Tom Constanten, or "TC," as he is known to his many fans, has had a long and
varied musical career. His keyboard wizardry allows him to feel
equally comfortable playing a hard edged rock compostion
or burrowing through a 200 year old classical piece.
Perhaps TC's greatest notoriety came as a member of the Grateful Dead in the
late 1960s. However, he has performed with multiple bands, played
numerous solo shows and boasts an extensive teaching resume.
Constanten has shared the stage and the studio with luminaries like Jerry Garcia,
Phil Lesh, Jorma Kaukonen and Henry Kaiser, to name but a few.
Digital Interviews: When did you first know you wanted to be a musician?
Tom Constanten: Am I there yet? No, really, I'm not one of those phenoms who knew
early on that they had a gift for the Blues, or the domra, or Messiaen.
I instead seem to have wandered out into the wilderness, found a bunch
of clues here and there, and then had to puzzle over how they might fit
together. And there was no box top to show me a picture of what it should
look like when it was done.
DI: Tell us about your early musical training.
TC: My mother played the violin. Quite well, I daresay. She'd had lessons with
Albert Spalding, and when I later heard recordings of him, I
thought "Ahhh, yes!" His recording of the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto
is among my favorites. Not an easy lineup to crack. Next to it on my
shelf are versions by Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, Josef Szigeti,
Jascha Heifetz, and Eugene Ysa˙e.
As for me, I was the usual teenage rebellious know-it-all kind of
kid. I've never had a piano student who was as bad as I was. What
made it worse was that I was bright enough to get away with it
most of the time. What I needed, and never got, was a teacher
like - well, me.
DI: What performers and styles influenced you?
TC: In my early teens I discovered avant-garde composers like John Cage,
Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez, and was immediately
enthralled by their music. The ideas in their compositions amounted
to "thinking outside the box," well before anyone called it that.
It was an avalanche of interacting and evolving philosophies and
technologies. How could that not be exciting?
In addition to his music, I'd also found Arnold Schönberg's
collection of essays, Style and Idea. His take on the
influences of heart and brain in music still rings true to me.
DI: Both you and Phil Lesh studied under Luciano Berio.
TC: In the early sixties, Berio was in the midst of composing some of the
most interesting works to come out of the European avant-garde. That's
what attracted both Phil and me to his class, at Mills College, in early
1962. His classes mainly consisted - as did Stockhausen's, I later learned
at Darmstadt - of discussions of matters of current interest to him.
Things like orchestral blending and color, structural balance,
the significance of gestures, phonology, even the very essence of
meaning. Come la epistemologia, capisce? On the bookshelves in his
Milan apartment I saw books on linguistics and philosophy - both Eastern
and Western. He was fascinated by, and knowledgeable about, theater, film,
literature and more.
Before his class at Dartington in August 1962, I took the train down
to Paris - I was living in Bruxelles at the time, enjoying the hospitality
of Henri Pousseur, and investigating the possibilities of his electronic
music studio - to meet him, and motor thence with him and Umberto Eco to
Boulogne, whence we crossed the Channel. Their repartee was the highlight
of the fortnight. Eco's infectious good humor came through in his
storytelling, at which he's the best I've ever encountered.
At Dartington, in addition to discussing his recent music, Berio had the
class create a collaboration piece, with sections assigned to different
students. Much like we did at Mills, where we wrote for a ten-piece ensemble.
Berio wasn't perfect, but he was admirable. Complex. Bright. Surprising.
Think of Peter Sellers in a Pirandello play. He also put up with me,
in my late teens, with avuncular kindness and noble generosity. I still
love his music, and I'll always revere his memory.
He often told me - I can still hear his voice: "Tom, don't be silly!" A
lesson I've yet to master.
DI: Wasn't there a Lesh-Constanten band for a brief moment in 1964?
TC: Steve Reich was in on it, too. We'd met him in Berio's class. It was
a series of concerts at the San Francisco Mime Troupe in May 1964.
In a way, it was a peak experience. It was a bit like a set of concerts
featuring John Cage's music at 321 Divisadero the year before. We played
the same program of highly flexible pieces four times. Phil contributed
an ensemble score, the pages of which he shuffled and dealt - the Vegas
kid in me loved that - before each performance, including a jubilantly
eruptive solo part for me on prepared piano. Then both Phil and I joined
Steve's improvisation ensemble, including Jon Gibson, Georges Rey, and
The second half of the program began with a solo piece of mine for prepared
piano, with prerecorded accompaniment; essentially two other readings - with
different preparations of the piano - of the same tesseractile and modular
score I was playing from live. Cage-like magic abounded. Often the tape
would "imitate" what I'd just done onstage. Even the sounds of passing
traffic fit in. One performance commenced with a crash on the
ceiling - a judo class was in session upstairs. I simply found
it in my score, and proceeded from there. And the magic went on.
DI: Tell us about other teachers that helped mold your unique style.
TC: I took lessons with Mario Feninger while I lived in West Hollywood. A
piano student of Edwin Fischer - and thus in the Liszt lineage, via
Martin Krause, if you're keeping score - he demystified the act of
playing the piano for me as no one had before. Above all else, he taught
by example. He had a view of where you were, and was kind enough that
instead of having you work through it the long way, he'd show you the
simple, commonsensical, direct way. And the place you got to as a result
was just as "there" as you needed to be.
The last time I went back to him for a "tuneup" lesson, I brought up a
passage in a Chopin Etude which had been giving me problems. I had
difficulty, I told him, getting my finger to the note. So I played the
passage for him, as he watched. Again, he said, and I played it for him
again. Then he sat down and played it. Finally, he turned and said to
me, "There is no difficulty - get your finger to the note!"
DI: Prior to joining the Grateful Dead you played for several years in various
settings. What experiences stand out?
There was my "debut," which occurred at the Las Vegas Convention
Center on May 28, 1961. I was one of four "Musicians of the Future" showcased
by Antonio Morelli, who conducted the orchestra at the Sands. This was a
gala concert with the Las Vegas "Pops" Orchestra, and it was every bit
as glitzy as you'd imagine. Morelli's showbiz savvy got us kids to play
way over our heads.
Then there was Darmstadt. July 25, 1963. An expert piano duo performed
my Three Pieces for Two Pianos, right there in the Darmstadt
Stadthalle, the sanctum sanctorum of the avant-garde! The
Darmstädter Echo even gave me a nice review. They said I
was a "neunzehnjährige Komponist mit viel Talent."
In the mid-sixties I sat in on bass with a Vegas psychedelic band
called The Daemon. We played at the UNLV Student Union. It was a
one-of-a-kind experience for me. Towards the end of the night I
started to feel like I was getting the hang of it, but the next day - what a blister!
But seriously, William Gromko and Keith G. Moon were two conductors
who included my orchestral compositions in their concert series in
the sixties. A couple of them, Sinfonia and Propagations,
were uncompromisingly avant-garde, but still these Vegas stalwarts gave
it a game try. For me, it was the best possible way to get a feel for
orchestration. Direct feedback. Often, what you hear is surprising. The
touchstone of a composer is that it be a pleasant surprise.
DI: Tell us a bit about the types of instruments and effects you played
while a member of the Dead.
TC: There were two organs, the Vox Super-Continental, and the Hammond B-3.
Neither suited my purposes at all well, although the Hammond was a step up.
For one thing, their sounds ranged from barely acceptable to cringeworthy.
For another, I couldn't find a place for the sustained sound of an organ
in a guitar band context - ahhh, for a piano! Furthermore, the action of
an organ keyboard, electronic or not, was sufficiently different from that
of a piano, which was all I'd known until then, to be an obstacle to my
getting a feel for the music. Basically, I wasn't an organist. A Merl
Saunders or a Melvin Seals could've stepped in and kicked zhopa, but
they weren't there.
As if that weren't enough, the amplification technology of the times
was much kinder to guitars, with their direct pickups, than it was to
pianos. All the electric keyboards available then, you might recall,
represented some sort of cheesy compromise with the real thing. Even
the Fender-Rhodes, while an estimable device in its own right, was clearly not a Knabe.
DI: You first played with the Dead during the taping of Anthem of the
Sun in 1967. How did that come about?
TC: When I was in the Air Force, I pretty much kept my head down and went
along with the program. That, coupled with being reasonably competent
at my job - I was a computer programmer - had its benefits. Among those
were three day passes - extra time off from your job. By 1967 I had a
fistful of these to cash in. It was during some of those breaks that I
motored down from Las Vegas - Nellis AFB's locale - to Los Angeles to be
at these recording sessions.
Aside from the recording sessions, I joined the party when we went over
to the "Airplane House," a really nice place in the Hollywood Hills,
where the Jefferson Airplane were staying, presumably while recording
DI: After a gig or two here and there, you joined the Dead full time in
November of 1968. How did your involvement go from casual to permanent?
TC: Simple. I got discharged from the Air Force. It was like returning
from exile, or getting out of jail.
DI: The second album you recorded with the Dead was Aoxmoxoa.
TC: These were studio recordings. For the band, the situation could
not have been more different from concert performance. In this
instance, it worked to my advantage. For one thing, levels could
be controlled, which meant I could hear both the band and myself
on the headphones. Usually onstage I couldn't hear the organ at all.
The technology of the times simply wouldn't allow a piano to
join in live. But in the studio it was no problem, as can be
heard on St. Stephen.
DI: Wasn't Pigpen your roommate on the road?
TC: We also shared a house in Novato. We got to be as close as two
heterosexual males could be. Bless him forever.
DI: Many people laud Live Dead as coming the closest on
disc to the live sound of the group at that time. Would you agree?
TC: It was a dilemma that we were constantly reminded of: how to
capture the essence of the concert experience on tape. The first
two albums didn't "get it," as far as we were concerned, and it
sure didn't seem to be for lack of trying. So that weekend's
concerts at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco represented
the result of grappling with the problem of recording for quite
some time Another night from the same weekend is available on
Dick's Picks #16.
DI: You live on visually through the Dead's Playboy After Dark
appearance. What can you tell us about that gig?
TC: It was egregiously silly. Wish we could've done it more than once.
DI: You played on a track of the Incredible String Band album in 1970.
What was the genesis of that project?
TC: I met Robin Williamson at the Woodstock Festival. Soon thereafter
Peter Grant, who'd played pedal steel on Aoxomoxoa, gave me
a call, said he was in touch with them, and the next I knew, Mike
Heron was over at my house - the one in Novato I shared with Pigpen - and
we were talking about U, their mime plus music project. I wound
up writing an arrangement and conducted it at the recording session, at
Pacific Recorders in San Mateo - the same studio where we'd
done Aoxomoxoa, as well as adding a piano track.
I'd already loved the Incredible String Band's work. Robin had
such a mythic credibility as he sang. When I heard him, I felt I
believed he was actually there as the dragon bit the mast in half. And
Mike had a smile that anyone else's face wouldn't be big enough for.
His infectious exuberance, and delight with the material, made for a
DI: One of the last times you jammed with the Dead was during "farewell week"
at the Fillmore East in 1971. What was that like?
TC: To this day, I don't understand how this "sitting in" thing works. It's
kind of like a ouija board, where you think the other person is moving it.
Anyhow, I was living in Brooklyn, doing the Tarot show, and was
going to see Pigpen when the band came to town. We met at the hotel, the
Essex House - remember the announcements on Saturday Night Live? - on
Central Park South, 59th Street. So I wound up going to the show, too.
DI: Tell us about Tarot.
TC: That show ran briefly in New York in the early seventies. Mime and
music again. The characters all came from the Tarot cards, and the
show was all done in white face mime. The music, in effect, told the
story. It was magical, and came tantalizingly close to an extended
run. Mostly I remember some great playing, mainly by Paul Dresher
and Chicken Hirsch.
DI: From the mid-70s to the present you've taught music in several
different surroundings. What drives you to "give back?"
TC: Money. What else? I'd rather play or compose than teach. I'd be
suspicious of anyone who wouldn't. Still, having to explain things
to students makes you drag them out into the light of day so you can
see them better yourself, sometimes. And every once in a while, you
find students who take what you toss them and run with it.
College professoring, though, is another thing. It's halfway between
individual lessons and concert performing. Especially when the class
is engaged. I taught a class in Twentieth Century Music - History and
Methods, both classical and popular, at the San Francisco Art
Institute in the eighties, and felt like a kid sharing his toys.
DI: What other musical adventures did you have between the mid 70s
and late 80s?
TC: In the seventies I played for L. O. Sloan's Three Black and Three
White Refined Jubilee Minstrels. It was a history lesson in the
form of a sendup of nineteenth-century minstrel shows. Aside from
its high-spirited music, the show brilliantly pilloried the racist
stereotypes that infused the genre.
There also arose opportunities to do music for theatre works by
Ionesco, Brecht, and Pinter. And a delightfully wacky romp
into "Improv" with the Pulp Playhouse. A lot of fun. Micheal
McShane - was it his line, anyway? - was in the troupe.
In the eighties I was a member of American Ragtime Ensemble.
We played numerous concerts, mainly in California. One time
the bandleader, violinist David Reffkin, located Donita Fowler
and invited her to attend a concert of ours at Old First Church,
a venerable venue in San Francisco. She was Scott Joplin's niece.
I recall that evening as my last instance of stage fright. After
getting through my solo in Peacherine Rag, I sighed, smiled,
and turned my eyes upward.
On May 16, 1986, at Union Square in San Francisco, I opened for
Godzilla. Really. The event was a combination of his thirtieth
birthday celebration - complete with a fifty foot tall inflated
Godzilla - and the Hands Across America rally. I held hands with
Mark Ibanez, the sports guy from the ten o'clock news, and Carol
Ruth Silver, from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. About
as close to elbow rubbing as I usually get to do.
DI: In 1989, you released Fresh Tracks in Real Time.
TC: I got fed up waiting for some record company to let me record what
I wanted, so I got it together to put out an album myself. Terry Ryan
generously helped with his recording studio and expertise. MasterCard
helped with the financing.
It was a chance to record all of my piano suites, from The Syntax
Collector to Recombinant Strains. The latter was designed
as a round, with additional pianos coming in at prescribed intervals.
My one concession to MIDI technology was recording them that way.
As the title implies, I meant to avoid the chance to exploit the
technology's ability to speed up the take to make you sound faster
and more agile than you really are. I was going out on the road,
and didn't want to write any checks my fingers couldn't cash.
DI: You followed that up with the solo releases OutSides and
Sonatas by Beethoven.
TC: OutSides was the follow up to Fresh Tracks in Real
Time. Except it featured my own compositions more. It was also
recorded in MIDI, and was a bit more unabashed in using some of the
possibilities. When a new technology comes along, at first you
almost cackle over what you think you can do. But ultimately,
whether recording MIDI, digitally, or on good ol' analog tape,
there's no substitute for a deep and abiding respect for the
music. Think of how music not only survived, but flourished,
without any recording technology at all! I occasionally think
about how we missed having recordings of Franz Liszt by only a
few years. But then it occurred to me, wherever you draw the
line, there's green grass leering at you from the other side.
If we'd had recordings going back to 1800, we'd be thinking of
how great it would be to be able to hear Beethoven and Chopin
themselves, straight from the source. But then we'd sigh over
Mozart - but we'd smile over Haydn, who lived to 1808. And
hey, let me tell you about this guy named Bach. Actually, my
favorite composer, the one who never fails to shake my tree,
is Claudio Monteverdi, who was happening in the twenties.
The CD of Sonatas - of Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert - resulted
from the generosity of Roy and Maureen Chen. Well known among San
Francisco's audiophiles, they offered to record my piano playing,
of pieces from the classic repertoire. The selections of music
were a mixture of old friends and new challenges. As per usual,
I suppose. Something old, something new. Pragmatically speaking,
from where I was coming from it was a matter of budgeting practice
time. An absurdly precious commodity for me, then as always.
Included on the Sonatas album was the Sonata in C major by
Schubert, commonly referred to as the "Unfinished." He'd left
fragments of the final two movements, which my friend Bill Bolcom
used to write finished versions. This recording, then, included
all four movements. The third and fourth movements, the "new" ones,
were an adventure, and upon relistening, I still think the first
two hold up well.
DI: Tell us about your Relix Records releases Nightfall of Diamonds
and Morning Dew.
TC: Les Kippel was the first to come along and offer to put out a CD of
my playing, without any preconditions as to what I could include. The
pieces that wound up on these CDs were mostly from a repertoire I'd been
performing throughout the nineties. Hence I was familiar enough with
them to not need too much studio time to nail them.
It's not my consuetudinal habit, the chances come too seldom, but I'm
as capable as anyone at enjoying the opportunity to make the cavalier
gesture. The first piece I recorded in the Nightfall session was
my own "Dejavalse." After the first take I knew I wasn't likely to
do any better, so I calmly went ahead and slated the second piece. The
take on the CD is the only one I recorded! Maybe I was inspired by Gabby Pahinui.
Here's how well I know "Dejavalse." I remember once dreaming that
I was back in Las Vegas, out on the Strip, and gambling. That's what
tipped me off that it was a dream - in real life I never gamble. I guess
growing up there immunized me. So anyway, another player accused me of
cheating. Well, this wasn't "Me and My Uncle." I knew it couldn't
be. And to prove it, I whipped out a piano and played "Dejavalse" for
them. Perfectly. And it satisfied them. Don't know how that works out
logically. After all, it was a dream. But as far as I'm concerned, what
it proved to me is that when I say I can play this piece in my sleep, I
know that to be literally true.
I remember the frustration of not being able to find someone to record
my ragtime repertoire in the eighties. The doors that might have opened.
Well, they're there on Relix. In the midst of a panorama extending from
Rock to Rachmaninoff.
DI: How did your work with Jorma on the Morning Dew album find its way
to the Embryonic Journey album release?
TC: Relix let me assemble my own idea of the best lineup of music I could
muster, but they also wanted to sell records. That's understandable.
So both Nightfall of Diamonds and Morning Dew had guest
artists. Ringers, you might say. Embryonic Journey was recorded
separately, at the end of a Dead Ringers - oops, there we are again,
except this time I was the Ringer - tour that wound up in New York
City, conveniently enough for inclusion on Morning Dew. We
did eleven takes, and Les, being present, thought the whole sequence
might make for an entertaining release.
I was doubly delighted. Firstly, what musician hasn't mourned great
performances languishing in a studio vault? And when you're there,
doing the recording, sometimes you behold interesting transformations
on the way to getting a "take." Or near misses you're sorry you can't include.
Secondly, of all the amazing musicians he had to choose from to give
the idea a whirl, he chose us.
DI: Who was in the
Dead Ringers group, and what experiences can you share from that time?
TC: It started out as a tour called "Gratefully Yours," with Merl Saunders,
Kingfish, and me. Eventually it became what later became the David Nelson
Band, minus Yours Truly. It ultimately ran through much of the mid 90s,
some 150 gigs. An amazing parade of musicians joined us on the trip. Papa
John Creach, Matt Kelly, Rick Danko. The last hurrah was at the Alaska
State Fair. The first two days of September 1994. For that weekend
we were joined by David Laflamme, of It's a Beautiful Day fame.
DI: How did it feel to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
TC: Once, at a party in Berkeley, someone said to me, "I knew you were
somebody, but I didn't know you were anybody." I remember when,
many years ago, I ceased to worry about being a "nobody." Because
if I became a "somebody," whatever that means, I figured there
where were too many people around who could say, "I knew him when."
I have what my friend Peter Coyote calls "a comfortable level of fame." Too
much can be a nuisance. But it should be remembered that fame, for a
creative artist, is part of your stock in trade. It has a direct effect
on your bottom line. It's gratifying, how kind people can be sometimes,
but it's not like that "hey look at me, I'm on stage!" thing you may
imagine from afar. That's a shallow distraction, and fortunately burns
away in the spotlight pretty quick. What's left is the age old
imperative: if you're on the bright side of the footlights, you'd
better be able to prove you belong there. When you get on top of that
issue, you're glad to be alive, let alone famous.
As for that Waldorf-Astoria thing in 1994, I though it was immensely
sweet of the guys to invite me along for the party. And it was great
to see them again.
DI: You released the solo piano effort Live in Concert at the Piano. Tell
us about that release.
TC: This was another manifestation of the Chens' generosity. Thanks to them
I had the chance to pry loose some practice time, and concentrate on a
concert program. Like, with a printed program and everything. This time
I stacked the deck with old friends - pieces by Brahms and Debussy that
I'd consorted with since the fifties. When you're alone onstage, with
Bach, or Schumann, you want to do everything you can to make it a
comfortable experience. Playing something you'd known since you were a
teenager goes a long way to help.
DI: You've recently worked with Bob Bralove in the Dose Hermanos project.
How did that come about?
TC: Slowly. Organically. Yet in another sense it was like we were there right away.
Getting together at Jerry's funeral, we felt it was our way of carrying on
with the energy. What he would've wanted us to do. Since then we've
found many sources of energy.
DI: What musical adventures are on the horizon?
TC: I'm just getting to the attic - seeing what I can do with vintage
material left unfinished. Should get interesting once I get beyond that.
DI: What advice would you give to a young musician, just starting out?
TC: I could not do better than to recommend the cultivation of the Four
Qualities that Wallace Black Elk recommended: Courage, Alertness, Endurance, and Patience.
To prepare your technique, so as to be able to explore any music
you want to, you need to be thoroughgoing and relentless. Karl Tausig
would replicate his concerts, after everyone had left the concert hall,
just to set right things that he'd encountered in the evening's
performance. A famed virtuoso, whose name escapes me now - fortunately for
him - once said, "Don't take seriously the first thousand times you play
a piece." I eventually learned that there's a difference between taking
a piece seriously, and playing it well. Anyhow, you need to be fearless
in the face of the massive amount of work you have in store for you.
Working on a pattern or a passage until you unravel it - this takes a
patience most casual lesson takers don't even want to hear about.
And still, the music is the easy part. Easy in that you have the
most control over it. I can decide how to spend my practice time,
but I can't account for the doings of agents or promoters, even in
the best of times. I used to think that when you went on the road,
anything that could go wrong would. In actuality, it's worse than that.
But in the end, I know of no path that is better marked than the study
of music. Maybe I just think so because it's the path I'm on. There's
the old question "How come there's never enough time to do it right,
but there's always enough time to do it over." Well, here's an answer.
Settle down. Do it right. However long it takes. That's the direct route to the fast lane!