Interview with Daniel Padrón

(By Atlanta journalist Deborah Geering)

DG: Tell me a little bit about your musical background. What is your earliest memory of music?

DP: When I was a little kid, I always had tunes running through my head. I would go off into the back yard where I thought nobody could hear me, and I'd be humming them. I'd hum melodies and I'd make probably what sounded like very strange noises. I got to where I could play drums with my mouth to make the beat. (Daniel demonstrates; Deborah laughs)

DG How old were you then?

DP: I don't remember when I started exactly, but I've never really stopped.

DG What was the first instrument that you played? Was it piano?

DP: It was actually cello.

DG: Cello?! And how old were you when you started playing?

DP: I was about seven, and there's a funny story about the cello. I was a very naive kid, and there was a string instrument demonstration. The one I was interested in was the violin, but I thought they had called it a cello. So I asked for a cello. But when they had gone to the trouble of getting cello, I had enough sense not to say, "This is not what I had in mind." They were being generous, and I was grateful that they took me seriously. So I actually learned to play and thought, "It's a lot bigger than what I was thinking about, but I guess it will do just as well."

DG How long did you play cello?

DP: About four years, but I was a very undisciplined student. I guess it could only play up to two notes at one time. I kind of lost interest and became interested in chords and harmonies.

DG: So somehow you must have transitioned over to keyboards.

DP: My brother actually started playing the piano before I did, but I became more and more curious about chords. I think chords were the start of it, and I finally started taking lessons.

DG So when was it discovered that you had perfect pitch? How did that come about?

DP: My mother played a game with me where I was in another room and she'd play a note on the piano. I was able to tell her what note it was.

DG How old were you?

DP: I was real young. About three or four.

DG Before you ever picked out an instrument, and you could identify notes.

DP: I don't even remember this game. This is what my mother told me.

DG: Wow. So where do you think the interest in chords and harmonies came from? Do you think it's tied to the perfect pitch? Perfect pitch is an indication that you've got some higher brain function around music than the average Joe. I'm curious if you think they were connected or not.

DP: I originally attributed my perfect pitch to just being fascinated with the sound of the piano. It became like a fixation. To me, chords were like colors. I was fascinated. If I ever liked a tune, I always attributed it to the chords of the song.

DG: Do you associate colors with notes?

DP: I believe I did, particularly when I had the perfect pitch at an early age, but later it became colors associated with chords or keys. Every key seems to have a unique color.

DG: If you're alone in the house with a piano, will you sit down and play it?

DP: I generally would get around to it. Sooner or later the mood and the urge to play the piano will come. That has changed a little bit, but early on I started using the piano more and more to compose. When I first started as a composer, I was doing it all in my head when I was not around a piano, but then I learned that a piano could be used as a tool for composing. Sometimes if I hear something in my head, I will play it. Sometimes it depends on what mood I'm in. If I have a jazz tune in my head, such as the other day when "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was in my head, I start playing it and fooling around with it and am able to do some things with it. Sometimes I'll take a tune in my head and start improvising with it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a tune in my head and will go to the piano to see if it's a solo piano tune or if it sounds like a Wild Rice tune (which is my band) then I will start working with it at the piano. Sometimes I'll just play a tune just because it's fun to play, not because I am trying to do anything original with it.

DG: When it's just you and the piano, are you more likely to experiment with melodies in your head and basically compose, or are you more likely to play to entertain yourself and play a song all the way through?

DP: I'm more likely to work stuff out because as a composer I would be composing a song and learning to play it at the same time. Sometimes it's a matter of learning my music because it is technically challenging. I enjoy listening to a lot of my music, which might sound like I've got a fat head, but it it true that it is very nice to be able to enjoy one's own music, or at least say that I enjoy listening to my music the same way I enjoy listening to Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. So I'll play just so that I can listen to my music and at the same time try to play it better.

DG What do you think fuels your musical creativity?

DP: Stress. Actually I'd say life experience. I think one has to be an active participant in life in order to create. There's something about the experience of being out there and on the stage of life, not just music, that seems to fuel it. I'm hoping that I can have some element or emotion or excitement in my music that might not be there in pampered classical virtuosos because I have experienced a lot of the things everyday people have experienced and not lived a sheltered existence.

DG So do you think locking yourself in a room and practicing 10 hours a day wouldn't work for you?

DP: If I did music 24 hours a day for whatever reason, I don't think I would have the experience to truly draw on the emotion necessary to compose new music because that seems to require having human experience that is non-musical. In a way, I'm going to be trying to find ways to throw myself into the fire in order to get that experience. Sometimes I wonder if I didn't have any stress in my life if I'd be able to compose the way I do.

DG: What part of the musical process do you enjoy the most?

DP: I would say the nicest moment is when you have composed something and finally sit back and hear a final version of your music either, performed live or recorded, and be able to hear it played back the way you envisioned it in your mind, such as I did when I was finally finished with my Whisper to the Night CD. It was very satisfying to hear all my pieces recorded. The result and culmination of all the work come together in one recording and one product, and you can stand back and admire it.

DG: Have you gotten a feel for how people experience it? Do they experience it as classical DG:music or do they experience it as jazz? To me it's a little bit of everything.

DP: I'd say they perceive it as a little bit of everything: jazz, new age, classical. The jury's still out on that. I'll be interested to know how future audiences perceive this and experience it. I only know how I experience it.

DG: What does it feel like to you?

DP: I guess I just get a big boost just thinking that it might sound like maybe Rachmaninoff had written it, or Chopin, or one of the great composers had written it and that they would have been proud to have written something like what I wrote. I like to think that my music could possibly be innovative in the different ways that I combine classical and jazz. For instance, there's something on my Whisper to the Night CD called The Lone Hiker Suite which is unique in a way with each of its movements. In each, one part of it is written out, somewhat impressionist, and there is a part that's improvised. I like to think The Lone Hiker Suite is a very unique piece. In a way, it's somewhat like Debussy, but there's a jazz element. In a way, I use my own vocabulary.

DG Wild Rice is clearly very jazz based with some rock influences. Whisper to the Night seems more classical in essence, but there's all those other elements in there. How do you describe your music?

DP: I guess I'm more concerned with music that sounds good rather than having my signature on there, so I think if you hear my music you wouldn't necessarily know it's me the same way you would know it's another composer, like Mozart. I think it's a natural process to develop one's own vocabulary and style. So yes, I think there are certain styles that are unique with me and characteristic of the music I like, including Latin jazz, classical, my favorite composers Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Prokofiev, and of course my favorite piano players like Lyle Mays. All of those musicians and composers I admire are instrumental in the vocabulary that I use.

DG: So what's your ambition as a musician, and where do you hope to be?

DP: Well, I'd like to go as far as I can. I do have a big ego.

DG: You do not!

DP: Well, the though of having my music known throughout the world does inspire me and I guess that would mean that I have a big ego in a sense.

DG: So is your ambition mostly as a composer or a performer or a recording artist?

DP: I'm not going to put any limits on myself, but I would like to be a great improviser and I would like to be able to compose. I would say that to be able to compose, perform, and improvise at the same time is really what a good improviser can do.

DG: What are your immediate plans career-wise?

DP: I would like to get gigs where I can perform some of my music. I would also like to continue working on new compositions and practicing them. As a composer, I write music to make myself a better player. If I can play the music I compose, that really makes me a better musician. I don't have a real plan except that there's one thing I'm working on that I'm going to call "Rhapsody on Yesterdays: A Tribute to Sergei Rachmaninoff and the American composer." I have high hopes for this piece because it's giving me a lot of inspiration. This piece borrows from jazz and classical and Rachmaninoff, and is hopefully something that jazz and classical musicians can appreciate because I'm giving somewhat of a Rachmaninoff treatment, similar to "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini." I'm trying to apply that treatment to "Yesterdays," which is a jazz standard and a classic American song.

DG: About five years from now, where do you see yourself?

DP: I'd say as long as I can be performing my music at least two times a week, not every single day of the week, and I can still compose and practice, I would be happy whether that means I'm already famous or I'm just in my little modest humble way carving a little place for myself in the world.