Peter Kater’s never been religious, but he’s had his share of divine experiences.
Mushrooms, LSD, fasting, meditation — the two-time Grammy-winning, classically trained pianist has intentionally explored the outer reaches of human consciousness over and over through the decades.
In the apocalyptic doom of 2020, isolated by quarantine, Kater found himself turning again toward something transcendent.
“I have experienced rapture in the last 18 months,” he says from across the couch in his home in North Boulder, each of us nursing cups of jasmine green tea. “I’ve experienced being lifted out of the world, even though I was never really part of the world, ’cause I was always an outsider … always, you know, exploring whatever. I feel like the shift that happened over the last 18 months, for me, felt similar to either preparing for a rapture or actually being in a spiritual rapture. Just like, OK, we’re not part of this world anymore — we’re ascending.”
Kater dropped dead weight from his life: relationships that no longer served him, actions that no longer had meaning. And as always, the music flowed through him, building the euphoric collection of songs that make up his latest album, aptly titled Rapture.
Part jazz, part ambient mood, part pop, Rapture’s instrumentals capture the sensation of transitioning into a new phase of life: There’s sadness, a little fear, but mostly love, joy and acceptance.
“I didn’t ask for it,” Kater says of his own transition. “I didn’t try to create it. It just kind of started to happen … something just shifted and all of a sudden things looked different and I was drawn to different things. It was actually so extreme that I talked to a therapist for a while.”
In this way, Kater is dogmatic: an evangelist for introspection, a crusader for vulnerability. It’s evident across his collection of more than 60 albums of romantic, contemplative piano work, which have netted him 14 Grammy nominations over the last 20 years. It wasn’t until 2018 — his 13th nomination — that Kater took home his first Grammy for Best New Age Album.
Kater has no shortage of inspiration from his own life. German-born and relocated to New Jersey when he was 4, Kater bounced between the countries throughout his adolescence, studying in the States, summering with his grandparents in the Rhineland. There was intergenerational trauma, the effects of two world wars trickling down to Kater’s own parents, whose whirlwind young romance resulted in pregnancy and a forced marriage.
It was Kater’s mother — denied the opportunity to learn piano as a child because her own parents saw it as unsavory and frivolous — who pressed her son to take up the keys.
“I decided I wanted to play a wind instrument,” Kater says, “and she was like, ‘No, it’s going to be the piano.’”
Just 7 at the time, Kater leaned into rebellion, scaring off three teachers in his first year.
“And [my mom] just went out and got me a new teacher every single time,” he says. “She didn’t mind — she was determined.”
Eventually so was the young Peter, who clicked with the instrument as a teenager and never considered another career beyond music.
But his grandfather was as unsupportive with his grandson’s musical aspirations as he was with his daughter’s.
“My grandfather was the most critical of me,” Kater says. “You know, ‘Get a real job, don’t do this music stuff.’ He used to tell me, ‘You’re just dreaming of Hawaii,’ which is a German expression meaning you’re out to lunch, basically. So of course I wound up living in Hawaii for a bit just to prove him right.”
But long before Hawaii, when Kater was just 17, his mother’s developed cancer in her liver. Nine months later, a day after Kater’s 18th birthday, she died.
“It set me free, though,” Kater says. “I had no brothers and sisters, my grandparents were in Germany, my stepfather was abusive.”
So he traveled, hitchhiking around the country for a year and a half before landing in Boulder in the late ’70s. Here, nestled in the foothills, Kater fell in with “older hippies” and explored his mind through psychedelics.
“Never to party,” he says. “Always for curiosity, to isolate, drop out and meditate for a couple hours.”
He waited tables and played piano during brunch and dinner at coffee shops and clubs between Boulder and Denver. Deeply inspired by pianist Keith Jarret’s improvisational fusion of jazz and classical, Kater felt stymied by the requests of patrons seeking pop standards like “Piano Man” and basically anything from Elton John’s oeuvre.
“So I was playing at the Hotel Boulderado like, five nights a week during happy hour or whatever,” Kater says. “And one night this guy comes up to the piano and I think, ‘Oh, no, here comes another disappointed customer: No, I’m not going to play ‘Hotel California,’’” he says with a laugh. “But he comes up and he puts $20 out on the piano and says, ‘Play me a thunderstorm.’”
Stunned but eager, Kater conjured a brooding, tempestuous melody.
“He comes back, throws another $20 down and says, ‘Play me a picnic in the desert.’”
The affirmation was all Kater needed.
“It felt like the universe was giving me permission to explore music the way I wanted to.”
In the years since, Kater has continued to follow that path, capturing the intangible in his free-flowing compositions. It’s garnered him a dedicated following of fans looking to explore their own inner worlds. And Kater has become a sort of guide, though quite by accident.
At a home concert some years ago, Kater noticed some of the audience creeping closer toward the piano until one uninhibited soul laid underneath it. Soon, more crawled under and laid down to bathe in the sound. Kater just kept playing.
Today Kater invites his listeners to open up to him for 20-30 minutes before crawling under his piano to experience an improvisation written just for them — piano readings, he calls them. He records the track and presents it to them as a kind of mini soundtrack to their lives.
When I crawl under the piano at Kater’s house, the melody that surrounds me speaks to the grief of losing my last living grandparent just weeks before, and to the boundless gratitude I have for the strong bonds I have with my family. I can hear the melancholy that has seemed to follow me through most of my life, but hope is the refrain, sadness simply a bridge. I smile through the tears.
Kater lost his grandfather some 15 years ago.The criticism around his career in music never stopped, Kater says, but his grandfather’s death was the hardest loss he’d ever experienced.
“My mother died, my aunt died, my grandmother died, and I dealt with all of that. But when my grandfather, at 92, passed away, I lost it. I could cry right now. I think about him almost every day. I think, ‘I wonder what he would think about this.’ When he died I understood finally that he loved me, but he just did not know how to express it.”
Perhaps that’s why Kater expresses himself so readily, and why he encourages others to do so.
“I don’t believe in writer’s block,” he says. “For me, [music] just happens. And when it’s happening, it’s very clear. I don’t know, but I think it’s all of the other stuff that I do around self-exploration and always trying to refine myself in some way, trying to be clear. More authenticity.”