can fill in the blanks and make it work.  With Evans the bass was moving all over the place, and the piano wasn’t even playing any bass notes.

So eventually I began pursuing jazz and jazz improvisation, learning to speak that language of music.  A few years after that I got really serious about classical music, classical technique, and respecting the notes on the page.  With notes on the page you can get into the minds of some of the most beautiful musical geniuses of history.  They’re trying to tell you something, and every detail is there for a reason.

How did you get to record your new album with the orchestra at Biola University?

Creativity is not limited to the making of the music.  Our last album, Oh, Dreamer, was a collaboration with a non-profit, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Dreamers, that we really believed in, and we had a whole album inspired by the DACA Dreamers.  It was like working for a label but instead we were working for a cause.  We own the music and so we get to advocate for something we really care about.

So, for World Keeps Spinning, we were contacted by Biola University who wanted us to play a concert.  So I said why don’t we take a week, do a whole collaborative recording? I ended up spending a week with the students of Biola University, recording as much as I possibly could, and, in the end, we had a record.  I’m really excited about working with more large ensembles in the future.

What inspires your musical suites?

Many of our ideas are rooted in moments of despair.  Both David and I had both had our first true experiences with anxiety.  The first song on the record, “Release Me,” came from my first experience of physical pain as it related to stress in life.  I suddenly had a chest pain for three or four days.  I don’t know what it was about, but it had something to do with outer circumstances.  I was like, chest pain! If this stops, everything stops!

In Dave’s case he got on some medication and made some life adjustments.  Also living in New York City.  It’s a family of six—he’s got four kids, so he’s going a million miles per hour at all times.  And in addition to pastoring a church, raising a family, and The Brilliance (which could be a full-time job) he just started a job with a new organization called Telos which brings awareness to the Palestinian conflict.  And he’s working toward a master’s degree in philosophy.

When you listen to our music you’ll hopefully get the sense that it’s tapped into something much larger than just these two guys.

Innovative responses to the unexpected

Whenever we perform we always look for local musicians to work with.  When we go to a university, we work with the music department—so we have all kinds of students with us, and what happens as a result is we’re playing with a nonprofessional group of musicians, which means that things are going to go wrong.  The things that make a live performance special are the ways in which it’s not like the album.  So instead of breaking our necks trying to recreate the album, we turn it on its head.

There was one concert where the power went out.  It just went pitch black.  So we gathered at the front of the stage and we found little instruments that we could play, and people gathered around us and we continued to play.  People came up to me later in life to say, “Hey, I was at that concert when the lights went out, and it was the best concert I’d ever been to.” The concert where everything went wrong became the most memorable concert.

What, in your opinion, is music?

Music is my connection to the magic of being alive, the magical world, the spiritual world.  Ever since I was young I’ve always resonated with music.  I’d get on the piano to feel that resonance and respond to it.  Today I organize that resonance and push it into the world, and the world responds to me.  I have thus beautiful situation where I can trade those resonances for food and shelter.

The combinations of sounds I make are resonating in the world.  One of the things that brings me the most satisfaction is imagining the world vibrating just a little bit with the music I’ve been a part of.  I feel honoured and humbled to vibrate in the world in this way.