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Interview with David Arkenstone, December 2008
Interview with David Arkenstone, image 1
David Arkenstone’s recording debut began back in 1987 with the release of the electronic themed "Valley In The Clouds." To this day it is considered one of the genre's classic and landmark albums. However, Arkenstone has refused to be stagnant always exploring multiple genres and sub genres such as Renaissance, Celtic, World, Middle East, Asian and Native American themes.

With a desire to travel musically, this passion is only equaled by his ability to master a multitude of musical instruments creating an orchestration of sounds. Never quite capable of placing boundaries on his music, David has the gift of creating masterpieces at the drop of a hat. This was best illustrated back in 2003 when the very organic yet superb "Sketches From An American Journey" was followed up with the majestic and bold musical strokes of Atlantis much in the vein of his Grammy nominated "In The Wake Of The Wind."

His passion for dramatic music was recently reeled in with the release of his latest effort "Echoes Of Light And Shadow." Probably one of his most restrained albums to date Arkenstone effectively balances light and darkness on his latest effort resulting in a very compelling recording. That said, Arkenstone was willing to take the time to shed some light on his own career by agreeing to a recent interview with Mainly Piano.

MD: It has been over 20 years since your impressive debut "Valley In The Clouds." Though many think of you as an overnight sensation how did it really all begin?

DA: It began with a combination of Tchaikovsky and the Beatles and my parent’s encouragement. From my earliest recollection of The Nutcracker, I wanted to know how those sounds were made. By the time I had quite a few years of piano lessons, there came The Beatles, and I wanted to be able to write music and reach an audience like that. Then came high school, college, many different bands and ensembles, and my own original groups. I then realized I could create a lot of what I wanted to hear by myself when synths and computers started to talk to each other. I took that road, and quite soon had a recording contract.

MD: Though a naturalized Californian not many know that you were born and raised in Chicago. How did that city mold and influence your childhood?

DA: I was in the Chicago area until I was 10. I think one of the most profound things I remember was the change of seasons. We don't get much of that in Southern California. I think humans are really tied to that somehow.

MD: While most associate you with your array of keyboards, you are clearly comfortable on an abundance of instruments. Which is your instrument of choice and why?

DA: When I perform live, I enjoy playing guitar and mandolin, flute and sometimes drums. Mostly because it allows me to move about. When I'm in my studio, the keyboard provides a gateway into a deep level of orchestration and experimentation using the computer, which stores hundreds of high quality sounds.

MD: From 1987 through 1990 it appeared you had developed a trademark sound when all of sudden the flood gates opened with the critical and commercial success of "In The Wake Of Time." If my mind serves me correctly it was given a Grammy nomination. The starry colorful canopy of sounds is beautiful and brilliant. Why the change and where did the inspiration come from?

DA: I'm not sure it was so much a change as an evolution. I had become more comfortable with my tools, instruments and workflow, so I felt it was time to attempt a 'concept' project. The combination of my writing maturing and the first addition of live orchestral players yielded a more developed and intricate recording than previous. And I was rewarded with my first Grammy nomination.

MD: New Age music was at its peak and you took out all the stops and recorded your follow up "Another Star In The Sky" in Dolby Surround Sound and also promoted the album with a laser light show at the Griffith Park Observatory. Were you feeling a pressure to outdo yourself?

DA: I don't think so. My mom had just passed away, and I felt like doing something that would make her proud. She was always my biggest supporter and cheerleader, since childhood. She was extremely proud of me and what I had achieved up to that point.

MD: If anyone were to look at your musical catalog, ignoring your other projects such as the Neo Pacifica and Troika series, you have been creating a solo album at a pace of about one a year. How do you avoid the pressure of copying yourself?

DA: It gets tricky sometimes. I always try to use a fresh 'palette' of sounds for each project - that helps. I also try to come up with a guiding concept that makes me look in different musical directions. I'm always looking for inspiration. It's hard to avoid your 'style' though.

Interview with David Arkenstone, image 2
MD: Troika released five albums all under the guise of a West Coast trio performing David Arkenstone compositions. Would you care to elaborate on the mystery?

DA: Well, it's really mostly me with some friends adding a few things here and there. It was really meant to be a way for Narada to release more than one album a year from me. And a way for me to try some different, more minimal concepts that maybe I wouldn't have explored otherwise.

MD: The mid nineties seem to be a little less inspiring yet nevertheless interesting with the release of the album "Return Of The Guardians and Spirit Wind." Then came the arrival of "The Celtic Book Of Days" which did not receive a Grammy nomination though in my opinion should have. Do you think this is one of your overlooked albums?

DA: I don't know about overlooked, as it sold quite well, but I really dug deep for that one. Celtic music has permeated my music since the beginning and this was a great opportunity to fully jump in and give it my own spin. Many live musicians, a choir and a clear focus really gave that album richness like no other.

MD: It also reflected a departure from your long time label home Narada prior to the exodus of several other artists. Why the change in labels?

DA: My Narada contract expired and I had always been a fan of Windham Hill, so I took the plunge. Sometimes change is good!

MD: While your music seems to fit the silver screen, the last time you explored this was back in 1993 courtesy of the soundtrack "Robot Wars." Was "Music Inspired By Middle Earth" another effort to explore this avenue? Why did you decide to release the latter on Neo Pacifica?

DA: Tolkien's work has always been part of my inspiration anyway, so it just sort of evolved into a way to bring that to the front. We had a new distribution deal for Neo Pacifica, so it seemed like there was a good channel to get it out there. It's been said that I write 'cinematic' music, and I believe that. There's always a personal 'movie' playing in my imagination when I write.

MD: The year 2002 saw the release of your most organic album to date "Sketches From An American Journey." The album is brilliant and reflects an artist with a wanderlust of wanting to present different sound textures. How different was this recording process in relation to your other “children”?

DA: An important thing was that I again could use a live orchestra. Also, it was more of a collection of songs than a concept album, so I could explore each track without fitting it into a structured format. Yet the process was similar. I try to get as many 'lyrical ideas' as I can, painstakingly orchestrate them and then sit at the recording sessions amazed by what others can bring to my music.

MD: Apparently this began a creative hot streak with the graphic and bold musical stroke of "Atlantis." It reminds me of the dramatic "In The Wake Of The Wind" era. Would you care to elaborate on this?

DA: I did want to return to a full concept recording, and I had been kicking around the "Atlantis" idea for many years. As soon as I had a framework in my head, I began the process. Some of my best work, I think. And another Grammy nomination.

MD: Why the very temporary return to the Narada label?

DA: At this time Windham Hill was in upheaval and starting to sink. I had always stayed on good terms with the folks at Narada, so I was drawn there. I felt "Atlantis" would get a good treatment and distribution there.

MD: Musically, "Myths And Legends" continued what you started on "Atlantis," but it also represented your first record for Gemini Sun. What makes this label different to Narada and Windham Hill?

DA: For starters, it actually exists! Narada and Windham Hill are both no more. But really, Nick Gunn (Gemini Sun CEO) is an accomplished artist himself, so he understands that point of view as well as the business side. He has a good team around him and a good distribution channel and his operation is close to me, which makes it nice.

MD: Your latest inspiration, "Echoes Of Light And Shadow." features black and white artwork and the music is also not as colorful yet not insipid. This must have been a very difficult challenge. Is it a reflection of where you were personally?

DA: Interesting idea, yet difficult to answer. I think all projects reflect a certain amount of where you find yourself at the time. I have always had this album title in the back of my mind, and I wanted to do something different, so out it popped! The idea is close to my heart, the light and dark, which is the way of the world, so it seemed like an interesting idea to illustrate musically. There were challenges however, not to go too far in either direction.

Interview with David Arkenstone, image 3
MD: As far as musicians were concerned, you limited it to a trio effort with Dov assisting on violin and Susan Craig Winsberg on flutes. How did this help you with the recording process?

DA: I have worked with Susan and Dov for many years and I find it very easy to get what I'm seeking across to them. Sort of a shorthand, if you will. They are both recording artists in their own right, so they can easily get the big picture and infuse the music with the right emotion. They really clarify and bring character to my melodies. I also wanted the record to be a little sparse, and clear.

MD: With the exception of 1995’s "Quest Of The Dream Warrior" that featured Michael Whalen behind the production board, you have been producing your own material as far back as 1992. Michael Aarvold has been your long time technical associate or should we say your “right ear”? How involved is Michael in the creative process?

DA: Many times Michael is engineering the tracks from the first session. He is an excellent sounding board and has plenty of useful comments. Other times, I'll come to him with many of the tracks recorded and ready to mix. He helps sort out my vision, and clear away the unnecessary, as many times I'll record more tracks than needed!

MD: I have seen you perform live at the height of the New Age wave when you participated in the Narada Summer Concert Series in Southern California back in the 90’s. Is there any chance of your fans seeing David Arkenstone on the road in the near future?

DA: Well, I have performed since the 90's! I try to perform as much as possible, though it's more expensive these days. I'm hoping to ramp that up in 2009 with some new ideas and smaller ensembles.

MD: What does the immediate future hold for David Arkenstone musically and personally?

DA: Personally, I want to explore more of the world. I'd like to visit China and Australia and parts of the U.S. Musically I want to continue working on some lengthy classical type pieces. I will have a live collaboration coming with the rebirth of "Laserium," they have a new theatre in Hollywood. It will be a huge multimedia event, lots of incredible new technology, not just their wonderful lasers. We are a good match, I think. I am also hoping for a collaboration with NASA; it's the 400th anniversary of the telescope, and the 40th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I am also working on a recording for 2009 tentatively titled "Tales From The North," based in Nordic legends.
Michael Debbage
December 2008