We often use the term ’dissolving boundaries’ in music. Ostensibly the use of the term is to suggest that nothing separates one entity from another. But that is often the end of it. Not with Gene Pritsker. The Russian-born, New York-based maestro does not just dissolve musical boundaries but creates an osmosis through which one musical language seeps into the other creating a new and often wondrous vocabulary. Pritsker is, of course, not the only musician who fosters this phenomenon. But he certainly is one in whose hands the melting of barriers that separate musical cultures creates an enduring effect. In this regard, Pritsker is somewhat like Frank Zappa sans the shock of musical Dadaism. Pritsker has a unique and mature musical voice.
Gene Pritsker is a modernist at heart. If there is something new to be said to describe an old form or even a formless old thing – as old as yesterday, that is – this extraordinary musician will be among the first to say it. This would be either because Gene Pritsker sleeps and dreams music or more likely because he does not sleep at all. That might explain how he is able to write so prolifically. It would also explain the need to have your own label for it would be hard to imagine anyone else being able to keep up with Pritsker’s outpouring of music. The Muse is certainly being kind to him. All of his music is of the highest quality, audacious and witty, joyous and elevated, and incomparable to anything written and recorded. In all of this Gene Pritsker has created a singular vocabulary, spokes not only by someone deeply schooled in music, but also in history, theology and philosophy.
Through it all, Pritsker writes for solo performers, for duos and trios, quartets and quintets. He writes music for acoustic and for electronic instruments; short pieces, instrumental and vocal music and has written an opera Manhattan in Charcoal. He is also the author of a celebrated William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience Suite which was later expanded into an opera of the same name featuring a marvelous cast of instrumentalists and singers. For small groups arguably his best work was performed and recorded by Sound Liberation, an iconoclastic band that once included the monumentally talented cellist, the late David Gotay. While the ensemble continues to perform, some of what was lost when Gotay passed away has never been recovered.
Pritsker’s recorded repertoire is only one part of his massive output. The musician has worked on a multitude of commissions for small and large ensembles – chamber and orchestral pieces. His work in film music includes a new piece for Cloud Atlas. Even as this is being written, Pritsker is hard at work, writing new music that will be performed by a stellar cast of musicians. Past works have been similarly premiered by such brilliant performers as the violinist Lara St. John, the trumpeter Franz Hackl, the cellist Borislav Strulev, the guitarist Greg Baker and by Pritsker and one of his wonderful ensembles. Two of his finest most memorable contributions to modern music have been his work on Kristjan Järvi and Absolute Ensemble’s Absolute Zawinul and on Absolute Ensemble’s Bach Reinvented for which he wrote ‘Reinventions’ a piano concerto. And then there is Ballets & Solos with The International Street Cannibals.
There is enough music and enough life to fill a book on Gene Pritsker. It might not be easy, but someday it will be done. He is a fascinating subject as I found out in an interview I did with him in 2015. He is a writer, a guitarist, and a DJ known to the world as Noizepunk. But above all Gene Pritsker is a musicians’ musician and a raconteur as I was about to find out:
Raul da Gama: Let’s leap in (like Lester)… Jazz or Improvised music?
Gene Pritsker: I guess when I do have improvisation in my music I call it improvisation, I never label it as any type of genre, since the only genre that I can call myself is eclectic, I am influenced by all musics, and when improvisation is called on in a composition of mine I ask the performer to improvise, but use their particular language skills. This language from an individual performer can be jazz, or rock or whatever, but I usually do not specify how they should express themselves.
RdG: Is there a conscious intent that drives you when you are making music?
GP: Yes absolutely. Each composition is approached with the intent of saying something new, of expressing an essence that cannot be put into words, of creating sounds that I am interested in hearing. Mostly I write music that I want to hear and as far as I know does not exist yet, so in a way I write for myself and if other also dig it, I am more than happy about that.
RdG: Writing, for you, seems to be inspirational…Do you sometimes try to sit down to write?
GP: Before putting anything down on paper I live with the essence of a composition in my head for long periods of time. So in a way it’s not inspirational, as in you sit down when you get inspired, I rarely do that. Mostly I think about music and get the meaning and essence of a composition then sit down and write it, BUT, I sit down every morning, composition is a daily job, one that I happen to love and cannot live without, but none the less a daily routine, a ritual of sorts. So every morning when I sit down to write I make sure I am ready and have something that I have been thinking about for a while to work on.
RdG: What about when you are making a record? Do you write with a concept of the record in mind?
GP: Most of my records come about after I have written and performed a piece of music, then I decide if this piece is ready to be released on a CD that is permanent. Has it been performed well? Does it work together with other pieces on the cd etc? I guess when I write chamber operas I do think about how they will be on a CD since many of them I do not get to produce, so in a way I am making recording operas, and when I write I do think of how the drama will come out aurally only, without the visual help of a stage production.