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Interview with William Ogmundson, May 2019
Interview with William Ogmundson, image 1
I had seen William Ogmundson’s name several times before I saw him perform at the 2018 Whisperings Solo Piano Radio “Discovery” concert near Seattle last year, but I really wasn’t familiar with his music. Boy, was I in for a happy surprise! Since then, I have reviewed five of his seven albums and two singles, and have loved them all. William is one of those rare pianists who seem to be able to play any style well - his own compositions, ragtime, classical, etc. - and make it look easy. He’s also an incredibly modest and nice guy, so I was anxious to learn more about him. Here is our first interview, conducted via email in May 2019. Enjoy!

KP: Hi William! You will be performing your first concert here at MainlyPiano.com in early November. I’m really looking forward to that! Have you done much performing on the west coast?

WO: Not really, no, other than the Whisperings event in Seattle last year.  I'm really looking forward to my first west coast “tour." 

KP: Your wonderful 2018 album, Simple Gifts, was one of the finalists for Whisperings Album of the Year. It was one of my top favorites for 2018 as well. Was it nominated for or did it win any other awards?

WO: Alas, no...Hopefully Forevermore will fare better in that regard.  Simple Gifts is interesting in that there really isn't a "smash hit" that stands out on the whole album, yet the quality is very consistent throughout. I put a ton of thought and energy into making sure that the album worked as a whole, and each song flowed into the next seamlessly.  I even transposed several of the songs and manufactured a couple modulations to insure a smooth transition.  

With Forevermore, I pretty much assumed that most people would just be listening to one or two tracks on a playlist and didn't worry so much about “flow," if that makes sense.  I just tried to make every song as good as it could possibly be.    

KP: That makes a lot of sense. People’s listening habits have changed so much with streaming and downloading. There is no guarantee that anyone (other than reviewers like me!) will even listen to the whole album. 

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You recorded Forevermore in Greg Maroney’s studio in rural Pennsylvania. How did that come about?

WO:  Greg and I did a couple of concerts together at his lovely studio, and I couldn't resist the urge to perform on that amazing Steinway of his!  Greg and his wife, Linda, are just wonderful people and put up with me for three days of performing and recording.  I also have to thank Greg for encouraging me to improvise. I've improvised before, of course, but never on a recording, so this was a bit out of my comfort zone.  Basically he showed me how to record myself, and after a morning of pre-composed pieces, I spent the afternoon capturing improvisations.  It just figures, too, that the most popular song on the new album, "Infinity Loop,” was improvised on the spot!  

KP: Greg and Linda are two of my favorite people on the planet! I’ve always loved Greg’s music, but the improvised albums he’s done over the past couple of years have really taken on a life of their own. 

I’ve been curious about the cover artwork for Forevermore. I know that Linda did the design and I know she does stained glass (I have one of her pieces). Is the stained glass on the cover a photo her artwork?

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WO:  Linda is super talented!  Their house is full of her marvelous creations.  The stained glass is indeed one of those, and she very graciously let me use the image of it for a cover.  

KP: Aha! Tell us a bit about the music itself on Forevermore.

WO:  Forevermore is mostly quiet music.  It's a departure for me in that about half the songs are properly composed and the other half are improvised.  Greg has done several improvised albums, and we talked a lot about how and why people seem drawn to that style.  It's something about the spontaneity of them, I guess.  Maybe the imperfections - who knows?  When I compose, I have an idea, then I tend to revise it, edit it, perfect it, and fit it into some sort of stylistic “box."  Improvisations have none of that - the opening theme may be different the second time around, or evolve, or disappear completely, giving way to something else.  Maybe people like free-form style because it's closer to real life - I don't know.  Life certainly isn't a clean cut Rondo, or Sonata Allegro form.
 
KP: That’s interesting. I’ve found that quite a few of the artists I know (including Greg and yourself) are able improvise and any “mistakes” are not at all apparent. Not everyone can do that. As far as the draw to improvised music, I’m not sure if it’s the spontaneity or being in the moment or just relaxing and letting go. It’s one thing in a live setting, but recorded improvisations don’t always fare well with repeated listens. Yours and Greg’s do!
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Click on album covers to go to
Kathy's reviews.

You are an amazingly versatile pianist. Was your training strictly classical or did it include jazz, ragtime and other styles/genres as well?

WO:  Thank you!  Mostly classical.  I had a year of organ lessons and a year of jazz piano, but I was too lazy to get much out of either at the time.  I picked up ragtime on my own, as well as most of the other styles I play.  I learned by Suzuki method, and have always had an ear for picking things up.  

KP: That’s interesting! Do you sight-read well or do you mostly rely on your ears?

WO:  I struggled with reading music as a student.  I became a good sight-reader when I got hired as a collaborative pianist at a college in my twenties.  When you spend spend eight hours a day for four years doing something you can’t help but get better at it.  :). 

KP: Very true! You have also written several musicals that have been staged. Tell us a bit about that.

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William & Greg Maroney
WO:  I sort of fell into musical theater.  I got hired in 2005 to write incidental music for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream,” which led to writing music for a few songs in another show, which in turn led to several other things and eventually I was writing music and lyrics.  A lot of times you just have no idea if you can do something until you try.  

KP: Didn’t you recently win an award for “Best Musical Score” for one of your plays?

WO:  Yes, for the New York Theater Festival.  The show was called "Georgia O'Keeffe Paints Paradise.”  It's a two-woman show about Georgia O'Keeffe going to Hawaii in 1939, having been hired by the Dole Company to paint pineapples.  She doesn't paint any pineapples, but manages to paint many other things instead, has an affair with a local man, etc.  It's a true story and the actresses did a brilliant job bringing it to life!  I didn't play for or music direct this production so it was one of those rare moments where I got to swoop in at the eleventh hour and collect a reward.  :)

KP: Wow! I’ve read a lot about Georgia O’Keeffe, but I didn’t know she went to Hawaii to paint pineapples!!!

What are you working on currently?

WO:  I'm going to be recording another album in a couple weeks at Greg's studio which I'm very excited about!  I'll be going to Virginia to help perform another one of my shows in June as well, which will cool.  And a big concert of American music (Gottschalk, Joplin, Foster, Gershwin, etc) here in New Hampshire in August.  
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KP: I’d love to see the concert of American music. I really love Jopin’s music and love some of Gottschalk’s stuff, too!

I read a few weeks ago that you were in the Middle East working with groups of kids. What was that about?

WO:  Yes...that trip had a profound impact on me.  My friend Trish Lindberg and I were working with about 30 kids from eight schools in Ramallah (Palestine) to put on a play.  I was there for two weeks and stayed with a family in the village of Kfar Ni'ma.  I've never met kinder or more hospitable people anywhere, honestly, and the kids were wonderful.  It's sad and ironic that people have such a skewed image of that part of the world - the media makes it seem as if everyone is a jihadist just waiting for the opportunity to blow something up.
    
The truth is the Palestinians are treated horribly by the Israelis, and they are slowly being forced out of their rural farms and villages into urban slums to make room for more settlements.  There are separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, and the Israeli military is constantly shutting down roads and setting up checkpoints to make life difficult.  Palestinians can't use the airport in Tel Aviv (they have to fly out of Jordan), and none of the 30 kids I worked with had ever been to the ocean, even though it's only a half hour drive from Ramallah, because they aren't allowed there.  Anyway, this isn't the place to get on my soapbox, but suffice it to say, I sympathized with the Palestinian plight and will hopefully be going back next spring.  And yes, there will be several Palestinian-inspired musical projects on the horizon!  :)  

KP: Wow, what an experience! I had no idea life was so difficult for the Palestinians and really can’t imagine not allowing the kids to go to the beach when it’s so close! I’ll look forward to your new music inspired but the trip!

On a totally different subject, I love how some of your music videos are really funny - the way you interpret very well-known pieces of music as they might be played or composed by a whole array of music figures. Do you still do that in concert?

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At Whisperings 2018 near Seattle, WA
WO:  Yeah, it's always funny to me how musical styles really aren't that different when you break them down to their fundamental chord structure.  When you understand that and have fluency on the keys, you can really play any piece in any style.  I don't do that as much now, because most of the references are lost on a general audience.  If I say I'm playing "Row row row your Boat" in the style of John Cage, and then sit in complete silence for 10 seconds, a handful of people will find it hilarious but most will just be confused.  Maybe if I play at a Whisperings event again I'll trot out my "40 variations of Joy to the World" one more time though - I think they would appreciate it.  :)

KP: I’m SURE they would! 

Okay, let’s back up a bit and learn about your history. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

WO:  I was born in and grew up in rural NH.  

KP: How old were you when you started playing the piano and taking lessons?
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WO:  I was five years old when I started lessons.  As an only child in the middle of the sticks who didn't like video games and had no TV, I had very few distractions.  

KP: Bravo! Haha! Are any of your other family members musical?

WO: My father is an amateur musician who sings and plays multiple instruments.  I grew up listening to his various groups perform.  The one I heard most was a trio that sang American songs from the 1800’s - Hutchinson Family singers - Stephen Foster-songs about farming, temperance, Civil War ditties - that kind of stuff. 
 
My mother acted and sang when she was younger and did summer stock.  Her mom was born in P.E.I. but ran away to America, making a living by playing piano by ear for the silent movies.  My cousin Sarah Ogmundson is a professional flautist in Washington State and her sister Amy (now deceased) was a folk singer.   

KP: When did  you start doing piano competitions?

WO: Hahaha age five.  I am more at ease performing than in most social situations, honestly.  

KP: Where were some of the competitions that you participated in?

WO:  Mostly around New England.  

KP: What were some of the awards you won?

WO:  Nothing too memorable. I was good, but not so good as to be the next Horowitz.  
KP: Were you ever a rock musician (I had to ask!)?
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WO:  Haha! When I was in middle and high school, I learned hair band songs by ear once I figured out that girls liked guys that could play that stuff.  It's funny looking back - most people seem to think that the music they listened to as a teenager is the best music ever.  I'm under no such delusion - most of the stuff I played from the late 80s was absolute crap but it got me the female attention I wanted and helped me develop my ear.  

KP: That’s really funny! When did you release your first album?

WO: 2006

KP: How many albums have you released so far?

WO:  Seven, I think

KP: Do you have a favorite of your albums?
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WO:  Phoenix is still my favorite.  It was the most fun to record because I played lots of different instruments, and stylistically, it's very diverse.  

KP: I LOVE that album!

Who and what have been the biggest influences on your music?

WO:  Hmmm....  I have so many influences.  I love Renaissance choirs, honestly.  Anything Mozart, especially the piano concerti.  Musical theater, ragtime/early jazz.  IDK - I have fairly popular taste in music.  Ed Sheeran's not bad - nor is Taylor Swift.  I like Eminem's music too.  

KP: When did you write your first piece of music?

WO:  As a teenager.  

KP: Were you encouraged to compose and/or improvise when you were taking piano lessons?
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WO:  No.  I had the traditional classical training where you bow down to the alter of Bach and  Beethoven and nothing I created was ever going to be worthy.  I still struggle with that, honestly.  I'm sure every composer does.  

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

WO:  Playing Mozart concerto number 21 with the New Hampshire Music Festival was quite a rush!  Also playing the organ at the Vatican, while the choir sang “Ave Verum” was pretty amazing!  

KP: Wow! I’ll bet!

How old are your kids? Are they showing any musical interest?

WO: 10, 12 and 12.  Chloe plays the saxophone in the middle school band.  Bretton sings.  They haven't tackled the piano though, and that's ok.  They are good kids, and they have their own interests.  

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

WO:  Hmm....honestly, I like my life and I like myself.  I guess if someone handed me a check for a million dollars with no strings attached, that would be nice, but I don't really want for anything and I'm very lucky to be where I am, doing what I do, and surrounded by a loving family.  

KP: You’re doing something right!!!! Keep it up!


Many thanks to William Ogmundson for taking the time to chat with us! For more information about William and his music, be sure to visit his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
May 2019