Behind the piano

Behind the piano: John Bickerton

Today, I’m having a talk with the composer behind the song Quiet Journey, John Bickerton!

Where are you from? Where do you live?
I’m originally from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, but I now live in Brooklyn, New York, USA.  

How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I’ve been playing the piano since I was 6 or 7 years old. My first teachers were nuns – the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. The sisters ran a school with a very sophisticated music program – the St. Mary’s Academy in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I didn’t attend school there, but I went there on weekends for piano lessons. I also took music theory classes. Those nuns, some of whom were quite tough, gave me my initial music education. It seemed natural at the time, but I realize now it was extraordinary and unique.

Tell us about how you started playing music?
I played piano and went through the beginner’s program, learning scales and technique, eventually leading up to the more manageable classical pieces. I remember I got more serious about music through piano competitions, which the city put on in those days. I performed as a soloist, and these were, you know, just local competitions for the city’s budding musical talent, but I took it all quite seriously. I performed duets with my sister, and I think we did quite well in the piano 4-hands competition for our age group.  

How long have you been making piano music?
I started writing music in high school. I wrote songs, Melodies, verse-chorus-verse types of things, but there were no words. They were just piano songs but with nice chord changes. I remember the early songs were all about 7th chords—minor sevenths in progression. And then major seventh chords in a progression. I wrote a lot of songs when I discovered those chords. The pieces started to get attention from the kids I hung out with. The attention I received from some girls who heard the songs added fuel to the musical fire for me.  

Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself?
I remember feeling essentially the same feelings I get now. Writing music presents a series of problems that have to be solved for the piece to feel finished or successful. The initial melody or progression or whatever sparks that first idea to turn the material into a song – that’s the god-given part. Turning that initial idea into a finished work is the hard part, and I remember dealing with that even from the first pieces. You get so far, and then it becomes hard because you have to reach beyond your experience and find the answer that this particular piece of music is asking for.  

What are your favorite artists in this “piano genre”
I’d say my favorite pianist of all-time is Glenn Gould. I find his playing other-worldly and just wonderful. I am primarily a jazz pianist however, and my jazz piano influences are Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Andrew Hill, Geri Allen, Keith Jarrett, Mulgrew Miller. There are so many.  

In the new genre of “neoclassical” or “contemporary classical,” I am a big fan of Joep Beving, Olafur Arnalds, Ola Gjeilo. I like the music coming from the nordic countries – the Scandinavian/Icelandic wave, the classical music coming from composers in those nations, a lot of it incredible choral music. I find their music inspiring right now.

Is there one song that you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano? Your own or someone else’s?
There is not one song that I play over and over. When I sit at the piano, I am working. I will be working through a jazz standard, trying to find a new way to play it, or frankly, to play it better. So it is practice, it’s work. There are always a series of things I’m trying to improve on. I will segue to my own compositions and work on those. For all the time I spend at the piano, I never know what to play for people when they say, casually, in a social setting, please play something for us. I hate that moment because first of all, to really play hard, like in performance, it’s not a casual thing for me. As a performer, you go full out. Sometimes, that level in an informal social setting is beyond what people are asking for.  

What rules (in making music) need to be broken?
I don’t know. I think most rules have been broken already. I studied music formally. I went to university for music composition. I got a masters degree. I don’t evaluate music in terms of what rules were broken. I listen more for craftsmanship. I think you can hear laziness in composition where the composer maybe just let a problem go – so I get excited by skill, whatever the genre or instrumentation, etc.  

How do you record your music? Yourself? In a big studio? etc.
I have done both studio and my own home recording. For my latest piano record, Heartland – that was recorded in a large studio. For a solo piano record, I would tend to find a studio. I have a nice piano at home, but playing on a full concert grand piano is a beautiful experience. I would choose to record that way. Pianists are unique because outside of their home piano, they are always playing an instrument that they have little experience with or control over. I have played truly unplayable pianos on some jazz gigs where keys were broken and the thing is just so beat up that it’s hard to make any type of musical sound. There are great sampled keyboards now and I think taking one of those to a gig is fine and certainly better than playing some broken beast of an upright but I cannot warm up to piano samples. Yes, they sound like a piano but it’s nowhere near the same thing for me. Contrast that to a bass player of saxophone player that plays the same instrument all the time. They know how to get their sound from their instrument and can take it to any job. Pianists have to adjust very quickly and make a piano speak for them.

What’s your take on sample instruments?
I like them very much and use them in my composition. I like them more as a way of testing ideas. Hearing what this combination of instruments sounds like with this melodic line or this specific harmony. Samples today are a great way to test orchestration. I know there are a lot of musicians that make their music with samples and I think that’s great, there’s a lot of great music made that way. For me though, at least right now, samples are kind of a tool that guide my more acoustic music.

I do like a lot of electronic music. It’s funny how that term has changed over the years. When I was a graduate student, I taught a class on electronic music, but it was about the music of electronic pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbit. Today electronic music has a huge range. I was especially attracted to drum’n bass music in the late 90s. I thought that the breakbeat rhythms of drum’n bass and the way the beats were manipulated had a lot of implications for jazz music. It didn’t realize materialize, but I thought there was something new there.

Anything else you want to share?
I love the sound of choirs. I have begun writing choral music and have a few pieces now. I find there is something so beautiful about the sound of voices singing together in ensemble. It’s very spiritual and human. I think choral music is the most beautiful sound among all the ways to make music.

And the question from my six year old son:
Where do all your songs come from?

I believe musicians, when they are successful, open themselves up or bring down into themselves a higher spirit. They learn to access that spirit within themselves and then transmit that as sound to listeners. I believe that is the job – that is the function of a musician in society. They are there to give voice to a something that is as old as man, that can only be expressed this way – as vibrations or as art or poetry and that something is a feeling of God or whatever word you would choose to use.

Thank you very much for this John!

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