23 October 2008

10 Questions With...Mark Ptak

(Shunji of Kenso with Alan Benjamin, Henry Ptak and Mark Ptak of Advent)

Today we present the second of a series of interviews with members of Advent. Mark Ptak, one of the two Ptak brothers responsible for vocals and keyboards in the NJ-based symphonic group, has kindly agreed to sit down with me (in a figurative sense) to delve a little deeper into what makes Advent the special group they are.

Read on for more!

1. How did you get your start in music, and with Advent?

MP: Well, I'm told that our grandfather was quite musical (he played the accordion), and our parents could both carry a tune, though they never really played an instrument or anything like that. I guess I really got interested in music because my brother Henry (being a bit older than me) had paved the way in our immediate family. He was always listening to cool stuff, and I'd frequently get some of his LPs passed down to me (Procol Harum comes to mind) and then listen to them in my room until I wore the grooves out of the things while singing to them and/or drumming on a couple of Kleenex boxes. I initially wanted to be a drummer, but since noisy instruments were frowned upon in our house (Henry had already taken up the piano and had amassed quite a collection of classic 70's instruments - quite the eye candy, believe me), I pretty much ended up taking piano/theory lessons from Henry at around 13, then joined some hometown bands by 15 or 16, playing stuff like the "In The Cage" medley by Genesis. Soon, a friend of mine from one of those bands ended up going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, taking up Music Production & Engineering as a major. Talking to him about Berklee was pretty exciting, and it wasn't long before I joined him up there, majoring in MP&E myself as well. While I was in school, Henry had been writing material that he would let me hear occasionally and we had always thought that it would be nice to work together on some of this stuff when I got home. I actually wrote the chorus to what ended up being "Nowhere Else To Go" while I was still in school, and we had paired it with Henry's verses that had existed for that tune already. Not long after, he told me about a guy he had met and started exchanging ideas with back in NJ, and asked me if I wanted to join in that collaboration when I finished Berklee. So, after graduation, I moved back home and finally got to meet the guy that Henry had begun working with. That guy was Alan Benjamin, and that collaboration ended up becoming Advent.

2. Advent's music tends to sound very carefully composed. Are there particular influences that drive or inform this style?

MP: Yeah, it is pretty carefully composed. I guess there is very little improvisation in what we do, save for the initial idea as it literally comes out of the head. Once an idea of any sustainable length exists, we pretty much try it with other bits and pieces we might have lying around to see what fits. It's almost like putting together a puzzle, only we really don't know what the finished picture will look like ahead of time. There are exceptions to this, and complete ideas (more like fuzzy snapshots in the mind) may exist that just need to be sculpted a bit as they're going to disc. But generally, it's been a process of short improvisation followed by intense treatment afterwards. I suppose it's like composing mini-classical works, where attention is given to different sections of the orchestra (band), and having them all work together to produce the overall sound rather than one specific instrument dominating over the rest (unless it's meant to do that, like in a piano concerto or something). At least that's what we've tried to accomplish.

3. How do you divide up keyboard parts between you?

MP: That's usually been Henry's job for most of the tunes (especially since most of the tunes are his). On occasion, he would give me some of the more complex parts to play, mainly because he has to sing lead quite a bit, and it would be extremely difficult to sing and play some of these parts at the same time. Additionally, since there may be many patch changes on the keyboards during a tune, it would usually depend on who could reasonably reach a particular sound or family of sounds at any one point in the song. If one of us is playing piano style patches, for example, then obviously the other would stick to pad or string sounds, or maybe organ. It's a constantly evolving process right now, one that we're doing our best to perfect, given the highly orchestral nature of the music.

4. Are there particular keyboard sounds that you feel are essential to your style?

MP: Not really, no. It pretty much depends (as I stated above) on what is needed for each particular tune. I do like playing organ-type stuff, probably because I started out playing Henry's old Hammond L-112 when I was much younger, until he sold it to me and got himself a real B3. Personally, I like the feeling of kinda sliding from chord to chord on a Hammond sound, or playing contrapuntal stuff on a clavinet-type sound (yes, I love Giant), or even taking a 12-string-type sound and picking around on that. But it really depends on what's necessary at the time and if I happen to be writing at all.

5. Advent's debut release has been sadly out of print for years. Is there any possibility that rights may be regained for a future re-release?

MP: It's possible, but there are a few things we have to sort out. There's the issue of the Gentle Giant tunes used in our tribute cut, "BITB," as well as a piece by W. Byrd and one by J. Turina that we'd have to get clearance on if we want to include them on a re-issue, I believe. We haven't really taken any steps to contact anyone about those tunes yet, mainly because other things taken precedence lately, such as putting together the live set. Also, many of the songs were mixed in mono. Around the time that Mellow Records was putting together their Gentle Giant tribute CD, we sent them some of our original material (in addition to our GG tribute cut), many of which were not quite polished at the time. They liked them enough to offer to release them as they were, and we agreed. So now we've kinda had to backtrack and remix a few things in order to bring them up to a satisfactory level. "Alison Waits" and "Rear View Mirror" both ended up on Cantus Firmus as remixed bonus tracks, so from that decision alone, I think we've shown that we're aware that these issues need to be dealt with eventually. We'd love to re-release it, but I think we'd also like to spend some time with the remainder of it and make it sound a bit more like it was originally intended. Right now we're pretty committed to the new material, but if we have the time and money to flush it out, I think we certainly would try to do that.

6. While Cantus Firmus has been widely acclaimed by critics, some people have felt that the band's sound is a bit overly pastoral. Do you feel this is a fair criticism, or does it miss out on some of the influences that may have informed the band's sound?

MP: Well, it's hard to know to what degree people are familiar with the stuff you are familiar with, but I guess there's always the chance that a composer may be working on different plane than the listener. Not a higher one, necessarily (though that could happen), just usually a different one - one where interests and influences may not intersect. We don't really worry too much about what part of the band's sound people like or don't like. Our ears usually tell us what sounds good to us, and we just follow it along until we feel that we can't really improve on something for whatever reason. There are a number of different influences within the writing department, but we never attempt to sound specifically one way or another, we just try to make the meal taste good with the ingredients we have, without overusing any of the spices. :-)

7. If you could arrange any classical composition for the band to play, what would it be and why?

MP: Hmm...I like a lot of Bach, and I always thought it would be cool to incorporate his "Jig" Fugue (BWV 577) into one of our tunes somehow. Why? Probably because of the fact that it's a fugue and it has a terribly uplifting quality about it. It's a great way to utilize the energy of a band, I think, especially if you try to include drums when it doesn't really call for it. But I think that kind of thing takes a back seat to our original stuff at the moment.

8. It's been about 2.5 years since Cantus Firmus was released. How is work coming along on the next Advent album?

MP: Swimmingly. That is, we're literally swimming in new ideas and arrangements. Good stuff takes time, I think, and we've probably set the bar pretty high with Cantus Firmus (at least for ourselves). So we aren't going to rush the next one out before we think it's ready. At the same time, though, we know that we want to release it as soon as possible. A lot of time was taken up after the release of Cantus Firmus finding the right additional members and adjusting the arrangements so that they could be played live by the band (which includes six of us now). It took the better part of a year to really do all that and to be able to get the right gig(s) to showcase the stuff. Jim Robinson of the NJ Proghouse (God bless him) was willing to take the chance on our first gig and we're really grateful to him and all the folks at the NJPH for that. Anyway, like I said, we took some time to get that going, all the while intending to jump back into writing new stuff the minute we had a break. It's also nice (though very challenging) to now be able to write stuff knowing that you have two guitarists and two keyboardists in addition to bass & drums to work with. We hope to give the recordings a bit more of a live feeling this time around since we're pretty comfortable with each other as a band at this point. That's another plus that came out of doing things in the order in which we did them.

9. Are there any potential surprises for listeners?

MP: Now Bill, why would I want to tell you that (LOL)? There aren't gonna be any spy rings or snap together toys included inside, if that's what you mean. How 'bout, "...it won't take 9 years this time in between releases." Seriously though, I think we'll be more surprised than anyone else by what ends up on the final mixes.

10. Do you have any final thoughts for us?

MP: Yep. I'd like to offer a sincere thank you to all the folks who supported us in any way, shape or form, whether it be by buying a CD, coming to or assisting at a performance, booking us, reviewing our work, or whatever. We know that times are much different today than they were even a lifetime ago and that folks are much busier than they used to be. And for people to give up precious time in their lives to sit and listen to what we have to offer is something that I'm immensely grateful for. I just pray that we can bring an uplifting spirit to the music to give people an enjoyable listen every time they put it on. God knows we try.

Thank you, Bill, for the opportunity to sit and chat. It was great fun.

Websites of Note:

(above photo from Advent website.)

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