Local Musician Goes Beyond Pop In New CD

by Joan Gielow
from the Palo Alto Daily News

As a child, he hated piano so much that even the lure of ice cream after every lesson didn’t change his mind. He quit piano in sixth grade.

Today, a few years after graduating from Stanford as a music major, Menlo Park’s Cory Cullinan has produced a CD, “My Oyster,” and given a concert in Palo Alto with his new, hand-picked, six-piece band.

Started In High School

Cullinan’s love affair with music remained dormant until his senior year in high school — which he spent in a friend’s eight-track studio in the janitor’s room of an apartment complex, recording albums. “That’s when I really got into it, playing stuff from radio and writing it,” he said.

Later, at Stanford, listening to symphonic music got him interested in orchestrating. He has spent the three years since graduation producing “My Oyster” — a year in pre-production (composing music and finding musicians); one and a half years recording; and a half-year mixing.

The mixing used fully-automated mixing boards; this means the boards remembered what the artist did and allows the artist to be a perfectionist, Cullinan explained.

A colleague of Cullinan’s, pianist Emily Bezar, from Oberlin Conservatory and Stanford, said, “I never heard an independent (CD) produced at this level.” It was like “a huge jigsaw puzzle” to put it all together at this level of detail — “very intricate.”

Deaths Inspire Songs

The CD inspired music critic David Yearsley to write, “One encounters detours of meter, timbre, and style throughout ‘My Oyster.’ The triumph of ‘My Oyster’ is that it is packed with memorable songs that pull you in as pop songs, yet allow space for this baroque impulse. The CD traverses a vast terrain, through innumerable popular music genres and crossed into the realm of ‘classical music’ with ‘Bright In Your Ways.'”

Both this a capella piece and “In the Doorway“ were inspired by deaths in Cullinan’s family when he was 16. His brother died of a brain tumor at 18, and his distraught father committed suicide a year later.

Cullinan said “Bright In Your Ways” is “not really about my brother’s death ‘per se.’ His spirit was incredible. I feel like his life was a success, although too short.”

He said he saw two different perspectives about the power of life and death, and that his brother had the right way of looking at things. Even while dying, he kept doing what he loved. “I had a lot of education on different ways to look at life,” while still in high school.

Creative Listening

The slogan on Cullinan’s promotional material reads, “Music for the Creative Listener.”

Cullinan feels his music is “a little more involved than most pop music.” He said he doesn’t mean it’s better, just that there are more parts to it.

For example, he employs some classical techniques, like counterpoint, to his pop music.

“It implies maybe there’s more to be gotten out of it if you bring your creativity to it.”

What does the future hold for Cullinan? “He could go in any direction — solo, theater composer, arranger,” said Bezar, adding that a person like this comes along rarely.

Said Jay Kadis, co-producer of “My Oyster,” Cullinan’s “abilities lie not only in performance but in composition, in the classical sense.” The combination of these usually “disparate aspects of creativity” is unique, marvels Kadis.

Added Tim Roberts, a member of Cullinan’s band, “It’s very refreshing to hear an artist who has something to say lyrically and can accompany that with strong compositional talents.”