INTERVIEW: Jeremy Podgursky Talks About the Long Transition to Making Noted Music

The story of Jeremy Podgursky is one that can be perplexing from a certain perspective. His early collaborative songwriting efforts and performances in the excellent Dybbuk, which begot the non-stop melody coaster that was Lather, were clearly embraced by the Louisville music community. Even now, over 20 years later, when you mention Lather’s A Modest Proposal, you receive a reflexed enthusiastic response in some form of “that was a really great record (and/or band)!” Lather did what most bands do (broke up) and Podgursky formed The Pennies which followed an even more impressive evolution leading up to their final release of 10,000 Things. The Pennies took Podgursky’s experience and launched what looked like a promising career. I recall a show at Headliners where the Pennies clearly upstaged an early form of My Morning Jacket. Shortly after that, Podgursky stepped away from the stage and spent several years recording and revising the aforementioned final Pennies album which had an undeserved amount of trouble finding an audience by the time it surfaced.

Thus, people like me are left scratching our heads trying to figure out why it didn’t take off. But don’t let all that fool you into thinking this is some old story of forgotten genius. It’s a story of genius but very much in its early stages. Podgursky continues to make really good music and enjoys plenty of success.

 

Now that he’s earned his PHD from Indiana University, Podgursky is currently working on a new project called “Subtle Bodies of Water” which will take us on a multi-media experience combining sound and visual art. He is embracing non-traditional funding methods in order to devote an entire year to this endeavor and he needs your help. Check him out here to learn more details and listen to a few pieces of his music below:

Never Nervous: How did the transition from playing rock music to composing contemporary classical music take place?

Jeremy Podgursky: There was a good deal of overlap between my pop and notated music. And I am still writing songs, although no one has really heard any of the ones I have finished in recent years. So I guess it has been a more of a shift of focus due to resources. When I no longer had a band, I started focusing on writing for classical performing ensembles and soloists. If I were to put together a band like I did with THE PENNIES reunion, I would shift focus again.
But I didn’t start writing notated music until I was an undergrad at the University of Louisville. I had been writing songs for DYBBUK and LATHER for a few years at that point, but all of that info was transmitted to the other band members by rote. I suppose the most important thing to think about is that I had zero exposure to contemporary classical music until I was a freshman in music school; with that exposure came interest in trying my hand.

LATHER ended after my freshman year in college, and I spent the next year just jamming with other people in the Louisville indie scene. That was actually a really important time for me because of the spontaneity involved. Maybe it was similar to the difference between a serious relationship and casual dating. Musically, I had never dated casually, and the freedom of it helped me figure out things that I eventually wanted to do when I finally formed THE PENNIES.

By the time I started THE PENNIES at the end of my sophomore year of college, I had already composed a couple of pieces of contemporary classical music (let’s just call it “notated” music from now on). I don’t know if you remember the early days of THE PENNIES, but we were prone to psychedelic improv freakouts. A good example is the bonus track on DECORATE THE ATOMIC ART EP, which was an alternate take of “Trim the Treetops”. My exposure to the avant garde and modernism was institutional; I had to study Stockhausen, Penderecki, Ligeti, and the like in theory and lit classes. Those sound worlds were siphoned into THE PENNIES in a deconstructionist fashion. At the core, all of our songs were pop harmonies and structures. But we would disassemble them and put them back together by creating textures and atmospheres we had heard in notated music.

After my bachelor’s degree, I was focusing mostly on THE PENNIES. For our last album, 10,000 THINGS, I really wanted a full-blown production. Strings, winds, etc. It was the first time the worlds of notated and non-notated music collided for me and it was very cathartic. But that was a recorded effort – we were never able to truly recreate it live. For our last shows I was playing some of the string arrangements on synths because we couldn’t really afford to pay performers to play.

I moved to Chicago a couple of weeks after THE PENNIES broke up. My first year there I was working on the SUBTLE BODIES CD (ambient chamber music); other than that, I was not really working on anything. I had a low-paying job selling tickets for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but I was able to go to so many amazing concerts for free. Hearing that orchestra so many times really blew my mind. They are the best we have in the US. And the MusicNow concert series (all contemporary pieces) really started to make me itch, so I eventually decided to go back to school for graduate studies in composition. Other than a couple of reunion shows for THE PENNIES to celebrate the release of our last album, I have focused pretty much solely on notated music since 2002.

“For our last album, 10,000 THINGS, I really wanted a full-blown production. Strings, winds, etc. It was the first time the worlds of notated and non-notated music collided for me and it was very cathartic. But that was a recorded effort – we were never able to truly recreate it live.”

NN: What are the major differences between writing music for a band like The Pennies (or specifically for The Pennies) vs. writing music to be performed by a chamber group or even a full orchestra?

JP: With THE PENNIES, the band would take songs that I had written on an acoustic guitar in my bedroom and flesh them out. The arrangements of our songs for our live shows involved trying them at different tempos, using different textures and effects, and anyone who went to multiple shows probably heard multiple versions of those songs. So doing it with our hands was the actualization of my bedroom pop.

When I write music for others to play, I have to relay data (what note(s), when, for how long, how loud/soft, what kind of articulation, any effects) on the printed page, and that was why going to music school was necessary for me. You cannot put parts in front of just any musician and expect them to approximate your intentions unless you know this language. And there is never an exact translation by a performer of what you intended to relay because they are human and have their own tendencies and expression when they play.

If I wanted a guitar solo on an album to create a certain mood, I could do take after take myself until I nailed it. Hands on. Manipulate the clay. But strictly notated music requires that all of your desires be relayed on the page in hopes that a performer anywhere in the world gets what you are saying. It has taken quite a long time for me to feel comfortable with my skills in notation and orchestration. But now I feel fluent in relaying not just data but emotions and artistic touches. I can take it a little further with a New Age-y sentiment: there is a metaphysical notion of intention being relayed through notation. I am very conscious of this when I write, and try to allow my intentions to manifest when I compose.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that you cannot be fulfilled as a composer of notated music if you do not accept the interpretation of live performers. Being a composer requires learning the fine art of surrender. It can be incredibly difficult to do, but for me I have to let go at a certain point and consider my scores to be experiments. And most of my pieces are revised after the premiere because I am still honing the technical elements of composing.

And I have only written two (and a half) pieces for full orchestra. The music that I have been composing has a level of detail that would get me in trouble with an orchestra. Most American orchestras are going to give you about twice the length of your piece in rehearsal. That means that come performance time it is still quite new to them. Orchestra rehearsals are on union time and are very costly. If there are any discrepancies in your parts, or if there is an engraving error, it could eat up large portions of your rehearsal time solving the problem. This level of efficiency and necessity has even become part of the aesthetic for a lot of American orchestra pieces. Everything must be sight-readable and easy to put together, and therefore the music has to sound impressive despite its simplicity. I am not arguing that complexity is important in music, or that my music is excessively complex. I just don’t want to be in a situation where I spend a year writing a piece that only gets 30 minutes of rehearsal and one performance. It is so much more appealing to work with smaller groups and interact with them personally.

“I am going to go out on a limb and say that you cannot be fulfilled as a composer of notated music if you do not accept the interpretation of live performers.”

NN: Do you ever incorporate aspects of rock into your compositional work or vice versa?

JP: I intentionally tried to speak drastically different dialects for a long time. Part of this had to do with the fact that I felt like an imposter in the classical world. But there was always some sort of visceral, pot-boiling-over element to my earliest notated music. I wanted to push those instruments to limits and make them sound big and dirty. Walls of sound with psychedelic ambience.

When I was doing my masters degree, I had a lesson with Michael Colgrass who was at U of L as a guest composer. He is quite well known in that world and as well as certain jazz circles. When I told him my back-story and played him some of my music, he told me very succinctly that he thought that I should put more of my rock and roll into my classical pieces. At the time I was really confused by this. He didn’t give me any other suggestions, and I was really hoping that he would dig into my music and give me some technical pointers.

It took a few years before I realized that his advice was spot-on. He didn’t need to say anything else. I have to celebrate my particular upbringing and exposure. The varied influences in my life inevitably appear in my own musical persona; it felt inauthentic after a while to try and suppress anything. So in recent years I have actually written a few pieces of chamber music that have drum kits and grooves and grit. I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think that it is working well for me. Let’s just say that I have enjoyed composing those pieces and feel that they represent me better than my other notated music.

I had to do five years of work in the electronic studios at U of L and at IU for my masters and doctoral degrees. My electronic pieces might actually be a midway point between the two worlds. I did a series of pieces for guitar that involved improvising in the studio, processing the performance through different effects and programs, and then editing the results together in ProTools. Those pieces allowed me to not only perform a bit, but to experiment with some pop hooks in a more abstract format. I would actually love to do some more of those pieces: cranking them out as semester projects in a studio that I shared with other students made it difficult to achieve a polished result.

As for the vice versa, I was incorporating “classical” elements into every song I wrote from DYBBUK through THE PENNIES. My exposure to classical music from an early age influenced my sense of harmony and voice leading. I played chord voicings on the guitar in DYBBUK and LATHER that punk bands didn’t usually use. And the last rock album I did (THE PENNIES – 10,000 THINGS) has strings, winds, brass, and percussion. I wouldn’t have been able to incorporate those elements had I not studied music so much. I also wouldn’t have even had the desire to do so had I not grown to love so many different dialects of music. That’s all it is: rock and classical and jazz and blues and hip hop are all the same language. They are regionally, historically, ethnically different in their origin, but to me they are just different dialects of the same language.

NN: When you sit down to write a piece of music, does it goes straight from your mind to a piece of paper or do you use a specific instrument or instruments to aid your writing?

JP: My notated music almost always starts in my head. After a certain gestation period, I will move to the piano to solidify harmonies. Sometimes I will improvise a texture at the piano just to see how it unfolds in time. I am also usually drawing weird little visual depictions of how I want textures and ideas to behave. My most recent piece was kind of a new approach to me. It is very jazz-influenced, and I found myself improvising until I was ready to notate it. It was written while I was doing a residency in Aaron Copland’s house, so I think his ghost ended up inspiring me! It was just premiered a couple of months ago and I feel like that improvisational element gave it a more human touch. I will definitely be doing more of that in the future.

Many pop songs start in my head as a melody with a texture and ambience, but a good chunk of them have been the result of noodling on the guitar or piano. After THE PENNIES broke up, I felt like I could no longer write on the guitar. Even with alternate tunings I felt like my connection to the instrument was limiting the harmonies in my songs. But I also haven’t had a band to write for since then and I think doing everything with just a guitar and my voice has been a little too bare-bones for me. It definitely inspires me to have other performers flesh out my basic ideas.

I think it was Morton Feldman who referred to some composers as taker-outers and some as putter-inners. I am definitely a taker-outer. If I don’t have some sort of instantaneous awareness of how I want a song to be produced or orchestrated, it won’t take long after I play it for a little while before I do. I have worked hard in my notated music to reign in some of the filigree and trim the fat. I am definitely guilty of having too much going on at times. It’s probably due in part to my love of psychedelic rock: all of those swirling, cosmic atmospheres. But using acoustic instruments to achieve similar results can be craptastic. My editing skills are getting better from piece to piece.

“I think it was Morton Feldman who referred to some composers as taker-outers and some as putter-inners. I am definitely a taker-outer.”

NN: Do you prefer making music that tells a story or music that is more abstract and open for interpretation?

JP: For me, lyrics almost always come after the melody and harmony have been established. My lyrics usually spring from how a fragment of the melody sounds like a particular word or vowel sound. Then that particular word is surrounded by other words and themes, and next thing you know I have a mess to clean up. There have been some occasions where I have consciously dealt with a particular subject, but usually there is a stream-of-consciousness purging process that eventually reveals its meaning. If it has one. Sometimes certain words just sound good together. Maybe that’s what I gathered from Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs. But in the end, isn’t it always about love gone wrong? And drugs? And cars?

My notated music is different from piece to piece. I think the only time I started a piece with a concrete topic that I wanted to represent was when I composed a string quartet with percussion about mandalas. But then again it was just my own musical ideas abstractly representing mandalas, and they had to fit together in a cohesive form that flowed nicely and was balanced and well proportioned. So in the end it is always about flow: do these ideas sound good in this order for this long? Maybe I will make a pretty bold statement and say that harmonies and their pacing determine the unfolding of a piece.

I am more interested in non-linear narratives in my notated music. Composing episodically and reordering the episodes in an editing process to play with past, present, and future is similar to editing a film. You can film all of the scenes chronologically but eventually edit them together to foreshadow or reflect. There are some pieces that I start composing in the middle of the piece and work on what comes before and after as I go along. Sometimes this requires writing backwards in time to a certain point. My most recent piece required that I compose it from beginning to end. There was no other way. Every piece I write requires a different approach, so I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules.

NN: Please describe the experience of sitting in the theater watching your music performed by another group in contrast to being on the stage with a guitar and a microphone?

JP: Listening to other people play my music can be so maddening. I am a composer because I am, to some degree, a control freak. When other humans are interpreting my ideas and inevitably adding elements of themselves in the process, it takes a lot of letting go to let go when I am in the audience. Surrender is necessary. If I want music to sound close to exactly how I want it to sound, I will need to play it myself. I usually have a case of reverse Stockholm Syndrome when I am in the crowd. I feel sympathy for the performers I have held hostage by making them play my music (which can be difficult).

In the last year or two, I have actually started to enjoy hearing my music played by other people. I guess that I am either getting better at what I do, or I am just becoming less critical. Let’s face it: I am a lucky guy! There are people putting hours of rehearsal into my music for audiences to listen to. It’s most likely a sign that I am more secure with what I am doing that I enjoy hearing it played. Premieres are definitely more difficult to sit through, but I actually managed to breathe a few times during the last one!

Another reason why my performances are becoming more enjoyable for me to listen to is because of the quality of performers. The Jacobs School of Music is an embarrassment of riches. There are undergrads here that are on the verge of becoming professional soloists. Actually some are already pros and are doing a degree at the same time. When you have great student performers and professional ensembles are programming your music, you tend to hear better performances.
Playing guitar and singing is a completely different thing for me. Maybe a good analogy would be that when I hear my notated music performed, I am a playwright. When I am performing, I am both the playwright and the actor. Performing anything is time travel. Playing music can feel like an eternity in an instant, or a bad instant dragged out for an eternity. To get lost in the music on stage is a rush that I miss dearly. We are truly lucky to be able to experience this form of sharing and expression. How is that for pretentious?

“Playing music can feel like an eternity in an instant, or a bad instant dragged out for an eternity. To get lost in the music on stage is a rush that I miss dearly. We are truly lucky to be able to experience this form of sharing and expression.”

NN: Any upcoming performances of your compositions that you would like to use this opportunity to plug?

JP: I have had a good run this year with performances out of town. ALARM WILL SOUND performed a piece of mine called MINDJOB (Version 2) in St. Louis and NYC. Then the LEFT COAST CHAMBER ENSEMBLE played an older piano trio of mine called NONSENSE OR SORCERY?#%*! in a series of concerts around the Bay Area. INSCAPE performed TRANCE MECHANICS in the DC-area, and PRESENT MUSIC played MINDJOB (Version 2) in Milwaukee with David Bloom conducting. All of these groups are exceptional and I hope to work with them again in the future.

In late 2017, SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE will be premiering a piece that I am going to write for them. It will be a collaboration with Bloomington photographer Peter Hamlin. Although he expertly captures a lot of different subject matter, this piece is going to focus on pictures he has taken of different bodies of water. He is a phenomenal artist and an all around Saint, and I am looking forward to what we come up with together.

NN: How does it work when someone wants to commission you for a piece of music or perform one of your existing pieces? How involved are you in these performances?

JP: Getting commissioned is a complicated matter. There are many institutions that have yearly application cycles for composers to get commissioned. These institutional offerings are pretty much grants from endowments, and I am always on the lookout for these opportunities. Although these commissions are often a crapshoot, I have had some good luck with a few of them in the past. The market is flooded with composers trying to find funding, and there is very little out there for us to share.

Private patronage used to be alive and well, and in some worlds (i.e. visual art), people still pay for pieces of work to be created. Lately I have been trying more private avenues in an attempt to find money. One of the great things that happened after doing a residency at the Copland House was that they are able to be a fiscal sponsor, if they approve of my projects. Since they are a registered 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, they can accept commissions on my behalf and give the patron a tax receipt. This enables the patron to write off the full amount of the commission on their taxes. Kickstarter and the like do not give that added benefit, but people are usually donating less money to those campaigns. I have also approached people who work in the corporate responsibility departments of large corporations to see if they would commission me. But I have hit a wall every time: corporations do not usually give to individuals.

This is a very difficult and stressful part of being a composer. Keep in mind that a large piece can take several months to compose and edit. The piece I had premiered recently took me around 10 months from start to finish, maybe upwards of 1,000 hours of writing, editing, and engraving. So how do you find the kind of money that truly compensates you for that time and effort? I could go on a lengthy diatribe about how private arts patronage is not what it used to be: no one wants to hear that sob story, right? But composers of concert music have been relegated to finding teaching jobs to support their composing habits for decades now. Either that or money is not an obstacle for other reasons.

As for receiving performances, there are many ways in which they come about. There are calls-for-scores by ensembles, performance competitions, etc. Composers also need to befriend performers and conductors: often they are the ones programming concerts. With more established organizations (i.e. major orchestras), there are sometimes people in the administration that work in a curatorial manner. Boards of directors also push for a certain type of programming. And then supposedly after you get to a certain point, people start asking you if they can play your music. I have been very fortunate, especially lately, with getting requests from ensembles and conductors who want to play my stuff. In fact, the performances that I mentioned earlier all involved performers, conductors, and curators contacting me with requests to program my pieces. It definitely feels good when this happens!

My degree of involvement with performances varies. I used to try and travel to any out of town performances of my music, but I just can’t afford to do it anymore since it is happening more often. This is one of those good problems to have, right? For the ones I cannot attend, I will try and be involved remotely in the rehearsal stage. I have Skyped with groups, listened to recordings that they have emailed me, and even listened to a group over the phone. It is nice to have some sort of personal exchange with performers to show that you are invested in their investment in you. That being said, some groups don’t want the composers involved in the rehearsal process. That is their right and sometimes yields some of the most surprising results. I believe it can be very good for an artist to re-experience their work through someone else’s interpretation of it.

NN: Do you have any film or tv scores in the works?

JP: There has been a film in the works for a few years that I might score. I would LOVE to do some work in this area, but it is a different world than the live concert music scene. I would tell you more about the project but that might jinx it. But if anyone wants me to score a film or tv show, you now know where to find me!

NN: Do you find life as a composer more gratifying than your life as a performer?

JP: Yes. No. Maybe. Depends on the day. They are drops in the same ocean, you know? There are times when I am composing that feel similar to those trance states I reached on stage playing for people. Total loss of time elapsed.

If I say that my life as a performer was more gratifying, then I am basically saying that the last 15 years have been worse than the ones before. If I say that being a composer is more gratifying, then I would be extricating a huge chunk of my past (and my aesthetic) from the music I am composing right now. There is no now without then, and vice versa. There are certain things that I have to get straight in my mind about performing music before I do it again, at least in the role of singer/songwriter. The main reason to do it again is to lose myself in the moment. The connection to the audience will come naturally after that. I don’t have any desire to follow any pre-prescribed path.

“If I say that my life as a performer was more gratifying, then I am basically saying that the last 15 years have been worse than the ones before. If I say that being a composer is more gratifying, then I would be extricating a huge chunk of my past (and my aesthetic) from the music I am composing right now.”

NN: Can you compare living in Bloomington, IN to living in Louisville, KY?

JP: Bloomington is a bubble. There is vibrant youth energy here because of IU, and that is infectious on many levels. Doing my doctoral work here was wonderful because I was able to meet so many amazing, interesting, talented performers from all over the world. The music school is one of the best on this planet and I will always feel a strong sense of gratitude for my education.

Bloomington as a city is very different from Louisville and Chicago, inevitably due to size. But it is also a very transient place where people come to use the resources for a few years before they move on to the next pond or ocean. I remember my first year here going to Kroger with a friend and watching him standing in front of the ice cream freezer, leisurely trying to make a decision. For some reason, witnessing his ease and calm demeanor left me with the lasting impression that Bloomington is Candyland. I witnessed serious urban issues in both Louisville and Chicago that I do not see here. There is some crime, and the homeless situation is pretty visible. But I feel pretty safe here and feel like my street smarts have rarely been needed. I won’t complain about this, and I am not saying that I prefer to live in a crime-ridden, angst-filled, concrete jungle. I am just saying that I have skills to live elsewhere that are currently somewhat dormant.

As for the music and art scene here, I have to say that I know very little about it outside of the music school. I don’t go to shows anymore unless that wild feather finds me. There are a couple of indie clubs here that are supposedly good, but I tend to avoid crowds and loud environments.

“Doing my doctoral work here was wonderful because I was able to meet so many amazing, interesting, talented performers from all over the world. The music school is one of the best on this planet and I will always feel a strong sense of gratitude for my education.”

NN: What comes after graduate school? Will you stay in Bloomington?

JP: It looks like I might be here for a bit longer after all. I just graduated in May and haven’t had much of a chance to apply for jobs with my new degree. It’s cheap to live here and is close to Louisville and Chicago. I am looking forward to the challenge of being productive here while making plans for what’s next.

There are seminal plans underway to overhaul HOLOGRAPHIC (a contemporary classical music series I curate) and get it running in a new format. I don’t want to talk about it too much in its early stages. But I do want to continue teaching young people of all backgrounds how to write music. That’s all I can divulge.

NN: I’ve noticed that you’re a bit of a craft beer fan and you happen to work at a pretty badass beer bar. Did working at Upland make you a craft beer person, or do you work at Upland because you’re a craft beer person?

JP: I have never consumed large quantities of beer. It tends to get me drunk pretty quickly, and I prefer not to push things past moderation. That being said, I have never liked crappy beer. Mass-produced domestic beers are instant headaches for me. But I didn’t become interested or knowledgeable about craft beer until I had to learn how beer was made for my job. So I guess the answer would be that my job made me aware of the craft beer world, as well as the origins of beer styles. But I would like to think that I had good taste before I started working at UPLAND: now I have the knowledge to make sense of it. Did you know that the aroma of certain yeasts is sometimes described as “horsey”? These kinds of descriptive terms really come in handy on the job!

NN: Do you thinking The Pennies will ever reunite?

JP: Nope. There is no need for that anyway. I am not saying that I wouldn’t want to play music with those guys again, but it would have to be a different context. THE PENNIES was, in many ways, the most direct offering of myself via music. Those songs were really personal and I didn’t hold much back emotionally in the performance and recordings.

But playing in that band was very difficult. We didn’t have an easy road, and I think we were generally misunderstood. We had a very dedicated, loyal following, but it wasn’t enough for us to be able to afford to progress. Evolving as a band takes resources and money, and we never made a profit. And there were decisions that I made for the band in the name of maintaining our artistic freedom that kept us from getting past a certain point. I won’t lie: that was a source of guilt for many years. I eventually had to forgive myself for having been too emotionally attached to what we were doing to make good business decisions.

But I also know that I am exceptionally lucky to have had the kinds of opportunities that we did have. Touring. Recording. Releasing records. It was exhilarating and I will always have great stories and memories from playing with those guys. Someone who shall remain nameless mentioned that whenever I talk about THE PENNIES, I get a pained expression on my face and become dour. Even thirteen years after our breakup, I still have pangs of frustration, grief, and sadness from what happened. That’s just one of the cycles I find myself in a lot: just chewing a piece of food and never swallowing it. Hopefully I will figure out a way to let go of our failure to achieve a certain level of success, and realize we just had to end because there really wasn’t a place for us. We succeeded in being who we were and we had an expiration date.

Which leads to the question: if we were to regroup, to whom would we even play? Who is listening? If I were to ever get on stage to play my songs with a band, it would have to be just for fun. Now if someone wants to cover the studio time, I would happily record a new double album. I probably have enough material for that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: THE PENNIES WERE NOT A “FAILURE”

NN: How much money would I have to invest to do a limited run of Lather’s “A Modest Proposal” on vinyl?

JP: I don’t know if the masters are anywhere to be found. If I can find them, then you can be my guest! But I’m pretty sure that there won’t be a release show.

NN: Is there anything else you would like to say about where you’ve been and where you are now that I should have asked about but didn’t?

JP: Thanks so much for thinking of me, Dennis! You have always been so supportive of me, and I am grateful that you want to spread the word about what I have been doing since THE PENNIES.