This is where we left it…
Me: How does all of this that we’ve been talking about – and and we’re talking about the Peter Harper Vocabulary – translate into bronze?
PH: Well, the bronze came first. It was the first language. It was one of the early languages…technically the first language was clay. It just begs to be transformed. Anything that begs, “Please, someone with any skills, pick me up and do something…” Anyone who doesn’t love clay doesn’t want to take charge of anything in their life. All of that said, I was drawing and I wasn’t very good at 2-dimensional arts. I picked up clay and found I understood that by looking at a 2-dimensional image, I could deduce what was on the back side of that image without seeing it.
Me: ( really excited because I love mentally transposing two dimensions into three.)
PH: My brain was able to translate that information without actually seeing it and knowing it. I was studying politics at Pitzer College, getting my bachelor’s degree – political science – and as part of that I thought, “You know, I’m gonna study abroad for a year. I’m gonna go spend a year in Zimbabwe and see what life is like there.” And I did, and it was absolutely life-changing.
Me: Was that the first time that you interacted outside the U.S.?
PH: for any length of time, yes. You can go anywhere for a day and have the exact same experience that you have at home. One full year away was just mind-boggling. Part of that was 3 months in a sculpture school. Actually, this was so ironic: I’m in Zimbabwe, Africa, learning a traditional Roman-style figurative sculpture technique. Wild, right? Once I figured all that out, and I was able to sculpt – whatever I could imagine, I could then make – that was a powerful moment. It was just an explosion of creativity to be able to finally take the images out of my head and put them into the world. That then transformed into bronze-making. It was natural to go from clay – clay was brittle, it was delicate; I couldn’t move through my studio without breaking the fingers off of sculptures.
Me: so you’re looking for something more…
PH: yeah, permanent. I mean, I’m making these pieces with these expressive hands, motion – we’ve talked a little bit about Ernie Barnes and how he used that exaggerated elongation for expression. Yes! That resonates with me. I would take my pieces and I would stretch them in ways that humans couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t stretch, and then have that translate into some form of meaning within the piece. And this is all leaving the traditional style that I had learned…to just express my own voice, or–like you’re saying–my own vocabulary. As I’m doing that, I’m breaking everything as I’m making it.
My stepfather knew a guy who made replica Tiffany lamps. They were so real that he’d been called in front of a court and ordered to never make one with a signature on it ever, even if he was commissioned to do so, because you couldn’t distinguish his work from the original. Wild, right?
So I go to this guy’s house, German guy, and he’s got a big thick accent: “Ah, you like zee Tiffany Lamp?”
“Yeah, they’re beautiful.”
“Vatch dis…” and he takes me up into his house, and it’s pitch dark, and you can’t see anything, and he pulls this cord and ::BOOF:: this lamp lights up. I don’t know how familiar you are, but the lamp itself is ornately designed in bronze, and the shade is this incredible stained glass. Color is now everywhere in this room. I’m looking around and there’s lamps everywhere down this hallway, and as he’s walking down the hallway he’s jut pulling these cords…I’ve never seen anything like it.
He was German; he fought in World War II for the Nazis, and fled Germany after the war and found himself in America. It was the first time he’d ever left his village. When he got here and started engaging he had this transformative experience. He was like, this is not…war is…WAR IS A LIE.
And so every single lesson that he taught me – the Black Jew, right? – here he takes me in. He’s married to this black woman…I met him once a week for almost a year. He wouldn’t start a lesson until I heard him, and agreed with him, and understood, that under no circumstances was there ever a valid excuse to go to war. No matter who said it, no matter if it was your government, your parents, your brothers; if it was your neighbors, it didn’t matter. If anyone told you it was okay to do it, it was a lie.
Me: Have you made this into a song yet? This guy?
PH: (laughs) No. Willie’s not a song yet. Not directly – “Break the Cycle” has elements of that, right? There’s a line in Break the Cycle where I say “War won’t take us to the place we want to go/people we don’t know”
Me: yeah, that’s not the same as “Under no circumstances will I teach you anything until you understand…”
PH: That’s right! and here I was an impressionable young man, going, “hey listen, I hear you, and I get it, I’m listening. I’m taking this in.” I didn’t take notes; everything had to be in the head, I had to be actively engaged and listening and participating, and it was one of the great experiences. Again, another great experience. And so I learned how to make molds; I learned how to cast in those molds; transform the molds into bronze sculptures. I was just so lucky to share that experience with him. It was educational in a multitude of ways. So that went to bronze; and bronze got to this point where I realized that people weren’t seeing art anymore. There’s movies, and there’s TV, and there’s streaming internet…the idea of taking a story from a static object (or image or painting or sculpture) has been lost on people. They could only see it for what it was on the surface. And the deeper meaning behind it just wasn’t resonating.
I had a moment where I realized people were in front of the Mona Lisa and taking selfies…and I was like, “Wait a minute, that’s not why you’re here to see the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in all the world…Love it or hate it, it’s the most famous painting and you’re gonna have about 2 minutes tops to be right in front of it while everybody else behind you is like move out of the way. And you’re turning your back on it so that you can be the star and the painting can be your wingman? Doesn’t make any sense, right?
Putting all that together, I realized that I’ve gotta find another way into people’s brains to get my message across. The door through the eyes is closed. And so I started making music. I’ve said this a number of times and I’ll say it again: when I make music, it’s really just sculpting airwaves; pushing airwaves, and moving airwaves in the way that I would push and move clay to get the same story across.
Me: A friend of mine told me he loves bronze casting, and this is why: “Oh man, the magic of pouring liquid into a hollow space that may or may not be the shape that’s intended… it could fill badly, could be all cracked up, etc. Then when it gets revealed and is correct it’s like sunrise.”
PH: I would take that one step further: that liquid that you’re pouring in there, it starts as a solid. And when you melt that solid into a liquid, it glows in a way that is like pure magic. It pulls you into it, you want to scoop your hands into it, and you want to just wash it all over your face. Right? And as you get closer to it, and closer to it, and closer to it, there’s this moment when you can’t get any closer because it’s burning you.
Me: Yeah, it’s like: “I love you; I will kill you!” Where the clay is saying, “I love you, could you just do something with me? Do whatever you want with me!” I understand it through ceramics, because you build something, you put in all your calculations, and again fire is involved – you put it in an oven. And you wait, to see if all your calculations were correct.
So my question is: Where in music do you find that? Where in the music creation process is that tension, where you don’t know if your calculations are gonna come out the way you wanted?
Continue to part 3, where we discuss narcissism, belt buckles, and Peter’s new project…
Peter Harper – Part Two: in Bronze
in which we learn how Zimbabwe and Tiffany Lamp knockoffs equal folk music