Interview with Nico Soffiato (April 2014)
The first question is always the classic one: how does your love and interest for guitar start and what instruments do you play or have you played?
My love for music and guitar began at home, in a small town in Italy. There was a guitar lying around in my house and I started getting becoming curious about it. The whole thing was a bit random, because my mom signed me up for a class at the local library when I was about 12; and I liked it right away and started taking lessons regularly. I played the trumpet for a little bit, but I realized it was too much work to practice two instruments that were so different from each other. I practice piano regularly, not to perform, but to compose and look at and understand harmony differently. I also play the baritone guitar.
What was your musical training, which teachers have you studied with and what impression they left in your music?
I started with some classical guitar studies and then moved to blues and jazz pretty early on. In Italy, I studied with Dario Volpi and Sandro Gibellini. In the US, I studied for about a year with John Schott (in California) and he that was great–. I was also studying with him at a crucial point of my life, when I was thinking about singularly focusing only on music. When I was in Boston, I studied with Jon Damian, who pretty much revolutionized the way I understand and approach harmony for the guitar. I also studied and worked with Dave Tronzo and he’s been a great influence on me, not only musically, but also on how to handle being a musician.
How is situation in New York? Is it still the underground music’s cradle?
New York is an amazing city and being here keeps you me alert and creative. There’s a lot of music and a lot of inspiration, so it’s a great place to be if you are a musician (of any kind). It’s getting very expensive and that is not good for us. Musicians have to teach a lot or work day jobs just to make ends meet, and it’s tough to find all the necessary time to spend on your instrument and on composing. It’s also becoming almost impossible to take a band on the road. I have seen a shift in these seven years I lived here. Venues are closing down, everything is moving to Brooklyn (which is great, because I live in Brooklyn), but now even that’s getting expensive. We’ll have to see… I think it’s still great, but maybe not as feasible a place for artists as it was 15-20 years ago.
OST Quartet is your last record, can you tell us something about it? What was the project behind it and how did you get in contact with the Italian independent label Setola di Maiale ?
When I started thinking about OST Quartet, I wanted to focus on improvisation, sound design and acoustic instruments. On this record I play a hollow body electric guitar that sounds very acoustic and I use it mostly as a “prepared guitar”. For this project, I really wanted musicians that could go anywhere, sonically and improvisationally. I talked to Eli Asher first; I definitely wanted him on board for this for new project. Then we rehearsed quite a bit with Greg Chudzik and Devin Gray. During these rehearsals I would try to point out the direction I wanted, without saying too much, as I wanted them to feel very free. They really understood my intentions and I am very proud of the result. I like to think this of as some kind of “acoustic sound design”.
My connection with Setola di Maiale was pretty random. I was talking about the project with fellow Brooklyn musician Gian Luigi Diana and he suggested this label. Then I contacted Stefano Giust, who runs the label, and he liked the project and decided to publish it.
What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possible to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.?
Improvisation is crucial for my music research. I like improvising when I am working on compositions too,; I find that I enter a space where I can try anything or give myself limitations in order to express some concepts I am working on. I also like meeting new musicians through improvising together, especially in a duo setting.
The second question has a rather large scope. We can agree that we can talk about improvisation for classical music, we can think about “ricercare” or the well know improvisational skills of classical composers (Bach, etc.). The conversation can become more detailed if we start thinking about what improvised work means, ontologically, and how improvisation can be found in interpretations of written scores.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises .
I welcome error in an improvisational setting, I think it can serve as be an opportunity to find unforeseen potential in a musical situation, which and it can bring the individual or ensemble to a great level of focus. I am not very forgiving when error occurs in a compositional context or it causes a bad tone/sound, where the irregularities and discontinuities are chronic, to a bad tone/sound.
I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discotheque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The risk of a musical “globalization”?
I think there is a risk of musical globalization, which can be positive or negative. I’m thinking about the access we now have to pretty much everything that’s being recorded and have been recorded. I think that the older generations can still use all this access in a positive way and somehow still think that it’s amazing that we can just check out anything we want (I am putting myself in the “older” generation). I see this as more of a problem or a challenge for younger generations who grew up with the internet and music has always been free and easily accessible. I think it’s harder for them to create a musical path because there’s the danger of being overwhelmed by the access, the sheer quantity of material and possibilities.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
I think it’s very important, unfortunately too important. What I mean is that musicians of the type of music I make (non-mainstream-jazz, creative music, improvised music), have to be performers and maybe composers, of course, but they also have to be promoters, booking agents, touring agents, publicists, designers, band leaders, crowdfunders and much more. I say “unfortunately” because no matter how great you are as a musician, if you are not very good at promoting yourself, no one will hear you. Especially here in New York, where there is a lot of talent, sometimes it just gets unnoticed. Obviously there are exceptions on both sides of the spectrum, but generally if you’re good at all the aforementioned skills, you’ll be pretty successful.
Which kind of music (or which historical movement) do you think is easiest for the non-musician listener to appreciate? Do you think they enjoy pieces that are more technically difficult or just more “flashy”?
I’m not sure, because I became interested in music as I started playing, but I think the easy answer would be a type of music that has a nice groove and melody. I like that too. I think when a piece is technically difficult can lose some appeal to the non-musician and unfortunately the “flashy” is always appealing. If I want to be a little more pessimistic, I’d say that people listen to whatever they are exposed to (the same goes with TV, books, movies, etc. We can go back to our “promoter” question for this).
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations (1981)
Bill Frisell, Disfarmer
Paul Motian Trio, Live in Tokyo
Keith Jarrett, Changeless
The Velvet Underground & Nico
What are your five favorite scores?
Right now I am working on an arrangement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 44, second movement. It’s just amazing. I also spent a lot of time with Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin and I like playing through those a lot. I like the Monk Fakebook, transcribed by Steve Cardenas, and I loved learning Bird’s melodies off the Omnibook. It’s more than five, but any five out of those books.
With whom would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
I am very happy that I get to play with a lot of great musicians here in New York and I just hope I can play with even more of them. I listen to all kinds of music, usually a mix of classical, jazz, rock, reggae, experimental. Lately I have been interested in electronic music, so I have been checking some of that.
Your next projects? When will we see you playing in Italy?
I’m recording a second album with Josh Deutsch, a trumpet player I have been working with for almost ten years. We write, arrange and co-write all the material and we have a couple of tracks left to record. With him we toured quite a bit, twice in Italy and once in the West Coast and we’d love to go back to Italy to promote this album, hopefully next year.