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Interview with Eric Chapelle, September 2020
Interview with Eric Chapelle, image 1
I was introduced to Eric Chapelle and his music back in 1998 when I was writing reviews for Wind and Wire magazine. Eric sent his debut album, Our Time, for review and I loved it. In 1999, three pieces from that album were transcribed and included in a songbook simply called Piano Collection: 12 New Age Piano Solos, Vol. 1. I was asked by John Nicholas at Solo Piano Publications to do sketches of the four artists who were included in the book, which I really enjoyed! The next time I worked with Eric was when a wonderful group of artists offered their music for a benefit album called The Heart-Aid Project to raise funds for the families affected by the 9/11 attack. Eric released his second album, Across the Water, in 2010 which I also gave a great review and then I didn’t hear much from him until recently. Eric is getting ready to release his fourth single for 2020, so he is definitely back in action!

KP: Hey Eric! How are you? How are things in Texas these days?

EC: I’m doing great! This is the best part of my life so far. I’m doing what I want to do. My new job is writing music. I retired from my day job working in an office on September 4, 2019, my birthday. I dreamt all my life of having the chance to write music full-time someday, and here we are.

The Covid-19 pandemic forces me to do things differently than before. Luckily, I spent the last several years updating and upgrading my studio to where it’s now up to par. I spend most of my days now in the studio working on various projects. It’s my daily routine now and I love it!

KP: Congratulations! I'm sure some readers will be very envious!

I recently reviewed your newest single, “Embrace of the Infinite,” which you call a “symphonic poem.” What was the inspiration for this piece?

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Embrace of the Infinite
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Floating Lakes
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Not Forgotten

Click on album covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.

EC: The inspiration for this piece was watching Ryuichi Sakamoto’s film concert Playing the Orchestra 2014, in which Sakamoto conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra performing his works at Suntory Hall, Tokyo. I was struck by how beautiful it was. One composition in particular sounded surreal and ambient. Its slow tempo, drawn-out chords and quiet dynamic level showed me the possibility of using an orchestra to create a vast soundscape of long, sonic colors. The emotive effect was incredible. I thought, “I can do that, too!” That’s the gist of what inspired “Embrace of the Infinite.”

I wrote the whole eight-minute piece in about two weeks. I had a sketch for an idea-- the beginning and the end mirroring each other like bookends, and I went with that concept as the seed of the work. When I write for the orchestra, I prefer to jot down ideas on staff paper while sitting at the piano, and then I expand by adding notation with the program Finale. You’ve got to be organized in so many ways when writing for an orchestra. There are endless possibilities to choose from in creating the musical phrase, since there are four main sections in the orchestra to choose from. Spreading the harmonies is the key to getting the best emotive effect. But it’s not just the timbre or color; it’s also the rhythm and melodic pull too.

The other factor in writing a conductor’s score is that it’s ready to be sent out with all the instrumental parts in case you get a chance to have it performed live by an orchestra.

Once I get the work where I want it in terms of how it sounds in the playback in Finale, I export the MIDI file from Finale, and import it into my DAW, which is called Digital Performer. In DP, I can go even further in adjusting the instruments’ articulations in very subtle ways in order to mimic a human-like performance of each instrument.

Finale is great, but it’s limited in how you can control the midi data compared to the power of the DAW’s environmental world - where you’re like a magician doing some magic in having the ability to create some really cool realistic sounds of the orchestra! The technology has gotten so good! We didn’t have anything like this 20 years ago. Now anyone can get a decent computer and create some awesome orchestral mockups right in their home. This technology has created a new phase in music-making.

There are many reasons to do what I’m doing now when writing for orchestra, but other composers probably do it differently. They might prefer to write directly in their DAW first and stay there for the final finished mix.

But getting back to your question, writing for an orchestra is probably the most satisfying process for me due to the endless possibilities of using an orchestra to express a musical idea. To me, this is the closest thing to creating magic when you hear a playback of the orchestra performing a musical concept.

Aaron Copland composed at the piano and I love studying his scores. There’s such beauty and simplicity in the music he wrote from the 40’s onward. One phrase I learned from my composition teacher in school is “Less is more.” I try to apply that concept in my writing for the orchestra. The biggest problem that can occur is overdoing it, where the sound is mushy, and there’s too much sound. Things can get lost if you’re not careful.

If I start from scratch, the piano is the place I work first to find ideas. When I get an idea that I like, then I start writing out the music on staff paper. When it comes to writing for an orchestra, the idea is to expand the chords you find, and then spread out the notes in the chord to different instruments in the orchestra. That process is complex, since where you actually place the note in the orchestra will determine how it sounds. The possibilities for how you build the musical phrase in the orchestra are endless.

KP: You have a wonderful video to go with “Embrace of the Infinite.” Tell us about that.

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EC: Yes, working on “Embrace of the Infinite” really was a turning point in bringing two passions together under one project; astronomy and music. When I was a teenager, astronomy and music took center stage as my interests and pursuits. I guess the out-of-this-world view was like an escape mode for me in dealing with whatever reality I was in at the time. Astronomy allowed me to expand my imagination. There’s an intense passion in wanting to understand what lies out there in the sky. That fascination was kind of my comfort zone, and I bridged that with music. Doing a music video for “Embrace of the Infinite” was straightforward since I used images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Editing music videos is a challenge in its own right, but like everything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Of all the music videos I have done so far, this one really took me to another level on the editing front. I started to be able to do some really neat edits to correspond with the music. That process was interesting, since there are parts in the music where the spacing changes enough that you can adjust the images to the music in different ways.

When I started putting the images together for this video, there were times where I had a blissful moment of being in awe of the HST images I was using. It definitely made me think about how beautiful the universe really is! HST has allowed us to see new corners of this vast universe, and has given us vast new knowledge. Just a hundred years ago, no one saw the universe as we can see it today, so that had an effect on me, as well when I was editing the music to the images.
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KP: You recently released a couple of other gorgeous singles, “Floating Lakes,” which is piano and orchestra, and “Not Forgotten,” which is solo piano. What are they about?

EC: “Floating Lakes” came about from being in Ireland from January through March of 2020. I was staying in Galway and I had a chance to visit the western portion of Ireland by car and see some pristine lakes. I took some videos of the lakes and surrounding areas and I wrote the music while I was staying in a row house in Galway. “Floating Lakes” is a reference to clouds so the music video uses images of clouds as a theme.

“Not Forgotten” was inspired by the current pandemic affecting us all in 2020. After hearing that the death toll passed 100,000 for the coronavirus here in the United States, I was struck by that number and stopped working on what I was doing at the time. I went to my piano and found this melody that eventually became this single.

KP: Do you plan to have the three singles on your next album or will they always be singles?

EC: It depends. I’m going to work on releasing my next album after I finish one or two more singles. When I get to the point of just working on the album, I’m certain that I will want to use some of the singles that I’ve already released. The question then is whether to remix some of those singles to go on the album, but I will definitely be working on releasing an album in 2021.

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Kathy's sketch of Eric for 1999 songbook.

KP: That’s great news! We first “met” when I reviewed your debut album, Our Time, in 1998. We also worked together on The HeartAid Project to raise funds for the victims of 9/11. It was amazing how many artists stepped forward to contribute their music to the cause. That seems like a long time ago, but both are still among my favorite albums!

EC: Yes, the album Our Time came together when I incorporated tracks 2 thru 13 which were originally on a cassette called Rejoice that was released in 1992. I added two new tracks, “Making the Shift” and “Child’s Play,” to the album. The cassette was mastered at Randy Copus Studio in Plano, TX. Randy did an amazing job of putting those tracks together.

As for The HeartAid Project, that was an incredible experience for me. I worked with some outstanding pianist/composers on this project, and I am really proud of the outcome. Many of those artists are doing very well in the music business, and I love seeing their evolution since they participated in that project. I learned a lot about producing an album that includes various artists who are working for a good cause through music.

KP: In 1999, I worked with John Nicholas on a sheet music book that included three of your pieces from Our Time. John did the transcriptions and I did sketches of the four artists who were included (you, Loren Gold, Evan Gould and Patrick Lee Hebert). That was really a nice songbook, and I really hoped there would be a series, but I guess it’s out of print now. Has any of your other piano music been transcribed?

EC: Yes, my last single release, “Not Forgotten,” is a solo piano work, and the piano score is a free PDF download on my website.

I would like to notate many of my other solo piano works. That would be a project in itself to do a sheet music book. I would like to explore that possibility, and get that done down the road.

KP: Your second full-length album, Across the Water, was released in 2010. That one includes cello and guitar along with piano. What was the inspiration for that music?

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Click on album covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.

EC: The tune “Every Wish” came about when I got my new Kawai upright piano in 2004. I was so excited to get a brand-new piano! My wife, Hannah, was in India at the time, and I missed her dearly. I had a longing for her and was feeling melancholic. As I was thinking about her, I was playing on my new piano and exploring the tones that the piano produced; I recorded as I was playing.

I then added a cello part and hired a cellist, Julia Cory (now Julia Cory Slovarp,) who was doing her D.M.A. at the University of Texas at the time. I then incorporated the recordings of the cello and piano parts to create “Every Wish.” Julia also performed on the song “Soft Landing.” The combination of the cello and piano is powerful, and adds an emotive effect to the songs.

KP: I love that combination! It’s so soulful!

EC: As for the track, “Across the Water,” I’ve known John Inmon for a long time. He’s a famous local guitarist who was a member of the Lost Gonzo Band, and I got him to play the guitar on that tune and Dawn Biega to play the cello. I think the inspiration for that tune was a reflection of life itself. We often take it for granted as we go about our everyday routines. When something happens to interfere with that routine, we become grateful just to be alive.

KP: I know you compose orchestral music as well as solo piano and piano with additional instrumentation. When you’re composing, does the music more or less “tell you” what form of instrumentation it should have?

EC: Yes. Usually, it’s a concept first. When I write for orchestration, it’s usually because of an event that triggered me to go in that direction. When I went back to school late in life to get my undergraduate degree in music, I had to take some classes that were in other fields to fulfill the degree requirements. I was attending Texas State University in San Marcos and was driving back and forth from Austin. When I had a chance to take classes in Austin one summer, I took a fast-paced philosophy class that met daily during the summer session. We were going down the chain of famous philosophers, starting with the Greeks and moving forward chronologically.

One day I read about the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. After attending class during the day and then working part-time at the office, I had a moment to start reading about David Hume. The assignment was an excerpt from his early work, A Treatise of Human Nature. I was definitely drawn to his empiricism, so that kept me engaged while reading his work, but then something extraordinary happened to me while I was reading the text. I heard music and actually started to hear the words being sung in my head.

I had the idea to take some of that work and set it to music. I worked with another student, Spencer Reichman, a baritone singer who was doing his undergraduate degree in voice performance. I walked up to him one day in the hallway between classes and said “I’m going to write a piece for you!” Several weeks later, I went to the piano and started to take the words right out of A Treatise of Human Nature. I got one sentence done and was excited about that. The next day I met with Spencer in a practice room and showed him what I’d written down. He looked at it and sang the part.

And that was the starting point of doing my composition for music ensemble and baritone called Hume’s Thoughts in Flight. I worked on it vigorously after I graduated and kept in touch with Spencer while he was doing his Master’s in voice performance at Loyola University. Spencer decided to perform my work at his Master’s recital, and I attended the world premiere performance in New Orleans. It’s 22 minutes long and I plan to expand to this for the full orchestra down the road. Spencer did an incredible job singing the part, almost taking on the presence of David Hume himself while on stage. I have a clip of that performance on my YouTube Channel.

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A similar experience happened after I read the diary of Etty Hillesum, who grew up in Amsterdam and who perished in a concentration camp in WWII. That diary was deeply moving to read. It was complicated knowing what happened to her, but she was a very complex individual and had an almost mystical element about her point of view. One passage in the diary was a prayer to God for guidance. Reading that prayer triggered something really deep, and that was enough for me to go write an orchestral composition around that prayer called At the Center for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. I spent three years writing this composition. I was working full-time while I was writing this, composing mostly on the weekends. I ended up going to Amsterdam twice to do some research and to try to get this piece performed. I’m still working on this composition. I’m collaborating with the mezzo-soprano Tracy Van Fleet, who sings with the LA Choir. She’s currently recording the vocals. I’ve already gotten some of her recording, which I have mixed with the orchestra, and it sounds outstanding! We hope to have demo of a live recording of the voice so that people can hear the words being sung!

I’m currently working on another orchestral piece called Parallel Keys for soprano and orchestra, based on a poem by Helene Cardona from her book Dreaming my Animal Selves.

Back to your question, sometimes the musical idea is just a solo piano piece like “Not Forgotten,” and I just stay within that one instrument, or sometimes I’ll do a piece like my new release “Floating Lakes” that has keyboard and other layers. And my last single release, “Embrace of the Infinite,” is an orchestral piece.

I’m currently working on a pop song called "Beat of my Heart" where I’m the one singing. That’s a new direction for me, and the inspiration for that tune came from being recently in the hospital for observation after having some health issues. I’m fine now, and the song has morphed into a love song.

So what triggers an inspiration in writing something usually depends on what it is that pulls me in a passionate direction to have a certain type of instrumentation for that composition. The bottom line is that when hearing, reading, or watching some person or event grabs my attention in an intense way, it will trigger an idea to follow through on.

Often, in order to change the routine in the studio a bit, I sit at the piano, turn on my audio recorder and start playing. I have years of recorded improvisations—about 100 gigs’ worth. Lately, I’ve been finding some gems of phrases and patterns in the music. A lot of times, I will find a scale, a mode, or altered scale-like melody and just play with that on the piano and see where it goes. Improvisation is a huge part of exploring musical ideas.

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The quarantine has made me express myself more often, almost daily, in improvising on my upright Kawai piano. That piano speaks to me in a sense; I know how it feels. You develop a working relationship with your piano. And it’s more than just a working relationship. There’s something special that’s going on between you and the piano, and it’s an uncanny bond that gets awakened when I play that piano.

Actually, when I look back at my life, the piano has always been my solid comfort in quieting any anxiety that I felt at the time. I have many stories of me trying to find a piano to play when I was traveling all over the world. It became an aching pain when I wasn’t able to play the piano for more than two days. My well-being is dependent on my playing the piano, and that process has been mostly improvising at the piano. So at times it was essential to find a piano to play in order to ground me.

KP: Do you ever do several versions of the same piece?

EC: Good question. I’ve been thinking about that, and several examples come to mind. I want to do a “Rainmaker II” since “Rainmaker” is the most popular tune from Across the Water in terms of streaming. I wrote "Rainmaker" for Watermark, Part 1, a 2006 theatrical performance created by Sandy Dunn and S.T. Shimi of JumpStart, a San Antonio theater company. I collaborated with fellow musician Paul Harford on various musical pieces for that production. I also want to remix “Floating Lakes” since I did that tune on my laptop while I was in Galway. I can get a better mix on my iMac Pro desktop. I plan to redo that piece and call it “Floating Lakes Remix” and add it to my next album.

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I also plan to redo my work “Hume’s Thoughts in Flight” for baritone and orchestra. I think coming back to that piece and using a full orchestra makes perfect sense, since there are so many beautiful melodies in that piece. I would also like to redo “Van Ness No. 47,” based on a bus ride in San Francisco. The original recording of the bus ride and the instrumentation that I used at the time could be redone with new layers and instruments.

KP: It sounds like you retired just in time! What other kinds of music projects are you working on now?

EC: Well, I’m trying to finish my pop song “Beat of my Heart” and also finish the piece I started when I got back from Ireland in March called “Seagulls of Galway.” After that, I plan to do an orchestral arrangement for string orchestra of a melody I wrote out for piano and cello years ago. It sounds very much like an Arvo Part piece Cantus Memoriam Benjamin Britten. I plan to hire real musicians on this project with a company in Lisbon. And I think that would be enough to put together an album! I’m so glad that I now do this full time! Every day I go in the studio and work away. This will keep me busy for a while. And just fresh off the press, I’m releasing another single called “Paper Flags and the Wind” on October 12th. This is from a music video that I did years ago. I found the original folder for it on one of my external hard drives. I like the world music feel of that piece.

I also have ideas for two operas. The subject matter for both is related to individuals who did extraordinary things and changed the world in the process. I’d rather not say who these people are, but once I get started, I’ll let you know. I actually went to Germany to do some research on one of these persons, and visited the place where she lived. The problem is that writing for an opera is an immense undertaking and very time-consuming, but I hope to do both operas someday.

KP: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

EC: I was born in Paris, France. I lived there until I was seven, when I moved to Los Angeles. I lived in or around LA, moving to various places in the area. Then I went to India for my junior year in high school. Looking back, that was one of the most adventurous years in my life. The next turning point for me was when I got married. I live in Austin, Texas and have been here for a while.

KP: Is anyone else in your family musical?

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EC: I have a sister who plays the violin and a brother who plays the guitar.

KP: When did you start playing the piano?

EC: The piano has been “my go-to comfort zone” all my life. It started early while I was in France. The piano was one place I found comfort. Ever since, I needed to play the piano - improvising away just to hear the sound. While going to school in India, there was a piano outside, and I played it all the time to get grounded. I just played and improvised.

I started piano lessons when I was in ninth grade. We actually had these wooden keyboards that we put on our laps while the teacher showed us the fingering for chords. So, that’s the way we learned where to place our fingers on the keys!

KP: How long did you take lessons?

EC: I’ve taken lessons off and on over the years and had some great teachers. One was doing her D.M.A., but she went back to China when she graduated. I really miss her. When I went back to school to finally get my undergraduate degree, the piano was my instrument, but I wasn’t going towards being a pianist or performer. I was studying composition, using the piano as an instrument. I took some piano classes every semester and had to learn all kind of piano works. While in school, I started to see a big improvement in my sight-reading ability. Just like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Taking music theory classes and ear training classes was vital in getting a comprehensive feel of the musical language.

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KP: Were you encouraged to compose or improvise by your teachers?

EC: Not really when taking piano lessons, since the purpose was to learn other composers’ works. But in music theory IV, my final project was to write a composition based on a perspective learned in class. I choose to do an atonal piece using a row. That piece was interesting, since I could repeat the note once you hear it, but not use it somewhere else in the composition if other notes are being used after it. It came out to be a wonderful composition, and I plan expand on it someday.

Improvising is still very much part of my routine as a composer. I love the freedom of just playing and see what happens. That feeling has never gone away. There’s a powerful magic that goes on when you improvise. A lot of ideas bear fruit from improvisation. I have my digital recorder always on when I play at the piano now and have decades of recordings to listen to for inspiration!

KP: Do you play any other instruments?

EC: The guitar, but it’s not my strong suit. I plan to play it more, though. I love the harmonics you get with the guitar, and the fluid element that you can’t get with the piano. Bending the notes, for example, is not something you can do with the piano. I would love to try to play any string or percussive instruments.

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

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EC: Eleven or twelve.

KP: Who and/or what have been the biggest influences on your music?

EC: The 3 B’s, Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner. I love Mozart and Debussy as well. And so many more like Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Janacek, Stravinsky, Arvo Part and Copeland.

Arvo Part is a very strong influence. Philip Glass comes to mind as well. But I also loved growing up listening to The Beatles, Traffic, Blind Faith, Joni Mitchell, The Moody Blues, Procol Harum, and Crosby, Still and Nash.

KP: A lot of your music is very visual. Have you done composing for films or television?

EC: Yes, in the nineties, I did the soundtracks to about 25 episodes of a PBS TV series called Made in Texas created by the Texas Park and Wildlife Department. In fact, my tune “Fly Fishing” from Our Time is from an episode broadcast about fly fishing.

Also, on my other album, Across the Water, the tune “Water Theme” was the main theme to a soundtrack that I did for the documentary film Texas the State of Water, Vol. II – Finding a Balance, narrated by Walter Cronkite, also produced by the Texas Park and Wildlife Department, and aired on PBS.

I would like to have the opportunity to do some more soundtracks in the future.

KP: What inspires you to compose?

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EC: When I was around 6 years old, I had a mystical experience while walking on a trail along a river behind the complex where I was staying in France. The wind was rattling the leaves in the trees above me, and suddenly I heard music instead of the wind! It was an orchestral-like sound in nature, and I was dumbfounded about the experience. It was so profound that it left a powerful impression on me. That experience was the first time that I remember hearing music in an altered state.

There have been so many times when I have had similar experiences in which I was triggered to hear music. I even got ideas from dreams!

Once you get a taste of music and it immediately gets you connected in a deep way, then you gravitate towards that elemental passion in invoking your creative music ideas.

I get a lot of ideas when I improvise on the piano. But when I Improvise freely, and I’m not being confined to a particular set of parameters for a specific type of music, then that freedom is like sailing on the water when you just let your fingers explore the sounds and see what you find along the way.

Every time, whatever it is that evokes music feels really fresh and deeply moving like it’s magic in some ways. I think that’s the main reason that I’m into doing music. Of all the experiences I’ve had, that one stands out as being the most magical.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
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EC: I wish we would be more sensitive to each other and animals. All life is precious. This first wish would include that we stop eating animals for food. It doesn’t feel right that we still kill animals to eat them.

My second wish would be to love the earth like it’s your own best friend. Climate change is real, and we are seeing the consequences so far this year with the wild fires - even in Oregon where you live! Hopefully, whoever gets elected will concentrate on trying to stop the effects of climate change. I guess you can tell whom I would prefer as a candidate, knowing where they stand about the environment.

My third wish would be to elevate music and the arts to the same levels as business and science in schools in terms of funding. We don’t place enough emphasis on the importance of having a musical education early on in our society, like some European countries do.

KP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

EC: Well, follow your passion; especially when it comes to music. That should be the driving force in creating music. And don’t give up your artistic expression, if you don’t get the results you want at first.

The music industry has changed drastically since the days of vinyl records. The streaming platform has morphed the music base on playlists. It’s all about getting on a playlist to try to generate some income. I wish it wasn’t driven like that, but it is. I’m not sure of whether this is good or not; it’s just an observation about what’s going on right now. Who knows what the next big trend will be in hearing music? I suspect virtual reality will be the next big thing: immersing ourselves totally in an altered reality. I see virtual reality music videos becoming very big in the future.

Many thanks to Eric Chapelle for taking the time to chat! For more information about Eric and his music, please visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
September 2020