An Interview with Peter Kater, by PJ Birosik

PJ: How does scoring a television series differ from doing an original album of music?

Peter: When you're scoring a television series, you're working with a partner and the partner is the visual image, so the idea is not to completely fill up the space with your own emotion but to enhance the visuals and bring out the emotional qualities of what's going on the screen. I try to enhance some of the deeper feelings going on, to focus in on some of the deeper momentum that is working and churning and pushing them beyond their physical limits.

PJ: How do you choose an instrument to actually convey a visual moment?

Peter: For me it's just very intuitive. I watch the footage and wait for an idea. Most of the time I don't have to wait too long I get pretty fast responses to when I put a question to my muse. I hear things; I might not have the whole picture in mind but might have one idea. That idea takes me to the next idea and then that musical phrase or melody or groove will take me to the next step. It's really about paying attention and listening. I've been saying for years that the creative process is about listening, it's not about being creative, it's about being receptive.

PJ: Is there any kind of method that you use to get yourself into a receptive state?

Peter: For years I've been trying to develop this awareness that either everything is special or nothing is special, either everything is sacred or nothing is sacred. Like walking out on stage being the same energetic momentum as walking down the street, or sitting down to play the piano in front of a thousand people having the same energetic momentum as sitting down at the table to have a meal with friends. It's important not to separate these things, just like meditation gets me ready to be receptive in some instances, and at other times exercise is the right thing; but the right thing changes all the time.

PJ: Did you do anything special to prepare yourself for creating Music from Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge?

Peter: Eco-Challenge was the first film project scheduled to be created in the new EarthSea Studio, so we finished designing the studio, being sure that all the video lock-up equipment was working, before the composing phase began. The studio is designed specifically for state-of-the-art recording and scoring. I watched the Eco-Challenge documentary several times before developing several themes for its energetic similarities; one that suited struggling, one that complimented pushing through resistance, one that was more energetic and driving, and another that was more the soul of the event. Then I'd watch the cues in terms of where the director wanted music, and decide instrumentation suited each scene. Finally, I called the musicians and scheduled the recording sessions, flying players out from all over the country so that the entire project could be completed within a period of six weeks; that includes writing, recording, and mixing almost three hours of music!

PJ: EarthSea Studio must be well-stocked with equipment to be able to complete that kind of rushed scheduling.

Peter: Absolutely. We're recording to the Tascam DA 88s; we've got four of them locked together, giving us 32 tracks on digital tape. We're using the API 3124 mike pre-amp, and a selection of Neumann mikes, a Neumann 87 and a couple of 193s....they've got such a warm, full sound that's particularly well-suited to recording sections like Chris White's dynamic vocal style as well as R. Carlos Nakai's wooden flutes. For recording guitars, percussion and drums, we use a variety of well-suited mikes. For video playback, we're locking up with the Timeline Microlynx. Also, we're mixing to the Tascam DA 60 timecode DAT machine. For reverb and delays we're using mostly the Lexicon PCM 80 and Quadraverb. Initially, I've installed a variety of synthesizers and modules including a Roland JV 880, Proteus Three World module and my favorite Korg T3.

PJ: How heavily do you rely on electronics?

Peter: I really like to work mostly acoustic, and then enhance with synthesizers for stuff I just can't do acoustically. I'm really excited about the Yamaha C7 Disclavier I just bought. It's a 7'6" grand piano that will repeat exactly what you play into it; it's acoustic, but MIDI'd.

PJ: Similar to the player piano players of the 1880s!

Peter: Yeah, but it's totally beyond. . it's really cool.

PJ: If you had to pick one instrument to take with you to a desert island, what would it be?

Peter: A flute or some kind of wind instrument.

PJ: How many instruments do you play?

Peter: I really only play piano and keyboards well, but I can play some hand percussion convincingly though I enjoy playing around with the flutes and recorders.

PJ: What happens when the musicians arrive at EarthSea Studio for a session?

Peter: First, I show the musicians the film, and play whatever tracks I've laid down so far.

PJ: They were suitably impressed by the subject matter, yes?

Peter: Yes; and having seen the footage, the musicians could relate to experience in a way that wasn't purely intellectual. They could begin imagining themselves doing it, so an empathy between the musicians and the contestants developed that helped vitalize the music. One of the first and most unusual things I did on this project was to bring in several percussionists and use their parts as the foundation for the cues. This is not my usual approach to writing music; I might record an album from the bass and drums up, but have not actually composed the music beginning with the rhythm section before. I wanted to get a groove that worked, that sounded fresh. Chris White from Flesh & Bone and I were talking about it the other day, and agreed that for a groove to work in this manner, it must make you want to move.

PJ: How does the groove effect the music for Music From Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge?

Peter: It helps create unity within the score, a sense of progression or forward momentum. It's almost like the percussion is more the reoccurring hook than is the melody. Normally in a soundtrack, composer will repeat themes, but I decided that repeating grooves served better as the anchoring similarity.

PJ: Did anything unexpected happen in the studio during the composing or recording of this score?

Peter: I encouraged Chris White to be more experimental on some sections where I didn't want to do something too predictable; to go beyond what either of us had done before. As a result of this and some other experiments that worked well, there's a couple of tracks on there that I just absolutely love. The title track itself is great, and I'm also really happy with "Storm" because it's on the edge, it's rough. I really appreciate roughness and spontaneity now a lot more than before. I've always been spontaneous in the studio, but preferred to refine things, keep it real clean and elegant. But now I'm more interested in the natural quality of things; I'm interested in hearing the squeaky sounds on the violin when the note isn't attacked just so, or in hearing the body of the cello when the bow taps the side, or when the player kind of grunts a little bit when he really reaches for a far note. These give the music a more organic quality, more immediacy.

PJ: Anything else?

Peter: Music from Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge was the first time that I've put R. Carlos Nakai in the atmosphere of a contemporary groove, something I've been wanting to do for a while. In our previous collaborations, I'd taken his native flute and placed it with the European piano, a great juxtaposition. But it's a completely different thing to take that little light-weight cedar wooden flute and put it into a setting with a bass player and drummer laying down some hip-hop or R&B groove with lots of space around it. That's the thrill of creation, taking elements that you normally wouldn't really think about putting together and finding how they can really shine in a different situation.

PJ: How much room is there for improvisation when you're creating a score?

Peter: A lot, as long as you come back to the theme. The musicians featured on Music from Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge are all players I've worked with before) there's a trust built up that allows us to do what's really right for the visual rather than trying to come up with the end-all, be-all, solo. One of the most non-productive things that can happen in writing for television or film is to overplay. But there is something very unique about this project that I haven't mentioned yet...there's not one piano note on there!

PJ: Since you're an acclaimed pianist, why?

Peter: I didn't feel it was appropriate; a combination of that and the director telling me he that didn't like piano. (laughter)

PJ: How did that affect this project?

Peter: The director says no piano, so inside I'm thinking, "Well, that's interesting; he probably doesn't even know I play the piano...he probably thinks I'm just some composer." The score became a challenge, to see what I could do without one note of piano in the entire score. And it worked out great! Maybe because I've been playing the piano my whole life I don't feel the need to play it the time.

PJ: What is the first song you can remember hearing?

Peter: "Downtown" I think...Petula Clark. Aside from kiddie shows, of course. I must have been about four years old.

PJ: When did you first learn an instrument?

Peter: I was seven and wanted to play the trombone. But my mom wanted to play the piano when she was a kid, so when she asked me if I wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument, what she was really saying was, "You're going to learn to play the piano because I didn't!" I started on a cheap little organ on which you could learn scales and basic chords. When I got all that down, I went to the piano.

PJ: Did you learn from a private teacher or from books?

Peter: I went through three teachers within a year or year and a-half. They all would throw their arms up in the air and they'd go, "I can't teach this kid! He never plays anything right." From a very young age I just wanted to play things the way I heard them, even things like the simplest melodies. I always wanted to play them a little differently because they were written so straight and so I wanted to bend the time a little bit, or change the melody. I was very stubborn about it. Often, I'd come to piano lessors unprepared and try to improvise my way through it.

PJ: Later, were you in a school band?

Peter: In my early teens some friends and I formed a rock band, then I was in several different bands playing Top 40, country, whatever, playing clubs at age 6 in New Jersey and New York. We did all the proms and the casuals scene. When I turned 18, I stopped playing covers and began improvising.

PJ: Do you hear music in your dreams?

Peter: Yes. I'll go to the piano where I keep a little tape recorder there and try to remember what I heard and get it down. I've had several dreams where I've listened to albums that I haven't recorded yet. I do really think that I am open to the muse; I was just born with it. I'm very passionate and work hard at what I'm passionate about, but I don't work hard for work's sake. It's definitely a gift.

PJ: Do you think your lifestyle encourages such inspiration?

Peter: Yeah, I do. I think being real with your feelings has a lot to do with it. I always find I'm more creative when I'm in touch with what's really going on. And if I let myself get numb by too much traveling or too much distraction, then it's harder for me to be really creative.

PJ: You're not afraid to examine your feelings...

Peter: No. I had many emotional challenges growing up and there was a lot of housecleaning - inner work - that I did from age 18 through my early 30's.

PJ: Did you do that through a particular method or with a certain teacher?

Peter: Everything! I go through phases of where I would meditate and chant, you know, four to six hours a day. Then I'd go through phases when I would do all these different kinds of workshops. And then I would follow different kinds of spiritual leaders and teachings while exploring different emotional and mind/body therapies. I mean, probably not dissimilar to what a lot of people have done. Being active in one's inner life is important. I do see life as something that we create. We walk around, we're like walking movie projectors; we cut and edit the film before it comes out. Like I kind of know, just ever so slightly, what to do and what not to do to create a desired outcome in my life.

"Interview by PJ Birosik"


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