Name: Peter Zummo
Occupation: Composer, trombonist, producer
Current release: Peter Zummo's Second Spring (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is out 3rd September 2021 via 7K!.
If you enjoyed this interview with Peter Zummo, you can listen to more music from his extensive back catalogue on his bandcamp page. He is also on twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
If I wake up with music accompanying the dream I was just having, I try to write it down quickly. Or music might develop over the course of the day, and I get it down later, or variations emerge.
But the “impulse to create” can be confused with work habits. It’s not really a mystery; I’m engaging in a process, and I do it regularly.
Other forms of art play a role. Making a film score requires a practiced response to the script, acting, and imagery. But music is music, so in the end it’s rhythms, melodies, modes, and keys.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When I have an idea that strikes me as “concrete,” or real, which may be as small as a little melody, I write it down, if the situation allows. So I have an inventory on manuscript paper or on scraps of paper. A sense of a finished work might accompany the initial idea, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
For any piece, I create many versions, only some of which I may share with a collaborator. Sometimes, I wait to share my ideas in order to present them more clearly.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or…poetry play?
Sometimes it helps to do something else. So if I’m having a hard time answering these questions, maybe I put on a movie and warm up on the trombone. Or if I need to do editing for a project, I might listen to an old recording of mine to freshen my mind, and accept the task of working at the computer.
These edited performance recordings are from a project called $64,000 Litmus Test, which also includes some songs about coffee and tea.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first notes usually come to me while playing, walking, or waking. I analyze the melody and rhythm I’m hearing and write it down immediately, before I turn the radio on, or before I happen to hear background music. Most of the time, I need to use a pitch reference; I keep a tuning fork handy or just use a trombone. Some days, I think I know what a particular note is and turn out to be a whole step low. Those are the days I’m in B flat.
I may also end up with one melody in 5/4 meter, with others in 4 or 8. I like to have different meters happening at the same time.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I play what’s on the page. As a result, a few days or a week later, I might have another idea to notate. I write it on the same sheet of manuscript paper, assuming I can find it. If the new idea is in a different key, I have some chromatic interest.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
Showing the composition to musicians, I find myself insisting that a melody be played exactly as written. But the joy in performance includes anything that might happen, late at night, for example.
This is an encore, after I advised the audience that we we were past curfew and couldn’t play any more:
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Going down an alternate route can be difficult when you think you’re on the best one already.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Creativity results from pursuing a process or following directions.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I ask for a deadline.
I started a project called Highway Brain Planet and made a recording.
This was about a year before I heard from Andy Kelleher about working on his film Second Spring. I had intended to write all of the music for the film in response to seeing the footage and edits, but this one kept coming back to me. After some creative editing and mixing, this track became the music for the credit roll.
So when does the process start and when does it end?
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I do like to let a piece sit. Later, I tend to be less critical than I was at the beginning, though I often find some small things to fix.
I sat on this recording for about 20 years.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I take on various roles, depending on the project. Being my own recording engineer can lead to creative compromises. I enjoy mixing, and a big part of that is editing. With real-time performance takes, in which the musician has some or a lot of freedom, I can mold the music so that it’s more suitable for repeated listening.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
No. I take a few days off, then start procrastinating about the next job in the queue.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Making a great cup of coffee is an intentional activity involving attention to detail. Mental exercise like that improves one’s problem-solving ability. When composing, I may be trying to express something, but if I approach the activity like I do making coffee, the music will do the work and something will be expressed, and a listener will feel something.
The first bits of "Prepare For Docking" I just happened to play on the trombone. I liked them, so wrote them down. Another line was written on the Staten Island Ferry. Then I developed other lines by combining and cross-referencing the notes and rhythms of different lines.