Nowadays when it seems more difficult than ever for bands to pursue a full-time career in music, people are left finding new ways to make ends meet aside from daytime guitar lessons, occasional tours, and local gigs. Philadelphia’s Jonathan Pfeffer has been a musician his entire life and has explored many new directions in the past year to break up the typical lifestyle of a musician today. Some of Pfeffer’s new projects include chamber music, music for film, solo engagements, truly collaborative projects, and even a bit of fringe theater.
“I came to the conclusion that I no longer felt satisfied funneling all of my creative energy into one avenue–namely, living out of a duffel bag and performing the same 10 or 12 songs every night for months on end. If my ultimate goal as a composer was and still is to be regarded for my ideas, I posited that they should be able to thrive in any context,” he explains.
Pfeffer has been performing solo for the last year, but he is known for his work with the band Capillary Action. Together, the band has completed multiple U.S. and European tours, self-releasing albums in the U.S. and occasionally teaming up with Discorporate Records in Germany for help with their European releases. The musician even spent six weeks in Dresden with them at one point, which amounted to a very specific list of achievements according to the musician, including mania, making risotto, biking along the Elbe river, reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles,” dining with Johannes Zink (of Discorporate), watching “The Wire,” and conversing with XIU XIU‘s Jamie Stewart about “how at a certain point, singing painful songs night after night is more masochistic than cathartic.”
It’s clear Pfeffer is not anyone’s definition of a “normal” musician. He’s an inventive artist who envisions and builds song structures and lyrics in an usual and sometimes discomforting way. At a recent New York concert, he played a song that graphically detailed his issues with casual sex, referencing specific sex acts and even confiding in the audience about his personal opinions beforehand. The artist says he’s “no longer anxious about allowing [his] sense of humor to surface,” which shows.
While introducing another song at the same New York show, Pfeffer went on a rant about Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, all while explaining his honest disappointment in the world’s periodic unfair unravelings, where one person can often win at the expense of another. The song that followed, “The Game is Rigged,” was an incredibly personal and tongue-in-cheek song that referenced specific examples fitting this pattern. One of the examples was the musician’s mother whose path to her 20-year-old translations firm in Philadelphia met its own share of struggle, specifically because of her status as an immigrant, a woman, and a single mother.
“I hope the song doesn’t come off as bitter but I wrote that line, which my mother approved, in reference to how difficult it is for outsiders, whether they’re immigrants or folks with a slightly different point of view, to make any sort of dent on the infrastructure in this country. Or, in my case, whatever-the-hell industry I was attempting to finagle my way into. It’s like my friend Sam says, ‘It’s not about the music, it’s about the gear,’ ” Pfeffer explains.
Considering the musician’s unique approach to his songs, it is interesting to ponder what kind of person might “get” his work more than another. Pfeffer considered his thoughts on the subject, explaining that his listeners and fans are usually curious people who are able to thoughtfully assess their surroundings, and form their own opinions, just as he tries to do himself.
He then considered the topic further and provided an in-depth look, which he called the “King James” version:
I once heard a contemporary of mine dissect the misconception that in order to enjoy a piece of art or music you have to understand it. I’m paraphrasing here but I remember he said it’s not about understanding the work but whether or not you relate to it. I’m a huge fan of Philip Guston and while I could talk a bit about why his work appeals to me and perhaps its historical context, I know that I don’t fully grasp everything that went into any given painting of his. Same goes for Ruth Crawford-Seeger’s music or Cassavetes’ films or Beckett’s plays or John Duncan’s performance pieces. Or even Ren & Stimpy. Did you know Kricfalusi forced his animators to conjure totally new expressions for each panel?
Anyhow, I think a huge factor in what makes any art compelling is the mystery that surrounds it, especially when it comes to something as ethereal as music. My lack of understanding certainly hasn’t stopped me from finding meaning in the aforementioned examples. On the contrary, I feel inspired me to figure out where these artists are coming from so it can deepen my relationship to the work.
Pfeffer’s thoughts concerning the audience’s comprehension of his music reveal just how much energy he dedicates toward his work and the impression it has on its listeners. His songs are severely personal, so it makes sense that his response to basic questions about his music is also detailed and ruminative.
In addition to the artist’s unique songwriting, as mentioned previously, he pushes himself to exercise his musical skills in new and different ways. For starters, he’s currently composing the soundtrack for a top-secret film will begin shooting next month. He also recently received a grant from the American Composers Forum to complete a percussion piece. Additionally, he’s collaborating with engineer and former Capillary Action bassist Spencer Russell to form an electro-acoustic duo called Buffering that will soon make its debut.
One location the musician consistently revisits is New York City, specifically the borough of Brooklyn. Pfeffer tried to move to Brooklyn during 2012 but ended up going back to Philadelphia. When asked why he left New York, Pfeffer unconventionally but fittingly responded, “There it is, Bloom, the most exciting city in the world–thrills, adventure, romance, everything you’ve ever dreamed of is down there. Big black limousines, gold cigarette cases, elegant ladies with long legs. All you need is money, Bloom! Money is honey.”
Pfeffer will soon be releasing his solo music as a series of site-specific performance videos. Curious concertgoers can expect upcoming performances in Providence, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.