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Ari Picker wants to pay people to think in symphonies

Pulling strings

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Ari Picker sits back in an oversized brown upholstered chair, his thin fingers intertwined. He loves music. Any mention can launch him into a conversation: He talks about how he got his start. He talks about The Beatles. Then he talks about classical and symphonic music. Immediately, he sits up and leans forward, his blue eyes twinkling as his left leg bounces like a piston gone haywire. Classical music is Picker's gasoline.

"I love it. I guess that it is kind of boring for some people," he says, laughing, then glancing down. Without blinking, he continues, "I could listen to that kind of music forever, and I don't get bored."

Picker, 26, did get bored with pop music, which he played for the better part of a decade in The B-Sides and The Never. He could pick out the proper elements of a pop song without much deliberation, he says, so he tried composing classical music, writing instrumental sketches when he wasn't busy with The Never, the band he co-founded with Noah Smith in 2002. As he continued to tour with The Never, he grew tired of life on the road and began turning more toward the complexities of classical music. Finally, he quit The Never during a tour, and those motifs became the pieces of his new band, Lost in the Trees.

But Lost in the Trees isn't a conventional band with several members who compose the music together and then perform it. Rather, it's self-contained, meaning that Picker can always form new ensembles to play the music he's already written. Picker is the mastermind and constant of Lost in the Trees; everyone else helps him fulfill his vision.

"Whoever wants to play can play," he says. "[It's] me sitting in my bedroom writing everything out, then handing out pieces of sheet music. I just kind of take it wherever I go."

Lost in the Trees goes where Picker's interests go, too: It's a careful combination of classical elements and pop overtones, which is like Picker's dream—making music that crosses the colossal popular-classical divide.

"I feel like there are a lot of similarities," he says. "I really like the mishmash of both. I really don't mind when I hear 10 minutes of orchestral music and then a verse of vocals, then 10 more minutes of orchestral music. With my band, that's how it is."

But Picker thinks there could be more music with similar aims. While studying at Berklee College of Music last summer, working toward his bachelor's degree in Film Scoring, Picker had an idea for how to achieve that goal. He was sitting in a History of Western Music class, thinking about classical styles and how kings and queens once commissioned composers to write symphonies. How could he help expand the number of people experimenting with combining pop and classical music? More important, how could he afford to encourage something like that?

Click for larger image • An invitation, no less: Ari Picker aims to bridge classical and popular music through Project Symphony. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

He thought of Project Symphony. Each year, Project Symphony will commission a composer to write a new symphony. Then a large orchestra that combines local musicians and parts of several orchestras throughout the community (even high school players) will perform the piece. Most of the proceeds will go to charity, but a percentage will be saved to commission the next year's composer and symphony. The organization didn't have enough money to fund a composer in its first year, so Picker is writing the inaugural symphony himself. He is also using several Lost in the Trees performances, including one Saturday at Nightlight, and ties within the community—including the UNC Symphony—to raise money for the final fall concert. In turn, more than half of the proceeds from each symphony will go to a local charity. This year, Project Symphony will donate to Chatham County Together—a mentor group for children from single parent homes. As a child, Picker was mentored by the organization.

"Donating it to a charity," he says, "that made it feel a little more full circle to me."

For now, he has to finish the symphony. Usually, Picker gushes about music like most twentysomethings talk about a new girlfriend or boyfriend. About his own work, though, he's modest to a fault. Lost in the Trees' music has been featured on MTV reality shows, but he's reluctant to discuss it.

"It's turning into this multi-movement thing. Most people who study classical music will think it's great, but they'll think, 'That's not a symphony,'" says Picker. After all, his interest in classical music stems from bands like The Beatles, who combined pop music with lavish orchestration. He first latched onto the Romantic period, but he now leans heavily to the Baroque period for its elegance of style and complexity of form. "I'm not Mozart, so I won't be able to do what he did ... the amount of discipline and energy that goes into these pieces of music is fascinating. It's unbelievable."

Picker may be breaking his back to bring the symphony together, but he says he won't be part of the orchestra. Finally resting in his chair, relaxing his left leg, he says, "I just want to sit there and watch it.

Project Symphony will host a kick-off party and fundraiser at Nightlight Saturday, Feb. 9, at 9 p.m., featuring Lost in the Trees, Sweet By and By and The Humboldt Current. Admission is $6.


Talking points

We ran the names of four composers—three likely, one completely surprising—by Ari Picker and let him respond.

ANTONIO VIVALDI—He's my favorite composer of the Baroque period. A lot of people hate him, but I really love him. I could listen to him all day. I think his music is just beautiful. His melodies are just very captivating. They follow all the rules of Baroque music or what we think of as rules. Within these boundaries, he was able to create this music. Each melody he writes has a purpose. It's gorgeous ... I think that many melodic lines at once is really gorgeous.

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART—I just love the color of classical music and the instruments and how they all work together. I am attracted to this gigantic world of music that I am not completely familiar with. What makes me like the different pieces is obviously the melody, or—if I study it a lot—I feel closer to it. I love the color of the music. I love how grandiose it is. I feel a homey feeling, that comfort. I could hear that texture or a simple phrase and I just feel warm inside, even if it's a simple sound or something I have heard a thousand times.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH—He's a genius. He mastered that style of music, the Baroque style. I don't know if there is any more room to develop that style. I don't know where to start and end with it. He is one of the fathers of how Western civilizations hears music. I think he's awesome.

MARK MOTHERSBAUGH—He's kind of quirky. He mixes some electronics with organic instruments. He is really good at what he does. He has managed to team up with some filmmakers that work with his music.

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