Lingering Light by Jeff Pearce
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Sticks have never entered the "mainstream" of the music world like the piano or guitar, but there have been many players over the years to play the Stick; Tony Levin is the person who a lot of Stick players point to as their first encounter with seeing/hearing a musician play the Stick. The bass player from Dream Theater plays a Stick from time to time, and there are a lot of musicians outside of the public eye who are quietly exposing a lot of people to the Stick.
AV: When was it that you decided to take up the Chapman Stick and how long was it before you felt that you were proficient enough to take on a CD done entirely on this new instrument? What kind of learning curve did you face?
JP: I decided to give the Stick a try in early 2002, so I ordered one and started playing it.
The "how long"? question? Unlike a lot of ambient musicians, I wanted to actually LEARN to play the instrument before unleashing it on the public... :) It IS tempting to pick up a new instrument, drown it in reverb and effects, and release your doodlings as a cd- a cd which sounds like everything else you've released previously. It's even MORE tempting, after the discs have been released and your disciples/zealots proclaim this to be "SUCH deep music!", to start believing your own press and think that you've somehow re-written the book for your newly chosen instrument, that you are now it's "savior".
When I picked up the Stick, I wanted a new instrument to lead to new MUSIC.
So I let the MUSIC dictate my technique; if the music required something that I wasn't physically capable of- I practiced until I was! My past music- whether the drifty music or the more melodic pieces- share a love for a slow pace and introspection. So I knew I'd be searching for those elements with the Stick- which put me in an odd position, since it seems a LOT of Stick players really enjoy the percussive nature of the instrument- and that love of the wonderfully percussive Stick sound leads them to compose some really fast moving and complex tunes- a lot of funky bass lines teamed with distorted solos with odd-meter time signatures and a few samba feels thrown in for good measure! :)
The learning curve? From years of playing the guitar, I felt confident in tuning the Stick, and that was about it... :) I simply picked up the Stick and started writing music. If it sounded horrible, I'd shift the position of one of my hands until it sounded a little better to my ears- a very low tech but effective solution..... :)
AV: What were you able to achieve in your music using the Chapman Stick as opposed to simply sticking with the sounds of a processed electric guitar?
JP: On a practical, sonic note, I was able to get MUCH lower notes- the lowest note on my Stick would be the low "C" below a bass guitar's low "E" string.
So I had access to notes that weren't available on the guitar.
With my MUSIC- I was able to achieve division and unity (how's THAT for a contradictory statement?!?! :)). "Division" came initially, where I could assign each of my hands to do a specific job- in the case of the Stick, the right hand handled the melody, while the left hand handled the bass notes.
I found great joy in having the left hand play a pre-arranged chord structure while my right hand improvised a melody- this is something that just about any piano player can do pretty easily, but it took a little getting used to on the Stick. Those things, though, lead to "unity". The Stick music that really resonated with me was music that had a "unified" sound- where it sounded like one big instrument, like either a piano or a solo classical guitar. The music that I wasn't really crazy about was music that was a little too "in your face" with the "gee whiz!" factor ("look at me! I'm playing bass with one hand, while playing smokin' solos with my right hand!"). Performances like that are BRILLIANT to watch. But I don't make music for people to watch; I want to make music that is good to listen to, even when you can't see the performer playing it. I think that's where a lot of music made by the "zealots" of an instrument fails; they're trying SO hard to show how much time they've put into the guitar or the piano or the Stick or etc... that they completely overlook communication. It's kind of the musical equivalent of watching a master orator recite flawless tongue-twisters at high speed: very impressive to witness, but not a lot of emotion is communicated.
AV: Your new CD is called Lingering Light, when was it that you first started working on these compositions?
JP: I started working on some of them in late 2003. The majority of the material was written between the months of April to December of 2004.
AV: Did you write the music with the Chapman Stick in mind?
JP: I wrote the music on the Stick, so it was kind of hard to avoid keeping it in mind... :) But that's a very good question, because in the past, I've written some things for the guitar that just didn't "work" on guitar- they sounded better on piano. I had the same "rule", I guess, for the Stick: if it didn't work on the Stick, I wouldn't play it. There were a couple of pieces (ok, roughly 14... :)) which didn't make it to the cd, because they were originally intended to be piano duets with a specific pianist, and it happened that I won't get the chance to work with this piano player. They sound good, but I'm letting those pieces go because it will be next to impossible to find a player with the necessary "touch" for these songs.
AV: I found the music to be very relaxing and peaceful in nature, was there a theme to the collection of songs that you decided to use for this project?
JP: The theme for this project was loss and the resulting struggles to restore personal sanity, so that's not a terribly relaxing subject..... :) In the past, I've given a whole lot of myself to the music on my projects. With "Lingering Light", the project TOOK a lot out of me, which was a different experience; you're suddenly not in control of the flow of the music. As the life experiences changed and progressed (or re-gressed) the music responded in like. There are more than a few pieces on "Lingering Light" where they just showed up- there was no sitting and writing music. This happens a lot in the ambient realm, since with the ambient music, one doesn't have to focus on such things as melody or rhythm... :) but in music that has a structure to it, this was a new experience for me. And it was a bittersweet experience- I was happy to have these feelings that were swimming around in me make their way into a finished piece of music, but it was difficult because simply playing the song would take me back to the EXACT emotion and place I was when I wrote the song.
AV: How would you compare this project to your past efforts and is this a direction that your music will move towards in future releases?
JP: There's a lot less "ear candy" in "Lingering Light". Since it was a new instrument to me, and I wanted to make something "new" to me with it, I decided on a new approach- one of minimal gear. I plugged the Stick into ONE piece of gear, and used ONE reverb for the mixing process. For those who have known both me and my approach since day one, this new approach was something like going "ultra-cold-turkey"! :)
But I was glad to do this, because it made me focus on the music, not on the sound design. And that will definitely be something I carry with me to future projects. It will take time to write the music using this approach, though- and that's fine with me. Personally, I'm getting tired of hearing music that was cranked out in one recording session, followed by more of the same a few months later by the same artist- because this, to me, is the "easy" approach. Think about it: the artists in the ambient genre who people point our as being prolific- what do a lot of them have in common?
The answer to that is that they have the drifty, formless, ultra-washed out sometimes tonal/sometimes atonal music. You don't have people like Tim Story cranking out five cd's a year of his beautiful chamber-like music, and that's because music like that DEMANDS time be spent refining it. To me, that's where art meets craft, and is refreshingly devoid of the "crank it out because I need more product to sell and establish myself" mentality.
AV: What was it that Corin Nelsen brought to this project and how much of his influence is felt in the final mix?
JP: Corin brought his ears, and that was all we needed... :) Corin has SUCH a wonderful ability to listen to a project and bring into focus what the ARTIST wants the project to sound like. Too many times, a mastering engineer has a signature sound, and EVERYTHING they work on sounds the same from a sonic point of view. Corin is the opposite. He has great technical skills with pro tools and the like, but his strength lies in his ears- and between his ears as well.... :)
AV: What role did Corin play in taking the material that you had recorded in your studio and making it into the finished version that we hear on your CD? How is it the two of you work together to achieve the best mix possible for your music?
JP: Corin started with a complete "blank slate"- there were no "assumptions" or pre-canned approaches he took. The most important thing he did was listen to, and "get" the music. This is not a very exciting answer in this day and age of "I have this GREAT plug-in that will take your music to the next level!", but it IS the answer that leads to satisfying music.
Corin knew of my past addiction to reverbs, so he was gentle as he weaned me away from all things blurry... :) The main thing he did was actually ASK me "how does this sound to you?". Do you know how FEW people do that?
AV: Why is it that you chose Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road studio to do your mixing and mastering at? Does it make that much of a difference where you choose to mix and master at?
JP: It makes a HUGE difference- I found that out when I first listened to "Lingering Light" then listened to one of my previous cd's... :) I chose Will's studio because it is a great place to listen to music. In March of 2004, I flew to Will's place to do some session work for a couple of projects he was producing. I saw first-hand that there were VERY few "wasted movements" in that environment- when it was time to focus on the music, all involved focused on the music. And their monitoring system is probably one of the best in the world for recording and playing solo instrumental music.
From a personal standpoint, Will is a dear friend, and I had REALLY enjoyed playing with him and Liz Story as a "guest" whenever the Windham Hill Winter Solstice tour came into the part of the country I live in (Indiana). I appreciate any chance I get to hang out with him and wander around his beautiful place in VT.
AV: Now that the project is ready for release what are your thoughts on the final mix of this CD? Were you pleased with the way all of the elements came together (studio, Corin Nelsen and the Chapman Stick)? Is the CD currently available?
JP: Final thoughts on the project? I still have a hard time listening to it from an emotional standpoint, because, as I said earlier, the music takes me right back to the emotions I was dealing with when I wrote it. You move from pain and regret through fragile hope and desire for forgiveness, to the realization that sometimes there IS no forgiveness. At some point, you have to let go and tell yourself "I did the best I could to fix this mistake of mine, to learn from it, and if there's no forgiveness, then that's someone else's decision and someone else's karma" and then wish that person the best. But "letting go" and all that follows will have to be something for a future project, because I wasn't in that area with this project.
The elements of the project all came together beautifully- everything from the sound and the Stick to the absolutely gorgeous cover that Jeff Kowal created. The cover captured exactly what the music sounds like: on the surface, it's pretty. But when a little time is spent with it, you start to see the dark undercurrents and the sense of "loss". The first time I saw the cover, I got goosebumps, was breathless- it was stunning and exactly what I wanted from the project. Again, though- it's because Jeff Kowal LISTENED to the music. He really got inside of it, and came up with the perfect cover.
The cd is currently available from cdbaby.com (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/pearcejeff/from/jeffpearce ) and the Lotuspike website (www.lotuspike.com ) and will probably be available at Backroads (http://www.backroadsmusic.com ) and Hypnos (www.hypnos.com ) by the time this interview is posted.
AV: Are you going to be doing any live performances of the music on Lingering Light with the Chapman Stick in tow and where and when might those appearances be?
JP: Three live shows coming up, all of them featuring the Stick and music from "Lingering Light", plus some ambient Stick music:
1) The Gathering Room in Hartford, CT September 24 2005
2) The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA October 21 2005- a concert for the "Voices Beyond the Dome" concert series. (www.lotuspike.com )
3) The Gathering in Philadelphia, PA October 22 2005 (http://www.thegatherings.org/58gather.html )
AV: Any final thoughts about Lingering Light that you'd like to tell the readers of AV about that I didn't cover in the previous questions?
JP: I have no real "reason" for making music- it just happens, and it's like I don't have much control over it. The reasons for releasing that music on cd, though- those are a little more thought out... :)
Releasing my music and playing live shows have given me something so precious- and that is "connection". In the end, I release this music for connection. It allows me to meet and greet the people who have supported my music over the years. It allows me to say thanks to those who have worked hard on my behalf. It's a blessing to me, and allows me, at least to the best of my ability, to bless in return. There's not a lot more I could ask for... :)
AV: Jeff it has been a pleasure talking to you again and I hope that Lingering Light does really well for you in the coming weeks and months. I encourage the readers of AV to head on up to your website and check out the samples of the new CD. I'm sure they will just as impressed as I was. Take care Jeff.