Interview: Improvisation, Mountain Climbing & the Meaning of Life

I’ve got a little time off from touring so I’m cleaning house. While sorting through old papers I came across the interview below. Most of these answers still ring true to me today. It’s fun to hear from past iterations of oneself, sometimes.

Dan Tepfer interviewed by Gary Heimbauer
Jazz Inside Magazine, January 2010

Jazz Inside: Can you talk about how your unique childhood/young adulthood might have influenced your voice as a musician? You were born in Paris, France to American parents, got a degree in astrophysics in Edinburgh, Scotland and then moved here.

Dan Tepfer: I grew up in a way that doesn’t really give me any choice but to see the outside view, to see music as a pluralist art form. My grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. As a matter of fact, Nancy King, Ralph Towner and Glen Moore credit him with getting them into jazz. My mom is an opera singer. So I grew up hearing a lot of music, mainly jazz and classical, from before I was even born. I studied classical piano at one of the Paris conservatories through my childhood and teens, but somehow I always mainly considered myself an improviser. Knowing that my granddad improvised made it okay to do that in my mind, despite what my classical teacher would say. Playing classical music, even though I secretly really enjoyed it, and still do, was my work; improvising was my fun, so I ended up spending a lot of time at the piano making things up. And that’s basically how I learned jazz. I’m mainly self-taught except for a few lessons growing up and a two-year master’s degree in jazz from the New England Conservatory; but most of my foundation had already been set by then. So, because for most of my life nobody told me how to play jazz, it’s always felt natural to me to view it as just ‘improvisation’, to be really open-minded about it from a stylistic standpoint. Astrophysics is one of the most fascinating subjects there is to me, but I realized fairly quickly that as a full-time occupation, it wasn’t going to beat the combination of the visceral and intellectual involved in making music.

JI: How did music become such a big part of your life?

DT: I can’t ever remember it not being the biggest part of my life. It’s something that’s always been a given for me, for some reason. I’ve been passionate about other things — astrophysics, rock climbing, even computers, but music has always been the through-line, the wise friend with the unconditional love that I can always turn to. As I said before, my mom is an opera singer and for the nine months before I was born she was belting her lungs out five nights a week with me in her belly, so that might have something to do with it…

JI: What is your life like in New York? How do you make it all work in these expensive times?

DT: When I first moved to town I did all kinds of things to stay afloat. I taught French, I designed websites, I accompanied dance classes, I did voice-overs for language tapes, I taught three-year-olds piano, you name it. Then, starting in 2006, I got lucky and won some piano competitions, which gave me a little financial cushion to weather the lean times. It also allowed me to buy a piano. Since then I’ve been able to make a modest living playing music, which I’m extremely thankful for. My costs are low; I was recently joking to a friend that I have the least responsibilities I could possibly have in my life. I’m not married, don’t have any kids, don’t have a car, don’t own any property, don’t have any pets; my rent is pretty low and aside from watering a couple plants in my apartment, basically my only responsibilities are to myself and music. I live in Lefferts Gardens, in Brooklyn, on the East side of Prospect Park, an area that houses an astounding number of jazz musicians, and those two things —the Park and the creative stimulation all around — make my life a lot happier. When I’m not in New York I’m on tour as a leader — I have solo and trio projects that have been getting a nice amount of road time — or as a sideman.

JI: What motivates you and drives you forward on your journey?

DT: I don’t know. That’s perhaps the fundamental question about life, isn’t it? Why are we all doing it? Why are we even trying? In the end we’re all going to die anyway. And even if you believe in the importance of Humanity, beyond individuals, lasting into the future, you can’t ignore the fact that at some point down the line — okay, way down the line — the Sun is going to become a red giant and engulf the Earth. But that’s the rational mind talking. At an intuitive level I find myself thirsty for learning and expression. I’d love to find out how creative I can be. I also know that becoming an artist is essentially the process of getting to know yourself, of resolving, or at least becoming conscious of, your inner contradictions, and that’s a deeply attractive path to me. I don’t know why that is, and that’s kind of the beauty of it. I’m definitely at my most creative and free when I can manage to get a good grip on how futile the whole operation is anyway. It’s kind of a wonderful feeling, the realization that we’re really just doing it for the fun of it, because we feel like it. Art, to me, is fundamentally an expression of that, the mysterious human need to document our existence on Earth by leaving behind an expression of our own unique sensitivity: it has no justification but itself; we like it because we like it.

JI: Can you talk about the process of composing for you? How do you approach this task?

DT: That’s a tough one. Composing is hard for me, and I take comfort in knowing that it also is and was for some of the great musicians that I admire. One of the best ways for me to write is right before a jam session: I’ll sit down about an hour before the session is supposed to start with the simple goal of writing something down, whatever it may be, that we’ll be able to play together on the session. l’ve written some of my best tunes this way. It helps to know who I’m writing for. After more than fifteen years of composing, I finally feel like I have some kind of philosophical grip on what composition is: it’s the process of finding sounds that you like and writing them down so that you can remember them. *Like” is the important term here. Nothing else really matters — the theoretical constructs, etc., are nice for building an underlying architecture, but ultimately the only thing that matters is whether you dig it or not. So I try to stay really close to that feeling: if I’m writing and something pops into my head that sounds good to me, I rush to write it down before I second-guess it. And sometimes a tune just pops down, fully formed, from God-knows-where and you write it down. But you can’t count on that. Right now I’m writing a piano concerto for myself and the Prague Castle Guard orchestra in Czech Republic that we’ll premiere in May. It’s my first time writing for orchestra, and it’s daunting! But I love feeling challenged.

JI: What is it about musical improvisation that you find so valuable? What does it offer to you, your band-mates, and the listeners? What motivates you and drives you forward?

DT: That’s an excellent question. Why improvise? Why not just plan everything out ahead of time? Aside from the obvious answers — it’s less work, it makes it different every time, it’s more fun, etc. — I think it fundamentally has to do with desire. Desire in the sense that in all great music, there’s a palpable desire, a need, an intent, behind every note. With written music it takes a truly brilliant performer to be able to muster up that desire for every note when the notes were written by someone else. That’s what makes lesser performances of Bach so boring — all we hear is a bunch of notes. But when Glenn Gould played Bach, for example, he could somehow make it sound like he was creating the music as he was playing it. With improvisation, there’s no reason to play a note unless we deeply desire it. We can just lay out if we want to. So we have the opportunity to create music where every note we play comes from a clear intent — on a bluesy day we can play darkly, on the day we fall in love we can play with pure joy. When music has desire behind every note, it can be unbelievably powerful, and I think improvisation maximizes the possibility of that happening. This isn’t a guarantee, of course — even in improvisation, it’s perfectly possible and pretty common, especially since the advent of jazz education — to play superfluous notes… But at least the possibility is there.

JI: As an artist, your state of mind and ability to dig deep is important. Outside of playing, what do you do to re-center and find peace of mind? What do you do to break through all of the surface stress in our contemporary world? Or perhaps, you feel that angst is good for music?

DT: I think my single deepest source of perspective is Nature, mountains especially. I used to be a fairly dedicated rock climber and mountain climber; nowadays I don’t get out as much as I’d like but I did manage to climb Mount Rainier, outside of Seattle, this summer, with an old climbing buddy. We took a little-traveled route to the summit that really got us away from everything. There’s this completely obvious timelessness and majesty about mountains that you can’t possibly ignore, and there’s nothing like them, to me, if what you’re looking for is some perspective. It’s always a dance between spending time deeply involved in the Work of music to the point of creative exhaustion, then re-filling the tanks with the help of a wide-open view.

 

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One Response to Interview: Improvisation, Mountain Climbing & the Meaning of Life

  1. GTW says:

    Excellent survey interview that touches all the right notes. Good job!

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