Robert Stillman :: What Does It Mean To Be American?

On his latest album of piano, reeds, and percussion, expat composer Robert Stillman probes the notion of American identity. What Does It Mean To Be American? is Stillman’s eighth studio album, and like the ones that came before it, including 2016’s Rainbow and 2019’s Reality, it’s a beautifully rendered work, laced with pastoral jazz-inspired piano, cooing saxophone and clarinet melodies, and clattering percussion. But it’s threaded through with conflict, too. Stillman explains:

“I was born and raised in America, and identify as an American. However, I have lived in the UK for over a decade, and this has given me the opportunity to consider what being ‘American’ means outside the day-to-day experience of being American and has created a space for me to consider the concept of American ‘identity” as someone no longer living there. In the position of ex-patriot, it is tempting to claim one’s favorite trappings of ‘American’ and disassociate from the rest, but this is unacceptable to me...In the context of some of the most difficult, embarrassing, uncomfortable years of being American, I feel that doubling down on the identity in total represents a gesture of radical acceptance of reality that opens the space for positive action, be it personal or political, as a corrective to the inertia of denial and delusion. “

Aquarium Drunkard contributors Chad DePasquale and Jason P. Woodbury recently huddled together to share their thoughts on the album, which was recently released alongside a reissue of Stillman’s 2017 album of new age synth-scapes, Portals.

Chad DePasquale: I really like this new album from Robert Stillman. The opener, “Cherry Ocean,” has a real Beach Boys “Feel Flows” sound and exudes this disorienting melancholy which I feel really goes on to inform the record at large. Stillman has always been really adept at seamlessly blending his more experimental leanings with a palette of stately and pastoral jazz. Here, I feel like he’s channeling that ability towards answering the very question his album asks, What Does It Mean To Be American? 

He’s answering that question, not only by swaying through disparate genres, but moods and feelings as well. There’s a celebratory, lilting swing to “It’s All Is,” with its playful, overlapping intertwine of brass and keys, and “Self-Image” runs through fusion-funk sensory highs and lows. But the tracks all eventually collapse back into that distortion, as though that discord is really the glue that holds all these things together—chaos and beauty being the only true constants in Stillman’s search for an answer. 

And the way he goes really hard on that on “Acceptance Blues” is what probably makes it my favorite moment of the record—he sets the whole thing on fire. But that faraway, chasing piano sound he attains, and how it keeps getting faster and faster, and the feeling becomes harder to hold on to, as though that’s the thing you were chasing…I don’t know, he just does something on that track that really gets me. I like the second half of the record too!

Jason P. Woodbury: It’s really interesting to hear Stillman work with vocals and lyrics, too. The Brian Wilson-esque qualities of “Cherry Ocean” definitely tips the hat in terms of examining, from a musical standpoint, a kind of aesthetic Americanness, but it also really reminds me of “Morning Bell” by Radiohead. So Stillman’s identity as an expat comes into focus with that too, and I think that plays into the concept of “distance” you alluded to. In the album bio, he writes that if he can offer insight into being an American, it can only be done by examining the totality of American experience: “historical, cultural, social, stereotypical, experiential, heroic, villainous.” It seems like that distortion, and the harsher edges of the record, when combined with gentler tones and mood of reverie, add up to a complicated and not entirely settled notion of what America is.

On side B, you have “Deep Time, USA,” which is very beautiful, but chaotic, with these wild splashes of drums, free jazz sax, and the persistent sound of clocks (which makes me think of Radiohead’s forebears, Pink Floyd—funny that I keep thinking of British artists here instead of American ones). You might think that a song named for the concept of deep time would be slow and glacial, but instead, perhaps to indicate the particular Americanness of the record, it’s frenzied, chaotic, and frenetic. I love that. 

Chad DePasquale: Totally, I love that it sounds like a town you wouldn’t want to get lost in. There’s a real hardbop energy to it, like you say, that I feel like is definitely suggesting “this is what it sounds to be American” or “what it sounds like to be in America.” I get a sense in both this song and in the title track of a sort of  anthemic leaning direction, in a national sense, but always veering into that chaos.

The last track, “No Good Old Days,” demythologizes in a different, but no less effective, way. It’s got this dramatic, classical sense of adventure to it—a westward, golden age of Hollywood sort of thing happening. But here, it can’t help but just sound a bit sad, like we’ve romanticized it to the point of lamenting. Nostalgic for something that was never there, it’s really no different than daydreaming…

Jason P. Woodbury: “Romanticized to the point of lament” is beautiful way to put it. And that makes me think of “Acceptance Blues,” another one of my favorites on the album. It opens with this almost Disintegration Loops-style warble, and then lopes out with this bright, beautiful melody, only that’s alternated with this minor-key, foreboding rephrasing. And it just sidesteps between these two modes, between a really hopeful melody and this more arcane, damaged tone. Like all of Stillman’s work, it feels like a self-dialogue, a conversation between Robert Stillman and all the other Robert Stillmans that make up Robert Stillman. 

And yeah, identity, personal or national, is a dream-like construct. He nods to that in the album materials too, saying this record, recorded more intuitively and more roughly, is “a more direct expression of the thoughts, emotions, dreams, and beliefs that are the ‘prime movers’ of my work.” Stillman really is one of the best doing it these days, his records are so moving and so inspired, I love that he’s letting his unconscious guide the proceedings this round. I really love this record too.  

Chad DePasquale: Agreed, his work is fantastic, and I appreciate you inviting me to talk about it. I think you can take this record in succession with Reality and Rainbow, and see what a gorgeously singular body of work Stillman is creating here.

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