For composer Karl Silveira, jazz and visual art are intrinsically linked

Last year saw the release of the documentary film The Price of Everything, which undertook a deep exploration of the marketplace for contemporary art — in particular, how a piece’s price affects the way it is received and perceived by an observer.

It resonated with musician Karl Silveira, a jazz trombonist and composer who recently graduated from the University of Toronto’s music school and has developed a keen interest in exploring the potential relationships between visual art and jazz music.

“I found it especially interesting that some works were beyond these discussions of value, even for art curators and collectors,” Silveira says of the film. “Their innate value purely as art was completely undeniable.”

While in New York earlier this year, Silveira, 34, met prolific trombonist, composer and visual artist Dick Griffin, and they found themselves in a lengthy discussion about how Griffin’s process of making visual art has been inspired by his jazz journey. “I’ve since been very curious about exploring ways of incorporating a visual-art component into my live performances, to allow new avenues for contextualizing music, not just in performance but also in relation to another artistic medium,” Silveira says.

It’s a concept that’s still in its infancy, but Silveira is hungry to pursue it. This August, he held a residency at the Rex, playing every Thursday with his quintet — featuring core members Allison Au, Matt Newton, Dan Fortin and Nico Dann — where he debuted his own original music. (The visual component remains in development.)

Meanwhile, now that he’s completed his time as a student at U of T, where he studied with teachers like Andrew Downing, Geoff Young and Kelly Jefferson, Silveira is returning to the school this year as a private trombone teacher for undergrad jazz students.

We asked this former participant in our Jazzology program to tell us more about his vision of marrying jazz with visual art, how his educators helped him to be comfortable thinking critically about his own compositions, and where he wants to go with his music career in the future.


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You seem really excited about forming a closer relationship between jazz performance and visual art, especially after your conversation with Dick Griffin. What is it about that concept that makes you so passionate about pursuing it?

I’ve always believed jazz to be art music, particularly when people stopped dancing to it and started sitting and listening to it. As a composer, it is very exciting to choreograph an experience for an audience and for me it is irresistible to explore how I can direct the manner in which they experience the music. By contextualizing the compositions in relation to visual art, it will help me direct the audience to listen to the music with the same attitude they would have when viewing a piece of art: assessing how the work makes them feel, understanding the intention of the artist, and finding their own personal interpretation of the work. I believe that finding ways to derive and present music in conjunction with visual artistic mediums could be a very exciting avenue for exploration.

How do you envision that combination? What sort of art pieces would you want to incorporate into your music, and how?

I am very attracted to the surrealist artistic movement typified by the Second Viennese school. During that time, artists, composers and particularly psychologists (Freud) became fixated on the concept of the subconscious. Art became focused not just on presenting a experience to its audience, but rather to make its audience feel the intended experience. This is something I want to explore with my music and the visual collaboration. I imagine a two-part event where the audience views the visual art in a gallery-like configuration, followed by the performance of each piece of music that corresponds to each piece of art in the aforementioned gallery. Programs will feature prints of each piece along with a blurb providing both the composer’s and artist’s context and intent.

Do you feel like that relationship ought to be more common among musical works and performances, particularly in jazz?

I feel that it is more important for artists to be true to their own creative vision rather than try to apply prescriptive ideals to the genre. If an individual’s personal voice takes them in this direction, then they should follow it. Sincerely created music in jazz is far more important than trying to artificially generate an artistic outcome based on perceived advantages. This hybrid medium that I want to work in is something that I hear for my music in particular, but I don’t feel like I can speak to whether this should apply to other projects.

How did your experience working with teachers like Geoff Young, Andrew Downing and Kelly Jefferson shape your development as an artist?

My time at U of T with my private teachers was one of the most artistically enriching experiences of my life. I felt like I received a great balance of encouragement and challenge from all of my private teachers. [Their] direct honesty in lessons helped me cultivate an analytical perspective of my work. Being able to analyze my playing and creative decisions without applying negative value judgments was always a challenge for me, but now being critical of myself doesn’t hurt my enthusiasm for the music as it once did. At the same time, their encouragement helped me trust my own creative instincts and take more risks in both my playing and my composing.

What are some of the favourite gigs you’ve played recently?

It was a real treat to have played every Thursday this August with my quintet at the Rex. Having the opportunity to play my music every week was extremely enriching. Each performance was different, so it was exciting to hear the compositions interpreted in different ways every week. During that time, I also felt inspired to write and was able to bring new music some weeks to try it out. I’m especially grateful for the tremendous musicians that played with me during this residency including Allison Au, Matt Newton, Harley Card, Dan Fortin, Julian Anderson-Bowes, Evan Ng and Nico Dann.

How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it, and how did the program help with your personal and professional development?

I thought it was really great to have a forum to discuss your creative ideas and intentions. I feel that by talking about what you want to do as an artist, you are able to really test your ideas and really get to the heart of why you chose a particular direction. I feel like participating in the Jazzology program really helped to clarify my intentions as an artist.

If you could thank our donors that support the Jazzology program, what would you say?

I am very grateful for being given the chance to speak. It’s quite difficult to gain traction with your career as a recent graduate and having this exposure helps a great deal. Thank you!

Why is music education important to you?

It creates a community of people that encourage each other to strive for their individual creative goals. Having access to professors, mentors and fellow students who are also committed to their own artistic projects really gives students the inspiration and resources to grow. Much of the time, the musical connections students make with each other in school turn into a lifetime of collaborations. This sense of community is key to a musician’s growth, in my opinion.

What about your plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?

Currently, I work predominantly as a freelance trombonist playing around the province in mostly non-jazz contexts. In the future, I would like for the majority of the shows that I play to be either jazz or original music, be it mine or my friends’, while allowing enough time to accommodate a regular composition schedule. I would like to be touring my music with some regularity as well and to be dividing my time between the New York and Toronto jazz scenes.


You can follow Karl Silveira on Facebook and Instagram, or visit him at karlsilveira.com.