In Session: Stephen Gallucci

GLENS FALLS – In an era of instrumental piano music that many may find repetitive, composer and pianist Stephen Gallucci is doing a fine job of standing out amongst the crowd. With his release, Embers, which came out July 23rd, Gallucci has crafted a collection of pieces that scream emotion, easily pulling on the heartstrings of those who listen to these creations.

I recently had a chance to sit down with the artist to discuss the inspiration and drive behind the album, as well as a variety of other topics. What follows is our conversation.

LG: Stephen, thank you for coming over and talking for a bit. How’ve you been?

Stephen Gallucci: I’ve been doing well in some respects, and you know, in other respects, not so well. But that’s life.

LG: I hear you have music out now.

SG: Yeah. It’s in CD form right now and it’s going to be on all the streaming sites within a week or two, which is exciting. I’m going to get on piano streaming sites, starting to compete with some of the people who are making money in that realm. Especially the contemporary piano realm. Although I wouldn’t completely consider it “new age” piano, I think it’s a good route to go, as well as advertising it as Classical.

LG: That can mean a lot of different things.

SG: It’s not the 1780s anymore, hahaha, so I hate to use that term for this stuff. I’m a lot more influenced by the romantic to late-romantic period of the mid-twentieth century…

LG: Now, I’ve known you for quite a while, now. When I first met you, I believe you were working on a Rachmaninoff piece. Are you mainly self-taught?

SG: No. When I was a young boy, my first inspiration was my father. Although he’s known as a piano tuner, he’s a magnificent pianist throughout his life and a composer. I would listen to him play his own stuff, and I would always, as a boy, just cry at the piano. When I started studying music, I started studying music with Jonathan Newell, and then I had three other teachers after that.

I did a lot of work on my own and had a lot of mentors. I’d say that was the self-taught part. All the work, and the thinking, and the studying… since I was a little boy. Understanding all the great pianists of the early twentieth century. I became intimate with those guys to the point where it’s all been internalized.

When I dabbled around and studied music into my twenties, or thirties, it was already solidified, you know?

LG: The new album, Embers, tell us a bit about that.

SG: There’s ten originals on the album.

LG: What kind of format are these songs in?

SG: They all have individual names according to the emotional content and spiritual content. “Embers” is the last song I wrote, and I thought it’d be appropriate for an album title. Each track represents something unique on its own, and each track is extremely individual. They all say something different. I really love the story it tells from one track to the next, the way it’s lined up. The first piece I wrote on this album I wrote when I was 22. It’s called “Elegy.” The last piece, “Embers,” was written in 2018.

The format is not in traditional classical sonata form or anything like that. “Fantasy On a Theme of Dvorak,” I take a theme from his “Serenade of Strings.”

LG: I love Dvorak.

SG: I do something completely different with it. I just used his theme in the beginning. I love it – it really is a fantasy. “Elegy” has a magnificent architecture or form. It could also be a certain kind of fantasy as well. The songs are more cinematic…

LG: Like a movie score?

SG: Yeah, but there’s melody. It’s not just atmosphere, although a lot are that way, like “Ice Cavern” and “Purgatory.” I paired them together.

LG: Where was it recorded?

SG: Hudson, New York, at Future-Past Studios in a beautiful church. It used to be Henry Hirsch’s old studio, where he recorded Michael Jackson. The National has recordings there. There’s a long line of musicians that’ve recorded there; they have incredible equipment that is analog.

LG: How did the concert on July 23rd, your release date of the album, go at the Strand Theatre?

SG: It went very well! The first half was other composers, and then the last half was my own pieces. I really thought I had a lot of energy that day. It was wild and intense. That’s all I have to say. I was a little bit wild that day. I wouldn’t say nervous, but high energy. I was happy; I sold some CDs, and people liked it.

LG: With rock music, you can sometimes get away with not practicing every day, once you know it. However, with your intense piano music, do you have to practice every day?

SG: Of course. Yes, I have to practice at least three or four hours a day, especially before a concert. I also know that if I over-practice before a concert, my hands, my mind, my brain, become tedious. There’s definitely a fine line before practicing for a classical concert. You really don’t want to peak out before the concert. It’s not good. You have to know when to break, when not to break, and how much to work on certain passages and not overdo it.

With my own stuff, I’ve played it for so long that it’s not too much of an issue with keeping up after it. When I’m practicing for a recital, I’m practicing other people.,

LG: Do you write out your own music?

SG: Yes. Sometimes through improvisation, I come up with ideas and certain structures. I compose off the top of my head like that. Then, I’ll write it down. Sometimes, I do compose with a pencil in hand and paper. It depends on the mood. It’s not something I’m looking for: I’m not looking to be a composer. It’s not something I’m struggling with every day. It’s a very natural thing for me. I like working on other people’s stuff, and if in fact I have an idea of something I enjoy that is unique to bring to the table, I’ll definitely write it down, play it, and record it. Keep it in my repertoire. I definitely cherry-pick it.

One percent of the stuff – not even one percent – I’ll go “Oh, I really love that theme.” Themes come to me in my head while I’m half asleep, or while I’m washing the dishes or in the shower. I hear it all, and then I’ll struggle with it. Hahaha. Just because my brain can hear it does not mean I can reproduce it. But I really love improvising and really love coming up with something new and different. Exploring shades and colors and new chords. It’s more of a spiritual and emotional journey.

LG: Who are some of your main influences as a pianist?

SG: For pianists themselves, not composers; I really love Alfred Cortot. I fell in love with Alfred Cortot’s playing in my late twenties. Ironically, he was my father’s teacher’s teacher. Alfred Cortot was in the same class as Ravel at the Paris Conservatory. Cortot is one of the greatest poets on piano who was known to make mistakes, but he was the most expressive of them all, with Chopin. The most poetic; nobody could touch him as far as expressing what he could express. Unfortunately, in today’s playing, people have forgotten what it was like to come out of the 19th century and into the 20th century, being individuals with their interpretations instead of the same homogenized playing we get in recordings and concerts these days, which is something I completely detest. Cortot, I fell in love with his playing.

I also studied piano with a man named Richard Sparapany. He taught me what is called the French technique. Ironically, years and years later – his teacher came from the Paris Conservatory – I bought a book by Cortot about piano technique. I couldn’t believe it: the first two pages were all about the wrist and how to move the wrist. It teaches you to develop a certain kind of special control over the keys. It’s the most amazing, special gift I could’ve ever gotten on piano. Somehow, it’s all connected to Alfred Cortot.

LG: How about composers in general?

SG: I love all of them. I’m very close to Rachmaninoff. It’s apples and oranges. Of course, Chopin, but I’m so close to him that I don’t want to play any of his stuff. It’s too familiar. Everything’s just full of contrast and color with Rachmaninoff. They’re the most important thing to me. Alfred Cortot also had color and contrast.

LG: You bring up words like color, contrast, shade, and all that stuff. I’m curious, when I write and perform, I can see the music that’s happening, internally. Do you have that going on? Does it evoke anything visual?

SG: I can see a keyboard in my head. My heart takes over when I know the piece, so I don’t think about it. I can definitely internalize a piece very well. My heart takes over, and I hear everything before I hit the keys.

LG: A lot of these instrumentalists have something called synesthesia. When they play, they have another sense that takes over. Do you have that?

SG: Yes, but I’m not literally seeing colors flash before my eyes like a trip on LSD. It’s really mental. You sense the color purple. You sense the color red. You sense the color green. I see a wash of colors in my mind, but it’s not visual in the physical world. It’s all internal. It’s a complex system.

LG: If I said play something purple for me, you’d know what to do?

SG: Yeah. Purple reminds me of Prelude in D Major by Rachmaninoff. It feels purple to me. Pink, I can see the opening of the Ballade No. 4 by Chopin. It’s very pink. I can definitely relate on a color level very well.

LG: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about in the interview that I may not have asked?

SG: I’d really like to mention my daughter, Leona. She designed the drawing, which is part of the artwork on the CD. She did it with just an iPad, sketch type of thing. I told her, “Do you realize what you’ve just done?” It was so cool and abstract! The rest of the album design was done by Kate Austin. It all came out so great.

I’m mainly looking for music work in the vein of compositions. The CD is a good calling card for that. If anybody knows anybody who pays commissions for these types of things, please let me know. They can get in touch with me by phone (518) 792-6067; email, [email protected]; and my Facebook page.

LG: Well, thank you very much for your time, Stephen!

SG: Thank you, Luke! This was fun!

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