I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the interviews of composer/musicians I have done, but I have to say that no one so far comes close to Spencer Brewer in diversity, candor, and just plain fun. I was driving to lessons the first time I listened to the taped interview he sent, and I almost had to pull off the road several times because I was laughing so hard! I wouldn’t dare this guy to do anything because he’s either already done it, or will try just about anything once (or twice!). At first, it was a little difficult to match this free-spirit with the tender pieces that have touched all of our hearts (“Dreamgift”, “Where We Used to Play”, “My Sweet Elijah”, etc.), but once we got into some depth it was obvious that I was working with an extremely intelligent, sensitive, and complex man.
Spencer writes many of his pieces about and for family members and close friends, and that free-flowing love is what touches us when we hear and play these pieces. The musically “wild and crazy” side of Spencer sounds like what we are going to experience when he visits us, as he also writes jazz, rhythm and blues, and “fun” styles of music that allow a player to let loose. This is a side of Spencer Brewer that has yet to be recorded, so we are in for a real treat! This is truly a man who loves life to the fullest, and who has a thorough knowledge of himself. He is extremely generous with his time and talents, and he has inspired me in more ways than one. I know he will touch all of us in a very profound way.
Spencer Brewer was born on June 21, 1954, in Dallas, Texas. He is a sixth-generation Texas native and has two younger brothers. Spencer’s mother is one of the leading dyslexia therapists in The United States. She was also the dean of six different universities, specializing in communications skills for people with learning disabilities in the Dallas area. She is now a private therapist. Spencer’s father is a lawyer and risk manager for corporations in Dallas. The only other musician in Spencer’s family was his grandmother, Alma Loveless Gertrude Brewer, affectionately known as “Doody”. She was very proud of the fact that she had been a flapper in the ‘20’s, and she was the person who really turned young Spencer on to boogie-woogie and blues piano. Doody attended Southern Methodist University, and earned her degree in music. She married Spencer Brewer I, and her only child was Spencer Brewer II. Her husband died when her son was only nine, so when Spencer Brewer III came along, he was the greatest creature on earth in her eyes (much to the chagrin of Spencer’s younger brothers). All three brothers spent the night at Doody’s house at various times during the month, but when it was Spencer’s turn, he and his grandmother spent most of their time at the piano. He loved listening to her play, and she would also teach him new songs. Doody had an Art-Deco mini-piano from the ‘30’s, and Spencer inherited and restored the piano when Doody died. He gave it to one of his brothers, and the piano is now in Florida for his nieces to learn on.
Spencer started piano lessons when he was eight. His mother and grandparents scraped up enough money to buy an old upright, and a composer was born (Spencer has also restored this piano, and it is with another set of nieces in Arcata, CA). While he was a student, Spencer entered two piano competitions. He won one of them, and says he “blew the other one royally” by forgetting “Fur Elise” in the middle. Although he has been a judge in many competitions since then, he says he doesn’t support piano competitions at all. By the time he was twelve, Spencer says he was sick of piano lessons. He didn’t have good teachers, and was much more interested in improvising and writing his own songs than learning classical music. He made a deal with his parents that he could quit taking lessons if he would continue to spend at least an hour a day at the piano - playing whatever he wanted to play. Spencer wrote his first song when he was nine, and started improvising when he was ten without any encouragement from his teachers. By the time he was twelve, he was writing lots of songs, and he started playing professionally when he was sixteen. Spencer knew he was different from the other kids because he was able to do a lot of musical things his friends wanted to do but couldn’t. He feels that there are 100-150 years of “lost masters” on the planet because the vast majority of music teachers focus on sight-reading and interpretation only, with no creativity involved.
Spencer played in a lot of rock bands in high school and college. He went to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas for about a year and a half. His original major was forestry, but he quickly changed to music. He took some very helpful music theory classes, and then dropped out and moved to Austin, Texas where he became a professional musician and free spirit. Spencer’s parents never supported his becoming a professional musician, and his father thought he should stay in college and get a “straight job” like everyone else in the family had done for generations. For three years, his routine consisted of playing piano in restaurants at lunchtime, in fern bars in the afternoons, and other gigs at night. From the ages of 19-22, he played the piano an average of 10-13 hours a day. He also did a lot of travelling at that time.
From that point in his life on, it is amazing that one person could do so many different things and still stay so focused on his music. Spencer says that he has had too many different jobs to list, but the ones that he touched on were things like importing antique clothing, blankets, and rugs from South and Central America; helping to start the puka shell craze in the ‘70’s by exporting hundreds of pounds of shells from Costa Rica; being a carpenter, floor layer, housepainter, caterer, chef, and owner of two or three restaurants. He’s also had a piano tuning and restoration business for the past eighteen years, and currently oversees two piano shops in the Ukiah area. (I’ll get back to that.) He says that he has played the piano in every kind of establishment imaginable. Some of the more interesting ones are in an airplane, on a cruise ship, at Miss America and Miss Alaska pageants, in vineyards, and in redwood forests. For awhile, he was a chef and piano player on the Mississippi Queen riverboat.
During the ‘70’s, another part of Spencer’s life was being the pianist for three different modern dance troupes. In Austin, he worked with Deborah Hay, who had started touch and contact improvisation in New York in the early ‘60’s. Her approach was that the music and dance came together with no conscious thought. There were no rehearsals, and no one was the leader or follower. Spencer says that that was the most difficult thing he has ever done - playing without thought. There could be no scales, timing, or any of the other structures of traditional music - anything that happened worked. For two years, he also worked with Suzanne Grace in Columbia, Missouri. He often went to junkyards to find bizarre materials for making musical instruments to go with performances with her troupe. At this time, Spencer invented things like the “Sawzall”, “Enzymlchymlzyl”, and Musical Coatrack. He and a few other people would play these strange-sounding instruments for the dance concerts, and got great reviews. Spencer just finished scoring 90-minutes of music for a new dance production called “Psycho Monkey From Planet Earth”. He improvised in the studio as someone read - there are words that are heard in addition to the music and dance. Spencer created the music as he was reading - in time with what was being read. He then arranged and expounded on the actual idea. He says that there are two or three pieces in the composition that he is extraordinarily proud of.
While he was in Missouri, Spencer founded Perfect Pitch Music in 1978. He also started Willow Rose Records in 1981. He had eight or nine albums on the label when he sold it to Narada in 1984. Spencer moved to California in 1981, and had a piano shop in Pleasant Hill from 1981-1984. He specialized in pianos in recording studios, old player pianos, and European pianos from the 1700’s and 1800’s. He also did a lot of work in concert halls because of his expertise in setting up pianos for concerts. In his work as a piano technician, Spencer has worked on close to eight thousand different pianos. He has worked on the pianos in the White House, and has tuned for Oscar Peterson and Count Basie, as well as Donna Summer, Lyle Mays, and Gaby Casadesus (to name but a few!). The oldest piano he has worked on was from the late-1700’s - before the cast iron plate was used. The most unusual piano was a Steinway Duo-Art player-piano with an Art Deco case; he says it took thousands of hours to restore. The most unique piano was one he worked on in San Antonio, Texas. It was a piano that the Russian government gave the French government in the 1860’s. He says the piano didn’t play all that great, but the case and bench were all inlaid wood with scenes from Russia. He has also been amazed with the custom-made pianos owned by Oscar Peterson (a $100,000 Bosendorfer with an extra octave in the bass) and Lyle Mays (made to his specifications by Steinway in Hamburg). Spencer has owned at least six hundred pianos, and currently owns seventeen, including his custom-built Yamaha C-7 Conservatory grand (his favorite piano so far).
Spencer, his wife, Esther, and their son, Dorian moved to their ranch in Redwood Valley, CA in 1984. Esther is a Marriage and Family counsellor, and also teaches horseback riding to high-risk and handicapped people. They have twelve horses, and open their home to troubled young people as an emergency foster care home. Dorian is 21, and recently took over his father’s tuning and restoration business. One shop is in town behind a piano store, and the other is a shop for spraying pianos. Spencer still does a lot of the restoration work and some tuning. This is the only player-piano, square grand, and major piano restoration service in California north of San Francisco.
As diverse as his life has been, it is no wonder that Spencer’s musical influences have also been varied. Since his goal is to eventually do nothing but film and video soundtracks, he says that he is currently the most-influenced by film composers such as John Barry, Ennio Marcone, Bernard Herman, and Maurice Jarre. His other influences have been some of the early electronic musicians as well as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream, and the early jazz players such as Memphis Slim, Meade Lux Lewis, Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum. He also really enjoys the music of the French Impressionists such as Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens, and Satie.
Spencer has played on twenty-seven albums - eight of his own, as well as many collections from Narada. He has written music for radio commercials, and his music is used all the time on television for such things as PBS programs and Barbara Walters’ specials. He has written two musicals: “Cinderella Once Upon a Time” that was staged years ago in Missouri, and “Willamancefoot and the Mugakillawomps” which became a cartoon. He has been the Musical Ambassador for The Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America since 1990, and does benefit concerts all over the country for that organization. He puts on festivals and summer concert series for several towns, and is presently working with Fetzer Winery to build a 2000-seat amphitheater in Hopland. He’s on the education foundation board with the school board in the Ukiah area. He is planning to start another record label, with a mail-order catalog slated to come out in October. He is working on a production company to record others. He did 92 concerts in 1992, and is scheduled to play 60-70 this year. He has played all over the US, as well as Canada and Mexico, and is negotiating for tours in Buenos Aires, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
When asked what his most exciting musical moment has been, Spencer says there have been too many, but then gives some surprising examples. He went bungee jumping over the Allegheny River after a concert in Pittsburg, PA at midnight, while 500 members of the concert audience watched. He was still in his silk suit! In the past year, he has headlined National Nude Weekend (playing “au naturel”) and played at a nudist camp near Los Gatos wearing his hat, sunglasses, and bollo tie! (He says he didn’t slide around on the bench much for those concerts!) On another occasion, a grand piano was moved into a privately-owned redwood grove before a wedding, and Spencer was left alone there for two hours to play for the trees and wildlife. Another time, he and some friends moved a piano onto a beach and filmed Spencer playing while the piano sank into the sand bar! He went back a year later, and about a fourth of the piano was still standing on the beach. The greatest high in his life was a concert he and violinist Steve Kindler did in Mexico for about 3,000 people. They were on the second or third standing ovation, and they were still “ripping up” the audience.
When it comes to composing, Spencer knows no restrictions or boundaries for his sources of inspiration. Sometimes he hears the music in his head. Sometimes he dreams the music, and if he can wake up and get to the piano fast enough, he can often sit down and play the whole song. Sometimes his inspiration comes from something in music theory he is working on, or a feeling, or a person, or another musician he is playing with. Spencer composes at the piano, and then gives his tapes to other people to write out. He doesn’t sight-read well anymore, so writing the music out by hand would be nearly impossible. He uses a computer in his recording sessions more than as a composing tool, and lets it run his synthesizers. Spencer has written hundreds of songs, some of which have been recorded by other people. Some of his own favorites are “Quintessence”, “Marcel and Claudette”, “Caravanserai”, “Tellurian Rhapsody”, and “Tonto’s Revenge”. Spencer hates the term “new age” because it has nothing whatsoever to do with what he does. He was composing his more thoughtful pieces long before the term was attached to instrumental music, but his first album, “Where Angels Dance” was marketed as new age, and the term stuck. Spencer plans to leave the Narada label so that he will be free to record some of his other musical styles such as rhythm and blues. I asked if there was a philosophy behind Spencer’s composing, and he said, “Yes. Be the most creative person you can in life.” He feels strongly that everybody was born with a specific gift or talent. It can be a very small thing, but each person needs to find that gift and pursue it, because “when you do, you are fulfilling your reason for being here”. He feels sad that most people don’t know what their gift is.
I asked about the stories behind some of the songs that students have been playing, and here they are:
Dreamgift: This was the first song that Spencer dreamed. In his dream, an old girlfriend was sitting at the piano, playing the left hand. He was sitting on the couch listening, and asked if he could play the right hand part with her. He was watching them play, and saw the chord changes and such. He said there was this wonderful feeling between them. He woke up and went to the piano, and played the whole song!
Where We Used to Play also has lyrics, and he is trying to sell it to Bette Midler to record.
Shadow Dancer was written in 20 minutes. Guitarist Eric Tingstad was playing four chords before a recording session, and Spencer started putting a melody to the chords. The song was 30 minutes old when it was recorded.
Tomorrow’s Child was a song Spencer wrote 18 or 19 years ago for an old girlfriend. It also has words. He redid the scoring, and the title came about when the song was being recorded. The cellist’s mother died at the same time that the cello part was being recorded, and Spencer’s niece was born. “Who dies today is tomorrow’s child.”
Spencer says that he has accomplished 90% of his goals in life. Some of the remaining goals are to score a major motion picture, to be more recognized world-wide for his compositions (this isn’t as important to him as it used to be), and to play concerts in bigger halls. He says he is spending lots of money on his career, but isn’t making much. He would like to have an agent who does nothing but get him gigs, and he would like to be off the Narada record label. One of his realized goals has been to compose from his heart, and to become a better human being. He says he has been doing a lot of work on himself, and he finds that the better person he is, the better and clearer the music becomes. He feels that being creative in the moment is the closest thing there is to a “God essence”. He says that people have died and been born to his music, and now quite a few people are naming their kids after him! I asked Spencer where he sees himself in ten years, and he said he sees himself scoring motion pictures and playing more high-visibility concerts (hey - Hercules is only the beginning of the big time!); helping with the directorship of his projected institute; having a larger recording studio; and being more networked worldwide.
As I mentioned earlier, one of Spencer’s projects is to build a 2,000-seat amphitheater in Hopland. He said he is close to making it happen. He and some power- and money-brokers have a vision of making the Ukiah Valley the next Ashland in the next twenty years. Once the amphitheater is going, he wants to build the west coast’s answer to Interlochen - an arts and entertainment facility for the gifted to help people further and realize their dreams. He wants this facility to include all of the arts, not just classical music. Spencer will be making a major presentation to a corporation in Kentucky the end of September, so things are really starting to move.
In addition to everything else, Spencer also teaches. He works only with people who already play, and works with them on creativity and how to write their own music. He only has a few students at a time, and finds that most of them don’t stay with him too long. He says that once the door is opened for them to start writing music, most people aren’t willing to put in the amount of time and work that are required. A few of his students have gone on to write lots of music, and feel very fulfilled.
Although free time is something of a rare commodity, Spencer collects monster models and memorabilia from the late ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and has a very large collection. He also collects old Mad magazines and memorabilia connected to Mad. He loves to cook and work around his house (the interview was temporarily interrupted while he unloaded hundreds of bricks for a walkway he’s building). He also likes to collect extremely rare coins and music. When he does have free time, he loves to have friends over for dinner and to travel with his wife. They enjoy going to Calistoga to the mud baths, and going to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. Spencer also enjoys watching old movies. His favorite colors are green, purple, and deep blues. Spencer loves life in a very intense way, and feels that he has a wonderful life.
In the previous interviews I have done, I have been surprised that many of the so-called new age composers do not listen to or even like the other composers of the genre. I asked Spencer about this, and he said that he is fanatical about staying current with what other people are doing, and that he is one of the first to invite other musicians onstage with him. He has played duets with David Lanz and Wayne Gratz in concerts, and is planning a duet tour with Suzanne Ciani (a must-see!). He also said that a lot of musicians don’t know much about music, and many aren’t very exciting. He says that it is so difficult to become known and to stay in the public’s eye, and there is a lot of jealousy when one person gets a gig and another doesn’t. There used to be plenty of work and money to go around, but that’s no longer true. Spencer says he still believes in networking, but prefers to live away from everyone else.
Spencer Brewer has recorded eight solo albums and has appeared on numerous collections that Narada has released. Spencer’s own albums are “Where Angels Dance” (1983), “Shadow Dancer” (1984), “Emerald” with Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel (1986), “Portraits” (1987), “Forward Motion” (1989), “Dorian’s Legacy” (1990), “The Piper’s Rhythm” (1991), and “Romantic Interludes” (1993). He also has two piano solos on the “Narada Piano Solos” collection.
When asked if he has any words of advice to young people studying music now, Spencer says, “Write your own music. Every month, write a piece of music - every month. The more you do it, the better you get at it. If you need advice, go to someone who already writes music and ask questions.” I’m intrigued by this idea (Wayne Gratz said basically the same thing), and although I haven’t written any music myself, I think this would be an exciting experiment. Spencer suggests that the music can be very short and either one or two hands - the thing is to be creative. I’ll be talking to Spencer more about this, and we’ll see what happens. Who knows? Maybe we have some really talented composers among us! I know that a few of the kids have started writing pieces, so let’s give it a try! I’ll be learning right along with you on this one!
Heartfelt thanks to Spencer for taking the time and interest to participate in this project. We are really looking forward to meeting him and having him with us for an afternoon. You are truly an inspiration, Spencer! Thank you!