Don’t Avoid the Void
Don’t Avoid the Void
A Q&A with Peter Kater
By Geoff Gehman
Peter Kater needed an escape from the dead end of playing contemporary jazz. The pianist found his release in the ancient folk-jazz of R. Carlos Nakai, who can make a Native American cedar flute sound earthy and ethereal, personal and universal.
As Kater played along with a Nakai cassette, he contemplated the rich possibilities of performing with the flutist in person. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if a pair of adventure-seeking, nature-channeling musicians paired up on instruments as different as the desert and the sea?
His question was answered hours after he met Nakai, when they discovered they improvised harmoniously together. Their spiritual, astral explorations ended up on the 1990 CD “Natives,” which stayed on the Billboard chart for over a year, creating a new age for New Age music. Since then Kater and Nakai have collaborated on a half-dozen records, including “Honorable Sky” (1997) and “Through Windows and Walls” (2001). Their soothing, stimulating meditations have inspired massage therapists and martial artists, long-distance drivers and cancer survivors.
Kater has likened his musical relationship with Nakai to a mountain spring. Appropriately enough, they will headline Jim Thorpe’s Mountain Spring Wellness Festival on March 22. One of only two Nakai-Kater concerts booked this year, the Mauch Chunk Opera House gig will showcase recipients of 17 Grammy Award nominations, composers for everything from film to ballet, and teammates of everyone from a chanting Tibetan flutist to the guitarist who introduced Sting to yoga.
During a recent conversation from his home in Boulder, Col., Kater discussed his many inspirations. Meditating to sunsets. Hanging out with humpback whales. Following fellow performers and his muse. Finding fullness in emptiness.
Q: What was the leap of faith that convinced you R. Carlos would be a good partner?
A: At first I was drawn to the sound of his flute, his breathiness. I just loved the contrast between our instruments: a hollow piece of wood, carved out with a few holes, versus a thousand-pound combination of wood and metal and all kinds of technology, made by fine craftsmen. I loved the juxtaposition of a very bright, percussive, specific sound and a sound that’s very soft, bendy, fluid. It seemed like perfect counterpoint.
Our performing together was so natural and effortless, right from the start. It was an education and a revelation: Ah, so it can be so easy. At that point I thought I was doing something just for me. I didn’t think whether it would be popular or not; I didn’t think how many records we would sell. So I was surprised when [“Natives”] really took off.
I’m pretty certain that we were the first musicians to bring together piano and Native American flute. Today, you hear all kinds of people doing it, so it’s nice to be considered pioneers. I was just glad it made me leave the contemporary jazz market. I never looked back.
Q: How has R. Carlos changed you as a musician, besides getting you off the dead-end, deadly track of contemporary jazz? And has he told you if you’ve led him to new paths?
A: No, we don’t go there. We very much follow our own muses. When we come together we don’t have a whole lot of discussion. We just listen and play off each other; we both know that anyone’s art form is a sacred space to enter.
It’s harder dealing with logistics and all the things that come with the material world. There are also the typical ups and downs dealing with a human being who has different orientations. Our best times are playing music and enjoying nature and enjoying a good meal together; we both like healthy food like sushi. We travel well together, too.
Q: You’ve been all around the horn with your partners: Sting guitarist Dominic Miller; reed player Paul McCandless, a former member of the Paul Winter Consort; Snatam Kaur, the sacred poet and singing chantress. What makes you so brave?
A: If I hear something I like, I just have to follow it up and say: Hey, what do you think of doing this or that? I’ve been lucky to play with people I looked up to for years, who are like mentors. I’m thinking of Paul McCandless and all those guys from the Paul Winter Consort and the group Oregon. They played really major ear-opening and heart-opening stuff. Dominic [Miller] is an amazing guitarist; oh my god, playing with him is really something. His listening is so great; his ears are so big.
People get so caught up in being creative. For the people I respect it’s not about being creative, it’s all about listening. You’re never really thinking about what you’re playing. You’re listening to the person you’re playing with, or the space, or your muse.
Q: In 2012 you moved from the Hawaiian island of Maui back to Boulder, where you began improvising in public. Why did you leave a ravishingly beautiful place for a place that’s merely beautiful?
A: The true story is that living on Maui I felt less drawn to playing piano or writing music or being creative. I was very content to go to the beach for the sunrise, then go to a yoga class, then go back to the beach for a swim or paddle boarding, then have lunch. Boulder has more people and therefore more distractions. It requires me to be closer to my music, to be centered, to connect to my source of expression. Actually, it’s a survival mechanism; it’s me trying to maintain my sanity in my creative place.
Q: I see on your Web site that you offer to lead paddleboarders or kayakers on Hawaiian expeditions to see humpback whales up close and personal. Why do they excite you?
A: They’re ancient, they’re huge, they’re graceful, they’re sensitive, they’re intelligent, they’re amazing. It’s mind blowing being in the domain of a 50- to 60-foot animal that can spiral in the air. There’s nothing subtle about it: it’s a life-changing experience.
Q: What’s the toughest part of the music trade?
A: Music is hard, like any business is hard. It may be harder, because you’re selling something that’s very personal. I’ve been through two or three major cycles in my career, when you’re making a lot of money during the upswings and you can’t even make a decent living during the downswings. That cycling is the really hard part about being a musician, but, then, that’s the way life is, too.
I think the reason that I’m still a musician, after all these years, is because I didn’t have a Plan B. I never thought that, well, when it gets really hard, I’ll start teaching or I’ll go into business with my dad. The good thing is that I still enjoy making music. It’s amazing that after playing the piano my whole life and recording for 30 years, I still feel that making music is rewarding; it’s still new all the time. I still have that feeling of “Oooh, let’s try this!” I still wonder: “Where did that come from?”
Q: Did you discover something recently that eluded you for years? Did you finally untie some kind of endless eternal knot?
A: Ever since my late teens I’ve been curious about more expressive stuff, whether it was the Bhagavad-Gita or different philosophies. When I moved to Maui I found something that really changed my life in a huge way, besides the ocean and the sunsets and the whales, and that was yoga. It opened up an amazing space of experience.
When I left Maui for Boulder I found myself not enjoying the yoga class in town. So I began an hour-long yoga session at home. Dominic Miller has been doing yoga for decades; in fact, he turned Sting on to yoga. Dominic travels with his own yoga mat; one of the first things he does in his hotel room is he puts down his mat and does yoga. That’s how he adjusts to his space and gets centered. I’ve just started doing that. It’s not because Dominic does it; I just reached a place where I wanted to go to a place that’s mine, no matter where I go.
Yoga just opens you up. It’s like the difference between being a parent or not being a parent [note: Kater has four children]. If you don’t have a child, you don’t know what it is to love on that level.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of compositions, how they take unimaginable trips after you release them to the world. Have you been surprised or even stunned by the impact of any of your works?
A: I actually get that feedback pretty often, that my music has healed and saved lives, even from cancer. It’s amazing to think that something I created out of my need for healing, for sanity, for an expression of something higher, has affected, I can easily say, millions of people.
Q: You had some creative differences with the singing chantress Snatum Kaur on the CD “Heart of the Universe” . She thought your production was too thick, too complex; you agreed with her and stripped the instrumentation. Have you considered taking your act on the road and running a seminar on resolving creative differences harmoniously?
A: I am actually thinking about setting up an open discussion on the creative process on Facebook or some other forum. People could run ideas or songs by me, just to get my feedback. I love thinking about the creative process, listening about the creative process. I like going down into the void, going through that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing.
I’ve written some of my best songs in an act of “I totally give up.” I remember I was playing a gig here in Boulder in the early ’80s, back when I was improvising three or four hours a night. One night I didn’t have a clue and I still had a half hour to go. I just put my hands down on the keyboard and just gave it up and up came, almost in one fell swoop, “Ascent.” It’s one of probably a half-dozen of my signature songs. And it came from almost an act of surrender.
To this day I’ll finish a record and I’m in that in-between place between projects and I go into this emptiness. I think: I don’t have a career. I have nothing to say creatively. How did I get this far? It’s all been smoke and mirrors. Every time it totally surprises me; every time it’s a little devastating. But it has to happen. You have to wipe the slate clean; you have to be open to connect with the divine.
Peter Kater: The Scoop
His first solo record, “Spirit,” was released in 1983, the same year R. Carlos Nakai’s first solo record, “Changes,” was issued.
He’s written music for television programs (the mini-series “How the West Was Lost”), documentaries (“10 Questions for the Dalai Lama”) and plays starring film stars (“The Seagull” with Ethan Hawke and Laura Linney).
He advises Oceanic Defense, a non-profit guardian of the seas
In 1995 he received an Environmental Leadership Award from the United Nations.
One of his favorite inspirational tunes is Oregon’s instrumental version of Jim Pepper’s “Witchi-Tai-To,” a track on “Winter Light,” the group’s 1974 album. “It was a huge song for me back in the late ’70s, when I was breaking away from classic rock and top 40 and breaking into my own sound, my own style,” says Kater. “It’s still very cool. Whenever I hear it, it brings me back to my roots.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He thinks the term “New Age music” should be retired permanently. He can be reached at email@example.com.