How do you make a Pink Martini? You take a handful of pedigreed classical musicians, add a multilingual torch singer, folkloric percussionists, and an all-star jazz horn section. Shake well. Eight years, countless performances and 130,000 CDs later, you might have a genuine phenomenon on your hands.
Stylistic switch hitters Pink Martini, who hail from Portland, Oregon, have created quite a stir on the West Coast. The 10-piece ensemble performs a curious brand of chamber fusion, which effortlessly frames risky aggregates of classical, pop, and traditional melodies against equally eclectic percussive backdrops. The ensuing aural anomalies range from Afro-Cuban-infused versions of Ravel's Bolero to joyfully carnivalesque renderings of Serbian and Parisian love songs twinned with traditional Japanese and Brazilian percussion.
Pianist Thomas Lauderdale has served as Pink Martini's artistic director and spokesperson since he founded the band in 1994. The bright and amicable 31-year-old Harvard grad is quite busy these days, splitting his time between Martini-based duties and a part-time day job as an educator. His stylistically egalitarian 10-piece entourage is set to play three San Antonio dates October 11, 12, and 13 at the Majestic as part of the San Antonio Symphony Pops Series.
Anjali Gupta: Do you remember the first piece of music that had a profound impact on you?
Thomas Lauderdale: "Let's Go Fly a Kite" from Mary Poppins. There is something uniquely and entirely special about that particular piece of music. It has a sort of irresistible lilt to it. I still think it's one of the greatest waltzes ever written.
AG: I guess I'll have to listen to that piece again after that endorsement. How early did you know you wanted to pursue music as a career?
TL: I never anticipated this. My plan was to go into politics. I wanted to be the mayor of Portland.
AG: But I understand that you started playing music at a very early age ...
TL: I've studied music since I was 6, privately and classically, but it wasn't until the band formed in 1994 that I ever considered pursuing music as a career. This whole experience has been a happy accident. Besides, I feel that there is an enormous flexibility in terms of doing different things over the course of one's life. I anticipate that I will always be involved in music, but I'm not sure that involvement will always be my career.
AG: So you were not subjected to a Mozart-like, trained-monkey-child-prodigy syndrome?
TL: No. Luckily I was surrounded by people parents and a piano teacher that really didn't push me that aggressively. I'm sure my piano teacher really wanted me to study at a conservatory, but she understood that forcing me into doing it would have been a big mistake.
AG: That kind of prodding can take the joy right out of music making for a child.
TL: That's precisely right. I think good teachers, like good parents are rare. There are so many horror stories about music teachers and people who had terrible experiences growing up, where their hands were literally slapped with rulers if they made mistakes. And that really does kill the joy of what music should be an escape much like the movies, but participatory.
AG: Do you see a strong connection between your music and film?
TL: There are a lot of cinematic things about music. Movies have had such a dramatic impact on our culture, and are in some ways our ultimate escape. But movies have led to a decline in the internal development of one's own ideas and discussions and abilities. Those drives are mollified by sitting in front of a screen. With music, one's experience isn't so passive.
AG: You once described Pink Martini in an interview as "musical archaeologists." What exactly did you mean by that?
TL: Part of our challenge is to dig, and to find out what is out there in terms of exceptional music that exists but does not readily spring to the edge of the lips of most musicians. There is a way to be respectful of the tradition and place that a type of music comes from by naming your sources, but making it real and relevant and new again creating something that is not dumbed down or reduced to a sound bite. There are a lot of people who are digging, but many are trying to infiltrate these traditions and place them within the realm of popular culture, like what United Airlines did to "Rhapsody in Blue" or people that take an opera aria and put house beats under it. That's just bad. It's a very popular thing in European discos right now, and it's really just terrible.
AG: When you are composing music, do you do so as an individual or a group?
TL: Generally, we approach that process in small group-lets. Everybody has contributed to the music at some point. As a pop band there is a pressure to produce new material, but I'm certainly not a natural songwriter.
AG: Is that because of your classical background?
TL: Yes, but there are other classical musicians in the band like Robert Taylor who, incidentally, spent several years in the San Antonio Symphony that have the ability to improvise. For me, it's much more difficult. I think we all have our strong points and when we are in the same room, we tend to educate each other.
AG: What are your main influences?
TL: In a sense, we are like DJs, taking a piece like Ravel's Bolero and infusing it with an Afro-Cuban tune which can be really risky for all the reasons we've already discussed in terms of bad taste. We gather of all the music we love and mix it up and make it new again, both within a piece or in a collection of songs that make up a program. It's a sort of rollicking adventure around the world.
AG: Is the music you draw from unified thematically?
TL: Not necessarily. It strives to be beautiful, sing-able, entertaining, and hopeful. We come from a culture that has historically denied the existence of difference. Think of the cocktail party scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany's. When you consider the political climate at the time that film was made those scenes seem delusional. We approach music making with the same type of joy, but with full knowledge of the complexities of modern life.
8pm Friday, October 11 & Saturday,
2pm Sunday, October 13
224 East Houston