Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dali for the Ears: The Sound World of Derek Piotr

The first I knew of Derek Piotr was his response to a post.  I’d commented about Björk's remark that minimalism was her “abyss.”  I hadn’t seen Piotr's name before, so, of course, I had to look him up.

This led me to l:ife unfurl:ing, where I found his benediction to the year then ending:
this year was marvelous
filled with moon halos and sudden lovers
memories split apart and reformed into more fortified shapes
I have been blessed also with extremely powerful connections
and have enormous hopes for the coming year
and coming of the light
thank you.
I thought the sentiment lovely, and well expressed.  Whoever this fellow was, he knew where to locate the music in words, and I wanted to know more.

Piotr is a sound composer, a term I’d not heard before.  I wondered whether I could I follow him from words into sound.  I wasn’t sure I had any antecedents for this, but I set myself the challenge to try.  I contacted Piotr and, after an exchange of e-mails, we arranged to meet.

We met at Argo Tea, a sound-filled café in New York City’s landmark Flatiron Building.  Straight off, Piotr made clear he doesn’t see himself primarily as a poet, though his poetic leanings provide a clue to his approach to sound.

Of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, for example, his favorite fragment is “you burn me.”  “It’s just three words,” he said, “and it just kills me.”  Of his own sound compositions, Piotr said, “the fewer elements in something, the more vividly it hits me.  Always.”

Piotr is genuinely in love with sound, following the trail laid down by John Cage.  “I think when John Cage was talking about bringing the background forward, I really just took that to heart and ran with it.”

Piotr began to experiment with sound when he was fifteen.  “I’d been into Madonna for a long time in middle school, and then moved to Björk.”  He did not, however, take the ordinary musical route.  “A lot of both Björk and Madonna’s music have remixes by kind of experimental people . . . . there was enough in there that was interesting to me to kind of push myself into that territory.”

Trolling the internet for experimental music, he discovered Berlin-based Antye Greie, a vocalist and digital songwriter also known as AGF.  Of her work, Piotr said, “It’s so focused and so elaborately constructed of just these edited together voices.”

AGF has had a profound influence on Piotr's work.  In her work, he saw "where he wanted to go."  But more than that, she reached out to lend encouragement of a very concrete sort, by offering to produce his work.  Piotr was moved to tears, for here was someone he'd "looked to for so many years," saying back to him, "I’m not simply going to appreciate what you do, but I’m going to help you do what you do."  

Piotr knew early on, that, while limited resources confined him to being a “bedroom musician,” he wasn’t interested in thinking like one:  “Not thinking, like, you know, I’m going to plug my fender into the amp and play three chords and record it and then sing and then play drums," he said.  "Ninety-eight percent of guitar music, I just can’t stand.”  Instead, the model Piotr used when approaching his compositions was Bell Labs in the 1950's.

Piotr takes his sounds where he finds them:  “Mostly I just try and enhance what sounds good to me.”  Of Midnight for Two Clocks, perhaps his most accessible piece for the uninitiated ear, Piotr explained, “We were at my aunt’s house, and she just happens to have two clocks, and they both went off at the same time.”  Another composition, Sinners Rise Up, got its start when Piotr dropped his microphone while recording something else, and he “looped” it.

He has used his writings in sound compositions, but not the way one might expect.  To create Scrape, for example, he “read the poem in entirety at the beginning of the piece and then kind of chopped it up and filtered it around.”  For the final version, though, he took the full reading of the poem out.

Yet another piece, Focus, Piotr called a "coincidental triumph."  He'd asked Zach Thorpe, "a fantastic singer," to send him a voice improv for use on his AGORA project.  Though Thorpe hadn't heard the beat Piotr laid down for Focus, the vocal take fit as if he had.

When asked how someone whose ear was attuned to classical music might approach listening to his work, he said, “I almost see what I do is, instead of composing for viola and celesta and glockenspiel, I’m composing blocks of sound and attempting to give them a permanent location in space the way Morton Feldman would do on a cello and a piano.”

Though Piotr cites Björk as his primary influence, he cautions that the influence isn’t direct.  “When a person is doing sound, you aren’t always hearing the sounds they’re making, but you’re getting their energy,” he said.  “She’s someone who really takes me to my happy place.”

Meredith Monk, with whom Piotr interned, had an impact of a different sort, underscoring the value he places on “wordlessness.”  “I don’t think you need words, and I think a lot of times you can just say things without words that you can’t say with words.”

Piotr agreed with composer Dylan Mattingly’s advice to “listen to as much new music as possible . . . and listen to it multiple times.”  Piotr cited his own experience with Alfred Schnittke.  Piotr’s “favorite piece of music ever,” even over Björk, is the Sanctus from Schnittke’s Fourth Symphony, which he described as “killingly beautiful.”  But it didn’t start out that way.  The Symphony “wasn’t grabbing me.  I listened to the first two movements, and then moved on to something else.”

Among his most important musical influences, Piotr also named Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer who works in a minimalist style.  “One of the reasons I listen to Arvo Pärt is every time I’m listening to him, I get this impression that I’m standing somewhere with immensely high ceilings.”

Lately, Piotr has been listening to Morton Feldman.  I’d just been to a concert at which Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett was featured, and found that, by the end of its forty-four minute length, its charms had worn thin.  With wisdom beyond his years—or perhaps, more justly, because of his years—Piotr offered this perspective:  “He’s very spacious, but in more of a linear way.  Whereas Pärt kind of gives you this big ceiling, Feldman kind of gives you a long corridor.”

What Piotr said of Björk, “When a person is doing sound, you aren’t always hearing the sounds they’re making, but you’re getting their energy,” is true for Piotr, too.  I’d come to his sound compositions wondering whether I’d be able to connect to them at all.  I came away from meeting Piotr enlivened by his passion, intelligence, and spirit.  That’s exactly what I hear in his sounds.
This spring, Piotr will be touring his two albums, Elsewhere and AGORA, in several cities in the US.  Watch for announcements here. 

Listening List

Derek Piotr
from Elsewhere

Sinners Rise Up
Midnight for Two Clocks

© Derek Piotr.  By kind permission of Derek Piotr.

from AGORA

Winterconsummation (demo)

Scrape (Below is the demo version, using full text, offered as an exclusive to Raining Acorns readers.  To compare the final album track, in which the full text has been removed, click here.)

© Derek Piotr.  By kind permission of Derek Piotr.
For fascinating background information about AGORA, including an interview excerpt on the story behind the track Focus, click here.

AGFAnime (outtake from Head Slash Bauch, a major influence on Piotr's work)
BjörkMouth's Cradle (from Medulla)
Morton FeldmanSamoa (excerpt)
Meredith MonkDolmen Music
Arvo PärtTe Deum (excerpt)
Alfred Schnittke:  Symphony No. 4, Sanctus
Zach Thorpe:  Lungs (demo; music, lyrics & vocals by Thorpe)

© Zach Thorpe.  By kind permission of Zach Thorpe.

Credits:  The photograph of Derek Piotr is by Kit Crosskey.  The Elsewhere album cover is by Eric Wiley.  The AGORA album cover photograph is by meire todao.  All by kind permission of Derek Piotr.  The photograph at the head of the post is Phillipe Halsman's Dali Atomicus.  There are no known restrictions on its publication.  (To view Megan Barron's joyfully antic homage to Halsman's work, click here.) 


  1. Hi Raining Acorns .. there are some really interesting sounds being made by entrepreneurial peoples mixing the disciplines - a world I have no idea aboout - but I love learning a little more. Piotr obviously is very talented and I love the way he's pushing the boundaries ..

    Thanks for telling us about him .. have a good weekend .. Hilary

  2. Greetings Raining Acorns,
    Thanks for yet another interesting and informative posting. Derek Piotr is an obviously talented young gentleman and your fact-filled article will make me go check out even more about his musical exploits. I shall look out for your further updates on him. Thank you for sharing and I'm hoping your weekend will be peaceful.
    In kindness, Gary.

  3. Dear Raining Acorns,
    "“When a person is doing sound, you aren’t always hearing the sounds they’re making, but you’re getting their energy,” - that quote I like very much! And I like the poetry of Piotr (I understood that he said: "music first" - but every listener decides what (s)he takes :-) I'm happy for him that he met AGF (have to look her up) and so is able to reach a lot of people.
    Thank you for your post - I always feel like a person who does her first steps on the moon - unknown territory.
    Oh - and your changed picture above with the crocuses is very lovely!!

  4. Interesting concepts. I like his mind.

  5. Another interesting and informative post on music from RA! I especially like the video clips - they add so much to the written work. More listening awaits me, I see ~

  6. Hilary: I so agree with your comment emphasizing the way Piotr is “pushing the boundaries.” I don’t think most who started out listening to Madonna would go in such an adventurous direction, do you think?

    Gary: What a lovely comment! It was a privilege for me to meet with and talk with Piotr. He has a lovely, generous spirit that welcomes us all into an aural landscape that many might otherwise find forbidding. I’m very happy to know that I was able to convey something of that spirit in this post.

    Britta: I’m so pleased you loved Piotr’s comment about getting someone’s energy through their sound. I, too, thought it a lovely insight into listening, enabling us, as you note in your wonderful comment, to take our “first steps on the moon - unknown territory.”

    Cybersr: And he yours—when I told him you’d been first in line to order an iPad, he wrote, “that's fantastic!! Björk's record is coming out slowly by slowly over the next few months via a series of iPad Apps and was partly recorded on one...maybe you ought to let her know!” So, here I am, letting you know!

    WOS: I'm so glad you enjoyed the video clips, about which I feel the same. It was a real pleasure to speak with Piotr, and I’m pleased the video allows me to share at least some of that experience with you.

  7. I enjoyed the video clips, and the music. How interesting that this piece arose from a comment that Piotr made on one of your great music posts!

  8. @Carol-Ann - isn't it a wonderfully small world? I was very grateful Sue reached out and humbled when her interest grew. I love when connections this meaningful happen by accident...


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