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The Mass Media

Simple Pleasures: The Music of Peter Janson

Coldplay´s A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Coldplay´s A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Peter Janson does not seem to care much for the overly dramatic. His compositions for solo acoustic guitar, while certainly rich in musical ideas, are free of ornamentation and are conveyed through a style of playing that is anything but pretentious. As a performer, he shies away from the kind of personality-marketing that plagues so many of our popular music performers; he prefers instead to let the music itself be the star of the show. His is an almost ego-less style that, far from being impersonal, allows the listener to make intimate connections with music in its undiluted form.

It was no surprise then that when Peter Janson sat down to perform, as the closing act of the Sounds of Summer series on June 19th, there was little in the way of fanfare. Without introduction or theatrics, Mr. Janson simply settled himself down and began to play. The music seemed to fall naturally out of the air, gentle, quiet, and lovely.

On the surface, Janson’s music is deceptively simple. It is so quiet and unassuming that if one wasn’t listening, one might just miss its real beauty. It is not dramatic or hook-driven, it does not advertise itself or show off; neither does the player-whose technical and compositional abilities are strong-go in for flashiness. But when you open up your ears to it and really start to listen, you become involved in the elegant play of masterfully crafted tones and phrases.

This is what happened to the audience at Janson’s show two weeks ago. Initially, there weren’t too many spectators, just the sound crew and a couple others; but as Janson played, he caught the ears of passersby as they traveled across the campus. Coming over for maybe just a brief listen at first, most people sat down and stayed. By the end of the show, there was a pretty healthy sized group gathered on the walkway between Wheatley and McCormack. The quiet intensity of Janson’s playing brought them in and kept them there.

There was some fairly noisy construction going on nearby, and Janson seemed worried about the noise. Normally such a thing would be a big problem, but the fact is that Janson’s music, though not nearly as loud, drowned out the background distraction. That is the real power of this kind of music-an unassuming power like that of water; you don’t notice it as powerful but it changes the landscape. Although quiet and gentle, it triumphs over all the surrounding hubbub by creating a center of stillness that focuses the ear away from the white noise of life towards the simple beauty of inner tranquility and organic harmony. Simply put, this is well-made music and it has heart.

Now and then Janson would close his eyes as he played, a brief smile or frown flickering across his face. In these moments, it seemed not so much that he was consciously performing on a guitar, but more as if he were alone, listening to the murmurs of his heart and thoughts. His connection to the instrument seemed so natural and complete that the music became the audible expression of an inner experience, the act of playing synonymous with the act of feeling. It was a very personal kind of performance, not so much because Janson reached out to his audience, but because he drew the audience in to him, and we felt as if we were seeing a man at an open, unguarded moment of self-contemplation.

It would be hard to classify the kind of music that Janson plays. There is a strong Classical presence, as well as a touch of blues, and other folk elements. One might call it New Age, except that it is saved from the ethereal flightiness of that genre by its honesty and simplicity; it always feels substantial, never wispy. It is a very pure kind of music in which everything depends on balance and harmony, on the juxtaposition of musical ideas, yet it isn’t merely intellectual or academic.

It is an emotional music, perhaps even romantic, that carries suggestions of love, loss, hope and regret, yet it isn’t abstract. The fusion of emotion into the formal structure of the compositions grounds the former while lending meaning to the latter. It is in a way like hearing emotions translated into music. Really, all one can say is that Janson has a genuinely individual sound, which comes from its being such a personal expression.

That sense of individuality is something that has been a part of Janson’s musical approach since the beginning. He started playing at an early age, getting his first guitar when he was eight years old.

His father, himself a solo acoustic guitar player, was his first teacher. More of a guide and mentor than an instructor, Janson’s father taught him not only how to become a better player, but also the importance of developing an individual sound. As Janson says, he “instilled in me that it was important to try to be yourself.”

As a teenager, Janson went through the traditional rebellious stage, leaving behind his roots in acoustic fingerpicking and picking up an electric to explore new avenues: rock, jazz and underground styles of music. Later, he developed a fusion style that brought back in some of the elements of his former style and blended them with the newer stuff. Eventually, he came full circle. He began composing for solo acoustic guitar again, and found that he loved it. “I started out to write two songs and by the end of the summer, I had written ten songs…I was having so much fun, and I knew my electric days were done right at that point. It was an epiphany.”

The return to a solo acoustic style has worked well for Janson, who is now working on his third CD. His latest album, Sometimes From Here (released last June), received a Best New Album of the Year Finalist Award from the New Age Voice Music Awards, and was number two in the top 100 monthly charts for three months in a row. It is still a strong seller. It is available at select Borders bookstores and on the Internet at Amazon.com.

Following the success of his album, Janson has been performing extensively. “I’m up to about a hundred gigs a year,” he says. When I spoke to him, he was preparing to leave for a performance in Denver, CO. In addition to paying gigs, Janson also performs often at benefits and fundraisers. He has performed for the Leukemia Society of America, the Jimmy Fund, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, as well as for many area food banks. When the AIDS quilt went on display here at UMass Boston, Janson composed and performed music for the event.

Even though Janson’s performing career seems to be on the rise, he says he has no intention of leaving his primary career, that of professor in the Music department here on campus. Janson has been working here for 11 years, and is director of guitar studies as well as of the jazz ensemble. Says Janson with a smile; “I get to do music every day. I just feel so lucky.”