William Pearson

By Edward Breitweiser

May 1, 2019

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In partnership with PT.FWD, a new series of contemporary music and sonic arts performances featuring new work by local and regional artists in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, Sight Specific will be publishing conversations between the featured artists and pt.fwd director Eddie Breitweiser.

William Pearson (Champaign-Urbana, IL) will be performing on Saturday, May 4, 2019 at 8pm at the McLean County Arts Center. All pt.fwd performances are free and open to the public. Follow pt.fwd on Facebook and Instagram for more information, including upcoming performance dates.


Eddie: Part of the charge of pt.fwd is to find a diverse group of local and regional artists and musicians and to challenge them to bring something new to an open-minded audience. Would you mind speaking a bit about your background, your practice, and historically what we're going to be hearing? What have you prepared for us and how does it both relate to your practice as a whole and indicate where you're going next?

Will:  Yeah. One of the things that I sometimes do just for fun, for my own enjoyment, is instead of making a work list, I'll make a work web where I set up all my pieces into groupings. So, I have a bunch of pieces that are about my time as a choir boy when I was small. That's been a big influence on me. And then I have a bunch of pieces that deal with the renaissance music that we were singing, and just stuff that's tied to that part of my life. And I've got a group of pieces that are all influenced by John Ashbery poetry. I have all these different kind of nodes that I go back to. And the fun thing is when those connect up in unexpected ways. So sometimes I'll be working on a piece with an Ashbery text - which I have many times - and see, “oh, this applies very well to this choir thing that I've already written”. All these different family groupings start to connect up.

So, what I’m going to be doing for our concert is one of those notions that's been implicit in a lot of my music but I haven't quite turned into its own grouping yet. That's my being influenced by a small group of visual artists and art critics whom I've been reading about and thinking about for a while but I haven't explicitly said, “I'll deal with these issues”, but they've been dancing on the edges of other pieces. So, that's really how I've been thinking about this piece: as a step into a new space in my work web that I'm excited to fill out.

Eddie: So, you're dealing with visual artists in this case. Does that inform your composition differently?

Will:  Yeah. Part of why I'm attracted to reading visual artists and critics and stuff is that I've always felt an ambivalence about being a musician as opposed to being any other kind of artist. I’ve always thought I would have been happy if it had just turned out I had gotten more into film as a kid or more into sculpture or something like that. I would be able to do what I want to do in this media, but it just so happens that I'm in music. And so, I think that's what I think attracts me to looking into other art forms.

Although I have to say in the last few years, that's kind of flipped. I’ve figured out what I actually see music specially offering as opposed to other art forms. And what that is is something that actually can be applied to any number of things. When I'm going to be talking about sculpture at this concert coming up, I'm not really going to be talking too much about space or, you know, something like that. It's going to be much more deep, fundamental ideas that can be applied to any art form.

Eddie:  I see. Interesting. pt.fwd is deeply rooted in the Bloomington-Normal area, and we’re trying to celebrate artists who are working in our backyard and making cutting-edge work. I was hoping you could speak a little bit about where you work and live, and ways that being either in the Midwest or having connections to Central Illinois have informed your work. Whether it's presented challenges, opportunities, or anything like that.

Will:  Yeah. I moved out here from New York in 2012 for grad school at the University of Illinois. And when I think about the biggest chunk of my life in the Midwest, it's been defined mostly by teaching. That’s something I never did as an undergrad, and I was very anxious coming out here and being like, “Oh my God, I hope I like teaching.” [Laughs] Because, you know, that’s one of the ways that I saw myself making a living. The great thing about U of I is that I was a teaching assistant for six years. I got to teach a ton of classes. In the broader community, I got to teach at the Pre-College Academy, so I've been working with high school and middle school students.

This year, I’ve had the first of my high school students who is starting college in the fall in composition, so that's been cool. And I taught at Illinois Wesleyan University for a year and that was great. So, really for me it's really been the incredible opportunities to teach, to realize that I love working with young people, in particular young composers. And that’s influenced my work. I started writing pedagogical pieces, pieces for children. The big thing is that it's allowed me to see pedagogy as a central part of my artistic practice and not compartmentalized. It’s really something I can focus on.

Eddie: Yeah. Where do you see that taking you next?

Will:  Well, I want to keep teaching. Right now, I'm doing the adjunct thing, which as you may know doesn't give a lot of information about what you're doing next. [Laughs.] So I'm not really sure what I'm doing next. But my next big project, I know, is a big set of piano pieces which were written for amateur and child performers. And that's really another area I want to be more involved in.

Eddie:  I see. I have a personal affinity for - I don’t want to say “accessible”, but the constraints of non-virtuosic skills.

Will:  Yeah, absolutely. I'm kind of turned off by virtuosity in a way.

Eddie:  Yeah, I'm with you.

Will:  But it’s a tough thing. It’s a tricky thing to hand a piece to a performer and say, “You know all those things you've been working all those hours on getting good at? We're not really doing those things.”

Eddie:  Right, right.

Will:  It’s always a challenge. Often, we really are doing those things but it's in a much more simplified or more basic way, but that's always a challenge. I love the idea of the performer, even if they're not a young person, someone just broaching the unknown, just starting to learn something. I find that to be a very beautiful aesthetic space, so it's always tricky to be like, “You know, I'm not just making you uncomfortable. There's actually something that is going to be worth it.” That’s always hard.

Eddie:  Right. From my experience, you hit on something important, which is comfort level. Even in 2019, there are still lots of musicians - students, in particular - who are enthusiastic about performing, enthusiastic about new music, but have to get out of their comfort zone when they’re playing new work. I think that that can be potentially detrimental not only to the craft but to the future of their career, to some degree. So, I think that's always encouraging when creators account for that. But at the same time, some of the most enjoyable experiences I've had working with musicians are those times when they're having fun, when they're enjoying it, even if they’re stepping outside their comfort zone. That often it doesn't takes these gigantic leaps to be stepping outside your comfort zone.

Will:  Right. And when it goes well, that's a really satisfying way of working with people. Because composers - at least I am - are in that place, too. I’m not someone who thinks they know totally what the piece is when I hand it to the performer. I want to be on this journey with you where we're cautiously and curiously stepping into this unknown place. So when that works, it’s super fun and very rewarding.

Eddie: Agreed. Finally, this is our first season of pt.fwd. Our informal theme for this season is, “Start a fire and they will come.” So, I'm curious if you have a “start a fire and they will come” moment?

Will: Hmm. Is this like a “build-it-and-they-will-come” moment? [Laughs.]

Eddie:  Yeah, kind of.

Will: Hmm.

Eddie: Or, are you getting inspiration from any unexpected places?

Will:  Yeah. I'm teaching musicianship right now. Just on Thursday, I was teaching what are called “com-provs” so they’re like, half composition, half improvisation assignments. Sometimes they have specific rules, like you have to use a German sixth chord or something like that. But it's the last semester so I’m trying some outside-of-the-box stuff. We’re talking about timbre in class, so my only instruction for this one was to do a three-minute long piece where the thing that makes a difference is timbral. That's the only thing. So, form or whatever has to be timbrally decided. So, it’s this wide open thing. And I was worried that I would have students who just rolled their eyes. It would have been very easy to just blow off such an open-ended assignment.

There was one group that came out and they had kazoos, and I thought, “Oh my God. This is not a good sign.” [Laughs.] And they all started walking around the room playing these kazoos. And I was thinking, “Oh no.” And people started chuckling. And then, it morphs into this sort of amazingly beautiful thing where they were talking through the kazoos. Then at the end, they developed a breathing pattern, and some of them had harmonicas so that the inhales were suddenly sounding instead of just sounding like breath.

And it turned out to have - sort of along the lines we've been talking about - this basic, humanistic quality that actually related to this silly instrument, the kazoo, which is sort of half voice and half goofiness. [Laughs.] It ended up being this thing where everybody in the class was transfixed by it. Those moments are always amazing. That was a pretty good one.

Eddie: That's great. I like the idea of the “com-provs” as an assignment.

Will:  Yeah, that's a big part of the curriculum here. Making sure that students can actually play something on their own without something in front of them.

Eddie:  The first concert in our series was a heavily improvisational concert. Especially for me coming from an improv background, it touches on some of the things you and I’ve been talking about today. I’ve found how much improvisation can be one of those key experiences that opens up such an unexpected sound world and that's really rooted in a marriage of skills and a willingness just to be curious.

Will:  Yeah, absolutely. It's also always nice to just show the spectrum between composition and improvisation. They aren't these totally distinct things. There's maybe one side of the spectrum where you're going in real cold, but for the most part you're always setting up some sort of constraints and learning how to leverage those constraints is something you have to learn by doing it. It’s a great skill.


William Pearson (Champaign-Urbana, IL) is a composer and organist who has held positions teaching Composition, Music Theory, and Musicianship at the University of Illinois, Illinois Wesleyan University and DePauw University. His music is influenced by philosophy, by his childhood experience as a choirboy, by filmmakers like Béla Tarr and David Lynch, and by artists like Jeff Wall, Charles Ray, and John Ashbery. In the last couple years, an attempt to articulate the political and ethical possibilities of music and musical composition has become an increasingly central motivating force in his practice.

For his pt.fwd performance, Pearson will present a program of new works inspired by a series of talks the sculptor Charles Ray gave in 2015 at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. These talks sprang from, as Ray says, “not so much thinking about sculpture, but thinking about the world sculpturally.” Through this program of musical works, Pearson will give a thought-provoking answer to the question: What does it mean to think about the world musically?

This article is part of Sixty Regional, an ongoing initiative by Chicago-based arts publication Sixty Inches From Center which partners with artists, writers, and artist-run spaces throughout the Midwest and Illinois to highlight the artwork being produced across the region. This work is made possible through the support of Illinois Humanities, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois General Assembly through the Illinois Arts Council Agency, as well as by contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations.


Edward Breitweiser is an Illinois-based artist, musician, and writer. Incorporating models from various intellectual traditions and bodies of knowledge, Breitweiser organizes particulars (software, electronics, audio/visual signals, text, networked distribution channels, improvisational music, performative activities) into arrangements whose products are the macro-result of the emergent interactions of all components at once.

His works have been presented at Festival MusicAlp (Courchevel, France); Network Music Festival (Birmingham, UK); the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago); Illinois State University Galleries (Normal, IL); MobileHCI (Stockholm); Salle Cortot (Paris); threewalls (Chicago); the Giorgio Cini Foundation (Venice); Illinois Wesleyan University (Bloomington, IL); the Fuse Factory (Columbus); and the McLean County Arts Center (Bloomington, IL).