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Charles Pillow: Sound Crafter

By Published: December 14, 2010
AAJ: Those letters of Van Gogh are treasures and provided a basis for the book and film Lust for Life. I see from the pre-release CD that the track titles include sentence excerpts from the Van Gogh letters, such as "Painters love nature," "Did I tell you about the Storm," "My brush goes between my fingers like the bow on a violin," "At the Horizon, a streak of light," "My brush goes between my fingers like the bow on a violin," and "He who dances must pay the fiddler." These are very evocative motifs, and some refer to sounds like "the Storm," and also to the violin. For you personally, what made them a source of musical inspiration?

CP: Here's how it came about. I pick up my kids every day after school, and I take them to the library to do their homework, and I try to help them when I can. It so happened that we were in a section of the library with the art books. So, when I was hanging out, I'd look at these great art collection books, Rembrandt, Picasso. Every day I'd go look at a different one. When I got to Van Gogh, I just became fascinated with him. This quintessential tortured soul. So then I got the book of his Letters to Theo, his brother, and focusing on specific sentences, seeing the beauty in the things he noticed. He'd write to his brother about colors, money problems, women, attempts to make a living. I didn't know much about him, but some of his individual sentences really struck me. So that's how it started.

AAJ: Am I correct in perceiving a strong influence of the French impressionist composers like Debussy in the Van Gogh Project?

CP: Definitely. Right on. I was hoping to combine that French feeling with a little bit of electronica-ism. Some of it has an electronica mix to it. I wanted a lot of reverb, too, and an electronica vibe. Plus, it's primarily oboe and English horn, and I wanted these instruments to be featured in that kind of setting. In fact, the name "oboe" is French, so it makes sense to have it in that vein.

AAJ: What's the difference between an oboe and an English horn?

CP: The English horn has a longer, bigger, deeper bore. It's sort of the equivalent of the tenor saxophone as compared to the alto saxophone.

AAJ: And what made you decide to use an accordion? That's a rare instrument to use in any genre.

CP: Actually, it's an instrument that's used a lot in jazz these days. Gary Versace
Gary Versace
Gary Versace

organ, Hammond B3
is one of the main players in New York. He also plays in Maria Schneider's band. The accordion was an afterthought on my part. The project started out as a duo, with me and Jim Ridl, and then I was going to add a cello. But the cello player bailed out at the last minute. So I scrambled around, and I decided to call Gary, because I always wanted to play more with him. So he just came over, and we recorded him right here at my place. He's an amazing musician. He read the stuff right away, and now it makes perfect sense to have used the accordion, even though I just stumbled on it.

AAJ: I understand the Van Gogh Project is going to be released on the ArtistShare label.

CP: ArtistShare is mainly designed so the fans can contribute to the process financially. That gives the fan an inside track on the development of the CD.

AAJ: Do the fans have input into the recording?

CP: They don't get input, but they get to see the process. When music downloads started with Napster, etc, a lot of music was "stolen" from the musicians. The founder of ArtistShare felt that the one thing you cannot steal is the artistic process. So that's the point. You announce you're doing something on ArtistShare. And you invite the fans to join you as you explore it. You update your fans on the website every week or month, and let them know what's going on. However, I should tell you that it turned out that this project is not going to be on ArtistShare. I started with that but then decided to self-publish it. We're just about ready to release the recording; stay tuned.

AAJ: There's a strong connection between the musician as a person, and the musician as a player and composer. Perhaps you can give us the flavor of your daily life these days.

CP: Music is my business, my hobby, my passion. But for me, the kids come first. Right now my daughter is 13 and my son is 10. Their mother and I are not living together, so they live about 10 miles from me. The Van Gogh Project is dedicated to my kids, because it started when I was helping them with their homework at the library.

AAJ: So you're very dedicated to your son and daughter. And how else do you spend your time?

CP: I get the New York Times online every morning. The last couple of books I've read have been on music, one about Wayne Shorter, another about Miles Davis. My favorite book that I read recently was Nathan Stone's On the Water, about a guy who took a rowboat all the way up the East River, and up the Hudson, all the way to into the Erie Canal, the Ohio River, down the Mississippi, out into the Gulf, down around Florida, and all the way back up to Maine. That was a beautiful book just about being by yourself and witnessing things. I have a canoe that I built, my first construction project using wood. It's great to have a craft that you made and just be floating on it.

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