Pianist and Composer Peter Jonatan Strikes the Right Notes with Psalms Symphony

Peter Jonatan performs with the NEC Jazz Composer's Ensemble. Image Courtesy of Independent Music Promotions
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World-renowned pianist and composer Peter Jonatan has accomplished many things as an artist. His latest accomplishment of note is Psalms Symphony, just released January 19. The compilation of work was done in collaboration with Metropole Orktest. We were honored to speak with Jonatan recently about his career endeavors and more. 

Your talent as a pianist was first discovered at age 4. Could you ever envision yourself doing anything else in life?

Actually, I never envisioned myself being a musician until I was at college, pursuing an engineering degree. I always wanted to become a chemist and still have an affinity for that field until now. I simply love music more. What’s interesting is that I have always loved to teach and could envision myself being a teacher since primary school–and at least that part has now become a reality.

And on that note, did you ever feel that pressure that a young prodigy might feel?

No, because I never would have imagined that I’d be a musician in the future. In fact, I am not even sure if I am a prodigy since my piano skills did not ‘take off’ until I was around 15 years old. Moreover, nobody in my family plays music, so they never forced me to practice or expected me to perform at a high level. But one thing that I have had since that age is the ability to hear notes and play them back right away (it’s called ‘perfect pitch’ in the music world).

Peter Jonatan during a recent rehearsal. Image courtesy of Independent Music Promotions.

When you sit down to compose music, what does that process and feeling look like? 

For a long time, I struggled with the question of ‘what’s the best process for composing music supposed to be?’ I often heard from all my professors, famous composers, and colleagues – and they all had completely different processes. It took me a while before I could be comfortable with my own way of approaching composition, which is unique to me. Even though there are a few different iterations / variations of it, I typically start by asking myself a few conceptual questions and answering them (what the piece is all about, what my objective is in composing this piece, how to realize it, what I want the audience to take away, what the form will be, how long the piece will be, what the instrumentation will be, etc.). This process might take a few days and there is usually no musical content involved. It can be the most frustrating step, but I need this foundational step to guide me through all the other steps. Once this is nailed down, I usually have an easier time completing the work. 

In the “real”composing process, I often play a few ideas (they can be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, or a combination of those three) on the piano and try to play around or improvise with them to see the potential that the idea holds. How versatile is the idea to be shaped into different forms? all these findings are then recorded on a piece of paper. From here, I start setting up the score in notation software (since my works often call for larger group sizes such as orchestra or big band) and complete the rest of the composition in it, continually going back and forth to the piano to check my ideas. 

Peter Jonatan during a recent performance. Image courtesy of Independent Music Promotions.

What does it feel like to hear something of yours come together and in its final stages?

Having notation software to play back what I wrote helps me tremendously and gives me a glimpse of what I wrote – which is often enough to get me very excited. However, hearing it performed live is truly a magical experience that I cannot even describe. Of course, the caveat here is that it needs to be performed by an excellent group of musicians. Otherwise, the composer’s feeling will be the opposite–horrified, disappointed, and might often result in doubting their ability to compose.

Tell us about your most recent work, Psalms Symphony

This is my debut album, perhaps considered quite late compared to other musicians. I never felt confident enough to release an album, especially considering the direction of the music industry nowadays. Singles would be more compelling in terms of effort, marketability, and financial resources. However, after a few releases, I feel that I am ready to take on the challenge of creating a project of this magnitude. Also, it reflects my musical language very well – stylistically diverse, dramatic / cinematic, playful, grandiose, and lyrical all at the same time. It was strongly influenced by film and game scores and gospels, which speaks about my background and my faith as a Christian.

The album consists of only 1 piece: a symphony that is divided into four movements. It is based on the book of Psalms, where I carefully selected four chapters with musical potential that can be shaped to reflect traditional symphony form. Each movement has a standalone title to depict God’s character or nature as described by the Psalmist:

Movement 1: God, the Magnificent King (based on Psalm 29)

Movement 2: God, the Merciful (based on Psalm 136)

Movement 3: God, the Protector (based on Psalm 121)

Movement 4: God, the Savior and Holy Judge (based on Psalm 96)

You worked on that with Metropole Orkest. What was that collaboration like? 

It is truly a dream come true for me to have my piece performed by them. I grew up listening to the Metropole Orkest and have listened to most of their projects. In the world of pop & jazz orchestras, they are truly the best. Who would have thought that I would have my name associated with them on an album? I actually had a chance to come to Hilversum, Netherlands, to watch the recording session of the album. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience. I have worked with different world-class orchestras before, but never on a project of this magnitude. I am truly grateful to have been able to watch the session.

You also teach at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory of Music where you no doubt shaped the minds of young musicians. What do you hope to instill and share from your own journey as a musician as an artist?

Each person will have their own path. You just need to find it, believe in it, work hard in mastering your craft, and keep pushing. Most of the time, it is going to be frustrating, but it is part of the process. Everyone experiences it and the successful ones are those who can overcome it. I often hear students asking me to share easy ‘tips’ to learn something quick, and I always say: “there are no shortcuts and magic formulas. Consistent hard work, perseverance, and dedication are needed.”

If you had your dream performance or collaboration, what would that be?

The live premiere of my composition (which could be Psalms Symphony) by renowned orchestras such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, or even Metropole Orkest. 

Do you have one most memorable career moment that you can share with us? 

It was the first time my piece was performed by world-class Hollywood musicians in LA  in 2016. I never imagined a group of musicians would be able to sight-read my piece and perform at such a high level, even more than what I was expecting. That memory still lives within me to this day – the moment when I heard the first measure being performed. I almost cried, overwhelmed by the sound of the orchestra. It was as if they were giving me justification that my composition actually sounded good.

Website / Official Website: www.peterjonatan.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pjonatan

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/peterjonatanmusic

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/artist/6IFNIzErb309I8JzMLF7jY?si=AHM6-YrzSTSNQUQxpCDsxg

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCghaSxJTzue0u78–VQ0uAw

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