After spending some time playing drums in punk and hardcore bands, classically trained pianist Carlos Cipa returned to his musical roots and his main instrument, releasing two solo piano records on the German label Denovali.
The Monarch And The Viceroy (2012) and All Your Life You Walk (2014) established the young composer as a rapidly-rising presence on the contemporary classical scene.
With his latest record, Retronyms (2019), released on Warner Classics, the Munich-based musician seeks to expand his compositional palette. Featuring musicians from different backgrounds and blending a variety of instruments and electronic sounds, Carlos creates a sonic landscape where the “acoustic engages in a dialogue with the electronic, the analogue with the digital, and improvisation with the art of composition.”
As I was listening to the album to prepare for the interview, my wife Ioana did something she only does on rare occasions: she burst into my office demanding to know what I’m playing. That’s always a sign that I’ve stumbled onto something special.
Since then, Ioana has become completely enamored with the album, listening to it every day on vinyl or her iPhone, calling it one of the best records of the last few years.
She is not wrong!
Retronyms finds the artist taking full advantage of his newfound creative freedom, delivering a thoroughly fascinating work reminiscent in its elegance and fluency of some of the finest ECM recordings.
I caught up with Carlos over Skype, to talk about Retronyms, his creative influences, his compositional process and the contemporary classical music scene.
Please tell me a bit about your early days in music. Did you always plan to become a professional musician?
In the beginning, from the age of six to the age of sixteen, I only played classical literature. As a profession, the goal was always to become a pianist.
When I started playing drums in a band, I also started to write my own music, which is something that doesn’t happen often in classical music. With that, a new path opened up for me.
When you started writing, what made you want to return to the piano and contemporary classical music?
There is a feeling you get when you start to experience playing your own written music. I wanted to have that feeling on my main instrument as well. I just started to sit at the piano and try to figure out how I can write my own music on that instrument too. I mean, you learn an instrument for ten years in your childhood and your youth and you really want to do something with that.
I think, when you have the classical training in your hands, it becomes the natural way in which you express yourself. When you start composing, it leads to something that is based on classical music. The influence of classical music is already ingrained into my way of thinking, my way of playing. That led me to write the kind of music I’m writing now.
But I’ve been influenced by a lot of different things. I have the punk rock background, I listen to a lot of jazz music, music from the seventies. It’s a combination of a lot of different aspects of music.
I took a huge break from classical music when I started writing music. I only got back to it recently, just a couple of years ago. Now, it’s definitely a main source of inspiration, especially Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. It’s more this period, not the Romantic era.
The last couple of years, I also listened to a lot of music from the seventies, especially Jon Hassell. A lot of krautrock, Can and also pop music like Beach Boys or David Bowie. People who are really pushing the boundaries of what they’re doing and exploring new territories in their work. That is something that really inspires me. It was especially inspiring for Retronyms, because I wanted to compose longer pieces and combine different styles, leaving more room for improvisation. These are the areas I really wanted to explore.
On Retronyms, you shifted away from solo piano to incorporate a greater number of instruments and electronic effects. Tell me a bit about the creative transition from your first two records to Retronyms.
I wanted to further explore the idea of orchestrating my music, getting the pure piano-based ideas into a more colorful palette.
This was the idea for Retronyms in the first place: having the piano at the center, but building around it a lot of different sounds, a lot of different instruments. I wanted to create my own color palette of sounds. Many of the electronics are based on recordings I made with the musicians. I only used a few analog synthesizers. It’s all very organic and everything is recorded by me.
How did you choose the musicians for this project?
Some of them are classically trained. They are friends of mine from my time at the conservatory. I also wanted to bring in really good jazz musicians, especially the trumpet player (Matthias Lindermayr), who is an amazing improviser. I just brought them into my studio one after the other and started recording with them. I gave them some ideas, gave the some sheets, but also let them improvise. I wanted them to have freedom of expression.
I liked this binary concept — analog vs. digital, composed vs. improvised —especially for a neo-classical album. Tell me a bit about the creative process behind Retronyms. How much of the music was composed and how much of it improvised?
When I start writing, I sit at the piano and collect ideas for a long time. If I have a certain number of rhythms or melodies, I start the recording process. For this album, I really wanted to spread out in terms of sound, as I mentioned before, but also in terms of composition. The compositions have to really take their time. Two of the pieces are very long, so you really need to develop an idea for this span of time. This was definitely something I had in mind beforehand. I also wanted to let the process be very free, to have room for freedom and let certain things happen.
On the first album, “The Monarch And The Viceroy”, it’s all pieces I can write down exactly as they are. On the second, “All Your Life You Walk”, I started to bring a little more freedom to it. But here, this idea of “freedom” is definitely something that took over more than I thought it would.
I recorded stuff with the musicians and went further with it, digitally altering the sounds. It’s the same thing for what I’m playing. I play on a lot of different keys so there’s an experiment to it. I wanted the orchestration to be experimental. This affects the electronics too. You asked me about the improvisation and the composition. There are parts that are strictly composed, where I really knew what I wanted the musicians to play. In other parts, I think that it’s just a texture in the back of the compositional part.
Some of the free parts on the record were even the result of luck. The first track, “fanfare”, is based on trombonist Christopher Mann just getting used to the room, playing a few lines. I recorded it, condensed it through various processing methods and it ended up sounding great. I had the idea to start the album with it. It was actually the first part I recorded with another instrumentalist so it made sense to start the album like that.
I know that you put a lot of thought into the sequential structure of your albums, which are meant to be listened to as a whole. Retronyms also has a very cohesive structure. What role did track placement play in its creative structure?
This is a really good question. So, the four pieces that are based on compositions, “senna’s joy”, “and she was”, “slide.” and “dark tree” were always going to be the main pieces of the album. The other miniatures were placed around them.
“fanfare” was definitely intended to open the album. A good friend of mine works in paid programming. They have these sound bits they use for certain sections. There’s one called “Fanfare”. They always play it when something is sold or something like that. That’s how I chose the title. (laughs) But it’s a really good opener. I got some great feedback on it. The guy who I brought in for the mixing (Martyn Heyne) was instantly drawn to the record because of this piece. It’s a really nice way to open the album.
I find that the last piece, “paon”, has a conclusive nature. It’s also opening up to a new world on the next album. The track list came about very naturally.
For this album, you’ve also changed your record label. Your first two records were released on Denovali, while Retronyms came out on Warner Classics. Could you tell me a bit about that?
I split with my old label while I was already working on the album, so I went looking for labels with a finished record. With Warner, I really found people who did not want to change anything about the music. I was happy to give them my work. I didn’t expect it to be on such a big label, but it’s a nice experiment to have this kind of music in a place I didn’t expect it to be.
Do you already have a concept in mind for your next album?
Yes. I’m planning to focus more on myself as a performer on the piano. I want to record on different pianos in different spaces, so I can explore different sounds. It’s not just going to be recorded in the studio on a single piano. I want to really explore how different pianos can sound, how different they can be as instruments. I want to bring pianos from different spans of time. I have one in the studio from 1830 or 1840. It’s going to be interesting.
With the experimental nature of Retronyms, was it challenging to present this music live?
Yes. For the live performance, I brought in three other musicians. The violin player, who is also on the record (Teresa Allgaier). She’s also playing Rhodes on the set.
Then, I brought a clarinet player who is playing bass clarinet, B♭ clarinet and alto saxophone, so I didn’t have to bring in a trumpet player. The trumpet parts are played on the saxophone live, which works very well. I have another guy on an electronic station with a synthesizer, Rhodes, a lot of analog effects and me on the piano with other effects. We are able to really play live, with no loops or backing tracks. Just a live performance, like chamber music. It works really well.
We made a live video for “senna’s joy.” You can really see how everything is brought together. It’s actually one take – a one-take recording and a one-take film. The guy who made the video really had to run around for thirteen minutes. (laughs)
This is a question from my wife, Ioana, who is a big fan of Retronyms. She bought it on vinyl and iTunes and listens to it every day. Ioana practices yoga and meditation. To her, Retronyms is a very introspective, very meditative album. The music brings to mind a feeling of space, of oxygen and connecting with nature. I’ve recently spoken with Hang player Manu Delago, who often draws inspiration from nature in his albums. Was it a similar case for Retronyms?
Actually, for me, it’s a very abstract thing to compose and record music. I only draw inspiration from music itself. But the great thing is, if you give that music to other people, everybody has a different perspective on it. Everyone has a different response. It’s really great to hear that it’s very meditative, that maybe it’s nature-oriented. But some other people see it totally differently. I really want people to experience the freedom to see something personal in the music. But I don’t have non-musical inspirations.
What is the biggest challenge in being in the neo-classical scene at the present moment?
If you write instrumental music, you don’t have a singer or a voice to identify with for the listener. You really have to find your own voice as a composer or performer. I think most of the issues we have to face are related to finding artistic freedom. For this record, I really wanted to find a place where I could do what I wanted. This is why I’m very proud to put it out there with Warner, because nobody wanted me to change anything. It was just my way of musical thinking at the time.
I don’t know where I’m going from here, but finding these spots of freedom is hard to do. It’s not easy to sell this music. If you have longer tracks, the radio doesn’t want to play them. In the era of streaming, longer tracks are also hard to place. But I think it’s really important to focus on your own idea of music and push it to the limit.
Photo credit: Georg Stockinger