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Peter Epstein: Effortless Precision

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: How did the San Martino Cathedral come into the equation for Solus? Was that Todd's suggestion?

PE: It was Alfredo Gallacci's suggestion. He's the distributor for MA in Italy, and he lives in Lucca. San Martino is the cathedral he's always gone to ever since he was a kid. I think that they had never made a recording in there, and Alfredo had this idea that he wanted to have something recorded there, to capture the acoustics of that space. I don't think Alfredo specifically requested me, but Todd and I had been discussing doing a solo project, and the timing was right.

AAJ: I read a Stereophile interview in which Todd discussed how he thought of the performing space as a part of the group—making a quartet a quintet, for example. It's a unique concept; and if you listen to Solus, you can really hear the cathedral's presence.

PE: Playing in the cathedral, there was no ignoring the cathedral. [Laughs.] It was really quite wet, and quite ambient. I tried to count, myself, and it seemed like it was around six seconds of reverb decay. "Ma" means "space" in Japanese. I think from the very inception of the label, that's been his concept: to go to a space.

AAJ: That's a hell of a space! [Laughs.]

PE: [Laughs.] That's for sure. It's really a mind-blower to be in that space. Right now there's tourists walking around taking pictures, but that's not what the place is about. It's not a tourist attraction; it's a church. There's so much collective energy in those spaces, from worship and prayer and meditation. It's a somewhat palpable thing. That can be a little intimidating.

AAJ: If the cathedral has some 'presence' that can't be discounted, certainly the same can be said of the Partita in D minor. How did you come upon the idea of doing that piece?

PE: That's interesting. I had been playing with this violinist named Jeff Gauthier in Los Angeles. I was in this period of time where I was really working on certain things. I was working on circular breathing a lot, and I was sort of working towards this concept of solo performance. I hadn't really thought, 'I want to do a record'; I just was thinking about how to develop that internally. I was out there to play on a friend's graduation recital. Jeff was playing on it also, so we ended up hanging out a lot, and talking a lot. My friend Andy Barbera played a Bach piece transcribed for guitar as part of his recital. I was really floored by it. It wasn't the first time I had heard Bach; but there it was, right in front of me, and I thought, 'Ahh, alright!' So then I wanted to find some solo pieces, because I think Bach, by definition, is just sort of perfect. I thought, 'OK, I'll get something single-line—it's Bach: guaranteed, it'll be great—to try and explore what he did with the single line, and how he makes whole music out of one note at a time.' Obviously there are a lot of double-stops in some of those pieces, but the one in D minor has less of that—except for the Chaconne, and that's another issue we'll have to talk about, I know! [Laughs.] Jeff copied all the partitas and all the sonatas, and gave them to me. I looked through them, dabbled for awhile, found sections that I liked a lot, and then sort of kept gravitating towards the one in D minor. I found it was a great way to practice circular breathing. A lot of times when I'm practicing, I can't figure out what to play, so sometimes it's really great to have a piece of music in front of me—almost anything. That's kind of how it started. Eventually I started talking to Todd about it, and he was really interested. I didn't think it was possible, and he kept encouraging me to try and get the whole piece together. It fell into place maybe a year later.

The Chaconne, in a way, is the piece. It sort of feels like the other movements are just leading up to that. It's epic, and maybe as long in duration as the first four put together. It's very possible that it was just completely beyond me to try and get to something like that. In the Chaconne, there are many elements, with these huge arpeggios, and these long, long sections. If nothing else, that movement just relies so much on the low G string. There's just G's everywhere. In the first four movements, I was able to sort of fudge it, so a couple of times where there's supposed to be this big, ringing low G string, I'd break off, or I'd do something to mask it, and just go on, and hopefully it didn't break the flow too much. But in the Chaconne, there was just no way. So I actually have this dream of getting a soprano with a low A key, which I don't think exists. I've asked a lot of people; nobody knows, anyway. That would be really cool.

AAJ: You mention an appreciation for the single line. I notice a lot of single-line thinking in your music. Do you compose at the piano?

PE: I sometimes supplement at the piano. I generally compose on the horn, or just internally, somehow. I always keep little manuscript books, almost like a journal. If I'm riding the train, I'll write little fragments down. Sometimes it'll be almost a complete idea, but usually not. Eventually, I'll sit down for a period of time, like days or weeks, where I really go into a writing mode. It's great; I just pick up these books, flip through them, and hope that one out of twenty ideas kind of leads me somewhere. And then maybe I'll take it to a piano.

But the truth is that I still think in terms of single lines even when I'm at the piano. You know, I studied harmony, all the way through Bach and Stravinsky and Carter, and I did fine in class. I got good grades, but I just don't understand it. Or I have my own understanding of it, and my own relationship to it. So a lot of times if there is counterpoint or there is harmony it'll almost be a secondary issue because it's sort of created by these lines. I do write some tunes that actually have changes, standard chord progressions, but those are the minority for sure. Sometimes I get a little self-conscious about it, because I feel like there should be more going on, but I just love the unison line. And those kind of concerns are just wasted energy anyway.

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