After picking up his first guitar at the age of 7, George Bellas practiced like mad to become what he is today – a major exponent of the neoclassical and progressive guitar genre. His playing can be heard on several solo albums of his as well as on others by Mogg/Way (UFO), Magellan, John West and Vitalij Kuprij, to name but a few. His involvement in music doesn’t stop there – George also plays bass and keyboards, composes music and is a highly regarded tutor.
I did not hesitate, therefore, when an opportunity emerged for me to send him a set of questions. His answers clearly reflect the passion he has for his craft as well as his erudite sense of observation. First query I made concerned his most recent instrumental effort: “The Dawn Of Time”...
Musically speaking, “The Dawn Of Time” seems like a good representation of what you’ve recorded to date. Was the album easy to do?
The level of difficulty was no more than any other album I have written, performed, engineered or produced. Each album always presents its own unique performance and production challenges. I do think "The Dawn of Time" is sonically the best sounding album that I have done. Recording, mixing, and mastering are all art forms as well, and it all takes a great deal of attention to learn, practice, and articulate the techniques for each process. While "The Dawn Of Time" certainly does contain many aspects of my identifiable writing style, it is not an all inclusive representation. There are many techniques and elements that I've used on other albums that are not present in "The Dawn of Time".
What were your inspirations for “Step Into The Future” and why was it released in its peculiar format?
The format is not peculiar in my mind, that assessment is based on what everybody else does. For "Step Into The Future" I wrote one song, and due to its 75 minute length, that is all I could quite obviously fit onto a standard length CD. The album was not composed as separate songs that were later segued together, it was from start to finish written as one continuous piece of music. I was inspired at the time by modern composing techniques and elements, a few of which include: poly-meters, odd-meters, interval sets, twelve-tone serialism, quartal harmony, quintal harmony, polychords, exotic scales and unusual harmonization techniques, not to mention the outlandish form. The concept of the album was based upon visions of the future in which I tried to depict in music.
You don’t seem to have played ‘live’ very often. Do you have any gigs planned and will your solo gigs be instrumental affairs?
I love to play live and have gigged quite extensively in my life, but I also have an extreme passion for composing, which has taken precedence in recent years. I write a lot of music, and only some of it has been released (so far), but it completely consumes me. I always feel the need to improve and expand upon what I've done, so the practicing, studying, exploring, as well as refining, continues to this day and hopefully always will. I will never ever be perfect, but I will always strive for it by continuing to push my abilities beyond what I have already accomplished. Another challenging aspect for me to play live has always been finding musicians to perform the material that I write, some of it is quite challenging and takes a lot of practice to get it up to a satisfying performance level. To give you an idea of my exuberance for composing, when we were recording the drums for my debut album "Turn Of The Millennium" after tracking during the day I would go back to the hotel at night and compose like a fiend. And at the Shrapnel camp (Prairie Sun Studios) I did the same thing during the recording of the "Edge Of The World" album; I'd practice and record with the UFO guys, and then compose like a madman in between.
What were your main motivations in forming the Palace Terrace project?
The main objective was to compose an album in my musical writing style that included rock vocals. I wrote that album in a short amount of time right after I turned in my album "Venomous Fingers".
If I’m not mistaken, the Palace Terrace album is the only release to date you composed that features vocals. What challenges did you face when composing with that added element of vocals?
I have recorded several vocal albums that I have composed for, including: "Edge Of The World" - MoggWay, "Mind Journey" - John West, "Permanent Mark" - John West, and "Flying Through Infinity" - Palace Terrace. But that doesn't particularly have any unique significance other than the fact that they are all albums containing vocals. Writing music, whether it be for flute, French horn, drums, vocals, guitar, etc., is what drives my inner being despite the type of album it is. Music with vocals is no more important to me than instrumental music, I love both very much. The vocal music that I am most passionate about is based around classical choirs. I have been composing vocal music for a long time, much of it being based on techniques that were firmly established in the baroque era and later expanded upon in the classical and romantic periods.
There were no exceptional composing challenges for me on "Flying Through Infinity". The biggest challenge that I was confronted with during the production was getting the contrapuntal vocal parts that I composed recorded, and done so within a timely manner. I enjoy and very much prefer to work fast, but this particular album took much longer to complete than I would have preferred. So, while this album was in the making, I also composed a lot of other material too, some of which was released on my album "Planetary Alignment".
In my opinion, you’ve recorded some brilliant music with Vitalij Kuprij. Do you think Vitalij’s approach to composing music for keyboards differs from your own approach in composing for the guitar? If ‘yes’, how?
Thank you for the nice comment. I don't only compose for guitar, I thoroughly compose all the parts for all my music, which includes: guitar, bass, drums, piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, harp, glockenspiel, tubular bells, xylophone, timpani, choir, synthesizer and other miscellaneous instruments. And yes, of course Vitalij and I have are own unique composing styles - just as Franz Liszt's approach to writing for piano was unique to Fredric Chopin's. There are many aspects unique to each other's styles, but one thing we are both fond of is incorporating classical elements within a rock context.
In “Extreme Measures” there are passages where Vitalij and you trade off melodies so perfectly. For me that suggests you two get on very well together. Are there are any plans for the two of you to record together any time soon?
Vitalij and I definitely have a great chemistry when working and recording together. We have recorded a few albums together and recording more in the future is certainly a good possibility.
In the late 1990s, Phil Mogg and Pete Way asked you to join their band. How much do you think your success with the Mogg/Way project influenced UFO’s decision to recruit Vinnie Moore as the band’s guitarist? Were you approached for the UFO position?
Shortly before getting signed to Shrapnel Records, Mike Varney called me asking if I would be interested in joining UFO. He said Phil Mogg and Pete Way had really liked what he had played for them of my playing and wanted me to join the band. I of course accepted the proposition. This was essentially UFO, but at the time Michael Schenker would not release the rights to the band's name. Even after legal pursuit in court, the name UFO could not be used without Michael's inclusion. It wasn't until years later that he finally released the rights to the name, and at that point is when the name UFO was able to be legally used without Michael Schenker.
I think I’ve read somewhere that you write down the music you compose. If this is true, why do you do so? Doesn’t today’s easy access to recording technology make writing music redundant, at least within Rock music?
Yes, I write every single note down on a score, which nowadays includes both paper and pencil, as well as the score editor in my DAW. While composing in the score window of a DAW I use the same approach as I do with paper and pencil, the only difference being digital. Why, because everything I compose is meticulously placed with dynamic and performance notes of how it is to be executed, it's not just redundant elements and techniques that are so typically overused as in a typical rock band. The music I compose can be extremely involved and necessitates scoring which is then distributed to the musicians involved. All the music for all the instruments within my albums is notated with the utmost detail, but the solos are always improvised. Composing a well thought out score is not redundant in the least bit, it is extremely important and essential to me, even with all the helpful tools available today.
Do you compose music with guitar players as the main intended listeners?
No, I do not. There are certain times that I indeed do write with the guitar in mind, just as I do the French horn, drum kit, or oboe, but the underlying reason that I compose music is to satisfy my creativity, and initially is not necessarily based upon an intended listening audience. A finished album may certainly have a target audience, but that is determined after it is written. As much as I love guitar, it is only a fragment of what motivates and fascinates me as a musician. I certainly appreciate it very much though when others enjoy listening to what I've written and or played, and it does appear that some guitar players have an interest in what I do.
Are there any guitar-playing techniques you have personally developed?
Yes, I do this one thing were I stand on my head with a guitar 5 feet in front of me and I telepathically am able to vibrate the strings. I can only do this for short periods at a time, but I am practicing. LOL... No! That's only in my dreams, well, not the standing on my head bit. Seriously though, to me it is not about 'guitar-techniques' per se, it is about composing techniques or improvising with emotional content – in other words: it's what you say, not how you say it.
A lot of people do seem to credit me with utilizing 2-string sweeping in a way that's unlike anything they've heard before, but to say I invented it is silly, it is the most fundamental form of the technique, that's all. Of the composing techniques though, there are a myriad of them not widely used in the general music society that I enjoy utilizing. A physical technique doesn't have much value to me without musical substance; unique and quality content that stimulates the intellect and stirs emotions is what holds highest rank in my mind. As an example, if a being had learned and practiced the proper pronunciation of every word in any given language, but did not know the function of the words, that being could speak a whole lot of words, and possibly very fast, but it would be complete gibberish. Music is based on expression, not mechanics, no matter the style. Although, I do very much respect, and enjoy listening to a musician that displays a great deal of command on an instrument, exhibits profound and sincere emotion, and is all within unique and interesting content, no matter how simple or complex.
I have always felt that Classical music and Metal have much in common. You being more knowledgeable in music theory than myself, would you agree with my claim?
No, classical music and metal music do not have much in common at all. This is not my opinion, but is an educated answer based on what is actually used within the respective styles. Music composed in the Common Practice Era is rich with many elements not found in rock/metal music, such as advanced functional harmonic relationships and logical means to avoid them, melodies woven together in a contrapuntal texture, dynamics, advanced form, and a diverse amount of textures, to name just a few. I really enjoy the eclectic combination of modern rock instruments with that of orchestral instruments and all within a context that utilizes common practice period composing techniques and elements. One element I would like to mention that differentiates the two styles rather drastically is, this little thing called dynamics. Heavy metal, especially apparent on the CD's produced today, has a very small dynamic range, whereas music from the common practice era, especially during the romantic period, has an extremely vast dynamic range.
I’ve recently been reading about a scientific study on musical genius which postulated that “10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.” Do you reckon you’ve clocked those 10, 000?
Easily. I do not necessarily subscribe to the belief of that study though, it is not just about the time involved, but the quality of time is what is paramount in ones development. There are countless musicians that have put in a great amount of hours but have not pushed their abilities to the degree that is necessary to achieve what you have suggested. But, that is not even necessary to be able to have fun and enjoy the beauty of what playing an instrument can bring into a person's life. Be it a hobby or profession, both can be equally gratifying throughout a lifetime.
You’re selling a range of instructional CD-ROMs through your website – could you please describe them?
I offer a program called "The George Bellas Instructional Series", which is a 12 CD-ROM guitar course that focuses on various aspects of guitar playing and music making. Physical guitar techniques are covered to help build and expand a student's dexterity and strength, as are musical challenges, like, harmonic relationships, modulatory devices and multiple melodic line patterns. The titles in the course include: 2-String Sweeping, 3-String Sweeping, 4-String Sweeping, 5-String Sweeping, 6-String Sweeping, Scales and Modes, Chords, Chromaticism, Chord Progressions, Rhythm and Meter, Improvisation, and Melodic Patterns. Students interested in the lessons can visit my website to order any of the titles they wish.
I believe you are already working on a follow-up to “Dawn Of Time”…..could you please give me more details on this forthcoming release?
I would prefer not to divulge any information about this next album just yet. But I will reveal this, it has already been completely composed, every note that will be on the album is there and is just waiting to be recorded. I am also almost finished composing another album too, once I have finished the composing for this 2nd of the two I will begin the recording for both, which will be within the next few weeks.
Your relatively prolific recording activity suggests you rarely sit down and focus on composing but rely on spontaneous inspirations. Is there any truth in this?
Your speculation about my composing being reliant on waiting for inspiration is incorrect. I am extremely focused when I am composing, and always have been, and that's not to say that when I compose I am not in a heightened inspirational state, as most days I am. For me, composing is not waiting for when inspiration strikes, but on the contrary, it is an ongoing challenge just to keep up with my unrelenting desire to create music. There has never been once in my life, and I truly mean not even once, have I been without ideas; they are everywhere just waiting to be utilized. When I compose there is no 'forcing myself' or anything of the sort. The only recording activity that the public knows about is what is released. I write a lot of material and am constantly reviewing, studying, and searching for new unexplored elements and methods, as well as refining the ones that I have used. It is in fact a very difficult challenge for me to keep up with myself, because not only do I have to record it after the music is written, I also prefer to engineer and produce it as well. The albums I write are usually written within a 2-6 week period, they can take longer depending on the circumstances, but the past several albums that has been the case.
To conclude, a straightforward question: list 5 albums you rate highly (excluding those where you play) with reasons for each citation.
Franz Liszt - Piano Music
An extreme performing virtuoso. His melodies, harmony and virtuosic nature of his piano playing has always been very inspiring to me.
Fredric Chopin - Piano Music
The lyrical melodies, expanded chord vocabulary along with more daring non-harmonic tones, rather simple natured short forms, and of course his virtuosity, are all elements that I am very fond of within Chopin's music.
Gustav Mahler - All Symphonies
His composing and dense orchestral prowess is simply awe inspiring, and his abundant use of the glissando was very unique for it's time.
Ludwig Beethoven - All Piano Sonatas, String Quartets and Symphonies
His dramatic and emotionally charged piano sonatas and symphonies gave me shivers up my spine when I was growing up. I also love how he pushed the boundaries of the classical era with his composing techniques, making him an early romantic.
Richard Wagner - Overtures, Preludes, Tristan and Isolde, etc.
Powerful. Daring. Bold. Innovative. His modulatory methods are very inspiring to me, and no matter the progression in use, they all still contain great voice leading that his predecessors had so elegantly laid forth.
J. S. Bach - Chorales, Motets, Cantatas, and everything else.
The epitome of great voice leading is found within everything he had written - essentially writing the book on the subject. No matter how much of a romantic I think I am, I always love the style that Bach had developed and composed with so well. Undoubtedly pure genius.
Thank you for answering these questions!
And a big thanks to my family, friends, you, fans, students, record labels, and the media for all their support throughout my recording career. It is for you all that I will continue to release new material in hopes that it will bring some enjoyment into your lives. Thank you!
© 2010 Chris Galea