At the Atomic Level
Chilly Gonzales makes a case for the piano as the great reducer and delivers a blueprint for the compositional process.
By Ben Finane
Steinway Artist Jason Charles Beck, a.k.a. Chilly Gonzales, is a Grammy-winning Canadian pianist and composer currently living in Europe who passes seamlessly between the genres of pop, classical, jazz, electronica, and hip-hop. Gonzales holds the Guinness world record for the longest solo concert at over 27 hours. His latest album, Solo Piano III, is the final release in a trilogy. He spoke with Steinway editor in chief Ben Finane following a tour of the Hamburg Steinway factory and before his Live from the Factory Floor performance for the Steinway craftsmen.
I admire your ability to dispel perceived borders between classical and pop and techno and hip-hop. I’d love to know where your aesthetic comes from and how you bring all of these influences together.
Well, through the instrument of the piano, really. I mean, we’re sitting in a Steinway factory, and the piano is the atomic form of music to me. It was invented to be able to essentially cover the orchestra — and be like an orchestra in miniature. If an opera is being rehearsed, and they can’t afford to have an orchestra there for six months, the first four or five months will be with a pianist. It’s just assumed that the piano will be able to supply that level of color and dynamics that would essentially be close enough to orchestra that they can successfully rehearse.
So it has always been the great reducer, the piano. When I was growing up and learning the piano and I started to hear jazz pianists, and then I saw Lionel Richie playing the piano in his video, I thought, “That’s the same piano that my grandfather was showing me as the main motor of classical music.” So I realized that the piano can do it all. That’s when you don’t see the borders of music anymore: it’s because you have this atomic version of a musical instrument that is nothing and everything at the same time.
Therefore, the piano can’t possibly discriminate between those styles of music, because all those styles of music at some point use a piano. The latest rap hits, most of them still have a piano in there somewhere. You really hear piano a lot. Spooky rap lines [sings] will be a piano. You walk into a studio where they make techno, and there’s a MIDI keyboard, which is basically a synthesized version of the piano keyboard.
This has always been the prism through which we view Western music, at least in Europe and North America. That’s why, when you’re focused on the piano, there is no musical element that is smaller or more atomic than the piano: all music is available because you’re at this reduced, atomic level of music. If you use the piano as your gateway to music, then these stylistic borders really don’t matter, and the only kind of music you can’t play is music that wouldn’t have a piano in it. In the Western world, all the music that I’m interested in — classical, jazz, electronic music, pop music, and rap — all have the piano in them. Therefore, why wouldn’t you just understand that this instrument can do all those things?
It was so natural to me. It didn’t feel like I was starting a rebellion or that I had to make an effort. It happened because the piano was my gateway, and the piano doesn’t discriminate. The piano doesn’t see those stylistic borders — in a North American, European traditional sense. Of course, there are many other cultures where they have a very different way of approaching music. But for our music in Europe and North America, we see through the prism of those twelve notes.
Do you compose through the prism of the piano as well? When you write, whether it’s a tune or an orchestration, do you do so at the keyboard?
Every piece I write begins at the piano. Some of those pieces survive intact to become solo piano pieces, but some of them morph. Some of them become just the basic melody for what might become a pop collaboration with someone, where eventually that same music will be played by other instruments. But it begins there, and there might be a moment where I realize, “Oh, this should become a chamber music piece with string quartet.” And then it leaves that atomic level. But it all starts on that atomic level where, as I said, when I write a piece of music, even I don’t know if it's going to become a rap song or an electronic song — where I collaborate with a producer, maybe — or if it remains my version of acoustic music, meaning either a chamber music piece or a solo piano piece.
So that just proves that the borders don’t exist when you’re starting to work on the atomic level, because even I don’t know where it’s going to end up. I don’t set out to write a piece that becomes a rap piece. I just start on the piano, and I see which piece stays there. Solo Piano III is the collection of fifteen pieces that, over the last few years, stubbornly refused to be anything but piano pieces. They were pianistic in some way.
What makes a piece of music “pianistic”?
That’s a hard question, but I would say what makes a piece of music pianistic is that it wouldn’t work any other way. It’s just a yes-or-no feeling of “Does this kind of melody feel like it would be more effective if a human voice sang it?” Pianistic, to me, also would have something to do with how the hands feel roaming on the keyboard, and is there something innately pleasurable about how it feels to play it on the piano? That’s one check mark for pianism.
Another check mark would be whether the piece resonates in a way and creates a special, magical acoustic effect because of the nature, by accident, of the key you chose to write the piece in and the particular piano that you’re playing and how it resonates. Have you ever been in the bathtub and you catch yourself looking for the note that’s going to make the whole bathroom shake with resonance? Like, “Buh buh buh.…” Then you hit one note: “BAWWW!” And all of a sudden, your entire bathtub is like a giant tuba. And that’s what you do when you play the piano, right? You look for the sweet spot.
I’m about to go perform for the Steinway factory workers here, and the first thing I’m going to do over the course of the first few songs is I’ll be looking for: “Where is this piano special? Where is the sweet spot on this particular piano?” And I will orient my playing towards that and maybe make a split-second decision: “Oh, this high end is very brilliant and crystal-like; maybe I’ll play this song instead. Or maybe I’ll play this song, which I normally play in the middle. Let me explore what happens here.”
Pianism is one level removed from the atomic level, because you start to actually hear the real-world implications of how this piece sounds on the piano. That’s when the test comes: is this a piano piece or not?
Does the compositional process for you start with establishing the pitch field of that instrument and then finding a little kernel of something, finding a motive? Or does it just vary depending on what you’re looking to accomplish that day?
Most of the ideas will come fairly spontaneously when I’m improvising, which can be just an activity to pass the time at home. Strangely, it often happens when I’m doing a sound check. I’ll show up to a concert hall, I’ll start the sound check, and, because that’s what a pianist does, I start to look for the sweet spot. Then when I find the sweet spot, something might come up — a few notes, like you said, or a chord progression.
In that moment, I try to make a note. Once in a while I might even record it on my phone. But most of the time I just figure, “Okay, that exists now. Let’s see if that continues to haunt my dreams and come back on other pianos when I’m testing them out.” Over time, some of these little motives recur. Then I have the feeling, “Okay, this is going to become a piece one day.”
Then there’s a next step, which is, “Okay, that was a real, true moment of creation, a kind of spontaneous haiku that happened because of circumstances. Now let’s work this motive and see if it really has legs.” And then I start the work of really what composing is. But the initial spark always comes, hopefully, from a moment of eureka — unless you have a job.
Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, will you write music for this scene in my movie?” And then you have some constraints already. It’s not just looking for any spark. It’s more like, “Well, this is a chase scene.” But often I’ll be like, “Oh, I remember this thing that I made a demo for four or five years ago. That would be perfect chase music if I just sped it up a little bit.” And then you’re back to a spark from five years ago that never really caught fire, but now you’re going to take a little bit more will power and light it on fire and make it happen, because there’s this job or external constraints that came in that mean that you search your memory bank for other pieces that got left behind.
Most of it is somewhere in my computer, somewhere recorded, maybe in my phone. And there are moments where I’ll just be asked to come up with something. It might just be a rapper who says, “Hey, can you send me a beat? I really love your piece ‘Dot,’ but I don’t want to sample ‘Dot,’ because someone already sampled it. Can you make me something a little bit like it?” And then I’m thinking, “Oh yeah, was there a third section of ‘Dot’ that I cut?” Then I’m looking for it, trying to remember. At some point, I’m remembering something from as far back as fifteen years, and suddenly it has new life.
That’s another great way of realizing that it’s not bad to write music every day, because then the act of creation doesn’t become a sacred, mysterious thing to you. It’s just kind of like eating or sleeping or going to the bathroom. It desacralizes the creative ritual, and you’re just producing music all the time. It doesn’t really matter for what.
Sometimes you have days in a row where nothing exciting happens. And then you realize ten years later, you wrote something that’s perfect for that chase scene. So, in fact, those three days that I thought maybe nothing was happening actually turned out to be productive.
You can’t judge it in the moment. You just make music every day, and circumstances and the ear of the listener and all kinds of other factors will determine just what the quality was of what you did that day. You can’t know. Just because you had a good time or think you made something good doesn’t mean that that was the most useful moment of inspiration.
It can be something that slows some musicians down who say, “I’m blocked. I lit candles. I put framed pictures of all my inspirations around me,” and I’m like, “Well, there’s your problem. You should just write music while the bath is running. You have a better chance of coming up with something.”
Apply ass to chair.
I think I’m homing in on one of the key points of your success: just as a lot of comedians have joke libraries, it sounds like you keep a very active living archive of ideas and pieces, and that, for you, it’s not scrap paper, but rather something you return to at some point, depending on the project.
Yes — or not! I have to be able to think it shouldn’t be too precious. And yet, when I worked with Jarvis Cocker on my Room 29 album... We did a collaborative album. He’s the former singer of Pulp and a very literate pop star and a true man of letters — and yet I’ve seen him write a masterpiece under pressure in fifteen minutes on a restaurant napkin. I think that’s what a real artist is.
A real artist isn’t necessarily the one who spends three days getting together the perfect area to create in and waiting for inspiration. Then you’ve created far too much expectation. It’s a bit like going out on New Year’s Eve. You think you’re supposed to have such a great time, and you end up really sad at the end.
“Just because you had a good time or think you made something good doesn’t mean that that was the most useful moment of inspiration.”
You’ve just put out Solo Piano III, which is a fine collection of Satie–esque miniatures. On your journey from I to II to III, which were released over the course of many years, what were some unexpected discoveries you made or twists between these albums that got you thinking about solo piano in different ways?
Well, when Solo Piano emerged as an accidental album, I was principally known as an underground, art-rapper/producer–type person. And after four albums of that, I made a piano album, thinking it would just be something to the side for some of my fans. It turned out to be a whole new avenue for me.
The first lesson was, “Okay, that’s great. Don’t always think that just because you’re singing and trying to make pop songs that that’s a more sure thing,” as far as finding my audience. I found my audience in a moment where I wasn’t trying to expand my audience at all. It really happened accidentally. That’s the first main lesson I would learn from Solo Piano I.
For Solo Piano II, there were a couple of pieces, most notably “White Keys” — the very first piece, one of my most successful pieces — that when I wrote it, I was convinced wasn’t for me. And I always thought, “This is going to become a song for someone else somehow.” I just thought, “It’s too pop-y,” and it didn’t quite have that European feel that I thought Solo Piano I had, that I thought everyone loved so much.
I was putting myself in a box. But it wouldn’t leave me alone, that piece. At some point I realized, “If I’m afraid of it, but it came from me, what does that say about me? That means I’m not open to what I’m capable of.”
Luckily, I decided to record it and work on it and finish it for the album. When I had the finished album, I could tell people were reacting positively to that piece. I realized that’s the lesson here: when you write something that scares you, run toward it, not away from it.
I ended up putting it as the first piece on the album, because I luckily had the luxury of time to understand that piece and understand that it represented the way forward to me, not some aberration. I was lucky enough to understand that I had to show what was different about Solo Piano II, and that the minute they put it on and heard “White Keys,” they thought, “Oh, this isn’t exactly like Solo Piano I.” It’s close enough. It’s the same person, the same piano. It’s just that I was going somewhere new, and we decided to put that up front on the album so that people could hear what had changed between Solo Piano I and Solo Piano II.
For Solo Piano III, I had a lot of time to prepare this one, the most time I’ve ever prepared for an album: two years, including the first year where I was on a sabbatical, not performing. So, an uninterrupted free-flow of pressure-free composition.
Did that help you, having more time?
Yes, what it allowed me to do is to allow the pieces — and this is, of course, a psychological effect, not an actual thing that happened — but I had a feeling that the pieces could write themselves, because under time pressure and constantly going back and forth from tour, it takes a while to settle into a place where there is no judgment, no pressure. And I guess what I wanted was enough time that I could really spend the first half of it not even knowing if I was doing Solo Piano III.
I just spent my sabbatical year composing and building up that archive, as you called it, of ideas and germs of ideas, half-finished things, possibly things that might become other things. And I realized what I had were new piano pieces that, again, like “White Keys,” were showing where I could go in the future, and felt like windows into new ways of composing. I put those front and center as the main pieces on this album, because I think it’s not worth just doing a Solo Piano III that reminds people of the first two. I should take it somewhere.
After listening to what I had done, I realized that these pieces are a little less eager to please than, perhaps, the other albums, but go deeper and also represent different emotional states other than just the agreeable ones. For me, there’s a bit more of a comfort with some wrong notes — a bit more of a comfort with dissonance — that wasn’t there before. I feel it makes the listening experience a bit richer, at least for me.
An acceptance of dissonance within your own sound world. You’re pushing at your own borders here.
Yes, it’s all relative. For some people who haven’t followed it, they might not hear that difference. It’s the same as if you’re a fan of a certain rapper, you hear the minutiae in their evolution. Only I know the deepest minutiae, so I don’t know, of course, how anyone actually hears my music, but I believe that part of what the Solo Piano series is about is making music that works well as a passive listen, or as background music, as well as something that stands up to deeper listening.
It’s a bit of a Brian Eno approach.
Perhaps. And also, there’s a third level for me, which is people who buy the sheet music and play the songs and upload their videos to YouTube, of which there’s a huge number. That’s always really exciting to me. So I have to think about three modes of listening, in a way. And then on top of that, I have to think about how I might play these pieces live, how I might bring them alive in a more dynamic way that I wouldn’t put on the album, because then that would take away its ability to blend in as background music.
So I’m always trying to push against a boundary that fundamentally, to me, is linked to why these three albums are connected: it’s because they also work as background music. I was a background pianist. I played in bars, in hotel lounges, in lingerie stores, in crappy Aufläufe restaurants in Berlin. I’ve really done a lot of working piano jobs, and it made me have respect for background music. It made me have respect for the notion that even people having coffee in a hotel, who aren’t listening to you, deserve a good musical mood.
You’re not dismissing the ambient, by any means.
Right. I would not dismiss the idea that I’m just there for background music and no one is listening to me. That is not an insult to me. That is not a feeling of, “Oh, I can’t wait until everyone is listening to me all the time.” Luckily, I’m in a stage where I don’t do those jobs very often. But you’d be surprised. Once in a while I do. If I have a very good friend who says to me, “I’m getting married. Will you play twenty minutes of piano at my dinner?” and it’s a good friend, I say, “Of course!” I have no issue with that because of my background as a working musician, which takes away some of the snobbery and some of the self-image of myself as a working artist.
Sometimes people say, “Does it bug you that your piano albums are background music for hipster dinner parties?” I'm like, “Hipster dinner parties deserve good music. If not me, then who?”
I like that. I initially stumbled on you through your outro for Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” I’d like to hear a bit about your hip-hop collaborations. We talked about process. Does that process change at all? Are there different priorities when you’re in the hip-hop space?
Well, the hip-hop space doesn’t feel that different from the pop music space. In the end, you’re in a studio. You’re working. Drake is a very hard-working, self-aware guy — very professional. I think to get to the level that Drake is at, you have to be extremely used to working situations. In the end, when you’re working on that high level, the methods don’t change that much. You’re there to be focused. You have to create a space where you can be free and open, but you’re also on a deadline. That’s a hard concept to keep in your mind, that both of those things are there. But I guess he wouldn’t be Drake if he hadn’t mastered at least that balance of work and fun, freedom and discipline. That’s what goes into making music.
If you meet musicians who are missing one of those two, chances are they’re not making a good living at it, because that’s going to hold you back. If you don't know how to either let yourself go and be free when the time calls for it, that’s a disaster. Then you’re just going to be a musical robot for the rest of your life. Then you’re just dead behind the eyes. If you’re only free and fearless but you have no discipline, chances are you won’t be able to professionalize yourself to the point where you can make a living. Everyone who’s working on a high level has clearly got both of those down. So, to be in a studio with these various different musicians I’ve collaborated with, who are on an iconic level, whether it’s Drake or Daft Punk or Jarvis Cocker or Feist, it’s not that different. The process isn’t different. It doesn’t look like a rap music video when you’re in the studio with a rapper. And you’re also not on a field having a picnic when you work with Feist, even though that might be her image as an indie rocker. You’re in the studio, and you’re trying to get the best thing possible.
That’s the image, that’s not the work.
Yeah. The actual work is people who know how to create a space where there’s discipline and freedom coexisting in a productive way.
Do you have your sights on something that you want to expand into or that you haven’t tried yet?
Well, I started a music school called The Gonzervatory this year. That’s probably my biggest passion project. It was a few years in the making. The fruit of my sabbatical year was that I thought of something I’d like to do where I’d invite musicians from all over the world and spend a week working with them, teaching them how to perform, teaching them this idea of freedom and discipline coexisting specifically on stage, although it applies to the studio, as well. The idea that, by letting go, you are giving the audience a chance to deeply empathize with you, because you put yourself in danger.
You also understand you’re in a very controlled environment. You have the control over that letting go, so it shouldn’t be terrifying. You have to overprepare for things like concerts, but then rip up the plan the minute before you go on. So you have the discipline leading up to the moment; when the moment comes, you have to be free.
Same with the studio: you write your song; you work on it. The moment you’re there, the red light is on, because you’re recording. In that moment, you’d better not be thinking with your brain. In that moment, you have to be letting go, letting the emotions out, whether you’re on stage or in the studio. The way to get there is by preparing like a student, like a Zen student: humble before your task for weeks and weeks and weeks.
You could also call the Gonzervatory the Gonzervatoire.
It does work in all languages!