Words by David C. Obenour
Crackling, distorted, slowly disintegrating, only then to creep its way back through the haunted looping of tape. There’s an immediate warmth and familiarity to the soundscapes of Appear to Fade, the upcoming collaborative album from pianist, Richard Sears and producer, Ari Chersky.
Sourced from a marathon recording session, the pair captured performances from Sears – including an improvised jazz standard that would appear clean on the album – and spent the following two months thoughtfully rebuilding the album as a collage. Notes hang and fall. Tone falters beautifully. Tenor seeps into every meticulous and imperfect analog tape loop. The human element remains both blurred and in clear focus.
Off Shelf: Can you talk about the genesis of this collaboration with Ari Chersky?
Richard Sears: Ari and I both grew up around the San Francisco area and our musical milieux extends back to shared Bay Area roots. When I was programing Sunday nights at the Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn, I invited Ari’s band to perform as he was developing music for his record “Fear Sharpens the Dagger”. I loved the concert, and I admire the recording. After completing a series electro-acoustic piano music concerts at The Shed, I wanted to find another collaboration that would continue with exploration of acoustic and processed piano production. I was following Ari’s work with other Bay Area friends, Danny Lubin-Laden and Raffi Garabedian. During the pandemic, Ari, Marv and I were part of a FaceTime film club, where the idea for this record was born.
OS: As opposed to digital options, how do you think working with magnetic tape loops and analog tools affected the album and its tone?
RS: If I’m making music away from the piano, I’m drawn to processes that still feel tactile, as an instrument would. Tape looping, with it’s warmth and saturation, also writes its imperfections and sound distortions onto the recording, and I love how this creates phrasing and rhythms that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
OS: That warmth also lends the album an almost field recording type quality – that really sets the listener in the room. Were there any particular nuances to the piano (or pianos) you played for the album that stood out when listening back to the album?
RS: Sure, the Una Corda most certainly. Ari and Shahzad tried several different mic placements for capturing the Una Corda. The hammer mechanics are very loud, and we chose to close-mic the front, preserving those sounds. Also, the soundboard is very resonate and very thin, almost like a cello. The sound from the soundboard at close-range is spectacular, and we tried to place additional mics to preserve that characteristic.
OS: In hearing how Ari took, manipulated, and looped your playing, how did that change the tones or melodies for you? What remained and what evolved?
RS: I was curious to explore this idea in the process. The archive we created for Appear To Fade is at least 10 times longer than the recording. I brought my music, and Ari had prepared ideas for the session. My writing is not well adapted for, or even intended for, an “ambient music” practice. Ari’s genius is – in part – expressed by the way he pries open the music, finding places to create space, pulling out themes, textures, and soundscapes to apply to his production work.
OS: What sort of things remained on the cutting floor? That may not have worked for Appear to Fade but still offered an interesting insight or angle?
RS: Yeah, I tried revisiting some of the music from my record Iron Year in a solo setting, and none of it worked. The process taught me a lot about what material fuels this kind of creation and what ideas pose difficulties… For instance, much of the Some choices seemed interesting early in process, but created obstacles at a later stage. Aside from bring a great producer, Ari is an amazing editor, which probably takes a greater energy and of focused attention.
OS: Given the nature of how the album was created, I imagine the desire to continue to tweak and tune and evolve was strong. Were some compositions harder to walk away from as finished?
RS: That’s really an Ari question. I was happy to relinquish control to Ari and not deal with that. That came with a huge amount of trust and a rare musical connection that took years to build.
OS: Relocating to Paris throughout the writing and recording of the album, do you think your personal upheaval bleeds into the recordings at all?
RS: Sure, absolutely. Arriving in Paris has been mostly excellent, though leaving Brooklyn was tough and I still miss it. And moreover, moving further away from California is part of that “upheaval”. It’s not ordinarily my disposition to languish in nostalgia, but its true, those feelings are part of this project.
OS: Going back to an earlier response, can you talk about the Una Corda and why you choose to use it for the album?
RS: Yes! These are extraordinary instruments, and there are only a small handful in the Untied States. I discovered the Una Corda at Figure Eight Recording soon after meeting Shahzad Ismaily. He helped produce my recording “Disquiet”, to feature the Una Corda in a trio setting, playing improvised music. The Una Corda has a plucky character and a different – maybe narrower – spectrum of overtones. I enjoy exploring unusual pianos… a dilapidated upright, a square-grand piano, a piano 1/4 degrees flat… playing an unusual instrument forces me outside of my playing habits – and fuck knows we all have them. The Una Corda is both unusual, but expertly crafted by a career-genius instrument builder named David Klavins. I took a trip to Lativa with my friends Kamil, Mik, and Pav to meet David and play his other instruments. We made a short film about the experience, which I hope will be out soon. David and his team greatly impress me. They are all aligned by a shared aspiration towards beauty, originality and expertise, and his instruments offer the same in abundance.
OS: It also appears on the closing track to Appear to Fade, where Ari had asked you to improvise a jazz standard. Why did you choose this as a way to close out the album? What do you like about it as the final piece?
RS: I wanted to release one un-edited performance. This was one of the last things we did after a nearly 20 hour recording session. Even in the studio, playing this felt like we were nearing the end of something… like we’d given everything we had and this was the last flicker of honest imagination remaining. And really, it’s a convention of straight-ahead jazz piano recordings; to place a solo piano track at the very end of the album – and thank you to all those who do listen to this album from start to finish! Obviously, this is not a straight-ahead jazz piano record, but that is the music I grew up playing and it’s still part of my daily practice.