The Latest Return of Marc Ostrow

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Marc Ostrow has performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe often enough that he really doesn’t need an introduction. But if you’d like one, please see what we wrote the last time we interviewed Marc, prior to his July performance.

When you sit down at the piano, is there anyone you’ve got in mind, performance-wise, you’re aiming to emulate? Where in the sizable range of lounge-appropriate genres would you locate your work? What are some of your favorite sounds/feels/idioms to play with? 

Well, I grew up listening to the great singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, especially piano-playing ones like Elton John, Billy Joel and Carole King. Also the Beatles, Paul Simon…The list goes on. I also really love standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren… . I don’t really try to emulate anyone. As a performer, I try mostly to hit the notes vocally and put my hands on the right keys.

That said, I do think anybody who considers himself an artist tries to come up with his own unique sound. As a writer I think my songs definitely have their own individual stamp and I care very much about the craft.  In whatever genre I’m working in, I’ve always got some weird melodic —  and especially harmonic — twists. In bridge or B sections, I like to go as far out harmonically as I can and then somehow seamlessly find my way back home. I’ll also throw in things like 9-bar phrases – just because I can! I don’t write a lot of songs because I set very high standards for myself. I don’t want to listen to half-baked crap – even if it’s my half-baked crap!

As for feels/idioms/genres, I first came to Cornelia Street as part of Frank J. Oteri’s Twenty-First Century Schizoid Music series, which I played twice – meaning I’m doubly schizoid! I’ve written everything from pop to show tunes to swing and bebop, country, and even a few art songs. Anything that’s harmonically interesting, doesn’t require sampling, heavy percussion or vocal pyrotechnics is fair game for me.But there’s almost always a jazz influence, usually quirky chord substitutions even if it’s a pop tune with plain triadic chords.

What’s the songwriting process like for you? How and how soon does it come to be that a song is Done? How does your music change when introduced to the rest of your band?  

I’ve written songs any number of ways. I’ve written music first, lyrics first, I’ve set lyrics to other people’s music and I’ve set music to other people’s lyrics.  Usually I sit down at the piano and come up with the tune. Then the title. Then the words.  A couple of years ago I was dating a woman who was good friends with some great guitar players and I discovered that guitarists seem to write differently from piano players. They strum chords and kind of improvise a melody over it and go from there. So, for one piece, Lullaby, I first came up with a set of chord changes – mapped the whole thing out from first to last measure. Then I wrote a melody over it and then set the lyrics. It’s a really pretty piece, if I do say so myself.

I used the same approach for a very different tune, “I’ve Been Unfriended On Facebook,” which, like many of my songs, is loosely based on experience. It’s a mock horror song, perfect for Halloween, which I describe as Steve Reich meets the Ramones meets Dr. Demento. The music doesn’t change much when I’ve got the band playing – it just sounds much better. The people I work with are top-flight musicians who “get it” right away. And I’m open-minded about what they bring to the table as well. So, there’s not a lot of rehearsal or explanation needed.

What are some of the places you’ve played, in the City or elsewhere? How do differences in the venue change the experience of performing there? Where does Cornelia fit in?  

Being a full-time lawyer and starting a new business, I don’t gig much. And I don’t mean to be a shill, but I really love playing at Cornelia Street. Since Robin expanded the stage and got Jed Distler’s Yamaha grand up there, it’s really an ideal venue for someone like me who likes an intimate setting and to interact with the audience. While I don’t quite do a cabaret act, I do set up the songs a bit and talk to the audience more than just, say, playing an hour’s jazz set at the Vanguard. The sight lines are very good, I’ve always had excellent sound and the food and drink is much better than most of the other clubs I go to.

Last time you suggested burgeoning songwriters buy a rhyming dictionary. Any other advice? 

Learn your craft. Get a good songwriting and/or lyric writing book. There’s plenty out there. And learn about the business. Don Passman’s “Everything You Need To Know About the Music Business” is the best introduction. It’s well-written and I used it in both the music publishing and recording industry courses I’ve taught. I should be getting royalties from recommending it so often!

Describe the ideal cover art for a hypothetical LP of your work. Feel free to include illustrations or diagrams if you wish. 

One would be an M.C. Escher print I have hanging on my wall. It’s fairly well known – two hands drawing themselves. Life’s about reinventing yourself and that image is how I look at songwriting. As someone who writes both music and lyrics, I can freely change one element to accommodate the other. If a melodic phrase and a lyric don’t quite work, I don’t need anyone’s approval either to modify the music or change the lyric and I usually do a bit of both as a song progresses. And I’ll do at least 3-5 drafts – sometimes more – of a lyric. That’s why I’ve always got my lyrics up on stage with me. The tune and the chord changes are much easier to remember than which version of what verse to sing.

Pressing deadlines… people re-emerging from your past… As the great Yogi said, “it’s déjà vu all overagain” for piano-playing professor, Marc Ostrow. Join him on and his merry band on October 19th at 6pm as they play through some new songs on old themes and dusts off a few favorites in myriad moods and styles from the memory trunk of tunes. Call 212/989-9319 or visit for reservations. 


Jed Distler

November 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

Serial Underground, “the subversive nightclub series” (Time Out NY), will be back at The Cornelia Street Café this Sunday Night, November 7th.  Jed Distler, the show’s curator and host, and the artistic director of ComposersCollaborative, from which Serial Underground was born, agreed to talk with us a little about the series, and to preview this Sunday’s show.

What exactly is Serial Underground? How did it first come about?

It’s essentially a new music variety show, with occasional spoken word, theatrical and visual components. The series began in 2004 with a focus on artists who mainly work in contemporary classical music, with opportunities to showcase ongoing new work at various stages in progress. Later on we established mini-residencies where either a soloist, ensemble or composer would be on two or three shows during the season. In the past we’ve scheduled at least three “acts” per show (sometimes more). However, with our new first Sunday of the month slot and 6:00 PM start time, we’ll try a “two act” format, which I think will help focus and tighten the evening.

Tell us more about ComposersCollaborative?

My wife Célia Cooke and myself started the organization in 1987, when I was a young(ish) composer and pianist trying to get my stuff out there. We began a solo piano series in 1994 that lasted nearly ten years. As more of the pianists we presented began to offer multi-media and collaborative works, it made sense to create more opportunities for these kinds of projects, first through our Non Sequitur summer festivals, and, of course, on Serial.

One thing I’ve always loved about the series is the way you balance the eclecticism of the evening so beautifully with the depth of the performances. Each part of the evening feels whole and complete, and yet you’re able to move so fluidly from, say, a reading of a play to a piece of music, etc.  Do you think that’s what makes the show so unique, or do find it just reflects the caliber of the artists you bring to the show – or both?

Both, for sure. Artistic quality is first and foremost, but I give lots of thought to running order, pacing, how long each “set” should be, and similar considerations. For example, you can have two excellent 30-minute compositions that are mostly lyrical, abstract and introspective, yet I’d never program them on the same evening. If you want to do, say a 20-minute set made up of short works, you cannot take lots of time between pieces, fumbling around with music stands, equipment, tuning the instruments, and so forth. It’s important to me that each show should feel intimate and informal, yet fluid and alive at all times. I think this comes from my long background working in theater and dance situations, and perhaps from having played hundreds of club dates in my youth, when you had to make smooth segueways between songs.

What can we expect to see this Sunday?

The young composer/violinist ANA has a gorgeous new CD out on the Innova label, and she’ll offer selections from it, with guest pianist Kathleen Supové. Our longtime director Arnold Barkus will present new play called When You Awake You Will Remember Everything, and he’ll be performing a generous excerpt from it together with Nancy Castle, an actor who, incidentally, was on the very first Serial back in October 2004. And I’m going to open with a brief piece, but you have to come to the show to find out what it is!

Can you preview anything for us from shows in the months ahead?

Go to our website, where we list all upcoming events. However, you can expect substantial opera/music theater premiers by composers Matt Aucoin, Ben Arthur, Jonathan Dawe and Virko Baley, pianist Jenny Lin returning in February, and, the following month, a rare chance to hear new music practitioners pianist Blair McMillen and the Momenta Quartet join forces for…hold on to your hats…the Brahms Piano Quintet! And that show opens with a wild new solo percussion piece by Rex Benincasa. Talk about a provocative bill!

– Joshua Rebell, Spoken Word Curator

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