Peter Colclasure: all the stars pass through his soul

A train station platform in soft fading afternoon light.

Record: Una Corda (Peter Colclasure Antigo Music, 2020)

Quick Overview

In 1822, the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote to a friend, “…he who makes music is a whole human being” (from an essay by Prof. Richard Stokes, Gresham College, 2008). Peter Colclasure adapts one of Goethe’s famous poem titles, “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (“Only he who knows yearning”), substituting “Sehnsucht” (“yearning” or “longing”) for “Punkrock” in Track 11, “Nur Wer Die Punkrock Kennt.” In this moving new release, “Una Corda” (Peter Colclasure Antigo Music, 2020), this one song both demonstrates Colclasure is not only a whole human being, he’s also a gifted composer struggling (rebelling?) to find balance in a world tilted on its axis away from the comfort of routine, deadlines, and the now distant joy of ordinary human interaction. “Una Corda” is a stirring message in a bottle, 12 compositions that cross several landscapes: ambient, classical, neo-classical, and solo piano. Even without Goethe’s “yearning,” there remains a hunger, an ambition in these compositions — songs for dancers (who aren’t there, Colclasure regularly composes for dance at New Ballet School in San Jose), songs for joyful building (suspended or reduced, for now, as we close out 2020), and songs for hopeful anticipation (nature, birdsong in the garden, waiting for a new spring, new growth). These 12 songs come from a whole human being suspended like all of us in our pandemic year, lyrically riding out the waves, one composer bravely challenging the chaos of our modern, diffident, and contradictory reasoning. These 12 songs taken as a whole are a portrait of our nobler aspirations, even in a divided isolation.

[Review Below]

Available on Bandcamp

"Una Corda" LP artwork of birds on a wire.

Una Corda (2020)

Track 1: Una Corda
Track 2: Etude
Track 3: A Likely Carrington Event
Track 4: Pavane
Track 5: Architecture
Track 6: Gardening
Track 7: Slow Dancing Drunk to Satie
Track 8: The Underdown
Track 9: Plies for M
Track 10: Sleeping Metal Giants Awake
Track 11: Nur Wer Die Punkrock Kennt
Track 12: Noah And The Waves

Peter Colclasure

recording artist Peter Colclasure.
Peter Colclasure (Photo courtesy of Shameless Promotion PR, used by permission)

“Una corda,” the “soft pedal,” the quiet opening track of Peter Colclasure’s new record by the same title, “Una Corda” (Peter Colclasure Antigo Music, 2020), might be the metaphor for this entire year. Time has simultaneously sped up and slowed down as we’ve all moved between quarantine and isolation (sometimes more than once) — even as we’ve been forced to learn new work routines, new software tools to work remotely with colleagues, all while trying to remain authentically connected, as best we can, with our actual human, socially distanced networks. For a recording artist like Colclasure, who before the pandemic divided his busy schedule between live performances and session work with Indie bands (The Rose Peddlers, The Foghorns, Cola), composing for the New Ballet School, and teaching piano at the Evergreen Studio of Music & the Arts, both in San Jose, California, plus creating and releasing his own solo work, his routine broke down into disjointed fragments — his former creative-self having to redefine a new-creative self.

I’m drowning in free time. Rather than fitting my composing in around my schedule, I’ve been free to compose whenever I want. On the one hand, this has been good for my productivity. I’ve written a lot of music the last nine months. On the other hand, it’s been bad for my focus.

Peter Colclasure

“I would say the biggest difference would be the absence of deadlines,” said Colclasure in a recent email, when asked about how his process of composition has changed throughout this difficult year. “Normally, I’m very busy with teaching piano, playing for ballet classes, and performing live shows. During the quarantine, my piano lessons have moved online, most of my ballet classes have been canceled, and with a single live-streamed exception last October, there have been no live shows.

“Even though I’m writing a lot of music, I’m skipping around from piece to piece, in an ad hoc manner, rather than completing a very specific group of works,” he continued. “There are no shows coming up that force me to finish a certain piece, or to rehearse anything. This is weird. Also, having just completed an album, I’m in the stage where I take a couple months of regrouping, deciding what to do next.”

“Una Corda” was written and recorded during the winter of 2019-20, and was just entering into the mixing phase when the March quarantine hit hard in California, as it did in many parts of the country (and world). Inspired by the ambitious and elemental composers Max Richter (“Voices,” 2020, and “Sleep,” 2015), and John Luther Adams (“Become Ocean,” 2013, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and “Inuksuit,” 2009), Colclasure has assembled 12 tracks that, like Adams, attempt to create a vocabulary for human interaction with what we can shape with our minds and hands, as well as demonstrating our vulnerabilities when faced with forces in nature beyond our ability to dismiss them because they inconveniently interfere with our career planning and creative momentum. Nature always forces us to stop and listen, usually when we’re least prepared — or willing — to do so.

I think the modern world is noisy and draining and cluttered. I grew up in a rural area where deer grazed in the backyard and the woods were never more than a five-minute drive away. Now I live in the Bay Area, and for everything I love about it, I miss nature.

Peter Colclasure

Colclasure has used the word “calm” to characterize “Una Corda.” However, “Una Corda” doesn’t easily sit comfortably as an ambient work relegated to the status “wallpaper,” or easy backgrounding while other activities are taking place. These 12 tracks feel cinematic, demanding attention and engagement. “I don’t think that calm necessarily means disengaged,” said Colclasure. “I think of calm as the opposite of anxious. Many things about urban life feel unnatural to me: traffic, tall buildings, concrete. And then there’s the internet. Social media is basically a casino slot machine disguised as human connection.

“And then there’s this year, 2020,” he continued. “So many reasons to be on edge, stressed, or nervous. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, growing up in farmland, I sought out music that made me excited and anxious, because regular life was luxuriously boring. Now, I seek out music that allows me to focus. I think that if you want to pay attention to something, really focus on it, you can’t always be flooded with adrenaline. I would describe calm as a certain mindset that allows you to handle the world.”

Composing for ballet has been a joy. When I’m writing a stand-alone piece, my mind is thinking about sounds and intervals and harmonies and melodies, and when I’m writing for dance I’m constantly picturing the dancers, and how they’ll move to the piece. I think the end result of these two approaches can be very similar, but the process by which I get there can be different.

Peter Colclasure

There’s a deeply lyrical quality to Colclasure’s compositions. A poetry. While being immersed in ballet and the interplay between human bodies in motion, flowing through his music, the question arises about why Colclasure hasn’t drawn in more voices into his work, as one of his greatest influences, Max Richter, has repeatedly done. Colclasure has used “found voices” in, for example, “24hr News Cycle” on “Antigo” (Peter Colclasure Antigo Music, 2017), a composition splicing in found object/spoken word elements with his piano, almost like old radio and news broadcasts, and the “shipping news.” The result is both effective and ghostly, inviting another level of human interplay into his music away from the dance stage.

“That’s a great question. There’s one track called ‘Synth 3,’ on my second album, ‘Long Form,’ (Peter Colclasure Antigo Music, 2019), that uses voices. The text is a Spanish translation of the poem ‘The New Colossus,’ by Emma Lazarus, being read by Gabriel Subuyuj,” said Colclasure. “Gabriel was one of my wife’s students at San Jose State University. He’s also a DREAM Act student, so the significance of him reading that poem felt powerful to me. I looped the line that translates as, ‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ That image of hope, while traversing a barren desert, stuck with me.

“Beyond that, I think I have a slight bias for purely instrumental music, as much as I love what Max Richter has done by combining music and spoken word. It’s just a slightly different approach.”

Ultimately, “Una Corda,” with it’s 12 songs presenting a kind of infinity by restricting choices — imposed as much as chosen — influenced as he is by dance as well as by classical images and narratives, quietly pulls us into a deeper reflection on the spaces between our lives and our plans. How will we remember 2020 when we have the luxury to forget it? Records like “Una Corda” will become our mile markers as we move ahead. Like the concluding track on this record, “Noah And The Waves,” for now we’re just quietly riding it out, each of us against the chaos of the pandemic’s waves, searching for soundtracks, and the return of the dance, and the whole human experience currently interrupted.

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Sunbeams at sunset” / by Alex Stemmer on Shutterstock
“Birds on a wire” (footer) / photo & design done on Canva

Pigeons on power lines.