The Terra Verde Corner

Music for reflection
An interview with Frank French
by Lynda Lester
From The Secrets of Terra Verde

The Painting

Could you say a little about your early exposure to music?

I guess music was in my family. My father was a musician, a singer. I remember an early experience with him, one evening when he was playing piano and we were all dancing around the room. He could play enough piano to make music for us, it was part of his thing. In fact, everyone in my family was trained in music; we all had to learn piano. My brother studied at a young age, so he was already playing; my sister studied too, but she eventually gave it up. The piano belonged to my mom's aunt -- it was an old Chickering that had been new in 1904. So people in my family were making music.

We had records in the house -- 78s at first, we still had those in the 1950s. I listened to Mozart when I was little, so I heard that music early.

San Francisco had a school, the Conservatory of Music, and in the early years, it focused on teaching kids to play. It grew more and more developed, and ultimately evolved to the college level and became a four-year school. My brother studied there when it was still small and located on Sacramento Street; later it moved to its present site on 19th Avenue.

My own preparatory training was good. I started piano at the Conservatory when I was eight -- I'd been playing a little already, and I asked for lessons. First I took group lessons; then after a year, I also took individual lessons from teachers. In the Saturday classes for groups, kids were given music theory and taught to sing and count. It was a progressive course, and there'd be an exam at the end of each year.

And as you got older ...?

Then the 60s came and society started falling apart. I stopped taking lessons when I was about 14 -- society was pretty chaotic at that time. I kind of missed not having any people a little older than me who could guide me -- there were only psychedelic hippies making music in the park. Of course, that in itself was a reaction to the straight world, to a leadership that was leading people astray -- the counterculture was trying to establish a society as an alternative to the mainstream.

The emphasis in school in the 50s early 60s had been on science -- Sputnik, "beat the Russians" -- and the colleges started emphasizing math and science. I was good at that but, when the Vietnam war got going, I realized its goals were ignoble and I gave up on that -- as well as a lot of other pursuits.

What kind of music were you listening to?

I was a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s, and was listening to the offerings of the counterculture: blues, rock and roll, guitars. I learned to play guitar well enough to play pop and rock and roll. I was still into music, but I didn't become a serious student till I resumed my study of music in 1970. I went back to the Conservatory at the college level for a year, then stopped for a couple years, but eventually I went for three more years.

Then I went to the state university for two years, majored in music, and got my degree. It didn't mean too much -- by that time I was already working with various groups playing pop music at parties. The Latin sound was coming on strong in the mid-70s. I played in a conjunto ensemble that had 12 or 13 members. It was actually a small orchestra with a rhythm section, a bass, a piano, a Latin percussion section with three or four kinds of percussion, and a brass section, usually coronets and trombones. And singers. It was music for social dancing, principally. We played in large hotels, at parties, and occasionally in night clubs.

Did you have a day job?

I was introduced to piano technology -- tuning -- as early as 1971-72, and I've been doing that ever since. That's how I supported myself in Europe in the late 70s and early 80s, in addition to playing.


In 1978 I went to Vienna to absorb music and culture. They have a long tradition of Central European music. Unfortunately, it's very rigid -- they're not really open to innovation. It's an elitist, reactionary movement. So I decided at the time not be a part of that.

But I stayed to participate in the youth counterculture; among the younger people there was plenty of live music being played locally. I played ragtime and Latin American music -- that was my night life -- and during the day I was working on pianos. Vienna was my base.

What did you like best about Europe?

It was like living in the West without being affected by it. In the U.S., we live in a media bubble; the information we receive is determined by moneyed interests. When you get outside that, you see a different way of life, you get a different perspective on how you might live. They're more culturally conditioned to things connected with art and music -- at least they were at that time.

The economics over there weren't constantly changing to the point where you had to scramble to keep up -- changes occurred a little slower than they did here in the U.S. There was less turmoil, it was more stable. The pace of life is based in the culture of a given country -- over here, we don't have those traditions and we don't know how to live like that. Although Europe today is besieged by economic interests out to create turmoil -- they're struggling now.

How long were you in Europe?

I stayed in Europe till 1983. I came back to Southern California and started an independent piano business in Orange County -- Reagan country in the 80s. I stayed there for six or seven years, and came to Boulder on St. Patrick's Day in 1990. I knew some people here (Jack Rummel and Fergus, for example) who were doing good things in music -- mainly that's the way I relate to the world. And I was fed up with Southern California.

I founded the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival in 1992. People were doing things here, but not on that level -- they weren't mobilizing on a professional, high-profile level. The Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival was the beginning of that.

What did you hope to accomplish with the festival?

I wanted to bring people into contact with a part of the culture they didn't seem to know much about. It's been somewhat successful, but doing anything with culture and art is a slow process. We have a societal expectation for things to happen quickly, so you come into conflict with that dynamic right away. Getting out to do something takes time and patience, especially with art. There's an expectation of a fast-moving society that becomes based on quick gratification and hedonism.

Are you disillusioned by rock and roll?

Originally it was a cultural phenomenon, a sign of rebellion, and that probably was good -- the 1950s personified that grey conservative thing, and rock was a revolution against that. But by the mid-60s, once the economic interests got hold of it, it became an exploitation of youth by economic interests. I see it as something that has become corrupted by the system. Not initially, at the beginning, but it has become so.

People that run the industry are not musicians, they don't have the musical sense. They're business people and economists, and aren't motivated by aesthetic concerns. Anyone who undertakes the promotion of culture in this society sooner or later will be compromised by economic interests. Nobody knows that better than pop and rock musicians who have spent a career in this medium. The dynamics don't change. You can make a little or a lot of money, it's the same dynamics.

Do you think that as the population ages, society as a whole will become more appreciative of art?

Sometimes it seems we're going in that direction, sometimes it seems we're sliding back. I believe that in order for life to have meaning, it's necessary to have art and music.

The appreciation of art was part of my own training in the humanities, although it's something we've lost as a society. And that's a problem that has been discussed a long time in Europe by various philosophers, and has been recognized all the way back to the Greeks -- to Plato, and even before that. When a society becomes increasingly benighted through mercenary concerns and loses sight of the more noble aspects of culture, it has a problem.

Right now the outcome is in the balance. We're culturally conditioned to consume and to do things destructive to the environment and to our psyches and to our souls. It's an economic pattern. To counterbalance this requires a tremendous force of will -- and it's more than an individual concern, it's collective. We're missing out on basic culture, on a manifestation of life that is not solely contingent on material things. We're far too materialistic to be cultural participants.

But culture is determined by education, and that's suffered. People are not acculturated to music and art at early age, they're conditioned by TV.

What's the meaning of your life?

The meaning of my life is to counteract these forces with culture: to fight for that which is meaningful, as manifested through music.

What do you want to contribute?

Well, I could talk about my intention -- my intention is to participate and leave something worthwhile behind.

I'd like to think that your music will live for hundreds of years.

Well, that's a tough prediction to make. For that to happen, we have to not descend into barbarism and the atrophy of the written word and written music. If the state of literature and music today is in decline, it will have to rebound for the music to survive.

When did you start composing?

I composed my first piece when I was eight or ten years old. It was derivative, imitative -- but I did start writing when I was a kid.

How do you compose?

Early in the process, I put the ideas on paper -- I have to see how they fit together. So from the get-go, I put them on paper, in notebooks. [picks up a notebook] I put the ideas here. There are many alternatives; some are used, some discarded. After that, I work on the performance process.

David Thomas Roberts and Scott Kirby do the reverse. The way they approach it is to get the piece played through in its entirety, then notate it. David has played pieces for years that weren't notated.

What I do is more in the tradition of Beethoven or Brahams than Liszt and Chopin, who extemporized -- they played first, before notation.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get a lot of ideas in sleep or half-awake. I hear sound in dreams -- sometimes with an association, often there's a movie with it. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I put it on paper; other times I forget.

But I don't always get my ideas in sleep. Sometimes I think of music first before I sit down -- I hear it in my mind before I attempt playing. A lot of ideas I notate first before I play them. And once you get into that space, time goes by. You don't pay attention. Many hours pass while you notate on paper -- it's a timeless dimension.

Do you experience an altered state when you play?

Ideally, you want to transcend the music and let it all come out. But you have to be able to execute before you can do that. You constantly have to look ahead: before the note is played, you've already heard it. But ideally, you want to let the music play by itself. You want to be just the vehicle -- your music is playing you. Although that's not always good -- you may be taken somewhere you didn't intend to go.

What's your greatest frustration?

I'm less frustrated now than I was before. But it's like pushing a boulder up the hill: you get tired. If I played concerts more often, I would be in better playing shape. It's difficult to prepare. You play once, then not for two or three weeks. I should be playing everyday for someone. But the message hasn't gone out. People aren't motivated to get this music in front. We have to do that as well -- the mobilization, all the rest.

You're up against people who can't sit down and listen. People are limited by their expectations, perhaps by their imagination. There is an art of listening -- listening is an art as much as is playing. You have to acquire the skill. Some have it, others have to work to acquire it.

I should point out that one of the obstacles is a society of people conditioned to entertainment. We've been watching television for 50 years. TV and entertainment have prejudiced our listening, and this makes it more difficult for people to tune into what Terra Verde is. The expectation is entertainment -- as opposed to intelligent listening, listening intelligently, absorbing, sitting quietly and listening, which lots of people aren't ready to do.

Some people have their favorite pieces and just want to be entertained. We've managed to curtail that considerably -- but we're playing less now as a result.

One woman showed up at a concert the other night and asked what was going to be happening. She said, "You expect me to sit down for two hours and listen -- nothing else?" That's an example of a person not ready to participate. She wanted it to be like a blues thing, where she could stand around and talk to people in the back. She wasn't there to hear good music, but to connect with people. It's a certain social mentality -- artificially naive, insincere. She wouldn't buy a ticket, we weren't groovy enough for her.

There are a lot of types like that. Mainstream music has been marketed as way for them to dance, get connected, and get laid. It's pretty cheesy, but many people are conditioned to that way of thinking.

I don't condemn people for their beliefs -- but I do attempt to give my perception on why they think the way do. And my insight is that much of it is due to society's conditioning.

When you premiered "Merengue" recently, you said it took you six years to learn how to play it.

That's an example of what I was talking about before. I'll have an idea, but the realization of the idea takes time. "Merengue" is a technically challenging piece, and it must be approached correctly. In a case like that, your playing must evolve. If you're not ready to play, you have to put it aside and come back to it later.

It's the same with all compositions. You have to wait till the technique is malleable enough to where you can play it. Your technique has to evolve enough to realize the idea.

And I suggest that's true not only for playing, but also for listening. A lot of people who listen to European classics don't understand how the music is put together -- and that's a shortcoming of education. They haven't had a proper introduction to music. It's also a consequence of overexposure to bad music, being willing to accept that -- they can't focus on anything higher, it's not part of their training, it's beyond them.

Your new piece "Jasmine" is wonderful.

In a way, that's a conventional piece. It's African/Cuban-inspired, a call-and-response piece -- there's a two-bar phrase, and the chorus answers back. Call and response is an ancient musical device. It's used in the Roman Catholic liturgy, it's used in every religion; it's a universal thing. That's part of the basis for the piece, the initial concept.

Could you discuss the extramusical elements of Terra Verde music?

Those elements have a connection with other things than music. They may connect with literature, religion, the semantics of language, politics ... you see that all the time in other kinds of music. There was a political movement connected with the folk music of the 60s, a literary aspect connected with romantic music in the time of Schumann, and a religious aspect connected to the music of Bach. It's a dimension of time and society that is connected with art by the needs of the time.

Terra Verde contains extramusical elements merely by its position in society today; it's concerned with what's going on now. The sentiment of Terra Verde, the idea, pertains to a connection with the earth, with natural things, the natural world -- which is perhaps a gentle world not ruled by machines, by noisy things -- perhaps a more placid existence that's connected with nature and with reflection.

As a kind of music, an art form, Terra Verde should be something that moves and inspires people. It's a different concept than music that amuses or entertains people, music that keeps people working, music that you hear in stores. This kind of music is designed for listening and reflection.

One idea often expressed these days is that after centuries of living in a material, mechanistic paradigm, we're unfulfilled and need to search for deeper resonance in our lives.

It's really nothing new. The Christian church preached the same thing in overcoming the Roman Empire. These conditions are not new, these directions are not new either; they have a strong basis in tradition. We may simply be combating the previous norms of the society we're living in. You put "new" on any product and people are more apt to buy it -- "new and improved toothpaste." You can call it new, but it's been around a long time.

In terms of a different plane of existence or a different mode of mind, its actual newness to human consciousness is not a novelty; it's a prevailing, age-old norm. All you have to do is look at Plato, Aristotle, or ancient China and you'll find the same sentiment being expressed in a different way.

The cycles of history repeat. It's like a spiral going up, and we can hope that some progress is being made. When we think of progress in the West, we think of moving forward -- but there may actually be a period of regression. A spiral is dynamic. If we move forward too fast, there'll be a reaction. There are both aspects to progress. In an instance where society moves forward too fast, people have to catch up. Technology is a perfect example of that.

I went to Austria last year to visit the people at Bösendorfer. I saw again that the U.S. is technologically advanced, but culturally we're way behind a good many societies. It's a question of balance. I believe the emphasis here is too mechanistic, there is insufficient emphasis on the artistic. It's not this or that, it's a question of emphasis, a question of how much or how little.

Terra Verde in musical terms might represent a restoration of tradition, in a sense -- a necessary one at the end of a musically chaotic century. This is a backward movement, a return to certain romantic elements of 19th century music, while at the same time it's a forward projection in the sense that it can lead people to a higher plateau, a better plateau.

It's connected to the drive for more cultivation in sensibility, both in music and independent of music. The musical and the extramusical elements are two forces that are equally important.

Are there impressionistic elements in Terra Verde?

Impressionism was a movement in art in the 1870s. That element is probably there, but not exclusively -- just as there are elements of romanticism, classicism, and certain elements of the vernacular. It's part of composite, but it's not the entire thing.

The music of Europe figures prominently in the music of Terra Verde, there's no disputing that. But in the New World, certain dynamics of interplay allowed the music to evolve in ways that it couldn't in the Old World. Terra Verde is different because it has assimilated everything since. Terra Verde contains aspects of popular music of the 20th century that have added meaning to the romantic music of the 19th century.

If you listen to Bach, the style in which he wrote was considered outdated at the time -- people were already writing baroque and rococo music. Bach was writing in antiquated contrapuntal style derived from Italian masters of the 16th century -- but even though he was writing in the old style of florid counterpoint, he put in the aspect of tonality, he added a new harmonic system to it. That's an example of music that's looking backward and forward at the same time.

Do you see Terra Verde-like manifestations in other fields -- literature, for instance?

I see it happening in other forms of enjoyment. It's happening in medicine, in health care -- people are finding more creative ways to solve health problems. I see it, in a sense, even in certain things more connected with consumption -- cooking schools and the home-brewing revolution, for instance. People are becoming more selective in what they eat, more concerned with taste, aesthetics, and refinement.

It's what The Tao of Chaos is talking about. That's not fiction, it's not literature per se, it's philosophy -- a different field, but moving in the same direction.

Is Terra Verde related to the New Age movement?

Possibly. You should interview David, he'd tell you more on that. To me, "New Age" sounds like a Southern California promotional marketing ploy; I have a somewhat cynical view of it. David is probably more balanced.

If there were a Terra Verde movie, what would it be like?

It would have a socially redeeming quality. I'm not sure it could be made here. In Cuba I saw a film called Purple that won an international film award. It was socially redeeming. Maybe someone could make such a movie on a shoestring, the way we make our CDs. It couldn't be done for economic interests and power. Perhaps it could be made by an independent producer.

Would you like to perform Terra Verde concerts outside the ragtime circuit?

I've been invited to do that, possibly at the Boulder Museum for the Visual Arts. I haven't formulated a program yet. But I could see performing in a venue where ragtime would not be considered. There are some advantages in going that way. In the ragtime environment, it's still difficult to put new ideas over to people, it's still a challenge.

How would you compare and contrast the musical voices of David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby, and yourself?

There is a difference, but it's not easy to characterize. All three of us are acquainted with ragtime and Latin American music.

David has a special focus in certain kinds of historical music that interest him -- composers like Buxtehude, for instance, an organist in Germany who influenced Bach. Bach looked up to Buxtehude for guidance. Buxtehude was not a significant composer, but he had a significant impact, and David imagines what it would be like to be inside his mind -- he has that kind of imagination. David copes with the more psychic elements of art, forms less celebrated -- valid, but more obscure all the same. He's also interested in literature and the visual realm of art.

Scott has developed more and more as composer; he's produced a lot of work in the last two years. He's recently found his voice, a means of expression that allows him to convey the essence of what he wants to say. He's producing a tremendous output.

And you?

I'm strongly steeped in the traditions of both European and Latin American music -- i.e., the American vernacular. I feel that I belong to both worlds. My music should be cerebral, but at same time speak to your feelings. It should contain ideals, it should exemplify the "learned style" -- although it should contain enough elements of the vernacular style to be accessible to listeners.

Have you heard people say that your music is more accessible than Scott's?

That's what John Arpin in Fresno said. But the word he used was "salable." [makes a face] That's a way of dragging people in. It's not contrived -- there's an unabashed element of the familiarin my music.

But this is where I sometimes question what I'm doing. Shlock is shlock. You can find it as a raw material in most great music -- in baroque and Renaissance music, in Beethoven -- it's an element.

The difference is that shlock is done primarily to satisfy economic needs, it's aimed at the bottom line, to sell the product. But it's part of the overall language of music to use familiar things -- as long as it can be balanced by the other style, the developed style of composition. It's a question of finding a balance between the two. Of course, the music has to be economically viable to continue.

One last question: Your last name is French. Are you related to the mustard people?

No [laughs] ... the bread people!

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