Chosen One: Carlos Cipa
Interview with Carlos Cipa.
“The examination of musical form, harmony or mostly rhythm is an ongoing stimulation for my thinking about writing music and expressing yourself through music.”
Words: Mark Carry
Last November marked the highly anticipated sophomore full-length release from the gifted Munich-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, Carlos Cipa. ‘All Your Life You Walk’ is a collection of stunningly beautiful piano-based compositions; representing an artist at the height of his powers. The latest offering – and follow-up to Cipa’s mesmerising debut ‘The Monarch and the Viceroy’ (both albums released on the prestigious German-based Denovali imprint) – features an array of rare instruments, found sounds, atmospheric touches and gentle beats that evokes an utterly timeless and deeply affecting experience.
Over the last two years, the German composer amassed a treasure of musical instruments that were no longer in use: a very rare instrument built by Hohner in the 1960’s, primarily played by musicians like Warren Ellis, Leo Abraham and Mum; an old radio receiver that belonged to Cipa’s grandparents (serving the magical opening tones of ‘All Your Life You Walk’); an old Framus bass guitar from the 60’s among several others. Above all, the Cipa’s deft touch of hand and resolutely unique sounds generated from the piano instrument becomes the vital pulse to the record’s rich sonic tapestry. A series of fragments are wonderfully embedded in the album’s striking narrative that further adds to the ethereal dimension the music effortlessly taps into. The album was self-recorded, performed and produced by the German composer in his very own “Beatschappen Studio.”
‘All Your Life You Walk’ is available now on Denovali.
Interview with Carlos Cipa.
Congratulations Carlos on the incredible new album, ‘All Your Life You Walk’. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you again and discuss this very special record. Firstly, I love how the musical compositions are deeply embedded in this entirely other space and dimension. For example, the inclusion of several fragment pieces – dotted throughout the record – adds to this sense of journey and how ‘All Your Life You Walk’ is a captivating and cohesive whole. Please discuss the making of this new record, Carlos and please shed some light on the album-title and the ideas you wanted to explore on ‘All Your Life You Walk’?
Carlos Cipa: Thanks a lot for all your interest in my work and these kind words, it’s a pleasure to speak with you again and talk about my new album with you. I’ve been working on the compositions, musical ideas and the whole concept of “All Your Life You Walk” over the last two years but the main part of the work has been done in the summer from June to September (2014). First, I finished composing all the piano parts and piano solo songs and then recorded everything on piano only. After that I continued working on writing and recording the fragments and the different colours I wanted to add to the certain songs. Every sound and instrument is carefully chosen. It’s just the exact amount of instrumental facets I wanted to add to the songs.
The title is a reference to a favourite poem of mine by Kurt Tucholsky called “Augen in der Großstadt” (engl. “Eyes in the Big City”). One of the lines has been translated in English; also all the song titles are references to different things that inspire me, films, song lyrics, poems, etc.
My current favourite is the sublime ‘Hang On To Your Lights’, I particularly love the rhythmic and percussive elements to your piano playing. Are there certain techniques or processes you have expanded on this record? In terms of writing, I wonder is a piece like ‘Hang On To Your Lights’ quite a gradual unfolding before the music is given its wings, and in full-bloom, so to speak?
CC: That’s great, it might also be my favourite. For this piece I really took long time to develop the composition. I worked strictly with scores for the piano part, so everything was written down before recording. The pattern in the right hand is developing throughout the whole piece, but the bar is always changing so you never get a feeling of rest (the piece has nearly 80 bar changes and several different tempi). The rhythmic elements are sounds from the inside of the piano; I created the beat with felt beaters on the cast iron frame and then processed it a bit with the computer. The drone/ambient sounds are piano strings plucked, bowed, picked recorded and cut, processed and layered in the computer. For a piece of that length, that’s based on a little loop pattern, I believe it’s really important to be absolutely precise with every bar in the piece and to create a million little details so it never gets boring and you’re always able to explore something new in every second of the piece.
You collected a wide array of fabulous instruments that have found their way on ‘All Your Life You Walk’, further heightening the deeply personal sound of the creations. I would love for you to discuss these instruments and the beautiful stories that are behind each and every one of these special instruments. For example, are the first notes heard on the album the sound of the radio receiver belonging to your grandparents? Also, the very rare instrument built by Hohner in the 60’s must have been a miracle of a discovery for you?
CC: I’d love to talk you through them. Let’s start with the “Hohner Guitaret”; it’s been built in the 60’s only for a very short period of time. It was meant for use in a Jazz combo but never really found its place there. It’s a “kalimba-phone” instrument but with electroacoustic pick-ups, so it can be used similar to a guitar, but has a totally different, very unique sound. You can hear it on tracks 3, 4, 9 and 11. I processed it with a variety of effects.
Then there’s the “Marimba” (heard on songs 3, 4, 5, 9, 11), it belonged to a childhood friend, and he stopped playing at a certain age and the instrument was getting all dusty in their attic until I asked him if can use it for recording and now it has it’s own space in my studio. The same goes for the “Hackbrett” (heard at the beginning and throughout song 11) but this was actually the instrument of his brother, another childhood friend of mine.
The radio receiver is as you say the beginning and ending of the album. I’ve the great luck to live and work in the house my grandparents built by them in the 50s after the war and I wanted to make a connection to them and to the space. This radio receiver was in their possession for a very long time and even if it doesn’t sound “perfect”, I am very happy that it has found its way on the record. The E-bass (also on tracks 3,4,9 and 11) is a very rare jazz bass built by Framus in the 60s, I discovered in a vintage music store here in Munich. I just love the wooden sound and how it melts with the piano and all the other instruments.
Then there are a variety of percussion instruments I collected over the years, a glockenspiel, a sansula, an ocean harp and some African instruments. I also added a second piano sound to my music; it’s coming from an upright piano, played with the felt pedal. I bought this beautiful instrument from an old lady who stopped playing and I really love how the mellow sound melts with my grand piano. All other sounds are piano inside sounds, plucked strings, bowed strings, e-bowed strings, muted notes, harmonics, layered and processed in the computer.
I would love to gain an insight please onto the space of your very own “Beatschuppen Studio”? What is the set-up in the studio itself, Carlos?
CC: As said before, I am living and working in the house of my grandparents, it’s an old house from the 50s and I built my little studio in the basement over the last few years. I work in two rooms and my grand piano is upstairs in the living room, so most of the time recording means running up and down stairs… it keeps you fit, though. At the moment I am working with RME interfaces and pre-amps and mostly Neumann microphones, I prefer to keep it simple and this setup is working out just fine for the moment.
I can also shed some light on the name of the studio; one of the basement rooms was the child room of my mother when she was growing up in this house and she used to be a big fan of the Beatles (like me) and so she used to call her room like that (in English kind of like “beat music shed”). I thought it’s a funny name for a studio.
I love the cinematic feel that permeates the cathartic ‘Step Out From Time’. Can you talk me through this piece of music please?
CC: I think you get this feeling because this piece might be the one that has the least solo-piano feel to it. This might originate mostly in the instrumentation/production. I divided left and right hand into two different instruments (the right hand plays the melody on the clear and brilliant grand piano, the left hand plays accompanying figures on the mellow and soft felt muted upright). All the other sounds (bowed Hackbrett, Guitaret, bass guitar, marimba) are interwoven with both these piano elements to create a levitating atmosphere around it. The whole piece is based on the little fifth-based melody that spins around throughout the whole piece, until the piece finds rest in those choral-like upright chords in the end. In November, I rearranged the piece for a dance performance for a little ensemble, piano, flute, violin and cello and it worked out really great. I hope I can upload a proper recording in the near future.
You are currently studying contemporary classical composition. I would love to know more about this area of study and indeed what contemporary classical compositions have served (and continue to serve) the biggest influence on you? You are involved in every aspect of the music-making process, from recording to producing; I wonder do you see these various stages as same thing?
CC: Even though I am studying classical composition at the moment, I think my work for the records is something totally different. To include the aspect of recording and producing (which means I indeed totally equate these two things with the process of composing, which opens yourself doors that otherwise would be shut), the aspect of sound in the compositions (and also even the aspect of writing music for an audience), means distancing yourself from existing methods in the contemporary classical scene. Also, of course, my musical language draws equally from popular music and classical music, which also separates me from that particular scene.
But despite that, I learned so much from contemporary music, not only from the usual suspects (like Reich or the minimalists) but also from a lot of other totally different composers. The examination of musical form, harmony or mostly rhythm is an ongoing stimulation for my thinking about writing music and expressing yourself through music. I included most of these recent influences in the mixtape I compiled for your site a while ago. Of course all those wonderful composers wrote a hell lot more amazing pieces that are equally worth checking out. Contemporary classical music is a very difficult field of music to get into, especially in Germany, but once you start discovering some of the rare diamonds, you are able to comb through the jungle of terrible stuff that seems to be everywhere you look.
You must be very excited to play shows across Europe this December. Forgive the generalization (in advance) but discuss the magical moments and emotions that you, as a composer must experience when performing these piano compositions live to an audience?
CC: The tour has been amazing. It’s always great to be on the road with my fellow label friend Poppy Ackroyd, but this tour was even more fun then before. I am very happy with my live set at the moment, playing the new pieces is really special and I got great responses from all the audiences about the concerts and the new album. I am also doing a little more improvisation than before, which makes it also more interesting and joy for me to play, because you never know what will happen and you get a chance to explore the different pianos and the different responses from audiences every night in a better way than if you’re just performing the songs. That’s something I really love about touring.
What records have you been enjoying the most these past few months, Carlos?
CC: The new Björk album. I can’t wait for the vinyl. This album is just so beautiful and amazing, I can’t stop listening and loving it. From the wonderful production to the amazing string arrangements, of course her always fascinating voice and the incredible beautiful and challenging songs/compositions. It’s just perfect.
Brian Reitzell’s score for TV series “Hannibal”, very recently released on vinyl. I adored the score in the series, but this collection for the records is even more rewarding!!
Alfred Schnittke – Concerto grosso No. I, a wonderful piece by one of the best composers of the 20th century. Even if it is a famous piece, it’s still totally underrated in contemporary classical music.
‘All Your Life You Walk’ is available now on Denovali.