“Valeska resides north-east of Boston in an old fishing town. It’s a beautiful place, and he often walks to the ocean during long days of music. However pleasant, he spends little time in this world. He much prefers his own, far away from traditional reality. His music is a translation from one world to the other. His works are tales from another place.” – From Valeska Gavotte’s online journal.
When Kevin Leahy (aka Valeska Gavotte) speaks of his ambition to launch his very own 14-16-piece sinfonietta, it comes as something of a surprise. Not so much because this seems like an improbable ambition in one so young (he’s just 23), but because when you listen to his recordings to date it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t already have one. What you hear, though – an intricate weave of violins, pianos, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, banjo, mandolin, glockenspiel and percussion – is all played or sung by Kevin, with a fleeting assistance of a clarinettist. And the whole glorious mixture is recorded to create an impression, not of painstaking layering of tracks, but of a large group of musicians gathered in a cosy roomspace.
As for the music itself, it amply fulfils Valeska’s promise of “a translation from one world to the other”, of “tales from another place”. By turns playful and profound, full of timeless folk simplicity and chamber music sophistication, it really does conjure the traditions of a land as yet undiscovered: one through which the upholders of more familiar styles from many cultures – be they minstrels or feted composers - have passed and left their mark down the ages.
Seasoned critics searching for parallels that might give their readers some idea of what to expect will probably point to earlier examples of genre-blurring outfits, such as the Penguin Café Orchestra or Rachels – except that neither made use of vocals, so a further reference to Sufjan Stevens might be necessary. For Valeska, however, such comparisons would be wide of the mark. Asked to name some of the musicians who have inspired him, he draws up a list of classical composers (Bach, Mozart, Debussy) and jazz giants (Coltrane, Grappelli, Count Basie), his only concessions to modernity being Squarepusher (“I’m in complete awe of his genius”), Aphex Twin and Radiohead – though you sense he’s not wholly convinced by the latter two.
But those seeking influences are, for Valeska, barking up entirely the wrong tree.
“I find inspiration in music if I feel there's truth in it,” he explains. “That's all music is. I throw out the technical jargon, the genres, the time periods, the players, what have you... because I believe good music simply tells a truth. It's a precise and lucid translation of an honestly felt emotion. And whatever attributes that arise after are just functions of the composer's context.”
“Perhaps that's why my influences seem to skip between genres – because I seek truths, not common sonic threads or trends. And maybe that's why one may feel my own music omits genre – because I want to speak honestly felt truths of mine, not make sounds because I like folksy music, or electronic music, or what have you.”
Entirely self-taught since the age of 10, Valeska has recently begun to receive classical training on the violin – his most beloved of all the instruments he plays – and aspires one day to become a virtuoso. In the meantime, he is already at work on his first full length album and striving to hone his powers of composition further. The music it contains will no doubt take his personal credo to the next level . . .
“I believe that melody, rhythm and harmony offer us an infinitude of beautiful and unique sonic options, should we have the intellect and diligence to tease them out. For whatever the reason, it seems the vast majority of listeners and composers alike have abandoned this notion, and traded it in for endless, repetitious and uninspired noise. I plan to fight this tide; to carry the torch that was once held by so many brilliant men and women in the past. I'm just a beginner, and I have much work to do, but I believe I can someday live up to this task.”
You wouldn’t bet against it . . .
- Christopher Evans, Journalist & Broadcaster