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Interview with Catherine Marie Charlton, July 2013
Interview with Catherine Marie Charlton, image 1
Catherine Marie Charlton recently released River Flow - Sanctuary, the follow-up to her 2001 River Dawn. She is also scheduled to perform a house concert here on August 25th. I have been reviewing Catherine Marie’s music since her earlier Jeweled Rain, and each new album always brings something fresh and different. This seemed like the ideal time to do an interview, so here you go! This interview took place via email in July 2013.

KP: Hey Catherine! How are things in Pennsylvania today?

CMC: RAINY. AGAIN. It is crazy how much rain we’ve gotten this summer. I can tell you definitively that my weeds love it. I can barely stay on top of weeding the herb and blueberry garden... forget the flower beds!

KP: You’ll feel right at home when you get to Oregon next month - for the rain, not the weeds! I’m really looking forward to finally meeting you and having you play a concert here in Florence on August 25th! Are you playing other concerts in the area as well?

CMC: Thanks! I’m really looking forward to it, too. I’m bringing the whole family for a late summer vacation, and I’ll be playing in Portland, Eugene, and at your place in Florence.

KP: I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing your newest release, River Flow - Sanctuary. What was the idea behind that album?

CMC: Thank you so much. Your words in your review really touched me. I was really happy that you ‘got’ the feeling of calmness I always hope listeners will experience when listening to it. River Flow - Sanctuary is a follow-up to my album River Dawn: Piano Meditations from 2001. Both are 60-minute uninterrupted solo piano improvisations, both with the intent of creating an atmosphere of peace, and with the intent of being interesting enough to listen to more closely if one chooses. In the end though, I really created it for myself - and I have to admit that I’ve listened to it hundreds and hundreds of times. I have it in the baby’s nursery as our nursing companion and her bedtime music, and I very often have it on in the car.

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KP: How did you prepare for a one-hour improvisation?

CMC: Well, not easily, and mostly by letting go and not trying too hard to make it come. I have wanted a follow-up to River Dawn pretty much ever since I created that... and you can see it took eleven years for the new music to flow in that way. I put out other albums in between, but this was the first time I had new music for a straight hour like that. I have been able to re-create and perform River Dawn for extended time frames, but I had never had NEW music until this past fall. My primary prep was emotional and spiritual - being in the right frame of spirit for it. My daughter was six months old at the time of River Flow - Sanctuary. I had done tremendous amounts of release and letting-go work through my hypnobirthing practice to prepare for her birthing - and I think all of that inner work of “letting go” carried itself over to my music later in the year.

KP: Did you set a specific date and time for recording the album or did you just decide one night to stay up and see what happened?

CMC: No, I didn’t set a specific date and time. I was in an improv frame of mind (spirit!) those few weeks, and playing piano most nights. I don’t remember specifically, but given that my daughter was six months old, I suspect I was just starting to get a (tiny) bit more sleep and feeling good from that - but also chomping at the bit to be in the piano studio because I hadn’t played much when she was an itty-bitty newborn.

When we started talking about having a second child I began turning my studio into a place where I could record - relocating my computer set-up from my old office into the piano room, hanging acoustical curtains, and then investing in recording equipment. My engineer that I have done many of my projects with picked out my equipment and came to set it up for me. By doing all this, I now have the luxury of recording when the inspiration strikes and I also don’t have to have an album’s worth of material at one time (that is, if I’m recording multiple songs and not an album in one take, LOL), and also I can record when it’s convenient for me and the kids’ schedules.

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Catherine's recording studio.
KP: Did you do multiple takes, or did the music emerge fully formed the first time?

CMC: The music emerged fully the first time, although I did do three takes just to be sure. I had been listening to some (short) late night improvs I had done a year or two before, and one of them I had labeled “folky D major” - probably because I thought it sounded a little bit like a folk song. I had that in my head when I went to play - and although ‘River Flow” is not the same melody at all, I’m sure that the first improv influenced what I played (definitely for the key signature at least!). It only took a very short while of playing what was to become River Flow - Sanctuary when I realized that it was something I could play for extended time periods. So, I turned on the recording equipment and immediately recorded a 58-minute version that flowed in full form. My friends teased me that I was a slacker since I could only get to 58 minutes, not 60 like River Dawn. I may well have stuck with that take, but then I realized that “wow, I have this recording equipment at home that I spent all this money on so that I can record whenever I want. I’d better take advantage of it.” So, a few days later I recorded a 60-minute take (added the extra two minutes to silence the naysayers, hah!). The second take is what became the album -- the first one had 5-10 minutes that I felt took the piece off the mood just a little, and the second take kept the mood I wanted throughout. I did do a third take a week or so later, but only because my husband told me I really should do one more just to be sure. I think by the third time I was getting a little too excited that I had this new music and that take has a little more tension in it than I wanted.

KP: Did you have a clock close-by to time yourself? I always lose complete track of time when I’m playing.

CMC: I have a clock hanging high up on the wall opposite my piano bench that I can see really well when I’m playing - if I choose to look up. So yes, I did watch that periodically to check on my progress, and then more closely as the sixty minutes was coming to a close. Until recently, I had a pretty big teaching studio, and that was my clock to track student lesson times!

KP: Do you have any new projects that you’re working on? I know that’s probably a dumb question!

CMC: This summer I’m enjoying playing repertoire beyond improvising. For my August concerts I’m hoping to play part of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Danzas Argentinas by Alberto Ginastera. I might throw a Bach Prelude in there too. I’ve played the Ginastera for ten years or more, but I’ve never recorded it and I would really like to have it top notch for recording in the fall, probably to release as a digital single (or three digital singles if you count all the movements). This year I also plan to bring out more jazz standards and play my own interpretations of those. Over the next year or so, I plan to start performing more again with my drummer and hopefully a full band for improvisation concerts.

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KP: I think Jeweled Rain was the first of your recordings that I reviewed back in the days of the print version of Wind and Wire. I remember being really intrigued by your versatility and command of so many styles of music. Then you sent River Dawn with the instruction to not listen to it too carefully - to keep it in the background. I really struggled with that! What was the motivation to compose music that shouldn’t be listened to very actively?

CMC: I had a friend who was studying to become a hypnotherapist and he told me he was having trouble finding long stretches of uninterrupted music to use in the background of recordings he was making for clients. He asked if that was something I could create. “River Dawn” was originally a 5-minute concert piece, and I realized it was a song I could stretch into an hour. I recorded a 45-minute version on cassette tape just to prove to myself that I could do it, and then recorded the 60-minute version when the recording engineers had everything set up. I professionally recorded just the one take because I couldn’t afford to do any more!

Little did I know that I would go on to license River Dawn to many hypnotherapists, most notably the Hypnobirthing Centre in the UK that uses it in the background of all their recordings... so there are thousands of little British babies who are hearing it in the womb and at their birthings! For me personally, that’s probably one of my most proud accomplishments.

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KP: I can see why! I loved Undershore in 2004, and then didn’t hear from you for quite awhile. Did you take a break from recording for a few years?

CMC: Yes, I was performing extensively with my drummer and various third musicians on bass, flute, tenor sax etc, exploring free improvisation. I kept wanting to record those creations, but we only had a few short recording opportunities that didn't yield enough material for a full album, so I never released any of that music. After a few years of my duo/trio work, I realized that I wanted to backtrack a little and focus on classical technique again - so I started studying with a tremendous piano professor near me. Also during that time, I met my husband, moved three times in two years, planned a wedding, and then wanted to have children... it was a crazy busy time - all while I continued to teach piano and a few other part-time jobs - I was even a reference librarian for a year!

KP: Yikes! Let’s backtrack and get some info about your early life. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

CMC: I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia.

KP: Do you come from a musical family?

CMC: My family are all scientists and engineers! But, my Dad had a really unique gift- he could play beautiful music on his fists: he created a flute-like sound by blowing through his thumbs (holding his hands the way you might to whistle on a blade of grass), and then adjust the pitch by moving the positions of his outer fingers. I have really fond memories of sitting on his lap watching his fingers move up and down as he played "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" and other folk songs on his fists. He decided to take up old-time country fiddling when he was in his 50’s, but never got past the beginning stages - however he made quite an impression on everyone in his music and contra-dancing circles because he would often join in on the old-timey jams on his fists! I learned a little bit from him and can sort of play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on my own fists, but my tone is not very clear and my pitch is far from in tune. My brothers also have natural musical ability - one played terrific bassoon in high school band and the other has beautiful compositions for his whistling - but neither pursued the music beyond that.
KP: Funny - my dad made music blowing into his hands, too, but not to the extent yours did. I’d forgotten about that! When did you start playing the piano?

CMC: We got a piano when I was 8 and my mom realized I had a natural talent for the recorder we were playing in 4th grade.

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One week before Catherine's daughter was born.
KP: How long did you take lessons?

CMC: I’ve taken lessons ever since then, and still am... classical lessons throughout middle school and high school, entering all the music festivals and competitions, and then throughout college. I started lessons with a jazz teacher within a year or two of graduating, and I studied with him for 5-7 years - he was extraordinarily wonderful helping me shape the music on the Jeweled Rain and Undershore albums. Then with all my moves, I took a couple years off but then started classical lessons again with the professor I mentioned before - he helped me prepare a classical concert when I was pregnant with my son. I took a couple of years off with the kids as babies, but I have re-started lessons with him this year, and I am LOVING it. I love being a student and always want to keep learning.

KP: Were you a music major in college?

CMC: I had a self-designed major in Acoustical Engineering with a Minor in Music at Cornell University. So music was always in my life - I started improvising and concertizing my own music when I was at Cornell, but the engineering studies took up so much time that I couldn’t study the piano with the rigor that I can with my professor now.

KP: Have you always been a professional musician or have you had other jobs?

CMC: I worked in the corporate world for five years managing technical projects for a credit card company. But I left in 2000 to teach and perform piano full time, and I’ve been doing that ever since! I’ve sprinkled a couple of part time jobs in there (reference librarian you heard about, and I also worked doing administration support and PR for a performing arts venue).

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A Steinway artist!
KP: Do you play other instruments as well as piano and keyboards?

CMC: No, I don’t. I played flute in middle school band and in the Youth Orchestra flute ensemble, but I haven’t played it since, other than to pull it out at improvisation classes and workshops when there aren’t enough pianos to go around.

KP: How old were you when you wrote your first piece?

CMC: I started writing pieces very early on - and performed a few of them at my recitals. The first few were called “The Oriental Touch” and “Water Over Rocks,” but my classical teachers didn’t know how to foster that so I really didn’t do much of it. It was when I was a sophomore in college that I discovered I could improvise and then all of a sudden music started coming all the time.

KP: Do you play live in concert very often?

CMC: I haven’t much the past few years with the little kids at home, but I’m starting to emerge from Babyland and want to perform more in the upcoming year.

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Backstage at the 2013 Zone Music Reporter Awards.
KP: Who or what are some of you biggest musical influences and inspirations?

CMC: Probably the biggest two are Keith Jarrett and George Winston. I love anyone who can free-improvise seamlessly - love the work of cellist David Darling and singer Bobby McFerrin, for example. I’ve been to many improvisation workshops with David Darling and consider him to have been an important mentor to my work. I also love avant-garde free jazz - Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor for example. I am always inspired by new discoveries and am currently loving John Medeski's new solo piano album.

KP: Have you done any composing for films or television?

CMC: No, although it might be fun to improvise/record a soundtrack while watching visuals.

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

CMC: I think it would have to be the couple of times I have met like-minded musical souls that I can instantly improvise with. I had a magical experience when I played with my drummer, Jody Janetta, for the first time - and in the years to follow we had many people comment that it seems we breathe together when we play. I recently had a similar experience with the bassist Steve Lawson from the UK. We struck up a friendship on Twitter and I hosted his family when they were on tour of the US two years ago. We had never played together, not even in a sound check, and the 20-minute duo improv we did in our house concert was also a magical connection. I think we might release a recording of that improv at some point.

KP: How long have you been a Steinway Artist?

CMC: I was added to the roster earlier this year. I showed up at the NYC Concert & Artist offices when I was a student in college to ask them how to become a Steinway Artist one day - I’ve wanted to be one as long as I can remember. They were very kind to me and gave me great advice and encouragement. I learned that they ask that everyone on the roster own a Steinway piano - definitely a tall order - but, since I knew that would be asked of me, soon after college I bought a used Steinway - trading in my upright and a downpayment from some money I had saved from an award in college. It took me eight years to pay off the loan I took out on top of my student loans. In fact, that’s one reason I started teaching piano in the evenings after my full time job - to make some extra money for my monthly piano payments! The piano I bought is the one on both River Dawn: Piano Meditations and River Flow - Sanctuary.

Last year, Robin Spielberg shared a picture on Facebook of herself with her teenage daughter next to her photo in Steinway Hall. I had my newborn baby daughter on my lap when I saw the picture, and I thought to myself that I would really love to share being a Steinway Artist with my daughter one day. So I printed out that picture and posted it to my vision board. Seeing it every day on the vision board combined with the favorable feedback I was getting for Red Leaf, Grey Sky: Piano Improvisations made me start to think that maybe it was finally time to apply - and I did. So, almost 20 years after my first visit to Steinway Hall, you can imagine what an incredible joy it is for me to be on the roster - a life’s dream realized!

KP: Congratulations! It’s quite a milestone! Is there a particular philosophy or message that you try to convey in your music?

CMC: Early on I specifically was striving to recreate emotions through sound - to think of raw emotions and start playing while I channeled those emotions through my fingers. That can be incredibly draining. Now it’s less about the emotions, and when I play I strive to be completely in the present moment, with no thoughts of what was and what is to come, and no critique of what I hear myself play - to let the improvisations flow from that state of being. It’s a difficult state to achieve, but I’m getting better at it.

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Old family piano to be restored.
KP: Who are your favorite composers?

CMC: Really, the list is too long - classical piano greats mostly. When I was much younger the list probably would have been only Romantic and Impressionist composers, but now I love abstract 20th century classical music and have discovered that now that I’m older, I am loving playing Bach! That’s a new one for me! I hated playing Bach as a kid. I also love old-time country fiddle music, bluegrass, free jazz, Argentine Tango music, and New Age/contemporary instrumental music that we listen to at bedtime. Some favorites include Jeff Pearce (his Lingering Light is an all-time fav!), Parijat, Zoë Keating, Peter Kater, Steve Lawson, Jeff Oster, and a Hemi-Sync hang drum album by Alan Tower.

KP: Have you played many Whisperings Concerts?

CMC: Just a few, many years ago now. I was one of the first artists on Whisperings when David Nevue founded it - when many of the artists on the broadcast were donating money to help launch the program. I am in awe of what David has created. It has been so fun to watch the journey of the community and its fanbase.

KP: I couldn’t agree more! You mentioned to me some time ago that you were planning to go back to school to get your Masters Degree. How is that going?

CMC: I forgot I told you that! Well, now I guess I have to commit, LOL. Yes, my piano professor has been encouraging me to go back for my Masters in Classical Piano Performance ever since we started working together. But, I wanted to have children and it didn’t make sense to pursue it when they were babies. Now that my daughter is a toddler and a (little) less time intensive I am thinking about it again. I don’t know if it’s next year or the following, or if at all, but I am preparing the repertoire I would need for an audition. I figure even if I don’t audition it can only be a good thing to be working on this music!

KP: How old are the kids?

CMC: My son is 3 1/2 and my daughter is 16 mo.

KP: Are they showing any musical promise as yet?

CMC: I think so, but it’s hard for me to tell because I’ve only taught elementary aged kids and older, so I don’t have a frame of reference. I take both of them to Musikgarten classes, and we all love it. My son has an amazing sense of rhythm - even puts in filler rhythms right on time when he’s playing on his toy drum. With my husband’s encouragement, he’s been really interested in all the drummers on the SiriusXM Classic Vinyl station, and one of his imaginary roles (of which there are many, including “fireman” and “big mean bear”) - is to be Keith Moon (drummer from The Who) and then whoever is in the room with him becomes “Town Petesend.” He’s asked for a drum set for his 4th birthday. In the Musikgarten classes we start singing “ba ba ba” on chord tones from when they are babies, asking them to repeat after us, and my daughter has in the last few weeks started singing “ba ba’s” back to me. The other day, she pushed the black keys down on the piano keyboard, one at a time, going down in a pentatonic scale. So - maybe!

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

CMC: To stay in the present moment - whether that be when I’m playing piano or enjoying playing with my kids. To always be learning and growing. More sleep (says the mom of a toddler)!

KP: What’s up next for you?

CMC: In addition to all the stuff mentioned above, it looks like I am inheriting my family's 200 year old square piano, with an eye towards restoring it over the next 5-10 years. So, I'm thinking there is more Bach and Mozart in my future!

KP: Sounds exciting! Thanks for chatting, and we’ll see you in a few weeks!
For more information about Catherine Marie Charlton, please visit her website and her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
July 2013