“My sense of responsibility is to the artists. My prime focus is making sure that artists have a good place to present their work in its best possible light; a good sound, good piano, good feeling in the room, nice acoustics. And it’s not going to break their bank to play there.”
This is Steve Peters – composer, phonographer, producer, mastermind behind the Wayward Music Series, and cheerleader to Seattle’s explorative music scene. Steve agreed to an interview with the Live Music Project last month, and WOW did I enjoy that! We met for lunch in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, and ended up having an inspiring, sprawling conversation.
After I’d been to just a couple of shows at the Chapel Performance Space, I wanted to meet Steve and learn more about the Wayward series. It doesn’t take much exposure to understand the vitality and import that Wayward provides. The endless list of ensembles is a treasure of variety.
The Wayward Music Series is a branch of Nonsequitur, a nonprofit Steve founded with Jonathan Scheuer in 1989 in Sante Fe. When Steve moved to Seattle in 2004, he asked himself what Nonsequitur could contribute to Seattle that the city didn’t already have. He realized Seattle was missing a mid-size, sit-down-and-listen space where eclectic collections of people could play their experimental (or as Steve prefers, “explorative”) music.
“I don’t see my role as being about presenting music that I think is great,” Steve says. “I see my role as maintaining a situation where people can do their work.”
At the time, Steve suspected that high Seattle rents were preventing such a place from being sustainable; if Nonsequitur could pay that bill, maybe it would help the community thrive.
Today, Nonsequitur pays rent for 10 nights each month at the beautiful Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford. They curate and host one or two shows each month, and the remaining nights are freely available for artists or presenters to sign up and use – provided they are compatible with Wayward’s mission – generally on a first-come, first-served basis. The calendar is typically booked months in advance, year-round.
The series delivers on Steve’s vision of an affordable venue. If admission takes in more than $200, then the artist gives 20% back to Nonsequitur to help cover the rent; if the gate makes less than $200, then the artist keeps it all.
(That’s a deal! The rental fee to book the same space independently of the Wayward Music Series, if you are charging admission and are a not-for-profit, is $300 per evening.)
In addition to maintaining the Wayward Music Series, Steve is also a composer. When I ask him to describe his work, he says, after some pause, “…Long. And slow. And quiet.”
“I’m more of an idea composer than a note composer, and I’m interested in musicians who can do things that I can’t – and that I can’t conceive of – and see how they are going to surprise me,” he says. “Most of my work has to do with this blurry area between improvisation and composition. I’m interested in trying to devise situations in which I invite people to improvise.”
One such situation is a sound installation at the Fern Room of the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago. First, Steve recorded room tone – a room’s unique resonance and harmonics – in the Fern Room. (Room tone is different from ambient noise like a banging radiator or a siren coming through an open window.)
Next, Steve made an alphabetical list of the Latin names of the fern species housed in the space, and divided it up among four singers. Working in a studio, their job was to vocalize each name, spoken or sung – and Steve’s control of their performance ended there. The singers recorded the words in isolation from one another, lending their own abilities and sensibilities to what would become a shared piece.
Finally, to pull together the disparate voices, Steve provided the room tone as a backdrop for each musician to sing with. He then edited the tracks together, each 5 to 30 seconds long, creating a cohesive soundscape. You can listen to Index Filicum on Steve’s Bandcamp page.
At the end of our interview, I ask Steve if there is anything else he would like to talk about. (I always end with this question, and almost always get a blank stare.) This time, after the blank stare and some additional silence, Steve finally offers:
“Well… there’s a lot of disconnect between the various publications in town, and radio, and the arts community in terms of what gets covered. What I want people in the media to understand is that if you want a local arts scene to thrive, you have to write about it. You have to talk about it.”
Steve says he wishes there were more arts criticism by people who engage with the work of art on its own terms. A review that says “I liked it” or “it was awful” falls short of being useful. The ideal review is honest and constructive; it talks about the work, what it set out to accomplish, and whether it has achieved that goal.
He raves about Omar Willey at The Seattle Star, who covers theatre and dance. “Omar is so good at understanding what the work is trying to achieve and then analyzing how it succeeds or comes up short, on those terms. That is a gift. That’s what a real critic is.”
Steve also points out that if artists want to tour or apply for grants, they need reviews that they can point to and say: This is what we do, and somebody else thought it was interesting. “There is no underestimating the importance of coverage in the local media of the local arts.”
The conversation turns to the types of music and venues that receive coverage, and I mention to Steve that I saw Eighth Blackbird last year. They were the greatest thing I’ve seen this century, but I have not heard them played on KEXP. KEXP is dedicated to new and sweeping varieties of music. Why couldn’t KEXP play one of Eighth Blackbird’s many albums?
“Why couldn’t KEXP invite them for an in-studio session?” Steve exclaimed. “KEXP is great at the live thing. I totally respect what they do with the live studio shows. But there could be so much more going on besides rock bands and pop music.”
Local media is in the perfect position to encourage listeners to expand their musical experiences.
The musical space Steve has created within the Chapel is a beautiful, accessible-to-me place, with a well-varied catalogue of ensembles. It occurs to me: this could be my go-to place. Talking to Steve, I realized we all fall into our little traps and then complain about being in ruts! Branching out – that’s good for the soul.
Steve is more than a talented artist; he is dedicated to his craft, his peers, and his community. That’s refreshing air to breathe over lunch.
Kent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.