Elizabeth Joy Roe – A pianist of worldly class

I think many musicians are attracted to their own instrument.  Listening to violinists always feels familiar, and I can get inside their fingers and their head as I hear them play.  But listening to Elizabeth Joy Roe broke down all my instrumental barriers and made me just hear – and it was magnificent.  Her performance at the Esperanza Foundation benefit where we met was mesmerizing, and I am thrilled to have her as a seed for the project.

How did you get started playing music?

I was lucky to grow up in a family of music-lovers. There was always music playing in the house – on the radio, cassettes, and TV. Some of my earliest musical memories involve me and my younger sister Jackie singing lively duets of songs from animated cartoon shows, like “Garfield” and “Jem.” We eventually moved on to the complete Beatles oeuvre! In the car, we listened to the oldies station a lot (let’s just say that in grade school I preferred the Mamas and the Papas or Simon and Garfunkel to what was popular at the moment, like the New Kids on the Block!). I suppose some musical blood or propensity runs in my family: my mother played the violin during her childhood, and in high school she conducted her high school choir. I also have two aunts who teach music. Both of my sisters are very musical as well, becoming quite accomplished at the violin and cello, respectively. When I was five years old, I followed in my older sister’s footsteps and started taking violin lessons. Less than a year later, at age six, I switched to the piano and instantly fell in love; for some reason I took an instant preference to the keyboard over the fingerboard! Around the same time, my sisters and I became obsessed with a TV documentary about the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Competitions. Though piano lessons started off as an innocent hobby, it soon became a fixation, and by the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to become a concert pianist.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

I didn’t purchase this on my own (I think my older sister bought it), but the first album that I recall affecting me indelibly was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first classical album that I acquired was a disc of Mozart piano concerti played by pianist Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Having been trained in the classical genre, I primarily play music from the standard solo piano and piano concerto canon, which is extraordinarily vast and stylistically diverse. Additionally, I enjoy playing music of our time and I’ve premiered several contemporary compositions. I also collaborate with other musicians, playing chamber music of both the standard and avant-garde varieties. With my piano duo partner, I have co-created and performed a great deal of original arrangements for four hands at one or two pianos. Contrary to the stereotypical image of classical music as always serious and archaic, I would describe the music I play as panoptic of the human experience, and regardless of when the music was composed, I would emphatically assert that it remains utterly relevant, resonant and timeless.

Is there a particular repertoire you are most attracted to?

I consider myself quite broad-minded in my musical affinities, i.e. I’m not a specialist who concentrates on a single period or composer. My tastes run the gamut: I’ve been drawn to everything from the pre-baroque era to the present day. Also, my tastes have changed over time, and even from day to day! That said, I consistently love the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Messiaen, Ligeti, and the composers from the Romantic era (Chopin, Brahms, Scriabin, etc., etc.). If I had to choose just one composer out of all eras, I would say J.S. Bach – he is the ultimate composer.

As a pianist you play primarily solo – did recording a piano duet album influence the way you play by yourself?

Although solo performances comprise a major part of my career, I actually collaborate on a regular basis with other musicians, especially with Greg Anderson, my piano duo partner. To be sure, playing with him and others has definitely compelled me to listen more acutely, and the art of listening is arguably the most crucial element to playing well.  Teaching is another activity that has transformed the way I play and practice; in articulating my interpretative and technical approaches to my students, and sharing with them my passion for exploration and personal expression, I’ve learned so much about my own artistic process and about the challenges we collectively face every time we look at a score, sit down to practice, or walk onstage. Teaching has helped bring greater awareness, clarity, creativity, and integrity to my own playing.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

I think about this all the time, as I love looking at music within a larger context. I suppose the connections I draw between my music and non-musical entities depend on the nature of each piece, and also on my particular impressions in the moment.  I’ve found connections between music and artwork, nature, language, literature, poetry, mythology, architecture, archaeological monuments, historical events, the five senses, physics, chemistry, biology, food and cooking, the weather, the cosmos, human ideas and emotions…the list is virtually limitless! I think the reason for this is that music is one of those marvelously all-encompassing things that captures life in all its mundaneness and profundity; it can conjure up very specific images as well as the abstract and ineffable. For this phenomenon alone I find music endlessly fascinating!

Is there another instrument or genre you wish you performed as well as classical music?

I have a lot of admiration for highly skilled jazz musicians, and I wish I could improvise as brilliantly as they do. Even more so, I’ve always wanted to be in a band – it’s been a lifelong, if somewhat covert, fantasy of mine! I’d love to be able to play the guitar, and I imagine it would be an exhilarating rush to rock out on a vast arena stage with lights and amps and a big crowd singing and cheering along…. As it is, I occasionally write songs in my spare time, and of course, there’s always karaoke!

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

There are so many people who have inspired me throughout my life: my family, teachers, friends, colleagues, and mentors. Musically, I would say that the pianist Glenn Gould has had a powerful impact on me. I discovered his legendary 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations when I was 12 (an impressionable age indeed), and his incisive, vital, individualistic playing electrified me. As soon as I heard this album, I went about gathering as much information as I could about him: biographies, his own writings, video footage, and, of course, his immortal recordings.  During my first trip to London in 1996 I remember finding an amazing collection of photographs of him, and I bought the book immediately (it is now prominently displayed on a bookshelf in my teaching studio). Those iconic images of him – sitting low at the keyboard, hand in the air conducting whilst playing, mouth open in song, head thrown back in ecstasy – mesmerized me and shaped my own approach to the instrument. I was also intrigued by his idiosyncratic interpretations, impassioned opinions, eccentric persona, and almost monastic devotion to his art. I’ve admired so many artists over the years, but the singular genius of Glenn Gould stands out as particularly influential. In the non-classical genre, I have been most inspired by the Beatles: I could go on and on about the impact they’ve had on me since my childhood, but simply put, I’m still in awe of the infinite creativity, range, and vision of their timeless songs.

If you could perform with any musicians (dead or alive), who would it be?

In no particular order: Jacqueline du Pré, Gustavo Dudamel, Christian Ferras, Renée Fleming, Leonard Bernstein, Ian Bostridge, Michael Tilson Thomas, the Kronos Quartet, Carlos Kleiber, the Berlin Philharmonic, Alfred Cortot, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Thom Yorke….These are just several artists and ensembles on my long list of “dream collaborators”!

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I’m drawn to songs that give me the “shivers” – that indescribable frisson, you know? I’m attracted to songs that hit me viscerally: the ones that make want to sing and dance, laugh and cry, reminisce and wonder. Basically, I want to be moved. Sometimes I’ll love a song for its lyrics (whether they’re poignant, whimsical, poetic, or straightforward) but usually I’m more attuned to a song’s chordal and textural elements, its sonic landscape.  Often it’s the contour of a melody, a specific vocal timbre, or a harmonic modulation, not the words themselves, that can evoke a certain emotion or atmosphere.  As for artists, I greatly admire people who create and perform with honesty, passion, freedom, and generosity of spirit. I also respect artists who take risks, not merely to be provocative, but because they have the courage to tread uncharted territory and seek truth. Yes, craft and skill count, but to me these qualities do not matter as much as heart and soul. Authenticity is key.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The pianist Martha Argerich is phenomenal. Like Glenn Gould, she is one of my most significant musical role models. Her playing is, in a word, alive: it is dynamic and fiery, instinctive and nuanced. I’ve been lucky enough to see her live in concert a few times in New York and the atmosphere in the hall is always charged with excitement; her uncanny technical prowess, rhapsodic musicianship, and striking charisma completely enrapture her audiences. She is also a consummate collaborative musician as well. If you don’t have the chance to see her perform live, watch some clips of her performing Scarlatti or Rachmaninoff on YouTube for a glimpse of her astonishing mastery.


Take a listen to Elizabeth Joy Roe at her debut recital at Lincoln Center!

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Consolations” by Ryan Anthony Francis

Elizabeth Joy Roe – “Isoldens Liebestod” by Franz Liszt (transcribed from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde).

Her debut album will be coming out in August – check back at her website for details.

Rob Bravery – strange, piano-led pop (From the Charlie Williams seed)

Rob Bravery

The first track I heard on Rob Bravery’s MySpace was “Hedonistic Graveyard”, and it was a particularly exciting moment in the project because I could hear how we got here from the original seed (the path:  Charlie Williams –> Four Quartets –> Rob Bravery)…he has the instrumental delight of Mira Mira, with a touch of Sharples’ low-key delivery.  I actually followed my ears to the connection.  Awesome.

How did you get started playing music?

I picked up a few power chords on the guitar with the sole purpose of joining my older brother’s metal band Mongolian Clusterfuck (I was 14). Eventually I started teaching myself piano, which is now my main instrument.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Siamese Dream (Smashing Pumpkins) – Still in my top ten

How would you describe the music you play now?

I suppose strange, piano-led pop. Tough question, I like interesting chord progressions, lyrics etc.

You are a multi-instrumentalist – is there any particular instrument you love best? Or one that you wish you could play?

My favourite to play would be the drums, at least for the first 10 minutes. After that I’m physically incapable. I wish I could play the spoons like my dad.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Elliott Smith, Tom Waits, Joanna Newsom, Stephen Malkmus (there are loads more).

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Aside from the above, I’d have Rufus Wainwright, Neil Young, possibly my old man on watering can. RATM. All the greats.

what attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Initially tasteful lyrics ie. not ‘my life is brilliant..’ In most cases thoughtful chordal and melodic developments.

Who is one person I should be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I’m a big fan of Four Quartets (Rob Sharples’s new project). He’s a great songwriter. I’m also eagerly awaiting the respective forthcoming releases of Joanna Newsom and Dr Dog.


Take a listen:

Rob Bravery – “Hedonistic Graveyard”

Rob Bravery – “Cobweb Song”


Charlie Williams Four QuartetsRob Bravery

Caithlin De Marrais – A soft slap of sweet singing…(From the Ben Arthur Seed)

Caithlin De Marrais

We’re starting to get into the third round of the Ear to Ear Project, so let’s review…

Ben Arthur pointed to Balthrop, Alabama, who offered Caithlin De Marrais, a songwriter with a delightful twang and deep sense of place.  I’ve fallen for her well-crafted lo-fi-ness (not something I normally say), where everything sounds real and present and unaltered, and oh-so-true.

So let’s meet Caithlin…

How did you get started playing music?

My band, Rainer Maria, recorded and toured from ’95-’06. I was on bass/vocals, Kyle Fischer–guitars/vocals, Bill Kuehn–drums. In the film “The Wrestler” Randy the Ram says that the ’90s sucked, but I thought it was an ok time to be in a band. The music industry hadn’t imploded yet and there was an “us against them” camaraderie between us indie bands. I always wore my heart on my sleeve when I played.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

My awesome little brother and I would go to the Trumbull mall and buy 45s. We collected dozens and dozens–everything from big hits to obscure gems–Prince, Peter Gabriel, Bow Wow Wow, A-Ha, Eddie Grant, Nena, Musical Youth, Van Halen…much dancing and head banging in the living room ensued.

How would you describe the music you play now?

“Like a soft slap to the face.” (thanks Pitchfork!)

What instruments do you all play in your band?  How did you pick that combination?

Josh Kaufman is my wingman on electric guitar. I have two excellent drummers, Jason Lawrence and Konrad Meissner. Many other wonderful musicians make appearances on My Magic City, including one of my most cherished guitar heroes, Dean Wareham, and his gorgeous bandmate, Britta Phillips.
Somehow along the way I discovered how fun it was to record and play music with my mad, brilliant friends.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My Magic City has a golden honeycomb center surrounded by delicious milk chocolate, just like a Cadbury Crunchie bar.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

For My Magic City I was ruminating on my love of Spacemen 3, Spiritualized and Galaxie 500.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

The kid in me wants to go back to the ’70s when Stevie Wonder performed “Superstition” live on Sesame Street. That was cool. But since I don’t have a time machine, I’d like to reform The Smiths and open for them. All I need is 3 million dollars or so.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Dance-ability! Or alternately, heartbreak-ability.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Best two new releases I’m listening to right now: El May. Her amazing self-titled debut album is out Jan 19th. And Owen. His latest album New Leaves is a gem.
Best two Pandora stations I’m listening to right now: Roxy Music Radio. And Julie London Radio.


Listen to Caithlin:

Caithlin De Marrais – “Outer Space Is Still Sexy” (features Dean Wareham on electric guitar)

Caithlin De Marrais – “Play Fair” (Cover of Bob Buckridge tune)

And pick up a disc!

Caithlin De Marais - My Magic City

A note from Caithlin:

My latest record, Seb & Cait Live at Joe’s will be released on End Up Records in Feb.  It’s a live recording of a show at Joe’s Pub in NYC, I played with the artist, Seb Leon. Also check out Seb’s record, Cranes of Glitter. It’s like a French souffle with Bowie and Roxy Music inclinations.


Ben Arthur (seed) → Balthrop, AlabamaCaithlin De Marrais

Charlie Williams – the Creative, Intellectual, Music-Crafter Seed

Charlie Williams has one of those minds that is frightening in it’s creativity. This is a guy who not only plays beautiful music, he composes, arranges, develops new sounds, and then thinks about physics and builds a circle-of-5ths clock in his free time.

Only out of this kind of brain could Mira Mira emerge, a band where beauty and geekdom live side by side, and inspiration comes from anywhere. Their latest project, Music for Scientists, brings the technical world further into the musical one,and creates some really fascinating songs and sounds.

Having first known Charlie as a classical musician, studying piano at the Meadowmount School of Music, and then through the many various stages of creative development that have come since, I was so happy to hear what he would have to say about his journey and musical tastes.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents got an upright piano from their landlord when I was very small and we lived on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I wrote songs like “This is a Rocket Ship Taking Off” and “This is a Rainstorm” for a while, and eventually got lessons.  Eventually I got a keyboard and played in a band in high school, and somehow fell into writing music for school plays, which is how I got started writing actual structured pieces of music, as opposed to improvisations.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Wow, that’s a real Freedom-of-Information-Act type question. Um, it might have been: (a) Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” cassette, or (b) MC Hammer’s “Too Legit 2 Quit”, also in cassette form. Billy’s got the better album, but MC has the better single. Can’t touch “U Can’t Touch This”, though. That’s still Stan’s best work to date.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Now? Lately I’ve been trying to focus on what I’m best at— playing the piano and making weird electronic textures. I’ve been inspired by the music of Yann Tiersen (Amelie), especially after I saw him live at Logan Square Auditorium and he wasn’t all sugar and spice. He’s such a master of simplicity, without ever writing simplistic music. Also, his band has ondes martinot, concertina, violin, ukulele and melodica. Wow.

Your band, Mira Mira, has changed personnel over the years – is it a sound you are looking for, or a particular group of people?

I think I was chasing after a sound with Mira Mira, but I also didn’t always make the best management decisions. You might say. I was lucky to play with a large number of very gifted musicians, but several times we added someone to the band who wasn’t making music their way of life, and that brought some stress to the full-time musicians in the group, who were used to a different level of dedication and focus. I’m not saying that we always were ready to know what to do with a higher level of focus, but for whatever reason things never fully coalesced.

But to answer the “sound” question in a different way, I think I’m still searching for a sound. And maybe a group of people will come with that, or help me find that. Right now, though, it’s me and the piano.

How does your classical music background feed into what you’re doing musically now?

On the one hand, it’s great to have an instrument where you know you can play anything, and that’s what classical training gives you. On the other hand, I love to surround myself with instruments I don’t know how to play— lately clarinet and bandoneon, as well as ukulele, have been inspiring. Uke is sort of in a separate category because almost everything you do sounds great. It’s so much fun to play. But when I’m playing an instrument I don’t know, I have to really be fully present and focused in order to do anything at all, and I think correspondingly my musical ideas are a lot more interesting. On piano it’s possible for me to run on autopilot. These other instruments are teaching me how to get out of that habit, whatever instrument I’m working with.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My music is like a pear tree.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Andrew Bird is a big one. Every time he puts out an album it makes his previous albums look like warm-ups. This is, like, four albums in a row he’s done that for. Radiohead would break the laws of physics if they kept doing that, but of course everything they do is perfect and inspirational. Also since I’ve been working with Max/MSP this year, the fact that Johnny Greenwood uses that program onstage has been prompting me to try to hear what they’re doing with it in albums and live shows. I only recently got into Ben Folds, but I think he’s an incredibly talented guy and I also respect his production skills a lot. I took a break from Wilco for a while, but now I’m enjoying them again. Not the most recent album, but YHF and Ghost.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Oh jeez. I don’t think I’d be able to go onstage if these famous acts I admire so much were to stoop to share a show with me. I’d have to pick bands I’m friends with — The Cedar, from Bristol, UK are one of my new favorite bands, and I’d love to play a show with them. Also Rob Sharples, from London. I could play a show with those two and not feel totally ashamed of myself.

What attracts you to a particular song? An Artist?

They have to be trying their very hardest, and not treat the music like they might break it if they get something wrong. One of the reasons I love Joanna Newsom is because of this quality. Also the Magnetic Fields.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The Cedar and Rob Sharples are two that aren’t well-known on this side of the pond, but should be. They’re both benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs, and they’re both also saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits. That’s harder to do than it seems.


Listen to some of Charlie’s music:

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Churches”

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Is It Snowing/Part 2”

Pick up an album, while you’re at it: