Name: Stu Pender
Occupation: Guitarist, composer
Current Release: Stu Pender's Stillness In Motion is out via Youngbloods.
Recommendations: All About Love — Bell Hooks; The Zen of Creativity — John Daido Loori
If you enjoyed this interview with Stu Pender and would like to stay up to date on his music and activities, visit him on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
It was a sense of wonder from music that drew me in as a kid.
I had early exposure to lots of different styles of music. My parents raised me on The Beatles and my uncle is a guitarist and composer who taught in the Computer Music Center at Columbia University. I remember once as a young kid playing with a Max/MSP patch that he’d built. I still remember — it used a keyboard number pad button to record and store an audio buffer, and then play the sound back with the same button. I thought that it was amazing! It may have been my first experience working with recorded sound.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
I think that I’m often expressing a certain feeling or energy in the sounds that I’m drawn towards. I sometimes do find strong associations between sound and a color, pattern, or shape. Maybe it’s because a these visual mediums communicate a similar experience in their own unique way.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
I started playing guitar when I was 11, and quickly became involved with the blues scene in my hometown of Naperville / Aurora and Chicago, IL. This quickly developed into something that I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I studied music more deeply in high school, focusing on jazz and classical guitar. I continued my study of jazz through college at SUNY Purchase, where I was lucky to study with the great ECM guitarist John Abercrombie. He taught me a lot about letting go of musical intellectualism, to trust in intuition. I was lucky out of college to do some touring and play at venues such as the Beacon Theatre and United Nations General Assembly Hall.
It was around this time that I began working with the band Poetic Thrust. We played a weekly Wednesday night residency of live improvisational hip hop and jazz for five years in Brooklyn. Over time I felt my focus shifting a little too much towards pursuing success in the music industry, and the enjoyment started to wear thin. I looked for sources of inspiration — getting out of the city to camp and visit National Parks, beginning to study some of the Brazilian guitar tradition. These gave me a lot of fresh creative energy.
It was also around this time that I began a meditation practice. I think that it all comes from a hope to understand a more substantial & lasting sense of joy. It’s something I that practice daily, and I think it’s our job as artists to share these experiences with others through our work.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I grew up in the American midwest which comes with a sort of middle-ground, easy going, rooted sense of being. Illinois has very a subdued and subtle beauty. Chicago specifically has a long musical history of strongly rooted tradition that isn’t afraid to defy boundaries.
Like many others right now, I’m gently examining some of the societal conditioning of the world that I grew up in — the good & bad. I think that art can be a very powerful way of giving voice to what we are working through in ourselves. To let it free for others to experience in their own ways.
In that sense, I feel extremely lucky to be an artist!
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
Silence, listening, resonance, routine, change.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I think it’s impossible to exist in a vacuum of purely original innovation. Even typing right now on this computer is thanks to the thousands of years of evolution of human thought and knowledge.
As a musician, to have a sense of Western harmony and tonality that our culture accepts as listenable, I have to acknowledge a long history, tradition, and all of my great music teachers. So I’m coming around to really embrace and do my best to honor my place in this amazing and diverse lineage of musicians in the world!
Each of us has a unique context from which to engage the world. That is our voice, and it is alive right now!
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Right now my primary instrument is a classical guitar built by an old teacher and friend, Richard Larsen. I also use a pair of Oktava microphones, Sound Devices MixPre-6, Ableton Live, and the voice.
My goal for some time has been to break down the walls of the studio and be able to bring it to places not traditionally considered professional recording environments. Listening to the sounds of nature has been a big inspiration in my work. I do a lot of field recording and am interested in doing location based recording and live streaming in the future. I’ve loved using guitar pedals such as the Strymon Timeline and the Infinite Jets Hologram, both of which I used heavily on Stillness In Motion.
I think that my biggest consideration for any piece of gear is to really listen, and feel how the sound affects me. After the last sound has settled, how has it stayed with me? Sometimes I’m too attached to the work to give an honest judgement of this. It helps to have some friends that you trust for feedback!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
This is frequently changing for me through trial and error. I think one of the biggest hurdles to any routine is to become aware of what our conscious & unconscious habits already are.
Right now I try to wake early, meditate, make coffee, write a little, and sometimes go on a morning walk. The rest of the day depends on my schedule. I like to compose & record something each morning on the guitar with Ableton Live. My afternoons might consist of sight reading and some musical transcription. I also teach guitar and ukulele lessons remotely throughout the day, and usually take some time to work on new lesson materials. In the late afternoon I might spend time preparing the Ableton session for the next day, so I’m ready to just hit record without worrying too much about the software.
I spend a lot of time on the phone and computer, which always presents the challenge of staying focused. Some days I’ve been participating in an amazing online global guitar community hosted by guitarist Derek Gripper, in which we play the Malian kora repertoire on the guitar. That’s been a huge source of joy for me! I’ve also really enjoyed cooking this year, and have been trying new recipes from an amazing Oaxacan cookbook by Alejandro Ruiz.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
I’m a big believer in daily practice. It just makes sense to me as a musician. Right now my creative process involves sitting each morning and picking up my instrument from that place of silence. Or maybe it’s not a quiet place at all, but something that needs to be given voice to. What is resonant today?
I heard in an interview with Rick Rubin, that Brian Eno’s process involves daily studio work and experimentation, and then mixing down the day’s work to put into an iTunes playlist where he can forget about it and return later. He’s made an entire radio station based on revisiting this playlist of decades of daily works on shuffle. I know I’m not always the best judge of my own work (especially when the work is new), so I liked hearing this!
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I think both are essential. I’d like to move beyond this idea that we have to do it all on our own. Seeking mentors, community, connection, and asking for help are all crucial to our wellbeing and success!
I struggle with this often. For the past 7 years, I’ve worked primarily within the context of a seven piece hip hop and jazz ensemble, Poetic Thrust. We’ve always had this sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is magic that happens when the energy is shared with love and honesty. And I’ve also really valued the past couple years of relative solitude. Being able to quiet down and find my own voice as an artist.
A friend recently said in an email — “Please keep shining brightly, your truly unique frequencies, they are essential ingredients.”
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
I find that music and art can be ways of communicating beyond words. In the places where words fail to communicate, music and art reach us directly.
Right now, my hope for the world is in a sense of love, community, and unbreakable spirit that is undeniable. It is absolutely essential that we slow down first. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I believe this is medicine for the world. I am so in awe and inspired by the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, somebody who embodies an unbelievably unbreakable spirit. This is the spirit that is seen in worldwide protests and the elections of Democratic leaders. One that allows for hope even in the worst of circumstances.
I’m talking about the kind of love that domination cannot exist within the freedom of. Maybe it’s why the autocrats of the world feel that they need to extinguish our freedoms in order to exist. How can you silence reality — the spirit of people, trees, oceans, skies? As musicians and artists, we give voice to this. I still have a lot of hope for us.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
For me music has been a way of unraveling these challenges in a healthy way and giving voice to these aspects of myself for others to experience in their own way.
I think it brings us all closer together when we can openly share in both the pain and joy of life.
There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
Totally! I think science can be important to musicians in the coming years, since music has been a bit devalued by the Internet era. Western society always looks for ways to quantify value. Right now we place value in the amount of content and engagement. I’m interested in the growing body of knowledge in neuroscience and psychology behind how we receive and process sound.
I think this comes from a genuine interest in the positive change we can create in the world through music, and in becoming more aware of how we’re affecting the world through sound. I think it can point to some interesting insights into our roles as musicians. Music has been used in healing by indigenous cultures, folk traditions, spiritual traditions, music therapists, psychotherapists, more recently as a focal aspect of psychedelic assisted therapy treatments being developed at John Hopkins University for patients with severe depression, anxiety, and trauma.
It’s certainly an interesting time to be a musician.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
At its best, there probably isn’t any important difference. The trouble is that we tend to get distracted and have a difficult time just doing something with our full attention. This is why meditation and going on walks in nature feel so important to me. These are practices of just returning to our bodies and the Earth.
The times when my thoughts and worries are able to subside and I’m just focused on making this one sound — those are the moments of pure bliss. The full range of possibility opens up!
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
As I understand it, sound begins as a wave that can be measured by pitch, duration, & timbre (which we now understand as a product of the sound's overtones). This reaches our ears and travels to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where it’s sorted through our conditioned belief, emotions, life experience, culture, likes, dislikes, etc. That sound wave now becomes our experience of it. That same objective sound can reach two people in completely different ways.
But music can’t just be reduced to scientifically objective frequencies. Those frequencies are being created by other beings (the musicians) who are making choices. As an artist, I understand this as inspiration, intention, resonance, dedication ...
A teacher and mentor recently told me that a dedication is a compositional element. It can serve as a lighthouse for our music. This feels important to me. I think that intentionally or not, we’re communicating our inner world, beliefs, barriers, freedom, joy, and the entirety of that world that goes beyond language. Dedication can perhaps focus and strengthen the depth of that expression, and it’s something that I’d like to explore more consciously in my own music moving forward.