Interview with Charles Peck
On September 16th, 2016 Kaleidoscope will begin its third, and arguably most exciting, season with a world premiere performance of Charles Peck’s Mosaic. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Peck and not only talk about his inspirations and influences while writing Mosaic, but how dualities that exist between musical styles, as well as human emotions, play a role in his music and his life. Additionally, it became obvious to me that, because Mr. Peck remains grounded and authentic to his values as a person, he is able to seamlessly maneuver the sometimes harsh waters of the classical music industry and create intellectually and emotionally pleasing music.
Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?
Charles Peck: I started on piano when I was pretty young, but I also played French Horn. Playing both of those instruments was where I crafted my skill in music.
CR: Ah, a fellow horn player! Did you play horn all the way up through high school or college?
CP: I did some in my undergrad, but composing takes up a lot of my time so I can only play it so much. I kind of miss it, and I still play a few times each year, but composing just takes too much time to keep those chops up.
CR: Where did you study composition?
CP: I did my undergrad at Drexel, but I was a Music Industry major at that time, focusing on recording technology and electronic music software. Even though I wish I had started composing earlier, the skills I learned as a Music Industry student are super valuable to me now, so in a way I wouldn’t change it. For my Masters though, I studied composition at the University of Cincinnati and now I’m at Cornell doing my Doctorate.
CR: Great! Were there specific people who played a part in helping you get to this point?
CP: Yes. Mike Moss, the band director at Drexel, was really supportive. He unfortunately passed away, but he was a really great mentor to me and encouraged me to pursue composition as a career. Joe Hallman was my first official composition teacher and he really pushed me to go out of my comfort zone in a way that I sorely needed at the time. I wouldn’t be a composer now without either of them.
CR: When did you make the switch to being a full-time composer?
CP: I was twenty when I started seriously composing. I had written a bunch before that age, but I didn’t take it seriously at the time. I wrote a piece for my high school wind ensemble once, and wrote a ton of music for the electric bass, an instrument I started playing when I was about 16. As much as I enjoyed playing horn and classical music, I actually credit the electric bass for forging my love of composition.
CR: How so?
CP: I played a lot of funk music, and I just find that kind of rhythmic energy so inspiring. It exists in my pieces now, and that’s certainly the case in the piece Kaleidoscope will be playing. It was a pretty important instrument for me to pick up.
CR: Specific to your compositional style?
CP: Definitely. I’m interested in rhythmic energy that emulates funk music. I don’t think my music is ever explicitly funk music, but I think that rhythmic energy is definitely in there. Despite being an optimistic person, I also often write some really dark, heavy music *laughter*. I guess those are the two worlds – energetic/rhythmic or heavy/dark – that I’ve been interested in for a while. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into a style, but I think it’s important to know what I’m trying to do with my music as well; just one of those Catch 22’s.
CR: Do you think that there’s an underlying reason as to why you write dark music despite being an optimistic person?
CP: I find that type of music so expressive. Maybe it’s because the music touches something that I don’t usually experience so I’m attracted to it. It’s always a feeling and an emotion that sticks out to me, so I try to write it.
CR: Very interesting. So getting more onto the subject of your piece Mosaic, how did you hear about the Call for Scores?
CP: I saw it on American Composers Forum, something composers check regularly. They list dozens of competitions and projects and I try to pick opportunities that I think are interesting. In the case of Kaleidoscope, I was really intrigued by the idea of working with a conductorless orchestra, and Kaleidoscope’s Call for Scores is really satisfying as someone who looks for competitions because it is completely open ended. Composers can submit pieces for a variety of instrumentations, ranging from chamber music to full orchestra. Most composers already have some exciting new pieces they are working on and they just need an avenue to get them performed. That support from an ensemble is really great, and very valuable.
CR: Why did you choose to submit Mosaic?
CP: It’s a brand new piece that I was writing for a reading session at the Aspen Music Festival, but my goal was to get it performed. I’m excited about the ideas I explore in the piece. Musically, the title Mosaic is derived from the style of art that uses many contrasting small fragments to create one larger image. The beginning of the piece is about focusing on that contrast, looking at these smaller fragments up close, and seeing all these different materials right next to each other. As the piece continues, it’s sort of like stepping back from a piece of mosaic art, in my mind. Suddenly, the fragments are stretched and begin to form a much larger image. That’s what I’m trying to showcase.
CR: Sounds beautiful! Do you enjoy art, going to museums?
CP: Yes, but I wouldn’t say that I always think about music that way. I do have a visual connection with music though. For example, another piece of mine I thought about the image of light coming through a cavern, where everything else is dark except for this one source of light. Images like that usually correspond to something musical for me, and I typically draw inspiration from those dualities. I’ve been exploring that in a lot of pieces right now, trying to create a range of music so it’s not just confined to one idea. I’m always looking for and very interested in contrast within subject matter and within nature, and Mosaic certainly does that on both a small scale and on a large scale within itself.
CR: Sounds like a great piece! I don’t know if this is something you want to give away, but having not been premiered before, are there certain things that you want to draw the audience’s attention to?
CP: The piece is very string heavy. Referring back to my recording experience, I wrote the piece by recording many short sounds on the violin and building the music around those clips. I don’t play the violin, so I can’t really play melodies, but what I can do is play slides and dead notes, wherein the strings are simply dampened with the left hand to remove any pitch content. That’s how I wrote the piece, the slides and dead notes became the sound of the piece and ultimately the framework for a mosaic.
CR: Excellent. So, you said that’d you’d never worked with a conductorless orchestra before. What are some of your expectations in regards to rehearsals and performances?
CP: Well, normally I can influence the conductor on how to direct my piece and it will spread out into the orchestra. But I’m really curious to see the results of many people influencing the musical direction of the piece. It will be interesting to see how the performance and the interpretation changes. The reading we just did in Aspen the performers relied on the conductor to clarify the rhythm, but in this conductorless version, everyone’s going to have to sort of feel and embody it, showing the rhythm visually. I’m excited to see how that will affect the performance atmosphere.
CR: Absolutely. So Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?
CP: It seems to me that music has two sides in today’s world. On one hand, music can be a career and for many of us that’s something we’re trying to forge; it’s a business and we want to make a living doing it. On the other hand, there’s a strong community part which I feel is why we all got into it in the first place. The love of making music, being creative, and trying to share that with each other and audiences. This second part is something that’s forgotten about during the whole process of becoming a professional musician, but, I think it’s super important.
CR: Absolutely. Collaborating with other people is one of the best things about being a musician.
CP: Yes, and that’s what’s so great about Kaleidoscope. Composers collaborating with performers is such an important part of music, and it helps elevate new music. We need groups like Kaleidoscope that don’t just play new music, but play a lot of it. I’m always thinking about how to get rid of that barrier, but I haven’t sorted it out yet *laughter*. But, the fact that Kaleidoscope is doing twelve premieres, more than any other orchestra in Los Angeles this year, is just fantastic and is a great testament to their interest in community. I’ve even already met a few players here at Aspen who play in Kaleidoscope who’ve all offered to let me crash on their couch. So I’m just really looking forward to going out there, it’ll be fun.
CR: I’m so glad you’re having what seems a positive experience so far! So speaking more to you, what’s one of the best parts about being a composer?
CP: Well the best part, and the most difficult, is the schedule. There are periods where I’ll only get an hour of sleep every night for a week because I have to meet a deadline, but if I ever really need to, I can just take some time off. I have a nicely consistent schedule now, where 3-4 days a week I work from 11pm-6am when there are no distractions. No one is posting on Facebook, no one is sending emails, so it puts me in the zone well. I also get to travel often and the variety in my day is really nice. There are still those soul crushing times when you’re just holed up in your room forever and working away *laughter*, but I love it.
CR: Oh wow, how does working that late at night affect your day-to-day life?
CP: Well, if I can plan my schedule so that I don’t have to wake up too early then I try to do that, but I think my body just functions well on either two hours of sleep or ten. I don’t really need the 8 hours; it’s either all or nothing.
CR: I envy that *laughter*. What are some hobbies of yours?
CP: Music does kind of conquer my life, but I play volleyball at Cornell. And I’m fairly obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Those are my two pastimes that don’t involve music.
CR: Excellent! Fellow football fan. Do you have a favorite quote or a mantra that you live by?
CP: Yes, a quote by William Wallace Wattles. The quote is: “And he must do, every day, all that can be done that day, taking care to do each act in a successful manner.” (The Science of Getting Rich) That’s just one of those things that keeps me focused and productive. It’s also not just about working hard, it’s about if one of the things to do is relax, then you need to really relax.
CR: Great advice! Are there any charities or causes that you’re passionate about that you’d like to raise awareness to?
CP: My sister has Type 1 Diabetes, and she currently works at the Children’s Diabetes Foundation in Denver, CO. I want to draw attention to that.
CR: Great. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave with readers and people who will be in the audience?
CP: I haven’t had a performance out in LA yet so this will be my LA debut, but I’m just looking forward to getting out there and meet people. So, anyone who’s coming to the concert, don’t be afraid to say hello!
CR: Great! Well thank you so much for your time!
CP: Thank you! This was fun!
Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, but is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.
Kaleidoscope will premiere Mosaic on:
Friday, September 16 @ 10:00 pm
800 N Alameda St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Sunday, September 18 @ 3:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401