Pictured: Musician Charles Stehno (C’20). Photo courtesy of Stehno.
By Lilly Moore
Charles Stehno (C’20) could be aesthetically revered as Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner with a computer instead of a guitar. With his leather loafers, straight pleated trousers, and short-coiffed hairstyle, Stehno looks much more suited for London in 1967 or New York City than the Sewanee mud. As he divulged his innermost musical thoughts during an 11:30 p.m. trip to Wendy’s in his meticulous Grand Marquis, though, the persona which Stehno presents began to deteriorate. His music gives a different image to the hip-hop pianist than his vintage-coolboy aesthetic may exude, like that you’re more likely to find his songs on a “lo-fi beat to study and relax to” radio than on a record.
Born in Chicago and raised in Wisconsin, Stehno began playing the classical piano when he was four. In recent years he’s picked up instruments like guitar, ukulele, bass, and mandolin to help supplement his creative hunger.
“I hear other people play [other instruments] and am amazed by how much expression is in those instruments,” Stehno remarked in explaining his desire to grow in instrumental diversity (violin is next on his list).
Stehno’s interest in computer science and desire for musical expansion has introduced him to the world of electronic music. “I like to play with electronic music,” Stehno says, “work with synthesizers… I like making music without really the instrumentation but with different interpretations of what an instrument is.”
To Stehno, a simple computer system is much more than a device to browse the internet on, it’s a way to create; it’s an instrument. He also likes to amass a collection of different synthesizers and “crazy little keyboards,” as he put it, to play around with.
While composition and creation are important in Stehno’s process, music is an easy de-stressing activity.
“I feel like it’s like a meditation a lot of the time, especially when I’m playing just live music or on the piano,” Stehno mentioned when asked about the inspiration for his music. “I just kind of forget and tap into the ruminations going through my head or whatever’s going on in the room. I just kind of zone out and let the music kind of take up that space and I try to explore from there to see what I can make.”
Though a lot of his pieces are inspired by what he feels in the moment of creation, he did admit to taking in some outside influences. “I’m the kind of person who listens to one album (or buys the whole album) and listens to that artist’s album over and over again and then I’ll listen to another album by them or I’ll listen to an entire song,” he explained, claiming to have “narrow but deep” interests in music. Stehno spoke extensively on his love for Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” (as any serial-band obsessor has at some point in their life), as well as his other contemporary influences, such as Kanye West and Mac Demarco, as well as his less-contemporary influences like Chopin and The Doors.
In reflecting, Stehno brought up a feeling of osmosis which has contributed to his musical inspiration. “I think I draw a lot of it from what I listened to before I had a concept of what music was, so like as a real little kid or even just as a child, you know what your brain’s still good at absorbing things, I think I draw a lot of music from that period of my life.” He attributes his knack for jamming to this, accrediting the Grateful Dead and “dad rock.” “It’s like this is what the drums should sound like, it’s is what I hear when I think about guitar.”
As we drove around, Stehno played some 30-second to minute-long pieces he’s recorded on Snapchat videos and voice memos, which include a few short recordings from 3 a.m. of a low and lonely voice track, likely to be picked up in a later track but carefully rendered so not to forget the moment’s inspiration. Stehno’s musical limitations seem non-existent, confident in his abilities and his resources. “I’m not really worried about limitations, you’re just going to have to make what you can make and do your best,” he says. He wants to continuously remind himself and artists like himself “you’re limited just to a representation of how good you are or where you are or how well you can communicate your music.” Once you acknowledge that, “you’re just going to get better.”
Stehno’s most recent contribution the Sewanee music scene was in orchestrating the recent art installation “This Ain’t No Cakewalk,” which utilized modes of the historical “cakewalk” trope and 80’s drag-ball themes to create a piece of art, music, and movement. As it was Stehno’s first time performing live, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He had the ability to create a new track and modify it as he wished throughout the performance on what he referred to as “the instrument of the computer.”
“It feels cool, it’s rewarding,” Stehno exclaimed.