Luca Longobardi is a pianist and composer. He combines the performance practice of the classical repertoire with a remarkable openness to the contemporary musical language...
You are a classically trained pianist. At what age did you start playing the piano?
When I was four, my parents gave me a Bontempi keyboard for Christmas. I spent hours on it and eventually I went up to them and told them I had composed my first track. My parents took me to see a nun at my local nursery who also taught music and they realised I was playing the same notes in the same order, which meant I had some kind of idea of what I was doing and that I had developed some kind of musical memory.
Your mother tongue is music then, in a sense?
In a sense, yes. I learnt to read music before I could read or write. I’ve studied the piano at the conservatory and subsequently composition in order to be a better performer. To understand the logic behind any piece of music, be that by Mozart or Ligeti, means being able to remember it and perform it better. If you figure out that in his opus 110, Beethoven skips notes by fourths in the final movement of the sonata to introduce an ecclesiastical feel and you recognise the structure of a fugue, albeit in a more modern style, then it becomes easier to play.
When I studied composition with Roberto De Simone in Naples, I didn’t think I would actually be composing music but being involved with contemporary dance and then studying audio restoration opened the floodgates for me. Sooner or later, though, I will get back to basics and just do a straightforward piano recital just for the pure pleasure or playing a classical repertoire from Bach to Mozart and from Albeniz to Rachmaninoff on a proper piano.
How did your involvement with contemporary dance come about?
By working as a rehearsal pianist first at the Teatro Verdi in Salerno and then at the San Carlo in Naples, where I was exposed to a lot of new stuff. Choreographers tend to look for original music to work with and this is a great incentive. I was then asked to compose music for a new ballet, Prima il Piede Poi il Passo with the choreographer Laura Martorana which travelled to Chile and it just developed from there. For the past year and a half I’ve been working more as a composer than as a pianist.
You’ve mentioned the fact that you’ve studied audio restoration as well; in what way has that been instrumental in your composing process?
I got a PhD in audio restoration here in Rome. My work consisted in digitally reconstructing the original audio atmosphere of a historical recording of the opening night (March the 3rd 1963) of Manon Lescaut at the Teatro dell’Opera held in the archives of the theatre. When concert and opera performances are recorded live in a theatre, for documentation purposes, they use the panoramic microphones mounted above the conductor in the theatre hall as sound source. This is not the best listening point, so one needs to move the focus down to the third or fourth row of the theatre. Furthermore a historical recording from the 60s is held on tapes and the first thing to do is to ensure there is no compression in the analog to digital transfer. One cannot reduce the dynamic range by 6 decibels, because that is how a piece by David Guetta needs to play. There are specific audio parameters for this sort of thing, which can be altered especially on telly. The Italian state television for instance, has different parameter to those required by Sky and one needs to be aware of this. It’s one thing to restore the soundtrack of the film La Dolce Vita, for instance, because the music, in that case has already been mastered, but here we are talking about historical recordings that have not been compressed. To be faithful to the original sound, and to understand how this was recorded, I went to speak to the original sound technicians, people in their 80s who were real fountains of knowledge. One cannot play in 5.1 or 7.1 a 1960s tape. In a similar way, to play an old vinyl on a modern usb record player alters the original sound of the recording, which is fine as long as one is aware of this. Anyhow, when I was cleaning up the sound I was working on, I collected all the refuse, the noise and glitches from those recordings, which I then used in my own work to add texture and create rhythm.
Do you manage to get by with music alone?
Well, I do work a lot with music but to be on the safe side, I was lucky enough to get a job that combines my passion for music programs and technology, which I use when composing and performing music, and the hardware itself in the sense that I also work for Apple in a service and training position. Being a freelancer I never know if and when I will get paid and having a steady job allows for that peace of mind, which helps me to compose my music with greater freedom. Also, I am trying to put some money aside in order to be able to play with real instruments and a sextet.
How do you go about composing music?
It depends. Sometimes I get up in the morning and press the rec button. I play and then have to transcribe the musical notation in order to be able to play it again. If I am working on an album I try to give it a narrative structure, I map out a general outline and determine what I need and where. I composed the track Constance, for instance, for toy piano and underground sounds as that is what I felt I needed after what I’d just written. That is not to say that I compose everything for an album in order, track one might become track four and vice versa, but it is important to have a clear idea of structure.
I am now currently working on a new EP. The first and last tracks will be purely electronic. In between there will be five tracks inspired by people I don’t know. For instance, there’s a girl called Judy who’s uploaded a track of mine, Botafumeiro, on the website soundtrack and in the space of seven days it got 11,000 hits. This has prompted me to write something especially for her. I am doing something similar with four other people.
Four other people you’ve met on Soundcloud?
No. On Soundcloud I talk about music, Facebook helps me to showcase my work, on Twitter I am cynical… but for inspiration it’s normally people or random events. Yesterday, when I was coming out after an edit, a saw a woman tripping over the cobblestones and falling flat on her face. I run to her rescue as she was covered in blood. When the ambulance came she called her husband who started shouting over the phone, “What an idiot, it’s the second time you fall over!” It was a surreal situation and this inspired me to write something.
Music doesn’t define situations or feelings, but it can be a tool to encapsulate them. Music is a different language. I can talk a lot, as you may have noticed. I do this with words and I do it with notes as well. The creative process is great. Sometimes I can get anxious and therefore I cling to technique because I’ve studied composition and I know how to resolve technically an impasse. At other times the process is much more instinctive.
In a way, we have started from the end and the EP you are currently working on. I’d like to go backtrack a bit and ask you to introduce the three albums you have released so far.
The first one was titled 29 | 33, as in from 29 years old to 33. That was the time when I moved to Rome and had to find my own place within the city.
Have you found it?
I have now, yes. Maybe that is why I am now planning on moving to France…
The second album is titled B612 as in the asteroid in St Exupery’s Little Prince. I wanted to suggest a journey on this small red boat. The first album is constructed around a specific timeframe while B612 conjures up imaginary places.
With Espace 13, on the other hand, I’ve designed a perimeter. It is like a compendium of the first two albums with an electronic slant and myself moving inside this perimeter.
So far everything is self-released, though. I don’t believe in the American dream, but that is not to say that maybe one day I might get a label…
Do you ever find it difficult to put a full stop to a track you are writing?
No, it’s all part of the process. When I was studying composition I used to ask my teachers, Why do I need to learn how to compose a fugue when if compose one people will inevitably say, “You are only trying to copy Bach”? Because one needs exercise, if one wants the process to become second nature. After a while you don’t think about rules any longer, whether for instance you might need a certain theme at a certain point, it is all part of the process. I can write tracks that are nine minutes long and tracks that end after 30 seconds. For instance, the track Le Ore is 9mins 30seconds in length. To me it represents the coral reef, the sedimentation of water, a kind of build up. It is constructed with the sound of 11 pianos and for that reason it had to be have a certain duration, to allow for every piano line to establish itself. There’s always an internal logic. At least that is how I work at present, in the future it could very well be different.
How do you feel about musicians who use classical music in their work?
It depends on how and why they do it. I love hearing Keith Jarrett playing Bach, for instance, but if the Italian pop singer Al Bano writes some lyrics over Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B flat then I do object. At the end of the film Black Swan on the other hand the composer uses the theme of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in a stylised and respectful way, revisiting the material without betraying its original intention and I just love it. One needs to be clear about why and how one tampers with other people’s work. I was recently asked to rework a number of songs by the Italian singer songwriter Fabrizio De Andrè for a dance piece. I transformed his song Il Giudice in a klezmer piece, but I approached the whole thing with extreme care. My father used to listen to either classical music or De André in the car, so I treaded very carefully around his work. It’s a tough nut to crack. One can criticise people who use classical music in their own work, the same way one can criticize what I’ve done with Fabrizio De Andrè’s songs.
What do you think of the recent wave of piano music with Luigi Einuadi and Fabrizio Paterlini, just two mention two of the most prominent Italian artists, gaining so many accolades?
I like Einaudi’s latest album In a Time Lapse because it reminds me of his early works. He went back to his slightly more experimental electronic roots, with a sound that now feels retro. I have more difficulty with albums such as I giorni and Le onde, which after a while they drive me to distraction. I do like Paterlini who investigates a calmer, more ambient dimension of the piano – and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. One musician I love is Cacciapaglia.
I am not familiar with Cacciapaglia’s work…
He wrote the majority of jingles we used to hear on Italian telly. I also like Ólafur Arnalds but on certain chords. At the end of the day, I like spending time exploring music on soundcloud
Are there any Italian musicians you’d like to recommend, maybe even based in Rome?
There’s a young pianist I really admire, called Francesco Taskayali. He reminds me of Cacciapaglia. He is very linear, with no hang-ups. His sound is really pure and I really enjoy listening to his stuff. I have also invited him to play a few tracks when I was playing live. He is doing really well, and I am very happy for him.
What is the scene like in Rome?
Rome is a difficult city. I tend to play in non-orthodox venues like Peak Book this bookshop cum cafe where we are sitting now, or really small fringe theatres, like the ones in Pietralata, one of the neighbourhoods Pasolini used to write about. It can even happen that I’m asked to play at the contemporary art museum Macro, or sometimes I do house concerts. It’s really difficult for venues, and many have since closed down like Tumbler. The cuts have hit us across the board and the costs of putting up a show by an Italian musician can be prohibitive taking into account taxes, performing rights and all that. Paradoxically it is actually cheaper to get a foreign musician to play. The tragic thing is that it is now becoming increasingly difficult for young musicians to get a break as small theatre and concert halls no longer have the resources to invest.
Luca Longobardi’s soundtrack to the installation Monet, Renoir… Chagall : Voyages en Méditerranée can be experienced at Carrières de Lumières, Route de Maillane, 13520 Les Baux de Provence.
Luca was kind enough to compose a track especially for the occasion of this interview (see embedded video). This is how he describes the process.
I’ve opted for a very minimal title: White #151. White because this type of repetitive and alienating loop-machine based composition ends up by erasing any hypothetical landscape the sound might suggest reverting to a blank, clean canvas; 151 instead, is the bpm of the track.
Within this improvised composition, I have used different kinds of glitches and granular sounds that I had prepared for the occasion, three different piano samples and some filters that I gradually applied to the different melody lines. The idea behind White #151 was to search for a representational landscape, the hypothetical scenery of this postcard.