Andrew Shapiro’s Perfectly Imperfect Minimalism
Musician blends classical and pop music to find authentic path
Posted Aug 04, 2016
At first blush, it would be easy to conclude that musician Andrew Shapiro is making a conscious statement with his music — that one can blend classical music and ’80s-style pop into a coherent art form.
After all, Shapiro has the credentials. Not only did he receive a bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, but also he interned with and is a protégé of famed minimalist artist and composer Philip Glass.
Shapiro has been widely recognized for his music. For example, Alex Ross of The New Yorker has said, “There’s an interesting subgroup of composers who sing their own songs, blending aspects of art song and pop ... Andrew Shapiro is a notable practitioner.”
But to assume that Shapiro set out to make this statement would be missing the point. Because for Shapiro, minimalism — which emphasizes simple rhythms and patterns, as well as fairly rigid structure without significant embellishment — is not simply a musical style. Rather, minimalism at its core is about stripping away the unnecessary “noise” in one’s life and being organically and authentically you.
And with his new “art-synthpop” album, Pink Jean Mint Green, which features a collaboration with author Neil Gaiman on the song “Bash Street Worlds,” Shapiro discovered that by embracing the parts of him that weren’t so perfect, paradoxically, he was able to make an album that allowed him to express himself perfectly.
Shapiro explained how for him, minimalism was never really a conscious artistic pursuit. Rather, in retrospect, it was a reflection of the pop music of his childhood in the early ’80s.
He told me, “Growing up, I wasn’t some kind of adventurous listener who had a father who was into Buddhist music or something. I just listened to Michael Jackson and Madonna and Duran Duran and Men at Work or whatever.”
But while Shapiro was immersing himself in the popular music of his childhood, he was also training in classical music. “I was a clarinetist, and I studied classical music very, very seriously. But that was pretty much about the Classical era, like Mozart, and the Romantic era, like Brahms. But then, particularly as a composition major, you start getting into postmodern stuff. And that’s when I first learned about this kind of music called minimalism.”
The minimalist ethos immediately resonated with Shapiro. “Unlike straight ahead classical music, it was this genre of artistic expression that was completely new to me. The people making it are still alive, it was happening in New York and it was truly American. A lot of it was due to the fact that they didn’t have a lot of resources to do a lot of things,” he explained. “It was the bare essentials. What is the most simple and economically viable way to express this stuff? And that could be very simple tools, like blocks — blocks of wood or blocks of steel laid out. Or, musically, having a repeated simple scale running up and down as being the entire focus of the piece. And also, these guys were approaching their work like rock ’n’ roll people, as opposed to classical musicians with tuxedos.”
Shapiro soon recognized that much of the popular music that he enjoyed as a child, to a degree, had minimalist influences. “Towards the end of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s the rigor of the minimalist concept relaxed and changed into something different. And it found its way into pop music. There was a kind of meeting in the middle. And I guess that’s where it aligns in me.”
He even appreciated bands that employed a more or less “perfect” approach at different stages of their career. “There are groups that started out raw and then smoothed out, like The Police. If you listen to their first album, it’s much more raw than if you listen to ‘Synchronicity,’” he explained. “By the time ‘Every Breath You Take’ comes along, it’s so much more massaged and gelled and ‘perfect.’”
But Shapiro found that his music teachers subscribed to a more rigid interpretation of what music should and should not be.
“When I was finishing up at Oberlin, everyone had to put on a final show at the end — a recital or whatever. And I did a film soundtrack and a couple of theater pieces. I wasn’t writing music that was just this kind of distilled ‘art on a pedestal’ music,” Shapiro recalled. “And I remember my teacher saying afterwards that, ‘it’s strange to write music about friendship and your friends and people you know--these are subjects that people don’t really write about. And that’s ridiculous, of course because it’s preposterous to think that people wouldn’t be writing about these things.”
“There was this feeling I had the entire time where nothing I ever wrote was ever ‘sophisticated’ enough or ‘interesting’ enough. There was this kind of consistent subtle abuse where it’s thoroughly “ok” to insult someone to their face or belittle what they were doing,” Shapiro explained. “‘Assholes who hate themselves’ is how a friend describes these kinds of professors. And that’s probably not too far off the mark.”
After graduation, Shapiro sought to learn more and was able to intern with Glass — an artist who has been able to bridge the worlds of classical training and more popular music. “So I got this internship in Phillip Glass’s studio when I graduated,” Shapiro said. “And it was just incredible to see someone who was a total outsider who had been able to open up the world in his own way and then be invited to write music for things like a Martin Scorsese movie and get an Academy Award nomination or whatever. To me, the arc of his career is two worlds becoming one. So the timing was perfect and it just hit the spot so, so much.”
Further, Shapiro found that many of his favorite collaborators were not necessarily musicians. “Then I finished that internship, and lived in San Francisco for a while, and a very strong collaboration began with a visual artist named Peter Wu. He just brought a completely different attitude to the work—it was devoid of snooty intellectualism. What did it matter that he couldn’t play an instrument or read music or whatever. He just had really cool ideas for how to produce what I was doing.”
“When I started making my first album, Invisible Days, I had a synthesizer, and I barely knew how to use it. After I put it out I got a review that said I fused Phillip Glass minimalism with moody ’80s New Wave pop. And I thought, yeah, I guess that’s true, it’s who I am. But it wasn’t something I was trying to do. It just came out that way.”
Shapiro thought that if he had tried to make such a statement, it would not have worked. “There are a lot of artists where it’s so plain to see. It’s much more heterogeneous —there’s a quasi-academic thing, and there’s a drum set or electric bass or something that comes underneath,” he explained. “But I’m talking homogeneity in that it’s minimalism and ’80s music — like if they had a baby. Not if they walked down the street and held hands. So I’m a child of both of these things.”
“And when I really became aware of it I was able to relax and just do what I do.”
Released in June 2016, Shapiro worked on Pink Jean Mint Green for 15 years. This was not only in part because he did not feel fully comfortable embracing his impulse to make “my own version of a pure pop album,” but also because he had not felt comfortable examining some of the more painful aspects of his life as a focus for his music. And for him, it was more about sharing his music and experience rather than showing people his talent.
“Part of it is being OK with letting go and not sort of having to prove myself. And so I think this album was cool because –and it was difficult for me-- you have to let go of certain complexities,” Shapiro explained. “But it puts you in the real world when you are talking to people on a real level — not this artist level, pedantic level or ‘Look how good I am at doing what I do.’
Shapiro explained the overall theme of the album. “It’s inspired by seeing a girl on the subway wearing pink pants, a jean jacket and a mint-green scarf and the fantasy, when getting lost in the aura of a woman, that if I can just get that girl to go out with me – all of my problems would be solved . But of course it’s not true and it took a long time for me to see through that mirage.”
Sometimes, this meant Shapiro was writing songs, like “Atlanta,” that tackle themes of alienation and despair. “My song ‘Atlanta’ — it’s about my first couple of years in college which was a tough time. A really down time where I felt like the floor below me just fell away. I knew I wanted to write a song about it but the challenge was, ‘How am I going to distill this whole thing down into a song?’ And not only, how do I write this, but how do I write it so that when it’s finished I’ve been able to have some sort of victory or healing over the issues that prompted me to write the song in the first place? It’s sort of like a very complicated math problem. And it took me 15 years to do it.”
“One song on the album is called ‘Lauren(s).’ It’s about five Jewish girls named Lauren I really had a crush on. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a lot of hot girls named Lauren. And it sucks when they don’t like you back. And so that’s what that song is about.” he said.
Over time, Shapiro has grown to be at peace with being himself and letting the art go where it goes. “Artists in general, the really good ones, just seem to be working towards a goal of self-acceptance,” he said. and that’s what I tried to do with this album – go deep inside myself and make the album that only I can make.”
And he has been happy to hear artists from other disciplines adopt similar approaches. “Years ago I saw Robert De Niro being interviewed on Inside the Actors Studio. And someone asked the age old question of ‘How do you become successful?’ And he was like, ‘What you really have to do is so simple that it’s so difficult for people. You just have to be you — because there’s no one else like you.’”
Shapiro realizes that sometimes that means embracing contradictions that may be difficult for some people to embrace. “I was listening to this Arnold Schoenberg piece, and I was wearing my New York Jets T-shirt,” he said. “Most people don’t liken New York Jets Nation to listening to atonal, mathematical central European Modernism. ” I have an actor friend who tells me in this funny sort of way that ‘I’m…complicated.’”
But Shapiro is content to do his thing and see who comes aboard.
“All you can do is make your art, run it up a flagpole and see who salutes.”