Tenzin Chopak & Rockwood Ferry, Ensemble

8.5.14 Ithaca, NY. 

Rockwood Ferry's front man, Tenzin Chopak, talks about the mesmerizing bonus track he made for Tom Gilroy’s film, The Cold Lands, being an ordained Buddhist monk and the benefits of keeping his life quiet.

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne

Tenzin Chopak in his yard in Itacha, NY

UD:  The bonus track that you did for Tom Gilroy’s film, The Cold Lands, was that the first experience you had working on a soundtrack?

TC:  Yes. I’d never done anything like that before.

UD:  How did you happen to work together?

TC:  I met Tom at the Pawtucket Film Festival when he was screening The Cold Lands (read Tom Gilroy's interview). He was there the same day that I was performing, and we were able to spend some time visiting afterward. Many months later Tom got in touch with me and asked me if I would be open to collaborating on setting music to rescued bonus footage, and of course I was so happy to be involved. Michael Stipe, Mark Mulcahy and others where in the process of making their scores.

Tom then discussed with me the particular scenes and themes in The Cold Lands that I was moved by. The whole movie is really beautiful, actually. I was drawn to the relationship between the boy and the memory and spirit of his mother as well as the way in which Tom portrayed Atticus’ journey into the unknown beyond the life he had known.

After that initial discussion, Tom asked me to send him an example of some new music. I recorded a four minute version of a new piece titled Fool’s Fire, and he felt that it would work nicely. Then, the process of choosing images from what Tom sent me and assembling them with the music was organic. It was a lot of fun.

The footage we used for our collaboration evoked those feelings of longing and grief, as well as the danger and wonder of stepping into the unknown. 

UD:  You took a long break from music?

TC:  When I was much younger I wanted to be a musician, that was always my big dream, but then I started studying Buddhism when I was 19 years old. I kept playing music, but I was becoming more and more involved in Buddhism. After a while, I thought that I would like to commit myself to the lifestyle of Buddhist monasticism.

UD:  What tradition did you study?

TC: I studied within the Tibetan tradition, and my root teachers Khenchen Palden, Sherab Rinpoche, and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche are from the Nyingma lineage. Regarding becoming a monastic, with the permission of my root teachers I was fortunate enough to travel to India in 1999 where I requested ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I did a brief pre-ordination course and was then ordained. I lived in India for eight months and spent that time getting more familiar with the Tibetan language. After that, I returned and lived at my teacher’s retreat center for about three years before I decided to go back to living as a lay practitioner.

 Chopak's laundry and Tibetan Prayer flags benefit from the late summer breeze.

UD:  Getting ordained doesn’t require living with monks for years?

TC:  It’s not necessary to have been living with monks in order to take ordination. One does need a good foundation of understanding and support if they are going to undertake that kind of life.

UD:  You got your name, Tenzin Chopak from being ordained.  What does it mean?

TC:  Tenzin is a very common Tibetan name, it means "Holder of the Buddhist Teachings," and Chopak means "Supreme or Unsurpassable Dharma."  The name is supposed to remind me to do my best. All Tibetan names are nice names, so everybody gets a beautiful name.  

UD:  What brought you back to the so-called “normal life”?

TC:  The monastic life is very beautiful, but I’m better suited to being a lay person. I’m not a teacher or philosopher. Buddhism is very quiet and private for me. After I had returned to lay-life, I bought a banjo, and I was playing a lot of guitar, piano, and singing and writing music again. So, it was about a 12-year break from music.

Rarely without an instrument at hand, Chopak is constantly exploring new work.

UD:  Has your Buddhist practice had any influence on your sound?

TC:  My Buddhist practice has mostly influenced the way I see and experience my life.  I know it has affected my writing.

UD:  From where do you think your passion stems because it's very evident in your music?

TC:  I guess I'm just working stuff out. Maybe there is some knot untying from the inside. When I play or write music, all of a sudden there are a lot of feelings and lots of energies come exploding out. But I don’t really know, and maybe it’s better not to know. When I hear other people try to explain where their passion comes from, I don't always believe that they know

UD:  That's maybe the beautiful part when you don't know. Being a musician, do you think that you’re missing out by living in Ithaca, NY, versus like, for example in Nashville, LA, or NYC? 

TC:   Ithaca has a great wealth of music. There are a lot of extremely talented musicians here and even some world-famous musicians. I think the Ithaca music scene is to some extent nationally known. For example, Richie Stearns, is a renowned claw hammer banjo player, and I was so lucky to have him play on both of my albums. Hank Roberts is a great jazz cellist. John Stetch is a great jazz pianist, and there are many, many others living and performing here. 

Chopak's passionate vocals and "Progressive Chamber Folk" sound.

UD:  That’s impressive, how did you hook up with them, did you seek them out? 

TC:  Richie and I connected over banjo lessons. I later asked if he’d be interested in playing music and we gave it a try. A great fiddle player in town, Rosie Newton, regularly performs with Richie, and she joined in. Then we got a hold of Harry Aceto, who lives down the street, and he played bass on the first album, Speak Like Water.  Eric Aceto joined us on six string violin, and later Ethan Jodziewicz played double bass with us and is on the second album Rockwood Ferry. After Ethan was accepted into The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, I connected with Rich DePaolo on fretless bass, and Bill King joined on drums. Periodically we play with Peter Dodge on piano and horns. I do still get to play with Ethan from time to time, which is a wonderful treat.

Chopak's music transcends his quiet nature.

UD:  So, the members of your ensemble Rockwood Ferry are always shifting; must be an interesting process.

TC:  My ensemble shifts depending on the availability of the musicians and the needs of the project. For the last year the core has been Eric Aceto, Rich DePaolo, and then Bill King. I also travel solo, so these songs strip all the way down to their singer-songwriter bones.

UD:  Tell me about your work process. You told me earlier that you very rarely walk around without an instrument.

TC:  Yes, I constantly move around the house playing music, and I usually have something to write on nearby. The learning and playing is continual. It's like the more you keep taking pictures, the more you learn about the process and art of photography. You're always learning; it’s like you can learn all the way until the end-of-life.

His basement studio

UD:  It sounds like you draw inspiration from most things. Does it happen spontaneously?

TC  Yes, it can happen through everything. Everything is permeated, just touch it, and art comes out. But it doesn't happen unless I'm taking care of myself, so I have to be able to be quiet and not talk too much. The more nervous or contrived I become, the less access I have.

Contemplating with his cat in the yard.

UD:  How does heartache inspire you?

TC:  I read this interview in the New York Times about Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and he said something like, "You'll appreciate what I do a lot more the less you know about me." I think the thing about that is your suffering, your heartache, it's clear for everyone to see in your work. That's when you talk about it, is through your work. But, if you try to explain it, you can never do justice to the power of heartache.