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Progressive Rock Interviews

Chris Opperman

Interviewed by Grant Hill

Interview with  Chris Opperman from 2011

MSJ:

Tell us a bit more about your roots, musically, your influences and so forth.

Well, I'm interested in all kinds of music.  On the classical side, I love Sergei Prokofiev, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varese, Nobuo Uematsu, and Frank Zappa (who also crosses over into my jazz and rock influences).  On the jazz side, I love McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Carla Bley, Kenny Garrett, and Brad Mehldau.  On the rock side, I love Bob Marley, Radiohead, Björk, Sonic Youth, The Beatles, and probably a thousand artists besides.  I also have a soft spot for folk music like Sean & Sara Watkins (who I've seen in concert over 50 times), The Civil Wars, Emmylou Harris, etc.  I listen to just about anything as long as it's excellent and moves me.
MSJ: Your piano work is articulate and insightful. I'm interested in hearing about your training, and how you've stretched what seems to me to be traditional classical and jazz perspectives into contemporary progressive forms.
When I was growing up, most of the exercises I did were from Béla Bartók's “Mikrokosmosseries” which greatly interested me in modal music (and which was very helpful when I started getting interested in modal jazz).  I went to Berklee for my undergrad where I took a lot of jazz piano theory classes as well as studying a lot of Schoenberg pieces and various Zappa pieces that I ordered from Barfko-Swill (when it was still possible to order sheet music from them).  For the most part, I had to get good at the piano in order to be able to play my own music and my focus musically has always been on composition.
MSJ: How did you get the opportunity to work with Steve Vai and Mike Kenneally?
The first time Mike Keneally and I worked together was in 1998 when he produced my first album Oppy Music, Vol. I: Purple, Crayon, while I was still a teenager.  When he got the gig doing what eventually became The Universe Will Provide, I was a natural choice since we had done so many projects together already. I got to work with Steve because of how much he liked my solo piano album Klavierstücke as well as my work on The Universe Will Provide.
MSJ: What were those experiences like for you, both artistically and experientially?
They were both very challenging and very rewarding.  It was also interesting to see the differences in their style and the way that they operate as musicians.  
MSJ: My first listen of The Lionheart had my mind stretching to many musical styles. I noticed some things that felt a bit like Chris Squire's Fish Out of Water release from the 70s, and maybe even some of Zappa's work like Jazz From Hell. Any thoughts about that?
I haven't heard Chris Squire's records, but Jazz from Hell is definitely an album that is near and dear to me.  Kind-of an interesting choice on your end, since Jazz from Hell is almost entirely computer generated and The Lionheart is entirely performed by people.  I suppose one of the primary differences between Zappa's music and my own is that Frank was extremely interested in computer-generated music and I see the computer as just the middle man between me and the musicians. 
MSJ: In an era now dominated by tabs and the convenience of digital sampling, you are doing full scoring. I even had the opportunity to dive into the score of “The Porpentine” while listening, which is always a rare treat when reviewing someone's work. How does that translate for you as a composer when bringing in the impressive array of artists that add depth of sound to your creative efforts? I mean, some artists read these day, and others just have incredible ears. Is the seeming dichotomy bothersome in any way to you as a composing artist?
Well, I'm definitely in the "reader" camp, even if I'm just reading chords and one thing I've learned over the years is that it's extremely difficult for someone who primarily learns by ear to succeed in my ensemble. So reading is essentially a requirement, even for guitarists and drummers.  However, they also have to be able to play songs and make them their own. So it's a very challenging gig.  The dichotomy isn't bothersome unless I get someone in the band who isn't capable of playing their parts, which is just frustrating for everyone else.  However, everyone in the band has to be able to read and improvise on a professional level, and their improvisations have to be unique and interesting.. If it seems like someone in the band is just noodling or playing banalities, they get their solo cut short.
MSJ: Diving into The Lionheart a bit more, what was the inspiration for this collection of works which sound so cohesive?
Well, it took me many years to finish The Lionheart which I think adds to the cohesiveness.  "The Porpentine" was actually the last thing I wrote for it.  I suppose the challenge was the inspiration.  Steve Vai told me that I needed to make the best album I was capable of making and I just worked and worked on it until it was done.  A lot of the songs on the album were inspired by my love of literature and many of the songs were tunes my band had been playing live for a few years.  I was determined not to release it until it was completely perfect, but a lot of the delays towards the end were caused by manufacturing problems.  That's one of the funny things about show business...the things that go wrong are often never the things you'd expect.
MSJ: Do you have a set style or system to approach writing?
Hmmmm.  Not really, honestly.  Typically, I'll start by improvising at the piano until I get something that catches my ear which I'll then start shaping.  Then I'll punch that into the computer and start orchestrating around it directly into the score and sometimes that process will tell my imagination where to go next.  Kurt Vonnegut once opined that there were two types of writers: those whose pens never seem to lift off the page, and writers who go back and edit, edit, edit.  I'm definitely in the latter category when in "composition" mode (as opposed to "improvisation" mode) and will spend weeks and weeks going over the score measure by measure until I'm satisfied.  It really is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration when it comes to that.  Usually in the large ensemble pieces it takes a long time because there are so many different parts and I'm very meticulous when it comes to my scores.
MSJ: Also, do you "hear" the orchestrated voices as you write, or is that a secondary consideration to actually getting the notes out?
Yes, always.  If I don't hear it or I'm not even curious about different timbres, then it doesn't go in there.  I never just throw notes onto the score.
MSJ: Where do you see this particular work leading, as impressive as it is?
Well, so far everyone seems to love The Lionheart.  All of the reviews have been extremely positive and I even sold enough copies to recoup the money I spent on it (something I never thought would happen), so I suppose we'll just have to see where it goes.  I'm finishing up a couple other projects right now.  One is a piece called "Aphrodite Nights" which was written for the gourd tree, a unique instrument by Harry Partch that will be a digital-only release. And the second is going to be an EP called Studio House which is an instrumental jazz/rock EP that features a few new originals as well as covers of pieces by Carla Bley and Frank Zappa.  Hoping to get all of that out in November.
MSJ: What's in your CD player now, and what was the last artist you saw in concert for your own enjoyment?
In my CD player in my car I have a mix CD that I made.  Here is the track list:

 

1. Me and the Devil - Gil Scott-Heron

2. Then He Kissed Me - The Crystals

3. Be My Baby - The Ronettes

4. People's Court, Part II - Mutabaruka

5. My Name is Emmett Till - Emmylou Harris

6. The Promise - Masashi Hamauzu

7. Moment 4 Life - Nicki Minaj

8. Cold Duck Time - Boney James

9. Heroes and Villains - The Beach Boys

10. Pagan Poetry - Björk

11. Hidden Place - Björk

12. The Ocean - Led Zeppelin

13. Lapdance - N.E.R.D.

14. Chapel Hill - Sonic Youth

15. Reena - Sonic Youth

16. Transylvania Boogie - Warren Cuccurullo

17. I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - U2

18. Past in Present - Feist

 

The last concert I saw for my enjoyment was Emmylou Harris with The Civil Wars opening for her at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Band, New Jersey.  Emmylou played a lot of songs from her album Red Dirt Girl (which made me very happy) and The Civil Wars, who I'd never heard of before, were simply stunning.  They only have two people in the band!  And that's all they need.  Great vocalists just blow me away.  Actually, another project I'm working on is a series of art-songs based on the poetry of Walt Whitman for soprano and piano because I want to get more into vocal music but my lyrics tend to be pretty insipid.  So why not borrow some from the greatest poets of all time?

MSJ: And finally, ask yourself a question and answer it...
Hmmm. I'll tell you that if you told me when I was a young teenager that I was going to grow up to perform with Mike Keneally and Steve Vai and that I was going to make music that people all over the world were going to listen to and be passionate about, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.  And the fact that I'm in the fortunate position that I'm in just makes me determined to work harder and make sure I keep the quality of my work as high as possible.

 

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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