Interview: Seth Stachowski and Cirque du Soleil

Music under the big top
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“It’s always a constant effort to improve your skill set,” says multi-instrumentalist, and arranger Seth Stachowski, the current music director for Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway show Paramour. “The goal is to do great work, no matter what you’re working on.”

Stachowski has made a name for himself as both a performer and composer of serious sonic merit; he’s had a string of successes with the Cirque du Soleil shows Iris, Zarkana, Kooza, and more. He traces his musical evolution back to his home state of New York.

“I grew-up in a town called Clarence, which is a suburb of Buffalo,” Stachowski says. “I started playing the piano at the age of five, and I started taking lessons at a fairly young age. At that time in my youth, I was inspired by people like Billy Joel, and then I got really into more pop and rock things like Van Halen, Def Leppard and other MTV acts. As I got older, I started getting into classic bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, as well as progressive things like Genesis, Rush, King Crimson, and Yes.”

Stachowski would get into the performance groove early, forming his first bands when he was still in junior high school. “I started playing guitar in my first band in the sixth grade,” he says. “We were a little band with a repertoire of approximately two-and-a-half songs, and if we were playing a dance, we would probably play those songs about twenty times. Or we’d play a blues for twenty minutes! It was pretty funny.”

The gear bug would bite Stachowski early on. “I started playing keyboards and guitar in progressive rock bands during high school,” he says. “I got my first really cool keyboard around the age of sixteen—an Ensoniq TS-12. I remember going to a music store in Buffalo called Unistage to check out all the keyboards, and when I got the Ensoniq, I thought it was just the be all and end all. It had this great set of weighted keys that felt like a piano, and to me at the time, the sounds were a cut above what the other keyboard companies were putting out. It had a really cool sequencer too.

I loved that keyboard, and it lasted me many years until I switched to what became the main keyboard in my setup for a long time—a Korg Triton. That’s the one that became the mainstay of my setup for playing and composing. It was my MIDI trigger.”

Stachowski credits his continued success to his early ability to multitask. “I think one of the things that has really helped me over the years as a musician—certainly with Cirque [du Soleil]—is that I was always doing all sorts of different things,” he explains. “I was playing saxophone and into the classical and band scenes too. I was playing in the wind ensemble, I was the drum major in the marching band, and I also took a real interest in conducting and musical theater. I also played piano and sax in the jazz band, and I started taking jazz piano lessons as well. I was basically in every ensemble. It was all music, all the time!”

Music remained Stachowski’s primary focus during his college years as well. “I went first to the State University of New York at Fredonia,” he says. “The initial idea was that I was going to go study music education, so I played classical saxophone in the wind symphony. I also started getting really heavily into jazz—so much so that I started cutting class to practice! I would sit in the practice room, ‘shedding’ [John] Coltrane solos on saxophone and piano.

The cool thing was that every week, the jazz combo that was part of the Jazz Workshop at SUNY Fredonia would go out and play at a club. You’d practice all week and then you’d get to go out and play club dates every week. That was a great way to make progress and play with other musicians. Eventually, I got to be the director of the Jazz Workshop. I think I was the youngest one up until that point.”

Stachowski left college for a short time to focus on performing. “I realized that I wanted to be a performer, so I took a break from school to focus on playing,” he explains. “Eventually I went back a few years later, getting my Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Buffalo. By that time, I had gotten bitten by the composition bug, doing film scoring and production music. All the while, I was still performing as much as I could, playing weddings, and in Latin bands which was awesome.

“You learn so much playing with different people in different groups. I also became interested in electronic music and DJing—exploring as many different kinds of music and instruments as I could.”

In 2006, Stachowski would join forces with Cirque du Soleil, a relationship that thrives to this day. “I remember coming to New York to do an audition for them in the spring. It was a pretty intense audition at SIR Studios. They didn’t ask me to prepare anything—they just sort of ran me through the paces, and I had to play along with all sorts of songs. I had no idea what I was getting into!

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It was mostly improvising, but at some point, they asked me if I did MIDI programming and I replied, “Of course!” They thought I’d be a good candidate to be a bandleader for them, and a few months later, they asked me to come to Montreal to meet the composer of one of their shows. Soon after, I got the job as the bandleader on the touring show Kooza. I stayed with that show for about four and a half years, doing the entire North American tour. Following that show, I moved with my family to Los Angeles. Soon after, I became the music director for the Cirque show Iris in Hollywood. Danny Elfman, one of my musical heroes, did the score for the show and I got to work with him. That was super cool!”

In addition to his work with Cirque, Stachowski also delves into myriad other musical projects. “For the last ten years, I’ve been involved in production music,” he says. “I also have a music publishing company where I work with other composers on projects as well, and I composed some classical pieces too. I always try to keep writing.”

Stachowski’s latest Cirque work began on the New York production of Paramour in January of 2016. “I’m playing keyboards, electric guitar, banjo and tenor saxophone,” he explains. “My main keyboard for the show is an 88-key Korg Kronos, and all of the show’s sequences and the click are coming out of Ableton Live, which I’ve been using with Cirque for the last ten years. So there’s a lot to do during the shows: I’m playing, conducting, running Ableton, and more. I’m also doing arranging, orchestration, composing, and various rehearsals. I’m pretty busy!”

“I think the key to my success has been my curiosity,” Stachowski continues. “I’m very curious about technology and different musical styles and instruments. I think it’s about being willing to learn new things quickly and adapt to different situations. You have to be musically flexible.”