Pan Pan

A room of her own

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

If you ask Sarah Jerns what her music sounds like, odds are decent she will use the words “sad piano” to characterize it. The description is classic Jerns: a little self-deprecating, a lot understated and with a certain undeniable ring of truth.

In a town that cultivates artistic vision, but doesn’t always reward it, Jerns neither conforms nor rebels. She simply makes her music, her way, and trusts people will get it. A straightforward enough proposition around these parts if you’re in a garage rock band, but Jerns is a classically trained pianist with a decidedly nontraditional viewpoint who has spent a fair amount of time performing her original modern chamber music in bars.

It should be a tricky sell, but somehow it isn’t.

For several years, the Bellingham native has been performing as Pan Pan, a musical project that has taken on many forms—full bands, small ensembles, other temporary entities, solo efforts—but always puts Jerns and her piano front and center. Sad though it sometimes might be, Jerns’ music is dynamic and forward-thinking, pushing boundaries without pushing people away, choosing a road less travelled while still taking everyone along for the ride. But imagination is only as good as its execution, and Jerns’ ability realize her very particular and ever-evolving creative vision is rooted in downright intimidating technical skill.

When it comes to live performances, Jerns applies the same mindset that molds her music, and much as Pan Pan has expanded and contracted to meet her needs, her concerts have been scaled back or fleshed out as well. Recently, her live efforts have been fairly low-key, mostly focused on invite-only, living-room affairs.

It’s a nice way to play and see a show, but sometimes you’ve got to go a little—or a lot—bigger.

And so Pan Pan will play two concerts, on Fri., Dec. 4 and Sat., Dec. 5, at Fairhaven’s Firehouse Performing Arts Center.

The reasons choosing the far more expansive venue are, according to Jerns, many.

After playing a sold-out show there in April 2014, Jerns feels a connection to the space and its charms.

“The Firehouse allows me to be the performer that I want to be… I’m going to walk in, sit down at a Steinway grand piano, and entertain an audience for an hour,” Jerns says. “That’s mind blowing—nowhere else can I do that in town.”

Being in a space she connects with is especially important for this particular event, which Jerns has called “Rooms” after a series of albums by the same name that she’s recorded and quietly posted to Pan Pan’s Bandcamp page.

“I want to decorate space and draw people in,” she says. “My music always brings me mentally and emotionally to a new space, and I always hope to do that with my listeners. I just feel like a room is such a delicate idea. It has physical objects in it, but it’s full of empty space—my music fits that empty space.”

Jerns’ music won’t be the only thing decorating the space at the concert however, another reason she’s opted for a change of venue. “Rooms” is a multidisciplinary, multidimensional event, with dancers James and Maia Schaberg taking part, and Matt Curtis providing visual elements. The concert is organized along three themes: solitude, unity and celebration.

The solitude portion will be Pan Pan, singular—Jerns solo—and if it’s sad piano songs you’re looking for, this is the right “Rooms” for you.

“The songs are very bleak and I think I’m going to surprise the audience by the tone they set,” she says. “All of the first set evolves from a very singular place.”

But bleak can be beautiful, an idea Jerns has never shied away from. “There is beauty in sadness,” she says. “There is strength in focusing on those feelings and finding the right sound or note to express that.”

Before everyone gets thoroughly bummed out, Jerns will transition from solitude to unity, which will cue the dancers as well as Curtis on guitar. Jerns hatched the idea to incorporate dance into her concert when she provided improvised piano accompaniment at a different Firehouse event and observed the varied ways in which people interact with music in general, and her music in particular.

The night closes, as all good evenings should, with an all-out celebration—and that’s when you’ll see the full-band version of Pan Pan. The musician intends for this to be the opposite of the first act, with an aim to “bring everything together to make a better whole.”

In staging “Rooms” at the room in the Firehouse, Jerns is merely doing as she has always done, which is to carve out her own space in a community that has always encouraged her, even if it hasn’t always quite known what to do with her.

“I think I grow in and out of being an anomaly,” she says. “This town supported me for a long time paying bar shows, but I’ve realized that time is over. Now they are supporting me playing these ‘classical concerts.’ Its true I have my up and downs, but I’m just happy to grow as an individual. I’m not traditional, but no one really is anymore.”

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