Yo, Whatâ€™s Your Game, Boy? Composer Peter Van Siclen finds his niche in the world of music composition. By Elliott Burke
BELCHERTOWN - In Peter Van Siclen’s musical world, the cosmic interval emerges somewhere between a late Friday night jazz improvisation and early Saturday morning video games. He loves them both and sees them as virtually inseparable. “I gave up video games so that I could concentrate on playing the saxophone”, says Peter, “now the video games are coming out in my music”. The eclectic fusion of jazz improvisation and video games was evident at his recent Master’s Recital at UMASS Amherst, where the electronic gadgetry was given its own spotlight among the lineup of musicians. The results are surprisingly intriguing, forming a heady introductory course to a new hybrid of composition which utilizes the familiar random tones of the Game Boy soundcard with traditional and experimental forms of jazz composition. “I’m serious about the music I write and play”, Van Siclen says, “It’s important to have fun and connect with the audience for me. I like music that tells stories as well as makes you want to move. ” Van Siclen, who lives in Belchertown and attends college at UMASS, moved around quite a bit while growing up and seems to have picked up a versatile dialect of music composition from different localities which comes through in his playing. This in turn has been strengthened by his love for discovering different styles of music. When he performs it’s as if he becomes a surveyor creating a topographical map of his imagination. “I’m really interested in meter and different time signatures’, says Peter; “I would hear it as a puzzle and try to figure it out. The music often takes you somewhere unexpected” By turns, the trick is to take apart a composition and put it back together again, not necessarily as the original master but as a piece that compliments and elucidates in its own way. Van Siclen, who has a background performing in jazz combos and big band formats, recently moved into electronic music after taking some college classes that featured more of the technical aspect of the form. “The electronic music class opened me up to a whole different way of approaching music, which not only taught me a lot about technology but also about other cultures.” He says. “I also took a class on post-modernism which blew open my perception of these forms.” Peter’s musical performances strive to bridge the divisions between different musical styles and genres, particularly making a connection with electronics and vintage songs.
At his master’s recital he played his arrangement of the Tin Pan Alley standard “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, performed with the UMASS Jazz Ensemble I, with Van Siclen singing through an electronic megaphone. His interest in seemingly opposite musical styles has brought him into curious terrain that few have begun to listen to let alone explore. “The music I’m playing now is derived from chip-hop, a style of electronica that utilizes chips and sound cards from gaming.” he explains. “It’s fairly a new form that is becoming more popular with experimental musicians.” Peter has been busy doing a series of impromptu performances throughout the area as well as in joining up with friends in Maine, where he lived before leaving for college, and in Providence, Rhode Island. In 2007 he released a recording of original material, “Cracker”, with the Michael, Shakley & Graham trio he formed with friends in Maine. They perform when they can while promote and selling the album online through media sites like CD Baby, Dig Station and iTunes. The music allows him another eponymous outlet for the many sides that make up his creative personality, including a glimpse of his whimsical and humorous side, which he shares with his band mates. Self-described as a “true trio grande of jazz, funk, and avant-garde groove” their approach embraces a broad musical genre-scape that includes Jazz, Funk, Latin, Experimental, D'n'B, Hip Hop, Electronica, Avant-garde, Rock, Blues, Soul, Reggae, Gospel and Deathklezmer, among others. The music that results is ambitious but accessible, made even more so by their preference to have fun. “Much of what I listen to informs and shapes my musical vocabulary. I love soul and jazz, and I listen to big band music.” relates Van Siclen. I get really excited about jazz artists and I listen to a lot of new music, especially what my friends are playing, and I’ve recently become interested in music of India.” Last year he hosted his own monthly performance event, “The Coltrane Café”, which featured some of his explorations into jazz improvisation and electronic manipulation. Joined with an irregular cast of local performers – anybody who could make it, really – Van Siclen would lead the group through a set of songs that he’d been working on. “It’s a great way to practice and try new ideas and material out on people, especially with those who know what you’re doing”, says Van Siclen. “Some description is often necessary about what I’m doing for the listeners, but for the most part they understand the music. I can try out different ideas with them”
The shows would cover different styles and genres, from familiar old school jazz standards and improvisations to loosely defined experimental soundscapes as well as his work with the Game Boy sound chip. Regardless of the form, Peter seems at ease playing with different styles and concepts, moving easily through Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule for Nellie” and beyond with an improvisation using live recorded riffs that would loop back and he would play over it. In addition to his studies and playing, Peter also keeps himself busy with plenty of side projects. He has been involved with the study of traditional Tango music from Argentina and performing locally with a tango group. During summers he works at a camp in Maine as a counselor and a field trip leader, and started a music program for boys between the ages of seven through fifteen. “The summer camp allows me to share my passion for music and discovery with kids. They really respond to exploring and learning about music and it’s great to see them find their own creativity through it.” What’s in store for the future for Peter Van Siclen? Music is definitely at the forefront of his goals. He is studying to be certified to teach in public schools where he plans to focus on college level academics. Meanwhile, he has been busy working on new compositions and will be performing in the area this summer.