12 November 2008

10 Questions With...Henry Ptak

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

Today we complete our look at the NJ-based symphonic band Advent with a profile of keyboardist Henry Ptak. Henry and his brother Mark form the core of the band along with multi-instrumentalist Alan Benjamin, and with Mark and Alan previously interviewed, the time was right to get one more take on the band's past, present, and burgeoning future.

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

My mom used to make me sing in front of her lady friends at the beauty parlor when I was about 4 or 5. Mostly Elvis Presley renditions of popular Italian songs that were in the charts around that time, like "It's Now or Never" ("'O Sole Mio") and "Surrender" ("Return to Sorrento"). My specialty was an expertly deadpan rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"--including the spoken part in the middle, word for word, delivered with the earnest gravity only five-year-olds can manage with a straight face. I was perfectly adorable, as you might readily expect. She also was unwittingly involved with my attraction to the piano, when she discovered she could get some of her cooking and cleaning done by putting on The Liberace Show, which seemed to fascinate me long enough to keep me out of mischief while she went about her business. My first music lessons were on the guitar at about eight or nine, and within a year or two I was proficient enough to hook up with similarly minded classmates to be playing at local CYO and recreation-night functions at the schools in my hometown. The switch to keyboards came a few years later, leading to high-school dance gigs, parties, and similar events that were the first paying gigs I ever did. My musical education was a sporadic, if ongoing, succession of start/stop interests that were usually triggered by the discovery that I would need to study this or that discipline as I began to get more of a sense of what I wanted to do musically. I was very fortunate in the fact that every time I realized the type of instruction I needed, I always lucked into people that were absolutely perfect for me, who knew exactly what I was interested in, and always directed me to even better examples of what they knew I already liked. Most of these men intuitively understood what excited me most about the music I was listening to (like Procol Harum; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Fairport Convention), and were very astute about directing me to J.S. Bach, Maynard Ferguson (and also Giovanni Gabrieli's brass works)--and Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, in order to get more of a historical perspective. I continued playing in bands and singing in various church choral groups throughout the '80s, and making "one final attempt" at putting together a project which embodied the spirit of the aforementioned influences (which by now included Genesis, Gentle Giant, and a ton of Renaissance and classical stuff), I hooked up with Alan Benjamin (who I later discovered had delivered himself a similar ultimatum) and voila! ... Advent.

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

If by "carefully composed" you mean deliberate in the traditional sense, as in not an outgrowth of collective improvisation or jamming, I'd say that's probably correct. Since for most of its existence, Advent has been more of a songwriting collective rather than a performing entity, the compositional process has, of necessity, been one of individuals working on their own, coming to rehearsal with what they've prepared, and then arranging and orchestrating what we bring to the table as we go. This would tend to produce the impression you allude to. We're not opposed to the jamming approach--when it works really well, like in Weather Report, or some similar situation, the results can be quite exhilarating, although it's often hard to discern how much of what you finally hear is the result of deliberate composing. There's a spontaneity and excitement in that approach that's almost impossible to premeditate--however, it's difficult to produce the kind of depth that prolonged reflection and development can inspire which, for me, usually occurs away from my instrument. We're also big fans of contrapuntal work, which (for me at least) is tough to manage in a jam setting. My guess is that the ideal would be a combination of both, of the kind that Genesis seemed to excel at. As for the influences, I'd say that in Advent, we tend to lean more in the direction of what has traditionally been understood as ensemble writing, so that would probably mean primarily the classics, and any popular artists who draw upon them as part of their style.

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

I think Mark addressed this point pretty accurately from a performance standpoint. Certainly minimizing how much we have to think about while performing has a lot to do with how the keyboards parts are distributed, though the way the instrumental textures come in and out often has as much to do with the limitations of our respective setups. For example, since Mark's gear includes an 88-key and 76-key instrument, there's more flexibility in the number splits he can manage, so wherever the range of the parts exceeds what I can get to comfortably in mid-performance, Mark usually takes those, and I usually take the ones that don't require a lot of button-pressing while I'm singing. My keyboard has a five-octave range and, while there's a lot you can do by switching octaves, you don't want to be doing a lot of that if you don't have to--I still do a lot more of it than I'd like, and when you're in the middle of something like "Ramblin' Sailor," where quite a few different keyboard setups are necessary, you want to minimize as much as possible the danger of accidentally ending up on a wrong patch.

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

We definitely use a lot of the sorts of sounds that have an orchestral scope to them--and since, as I mentioned earlier, sounds for the songs are conceived with a particular sonic palette in mind, we try to get as close to what we imagine would be there if we were writing for more traditional instruments. The nice thing about the keyboards is that you don't just have to go with the exact sound, but something that approximates what you have in mind and moves and flows like the real thing.

We also use a lot of piano and organ--at one point we'd considered the possibility, for simplicity's sake, of arranging our live setup so that the songs could be performed by a standard piano-guitar-organ-bass-drums-vocals type of band.

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?

Yeah, I'd definitely like to see it re-released, though at the moment we're more involved in working on our third album, so I suppose for the time being it's on the back burner. With all of its obvious imperfections, it was really fun to make. (I found Mark and Alan's seemingly endless resourcefulness at overcoming the technical limitations of what we had to work around particularly entertaining and fascinating.)

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?

I'm not sure what "pastoral" means--judging from the way I've seen it used, I'm guessing that some of what we do sounds too "stringy," excessively symphonic, too slow in overall tempo and mood, insufficiently hard-edged or "rocking," or some combination of the above. If I'm missing something, please excuse my misunderstanding of the term. I think that perhaps we listen for different kinds of things in the music we tend to favor. For one thing, most bands that incorporate more traditional instruments (like string and brass) into their songs tend to use them decoratively, to augment an arrangement that might just as easily have done without it and still worked. The two versions of The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" come to mind to illustrate the point. We tend to do the reverse, which is to regard the timbral possibilities inherent in rock instruments as an extension of the orchestra, so that rather than dominating the arrangement as you would expect in a rock setting, the guitars-bass-drums-keys are sort of on an equal footing with the strings, brass, winds, and so on. The orchestral textures are more integral to the arrangement, not just an ornamental afterthought. That's what first excited me about not just the early prog stuff, but also things like Dick Halligan's arrangement (on Blood, Sweat & Tears 3) of "Symphony/Sympathy for the Devil." When I first heard that, it seemed about as near-perfect and seamless a fusion of rock, jazz, and 20th-century concert music as was possible. It was like Milton's Paradise Lost set to music, and it made me wonder how I'd have categorized it if I'd never heard the original version by the Stones. It sounded like a whole new genre to me at the time, and it must have really took, because of the three of us, I tend to be the one least concerned about whether our stuff "rocks" or not. I think the set of lyrics we used on the CD also contributed to the overall mood somewhat, but in retrospect, I doubt I would have changed anything if I had it to do again. All of lyrics communicated something that struck some chord with me personally, and I'm sure that my considerations had more to do with matching music to text, which I thought we did pretty successfully.

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

I tend to like music that has strongly national character to it, something that powerfully reflects the soul of the people that produced it. I don't go in much for the "internationalist" or "world music" approach that was fashionable a few years back, so for me that means music with primarily European (and by extension, American) points of reference and place of origin. I do like a lot of Ives's stuff--it's extremely quirky at times, and for its time very experimental, but it still sounds very American. Possibly "Central Park in the Dark" or some portion of "Three Places in New England" would be high on my list. I like a lot of British music, so I think something by Vaughan Williams--perhaps "The Running Set," Sea Songs, or the first or third movement of the English Folk Song Suite would interest me also. Honegger's "Pacific 231," excerpts from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, or from Praetorius's Dances from Terpsichore, for reasons unrelated to interests specified earlier. And also, if you can overlook the excruciating title, "Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper" by Jaromir Weinberger. I've wanted to do this one, especially the fugue section, ever since I saw it performed live for brass, organ, and percussion. I promptly ordered the music the next day, to study it ... it's waiting!

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

Well, as usual it's already comprising a balancing act--ambitious goals vs. limited time, much burning of the midnight oil, while trying to fulfill the responsibilities necessary to maintain solvency. Among the works already in progress is an arrangement of a major work by a 20th-century American composer, but not Copland or Bernstein. Overall, I think this CD will have a bit more of an American flavor to it than its predecessors.

9. Are there any potential surprises for listeners?

No R&B used in getting an American sound, as far as I can tell so far.

10. Do you have any final thoughts for us?

HP: A deep and heartfelt thanks to everyone connected with the prog scene for providing the climate, opportunities, encouragement, and sustained interest we've needed to continue to do this--and particularly to those people who've helped to support our efforts by purchasing our CDs, or by coming out to see us perform live. God bless to all of you.

Websites of Note:

(above photo from Advent website.)

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