When I first met the virtuoso pianist and composer Pete Drungle as a guest at zing Editor/Publisher Devon Dikeou’s loft (also the location of zing HQ and Devon Dikeou’s New York studio) I didn’t know his music or really anything about him. But at some point we started discussing the late, great Dan Asher and that sealed the deal. However, for whatever reason, I failed to look up his music. On another visit to New York from Paris, Pete nonchalantly invited me to a performance in a music studio in Times Square. Not really knowing what to expect, I showed up for the early performance in a small studio room with a small group in attendance—an intimate scenario. Pete greeted everyone formally, but warmly, thanking all for attending, sat at the piano, took a deep breath with his eyes closed, then began to play. My jaw dropped. The whole room was hypnotized. Pete performed an astounding 10-15 minute long improvisation, music that had a classical familiarity and beauty yet felt like an intense emotional journey. When the song was finished, Pete got up and bowed to smiling faces and applause. Then he sat back down, did a few more songs, including sections in which he was reaching inside the piano to pluck the strings in a very skilled manner, even playing the keys with one hand while reaching in and muting with the other. The performance ended with another humble thank you, and people began to file in for the next performance. It was then that I knew Pete was a special fellow. His DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO on November 6 is part of Performa13.
Interview by Brandon Johnson
How did you begin with music?
I discovered that I could play by ear right away and began to improvise and also to write little tunes. I started playing the trumpet early as well, in concert and marching bands. At age 11 I got into synthesizers, sequencers, and recording studio technology and learned the basics of orchestration. During high school, I continued to play the trumpet, played keyboards and bass in rock bands, and also composed scores for school theatre plays. After that, I went to the University of North Texas and studied Music Composition, theory and orchestration, and private piano studies. I lived in Denton, Texas in the early ’90s, and it was a great environment for music at that time. There were so many great jam sessions happening all the time, it is kind of hard to describe how much musical activity was going on . . .
Your music is so classical, yet fresh and explorative. What have been some of your main influences?
I have loved listening to Ravel, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Satie, Ligeti, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, George Crumb, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Takemitsu, to name a few.
Also, I grew up in America so listening to rock music was inevitable; Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Prince, Jane’s Addiction, etc.
In my late teens, I discovered Jazz—specifically the music of Ornette Coleman. The song “Endangered Species” off the album SONG X was the track that got through to me first. Also, Ornette’s playing on Howard Shore’s score to Naked Lunch was a big revelation for me. That score is a great convergence of composition and improvisation, with Ornette serving as the lead voice in concerto to Shore’s orchestra. The sound of it is seductive yet eerily haunting, and every moment of that music is alive.
I have had the good fortune to become friends with Ornette, and to have played music with him. He has been one of my mentors, and I have definitely been influenced by his music and his philosophies.
In my early twenties, I became obsessed with was Miles Davis. I was under the spell of Bitches Brew, Big Fun, Dark Magus, In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson, On the Corner, Live-Evil and Get Up With It. I drowned myself in this period of Miles’ music, learned how to play many parts of the compositions and solos, and studied the music of Miles’ alumni—Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Wayne Shorter, Steve Grossman, John Scofield, etc. Miles was incredibly inspiring to me, and his music made all the hair on my body stand on end. Also, Miles had a great sense of style and he dressed really well.
. . . And John Coltrane—when I learned that John was practicing 12 hours per day, I began trying to do the same. John would work out of the Slonimsky Thesaurus of Scales and Modes, so I did that too (maybe I will get back to that . . .). For me, John’s two most striking features as a player were his overwhelming amount of soul (as evidenced on A Love Supreme, and basically everything he ever played . . .) and his ability to play pure melody with an incomparable tone and inflection (i.e. Naima, Central Park West, In a Sentimental Way (with Duke Ellington), etc). There was always a vast intelligence present in Coltrane’s sound, even in a single sustained note, and you always know it’s him.
Possibly the most important musical influence in my life has been the drummer/composer/bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson. Sadly, Shannon (as he was called) passed away very recently, October 19, 2013, at age 73. It is a huge loss for music, because the man had more music to write. But Shannon’s influence is omnipresent, he was a great mentor and I am incredibly fortunate to have known him. I met Shannon when I was 23, and started to play in his band—The Decoding Society. Shannon turned me on to a universe of great ideas, his house was literally like a small museum with a great library of rare and subversive books on history, philosophy, music and the occult. There were things written all over the walls—ideas, dates, philosophies, names—but there was something written on his wall that I will never forget—the word NON-CATEGORICAL. Shannon taught me about the non-categorical in music, which is the essential ethos of Jazz without the clichés. Shannon did more to help me find my sound as a pianist than anyone or anything else, I owe him a huge debt for that. If my sound “seems classical yet explorative,” I would attribute much of that to Shannon. Shannon would not let me play in a “jazz” way when I played in his band. He would say, “Drungle, play classical . . .” meaning that he wanted me to play what was most authentic in myself. (Also, Shannon loved Classical music, and had biographies of composers like Paganini and Liszt laying around his house. He wanted “classical” elements to be present in his music.) Anyway, Shannon simply wouldn’t allow me to pick up “the black thing” in my playing, as so many other white musicians were (and are) doing. Although he didn’t mean it literally, when he would say “play classical” it would push me to improvise in ways that were authentic for me, and that was very satisfying; I remember that I started coming up with 2-handed “classical” runs, and many other things that have grown and mutated over the years. Since then, I have been working to develop the building blocks of a improvisational musical language that is unique to me, yet it was Shannon’s influence that put me directly onto that path.
Incidentally, Shannon was Ornette Coleman’s drummer (and student) in the 1970’s, and I met Ornette through Shannon. Shannon was also the only drummer to play with all three avant-jazz luminaries—Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.
And it was Shannon who suggested that I play for 24 continuous hours . . .
You’ve related your piano playing to speaking a language. Yet your improvisations appear so pre-meditated. How are improvisation and composition related for you?
Regarding improvisation, I usually don’t have any idea what I am going to play before I begin. When I play, I try to let go of my thoughts as much as possible and become the music I am playing. Ornette said, “If you’re going to play music, don’t think about it!” My body, mind, and breath are in total service of the ideas that surface in my imagination, and I try to ride them like waves.
Improvisation IS composition, except that the process is vastly sped up; improvisation happens in the moment, in real time usually without preconception or editing. However, there is a great deal of interplay between composition and improvisation for me. I find that the more I improvise, the better I can compose; and the reverse is equally true, because composing a lot of music helps to create, among other things, an innate sense of structure and thematic development which is invaluable in improvisation. I love to compose as well as improvise, and in my solo piano concerts I try to smear the lines between composition and improvisation so that they become indistinguishable from each other.
Can you speak about the performative aspect of your music, which seems so crucial? And perhaps a few words about the 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION performance—what went into preparing for this and just the physical process of playing a piano this long?
I love to perform. I think playing in front of an audience often pulls things out of you that would not come otherwise. In fact, it is probably identical to a phenomenon that physicists study called ‘observer effect’. You cannot observe something without altering it, and when a group of people gather in a room and focus their attention on a performer, it alters him. If a performer is brave enough to “let go” in this environment, it can be an amazing experience for everyone.
The 24-HOUR CONTINUOS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION came about at the advice of my mentor, Ronald Shannon Jackson. He saw me engaging in a lot of self-destructive behavior and said, “Drungle—if you want to torture yourself, try playing the piano for 24 straight hours.” I completed the 24-hour improvisation three times in private before attempting it in public. I performed it at SculptureCenter in Long Island City (NYC), as part of Performa07. I didn’t have a hard time doing this long improvisation. I loved it—it was more like a love affair than an endurance test. The only real discomfort I experienced in the public performance occurred in the final hours of the piece. By the 22nd hour, my fingers were bleeding and I couldn’t feel my arms or hands—and that was when the larger crowd began to arrive—so on top of being in pain and physically exhausted, I felt like I had to play to the audience. I felt a lot of pressure in those final hours, but I pushed myself to stay in the music until the very end. You can hear the final 30 minutes of 24-HOUR CONTINUOUS SOLO PIANO IMPROVISATION, it is posted on my site here: http://petedrungle.com/Music
I am preparing to do this piece again in Paris in 2014.
You made a record with Rudolph Stingel. How did this collaboration come about?
I met Rudi through Marianne Vitale, who has been a close friend and collaborator for a decade. The vinyl record was Rudi’s idea, he had wanted to make one. Although I have played on many records and composed scores for many projects, I hadn’t yet made my own solo record and was really keen to do that—so we decided that I would make PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO in Rudi’s studio in NYC. I wanted to have a unique piano sound for this record, so we rented a 9′ concert grand from Steinway Hall and installed it in the spray room of the studio. Rudi set up an amazing environment for me in the spray room; in addition to several of his gold series paintings on the walls, he actually installed the piano on top of one of his paintings from that series, I guess he liked to have the canvases slightly damaged. You can see an image of the spray room set-up on the opening page of my website—http://petedrungle.com, and you can hear my improvised “Suite #1” which was recorded there (it will play automatically).
PETE DRUNGLE SOLO PIANO only exists on vinyl, and is a very limited series.
If you are interested in acquiring one, contact me through my website.
I noticed you’ve also collaborated with Agathe Snow, who curated a project in the current issue of zingmagazine. Can you tell us about this collaboration?
I collaborated with Agathe and Marianne Vitale, making the music for their amazing show OKKO. It happened at White Columns in 2008. I hired the trombonist/composer/ Sun Ra-alumni Craig Harris to play duo with me. We improvised accompaniment to Agathe and Marianne’s performance (which is impossible for me to describe, but at one point Marianne was up on a table running a jackhammer), and we played a version of “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” for the finale, at Agathe’s request.
You previously mentioned that you had played music in Paris with a drummer you’ve idolized for years. Could you tell this story?
I have been listening to a great drummer/composer from Cameroon named Brice Wassy since I was about 19 years old. I first heard him on the Jean-Luc Ponty record Tchkola, where Brice played, composed, and music directed the ensemble. I wore that record out! (actually it was a cassette). Some years later, I got a copy of Graham Haynes’ (son of drummer Roy Haynes) The Griot’s Footsteps, and that is a spectacular record. It showcases Graham’s amazing trumpet playing as well as Brice’s virtuoso drumming and music direction; the ensemble is comprised of several west African musicians that play astonishingly well.
Since I recently moved to Paris, I was able to find Brice through Graham Haynes—and I asked him to meet me in a studio to play. So we did that, and it was very exciting for me. I started to write some music with Brice in mind, and then asked my friend the legendary bass player Al Mac Dowell to play with this trio. We did a night at the Sunset/Sunside in Paris a few months ago. I will post a clip from this gig on my music page very soon.
What are some of your other dream projects?
I want to work with orchestra as much as possible.
I’m working on a chamber orchestra w/ piano project at the moment, which will be released in 2014. I honestly don’t think anyone has yet done what I am attempting to do with this record, but I don’t want to give away the surprise—so I’ll tell you about that later.
But to answer your question, my dream project is to compose and perform a piano concerto with full orchestra.
What can we expect at forthcoming performance for PERFORMA 13 next week?
I am doing a piece called DREAM SEQUENCES FOR SOLO PIANO, at Roulette on November 6. It is a solo piano concert accompanied by a video collage of dream sequences lifted from the films of Luis Buñuel. It is a collaboration with filmmaker Toby Rymkus, who researched Buñuel and edited the video. Roulette is a beautiful hall with a 9′ Steinway Grand, and I think it is the absolute perfect setting for this piece. I am very excited to be coming to New York to give this concert. Please come!