New Music: John Steiner

Patheos:  I always wonder what initially inspires a piece of music.  What are some of your inspirations for composing? 

Steiner:  In recent years, my music ministry has called me to compose.  Sometimes I'm asked to compose for a certain theme, other times I compose in anticipation of performing during a church service.  It could be a church or secular holiday or it could be a dedication to a friend or family member who has passed.  Track 15 on Into the Green, "Yolanda," was composed in memory of my good friend Yolanda Bain, who passed last year.

Patheos:  Can you share a bit about what happens when you compose a new piece? What's the process for you?

Steiner:  That's hard to explain. Sometimes, I sit at the piano and it just happens.  Say I choose to write a new piece.  I may peck around, try a few melody or chord ideas. It doesn't all come at once. Sometimes I work for a while and decide nothing is happening, nothing worth saving, that is. Other times, I get an immediate hit on a tune. Often times the creative spirit comes while I'm playing a gig. Track 3, "Ralston Dream," is an example of this. The song came to me while performing at a memorial service. When a piece comes to me in this way, I'll record the piece in real time on my cell phone and flesh it out at home later.  

Patheos:   A cell phone!  Brilliant.  I particularly like the track on your new CD, "Midnight."  (Listen here) What was your inspiration for that piece?

Steiner:  Consider the quiet that comes around midnight. There's a calm energy at that hour, a clarity. Many are asleep. This is what I was going for - capturing the openness that occurs during the wee hours of the night. 

Patheos:  I know that much of your music is improvisational ... what is it about that form that draws you? 

Steiner:  My musical path began at age five, pecking out notes on the old family upright. From early on, I've always enjoyed experimenting with different harmonies, figuring out songs by ear on record or radio.  There's something exciting about improvising, both to the performer and the listener. It's fresh and alive in the moment.   To me it's as comfortable as a broken-in pair of shoes. 

Patheos:  I've seen you perform many times, and I always enjoy watching you.  It's clear you are having an internal experience with the music and it draws me in.  What happens within you when you play a piece of your music?  Is music a form of prayer for you?

Steiner:  When I play, I am drawn to the moment. Time slows down.  Through my music, I seek to slow down the pace of everyday life. With this slowing, more detail becomes noticeable. You might say I begin to notice the space between the lines.  The lasting tones of the piano are like a prayer.

Patheos:  I've heard you talk about feeling people's energy when you play in front of an audience.  Can you say more about that?  Does something change when you play in front of people?

Steiner:  I've heard most performers talk of the anxiety before hitting the stage. I have experienced that, but I think the nervous feeling is coming more from me. That is, my response to the many focused on the one that is me at the piano.  At my piano performance last December, I was able to shift my focus to the audience. By prompting them for prayerful thoughts of what to improvise to, I was able to engage the energy of the audience in a very personal way.   

Patheos:  How would you like people to approach your music?

Steiner:  With a fresh perspective. I'd rather not say what genre it conforms to.  Just sit back, listen, and feel.

Patheos: I know that you are also a worship leader for a Presbyterian church... how have your music and compositions shifted for that particular audience?  

Steiner:  I appreciate the quietude of the early service I perform at my Presbyterian church on Sunday  mornings. As I said earlier, my music, be it instrumental or vocal, delivers a loving prayerful message. I look forward to the gentle quality of the service, and my music, be it composed or improvised, both leads and reflects this peaceful vibe.

Patheos:  What do you like about writing music for church worship?

Steiner:  I enjoy sharing my God-given talent with both of my church congregations. In return, I receive so much love and appreciation.

Patheos: What other musicians inspire you?

Steiner:  Oscar Peterson, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Flamenco music: Paco de Lucia, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Brazilian music: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Weather Report.

Patheos:  Finally, what do you hope people will take away from your music?

Steiner:  Delight, and a deeper sense of peace.


Into the Green is produced by Philomuse and will be available on their website and in quality music stores on July 21, 2009.

7/21/2009 4:00:00 AM
Deborah Arca
About Deborah Arca
Deborah Arca is the former Director of Content at Patheos. Prior to joining Patheos, Deborah managed the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, including the Program's renowned spiritual direction program and the nationally-renowned Lilly-funded Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music and theatre programs for children and teens, and a music minister. Deborah belongs to a progressive United Church of Christ church in Englewood, CO.