Joel Garten: “the Jackson Pollock of the piano”

Short Biography

Garten is an innovative composer who draws his inspiration from visual art as well as music. He has been improvising music for more than 2 decades. His spellbinding work sounds like a meeting of Keith Jarrett and Morton Feldman, two of Garten’s main musical influences.

An accomplished musician, Garten was invited by Bryan Adams to give a concert at Adams’ recording studio in Vancouver.

Garten has an interesting and engrossing unique musical sensibility, forged over two decades of engagement with music.  He has studied gamelan in Bali, Indonesia, played an impromptu concert in Uzbekistan, and played an improvised concert in a tiny rice farming village in Japan as part of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial.  He had his first CD produced by Jazz FM 91′s Jaymz Bee, when Garten was just 13.

Garten’s music is inspired and influenced by such visual artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Giorgio Morandi.  Garten is also a painter, writer and entrepreneur, as well as a textile collector.

He is  currently writing a series of artist profiles of new music performers and composers which have been published on the Huffington Post, including an article and interview with Esprit Orchestra conductor Alex Pauk.


Long Biography by Kerry Doole

The term ‘Renaissance Man’ is used way too freely these days, but it is actually a perfect description of Joel Garten. This multi-faceted creative talent has earned international recognition as both an improvisational pianist and a visual artist. He is also an accomplished journalist, blogging on the Huffington Post, art curator and collector.

Joel calls the artistically fertile Renaissance era “a real inspiration. People then were so proficient in so many different things, and I do feel I have many different talents.” He brings a vibrant and spontaneous energy to all his pursuits, balancing intellect and passion in a truly compelling manner.

Growing up, the Toronto-based was surrounded by art, as his mother, Vivian Reiss, is a painter of international renown. It was music that first seized Joel’s creative imagination, however. “I started playing piano at nine and I took to it very naturally,” he recalls. “That year the movie ‘Cocktail,’ starring Tom Cruise, was partly filmed in our house. With the money from that, my parents bought a piano, and that’s how it started.”

Garten took some lessons in classical and jazz piano from tutors including Tom Hazlitt, of the Esprit Orchestra and Canadian Opera Company. Joel acknowledges that learning notation was not his forte, but it soon became evident that he excelled as an improviser.

“At first, it was very tonal,” he recalls. “I did tap dancing as a child, and some of those rhythms found their way into my music. I was also very inspired early on by Keith Jarrett and his improvisations. There was such energy and beauty in his music. He also used a lot of drones, and that became part of my music as well.”

A life-changing event in Garten’s development as an improviser on piano came when he attended a concert performance by famed Toronto flautist/conductor Robert Aitken. This was a tribute to pioneering American new music composer Morton Feldman, and, says Joel, “it completely changed the way I felt about music. Feldman’s music is very dissonant and repetitive and those ideas came into my music too.”

Over two decades of intensive work, Garten has fused those diverse influences into a fresh and original style. That was first showcased in recorded form on Spring 13, an album he recorded at age 13, produced by Toronto jazz radio host/impresario Jaymz Bee.

Bee now recalls that “When I first heard Joel play piano I was immediately impressed. It’s not every day you hear a 13 year old doing prepared piano! I offered him a day in the studio and had him come in to record, having no idea we’d actually complete a full album of course. It was a fun record to make, and it kick-started the career of this unique artist.”

Joel’s musical evolution was then captured in luminous fashion on a second CD, 2002’s Improvisations. It comprised solo piano improvisations, recorded over four sessions in Joel’s own studio. The release was described as a CD not to be missed by those interested in the present and future of experimental jazz and modern classical music.

In 2010, Garten released another CD, In The Studio, one that captured the spontaneity and depth of works created and performed in his Toronto studio and was inspired by his concert in New York City’s venue The Tenri Cultural Institute.

A Joel Garten solo performance is an unforgettable experience. He rocks back and forth on his piano stool, totally immersed in the moment and the mood. Joel explains that “I stay in the moment when I play, but at the same time I am transported to another world, so much so that I forget about the audience totally. There is this intensity and yet this calm at the same time.”

The result is a compelling musical journey into sound. “Someone told me that my music puts you to sleep and wakes you up at the same time. I can there is that dynamic there, the music is hypnotic yet keeps you on the edge of your seat” says Joel.

In his performances, Garten occasionally stands up to play on the strings percussively or plucks, strums and scrapes them with such implements as giant tweezers, files, paint brushes, shells, a metal comb or toothbrush.

Spontaneity is the constant and crucial component here. “Performing an improvised concert allows me to express the musical voice that resides inside me with great freedom, and to be innovative and experimental,” he says.

Another crucial influence on and inspiration for Joel’s music is visual art. “I have been surrounded by art since I was a child. I am especially into the abstract expressionists, like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, and I am also influenced by Mondrian. I recently saw his work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it really reminded me of my music. The slight changes in his painting felt like those I make in my music. I was looking at the paintings and I could just hear my music in there.”

Another longtime inspiration has been the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, best known for painting his collection of small ceramic bowls, containers and pitchers. At age 14, Joel bought a Morandi drawing, and he notes that “Morandi’s paintings have a deeply contemplative aspect to them, which over the hundreds of compositions he created elevate to an abstract plane. I feel that my lifetime of music is like Morandi’s lifetime of painting, repeating over and over and in different patterns the same notes, concepts and rhythms, slowly and organically changing over time.”

Extensive travel has been another creative catalyst for Joel Garten. He has travelled to more than twenty countries, soaking up richly varied musical and cultural influences en route. He studied gamelan with an aged master in Bali, Indonesia, and his memorable international performances have included an impromptu concert in the Shar-Dor Medrassa in Samarqand, Uzbekistan and participation in the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan.

The Echigo Tsumari Triennial is the largest international art exhibition in the world, taking place over a vast agricultural region north of Tokyo. Garten lived in the region in a tiny rice farming village for three months, and created improvised music that was inspired by his life there, which he performed at a concert at the Triennial. The music was also part of one of the art installations at the Triennial.  He also had a performance of these works at the Japan Foundation in Toronto

Garten’s career got a major boost when his music was discovered by iconic rock superstar Bryan Adams. Adams was visiting Garten’s mother’s house, and as Adams was walking around the house getting a tour, Garten started to play the piano. Adams immediately rushed downstairs to hear the music.  He was so transfixed by the performance that he immediately decided to throw Garten a concert at Adams’ music studio in Vancouver, a venue called The Warehouse.

The concert, heavily attended by people in the music and film scene, later morphed into a raucous party. Garten was impressed that some of his greatest admirers at that concert were people involved in the punk rock and heavy metal scene, as well as those in the film world who connected with the visual nature of his music.

The captivated response to his music in all these diverse settings has thrilled Garten. “My music is not pop music, but I’m continually surprised to find there is actually quite a large audience for my music that I’d never have expected.”

Given the synergy between his music and art, it is not surprising that Joel has also taken up painting. This has developed relatively recently, but he has already proved himself to be a prolific and highly talented artist. Garten credits Jean-Michel Basquiat as the catalyst for this new passion.

The energy emanating from a Basquiat painting in a magazine inspired Joel to do an intense hour-long improvisation. ” A few months later, I attended Art Basel, and I saw photos of Basquiat’s studio. I noticed he had oil sticks in his studio, which are oil paint in stick form. Seeing that immediately inspired me – for some reason the oil sticks really got me into thinking I could paint. Shortly after, I was in Florida walking down the beach thinking ‘I really want to do this.’ When I got home I bought some oil sticks and pastels and paper and I did hundreds of paintings. The talent just developed over a month of intensive painting, a huge explosion of activity.”

This development actually surprised Joel. “I never thought I was interested in drawing or painting. I had done a few pastel drawings before but never really took it seriously. Suddenly I was obsessively doing them and they really took off.”

Boosting his confidence as an artist was acceptance into the very prestigious New York Times-supported Architectural Digest show in New York City. “Three months before the show I had to get work together for it. I rented a 5000 sq foot studio and I just filled it with paintings. More than 40,000 people attended the show and saw my artwork. People were blown away, and many of them said they saw music in my paintings.”

There is plenty of correlation between Garten’s music and his art. “They are both very improvisational. I feel the same sense of flow in both, with one note or stroke flowing into another, and there is plenty of energy in both. In painting sometimes I use both hands and at the same time, like at the piano. When I paint, I don’t have a preconceived notion of what to do. I start, and it just comes out with the gesture and the feeling of it and the intuition. In that way it is similar to my approach at the piano. I feel like my 20 years of playing piano and years of looking at art have enabled me to paint. I see it as a latent talent I’ve been preparing for my whole life.”

Joel’s dual pursuits are now intersecting in a fascinating fashion. He has just begun a series of paintings inspired by Keith Jarrett, explaining that “I play his music while I paint. Each painting is named after the piece I’m listening to.”

Garten’s preferred performance venues for his music are art galleries and museums, and he has performed at Gallery Herouet in Paris and at Toronto’s Musideum, a musical instrument museum and concert venue. One real ambition is to perform at The Allbright Knox in Buffalo, a gallery renowned for its superb collection of abstract expressionist works, the style Joel most loves. “I consider my music to be art so I feel it belongs in a gallery,” he notes.

Joel has a well-considered theory about his two passions, explaining that “All sorts of art are about expressions of energy into matter. Music is more energy than matter, while painting is more matter than energy.”

His own artistic energies happily result in work that really does matter.