Playing the moment with Peter Wetzler

Known locally primarily for his genre-clashing band the Repeatos, Peter Wetzler is returning to his roots and “coming out” as a solo artist with a performance at the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts on August 18. The concert is a continuation of his Solo Piano Project, in which Wetzler sits down at the Steinway grand and plays without any preconceived score or melody. He refers to the process as “a sonic distillation of moments” rather than a jazz-type improvisation, in which he explores harmony, rhythm, color and time.

The project was launched when Wetzler recorded himself spontaneously composing on the piano “a couple hundred times” and then culled 18 pieces from the recording for his Falling Awake CD. He repeated the process for a second CD, Green, although this time he was able to glean ten satisfactory passages from just 50 sessions. “The odds were getting better,” inspiring him to take the leap into live performance. He tested out the concept at a venue in Toronto, where he and his wife, painter Julie Hedrick, lived in the past.

From start to finish, the Solo Piano Project has been freeing: “I’m at the age where that voice that says, ‘You can’t do that’ is no longer there,” said Wetzler, who lives in Kingston’s Rondout. “When I’m playing something and that voice says, ‘You can’t do that,’ I answer back, ‘Oh, yes I can. I’m going to stay there and be in that place.’ I’m enjoying bending the rules and observing the rules.”

That ability to trust his instincts and push the envelope for harmonic sounds is more than just chutzpah, of course. Wetzler is a seasoned composer who started out as a classical pianist but rapidly developed an encyclopedic ear, with crossovers into experimental music, minimalism, jazz and folk. As a teenager, Wetzler played with the New Haven Symphony and studied conducting and piano at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He attended Princeton, played in gamelans on the West Coast and at Brown University and studied jazz with Kirk Nurock.

In the 1970s he began composing music for Bill T. Jones, David Dorfman, Laura Dean and other emerging downtown Manhattan choreographers. Later, after he and Hedrick moved from New York City to Toronto, he composed mainly for the moving image, from feature films to documentaries to PBS’s Great Performances series to cartoons.

He said that his playing is infused with Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Latin sounds as well as evocations of Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, George Tsontakis and Steve Reich. “I’m completely playing the moment and improvising. The closest thing you can compare it to is Keith Jarrett playing his Köln Concert. He’s drawing on the jazz/gospel tradition, while I’m drawing on all my years in film composing. There’s a whole listening and harmonic richness to contemporary film composition. I’m always thinking and playing cinematically.”

 

 

Peter Wetzler’s Solo Piano Project will be performed at the Kleinert, located at 36 Tinker Street in Woodstock, on August 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15 general admission, $12 for members. For reservations visit www.byrdcliffe.org.

 

 

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