This third chapter of this ‘saga’ centers around a world-class pianist/composer from Blue Hill. The initial interview with Paul Winter back four weeks ago led to one with Noel Paul Stookey which, in turn, led to this week’s concluding chapter centered on Paul Sullivan. Sullivan has been a frequent subject of these columns, the most recent visit used to promote a show at Jewett Auditorium last year around this same time. Seeing Stookey suggested I contact him, it seemed only right and proper that I should check in and see how the pandemic is affecting him, as well. I reached him at home on the 9th of this month and relayed the chain of interviews that led to this one.
Sullivan: That’s very nice — I’m glad to be included.
Q: Well, let me ask you the same question I posed to the other two gentlemen: How has this COVID-19 pandemic affected you musically, if it has.
Sullivan: Ah, my answer is rather simple; I have done some recordings. I did one for Noel, in fact. This folk-rocker in the ’70s, Janis Ian, sent an a-cappella vocal to Noel, and he put a guitar track on it. Then he sent it to me, and I put a keyboard track and a bass track on it. It ended up being a full-blown recording, which was kind of nice.
Q: What happened to the finished product, just out of curiosity?
Sullivan: Janis, I think, put it up on her website, but anyway I’ve done a couple of things like that, you know, tag-team. We all send stuff to each other. Then I’ve done a couple of videos for arts presenters and arts organizations where I’ve played in the past. I play a song and then say, “This is Paul Sullivan, please give money to …” whoever this is, things like that. I have not done any of my own stuff; for the first two or three months of the pandemic I didn’t touch the piano.
Sullivan: I don’t know why. I was freaked out; it didn’t calm me, and it didn’t attract me. I wasn’t like all depressed and lying in bed all day — I wasn’t at all — but I just didn’t feel like playing the piano. So that was like the first two months. Then I did a lot of soul searching. I’ve done very little composing, however I have been working really, really hard on music. And what I’m doing is practicing.
Sullivan: And I’m doing more practicing than I ever have in my life, and I’m taking this time to do the practice that I never had time for when I was actively making my living at this. When there was a music business to be a part of, you do what is necessary for the upcoming gig and often not really more than that. Though my chops were maintained that didn’t seem to be enough. Over the years I had gotten so sick of my limitations that when I finally got back to the piano this time I thought, “Oh, wait a minute, this is like the whole world has agreed to go on ‘pause’ so that I can finally start playing some scales and take my playing up a notch or two!” And that’s what I’ve been doing and I’m working mostly on classical pieces.
Q: Like what?
Sullivan: I’m working on Chopin; I’m working on Debussy and Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. I am definitely playing jazz, as well. But I feel like I’m taking a closer look at the very basics again, and I love it!
Q: One thing I’m discovering doing these interviews over the past eight months is that there can be, and quite often is, a silver lining to be found in the darkness of this pandemic, and this seems to be yours.
Sullivan: Oh, it is, it is! Because when I said I couldn’t even touch the piano and I haven’t done any composing, at first it sounds like I’ve just given up, but I’m like super-charged. I get to the piano at 6 in the morning, and I don’t stop until noon. I’m improving on a microscopic level. I practice very slowly, very intentionally. I scrutinize absolutely everything. I don’t just sit and rattle stuff off, I play everything under a microscope. It’s very intense, and actually by the end of a practice I am just exhausted. It’s very energy consuming to concentrate that hard, but it is really great. And when I get back to composing, which I absolutely plan to … I’m going to have a much wider spectrum of possibilities.
Q: You’re broadening your musical palette.
Sullivan: Yeah, exactly. And just also finally getting to some of the bucket-list pieces I have wanted to play all my life. Finally tackling them (is) huge. I mean, I will say it’s kind of a zen-like practice that I’m undertaking, because I don’t have any gigs, I don’t have any deadlines — nobody does — and I don’t know how much of this I’ll ever play for people. So it’s not really directed toward an outcome. It’s the intense work itself that is really what it’s about, and it’s totally cool.
Q: Well, it sounds like you have gained an equilibrium here in spite of the pandemic.
Sullivan: Yeah, it’s a very useful stabilizing ritual to practice this long and this hard. I mean, I do it every day, and in this time where there is no time and there are no days, and there is no up and there is no down, I am grateful for a daily focus, you know?
Q: Yes, I do. Oh, and I have another question for you. A lot of people I’ve been interviewing have been livestreaming concerts for Facebook, YouTube and their own websites, is this something you’re engaged in doing?
Sullivan: I have had a lot of requests for that, and I just am not really into that right now. I mean, sitting there playing for an iPhone? And there’s so much of it out there now that I just don’t feel like getting on there and playing my old songs, again. I just don’t have this desire to go public in that way. I’m very much looking forward to resuming my little concerts up here at my house. I’m very much looking forward to concertizing again, but until I can do it without a mask in a place where other people don’t need to be masked, I’m just going to keep practicing for when that beautiful day comes. This year off has become such a wonderful opportunity to build something new, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Q: Is there anything, Paul, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Sullivan: Just that though I’m not concertizing right now, I’m very much looking forward to being back at Jewett Auditorium and other wonderful places like that, and that my plan is to be better than ever when we can all get back together again!
Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.