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Progressive Rock Interviews

Peter Calandra

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Peter Calandra from 2013

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music?

I have been playing the piano since age six. Some of my first professional experiences were playing in clubs starting just before my 16th birthday. I played in bar bands all through undergrad school days and after graduating in 1982 started performing in NYC. I have spent 30 years being involved performing in some of the biggest Broadway shows. Parallel to this I spent 16 years playing jazz piano in the late artist/musician Larry Rivers’ band. Since 1998 I started to transition my focus into composing music for films and TV. In that time period I have scored over 40 films and written over 2,000 tracks for TV broadcast. I have music on air hundreds of times daily. My current plans are to start releasing an album of original music every twelve months or so for the next few years as an adjunct to my TV/film work and Ashokan Memories is the first release in this series.


If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

Not sure, but I would not be a haberdasher (laughter)


Who would you see as your musical influences?

Too many to list here but, as a pianist, many of the pianists from the Miles Davis musical family circa 1955-1970. As far as composing I love the music of Debussy, Copland, Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith as well as some ambient music, roots music and world music.


What's ahead for you?

In addition to writing and recording music for my next album scheduled for release in late winter in 2014, there is feature film length documentary I'll be scoring starting, mid-November. I am also a college professor teaching music technology and content creation courses at the Copland School of Music at Queens College, CUNY and we are currently in the process of putting together a new Composition and Production curriculum that we are hoping to launch in the fall of 2014.

I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?

I actually think it is helpful to be able to quickly describe what one's music does. My music tells stories in sound.
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?

Unfortunately many of my non-piano musical heroes are not alive. Living in NYC I get to play with great musicians often. I do think however what would be more interesting to me is to keep an eye out for younger musicians to work with who create and perform in a way that is different to me. This is a great way to keep a fresh, open minded approach to creating music.


Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

That is not a question that can be answered in an either/or fashion. If you are a touring musician that earns most of your living playing live performances and people record your gigs to share online, I can see how that would boost your fan base and bring more people to your gigs. If you are someone like myself who is an independent artist self-funding recording projects and not touring, illegal downloading takes money away from the budgets I have to keep doing this work.

MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?

I do not wish to have adversarial relationships with other artists. That being said, the arch nemesis to many creative people is a system that takes advantage of artists’ work to generate more income for suits than the artists and also a culture that values youth over wisdom.


If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

What is more interesting to me than a collection of individuals put together to form a band is a collection of artists that come together to realize an artistic vision in collaborative manner (this is the main reason I love film scoring, as it is a team effort).

There are and have been many interesting ensembles out there. Some examples to me would be The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Medeski Martin and Wood, the current Keith Jarrett trio, the Flecktones and many others.


If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

One interesting thing about FM radio when I was younger was the eclectic nature of programming. One minute you would have a track by the Beatles, then a track by Miles Davis, a track by the Dead then Billie Holiday then maybe Muddy Waters, ELP or even Glenn Gould. Today that kind of freeform programming is largely relegated to some public radio shows and Internet radio. The same holds true for festivals. Bands and artists playing music that is in the same marketing category are playing festivals. Why can't there be an eclectic lineup with all sorts of just great artists performing. Segregation of music like this tends to lead to much less creative possibilities as styles and artists get put into a little box only to be used with others of similar thinking. This musical inbreeding is pretty stifling.


What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

I have been listening to the great Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes album Bebo as well as Curtis Mayfield Back ToThe World and Peter Gabriel New Blood.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?

I spend quite a bit of time reading and learning about recording music and music technology to stay on top of new developments. A couple of months ago I read Pete Townshend's current autobiography Who I Am. He is a fabulous story teller and while he probably got some editorial help writing the book, he is very articulate and was involved in all sorts of incredible scenes in the 1960s and 1970s that make for an entertaining read.

MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

Went to Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival in the early summer.


Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”

I love playing blues rock electric guitar as well as slide guitar and can spend hours just playing along with albums.


What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Not sure of the biggest but here is one that stands out: I played in the pit orchestra for the very last summer show at Radio City Music Hall. The orchestra would seat themselves in their chairs on the “band car” that was stationed at the very bottom of the pit. At five minutes before the show, the car would be lifted up about 20 feet so that it formed the orchestra pit just below stage level. One of the “highlights” of the performance was the band car rising up out of the pit onto the stage and motoring around the stage on tracks while we were playing. On opening night in front of a packed house, the band car lifted up onto stage level and started moving and got stuck in place. So there was this scene where the house was crowded with several thousand people, the stage was filled with 60 or 70 performers including the stars of the show, the Rockettes and ensemble singers all attempting to do a very tightly choreographed number that was supposed to fit around the path of the band car that had 45 musicians on it. The hydraulics that moved the car broke and we were stuck and could not move and finished the show in that spot. To say that created quite a confusion would be kind. It was a harbinger for the rest of the summer as business was so bad there were performances with more people on stage than in the house.


If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?

John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar and Igor Stravinsky


What would be on the menu?

100% vegan, non-animal harming food.

MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?

There are many paths to a successful and enjoyable music career and you do not have to be a household name to have one. It does help however to really love what you do.

Another thought for anyone younger considering a career in music is to not only study and learn your instrument but learn how to think critically about music for the purposes of being able to dissect it and find out how a piece of music works. Finally, learn music technology like you would learn your instrument!

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 6 at
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