This is the first in a series of interviews I have been doing recently with friends who work within the field of music in a variety of capacities. I’ve been in regular contact with so many of these people over the years, and I just felt that opening up about specific projects and their backgrounds would be a nice and personal way to show the work they do in a slightly more public way. I also seem to make friends with gear-heads like myself, and so it gives me a window to understand the creative process a little better as well as finding out what tools people like to use.
One of the biggest gear-heads I know is the Italian composer, Stefano Guzzetti. In 2012, Stefano first got in touch with my little label (Home Normal) about the release of his album ‘At Home: Piano Book (Volume One)’. It was Stefano’s first major worldwide release and opened up the doors to a large fan base in Japan. Since then we’ve toured Japan together, put on a show in London with him, and have worked together with the excellent Brooklyn Bridge Records to develop his work on vinyl and CD. He has also cultivated his Stella Recordings imprint for self-releasing his handmade packages, and signed up with Mute Song for his publishing.
Whilst Stefano and I have become very dear friends over these years, our wives are in regular contact organising our vacation schedules at their home in Sardinia. We talk on an almost daily basis about music equipment, what we are listening to and reading at any given time. So who better to start this interview series with and the opening of the new Home Normal site than with Stefano really. Ian Hawgood
Hey Ste, how are you?
Hi! I am fine, thanks. I am back from a recent spring tour that led me to Germany and Japan. It was a lovely experience playing in Germany and returning to Japan, especially having the confirmation of how lovely and beautiful Japan and its population is. At this very moment I am a bit tired but I am preparing for some new things to be done in the imminent future.
What projects are you working on right now?
Now I am preparing two new live sets: the new one with the ensemble featuring new tracks from the new repertoire which has seen me writing down a lot of new arrangements. Plus I am preparing a new concert for piano and electronics. Last but not least, next year I will be playing live with you and our new project!
On the production side of things, I have more than a few things on the way: during this summer my album ‘Escape’, with a song featuring Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, will be released in a deluxe vinyl edition on Brooklyn Bridge Records, and will have the usual and wonderful artwork by Vaughan Oliver and Claudia Pomowski. The video for ‘Illuminate’, the song with Lisa, will be released on June 30th. At the end of the year (late fall I guess) my second piano book, entitled ‘Short Stories’ will see the light of day on Home Normal. I am also preparing a release entitled ‘Commissioned music (2010-2016)’. It’s an anthology of things I’ve done for movies, documentaries, installations, apps etc. Some of the tracks just have to be remixed, other ones need a re-recording treatment on some tracks, or even in their entirety. Like the one I am working on these days: it was written a long time ago (about ten years), when I just worked with library sounds, so I am re-recording the harp part now for example.
Last, but not least, I finished an album a few years ago now, called ‘Japanese notebooks’ for piano, strings and electronics. It was inspired by a book (of the same title) by the illustrator Igort. So we agreed to release this album of mine on the same day when his second ‘Japanese notebook’ will be released. And it appears it will be in November 2017. We’ll see. Plus I will start producing my collaborative album with you of course during this summer. Lastly, I’ve already started writing down the production plan for my new studio album, the sequel to ‘Leaf’, called ‘Anima’. Someone has told me I am a sort of hyperactive person. Maybe they are right?
I think I could agree with that! OK, so we both love our gear as we know! Is there one piece of gear in your studio you could not live without?
After a personal period of rejection to everything related to electronic music (I think I needed a more silent place with some fresh air, musically speaking), I started again being fascinated by sound manipulation and design. So I started buying back some gear, very selected items to be honest, both acoustic and electronic. So, I think I can really say that 90% of the gear in my studio is totally irreplaceable. Among these things: my piano, of course, I couldn’t live without it. A hundred year old Dutch harmonium, so warm and imperfect. An old monophonic reel to reel recorder from the late 60’s (Sony TC 800), a four track reel to reel recorder (TASCAM 22-4). A tool I totally (and will forever) love is my Korg Kaoss Pad 3 (KP3). And some new arrivals as well, like the Waldorf Blofeld and the Arturia Mini Brute. Plus, an evergreen that shaped history, the Roland JP8000.
I have such fond memories of the JP8000 and was so happy when you sent me the pictures of it in your studio! I’ve been going through a similar process to you I would say. I’ve found myself homing in on certain pieces of kit that resonate with me in a very deep way. I know that might sound odd, but do you feel that certain instruments or pieces of music gear have a unique identity and/or soul almost?
Definitely yes. And maybe this reply will also cover the previous question more. I am very fond of the Roland JP8000 and its character. To me this instrument is a very good sum of how a Roland instrument typically sounds. And if you are into the old legendary Roland library like me, this synth is a must have, something I would choose without any hesitation if I had to pick up just one piece of gear. What I love in Roland sounds is that they are warm and mellow, especially the pads.
To me, psychologically, they are a safe place where to hide and stay for a while. When I program a pad on the JP8000 I always end up more or less with the same sound that makes me feel comfortable and at home. There were previous Roland synths that were famous for their pads, like for instance the D50 or the JD800, but the JP8000 is the best compromise for me. Also, using it for a long time (a while ago I also had the rack version, the JP8080), I know how to reach the results I have in mind, even if the user interface is not the best one, that’s to be said. Of course, once I’ve got my lovely sound on the JP8000, I run it into my mixing desk, a Yamaha MG20XU, and then start adding depth with reverb and the Kaoss Pad 3 as well. It’s a lovely process, to see a sound taking shape and then evolving into something organic and alive, but still warm. And the JP8000 is my main gear for this.
It has been so interesting to see your music and sound evolve over the past few years. How would you say it has changed?
Yes, it has changed, and it’s still changing. I mean, the constant palette is formed by the piano and the strings and other acoustic instruments like reeds or woodwinds, but I am adding more and more electronics and sound manipulation. And, for instance, in ‘Anima’ I will be going to record some liturgical organ parts (there is a lovely organ in this Church of my town, and I have free access to it). There will also be a track with a choir, another track will be a poem by Cesare Pavese sung by a soprano on a string arrangement. The final track of the album will be a string quartet. So, you see, things are deeply evolving and I love to explore the different expressiveness of various ensembles and instruments. Of course all this is not simply for the sake of exploring; I totally love the sound of those instruments and voices. The more I produce my music, the greater my involvement and work with ensembles will be.
That’s really good to hear. There are so many bedroom musicians who lock themselves away and produce music completely on their own. I think of course this is great, but working with people really is such a pleasure when you find the right fit isn’t it? I know you are increasingly working with local people rather than simply file sending which is so much easier really.
With that in mind, why do you think working with local musicians is important? Also, as you are recording in more local spaces now, what impact does this have on your music compared to simply recording from home?
Well, recording with local musicians makes a huge and different impact on the final result of my music. On the first level, it’s all about confidence: there is usually a lot of confidence between me and the player, as most of the times we are friends. I know a lot of musicians here in my area, and with most of them we’ve grown up together, been to the same concerts etc, so being in the same music community here is really important to me. Secondly, it is a matter of expressiveness: being friends it means that during the recording session I can spend some more time with a musician and ask him or her for different sound possibilities, for instance, different positions on the fretboard or different pressure of the bow on the strings. You can never achieve something like this in an email collaboration, or maybe yes, but it would be a very long and boring process. Anyway, about five years ago, once I started writing and producing my music with real instruments, rather than using library sounds, even if I’ve always used my piano, my music made a big step towards what I’ve always intended it to sound like. There are really good programmers out there and they can use a sound library of strings, for instance, and make them sound true and natural. On a certain level I admire those people having that skill, but to me they are just programmers, not players. That is not something I am willing to attempt. I am not judging, it’s just that I am not interested. There are so many simple, natural and instinctive things to be done with a real sound and its imperfections, rather than programming the parameters of a sampler loaded with tons of sound variations of the same instrument.
Can you tell me a bit about Timo David Brice? I know he was the first person to really release something by you, and a lot of people perhaps aren’t aware of how much he did to promote music by new artists.
Timo was a beautiful mess, and I mean that in the best of ways. You see, back in those days, more or less in 2010, in the full hype of ambient artists, records and labels (there were so many out there), when CD-r’s were flowering everywhere as if we were in the biggest field on the Earth, and when having a Japanese ambient artist in your roster meant being a cool label, I was desperately trying to find a home for some electronic music I was doing at that time. I was basically no one, but I was doing my best to simply be myself rather than copying the standard cliche of making a more or less melodic drone with a downloaded patch of Max Msp, adding some random stuff here and there with another downloaded patch, and naming the track with some words related to nature or inner peace. But I received a lot of shut doors to be honest. The peak of this was a renowned ambient label telling me that my music was too melodic. It was quite discouraging to be honest.
Then I sent those tracks to Timo, then the owner of Somehow Recordings, a label I found by accident. He had just launched the Twisted Tree Line sub-label that released just 3″ CD-r’s in editions of 100 copies. He suddenly told me that, out of six tracks I’d sent, he wanted to release the first three ones in a month, and the others a month later. I was speechless; something was starting to move. Then I got to know him better and he was really ultra generous and always preferred to help unknown artists. So this was truly positive and beautiful.
At the same time, he also wanted to do too much maybe. He was so busy with the output of the labels that things might get delayed or there could be the odd mistake on some releases, but the usual for any label with such an amount of work. You had to accept this, simple as that. He just wanted to help out, he was truly passionate about some kind of music, and I remember he also was doing his best to involve his son Nico in running the labels. Maybe he wanted to teach him something new and interesting.
The way he disappeared was a shock to me, and to a lot of people. That’s for sure. God bless him. I have planned a future release, a free CD where people just have to pay for the shipping costs. I want to dedicate this release to Timo, in memory of his beautiful persona and generosity.
That’s lovely to hear. I am not sure how many people understand just how much these little label owners do to spread music they love. I very much understand that such work goes unnoticed, and right now there seems to be almost zero support for new artists, unless of course they are releasing ‘piano’ albums! Your work for Home Normal is one of the few times we’ve put out post-classical music, and the reason for that was the soul behind it really. I find so much modern post-classical music soulless if I am going to be blunt, and just tailored for streaming platforms. There’s an artistry here, but only a charlatanistic one at that in such a high percentage of the work. Gosh, I’ve gone off on one!
Can you give me an honest opinion of modern day post-classical music? Does this dilute the work you do in your opinion? Does it have any affect on how you approach music?
This is not a hard question to be honest, and I will reply to you in the clearest way. First of all, I think that this ever growing demand for piano music and sub-classical stuff is a symptom of the fact that people want and are looking more and more for simplicity. This is especially true in this era where we are constantly bombarded with alerts from smartphones, tablets and other devices. We are continuously and subconsciously lending an ear and an eye to see if there are new ‘likes’ on our Facebook accounts or on Instagram etc. I use social platforms for my work as being a full time musician I have to promote myself in one way or another on them, so I can say I know what I am talking about. Nowadays I have learned a very balanced way to use Facebook for instance, otherwise I couldn’t work.
So, in this period of constant distraction and hyper-stimulation of our brain, plus add all the worries of nowadays living, people really look for simple things, even in music. And what could be the most simple thing around in music? A solo piano making some lovely melodies. It’s the eternal and romantic cliche, it will never die. This is the new business basically, and that’s why we have a lot of ‘pianists of the neighbourhood’ on the web. Plus, add that they repeatedly copycat the same model that about six years ago became hugely successful and then you could easily imagine the result. Basically the same music but played by a lot of different names. It’s a lovely and funny phenomenon, isn’t it?
And yet, what worries me most is that there are still a lot of new artists that still do this old thing, repeatedly, without trying to just be themselves. Maybe they really think that they could be successful by just repeating the same arpeggios over and over? I don’t know. What I do know is that there is a huge saturation of all this. Even the label that made all this start (and that made a lot of money on this hype) nowadays mostly releases other kinds of music, such as more electronic-based for instance.
So, personally speaking, I just don’t care. I use the piano, but I don’t consider myself a pianist, I prefer describing myself as a composer. More properly: a music artisan. My father was an artisan. I passed my life seeing him in his laboratory each day. And that’s what I do each day: I spend my time in my studio, crafting my compositions. For the sake of truth and coherence, in order to celebrate my last spring tour in Germany and Japan, I recently released a piano solo album in which I mostly played with the felt on the strings as well. But it’s about night melodies, spare notes, and sound manipulation as well, not about complaisant arpeggios.
I don’t really listen to any of the current pianists. The composers that continue to resonate with me are still Philip Glass, early Michael Nyman, Arvo Pärt, David Sylvian and Holger Czukay (both of their collaborative albums: I am obsessed with them), and Wim Mertens who is one of my true heroes of all time. I still remember discovering these people when I was 18, and they truly forged my musical sensibility. So, to be honest, these were very distant times from this boring piano hype.
It is interesting how these wonderful artists still resonate. I think that is why a large part of the modern movement makes me so sad though as the music is so lacking in depth and soul really. And Wim Mertens! Well we’ve never talked about him before but his music has been a constant companion since I was about twenty years old I think.
Thinking of such composers, I know we’ve talked about music that resonates deeply with people despite their differing backgrounds a lot. Could you tell me about a moment when you were in a situation where you realised how much your music communicated with someone from a very different background to yours.
Music is a universal language. So they say, and that is true. And, anyway, I’ve witnessed this personally with my music as well. And when this happens, my heart is full of joy because that simply means that my creative output truly communicates something important, rather than being just one of temporary entertainment. I had the honour of having some people come up to me after a concert of mine, telling me they were crying while I was playing certain tracks. This happened several times, one time it was in Kyoto last year and you were with me that evening. Recently I played my forthcoming track sung by Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance, it is called ‘Illuminate’, to some of my friends here in my studio. At the end of the track they were in tears. This is something very special to me. It is the magic of a wordless language that goes straight to our hearts. When this happens, I feel blessed and I humbly thank the Lord.
Enormous thanks to Dan at Fluid Radio for his support with these series of interviews in conjunction with Home Normal, and of course thanks to Stefano for taking the time to talk. Thank you. – IH