Gordon Stelter – Interview

SM: You play a piano in a renovated automobile in downtown athens, ga. what are your top five songs to regale the passerby with?

GS: “Grace and Beauty” by James Scott, 1909. The most elegant ragtime composition. “I’m Coming Virginia “, a haunting tune introduced by Ethel Waters in 1925. “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin, the most frequently requested piece. ( And a quick trip to Tendonitusville if played too often !!! ) “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling”, Thomas Waller’s prettiest piece, from 1927. And “Whispering”, from 1920, which constituted the first “Million Selling” record in Paul Whiteman’s landmark recording from that
year. “Whispering” is my “default” piece. I play it while waiting for people to stroll by. I could almost play it while asleep.

SM: Do you play mostly covers or original work?

GS: Mostly “covers”, but very old covers from the “PreBop”, or “Traditional Jazz” and “Standards” era of 1890-1940. I know about 500. I have written a few things and do play them, but feel that music is a language with a distinct vocabulary, and that we should learn the words of that language, in all their subtlety and nuance, before inflicting ourselves upon the world with something supposedly valuable just because it is “original”! Therefore, until I can write like Richard Rodgers, I’ll be content playing Richard Rodgers, while attempting to make it relevant in the immediate context.

SM: What is it about pianos that really gets you?

GS: With pianos we can express ourselves so fully! With melody, harmony, poyphony AND rythm! A piano is practically an orchestra at your fingertips. Ours was once an exceedingly “pianocentric” culture, and millions of them provided the social center of American homes, in an era when many “amateur” musicians were more accomplished than the “professionals” of today! I gurantee it! The highest expression of American popular music, in my opinion, can be therefore be found in the piano roll recordings of the 1900-1935 period. There is some ASTOUNDING musicianship on these rolls, especially on those made for the dynamic-capable “reproducing” pianos, which were usually player grands. The subtle and highly advanced use of unusual chords on these rolls is a lost art: one which I strive to recapture. In terms of vocabulary, it is like listening to someone who knows how to intelligently use a million words, versus someone who knows only a hundred.

SM: Countless recordings can be found of Beethoven’s work, yet we will never have an actual recording of the man himself playing his own work. is it better to play now and be heard by people in your own time, or to be recorded and play for people who haven’t even been born yet?

GS: If Beethoven were alive today he’d probably die laughing at the sacrosanct nonsense which has grown like mold upon the “Classical” tradition! All sincere musicians allow the spiritual atmosphere of their immediate environment affect them, and respond to it during the performance. Now, in the “Classical” tradition there is much more of a proscription against
improvisation, which in jazz is one of the tools which we use to respond to that atmosphere. So, while I enjoy classical music, I would not want sourpusses glowering at me for improvising ( as I suspect Beethoven, and all other performers of
his era, did regularly. ) I avoid the criticism by playing popular music, whiled attempting to make it as developed and profound as anything in the Classical tradition.
But musical recordings are marvelous because we can “swim upstream”, through them, to recapture to social or spiritual climate in which they were made, and to which the performer responded. They are like time machines, and if you are adequately sensitive, they can take you to another place in time, and then drag that back to the current context to improve it,
if need be.

SM: Does anyone ever hassle you while you’re trying to play?

GS: Yup. I have recieved death threats for my unwillingness to play “Free Bird”. Or let stinking drunks climb in and play the piano themselves. One guy even threatened to beat me up because I would not let him pee on my tire while playing, which he thought was perfectly acceptable.

SM: If it wasn’t a piano, you’d play a…

GS: Guitar. Guitars are easier to sing with because your arms aren’t flailing left and right, which messes up your breathing. I was aproached by the Tonight Show to sing and pick guitar the week Elvis died, but declined and became a monk.

SM: Tell us , please, an anecdote about playing downtown.

GS: Well, that business with the guy who wanted to pee on my truck was probably the most bizarre. I shoved him away from the van with one arm, mid-stream, and he went flying because he was wretchedly, stumblingly drunk. Then he got up and proceeded to argue violently with me as to why it was perfectly OK! I wish I had a camera. I would have photographed him made a poster out of it and sent it to his mom!
And I’ve had my little “celebrity” moments, such as Michael Stipe dancing a quick jig on the sidewalk.
But probably the most moving thing is when several couples will start dancing ballroom style on the sidewalk. This sometimes brings me to tears because it is so romantic, in an era which has largely traded class for crass. It gives me hope.

SM: Can you remember what you were doing on the day of this interview ten years ago?

GS: I was restoring player pianos and building the Thumpmobile.

SM: What’s you first reaction to the sound of silence?

GS: To listen inward. We hear God most clearly without external disractions. Everyone needs a quiet refuge, and Corporate America is quite intent that we never find one, so that we are always run-down, anxious and easily manipulated!

SM: If you got to name a song written about your life, it would be called….

GS: “Live Clean, Love God, Cause No Pain.” ( That’s my motto. )