Interview: Erik K. Gustafson
Erik K. Gustafson is a visionary pianist and composer whose music crosses the boundaries between jazz, New Age, and classical. His new abum, For a Moment, is a vivid display of his artistry.
Q: What was your introduction to music? How old were you, and how did it affect you?
A: I don’t remember my very first introduction to music, however I received it at an early age. My family, I think, still has a picture of me at about two or three years of age, trying to teach my stuffed animal bear how to play the piano. Perhaps, a few of my most vivid early childhood memories of music come from the ages of between five and seven. For instance, I played recorder while attending the William Trotter School in the first grade; and, as I had the chance of playing with older kids’ playing ensemble, I remember being singled out at this and at later ages for musical opportunities and activities. More in the spirit of making music together, I remember singing bedtime prayers with my mother and asking her to harmonize with the melody. I was drawn not only to her singing voice but also to the ability to make a different kind of musical effect through harmony. Lastly, when I was in the first grade, I went to see the movie The Sound of Music, with my family. At first, I did not want to see the movie because I thought it was going to be a lecture about music and a demonstration of musical families of instruments. I am glad that I went because the experience became influential in my love of music: its melody and story. It probably was very good that I saw other kids making music together and that I wanted to be just like them.
Q: Did you grow up in a musical environment?
A: I grew up in a very musical environment — my grandmothers and mother all sang and played the piano, and my maternal grandfather sang and played the accordion. Also, my father sang and played the guitar and piano a bit, and he was an avid musical appreciator. I remain grateful for the love of music in my family, as expressed in what we did as a family, especially in concerts we went to or church services and events we attended. Boston, at that time, was and currently has continued to be a mecca for diversity and excellence in music. As a child, I remember going to Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts as well as at least one Christmas tree lighting with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Of course, I remember hearing John Williams’ music in movies like E.T. and Star Wars, and in going to Sunday afternoon concerts in Boston to hear Murray Perahia or the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. And at church, I remember hearing anthems by John Rutter almost “hot of the presses” as well as transcendent music of other composers – both traditional and contemporary.
Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?
A: I would say that classical and jazz styles have been among the most influential to me. Classical music became part of my blood or DNA, so to speak, as I was a classically-trained pianist and choral singer. I suppose I could not help reflecting this immersion of style in some fashion. I am grateful that love of melody, of phrase and expression, and of harmony apparently came from this training — not necessarily exposure to the Viennese school but education regarding and exposure to a variety of composers and styles. In also having exposure to some jazz — perhaps through recordings and music of some pivotal artists like Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington — I also acquired a keener love of harmony (even if different) as well as a conception of what is possible through music. Conception of rhythm and musical form would evolve later, especially during graduate studies.
Q: How would your describe musical style?
A: I would say that my musical style is still evolving, while keeping its core “inner voice” alive. When I was younger I used to say, “put a nickel in the jukebox, and you never know what music will come out;” and in so doing, I think I meant to indicate the variety of moods or expressions possible for one piece of music. Given the varied and intense musical background and training I have experienced, I would also say that my musical style is eclectic, hinting at a variety of traditions in my body of work. Still, my music has a certain sound or “soundprint” that is individual and recognizable. Some turns of phrase have been called “Gustafsonisms” and some works have been called “‘Erik’ pieces” by other musicians and people. I don’t think I could do without a certain amount of lyricism, tone- or word-painting, mood setting, or consonance in music that I compose. Others have said that my style is also “new age,” “neo-tonal,” “idiomatic,” “cinematic”, and (my favorite) P.C. or “physiologically correct.” In whatever music that I write, I hope the style will continue to be true to its artistic voice and intent.
Q: When did you learn to play the piano and what was that process like?
A: I started to learn to play the piano in earnest probably in middle school years, even though my strong interest and noodling at the piano keyboard began long before then. My grandmothers and mother all taught me how to play, and I remember my maternal grandmother asking me after an extended time of playing the piano during summertime, “Don’t you want to go outside?”. My mother has said that I have had a magnet drawing me to the piano keyboard. In later years I have said that playing the piano is athletic like running and endurance-building and that it is like cigarettes or dark chocolate and indulgent and habit-forming. I am grateful for the piano lessons that I have had with professional teachers, each imparting something good and something different. And I am glad that these teachers encouraged musical creativity, including through how they did or did not approach and emphasize scales, arpeggios, and other technical matters outside studying good repertoire. Van Cliburn was correct in that it takes a lot of care and attention, but for myself I am glad that piano playing has remained a keen interest and frequent activity.
Q: Which of the tracks on For a Moment are most personal to you and why?
A: If I were to pick two tracks from the For a Moment CD, I would choose Elina Rose and A Theme for Peace as among the most personal and meaningful. The first one, Elina Rose, was written with inspiration from a photograph of my deceased paternal grandfather; and, this music was composed during my first residency as Composer Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Both the connection to my grandfather and to VCCA were inspirational in eliciting new kinds of sounds and expression and in making a new kind of artistic connection — to visual art and nature. In addition, A Theme for Peace, has remained very personal to me, in that it is among the pieces that best expresses my inner world: from its harmonies, melodies, and overall wish for peace. Apparently, a lyricism and expressiveness in this music has reached other people; when I have played the piece for different audiences, I have had the frequent question about the music: “Are there words?”. By the way, yes I have written words to the overall melody; and eventually, I hope these words will be sung in English, Hebrew, and Arabic as an aspiration for world peace.
Q: What artists influenced you the most growing up?
A: It is difficult to pinpoint only a few artists that influenced me as a youth; however, I would say that living musicians, such as Arthur Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, ABBA, Chicago, John Rutter, Dave Brubeck, Peter, Paul, and Mary, John Denver, all stand out in memory and formation. There were also some traditional classical composers that influenced me, including Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and Grieg; but I would not want to dismiss other kinds of artists, such as Monet, Renoir, and Ansel Adams.
Q; How have you evolved creatively?
A: In my creative evolution, I would not say that I have had distinctive periods or breaks in style as in the great artists, Picasso or Beethoven. In my own humble way, I have probably continued to develop my core inner voice and impulse of singing and expression through music composition. In so doing, I have probably leaned less heavily on my formal classical upbringing and have probably added to my own practices that are evident in earlier pieces but present in a different way in later works. Also, I have grown to appreciate the presence of space, line, and room for breathing in music — giving performers and audience members alike the chance to take in the meaning of words/melodies and to enjoy the experience. Lastly, I have been grateful for musical experiences, friendships, and collaborations that have had a gentle (even if unintentional) guiding hand in my evolution. Currently, I am writing more jazz pieces than previously — now sensitive to rhythmic concerns like the presence of tango in music for sax and piano — and I’ll just have to see where continued exploration of music and my own voice leads me.