INTERVIEW

AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE PERILLO

[Steve Perillo, President of the high-profile Perillo Tours, is a fully trained and experienced musician. He recently produced a CD, ‘REQUIEM FOR A GOLDFISH,’ orchestral music performed by the Russian Festival Orchestra led by Yuval Waldman. It received a good press. Hornist-composer Deborah Thurlow talked with Steve at his house in Saddle Brook, NJ last spring.]

Some people think that musical talent is spawned by some family influence. But those of us in the musical field know otherwise. How does this apply to you? (What type of music did your parents or other family members listen to?)

I come from a non-musical family. The question of where you get intense interest in music from that situation is a mystery. You just get it. I don’t think anybody knows where the urge to produce music on a full time basis or on a large scale comes from. My parents listened to the popular music of their time, just as your average person, without any particular interest. That’s a disadvantage, because you tend to have a later start if you don’t have musical parents. The best combination is when you have musical parents and you have a strong inclination at the same time?

Did they like opera or go to musicals?

Nothing in particular. Just as your average person goes to a musical every couple of years. They were into the music of the 40’s and the 50’s, which I still love myself.

Any cousins of your generation that became musicians?

No, I’m the only one. Its pretty rare.

Even tracing back your family tree? There was no one? It was all business?

Come to think of it, I had an uncle who was a pianist.

There’s something. (Laughs). A pianist here or… ?

He was a pianist out in the mid-west. He was an outcast. He grew up on a farm with 13 brothers and sisters. And he was gay, but no one could admit that. So, he was always off to the side living a shadowed life. He probably used music as an outlet for the fact that he didn’t fit in. That’s part of the formula that turns someone into a musician. They want to communicate to other people in a kind of sideways fashion. Indirectly.

What music had an early impression on you?

Oh, American pop music of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. That had the earliest impression on me, and it still does. And it keeps on cropping up again and again. It wasn’t until high school that I heard Bach and the others. You know your basic classics -- the Brandenburg concertos and then Beethoven’s 9th. The majority of people will hear that music and just say “oh that’s nice.” But a very small percentage will say, “Wow, this is unbelievable.” I was smitten.

In your bio you mention the first time you saw the Beatles on TV. What was that like? You’re watching Ed Sullivan. The Beatles are there and they’re playing their guitars. Girls are screaming.

The following week I got a guitar. It was a folk guitar and I took some lessons. I played guitar from the ages of 9 to 14. Then I slowly discovered classical music. I took up the piano and dove right into the classical piano literature.

What was the classical work you heard that got your attention?

It was Bach. I don’t know if Bach has this influence on other people. But it affected me very deeply. Counterpoint is still important to my current style.

Did the teacher play it for you?

No, my older sister in college introduced me to Bach. She brought home “Switched On Bach.”

That was the album with Wendy Carlos.

Yeah, Wendy Carlos. Later I heard the non-electronic version of the Brandenburgs, and it was much better.

But they didn’t play Bach in school?

Oh, no. We didn’t have a good music program.

Were you able or encouraged to perform your compositions in high school?

No, I was too shy to play my music in public. I was really introverted. I could never dream of doing that in high school. I was a loner type.

Some composers get their ideas through dreams, inspiration, out of the blue, or a combination of all these things and more. Where do you think the music came from inside of you? Do you have a basic formula you use when you set out to write a work?

My music comes from a combination of all the music I heard before. And then I put 20% of myself on top of that base. You know how you hear a little Haydn and Mozart riffs throughout early Beethoven. I think that’s how most composers work. To make a clean break with the past like the “Rite of Spring” or Terry Riley’s “In C” is very, very rare.

So you are pretty much into synthesis?

Yeah.

It’s a way of thinking? You just take sources and fuse them together with your personality?

Right, including all the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met and, of course, the music you’ve heard.

Your life experience?

Right, that’s what’s neat about music these days ‘cause all the composers of my generation have been exposed to so much varied music through recordings. We’re only the first or second generation with an unlimited supply of recordings from around the world and from the distant past.

That’s true. We’re exposed to music from overseas, rock ‘n roll, jazz, everything all at once.

In fact my radio listening habits are very much like my music. Always switching the dial. I listen to everything — classical, jazz, pop — even rap has some incredible practitioners. (Laughs)

Do you use forms a lot—old forms like Baroque forms or symphonic forms in your music? Do you think it helps a lot in composing a piece by knowing the basic forms so that you can take all your ideas and put them in a place when you are composing?

Well, over the last few years I’ve been specializing in large orchestral music. Somebody once told me along the way that if you write ten minute orchestra pieces your chances of performances are greater. I liked that idea. So, once you’ve decided to fill 10 minutes of time with sound, the incredible logic of ABA form presents itself. The creativity comes with all the little variations and sub-sections that you build within that form. I’ve also been consciously trying to write great tunes. It’s such a basic time-tested way to draw people into your music constructions. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been done since Rachmaninoff’s time. It works so well, it’s almost like cheating!

When I read your bio, I think you said your teacher was influencing a lot of young composers in the 1970’s to get away from this academic style – serialism and all that — and to use other forms. And I felt that with a teacher like David Del Tredici you would have no restraints on your…

Too much freedom?

Yeah, you want a lot of freedom, but yet it is a challenge when you have too much freedom. So, I just wanted to know how that affected you — his philosophy, that is. And how did it affect your relationship with Del Tredici in terms of his teaching?

It was good because he was the first one to give me permission to write exactly as I pleased. And I remember he gave me all A’s. But as far as having too much freedom, yes, that was a severe problem for years. But that goes along with trying to find your language when you have so many languages available to you. That’s the reason I’m blossoming just now in my life. Actually, it takes many contemporary composers until their late thirties before they really find their voice. There’s so much freedom and so many styles. To forge your own coherent voice takes years. But Del Tredici really helped legitimize tonal music by winning a Pulitzer Prize for the first great tonal piece written in many years.

So did you chose Boston University because he was teaching there?

No, that was a coincidence. A great coincidence, actually.

Can you give the reader some insight as to your experience making a living as a musician/composer after graduating from Boston University and then moving back to New York City? Did you have a plan?

I planned to make it big in music. (Laughs)

Well, did you have some connections?

Yeah, I had connections. I was able to do some soundtracks. But I had a very, very low overhead too. I had an Upper West Side apartment with six roommates. It was $125 a month. I had friends who were doing computer graphics at the time and got into a little circle where I was able to do soundtracks using the early synthesizers. So that’s when I got into synthesizers, which continue to be a big part of my life. I did that for about six years. But then I had a fifty-year-old family business that was always waiting there, and so at a certain point you just decide how long you can tolerate poverty. (Laughs) Then I had the Charles Ives model in the back of my mind. He went to an insurance company every day and he did music. And he had a certain freedom about his music that came from not caring about the outcome of his compositions. There was no financial gain to be had, no prizes or commissions to win. There was nothing at stake in his writing. Reminds me that Virgil Thomson said he could tell the source of funding for a composition when hearing it.

You eliminate that fear factor, and something comes out.

Right, but a lot of composers have to depend on competitions and grants and commissions and that really influences their writing. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

That’s true.

So, what was the question? (Laughter)

Well, the question was making a living and graduating from Boston U.

Oh, yeah.

I guess in Boston University you probably opened up more, had more of a social setting.

Oh sure. Music school was one of the greatest times of my life.

You met people like yourself there? People that are serious?

Oh yeah.

Some of us are hoping for music that wins back audiences, that is less “academic” and more accessible, even to the extent of being mixed with popular elements. Is this in your mind when you compose, or do you just consider yourself a natural part of the new scene and simply go with the flow in terms of general style?

No, I’ve always written music like my current style, and I’ve always been writing under cover. But now there’s a chance for this kind of music to be heard. So, if you keep writing in your style—any style—your day will come, if you don’t die first. (Laughter.) In fact, even “academic serial music” will come back. Bach was a severe academic as the “gallant style” came in. The pendulum seems to swing between severe and relaxed music across the centuries.

I think all music has its uses for various occasions and situations. In certain independent films you hear a lot of experimental music. So it’s always a possibility in using all those styles.

Oh there are more outlets than ever now in music. Even video games!

I think so. One of the drawbacks in being a musician is the business aspect. You want to create 24/7 but you also need to have good business sense in negotiating and knowing about contracts. Has growing up in a business minded family given you an innate ability at business, and do you apply this as a musician?

I’m starting to. Music is about networking. I have a serious time issue because my day job is extremely consuming. So, if I have time to compose or schmooze with conductors I have to choose composing.

I see you need an assistant. Well, some of the very busy composers do that — hire assistants.

What I am enjoying about the computer is that it cuts out so much work. Aaron Copland often wrote out his own parts. Could you imagine such tedium and lost composing time! The computer simulates the orchestra and the correct balances. You can cut, paste, do inversions, retrogrades, variations and transpositions on phrases in seconds and then spit out a score and parts. It’s a great time to be a composer!

Do you have Finale?

I work with Performer and send standard MIDI files to a computer copyist. He actually extracts the parts and cleans up the score.

What did Del Tredici notice in your composition talent? Did you inspire Del Tredici as a student?

I may have reinforced his ideas. He was glad to see somebody following romantic tonal style, because not all of his students did. And I think he was happy about that.

Are you still in contact with him? Do you speak with him?

Yeah, sure. He’s still doing great work. What else can I say about the future? I am heading more and more toward electronics because they’re getting better and better. It’s leaping forward at an alarming rate. I got on that horse years ago with the Moog syntheziser, and I’ve come to depend on it for my orchestrations. Up until the last year or two there was still a huge gap between live instruments and sampled ones. I hate to say this to an instrumentalist, but the gap is closing quickly. So, you start weighing the pros and cons of the cost of live performance—the copyist, the parts, the musicians, the engineer, the rehearsals, the conductor and the thousands and thousands of dollars a live recording takes.

What do your parents think about your compositions now?

Serious music lovers are a miniscule group. A composer’s family is often problematical—even if you’re not a hardcore atonalist. The average person, especially in America, just can’t handle abstract music of any kind. They require a tune, words and a sexy singer to deliver their music. It’s sad after your parents spend all that money on music lessons for all those years. They just don’t get your music. However, my family was always encouraging and continue to be so to this day. And I’m still trying to put some great tunes in my music, just for them.

Thanks, Steve for your time and your thoughts.

Deborah Thurlow