Channeling honest expression

Having once played in Asheville to an awe-struck and delighted crowd 11 years ago, Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai return for a live performance combining the Native American wood flute and the concert piano.

And though you’ll often find their records pegged as New Age, Kater doesn’t feel comfortable with that label. More accurate, perhaps, although less pithy, is “hybrid instrumental music that combines classical rock and pop,” though that doesn’t get at the emotional and spiritual content of the music, Kater says.

The combined skill and resonance of these two artists began with their first collaboration on the 1990 album Natives. Kater recalls the process of recording with Nakai. “I record a whole bunch of stuff — tapes and tapes,” he says. “I gather a lot of information and listen to the tracks over and over again. Then, I edit out anything that is not essential to the piece — like weeding a garden. I try to refine it all and at some point, it feels like it’s done. It is as clear expression of what it is that I was trying to communicate.”

In their collaborations, both Kater and Nakai explore off-the-cuff harmonies. “Improvisation requires knowledge of key ranges and melodic form,” Nakai says. “It’s not just an arbitrary exercise. It requires a high degree of listening to what the other musician is doing at the moment … it’s more or less like a conversation.”

With a short summer tour, the July 13 Kimmel Arena show is significant for the duo. Nakai hasn’t been to town in 10 years, he says, so when Kater was making arrangements for the tour, Nakai made a request. “I said to Peter, ‘When you’re setting up these concerts, let’s see if we can come back to Asheville one of these days.’ And here we are,” he says.

What should audience members expect? “They should come prepared to listen and to feel the music as we’re performing it,” Nakai says. “Of course, as we always say, it will be just for them at this moment in time, and it will never be repeated again. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. And it will be fun.”

The duo has also worked on film scores and sound for television programs — work very different from live performances, Nakai says. “There have been a number of projects where they wanted a specific kind of sound, and we’ve had to compose simple melodies that each of us could follow and build upon.” In contrast to these premeditated melodies, “The majority of what we do is ‘at the moment’ improvisation. The performance that we’ll be doing in Asheville is one of a kind and won’t be repeated anywhere.”

With 13 Grammy nominations between them, both performers have achieved success and recognition for their creativity. Though Kater acknowledges these “external career milestones,” he expands his goals to be more than these achievements. “There’s (also) the internal career of really capturing what you set out to capture. The most gratifying experience has been when I’ve found myself onstage … channeling honest expression.” Although these career highlights are shining moments for Kater, he admits “that’s not necessarily where you get the most success on the outside.”

For Nakai, playing the Native American wood flute is a contribution to the lifespan of the instrument. “The one thing that I’m currently involved in is ensuring that the instrument doesn’t disappear into private collections and museums,” he says. In order to promote awareness and create a community around this mission, “I began an organization called the International Native American and [World] Flute Association. At present, there are more than 25,000 members in our flute circles.”

With culture-bending sounds and improvised harmonies, the two musicians seek to create an expressive tone. For Kater, inspiration comes in many forms. “My personal life fuels my creativity,” he says. “I look forward to my next bike ride, my next yoga class, my next meaningful encounter with someone I care about, or with someone new. I look forward to feeling happy or feeling connected.”

— Stephanie Guinan can be reached at

who: Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai
what: UNCA Kimmel Arena
when: Friday, July 13, 8 p.m. (Tickets start at $25. For more info and to buy tickets, visit or call the UNCA box office at 258-7900 or Mark Fields Events at 777-0452.)


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