Chamberfest: Lights, camera, music with Stephen Prutsman

Stephen Prutsman. Photo: Nate Ryan

The 2019 Chamberfest will open with an evening of music that features performances by the St. Lawrence String Quartet and a few of their friends.

One of the quartet’s colleagues is the San Francisco based pianist and composer Stephen Prutsman.

He’s been making music with the Canadian quartet since the early 1990s.

On the day of this interview, the ensemble’s first violin Geoff Nuttall, who lives in nearby Palo Alto, California, brought some Mexican food and shared with Prutsman and his son while their two dogs played together.

“I would consider them the closest friends of mine in music,” Prutsman told ARTSFILE in an interview.

Prutsman’s musical inclinations run the gamut.

“It has always come out of necessity,” he said. He needed the benjamins.

“I grew up playing by ear first before learning how to read music and I worked in restaurants and pizza parlours and in clubs from age 13 to 28-29 off and on.

“It wasn’t because I wanted to play ragtime background music to pizza eating. It wasn’t a great calling but it paid the bills.”

He needed to pay tuition. Prutsman studied at the University of California at Los Angeles and the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

After about age 28, he said, “I went exclusively into classical music and tried follow that path. In my late 30s and 40s I went back to writing.”

That led to collaborations with the legendary Kronos Quartet. He has done some 40 different arrangements and compositions for Kronos. The commissions started to pour in after that.

He’s also written for Leon Fleisher, Dawn Upshaw, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma, Spoleto USA, and the Silk Road Project.

Outside the classical world he has worked with, among others, Tom Waits, Joshua Redman, Jon Anderson of the British progressive rick band YES and the Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Rós.

“I am grateful for it all. I did grow up in an environment with a lot of popular music. I was fascinated by progressive or art rock as a teenager in a small southern California town. It didn’t sound very good. but I played a lot of that (in bands called Cerberus and Vysion) doing covers of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And we tried to do our own music.

It was a clear interest, he said, but working as a young person in bars and restaurants offered a chance to learn all of the standards, he added.

That paid off in many different ways throughout life.

With such musical variety in his fingers, Prutsman does have favourites.

“Definitely the music of Bach has been going for a while now … and Ravel.

“Oddly the Prog thing has kept with me for a long time. It is still curious to me this melding of popular forces and musical curiosity. It is always pushing boundaries. Prog is almost trying to make uncomfortable music.”

He also still listens to music from India, especially scores from films made by the legendary director Satyajit Ray.

“Those are my favourite movies and a lot of the music on them I still listen to with fondness.”

There are jazz heroes to including Bill Evans, Art Tatum and Chick Corea.

“I still listen to Oscar Peterson and learn. I used to do take downs of Oscar’s music. I’d listen to the music and try to transcribe it. I used to wear out his records with all the stopping and starting.”

One thing he is not in favour of are no go zones in music.He worries that there can be “an overhang of class” attached to classical music.

“There are people who play only western art music from Mozart to Debussy and anything else that resembles the music of a different class of people is declared to be not valid music making.” For Prutsman that’s not on.

He has brought his eclectic vision to festivals he has started in El Paso, Texas, and the island of Guam in the South Pacific. And to the largest music festival in South America.

He brought a mix of world music and classical music to the Cartagena (Colombia)  International Festival of Music when he was artistic director from 2009 to 2012.

In Ottawa, he’ll play the Franck Piano Quintet in F minor with the St. Lawrence Quartet.

“It’s a piece we have probably played about 100 times over the years. We still practice it and we still get ideas” about it.

But the quartet and Prutsman will also play another piece of music together on July 25.

He has written a score for piano and string quartet to accompany the silent movie College starring the comedian Buster Keaton, who was as big a celebrity as Charlie Chaplin back in the early days of Hollywood.

Over the years, Prutsman has written such scores for 10 silent films. All have been commissions and they flow from the very first done 15 years ago at a festival in Maine to accompany another Keaton film.

“The reason for it was the festival wanted to use an historic movie house as a venue. The series said it would be great if they had something to go with silent film and so they asked me and that’s how first one came about.”

Typically in the past, Prutsman says, an accompaniment to a silent film was mostly improvised.

“This is composed, just about every note is written down. That said should the string players or myself want to do something kooky or funny we are free to do so in the sense of musical theatre where you can add a little bit here and there.

There are advantages to writing things out instead of improvising.

While music for spoken word films has to complement what’s on screen, silent films offer the composer more musical freedom, he says.

“That said I have been guilty of making the music a little too complicated or “interesting” so that people have told me I didn’t know whether to listen or to watch. But at least it didn’t detract from story or get in the way.”

In his scores characters have themes that recur when they appear and there is an overall theme that makes an appearance throughout.

“There are a lot of jokes in the music. I love doing it. It’s fun. I have about 10 films scored and they are all for silent films made for classically trained musicians. You have to be able to play.”

Prutsman will also take part in another concert in Ottawa on July 26 — one that is close to his heart.

He has an 18 year old son named A.J. who is profoundly affected by autism.

“My son is profoundly affected. Over the years in the Bay area we have been doing a number of activities for families. We have been giving concerts for families and all behaviours are welcome.

“It has become important for what I do.”

St. Lawrence String Quartet and Friends
With Benjamin Verdery, guitar, and Stephen Prutsman, piano
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 25 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:
Buster Keaton’s College
With music by Stephen Prutsman and the St. Lawrence String Quartet
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 25 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Xenia Concert with Stephen Prutsman
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 26 at 10 a.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.