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Pianist Philip Aabergs’ foundation brings music to Montanans

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May 31, 2004View for printing

For Patty Aaberg, the only drawback to living in Montana’s Hi-Line is waking up to temperatures of minus-30 degrees in the winter.

By Ian Marquand Missoulian

“I grew up in the central valley of California and it rarely got below freezing and never, ever, go below zero,” she said. “I told by friends it was like walking into liquid nitrogen.”

Aaberg has been a permanent resident of Chester for almost two years now as the wife and business partner of her husband, pianist Philip Aaberg, whose life and career has brought him full circle, back to the small town that launched him.

He had left the Hi-Line area more than 35 years ago, first to hone his considerable piano skills at Harvard University, then to embark on a professional career that eventually would lead him to Oakland, Calif., and a prominent place in the stable of artist/composers at Windham Hill Records. It was there he met Patty, who was in charge of the label’s “alternative marketing.”

Phil still was a Bay Area resident in October 1997 when he returned to the Hi-Line to begin an 18-month “artist in residence” program in the Chester schools. Although he had traveled to Montana regularly in previous years to perform and see family, the extended stay seemed to reawaken his connection to his home ground. For Patty, the change was obvious.

“Every time he’d come home (to Oakland) he would drive in the traffic in the Bay Area. It was really tough on him,” Patty said. “And in the reverse, he would come up here and open up. He said he could breathe better.”

Phil and Patty married in 1998, during Phil’s residency. As the decade yielded to the new century, Phil was creating a new Montana piano legacy, composing dramatic scores for Montana Repertory Theater productions, even writing a commissioned work for the Montana Music Teachers Association. Meanwhile, Chester began looming larger in the couple’s life.

“The music just comes out easier here, I think.” said Patty. “I mean, he’s never lacked for ideas or inspiration. He just doesn’t have to travel to get to it.”

The couple also took charge of Phil’s recorded output, forming their own label, Sweetgrass Music. The high point came in 2001, when Phil was nominated for a Grammy award for “Live from Montana,” a recording of a 2000 concert in the Chester school auditorium.

Meanwhile, some of the sounds Phil has heard during his residency formed the musical backbone of a project originally titled “When They Awake,” a tribute to the heritage of the Metis people, whose blend of native, French and Scottish cultures and bloodlines helped define the early westward movement of European civilization across North America.

In November 2001 the project was realized onstage in Helena as “A Metis Legacy,” a multimedia presentation that merged history, storytelling and photographic images with musical collaborations that ranged from the sweeping to the danceable to the downright haunting.

A few months after that performance, in July 2002, the Aabergs, with new son Jake in tow, left Oakland behind for good and moved to Chester.

There, they began building on Phil’s classroom experiences, establishing a nonprofit foundation, Arts Without Boundaries. Its goal is to provide musical education in communities that cannot afford it otherwise. On April 30, Phil performed his first fund-raising concert in Billings and, just this week, the foundation unveiled its Web site.

“We’re in the early stages right now, just starting the fundraising, so we’re starting to write grants and do all the things we have to do to get some money in the bank to subsidize these things,” Patty said. “This is one way we felt we could step up and try to help bring the arts into the schools, even though programs are being cut and cut and cut.”

Eventually, the foundation will have a corps of performers who can come into schools and combine musical education with a community performance.


To get involved:

The group’s Web site, notes that the foundation acts as a clearing center with concert presenters and community groups that would like to have nationally and internationally known musicians work in their schools, but lack the funds. To learn more about bringing these talents to your community or to donate, contact:

Arts Without Boundaries

1 First Street East

Box 625

Chester, MT 59522





“They’d be working with the kids in the classes and the kids would get to play alongside them at the concert, Patty said. The foundation also would help sponsor new musical works that are not “commercially viable” but draw on the various cultural traditions of the American West.

The Aabergs also are dusting off the music from “A Metis Legacy” with an eye toward making it a part of Montana’s observance of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in 2005 and 2006. “The idea is with all the Lewis and Clark activities going on, this is such a vital part of the whole story,” said Patty. “We want to have it presented and reach as many people as possible. There are a lot of people who don’t’ know the story of the Metis.”

For the Aabergs, the last few years have proven that the population of a place doesn’t necessarily determine its potential for creative contributions. Their experience also shows that you can go home again. “A lot of pop culture is from Los Angeles, New York, London, Nashville, whatever, and it doesn’t have to come from there,” Patty said. “You can look around where you grew up and find the sparks of creativity there.”

Reader Comments:

i love how in this article and on Phil Aaberg's website, Phil's three grown sons and Montana born ex-Wife are completely left out of the story! Including elements of when my dad, Phil, used to come play in the Oakland Public Schools. It's great.
--Sean Aaberg

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