We spoke with Catherine Marie Charlton about preserving open land, walking an exact ridge, the nature of improvisation and surrendering to cacophony.
Over the past several years, the garden really got neglected and would often get very overgrown. I’ve never planted flowers at this new house.
You mentioned via email that you’ve been doing some yardwork this spring. What are you planting this year?
Catherine Marie Charlton
Some flowers and herbs. I moved a couple of years ago, and I used to garden all the time before my children were born. Over the past several years, especially while working on the Andrew Wyeth project and having a couple of kids, the garden really got neglected and would often get very overgrown. I’ve never planted flowers at this new house. I figured it was time to start digging out. So, I’ve been weeding and planting flowers for my flowerbeds.
Is it a very rural area in which you live?
It’s rural suburbs. I’m an hour from Philadelphia, but there’s a lot of beautiful natural surroundings. But the town has lots of beautiful restaurants and there’s lots of art. I live really close to Longwood Gardens, which is one of the major tourist destinations. There’s a lot around, but it’s very rural. I love my walks; the Wyeth walks are at nature preserves near me. The county where I live is really big on open land preservation, so there’s a lot of nature preserves.
I feel like that’s increasingly rare in an era where they’re trying to defund national parks. Is that a county ordinance, or…?
No, there’s a few different conservancies. The Brandywine River Museum has an arm that’s a conservancy. They’re two organizations under the same umbrella. They preserve a lot of open space, but there’s also a land conservancy in the county where I live.
The seed of I Dream About This World: The Wyeth Album seems to have been being able to experience the same land where he lived and worked. Is it all kept basically the same as back when he was alive?
It’s interesting. The museum is near where he lived — where he started out and also where he moved in the ‘60s. His original studio is owned by the conservancy museum, and that’s open for tours. Then, his father, N.C. Wyeth’s house and studio is also owned by them and open for tours. Just in the last year, they cut a trail between the two studios, which is the ridge where he would walk every day. So, yes, now you can walk the exact ridge.
They also own the Kuerner Farm, where he painted over 1,000 works, and that’s also within walking distance of his studio. A couple of photographs from my book are from the Kuerner Farm, and I worked in the kitchen where he painted “Groundhog Day.” That’s one painting of Andrew Wyeth’s I have in the book. For part of the composing of that piece, I was actually in the kitchen with my computer and keyboard, working in the kitchen.
The fog and the mist is there, but there are tiny little droplets coming out of the sky and everything sort of has this blurry edge on it.
Is that kitchen basically the same as it was back then, too?
Yes, they’ve preserved it, so you can tour it and see it. They don’t have furniture in it, but they’ve preserved the wallpaper, for example, and the counters. When you tour, they have pictures of the paintings, so you can see the architecture, the fireplaces, the windows or anything else.
It seems as though you were sort of interpreting the landscape of where Wyeth lived while picking out a few choice folk tunes to do the heavy lifting, too. How did certain ideas conveyed in his work transcend two media to inform your note or chord choices?
For me, it’s much more of an emotional connection and a mood. One example would be “April Rain,” which is on the back cover along with that track. That’s a N.C. Wyeth painting; he was Andrew Wyeth’s father. I felt very deeply that he was influenced a lot by his Impressionist elders, who weren’t a lot older than him, but they were older enough that he admired their work and was sort of watching what was going on in the art world. That painting, “April Rain,” was painted in the 1930s, I believe. I wanted to capture the mood of the mist of the rain. Interestingly enough, around these parts, that mist, that fog is very prevalent. Now, ever since I delved into that painting, when I experience those April days, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is an ‘April Rain’ kind of day.” Because the fog and the mist is there, but there are tiny little droplets coming out of the sky and everything sort of has this blurry edge on it.
That reminds me of the Impressionist paintings, so I wanted to pick the style of an Impressionist composer who was working at the same time as the painters. That’s why I chose Erik Satie as an inspiration, with the blurriness on the edges and the long stretches of the resonance of the notes to sort of emulate that mist, the way it hangs.
In what sense was N.C. Wyeth influenced by his elders? He was paying close attention to his artistic peers who were older than him?
Yes. He was born in 1882 and made his biggest mark in the illustration world in 1912, when he illustrated Treasure Island for Scribner’s. Then, he got lots and lots of commissions and was working all the time as an illustrator for major publishers. But Treasure Island was his first really big break. He was a young man then, and a lot of the big Impressionist painters had been in the 1890s, so they were all about 20 years older than him, or older than that in the case of Monet.
I’m not sure I’d put it in those exact words, but I started chuckling because I’m sitting here on the top of a hill looking out in the trees.
You’ve worked with William Ackerman in the past. What was his involvement in the Wyeth project like? How did your relationship with him and Windham Hill come about?
I worked with Will for the first year of this project, yeah. He had his hand on a few of the tracks. Maybe a third of the tracks were recorded at his studio in Vermont. The piano parts, anyway. A lot of the overdubs were later.
I was first going to work with Will in 2004 on my album The Undershore. I had reached out to him and sent him one of my recent albums, and we had been talking about working together. But at that point, he did not have a piano in his Vermont studio yet. We researched a bunch of options for where to record in the Northeast and how to bring a piano into his studio, but at that time, it was just too cost-prohibitive for me to do that. So I ended up producing The Undershore myself that year, but then that line of communication had been opened.
I was doing a lot of pure improv work, like my album Red Leaf, Grey Sky. And then Maiden’s Voyage, which came out at the same time I was working on The Wyeth Album. But when I started The Wyeth Album, I was already deep in making Maiden’s Voyage, which is more of a jazz album. The Wyeth Album originally came about because I had an opportunity to work with Will, we had reconnected, and I had scheduled a time to go up to Vermont. I had a toddler and a young child, and when my toddler was weaned, the day after she stopped nursing, I booked a trip to Vermont.
It was going to be a way to express myself and work with Will, who I had been wanting to work with for such a long time. So, The Wyeth Album came about originally because I needed a project to work on with Will, because he wasn’t the right producer for the pure improv or the jazz album I was working on. I was trying to come up with an idea that would work for some improv.
About a month before the first session, I realized I had a whole bunch of concerts booked at the Brandywine River Museum. I had some daytime improv concerts scheduled, just to get myself out of the house and performing. Again, freedom from the babies and toddlers! But that’s when I made the connection: I’m going up to Vermont to record and I have this series of concerts, so why don’t I turn these concerts into an unveiling of the composing process and learn more about Andrew Wyeth? Because I’ve always enjoyed his paintings, and I don’t know a lot about him?
Then, about a week before I went to Vermont, I realized I’d been wanting to try working with a looping pedal, experimenting with layering and orchestrations on the piano. The title track to I Dream About This World was recorded that very first session. A few days before I went up, I sketched out all the different layers and we worked it out over the course of a couple of days.
I’m sure that area Vermont where you recorded the music is so vast and beautiful. Wouldn’t new age and other meditative, instrumental musics lend itself to that sort of “painter on the hill” vibe, making art in real time out of your natural surroundings?
I’m not sure I’d put it in those exact words, but I started chuckling because I’m sitting here on the top of a hill looking out in the trees. That became such a big part of the Wyeth project.
Around a year into the project, I started these nature walks. I also moved to a producer close to me, Phil Nicolo, who was my primary partner over the last several years of the project, and he’s the one who released it on his label. We developed this extraordinary partnership, and it was an amazing opportunity for me to work closer to home with someone who I admired greatly. But around the same time I met Phil, I started these nature walks.
The way I describe them was that I was going out to look at the world in the way Wyeth looked at the world. I wanted to better understand the creative process. It’s sort of like the Japanese version of what they call “forest bathing,” going out to nature with no aim or destination, just for the purpose of being in nature. Then, you add the creativity of the Wyeth family, expecting surprises and being open to surprises and images and feelings where you least expect them.
In your studies of Wyeth, did you learn anything that surprised you or shifted your view of him?
One thing that resonated with me so much, which I didn’t know about when I started the project, was that he considered himself first and foremost an abstract painter. He was very much about shapes and rhythms and sounds. He spoke about the spring that’s on the cover of my book. That basin of water from the spring has a very unique sound, and he talked about how he would immerse himself in that sound.
So many people automatically think of him as a realist painter, but if you compare what he actually painted to the scene itself, he changes everything and takes out windows and changes the shape and the flow. He wanted things to be as interesting upside down as they were right side up. It was abstraction with the curtain of realism or accessibility.
It’s interesting, because that’s how I often view my own music. I listen to a lot of free jazz and tend to do a lot of really abstract chords. But I tend to always gravitate toward making it pretty, so that’s just the way I’ve always done it. It really resonated with me to learn that he considered himself to be abstract, while having that accessible realist on top. Ann Wyeth McCoy’s music is also very similar, in how she would have these dense, rich chords that could be lifted straight into a jazz piece, but from the framework of a classical perspective.
I’ve always been attracted to free jazz, which is supposed to be kind of grating to the ear most of the time, but I love Keith Jarrett, too. On The Koln Concert, he’s just “going for it” in a similar improvisational sense, but it’s melodious instead. Only in that sphere of music can you kind of get the best of both worlds.
Here’s the interesting thing about the free jazz. About 10 years ago, I went to a concert with Marshall Allen, who was in Sun Ra’s band, and Elliott Levin, an extraordinary sax player who played on my Maiden’s Voyage album. The two of them were just creating this nonstop wall of sound that, as you said, was grating on the surface. But it just wouldn’t stop. It kept going on and on in a cacophonous wall of sound. All of a sudden, I realized that I could surrender into it. And once you surrender into that sound, because you can’t escape it without being rude and leaving the concert, then that becomes the meditation. It’s a really extraordinary transformation to dive into it that way.
Do you similarly see yourself as an “abstract painter”? Your music is so beautiful and soothing, but have you ever thought of pushing into the void like they did?
I have, some. I performed live with a piano-percussion duo for a very long time. When I improvise live, I go into those realms a lot more often. But it’s funny, because I keep going back into the pretty stuff, so the free jazz people would probably think I’m an imposter. “You don’t belong here!”
The project got bigger than I ever imagined it would be, but once I was in it, I had to do it. It took me in such unexpected directions.
What’s next for you after the Wyeth project?
This was such a major undertaking and monumental effort that I’ve just been resting for a while. Just today, when you called — I’ve been improvising all day. For about 6 months or so, all I could play was one Schubert sonata. I got really good at that Schubert sonata, and it was really keeping my fingers nimble, but I was having trouble accessing new music. Even now, I’m improvising, and it feels really good, but I’m also pulling back some of my ancient music now from 2000 or so. I was just playing one of my songs from an album I made then.
I’ve had such an incredible journey in my studies and pursuits and performing that I’m in a completely different place in my technique than I was then. I was wondering, with the maturity and the technique, how those songs would be now. I’m curious to explore that.
When you pulled up that old work, did it feel like the work of a different person? Do you tend to feel alienated from your older work, or can you kind of embrace it?
Well, because I’m an improviser, by definition, it’s me now. The Wyeth Album is the first place where I had composed parts to what I was doing. Much of it was rooted in improv, but there are various sections that are very much composed. That was my first exploration into that, because my art, historically, has always been improvisation.
The pieces on my older albums have set themes and openings and transitions, but the music itself is different every time I play it. Very little of it is written down or even has notes of what I did. So by the very definition, I’m recreating a memory of something with the context of who I am now.
Since you’re an improviser by nature, was it difficult to introduce more of a sense of structure?
It was challenging, but I also loved it. I also had such a big vision for what I wanted this project to be. I wanted to attain something I’d never attained before in my art, and really challenge myself to create something than I had before.
Given your lifelong appreciation, there must have been so much building up to it.
Yeah, for sure. The project got bigger than I ever imagined it would be. But once I was in it, I had to do it. It took me in such unexpected directions. I had never considered myself a photographer before, but after taking thousands upon thousands of photos on these walks, photography has become just as important to me as the music and something that I want to continue explore and have be part of what I’m creating.
So, you ask what’s going to be next, and I don’t know what it is, but I have a feeling I should include the photography as part of it.
Did you come at the photography from a clean slate, or had you already had an eye for it?
It’s all instinctual. I’ve often had cameras on me while hiking, but never anything dedicated. I’d taken a workshop here and there, but again, nothing dedicated. All the things on my walks were iPhone photos, because it started out out of wanting to document my nature walks.
When it first started, I had been working on a classical concert exploring music that had influenced the painter Charles E. Burchfield. It was an exhibit at the same museum, the Brandywine River Museum, and they had asked me to do music that had influenced this painter. But he did a lot of nature logging. I had been reading a lot of his nature works and he also was a big fan of the composer Jean Sibelius. I got introduced to Sibelius’s music through the Burchfield project! But it wasn’t until I started diving into the music that I realized the Wyeths were also big fans of Sibelius.
I had the Burchfield nature journal as sort of a model for what I wanted to do and I just started doing iPhone photos as a way to document the walks. But then I started doing the walks every day, so I was taking 40 or 50 photos on every walk. Over the course of several years, it ended up being almost 10,000 photos.
You’re touching on something interesting here. What do you think about technology’s power to make everyone sort of a beginner at everything? Because there was a time where you didn’t just “take photos,” you were a photographer. But I feel like 10,000 amateur photos later, you could develop a sense of what makes a good image without any formal training if you set your mind to it.
Yeah. To have that amazingly easy tool with me made it very easy to get started, and to just let it be organic and evolve as a very natural extensions of what I was doing through the music. That wasn’t something that I set out to do, but because I had the tool that allowed me to just jump in and try it, that’s how I developed a voice in my composition.
Has the extreme shareability in the modern-day music industry helped you, creatively? To be able to have all that freedom to put out anything?
Well, the case in point is moving my project from having to book time in a studio in Vermont with Will and having to block out a week of time away from my family, versus moving it locally to a producer where I could work for a couple of hours in the morning before he started working with his other clients. And I recorded the rest of the piano tracks alone at my house, so I could record when inspiration struck in the middle of the night when my family was asleep. Yeah, it’s extraordinary to be able to have that organic access to the improv.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: June 7, 2018
Total questions: 19
Word count: 3342
Reading time: Eleven minutes
access, architecture, blur, Catherine Marie Charlton, Charles Burchfield, chuckling, client, composition, conservancy, creativity, destination, direction, droplet, edge, effort, family, fireplace, flower, fog, freedom, garden, hill, house, improvisation, industry, leaf, middle, mist, monumental, nature, night, organic, Pennsylvania, piano, process, producer, sky, sleep, Steinway, studio, track, tree, undertaking, unveiling, Vermont, voice, wallpaper, weed, William Ackerman, Windham Hill, window
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
Related conversations W