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Interview with Philip Aaberg, January 1995
Interview with Philip Aaberg, image 1
Students and parents who have been in the group for fewer than four years may not be familiar with Philip Aaberg other than the mention he gets in the newsletter from time to time. Phil is a local treasure who lives in Oakland. He is also the composer who got me started interviewing some of my other favorite contemporary composers, and for that I will always be very grateful. It also seems very fitting to update his Composer of the Month story in this 150th issue of the newsletter.

Having the opportunity to meet Phil was something of a fluke, as some of the more important events in life often are. The woman who owns a house across the street from my parents was looking for a new tenant in early 1991, and Phil happened to be one of the applicants. The property-owner had seen my newsletter, and told Phil about it, and he said he thought it would be fun to be a composer of the month. Phil and I played phone tag for seven months, but finally made connections and met at a coffee shop in Oakland in December ‘91. He has stayed in touch, and suggested that we update his story. With pleasure!!

Before I start his story, I have to say that the times I have been able to really talk to Phil have been mesmerizing experiences for me. I always feel that I have been enlightened in some way, and I feel especially fortunate to have made his acquaintance in such a positive way. Phil isn’t as well-known as he could be because he is always trying new things, and refuses to be categorized. He also refuses to compromise his music or his vision. His may not be a household name to the public, but all of the musicians and composers I have spoken with have only had the highest regard and respect for his work and for him as a person. Phil is a true artist - something very rare in this commercially-oriented world.

Other than Kostia, Phil Aaberg has had the most extensive background in classical music of the composers I have interviewed. He started his performing career in high school, playing concertos with orchestras. At the same time, he and his brother had a rock and blues band that played extensively. Phil continued to perform with orchestras after college, but a classical concert career seemed wrong to him, and he decided to move to California to try making pop and rock records. He played back-up for Elvin Bishop for six years, and co-wrote music with him. He also played with people like The Doobie Brothers, Peter Gabriel and Kenny Rogers. After awhile, he got tired of playing other people's music, and started composing seriously in 1985. He signed onto Windham Hill Records, and has recorded seven solo albums to date. He also appears on about fifteen sampler albums, including the series of “Winter Solstice” albums and the exceptional “Bach Variations” collection.

Philip Aaberg was born on April 8, 1949 near Chester, Montana. His brother was born a year later, and their parents separated when the boys were very young. Phil's mother was the Postmistress for the town of Chester, and is now retired. His brother still plays guitar, but is primarily an anthropologist. Phil’s mother played the piano, and his family comes from a long line of church musicians dating back to the 1700’s.

Phil started playing the piano at the age of four, and started taking lessons at six. Since Chester is in a rural area and has a population of about 900, piano teachers came and went, but Phil gave his first solo recital at the age of seven in his teacher's studio, playing about fifty little pieces. When he was fifteen, he started taking lessons from Margaret Ott in Spokane, Washington. This meant that every other week, he would board the train on Sunday for a 12-hour, 600-mile ride. He would have one piano lesson on Monday morning, and another lesson in the afternoon. The train station was three blocks from the symphony hall in Spokane, so Phil would often go to the symphony before the long ride back home. After another 12-hour ride, he would be ready for his Tuesday afternoon classes at school. Phil commuted to Spokane for piano lessons for three years. He also played basketball, so it was important to him to be available to play for his team on Friday nights. By his junior year, the coach disapproved of Phil’s missing several practises a month to go take piano lessons, so he spent a lot of that year on the bench. Phil also says that since he was never going to be more than six feet tall, he was never lured away from the piano with dreams of being a basketball star.

Along with the piano, Phil played drums and piano in the blues band he and his brother put together in high school, and played baritone and tuba for the school band. He started playing piano with symphony orchestras in high school, and played in Spokane, WA, as well as the Montana cities of Great Falls, Bozeman, and Billings. While he was in high school, Phil was the winner in several piano competitions including the Music Teachers' National Association (MTNA) in Montana, the Inland Empire Concerto competition (an area that included four states and two Canadian provinces), and the Open and Romantic Divisions of the Inland Empire Festival.

Despite all of the emphasis on classical music and performing, which usually means following the music strictly as written, Phil was improvising and creating his own music from the beginning. He refers to improvising as "composing on the run". He started writing his pieces down when he was in college, and got very serious about composing in 1985. Phil was not encouraged to improvise or to compose by any of his piano teachers or even by any of his family at the time - this was something that came strictly from within him as something he knew he had to do.

Phil attended Harvard University on a Leonard Bernstein scholarship. To qualify, his family had to have little money, and he was required to send in an audition tape. Phil was able to meet Bernstein several times, and found him to be an inspiration as an American musician who could "do it all".

Despite all of his musical background and honors, fame and fortune were not guaranteed. After college, Phil worked a printing press. He also did summer work in construction, worked on a farm, and was the foreman on a 20,000-acre county park in Montana.

Becoming a professional musician was not a conscious decision. Phil felt he never really had a choice. He had always wanted to make pop records, and knew it was a matter of moving to either New York or California. His former wife wanted to attend Mills College in Oakland, so that helped their decision to move to the Bay Area in the fall of 1973. He joined Elvin Bishop's band, and made six albums with Bishop. He also co-wrote some of the band's music. He did back-up and session work with musicians such as Peter Gabriel, John Hiatt, Maria Muldaur, Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbitt, and Kenny Rogers. He also played with The Doobie Brothers and co-wrote some of their music with Tom Johnston. Along with being a studio musician, Phil taught piano at The East Bay Center for The Performing Arts in Richmond for about a year in 1980.

Phil got to where he hated touring with the rock bands because so many people were involved, and the tours were so restricting and chaotic. He also got tired of playing other people's music, and decided to start working on his own. His first solo album was "High Plains", which was released in 1985, and immediately drew comparisons to George Winston's recordings. (Winston was one of the first of the so-called “new age pianists”, and his recordings and concerts have been very successful.) I asked if Winston has had any influence on his career, and he said that he didn't have any of Windham Hill's recordings when he signed onto the label, and had only heard Winston play at a restaurant somewhere. It seems that the influence actually goes the other way - Winston takes Phil's recordings to his own concerts to sell, and lists him as an influence in his concert programs and the liner notes of his albums. George Winston has recorded one of Phil's pieces, "Spring Creek" on his album, "Summer".

I asked Phil how he came to be classified as a "new age" pianist, and he said he didn't have anything to do with it! He doesn't like to be classified at all except that people know where to look for his music in record stores. His other albums include "The Shape of the Land" (1986), "Out of the Frame" (1988), "Upright" (1989), “Cinema” (1992), and “A Wild Christmas” (1994) for The Nature Company. “A Wild Christmas” is a wonderful collection of Christmas music played entirely with sampled animal sounds. Phil’s partner in this project, Bernie Krause, travels all over the world recording animal sounds. He then cleans them up on a computer and catalogs them. The sounds that they decided to use on the recording were digitally recorded and stored in Phil’s Kurzweil synthesizer, and could then be played at any pitch. The results are astounding! The album will have a wider distribution this year. Phil is working on several solo and ensemble recordings to be released in the near-future. He is free to record whatever he wants, but Windham Hill is sometimes reluctant to promote recordings that are different from what is expected from the label. This is even more true since the label was sold to a much larger corporation. Originally, Windham Hill was a label for some of the more experimental artists who did not want to go the commercial recording route. This seems to be happening to many of the smaller labels who met with success with one or more artists. Now they only want to produce big-sellers. A case in point is Phil’s album, "Upright", which is my favorite because there is such a variety of playing styles - from the beautiful "Every Deep Dream" and "Slow Dance" to the toe-tapping stride and boogie styles of "Frogman" and "Upright".

Windham Hill offered little promotional support for the album, and it sold poorly. Phil is thinking about continuing to release his piano albums through Windham Hill and seeking out another label for his more experimental music.

Some of Phil's favorite composers are Ennio Morricone, an Italian composer who has done a lot of movie scores; Duke Ellington; Gabriel Faure; Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven. Some of his favorite performing musicians are Abdullah Ibrahim, a classical pianist from South Africa; John Hiatt; Peter Gabriel; Andre Watts; Peter Serkin; and Michael Hedges. Some of his other musical influences are The Paul Dresher Ensemble (he plays with them often); World Music (tribal and Balinese music); and early rock and roll.

Phil spends a lot of time on the road playing concerts around the country and the world. He has toured Japan and Spain five times each, Italy four times, and most of the rest of Europe twice. He loves touring now, and likes to go fly-fishing whenever he can between concerts. I asked him if performing makes him nervous, and he said it scares him to death. It makes him even more nervous if he is not feeling nervous before a performance, but he calms down as soon as he starts to play. Before a concert, he usually likes to run earlier in the day, and then spends 60-90 minutes with the piano whenever possible. He doesn't practise his concert pieces before going on, but plays scales and sometimes Bach to get acquainted with the piano. He likes to improvise for about a half hour because he does a lot of improvising in concert. If he has a dressing room, sometimes he lights incense and tries to center himself before going onstage.

I asked Phil how he goes about writing music. He said he usually does a lot of practising and improvising with a tape or computer disk running (he often uses a Diskclavier, which is a piano with a computer built into it. He can play onto a disk from the piano, and then edit the music on his PC later. This allows him to store a large quantity of musical ideas to expand on as he feels so inclined. Sometimes even years later, he'll take a musical idea and develop it. Until recently, Phil wrote almost all of his compositions by hand on music manuscript paper. He felt the computer was controlling him rather than the other way around. After working on “A Wild Christmas”, which had to be done with a computer, he now feels that the PC is a real time saver, and he feels that the music is becoming freer and more spontaneous because of it.

Another big part of Phil’s performing life is with The Paul Dresher Ensemble. He plays in the band that performs with staged productions such as “Pioneer”, “Awed Behaviour”, and “Looking West to East”. Phil and the Ensemble have taken their productions to many countries as well as performing all over the US.

Phil's music from the "High Plains" album was used in a 1991 German documentary about The Shakers. The film was narrated by Ben Kingsley, and is called "The Shaker Film".

The list of Phil’s current projects is astounding. One particularly interesting one is called “Big Sky Spinning”, which he performs with dancer, Celeste Miller. The program is based on interviews done with senior citizens who have lived all of their lives in Montana, and how the Wild West ended up in Montana. Phil tells the stories, and Celeste dances to them. She uses dance as a kind of sign language as Phil plays. One of Phil’s favorite pieces from this production is by a retired band teacher from Haver, Montana, CI Carlson. Mr Carlson’s primary instrument is the violin, but in the schools there, most of the music is geared for bands. Mr Carlson introduced some rather unusual instruments into his bands, and was so inspiring that of the 300 students in the student body, 100 were in the band! Phil is the first person to play Mr Carlson’s music other than his band members, and George Winston also plans to record one or more of his pieces on guitar.

Phil Aaberg and Celeste Miller are also doing programs in some of the Montana schools to get kids to make up their own dances and songs using word-association. He says it’s amazing how much freer the kids are there, and that they are not afraid to be creative - or afraid, period.

A big project for next year is a concert Phil is planning in Glacier National Park. He is putting together the Western Chamber Orchestra, which will include pedal-steel guitars and banjos as well as more traditional chamber instruments. Along with the music will be story-telling by some of the natives of the area. The event will be videotaped, and will include footage of Rocky Mountain Front, which is the only place that still has all of the mammals that were there 200 years ago, and which is being threatened by miners (Phil cites the statistic that 95% of all gold is made into jewelry.). This will take place next July, and will be called “From the Canyons to the Stars”.

Phil is also working with composer, John Adams, to stage Adams’ new opera, “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky”, which is based on the Los Angeles earthquake. That may start touring later this year.

We talked about several other projects that Phil is involved in, but this will give you an idea of the variety of things he does with his music. A collection of his music will finally be available in print in October, and I’m really looking forward to that! It will give us a chance to get inside the music and learn it ourselves! We also talked about having a recital or workshop of some kind here, so I’ll let you know as things develop.

Phil spends about 2 1/2 months a year in Montana, and, earlier this year, was given the Governor’s Award for the Arts for his contributions. In July, he went back for the 100th anniversary of the Chester Post Office and 75th anniversary of the county. He was the grand marshall of the parade that was given! He also did a benefit concert for his high school’s scholarship fund.

Phil’s definition of a successful musician is "somebody who is doing what he loves". I asked if there was any one piece of music that he's written that says "This is what Phil Aaberg is all about", and he said that he is especially fond of "Every Deep Dream", which is one of my favorites, too. He likes to fly-fish and run, and does a lot of reading when he is on tour. He is also the father of three boys, Sean (18), Michael (16), and Daniel (13). All three play the piano and keyboards, as well as several other instruments. Michael is the most serious musician of the three, and the two older sons have a rock band called “Masked Men”. They write most of their own songs, and Phil says that they are really good.

I asked Phil if he had any advice for the young people who are studying music today, and his words make a lot of sense. "Practise and play a lot. Play in front of everybody and for everything. Play for school plays and choruses. If practising is hard and a lot of work, find out what is fun about it, and do that. Give yourself the chance to listen to a lot of different music. If you listen to rock music loud, try listening to classical music loud, too." If he could have any three wishes, they would be:

1. that we could all see and know how fragile and beautiful the world is, and how connected we all are
2. that all creatures can be happy
3. that people will follow their hearts

Phil Aaberg is obviously not your run-of-the-mill musician who sat down at a synthesizer one day and called himself a composer. This is a composer who has really gone about his career the hard way by dedicating his life to his music, and by studying and learning everything he can about his art as an on-going process. His music is personal and from the heart, and he himself is very much like his music.I'm sure that with all of his background and experience, Phil knows the formulas for cranking out commercially more saleable music, but he has instead chosen to follow his own vision and be true to it. I doubt that you'll ever see his name in the National Enquirer or People Magazine, but I have a feeling that his music and influence will be felt for a long, long time. He certainly deserves that!

Phil also asked me to mention that the National Endowment for the Arts is in big trouble financially, and may be in danger of being dissolved. Some outrageous projects that were funded by the NEA made headlines - mostly because of the conservative influence in the government. The NEA also funds many of the arts programs in the schools, communities, and some very deserving private organizations and artists. The annual budget for the NEA is about $110 million, which isn’t much when you consider that “Waterworld” cost almost twice that, and is of very questionable merit. The annual budget for the Army band is $152 million, and the Pentagon spends more than $110 million every day! We need to work to save our arts programs and rearrange our priorities as a country to keep creativity alive.
Many thanks to Phil Aaberg for his continued interest in our group and his support of my newsletter. I know you will love getting acquainted with his music!
Kathy Parsons
January 1995