(originally on Steve Mueske’s website)
The following is an ongoing conversation with electronic composer Carlo Serafini.
The conversation began August 28, 2009.
I would like to thank Carlo for taking time out of his schedule to have this conversation with me.
You've spent your entire life pursuing music, early-on with private teachers and later through Berklee in America and the Conservatory of Music in Florence, Italy. Electronic music, it seems, has been an interest of yours for several decades; microtonal music, in particular, has been highly influential. What about electronic music, in a general sense, appeals to your creative nature? Have you always known music would be so influential to your development as a human being (your sense of "being in the world") or was there an event or series of events that triggered your decision to follow this path?
I wasn't born into a musical family. My first approach to music was when my younger brother asked for an electronic organ as a Christmas present. I think he played with it only for a few days so I started using it. My parents, seeing my interest for music, sent me to a piano teacher. I was lucky because he was a good one and wasn't a classical teacher. Of course we had to rent a piano and there I was, 16 years old, starting taking piano lessons (it is usually considered too late to start studying the piano at age 16 but I have always been a late bloomer!).
After a few years I had already learned all I could learn from him so I stopped taking lessons and started playing in a few bands around Florence, and with that came my first electronic instruments; first an Italian-made electric piano, then a Fender Rhodes '73 and a Elka Rhapsody (you can read the article "Fixin' A Hole" I wrote for electro-music.com about the many electronic instruments I bought, sold and bartered during the years.
Anyway, even though I was playing electronic keyboards I was still a piano player who did not have the necessary means/knowledge to become an electronic musician.
When I went to Berklee and saw the newly created (1986) Music Synthesis Labs I immediately knew what I wanted to do: to study electronic music.
It wasn't a decision based on career opportunities, I was fascinated by all those machines and by the unbelievable music I thought I could come up with if I knew how to master this technology.
About my love/hate relationship with the piano keyboard you can read my article "Goodbye Halberstadt". So Berklee was a turning point helping me becoming an electronic musician.
Thanks to technology I have been able to create new music and record it both by myself and collaborating with others as composer, performer and arranger.
See: http://www.seraph.it/currEn.html and http://www.seraph.it/music.html
The second turning point happened 20 years later while a student at the Conservatory of Music in Florence (I told you I am a late bloomer!). I decided to write the final dissertation for my Master's Degree on microtonality: “Technology and Temperament: Hardware, Software and Online Resources for Microtonal Music” (see: Tecnologia e Sistemi di Accordatura)
I had been interested in microtonality since listening to "Beauty In The Beast" by Wendy Carlos many years before but I had never been able to get into it because of the obstacles I was not ready to overcome but now, thanks to internet, I had many more available resources and was able to find a path leading me to vast uncharted microtonal territories (actually I prefer the word "xenharmonic" to "microtonal").
So, once again, it was because of the music institution I was attending that I moved a step further. Of course one step leads to another one and the ladder is quite long so I expect many more steps to take if I'll have the time and the force to keep moving forward! I end up saying that my intuition about "the unbelievable music I could come up with if I knew how to master music technology" was right!
Ha! You may have been a late bloomer, but you've certainly made up for it by being ahead of the curve, as it were, for the synthesis explosion of the late nineties, and this decade, when computers became more powerful and less-expensive, thereby making the dream of the solo composer / creative artist / performer a reality. I started playing guitar at age 8, gigged around the American Midwest in my late teens and early twenties, then left the music scene entirely while I pursued first a Bachelor's degree in English then a Master's degree in Writing. During that time I played acoustic guitar exclusively. I didn't start getting involved in electronic music until 2002, when I started putting together a home studio and bought my first copy of Sonar. I was instantly in love with the form because it was so different than anything I'd ever done and it was really the only form of music that I could compose between the hours of 11PM and 3AM, which is when I work, primarily. I'm fascinated by the whole idea of "virtual instruments" and think that now, more than ever, the only real limitation is our imagination. From ubiquitous sound sources that utilize formerly complex modular synthesizers with graphics, code, and a workflow we are able to generate sound that builds on the groundwork laid by the primarily analog electronic musicians of the last few decades. This is has created an explosion in the Do-It-Yourself market. Anyone, now, can setup a computer-based home studio for relatively cheap -- fully outfitting a home studio for what used to be the cost of recording a single album.
There's a wide variety in the kinds of electronic music being composed these days. There are the more commercial (if I may invoke that here -- electronic music in any form is nowhere near as prominent as acoustic, rock, alternative, pop, etc.) varieties such as Dubstep, Industrial, Ambient, Chill-out, Break-core, IDM and a host of others; and then there's more avant garde, experimental, algorithmic, and "art-based" forms. Do you find yourself consciously avoiding the more mainstream electronic art forms or do you try to incorporate it into your work? Do you think of your compositions as having a style? Where do you see yourself on the current spectrum of contemporary electronic composition?
Well..."electronic music" is such a vague term that it can mean almost anything: in a "pop" environment it is mostly associated with dance music, or at least this is my impression. In an "academic" environment "electronic music" would mean a completely different thing. Of course the distinctions tend to blur but personally I don't feel I belong to either of those two sides. Probably, I am more acquainted with "experimental" stuff having studied the electro-acoustic/electronic repertoire from the '40s to the present at the Conservatory (for those interested learning about the history of electronic music I suggest the book "Electric Sound - The Past and Promise of Electronic Music" by Joel Chadabe). As a youngster I had my "Tangerine Dream" period, too, but it did not last long, and I don’t know anything about music that collectively goes under the label "dance."
I started listening to pop music when I was a teenager (Genesis, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa) then moved to jazz rock (Soft Machine, Nucleus) and from there the step to jazz was a natural one. For many years I was a jazz nut. In a way electronic music helped me overcome jazz orthodoxy enabling me to listen to more varied kinds of music, not necessarily electronic, like world music.
I would not say I am "consciously avoiding the more mainstream electronic art forms." Actually listening to some of my projects you can recognize my penchant for jazz. Listen to the "Minestronics" album.
Other songs I wrote during the years could be filed under "funky/fusion." For example:
"Me And The Bass"
"Minor Sample 2"
...a few others could be filed under "electronic pop" (I guess):
...and what about my classical/pop "Noeco" album?
I have chosen to release mp3 versions of my compositions for free on my web site. It can be debatable if that’s the right choice, but I am free to do whatever I feel like doing. So I don’t have to "incorporate" any mainstream element in my music if that’s not functional to my vision.
Do I have a style? If you listen to my music you notice that it has wandered a lot during the years. It goes from children songs to jazz fusion and from avant-garde pop to experimental soundscapes.
So, are there constant elements constituting the core of my style? I think my modus operandi could be considered as such. Many years ago I read Gods In Everyman by Jean Shinoda Bolen ("a map of masculine psychology based on archetypes personified by Greek gods"). I found it very fascinating and also found what I think is my archetype: "Hephaestus (Vulcan in Roman mythology) as god, archetype and man, personifies a deep human urge to make things, to create objects that are functional and beautiful. Rejected and thrown off Mt. Olympus, Hephaestus was not appreciated in the lofty realm of Zeus, where power and appearance mattered. Instead, he worked alone in his forge under the earth. His attributes are similarly devalued in a patriarchy, and men who resemble this god have difficulties achieving success."
That’s me: creating "musical objects" working alone in my studio, mostly at night. The similarity with Hephaestus working alone in his forge under the earth is clear to me! The archetype’s characteristics go beyond this example, of course.
At present and for the foreseeable future, I see myself at work composing xenharmonic music and investigating alternative controllers for music. I recently acquired a ribbon controller that has been prominently featured on recent compositions and I am about to get an isomophic keyboard by Opal that will further distance myself from 12 tone equal temperament. I intend to use it solely for xenharmonic music, for which the usual (7 white and 5 black keys) user interface can be very inefficient. The user interface plays a great role on composition and if you use one that was designed for 12 divisions of the octave it is hard to move forward into xenharmonic territories!
Clearly, your interests in electronic music defy easy categorization. I find that's true of most really good electronic music, though it might be said that certain artists have an identifiable sound or style. Do you see your eclectic interests as a benefit or a hindrance (here I am thinking in terms of others being aware of your work as a whole)?
I see electronic music as being similar to poetry in nature. In formal poetry, the form is defined but the content malleable; in free-verse, both the form and content are malleable; but with all good poetry, there is an unmistakable voice that inhabits it, fills it out, speaks in a way that is impossible to do in any other form. Because electronic music is so varied, it ranges from formal (orchestral, popular song length or format, ballad, etc.) to informal (sound experiments, series, algorithmic, etc.) as well. I see movement and transformation as two integral components of electronic music, a unifying element, if you will. In your work, rhythm is very important, but it's often less percussive than many forms of electronica. The rhythms really surface in the interplay between melody and instrumentation, the development of the piece as it progresses. Do you have a guiding principle in your work? Can you speak to your composition process? Do you first hear a melody in your head? Does the composition process change from piece to piece? I'm really interested, for example, in the intersection between intentionality and accident. Do you often write at the same time of day, for example, or have a ritual?
You can define my musical interests "eclectic" but we could narrow them down to a couple of genres: fusion/jazz and experimental. Lately I have concentrated my efforts toward the exploration of alternative tuning systems in electronic music. These tuning systems do not necessarily determine any style of music but they can suggest them. For example, if you use scales inspired by Javanese "pelog" or "slendro" it is possible that the results will sound, somehow, "exotic" to a Westerner.
I don’t like artists that seem to sing/play always the same song or paint the same painting over and over again even though I understand that many do so for pecuniary reasons or because they do not know any better. Once you find an audience for your artistic output it is easy to get afraid of scaring people away if you do not satisfy their expectations. A mature artist should be able to guide an audience along his/her creative path, but there are many other forces coming into play once/if you become a successful artist. The sad thing is that even unsuccessful artists can easily pigeonhole themselves into very narrow artistic cages. Sad because there is no excuse to get trapped, not even money!
It is always easy to settle down into a routine, it is the route of least resistance, it is reassuring, and it can be applied to any aspect of life. Of course, I am no exception so I know what I am talking about but, musically speaking, I have been able to evolve thanks to technology.
Evolution is a never-ending process and you never know where you are going to end up. Exploring uncharted territories is not as cozy as staying home, and sometimes I wonder if being a musical adventurer is worth the efforts because it’s tough to play music very few people ever tried before with instruments even less people have ever seen. Fortunately I am not the only "xenharmonically-minded" composer in the world using isomorphic keyboards.
One of them is X.J.Scott who has been very influential and helpful. I got to know him as the programmer of LMSO, a great application for retuning a wide variety of instruments through MIDI and much more. I bought it and with Jeff’s help a whole world of musical scales opened up in front of me. My heartfelt thanks to him for being such a knowledgeable and good-natured human being with outstanding programming and musical skills.
Back to your questions! I hear rhythm as a color to spice up the other ingredients of a musical composition. I usually like it to be subtle and supple. Sometimes a rhythmic element can be the starting point of a composition. Sometimes that same rhythmic element gets discarded as, in the process, the piece develops into something completely different than originally intended.
Very often my compositions start as exercises to learn some new technique until the piece starts developing by itself and I can only follow it, so to speak. Often, after the completion of a piece, I wonder how I came up with it. It’s like as if someone else did it!
Thanks to technology it is possible to capture those magical moments when inspiration strikes. Not always inspiration is enough to complete a piece. Usually it takes the composer’s skill to round it off.
I get the best results when I let the inspiration go unimpeded. Usually, this way, I get enough raw material to develop it into a finished piece.
Inspiration can strike anytime, the only prerequisite is having enough time to get in the mood, relax and let it go. I am not superstitious, so I don’t need any ritual to get me started.